Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church
11 July 2021
One thing you will learn about the time that I spent living at the Cathedral in Joliet is that living in the heart of Joliet results in so many funny and interesting stories. There’s no shortage of incidents, characters, and situations that are so memorably random, some hilarious and some, sadly, quite tragic; but all of them, in some way, served for me as a dose of reality, sometimes humbling reality, or at least gave us in the rectory a good laugh.
At the end of May of this year, on the night of the Cathedral’s grade school graduation, the graduates process down the sidewalk in front of the church as the Cathedral’s bells ring. I learned during my time at North Central that Peter and Paul is a parish that appreciates its bells, and so is the Cathedral!
The next morning, the receptionist forwarded me a voicemail from a man in the neighborhood who, let’s say, was not so appreciative of the bells. You know it will be a good voicemail when the first word is, “YEAH, UH”
“Yeah, uh, I know you guys are really busy right now running a corrupt organization under the guise of religion, and that you all believe you’re sooo close and friendly with God, but did you ever consider that none of us out here really care about those bells!?”
As any priest will tell you, we don’t like getting nastygrams. It’s discouraging, and after a wonderful graduation celebration is took the wind out of my sails. Immediately, my mind started fishing for retorts, something to say if he ever calls back.
“Sir, when you moved in did you fail to notice the 192 foot – 19 story – bell tower in the neighborhood? When you moved into a neighborhood with “CATHEDRAL AREA” written on a sign at the entrance…did you think it was joke?” Not nice, Fr. Ryan.
Then, another voicemail, from an hour later that night, which demonstrated some signs that perhaps our friend had been enjoying some apple juice as the evening progressed: “Yeahhhh uhhhhh….I called about the bells and I just wanted to apologize for what I said; I said some things I shouldn’t have and I’m really sorry.”
Wow – actually, a really decent thing to do. And a lesson that even in the nastiest nastygrams, there’s a real person at the other end.
But that’s not why the story is still in my head, and it’s not the reason I’m bringing it up today.
It’s this: “I know you all believe that you’re so close and friendly with God.”
In the past, why was the priest put on a pedestal? Why were religious sisters so revered? From where does the Christian missionary’s appeal and also authority come from?
The perceived closeness with God. Those people are close to God, and I want to be close to God, so I better listen to them. Priest, religious brother or sister, and you – the Christian faithful whose role it is to sanctify, to Christify, the world – the expectation is that what we preach, what we espouse, has been allowed to take root in US and to change US before we go off and preach it to others. This conversion, and everything that entails, is a holy and beautiful thing.
Why did my neighbor in Joliet speak of such closeness with God in a mocking, even scornful tone?
I remember when my brother started working at McDonald’s corporate HQ right after he graduated from North Central, he would speak very often of the company’s insistence that all of its employees strive at all times to be good “brand ambassadors.” They should wear their McDonald’s gear with pride, and speak highly of the company in conversation and on the internet. The argument, of course, was that McDonald’s wasn’t just a fast food company, but an all-American employment provider and a true benefit to the areas where McDonald’s can be found…which, remember, at least in America is absolutely everywhere.
Christians are often very poor brand ambassadors. We don’t represent ourselves well, and we certainly don’t offer a lot of proof that our mission – telling the world that a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ is possible and that the Father sent him to reconcile you with himself that you might live in perfect union with the Holy Trinity forever in heaven and begin to live that life of union and holiness even here on earth AND, oh yeah, I know it’s real because it happened to me and here’s my story – bears actual fruit.
One of my favorite lines from the 20th century German priest Romano Guardini speaks to this when he says that Christians everywhere will eventually have to confront this embarrassing question: “whether the redeemed shouldn’t look more redeemed.”
This morning we’re invited by the readings to remember that it isn’t just Christians in 2021 who are bad brand ambassadors, but that this has been a problem from the very beginning. In these weeks we are hearing from some of the truly powerhouse figures of the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel last week, Amos this week, and Jeremiah next week. The prophets are some of the most of the disturbing people who ever lived; they were willing to be counter-cultural, and were willing to put their money (and homes and jobs and safety and families) where their mouths were in order to remind the people in Israel and Judah of the covenant that God had made with them.
They were the ultimate brand ambassadors; they were often the only faithful people found in entire cities and regions; they were committed to prayer, unwavering in their commitment to what God had asked them to do. In a word, the prophets of the Old Testament are the models for us of what it means to live life as friends of God in a way that is really too good to be true.
A M O S
Let’s look into the prophet Amos, whose words we heard in the first reading this morning. And pay attention for parallels with our own situation today.
Amos was called by God to be a prophet at a time when there were still two kings and the kingdoms were divided; the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which included Jerusalem. Amos was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees in the village of Tekoa, near Bethlehem, in the Kingdom of Judah and so was called out of his homeland and away from his family to preach in the North.
The king Jeroboam was on the throne in Israel and under his reign the Northern Kingdom “reached the summit of its material power and prosperity.” (Heschel, The Prophets, 27) During Amos’ lifetime, Jeroboam had openly taken advantage of Judah’s weakness so he could expand his kingdom, build up the economy, and become rich.
When Amos began his preaching in the North, “there was pride (6:13), plenty, and splendor in the land, elegance in the cities, and might in the palaces. The rich had their summer and winter palaces adorned with costly ivory (3:15), gorgeous couches with damask pillows (3:12); they planted pleasant vineyards, anointed themselves with precious oils (6:4-6; 5:11); their women, compared by Amos to the fat cows of Bashan (LOL) were addicted to wine (4:1).
“At the same time, there was no justice in the land (3:10), the poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery (2:6-8; 5:11), and the judges were corrupt (5:12)” (Heschel, 27-28)
In the midst of this prosperity and plenty, there stands a little shepherd from Judah who cries out at the top of his voice:
The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
The pastures of the shepherds mourn,
and the top of Mount Carmel withers. (Amos 1:2)
Through Amos, God turns his wrath to a very unexpected place: not to the judges or leaders or merchants, but to the priests and to those who gather for worship. Amos calls out the religious people, to whom the world turns when looking for an example of friendship with God, who themselves had become complacent. They observed the sabbath laws with strict severity, and then as soon as the sabbath ended, they went back to ignoring the poor and dealing deceitfully in business. One author puts it this way: “Man is waiting for the day of sanctity to come to an end so that cheating and exploitation can be resumed.” (Heschel, 31)
Amos stands up and proclaims this word of God:
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings, I will not accept them,
And the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
To the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice well up as waters,
And righteousness as a mighty stream! (Amos 5:22-24)
And the response to this diatribe of the prophet is what we heard in the first reading: As Amos calls out pretty much every level of society, and goes as far as telling them that their worship to God is not only ineffective for themselves but also offensive and bothersome to God. The priest, Amaziah, has similarly strong words for Amos:
Off with you, visionary! Flee to the land of Judah!
Never again prophesy in Bethel.
Be quiet, prophet!
And Amos, our little shepherd from Judah, looks that priest in the eyes and with a heart full of courage proclaims:
I am no prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son; I am shepherd, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from my flocks, and said to me, “Go, prophesy.”
You say, Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.
Therefore, thus says the Lord:
Your wife shall be a harlot in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land will be divided,
you yourself will die in an unclean land,
and surely shall Israel go away into exile.
Put in Fr. Ryan terms:
“Aww, you think I’m here because I want to be here? I’m a nobody, from a long line of nobodies. And you all, who think you’re really something, are being told by a nobody the truth from the one who is everything; you think you have everything, but because you have abandoned God and the precepts of the covenant, you actually have nothing. So no, I will not flee to my home simply because you are uncomfortable; I am a friend of God and I will go where he asks, and say what he commands.”
The takeaway this morning is twofold.
- Next time someone mocks you because you are someone who is a friend of God, I pray you will have the courage to say: Yes, I’m a friend of God. And if these bells ringing at 7pm on a Thursday remind you of God, and they agitate you, then I have done exactly as I’ve been asked.
- We as Christians in the world today must be too good to be true. We must be the witnesses of a new kind of life, a life in which it is possible to live without sin and without the fear of death. If your experience of Christianity is simply sin-confession-sin-confession-sin-confession, then something must change. Freedom from sin is not the goal of Christianity; freedom from sin is literally as low as the bar gets; everything else awaits you; the joy of the Gospel awaits you; the freedom of the children of God awaits you; a wholehearted and beautiful and joyful and new kind of living awaits you. The time is too ripe, the stakes are too high, for us to continue to be mediocre as the world pulls harder and faster away from God.
So today as we receive the Eucharist, we add our own reflection to the strange truth with which the prophets in the Old Testament, and those disciples sent out two by two in the Gospel, had to come to terms:
I’m a nobody from a long line of nobodies. And yet, in my the midst of my nobody-hood, God has called me to be a witness to the nations, so that, in accord with his plan for the fullness of time, all things might be finally fulfilled in Christ, all things in heaven and on earth.