Homily given July 15, 2012, based on Amos 7: 12-15, Ephesians 1: 3-14, and Mark 6: 7-14
Discipleship is what we are called to live, and since we are disciples of Jesus, we read today’s gospel periscope with careful attention. This reading outlines for us what Christ expects from us, and he gives us an essential understanding of what it means to be in his community.
Christ did not bequeath to the community that preaches in his name a mission in the political, economic or social order. We are not a social club, we are not a political party, and we are not any kind of governmental body: we are a community that is essentially religious in nature, but whose values, when understood and actually lived out, has a radical impact on all political, economic and social orders. The mission of the twelve apostles — and our mission today — consists in turning away from whatever limits us or keeps us less than human, and then sharing that journey to wholeness with others. Whether we call it “repenting” or “expelling demons” or “healing the sick”, it is all the same thing. Jesus invites us to embrace God’s dream for humanity, to share in his ministry of compassion, acceptance and love, and to bring healing everywhere we go.
If we take Christ’s teaching to heart, we can hardly ever be in favor of maintaining the status quo. We cannot become so infatuated with our own religion or our own traditions that we allow ourselves to be complacent about acting in the world. Faith has consequences: it determines how and where we spend our money. It shapes our vision of what we want our city and country to be, and so it affects the way we vote. Beyond the need for contemplation and personal reflection, we see the need for becoming actively engaged in the struggle for justice, compassion and healing.
In the first reading we are going to hear from the book of Amoz, and we see two opposing concepts of religion. Our periscope for today is incredibly short and the real story happens prior to where our reading begins. So, let me give you the background story so it makes some sense when you hear it. Amaziah, the priest in the sanctuary of Bethel (Northern Kingdom of Israel) favors a religious status quo. He doesn’t want to “rock the boat”, because somebody in the organization might be upset or feel uncomfortable. Amoz, on the other hand, is the outsider from Judah, the Southern Kingdom. Amoz is not one to mince words and is quite blunt about blaming the religious authorities for the institutional injustice that they condone and perpetuate. He is, of course, excommunicated and not allowed to be part of that congregation any more.
So, who do we want to be? Amaziah, who stands for the status quo? Do we prefer the smooth talkers, the smiling soft-spoken ones who tell people what they want to hear? Or do we see ourselves joining Amoz? Are we straight talkers, unafraid to speak our truth, pointing to social injustice even when it is found in the community of Jesus? If we need safety, we will follow Amaziah because
maintaining the status quo is always the safer path. If we need integrity over comfort, then we’ll follow Amoz, who is not afraid to say what needs to be said, and is even less afraid of possible consequences for speaking his truth.
The mission of the twelve disciples — and the mission of the Church, today — consists in preaching the need for reconciliation, and this denotes confronting things we’d rather avoid, whether in ourselves or in the larger world. We follow Christ in this endeavor and although we know there will be consequences for following Him, there is also power and healing and more grace than you can shake a stick at.
On the day of my ordination to the diaconate, Bishop David gave a tearful homily that touched me deeply. He came down from the ambo and stood right in front of me, openly weeping. He had to stop several times in his delivery of his message just to dry his eyes. He told me that ordination to diaconate and priesthood would place the heaviest burdens imaginable on my shoulders, and that there would be times when I would feel overwhelmed and unworthy and completely unfit for service in Christ’s Church. But he also reassured me that no matter what consequences I might have to face, the love of God and the grace of God would more than compensate for the very real feelings of being crucified with Christ. He reminded me of the words of St. Paul, who tells us that the suffering of the believers will continue until the Body of Christ comes to full and complete adulthood.
At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about, but months later, as I knelt before the bishops and had my hands tied to the chalice that I would use to celebrate my first Mass, I was overwhelmed with the sensation of carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders: the triumphs and the grave evils of all the priests who had come before me, the sinners and the saints, the tepid and the passionate, the fearful and the loving. And to their weight came the sensation of countless souls the world over, crying out to be set free from whatever held them captive, by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If ever there was a time I could have stopped the entire proceeding and backed out, that was it.
Since that experience at my priestly ordination nearly 5 years ago, I am always conscious of the weight I carry. Throughout my life whenever I have had sleeplessness during the night, I have assumed that an angel had awakened me to pray for someone who was in trouble right at that moment. So, many a night I prayed a rosary or sometimes more than one, for that person, known only to God. These days when it happens, I assume the same thing, that someone needs my prayers, but I always add myself to the list as well, knowing how insignificant and weak I am to the task that lies before me. And, believe it or not, Bishop David was also right about the grace and strength that appears out of nowhere to carry me through. Do I always make the best decisions? No. Am I borne aloft by grace, helped in my weakness, given exactly what I need exactly when I need it? Yup. The grace has always weighed heavier than even the weight of a billion souls and countless priests who’ve come before.
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which we hear today, reminds me that I, too, have been blessed in Christ, “with every spiritual blessing in the heavens” so there is no room for fear. God chose each one of us, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish, as Paul reminds us. He’s not saying we have to be morally perfect, we just have to be open to wholeness. God isn’t looking for moral perfection: if He were, the Old Law was good enough for that. Instead, God sent Jesus to bring us a new understanding that even God himself is willing to compromise his higher principles of justice and right for the sake of love and mercy. And so, because we are reconciled with God, and within ourselves, we can experience what the Psalmist says in today’s psalm: “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.” And all we have to do to make those things a reality is to surrender to God and work with Christ to help those things come into being. We all hunger for that meeting: we want that kiss!
There is a natural tendency for us to say that we don’t have the gifts needed to make justice and peace happen. We’re timid sometimes, shy about admitting our strengths. But Jesus already anticipated our objections: “Don’t worry about how or what you should say … for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that hour what you ought to say …” And since we are teachers and healers, that same Spirit will enable us to find the wherewithal to be effective in those areas as well.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is sending us out in small groups with no possessions: no designer clothes, no fancy car, nothing but a walking stick and a pair of sandals. And he empowers us to expel demons, to teach in his name, and to bring healing to those who need it. Christ did not bequeath to the Church a mission in the political, economic, or social order. Our Church is not committed to any one culture, or to any political, economic, or social system. We’re not a social club or a political action group. Our mission is religious. We preach with our lives the realities of reconciliation, we drive out the demons of fear and resistance, and we extend our healing presence wherever we find ourselves called to be.
This much is certain: We are called to be Amoz, not Amaziah. We are to be mindful of the immeasurable grace and power that dwells within us, and we are to be on the move always. The Reign of God isn’t here or there, but it is here and there. The weight of our task if enormous; the impact of grace is even greater.