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The Feast of St. James
July 23, 2017

Click here to listen to this homily! (mp3 file)

     The day I was ordained a priest, I wasn’t especially shy about telling the world who I was and what I thought my ministry was all about. I proclaimed it rather grandly and in a way that, frankly, makes me feel just a bit embarrassed now.  On a prayer card commemorating my ordination were printed the words we heard in today's first reading, words that Jesus later appropriated to himself on the day he first stepped into the pulpit of his hometown synagogue at Nazareth:  "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn…to announce a year of favor from the Lord."

     You see my embarrassment, I’m sure.  It’s not that those words don't sum up quite wonderfully what the call to ministry in the church is all about - they do; it’s just that I realize now that my choice of that particular passage was a bit self-centered.  I think it was the "me" part I heard more than the "God" part ("The Spirit is of the Lord God has anointed me").  Now, after 50 years of priestly ministry, I've awakened to the fact that those words are about God, not about me.  They are about grace, the mysterious and overwhelming power of God's grace; they are about glad tidings -- not my glad tidings -- but the glad tidings of God's love for the poor and the little ones of this earth.  And the startling truth, my friends, is that God can use all sorts of folks to deliver those glad tidings!

     Today's Gospel story suggests that our heavenly patron, the Apostle James, may have had to learn a similar lesson.  There was a lot of "me", a lot of ego, in his mother's request for special favors for her two darling sons.  In the Gospel story, she gets painted as the ambitious one, but one has to think that James and John were not entirely unhappy with their mother's request that they receive special treatment - princely thrones at the Master's right and left.

     That's the way Jesus read it, anyway, because it was to the two young men, James and John, not to their mother, that he immediately turned, and asked the question, "Can you drink from the cup I am to drink of?"  Generously, but bordering on bragging, they shot back, "We can!" - little knowing what they were saying or what they were getting themselves into.

     Jesus, ever the patient one, used the moment to teach, not to scold or put down.  He used the moment to teach, not just the two brothers but the whole company of the twelve, something that may have gone right over their heads at the time, but surely must have come back to them later: "Anyone among you who aspires to greatness," he told them, "must serve the rest, and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all."

     Leave it to Jesus to save Mrs. Zebedee and her sons embarrassment and get them off the hook by putting everybody else on the hook -- a new kind of hook: the hook of powerless power, the hook of selfless service.  "The Son of Man has come," he tells them, "not to be served by others but to serve; to give his own life as a ransom for the many."

     My friends, Jesus puts us on that same hook.  He puts to us the same question he put to James and John:   "Can you drink of the cup I am to drink of?" he asks.  And if we say yes, then, one way or another, he is going to let our cup get filled, sometimes to overflowing, not so much with the sweet and intoxicating wine of power but, more often, with the bitter wine of suffering.  The servant is no greater than the master, after all.  What he drank, we, too, shall drink.

     And if that sounds more grim or forbidding than anything we want to sign up for on a summer Sunday, we need to be reminded of some other wisdom that comes our way today from St. Paul.  We heard it in the reading from Second Corinthians.  In a wonderful series of paradoxes that mirror the foolish wisdom of the Gospel of Jesus, St. Paul attempts to make sense of this inside-out, upside-down faith of ours.  Listen again:  "We possess a treasure in earthen vessels to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us.  We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; full of doubts, we never despair.  We are persecuted but never abandoned; we are struck down but never destroyed.  Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”

     Dear friends in Christ, the church wants us to hear those words on the feast of our patron, St. James, because they capture so beautifully what James had to discover throughout a whole lifetime of following Jesus - all the way up to one day, one fateful day in Jerusalem - when he was put to death at the hands of King Herod.  Following Jesus wasn't what his mother thought it would be, and I'm sure it wasn't what he thought it would be - no more than was the somewhat grandiose vision that I proclaimed on the day of my ordination.  But what was true for James is also true for you and me.  The future may be uncertain, but God's grace is not uncertain; it is always there. And God's grace works the greatest wonders not among those who are strong or great or powerful, but, amazingly, among those who know just how weak they are.

     It is that very weakness that will bring us in a few minutes to the table of the Eucharist to receive the one whose grace alone and always outweighs our weakness.

Father Michael G. Ryan





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Seattle, Washington  98104
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