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The 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 14, 2016

Click here to listen to this homily (mp4 file)

     Today’s readings are well-timed for the summer Olympics. There are some high stakes races in those readings - some real marathons!

     On the starting line was Jeremiah, the long-suffering, persecuted prophet. Like most prophets, Jeremiah was an unwilling participant in the marathon in which the Lord God had entered him.  He tried his best to stay on the sidelines, pleading youth and inexperience.  But God would have none of it.  “I will be with you,” God had said, and that was that.  So Jeremiah found himself in the race, a reluctant runner, at best.  And his worst fears proved true.  His fearless proclamation of God’s word brought him nothing but grief.  In today’s reading we find him at the near dead end of his run – at the bottom of a deep cistern, of all places!  Such is the fate of prophets.  Such was the course of Jeremiah’s marathon.

     In the Gospel reading Jesus was on his own prophetic marathon when he declared that the Word of God was like a fire burning within him, waiting to blaze forth – the kind of searing fire that separates precious metals from base metals.

     Jesus’ words are anything but comforting, I’m sure you would agree.  “I have come to cast fire on the earth! …Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth?  I assure you the contrary is true.  I have come for division.”  Those words might make us wonder a little about Jesus.  Have the pain and intensity of his own personal marathon caused him to lose perspective?  Where now is the gentle Jesus, the Jesus of Bethlehem, the Jesus of the Beatitudes, the Jesus who welcomed little children, who healed the sick and forgave sinners?  Where now is Jesus the loving, compassionate, good shepherd?

     Those harsh sayings don’t sound much like Jesus, the one we call the Prince of Peace. How do lighting a fire on the earth and stirring up conflict and division go together with “Blessed are the Peacemakers?”

     The answer lies in what we mean by peace.  Peace may not be what we think. Peace is far more than just ‘holding one’s peace,’ as the saying goes. And peace is not just the absence of conflict. Those can be counterfeits of peace and can come closer to cowardice, and peace is no friend of cowardice.  No, true peace is almost always born of struggle and even suffering.  It is gentle but strong, calm but courageous.

     My model peacemaker is our retired Archbishop, Raymond Hunthausen (who will turn 95 next Sunday).  Archbishop Hunthausen preached – and lived – the gospel of peace, but it wasn’t a “feel good gospel” to tickle the ears and gain admirers.  No, when he signed up for the marathon that was his ministry as Archbishop of Seattle, he knew that, for him as for Jesus, the gospel of peace would mean lighting fires and even creating divisions.

     And so he dared, in this region whose economy is fed and fueled by lucrative military contracts and whose waters are home to the Trident nuclear submarine – he dared to stand up and call people to examine their complicity in what he called the sinful arms race. In doing so, he made a lot of enemies as well as friends. And his courage didn’t stop there: one day he stood up to speak at the University of Washington Law School Graduation (where no bishop had ever been invited to speak) and risked ridicule by raising the issue of abortion: gently but firmly reminding the young lawyers that law, in order to be just, must promote the common good and always favor the weak, the helpless, the vulnerable and the voiceless.  He paid a price for his courage on that day, as on many.

     My friends, Jesus came to set the earth on fire, and his baptism was a baptism into suffering.  Our baptism was no different.  It was not just a lovely ritual to mark the joy of new life; it was also our initiation, our enrollment in the great marathon of passion, death and resurrection.

     I know these are anything but lighthearted thoughts for a summer weekend, but there is an “up” side to it all as today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us.  That reading, which is inscribed on the inside of our great bronze doors, is meant to quicken our heartbeats and fuel our energy for this great marathon we’ve entered, for we are not running the race alone – we are in the greatest company possible.  We are!  From the sidelines we are being cheered on by a great “cloud of witnesses,” to use that wonderful image from Hebrews.

       All the “greats” from the Old Testament are there (read chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews for the entire litany of them).  And all the “greats” of the last two-thousand years of Christian history are there, too: saints beyond number, declared and undeclared, apostles and martyrs and prophets, our childhood heroes and our patron saints, our parents, grandparents, family members, and friends.  They are all there.  They are not plaster statues on pedestals or photographs in a family album.  No, they are full of life, joy, and enthusiasm.  Full of God!  And there they are cheering us on toward the finish line.

     So, my friends, while the marathon we’ve entered may be difficult and demanding, no marathon ever had a better cheering section.  And, thanks to God’s grace, no runners ever had a better chance of winning the gold!      

Father Michael G. Ryan

  

 

 

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