Sunday, January 28, 2007

Familiarity breeds...the Gospel!

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 28 January, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See Jeremiah 1:4-19 and Luke 4:21-30)

In St. Luke’s Gospel this morning, we hear about one of the saddest and most perplexing events in the public ministry of Jesus: the rejection at Nazareth. In one of the other gospels, Jesus’ reaction to their rejection of Him is described in terms of amazement: He was amazed at their lack of faith (Mark 6:6).

The scene is amazing and perplexing because Jesus reveals Himself not to the pagans, or to strangers, or those who are ignorant of the things of God. He makes Himself known to His own people, in His own hometown, and He is rejected because He is altogether too familiar. They know Him all too well…or so they think. They ask themselves:

Isn’t this the son of Joseph?
—Luke 4:22

In other words, we know this man. And Jesus responds, sadly, that:

No prophet is accepted in his own native place.
—Luke 4:24

That is one of the reasons, incidentally, that priests are almost never assigned to their own home parish after they are ordained. The Church, in Her wisdom, seeks to avoid a repeat of the kind of rejection we hear about this morning. But nonetheless, one of the challenges our gospel communicates to us today is that God makes Himself known, often times, in things familiar.

Two of my biggest supporters in my life and vocation are my parents. They have never ceased to offer prayers and encouragement before, during and after my ordination.

About one year after I was ordained, I went home on my day off and my mother said to me, “Oh, Christopher! We heard the most beautiful homily the other day.”

I said, “Oh, that’s nice. What was it about?”

She replied, “The new priest was talking about Jesus, who was asleep on the boat when a big storm came up.”

I said, “Yes, I remember that from last week.”

She continued: “And he was telling us how the disciples waited too long to wake Jesus up. They should have woken Him up before the storm began. Father said that Jesus wants us to wake Him up, and talk with Him, and watch the sunrise with Him and . . .”

It all sounded very familiar. And suddenly I said, “Wait a minute. Mom, was that last Saturday’s Mass?”

She said, “Yes.”

I said, “Mom?! You were in my parish last Saturday. That was my homily!”

She said, “Oooh. Yes, that’s right. It was good.”

I said, “Good! A minute ago it was the most beautiful homily ever! Now it’s just good?”

I think we all have a tendency to react that way when it comes to our own family. And let’s not forget that it’s a two way street. I would be a lot better off in my life if I listened to my parents as much as I listen to other people.

But the point is this: God can choose to reveal Himself any way He wants to. Yet so very often, He chooses to do so in things—and especially in people—that are familiar. God can, and does, reveals Himself in the Scriptures, in the mystery of the Eucharist, but He also makes Himself known in our parents, and in our children. Are we open to that? We need to be careful that we do not reject Christ, like the people at Nazareth, simply because He makes Himself known in things familiar.

Our Winter Book Club is about to begin again, and this year we are studying C.S. Lewis’ classic fiction novel, The Great Divorce. The title itself is a bit misleading; it’s not about marriage and divorce, but about the divorce or separation between heaven and hell. The main characters in that book find themselves on a bus ride somewhere between heaven and hell. It is not at all unlike purgatory. As the story unfolds, they come to discover that God has sent them helpers from heaven, to guide them on their way to Him.

The main character suddenly recognizes that the one sent to him is the great Christian author, George Macdonald. He is familiar with the writer’s works, his books and essays, even if he hasn’t really followed them in his own life. But Macdonald becomes a faithful and effective guide simply because he is known to the main character already.

Now, not all the people in the book are that fortunate, or that open. In one of the more famous scenes there is a woman who has never learned to let go of the things of earth; she had been far too possessive. The one sent to her is her own brother, who died years before and has already made it to heaven. Her reaction to him when he comes on the scene is quite revealing. She says:

“Oh…Reginald! It’s you, is it?”

Not exactly a warm welcome! You can tell there has been a little history there. But he patiently and lovingly tries to guide her anyway. He tells her how she has to let go of all the things of earth so that she can love God first, and above all things. Then, he assures her, she will get everything back that she had left behind. She will have all things in God.

It is a beautiful message. Unfortunately, she’s not buying it! She says:

“Oh, you mean religion and all that sort of thing? This is hardly the moment…and from you, of all people.”

As the scene ends she is still unable, or unwilling, to listen to the message, partly because she simply cannot or will not accept the messenger.

God makes Himself known to us in things familiar. Are we able to receive that message? Are we able to overlook the faults and weaknesses of our family members, members of our Church, or the people we work with—and I am not talking about grievous sins; that’s something completely different—are we able to overlook the common faults and weaknesses that we all experience, and receive the Good News that God wants to give to us? Are we able to receive God’s perfect message through the imperfect people He so often uses to communicate it?

Because, ultimately, we are not only called to listen to that message and hear that Good News. We are called to proclaim it, and very often to those who are closest to us. In spite of our own faults and weaknesses, God wants to use us to proclaim His gospel.

In the opening chapter of the Book of Jeremiah, where our first reading this morning is taken from, the prophet is complaining to God about his inability to carry out the mission he has been given. He has already told the Lord how he is too young, he’s too inexperienced, too weak. God’s response to Him is completely unsympathetic!

He says, basically, “Jeremiah, I don’t care how young you are, or how inexperienced or how weak. You will go where I send you, because it is my word and my message. It’s not about you, Jeremiah. It’s about me, and my word to my people. So stand up and tell them what I command you.”

As Jeremiah himself relates it:

Stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them; for it is I this day who have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass…for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.
—Jeremiah 1:17-19

The word of God is that powerful; it is able to change our lives and transform the world we live in. But, in His infinite wisdom, God chooses us—even in the midst of our imperfections—to spread that word and proclaim that gospel.

This week, who are the people that God will use to speak His word to us? And who are the ones, in our own families, businesses and schools, that God is sending us to, to share with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ?