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The 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 18, 2019


    Today’s readings got me thinking about something I know absolutely nothing about from personal experience – the world of long-distance races and marathons!

     I see Jeremiah, the long-suffering, persecuted prophet, as a marathon runner, although hardly a willing one. 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 on the earth - the fire of judgment, fire that separates precious metals from base.

     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 one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, the Jesus who welcomed little children, who healed the sick and forgave sinners?  Where now is Jesus the loving and good shepherd?

     Somehow these 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 never the product of passivity: it’s not just ‘holding one’s peace,’ as the saying has it – avoiding conflict at all costs. That can lead a counterfeit peace and it actually comes closer to cowardice. And peace is no friend of cowardice.  No, true peace is almost always born of painstaking efforts, struggle, and great suffering. True peace may be gentle, but it’s strong, calm but it’s courageous.

     My model peacemaker will always be our former archbishop, Raymond Hunthausen, who died just a little over a year ago and who is laid to rest over there in the Cathedral crypt.  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, after he signed up for the marathon that was his ministry as Archbishop of Seattle, he found out that, for him as for Jesus, the gospel of peace meant lighting fires and even creating divisions.

     And so he dared, in this region whose economy was fed and fueled by lucrative military contracts and whose waters were home to the Trident nuclear submarine – he dared to stand up and call us to examine our complicity in what he believed to be the immoral arms race.  And his courage didn’t stop there: one day he dared to stand up at the University of Washington Law School Graduation (where you can be sure no Catholic 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 favor the weak, the helpless, 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, his baptism was a baptism into suffering.  Our baptism was no different.  It was more than just a heartwarming 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 late summer weekend, but there is an “up” side to it all as today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminded us.  That reading, which happens to be emblazoned 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 beloved 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 prize!

Father Michael G. Ryan




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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