Monday, February 15, 2010

Homily for the 6th Sunday
in Ordinary Time
Feb. 15, 2004
Jer 17: 5-8
1 Cor 15: 12, 16-20
Luke 6: 17, 20-26
Nativity, Brandon, Fla.
Epiphany, Tampa

“Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings…. Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord…’” (Jer 17: 5, 7).

Once in a while a film with a positive moral message wins an Oscar: Schindler’s List, Gandhi, Chariots of Fire. In 1966 A Man for All Seasons, the story of one man’s struggle to be true to his conscience against political, religious, and family pressure, garnered best picture, best actor, best director, best screenplay adaptation, and best color cinematography. I’m sure many of you know that the man with the conscience was Sir Thomas More, who refused to condone the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and his remarriage to Anne Boleyn, and the King’s claim to be head of the Catholic Church in England. More’s refusal eventually cost him his life, but it won him eternal life, “like a tree planted beside the waters” (Jer 17:8). We honor him now as St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers (no snide remarks, please) and of politicians and statesmen.

In the play and the movie part of everyone’s exasperation with More is that he steadfastly refuses to tell anyone, even his wife, why he won’t swear the Oath of Supremacy; his silence was his legal defense against a charge of treason. After one of his grillings by a panel of Henry’s highest officials, the duke of Norfolk, a long-time friend of More’s, approaches him privately and asks why he can’t just go along with the rest of the political and religious establishment, whose consciences More says he respects. More says he must follow his own conscience, for God will judge him by that and not by anyone else’s. Norfolk pleads, Can’t he just come along for the sake of friendship? To that More replies with a question of his own: When you are admitted to heaven for following your conscience, and I am condemned to hell for not following mine, will you come along with me for the sake of friendship?

Such a stark contrast we find in our readings today: to trust in human beings, to go along with them—with society’s trends and movements, with public opinion polls, with what everyone else is doing and saying, with the mass media, university professors, “most scientists,” Hollywood’s elite; or to trust in the Lord, to put our hope in him.

In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, as in Matthew’s, Jesus pronounces blest those who suffer social stigma and penalties “on account of the Son of Man”—who put their trust in Jesus Christ (6:20-22). People who are faithful to Jesus even when it costs them will receive a great reward in heaven (6:23), like the genuine prophets whom Israel persecuted while they were alive and revered centuries later—Jeremiah being exhibit #1 of that.

On the other hand, those who are rich, sated, and content in life—but selfish or oppressive of their sisters and brothers, without regard for widows, orphans, and the aliens among them, as the biblical prophets so often put it—those whom a godless society praises and admires because they are rich, they are famous, they are beautiful, they are movers and shakers—these are destined for eternal woe, for eternal grief (6:24-26), for the weeping and gnashing of teeth, as Jesus puts it in some of his parables (e.g., Matt 13:42, etc.).

Church-goers are as prone to public pressure as anyone else. Of the 20 or so bishops in England in 1534, only one had the courage to stand up to Henry VIII and die a martyr: St. John Fisher. Who here isn’t tempted to use God’s name in vain when so many people around us do? Who isn’t tempted to speak ill, sometimes even falsehood, to spread rumors, about our coworkers or certain relatives? Who isn’t lured by society’s casual attitude about sex? Why are Catholics’ divorce rates, use of contraception, seeking of abortions about the same as the rest of society’s?
Last week’s lead science story: Who isn’t attracted by the idea of therapeutic cloning, of harvesting stem cells from human embryos for research into possible cures for Parkinson’s disease and a half-dozen other afflictions? It certainly takes someone convinced that God alone is the Lord of human life to say NO against the prevailing scientific, political, and social mores; to say that a human embryo is a person and not just an indifferent piece of bodily tissue; to say that human persons may not be harvested or mined like commercial property, no matter what social benefits may follow.

In A Man for All Seasons More is eventually convicted of speaking against the King’s supremacy on the perjury of Richard Rich, whom he had once employed. Following his condemnation, More notices that Rich is now wearing the neck chain and emblem of chancellor for Wales, and he says to him: Richard, the scripture asks us what it profits a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul. Richard—for Wales? If you had Parkinson’s or one of those other diseases that scientists think may be helped by embryonic stem cell research, would you “put your trust in human beings, seek your strength in flesh, turn your heart away from the Lord” (Jer 17:5), to gain a few more years on earth, even at the prospect of spending eternity “in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth” (17:8)?

(Note that there are other sources of stem cells, e.g., from placentas, that do not pose any moral problem for research.)

There are Christians who so put their trust in human beings, in the rationalism characteristic of European and American intellectuals since the 18th century, that they discount anything supernatural in the Bible. Even some Anglican bishops—the descendants of Henry VIII’s bishops—think this way. Anything seeming to be miraculous must have a rational, scientific explanation, or else it’s no more than a pious exaggeration or a fable. These folks believe in God, but he’s not a God much interested in us or involved with us. He certainly didn’t become man, so Jesus certainly wasn’t God—just a wonderful ethical teacher like the Buddha or Confucius. And so Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead!

And so our 2d reading ties in with the 1st and 3d. “How can some among you”—Paul is addressing the Christians of Corinth—“say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (I, 15:12). That’s a purely human way of thinking, trusting in our own reasoning and experience rather than in God’s revelation, rather than in God’s love for us professed by and revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as in his constant delivery of the Hebrews in the Old Testament. “If the dead aren’t raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ hasn’t been raised, your faith is vain” (15:16-17). Pack it in and go home. God hasn’t accepted Christ’s sacrificial death, hasn’t forgiven our sins. But that hardly matters because without resurrection there are no consequences to sin: no eternity, no heaven, no hell. “Those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished,” and the rest of us, like them, are fools for believing in Christ (15:18-19) and not living like there’s no tomorrow—looking out for #1, grabbing all the gusto we can. As a very cynical hit song in 1978 put it, we’re just dust in the wind—if we don’t trust in the Lord, if we don’t hope in the Lord, if we don’t believe “Christ has [indeed] been raised from the dead” and is just “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20), the 1st portion of the God Almighty’s harvest for the Last Day, the day when all Christ’s faithful people will reap their eternal reward, and those who persecuted them, mocked them, or simply ignored the Gospel will grieve and weep (Luke 6:25).

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