Homily: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A
There once was a famous preacher who, taking his cue from a famous journalist, would teach his students of the importance of including real names of persons in their sermons. (It's ironic that I would begin my preaching with this, because I cannot remember the names of either the preacher or the journalist!) The journalist famously once quipped: “If I printed names out of the phone book, people would read it just to see if they, or if someone they knew, was included.” Using personal names in a sermon, this preacher taught, will catch people’s attention as they listen for whether or not they’ll either hear their own name, or the name of someone whom they know.
Jesus begins his famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, utilizing this same principle. Although he doesn’t use personal names, he nonetheless names many of those who were following him as he names many of the situations in which they were living. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek…” I can see many a poor tradesman and many a homemaker in the crowd look up and say “Hey, that’s me!” “Blessed are they who mourn…” I can see a woman, newly widowed, perhaps, look up and say “Hey, that’s me!” “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” I can see a zealot who wants nothing more than to see the Roman occupiers expelled from Jerusalem look up and say “Hey, that’s me!” And so on… Jesus knows to whom he is reaching out and he wants them to know that the kingdom of God is for them. And so, he calls them out “by name” and shares how they, too, will be included in God’s plan.
Saint Paul didn’t have the Beatitudes written down for him when he was on his missionary journeys. Nonetheless, when he wrote to the Church in Corinth, he cited this Gospel principle. The Corinthians, it seems, were beginning to think a bit much of themselves and so Paul deems it necessary to remind them from where they came. “Consider your own calling,” he wrote. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” “Remember”, in other words, “that God did not call you because you were a ‘mover and a shaker’. He called you because you were humble and lowly.” Catching their attention in this way, he can then remind them: “Blessed will you be if you remain meek and humble, boasting only in the Lord, for the kingdom promised to you will be yours.”
This, of course, has been God’s “M.O.” for the longest time. The prophet Zephaniah is calling out the ancient Israelites for the same thing. In the passage that we read today, the prophet is announcing a pending tribulation for the people because of their disobedience to God. He’s calling the “humble of the earth, who have observed [God’s] law” to “seek the Lord”, in the hope that the Lord, when the tribulation comes, will shield them from the suffering that will befall this people. “Don’t be arrogant”, he seems to be saying, “but rather seek justice, seek humility, and perhaps the Lord, looking on your lowliness, will shelter you on the day of his anger.” Alerting the people in this way, he then reveals God’s promise: that God will not wipe out his people completely, but rather that he will leave a remnant from them: “a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of the Lord…”
This warning—"Seek the Lord"—comes to us today and should be received as a warning for our time. I know that we have set ourselves on the course to "make America great again", but we should remember that prosperity is not to be pursued over righteousness before God. "Seek the Lord", as we read it in today’s reading, is equated with "seek justice" and "seek humility". These, therefore, are the things that we ought to be seeking; because these will make America truly great again.
My brothers and sisters, we must not allow ourselves to be lured into presumption: that by our merits we are "okay" with God. Rather, we must continue to humble ourselves before Him: recognizing that all that we have that is good has come from Him. In doing so, we will keep from boasting in our own achievements and always give credit where credit is due: to God, from whom all good things come. Providentially, this is a great point of evangelization; because when we demonstrate what God has accomplished in us—not boasting in ourselves, but in what God has done in spite of ourselves—we show to others that they don’t have to have their lives completely together in order to be chosen by God. Rather, they simply need to humble themselves before Him, so that He can make them, too, into something great. Just like it was for Jesus when he began to teach the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount, and just like it was for Paul when he was first proclaimed the Gospel to the people in Corinth, this teaching can be very attractive for people who are struggling in life, thinking that they have to earn God’s love before they can come to him.
My brothers and sisters, the Beatitudes are commentaries on the reality of the human condition. If we cannot see that, it is because we are blinded by the pride that says that we have to be successful, powerful, and influential in life. Jesus’ teaching is meant to contradict this pride: teaching us that by accepting this reality (and the sufferings that inevitably come with it) we will be living the human condition well, in humility and lowliness, and, therefore, that we will have a reward of great joy in the life that is to come.
Thus, our task this week is to step back and to ask ourselves: “Do I identify with any of these beatitudes?” In other words, at any point in the readings did I look up and say “Hey, that’s me!” If yes, then great! Continue to seek the Lord by seeking justice and humility and giving all credit to the Lord for any good that you have done and will do. If no, then perhaps it’s time to heed Saint Paul’s admonition to “consider your own calling” and to remember that, if you have been called by God, it is because he saw you in your lowliness and desired to raise you up so as to show the world that he doesn’t need the powerful to accomplish his will. Thus, you can recommit yourself to humble obedience, boasting that God has accomplished great things through you.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus, himself, became poor in spirit so that we might receive the kingdom of God. As we offer this sacrifice of thanksgiving for so great a gift, let us open our hearts to that same poverty of spirit so that we might experience the fullness of that kingdom: both here, under sacramental signs, and in the life to come.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – January 28th & 29th, 2017