Sunday, July 12, 2015

You are a Prophet: Fifteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Amos 7:12–15; Ephesians 1:3–14; Mark 6:7–13
Whom do you think of when you hear the word "prophet?" Do you think of the Old Testament prophets and how they hounded the kings and people of Israel for turning away from the God of Israel? Do you think of self-appointed prophets on their literal or figurative soapboxes ranting about Hellfire and brimstone? Well, I want to say that many prophets, perhaps most, don't even know that they are prophets, and many of them have not even begun to answer God's call.
Amos is a great example because he fits no one's notion of a prophet during the first testamental period. He doesn't earn his living as a prophet but as a shepherd and "dresser of sycamores." In Israel, this is likely to mean a person who cultivates sycamore figs or fig-mulberries. In the reading from Amos, Amazaiah, the priest of Bethel, dismisses Amos and tells him to go prophesy elsewhere. To me, this sounds a bit like when Catholics and other Christians are told to keep their beliefs private and not share them. Amos had the audacity to prophesy in the king's sanctuary. Amazaiah is there speaking because he enjoys the benefits of the king's court, and Amos threatens it. This happens in our political world all the time, where the Church's teaching is not welcomed because it doesn't jibe with a party's agenda. And that cuts many ways: Green, Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian. There are no truly Catholic political parties in this country of which I'm aware, but I would gladly welcome correction on that point.
Sadly, this kind of partisanship even occurs in our Church, when people adhere to and act upon their own interests rather than the truth that the Church proclaims. A prophet is rarely welcomed in his or her home, as Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark last week. Yet a true prophet is driven to speak, despite the cost. And many of the faithful—lay people, clergy, and religious—pay the price if they dare to speak up.
In this week's Gospel reading, Jesus sends out the Twelve to preach the good news. Notice that he gives them no time for preparation. He even tells them not to take anything for the journey. Is it because they will have no needs while they go out? No. It's because their needs will be met by means outside of themselves. They have to depend completely on God. Even the words they carry are not their own but the words of the one who sent them. The signs they produce are not of their own power but of the one who sent them. But the reason for the signs, both for the Apostles and for those to whom they are sent, is not in the power itself but in the words they preach. Jesus wants the good news to be heard, and to accomplish that, there must be people who can be sent. That is what the word Apostle means—one who is sent.
The epistle reading from Ephesians gets to the heart of what those who are sent should proclaim: that "he—God—chose us... before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him" (1:6). It was always His plan. Even seeing what a mess we would make of things, He chose us... made us for relationship with Him through His Son. Was it done to rule over us as a dictator? Was it to ruin our fun with a bunch of rules and regulations? Was it so He could indulge in His wrath against us?
No.
He made us because of love, through love, and for love. It's hard to respond in love to God if we don't know that He loved us first. We need not only to know what to do, but the why behind it.
We have a problem in the Church today. Admittedly, we have many problems, but I think they all come back to this one problem. Many of us not only don't know what our Church professes, but why it professes it. We have forgotten our story, as Fr. Robert Barron likes to say. We don't know the basics of our faith. Recent polls say that fewer than 40% of Catholics understand that the Church teaches the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist—that the body, blood, soul and Divinity of Christ is present in the Eucharist we celebrate here every week. Many of us don't know that our Church is built on the foundation of Divine Revelation that has been delivered completely and immutably in the person of Jesus Christ. Many of us cannot explain why our faith is true or why we are Catholic and not Baptist or LDS or Muslim or Zoroastrian or Atheist.
And that's really a problem because our commission as a Church is to evangelize. Jesus sent the Apostles and he sends us to go out in the world and to proclaim what he commanded. By our baptism, we are made priest, prophet, and king. But how can we prophesy if we don't know what it is that He commanded? He gave us Divine Revelation, and He gave us the Church to help us to understand it. But few of us take the time to know what our Church actually teaches.
How do we give to the world something we don't have ourselves? How do we explain the faith to others if we haven't bothered to learn it ourselves? How do we hand on to our children what we ourselves do not possess? Simply speaking, we can't.
Some of that is the fault of people who stand right up here preaching to you on Sundays. If we preach nothing but stories about how you should just be nice to others, we're missing the boat. If we never suggest that your faith makes demands on you beside what you learned in kindergarten, we have failed you.
But part of the blame is also in ourselves. Many of us have succumbed to a false religion which some sociologists refer to as "moralistic therapeutic deism." This is the notion that God is like a benevolent servant who is just waiting to make us feel good about ourselves, wants us to be nice to each other, and doesn't make any real demands on us other than that. It's a prevalent set of beliefs in our society, but it is absolutely not the Gospel that Jesus preached. And we would know that if we spent time studying our faith the way people study to do anything worthwhile. For some reason, we have this notion that faith and religion should be easy, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Faith and religion are no exception. Would you want to drive over a bridge built by someone who believed engineering should be easy? Would you want to have surgery by a doctor who studied at the McDonald's School of Easy McMedicine? Of course not. But when it comes to faith, we check our discipline at the door and expect easy.
But faith and religion are not easy, and they require discipline, diligence, and study. We have to invest ourselves. We have to respond to the Gospel. Our God made us in love to be in relationship with Him, and that means that we can freely choose to respond back. To do that, we need to seek to know God so that we can love Him.
And all love requires sacrifice. If that crucifix there doesn't remind you of anything else, remember that the crucifix means that all real love requires sacrifice. If the Eucharistic sacrifice reminds you of nothing else, let it be that. Here's the paradox: understanding the sacrifice is what leads to true joy.
Like many married deacons, I run all of my homilies by my wife, and she gave me two great insights in response to this homily. The first is the paradox I just mentioned. The fact is with true sacrifice graciously offered comes true joy. Think about it. A woman sacrifices her body in childbirth. A man sacrifices his life for family. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the joy. In fact the greatest sacrifice, right there on that crucifix and right there on that altar, takes us to our greatest joy. Without sacrifice, life is merely going from one moment of temporary contentment to another: temporary contentment because it is temporal. It brings no lasting joy.
The second insight is that we are made for sacrifice. It is written into our bones. Sin has made us forget. And that is why our Lord came and gave us the model of His life and death, to show us once again how to offer ourselves as a sacrifice.
Today I am inviting you to take your faith a step further. I would like you to make the sacrifice to engage your faith more deeply. I would like to invite you to open up your Bible to the Gospel of Matthew and read it. And then to read the next gospel... and the next. I would like to invite you to listen to Catholic radio on 1140 AM. I would like to invite you to get a copy of the Catechism or a book on the Catechism and read what our faith actually teaches. Don't expect the mainstream media to tell you what Pope Francis is saying. They get it wrong most of the time anyway. Read the documents yourselves. Ask your priests and deacons questions. Get into a Bible study, or a small faith group, or some program that can help you learn what it is that this Church teaches. Pursue your faith in God as if it were the most important thing you have to do, because it is. And then take the joy of the Gospel out to the world.

The  world is filled with lost people, and Jesus wants to send you to them—to speak the gospel, and to help Him to save them. What will you say to them?
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