Sunday, August 18, 2013

Homily for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Aug. 18, 2013
Heb 12: 1-4
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Heb 12: 1).

The Letter to the Hebrews, an anonymous epistle addressed to Christians very familiar with the Old Testament, probably Jewish Christians, consists of 13 chapters.  This year, Year C in our 3-year lectionary cycle, we read from its 12th and 13th chapters for 4 Sundays , starting last week, which gives us only a tiny taste of the letter.

One of Hebrews’ themes is the faith of the great heroes of the Old Testament.  Those are the “cloud of witnesses” that today’s reading referred to—people like Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, David, and Samuel (cf. ch. 11).  Their faith, their perseverance in all manner of testing and difficulty, is a witness, a testimony, an example for followers of Jesus.  So says our anonymous author.

Their example encourages Christians to get rid “of every burden and sin that clings to us” and weighs us down while we run toward our goal of eternal life.  Here “burden and sin” seem to be the same thing.  As we read further, tho, about Jesus on the cross, we see that any serious temptation, anything that might discourage us, can be seen as a burden even if it’s not, morally speaking, a sin.

Obviously, if we are to “run the race that lies before us” and reach “Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” in God’s kingdom, we have to start by unburdening ourselves of sin.  Nothing like trying to run a race while carrying a great big backpack or wearing ankle weights!  We unshed that burden when we were baptized.  Unhappily, we pile the burden back on ourselves, sometimes loading big rocks into our backpacks, sometimes just little pebbles—our serious sins, our less serious ones that we commit day by day.  We can’t be re-baptized, but Christ in his mercy does offer us another sacrament by which to empty that backpack or even to throw it away entirely, viz., the sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance (confession).  What an advantage to our race toward Jesus!

Part of the image on the Holy Shroud
The author also speaks of Jesus “enduring the cross, despising its shame” (12:2).  The sinless Son of God bore a great burden too.  He faced the temptation to run away, to refuse the cross, as we know from reading the gospel passages about the agony in the garden.  Some commentators estimate that the crossbeam Jesus carried toward Calvary—not the entire cross, just the crossbeam—may have weighed about 80 pounds, physically a great burden.  Carrying that was only a part of his burden, of course, since he’d been brutally whipped and beaten beforehand, and once at Calvary he was nailed to that cross thru his wrists and ankles—excruciating pain—and then slowly suffocated suspended on that cross while also enduring the mockery of the soldiers and bystanders.  The cross was shameful because it was a form of execution reserved for slaves and common criminals of the worst sort, stripped naked and exposed to the world in very public places (as the gospels say of Jesus).
“Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners,” Hebrews says, “in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (12:3).  Jesus was completely innocent of any crime, any sin.  We can’t say that, at least in regard to sin, or in regard to some bad habits.  We may suffer something we don’t seem to deserve; most of us suffer things we don’t seem to deserve.  In the 1st reading, we heard how poor Jeremiah the prophet was unjustly persecuted by the princes of his people (Jer 38:4-6,8-10).  Our Christian ancestors didn’t deserve persecution by the Roman Empire, other pagan rulers, the Nazis, or Communist governments.  Our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt right now are having their churches attacked and ransacked and burned, and their lives are in danger; Egypt is only the latest episode in that old story.

In a more ordinary way, we may suffer unjustly because of things that people say about us, or because the someone blames us for something that wasn’t our fault.  We may suffer from an accident we didn’t cause or from a natural disaster.  We all get sick or injured.  We all have aches and pains.  Most of us aren’t eager to get up in the morning.  Some of us hate our commutes to work.  The youngsters suffer from having to go to school—at least that’s what they think now, regardless of how they’ll view it in 20 years.  We can all add something to this list of undeserved or disproportionate suffering.

The Scriptures tell us to look at Jesus and take courage.  When we suffer, he’s alongside us, “leading” us and “perfecting our faith.”  We walk in his steps.  If we “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus,” it’s not that we won’t feel pain or anxiety, and that we won’t die; it’s that we have hope:  “for the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross … and has taken his seat  at the right of the throne of God” (12:2).  Jesus tells us in John’s gospel that he has gone ahead of us to prepare places for us (14:2-3); the Collect alludes to that today:  “O God, you have prepared for those who love you good things which no eye can see,” and it prays that “we may attain your promises, which surpass every human desire.”

So, whether we endure persecution or discrimination of some kind because we are believers, because we try to do what’s right even when people think we’re weird or crazy or obnoxious; or we endure the common suffering of the human condition—we run this race toward Jesus, with Jesus, toward promises, gifts, that will fulfill us far beyond our wildest dreams.  “Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus” makes suffering a bit less of a burden, gives us boundless hope and inner joy.

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