Sunday, June 22, 2008

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

This week’s Gospel reading picks up
where last week’s left off:
Jesus is sending out the twelve
with the instruction to proclaim
that the kingdom of God is at hand
and to "cure the sick, raise the dead,
cleanse lepers, drive out demons."
And in today’s Gospel reading,
he gives them further instructions:
"Fear no one. . . . do not be afraid."

Years ago, back in the 1980s,
the Baltimore Oriel pitcher Dennis Martinez was seen by a reporter
talking with the Oriel’s manager, Earl Weaver,
just before the start of a game against the Yankees.
The reporter, anxious to know what wisdom
Weaver had imparted to Martinez,
asked him what special instructions Weaver had given him.
Martinez replied: "He said, ‘Throw strikes
and keep ‘em off the bases’. . . and I said, ‘O.K.’"
The reporter, needless to say, was a bit disappointed,
and puzzled by how this advice —
which we might call slightly obvious —
could be of any help to Martinez.

In overhearing Jesus’ advice to the twelve
I can’t help but feel a bit like the reporter.
OK, we should fear no one —
just like a pitcher should throw strikes
and keep runners off base —
but wouldn’t it help to have a little bit of advice
on how we should go about doing this?
Shouldn’t he give them some more practical instructions
on how they might conquer their fear,
some sort of technique — perhaps breathing exercises —
for courage in the face of opposition?
Why does he simply give them
the obvious instruction to fear no one?

But what more can he say at this point?
For that matter, what more could Earl Weaver have said?
Right before the start of a game
is hardly the time to acquire pitching skills.
Rather, Weaver simply reminds Martinez
of the essence of pitching a baseball game:
"Throw strikes and keep ‘em off the bases."

A baseball game is about many things,
many things that might be worried about,
but Weaver reminds Martinez
of what he is to be about as a pitcher:
"Throw strikes and keep ‘em off the bases."
And with this reminder
he summons everything that pitching is about:
long hours of practice on the pitching mound,
studying the technique of great pitchers,
time spent acquiring the skills needed
to throw strikes and keep runners off the bases.
In essence, he reminds Martinez of who he has become
over the course of those long hours,
and what his role is in the game that is about to unfold.

And it is the same with Jesus and the twelve.
As Jesus sends the twelve out
he doesn’t try to give them the skills they need to fear no one;
rather, he reminds them of who they have become
over the course of the time they have spent with him
and what role they are to play
in the drama of salvation that is about to unfold.
He reminds them of the essence of being a disciple:
fear no one. . . .do not be afraid.
And in saying this, he summons everything that the Gospel,
the good news that he has brought them,
is about: "Fear no one. . . do not be afraid."
In saying this, Jesus reminds them
that the death of the body
is not the worst thing that can happen;
that there are things that are to be valued
more than physical life itself,
things that no human opponent can destroy.
Jesus reminds them
that they shall never fall out of God’s sight,
and that as long has they are seen and known by God,
death cannot have the last word.

"Fear no one. . . .do not be afraid."
In saying this, Jesus reminds them
of the days and weeks they have spent with him,
learning to trust him even when others have turned away,
finding in him the source of life and meaning,
a life and meaning that cannot be quenched by death.

"Fear no one. . . .do not be afraid."
In saying this, Jesus reminds them above all
of his own example:
because he is willing to cast everything else aside
in his zeal to do the will of the one he calls "Father,"
because he knows that in him life with triumph over death.

But in telling the disciples to fear no one,
Jesus is not telling them
that there is nothing to be afraid of;
indeed, he goes out of his way to remind them
both of those who can kill the body
and the one who can kill the soul.
The opposition and the trials that they are not to fear
are real trials, real opposition.
He tells them
that God’s eye is on the sparrow that falls to earth;
but he doesn’t tell them that the sparrow does not fall.
Rather, he tells them that
if they acknowledge him before others —
if they accept what Paul in our second reading calls
"the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ" —
then they have the one thing necessary to face without fear
whatever life sends them,
whatever opposition or trial that they face
in the mission that Jesus imparts to them.
He reminds them that he can carry them through,
whatever it is that they fear,
even death itself, because he is life itself.

So what do you fear that keeps you
from playing the role that God wants you to play?
What do I fear that keeps me
from being the disciple that Jesus calls me to be?
Economic fears?
Am I afraid that with rising oil and food prices
and falling housing values
I will not be able to support myself,
to support my family,
if I do not focus my energies solely on making on money?
Social fears?
Am I afraid that if I openly profess my faith in Jesus
I will be seen by others, whose opinions I value,
as unsophisticated or naive or intolerant
or, God forbid, uncool?
Or some deeper fear?
Am I afraid that in the end,
when I am the sparrow that falls to earth,
that God’s eye being upon me won’t be enough
to transform that death into resurrection?

As in baseball, so too in our lives as Christians,
there are many things to worry about.
There are many things that hold us back
from throwing ourselves
into the role to which Jesus calls us.
And this is why in today’s Gospel Jesus reminds the twelve,
and reminds us,
of what is essential:
"Fear no one. . . . Do not be afraid."
As Paul puts it in our second reading,
the reign of death, the reign of fear, has ended
because "the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ" —
the gift of risen life — "has overflowed for the many."