Sunday, July 8, 2018

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

We all like to feel ourselves in tune with those around us.
We like our words not just to be listened to
but to be welcomed and confirmed in their truth,
especially by those whom we think of as our own,
those with whom we have an affinity.
But our readings today suggest
that speaking the truth that God would have us speak,
very well might make us out of tune,
even with those whom we think of as our own.
The word of God that we find on our lips
might prove to be an unwelcome word.

Our first reading presents God speaking to Ezekiel,
whom God has called to bring the unwelcome word
of divine judgment to the people of Israel.
The Israelites were convinced
that because of God’s covenant with them
no evil could befall them,
no matter how evil they themselves became.
One who suggested that, despite the covenant,
they might stand especially under God’s judgment
was the bringer of an unwelcome word,
and would not be greeted with open arms
and a warm embrace,
but with ridicule and dismissal
and perhaps outright hostility.

In the Gospel we see Jesus himself
bringing an unwelcome word
to his hometown of Nazareth.
We are not told of the exact content of his words—
we are only told that he began to teach in the synagogue—
but his words must have come across
as self-aggrandizing nonsense
because his former friends and neighbors
immediately tried to take him down a notch:
“Who do you think you are, Mr. Smartypants?
We know where you’re from.
We know your family.
Don’t go getting a big head.”
Clearly, Jesus was trying to rise above his station
and the folks in Nazareth were having none of it.

Both the story of Ezekiel and the story of Jesus in Nazareth
suggest that the unwelcome word is especially difficult to speak
when you are among your own people,
those whose approval and validation you value most.
It is there, oddly enough,
that the prophet is least likely to meet with success.
As Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor
except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house.”
But the prophet faces not only external rejection,
but also internal resistance,
since we all want those who are our own,
those with whom we feel generally in tune,
to welcome our words.
God suggests to Ezekiel, however,
that faithfulness, and not success,
is the ultimate criterion by which a prophet will be judged.
God tells Ezekiel that whether or not the people listen to him,
at least they will know that a prophet has been among them.

I think about this sometimes when I preach.
I have no illusion that I am a prophet
in the sense that Ezekiel was,
but I have been called and ordained by the Church
to preach God’s word
in season and out of season.
But I know that some words that I might speak,
particularly on controversial issues of the day,
might be more welcome than others,
and I can find myself shying away
from speaking the unwelcome word.
For example, I find that here at Corpus Christi,
where I am, as it were, in my native place
and among my kin,
it is easy for me to preach about
the Church’s stand on welcoming immigrants
or economic justice,
but it is not so easy to preach about
the Church’s defense of unborn life
or religious liberty.
It is easy for me to denounce
the boorishness of our president,
but not so easy to criticize
the boorishness of some of his critics.
It is easy for me to foster outrage
at the reactionary forces in our society,
but not so easy for me to commend Paul’s example
of being “content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ.”
Part of the reason none of this is easy
is that some of these issues are very complex,
and might be a better topic
for a discussion group than for a sermon
(which is one of the reasons why I enjoy so much
working with our RCIA process).
But mainly, it’s not easy
because I want you all to like me.
I want to greet you at the door after Mass
and be told “great sermon!”
and not “who the hell do you think you are?”
I want to find acceptance among the kin of my own house.

But (as hard as this might be to believe)
this isn’t really about me,
because the task of proclaiming God’s word
is not the sole preserve of the clergy
but of all Christians,
we who have been baptized
into Christ’s ministry as priest, king, and prophet.
And all of us, whether we think of ourselves
as politically progressive or conservative,
should find some parts of God’s word
that make us squirm
and do not fit easily with the ideologies
of our various affinity groups.
All of us need to examine our consciences
and ask ourselves whether we, like Ezekiel and Jesus,
have listened with open hearts to God’s word;
whether we have let it challenge us
and make us feel uncomfortable,
or whether we have let ourselves
grow smug and self-satisfied
in the bosom of the like-minded people around us.
Have we let that uncomfortable word
find a home in our hearts and on our lips?
Are we willing to speak the uncomfortable word
to those with whom we normally feel in tune,
willing to risk sounding a discordant note?

This is difficult,
but this is our call.
Not to be obnoxious and provocative
for its own sake,
like someone trolling on Twitter,
but to be willing to listen to God’s word
with open hearts
and, when we must,
to speak an unwelcome word
even to those we love most,
those with whom we are otherwise in tune,
those from whom we seek validation.
We may be pleasantly surprised
at the welcome our words receive.
But whether our words are welcomed or not,
they at least shall know
that a prophet has been among them.