15th Sunday of Ordinary Time
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Amos 7:12-15 | Ephesians 1:3-14 or 1:3-10 | Mark 6:7-13
Oh God, who show the light of your truth to those who go astray so that they may return to the right path, give all who, for the faith they profess are counted Christians, the grace to reject whatever is contrary to the name of Christ and to strive after all that does it honor. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
I find myself going back, over and over again, to those early, early stories of salvation history, particularly the story of Adam and Eve. What I find so fascinating about it is how it reveals human nature, and we have to remember that we evolved from animals. So the human part of our nature is something that is on a continuum. It was more animal-like and somewhat human, and then it was a little less animal, maybe, more human, and then it gets to a place where it has to reach this particular goal. The goal seems more than one could imagine or even that we could imagine to do it, much less that we’re called to do it, and that is to become like God. To become like the one who creates us. Doesn’t that sound very prideful, to become like God? What does that mean, perfection? In some sense. I’d like you to imagine that becoming like God is becoming who we were intended to be, and we were made in God’s image and likeness. So I don't know what attribute you want to say that you think becoming like God gives to a human being, but think about it not like that, but think about God is fully who he is. There is no shadow of a struggle that God has to be the God he he’s called — that he is. He is who he is. I Am who I Am is the way that he describes himself. So we could simply say that there is a way in which we are called to become fully who we are, not just a human but a unique human — me, you, different than any other creature, with a different history and, in a way, a different role in this thing we call our life. The goal is to become authentic.
So this challenge was given to Adam and Eve, in a sense, by an evil spirit that said, “Yes. You’ll know this. You’re made to be like God.” And that triggered something in Eve. She felt, “You know, that’s probably right. There’s something in me that wants perfection.” And so she agreed that this piece of wisdom that they were told not to get near sounded so right to her that she said, “I believe what you’re saying,” symbolized by eating the fruit of that kind of way of thinking, and talked Adam into doing it. Thus starts the human story. Human beings growing out of an animal nature and moving into a mixture of human and divine nature, becoming who we are. Think of it as becoming everything that God intends us to be and that’s been the challenge from the beginning, and it is still raging. I use the word raging, because the process that brings us to wholeness is really complex in a way, and the way we first, as maybe slightly more animal than human, the first way we decided to do that is to divide the world into good things and bad things and what we should do. The good in us should destroy the evil in us, but the evil in us is always trying to destroy the good in us. So we enter into a world where we imagine the world is a battle. Who is good, and who is bad? You add to that a kind of thinking that goodness is more valuable than being bad. So good people are more valuable, meaning more pleasing to God, and bad people are not. Where did we get that idea? Well, the first two humans that ever existed in the story, and all we have is a story, in terms of the outer world, and we have other — something else that is a little more complex, but inside of us, God has also placed the truth.
The story is a quest for the truth. What’s buried inside of us is the truth, who we really are and what it means to be authentic and fulfill our role. But it’s interesting, these two human beings, the first thing that comes up, the only thing we really know about them in this story form, is that they were both working, doing something that they felt was their responsibility to do. One was raising crops, and one was raising animals. Cain was the farmer, and Abel was the herdsman, and they offered their gifts to God. Here are two different, distinct gifts from God. I love this. God said, “Well, they are beautiful. I love — the animals are just gorgeous.” You’d say, “Well, they’re a little more evolved than plants,” and maybe that’s what God was drawn to, but whatever it was, the minute Cain felt, “Wait a minute. If his is better, that means he’s good, and I’m less. I’m bad. My gift was bad. His gift was good. I can’t stand that thought. I can’t stand that I am not better than, so I’ll kill my brother.” So the first act of human beings is not some loving, beautiful, cooperative work but murder. The good against the bad, and unfortunately there is something in this image of good that is really dangerous — that good is better and good is perfection. Good is being better than someone else, not more authentically who you are and delighting in the uniqueness of that. No, it’s about being the best. People that win create contests at being the best. There are two things that really drive me crazy. One is the person that comes in second is the loser. The second best in the world is the loser. The other thing, those who have become the best, something happens to them and they find themselves somehow not comfortable in the world, not comfortable in their skin, because they are living a lie. They are not better than someone else because they were able to do something. By the way, the rate of suicide in people who have won those kind of awards is amazingly high. Look at people who become famous or “better than” — the best singer, the best actor, the best athlete, the richest man in the world. All of those people are rarely balanced, or I should say rarely are they not struggling somehow to find balance. It is very difficult and many die in the process. So what I’m giving you is an image that the world that we live in is a place that is somewhat based in a lie and the lie is what we are here to expose.
Now, all I know about the salvation history story is that when we have these divisions in human beings, which seems to be the natural result of the lie — one is better; one is more valuable than the other — then we have the story that begins to evolve where God calls his people to do what he knows is best for them. He even plays into their imagination of the way they see the world. He says, “You’re my favorites. You’re my best friends. You’re the Israelites. I’m going to work with you.” Now you know that the only way to change anything as big as the human race is to work with a small group first and let them influence, infect for good the people around them. That is the truth of how life works. So he has this special group, but he wins their favor by saying, “You’re the best.” And then he asks them to follow him, and they just don’t do it very well because they are pretty selfish. They are the favorite ones. Why isn’t their life better? Even though they were in slavery and God wanted to free them from slavery, they felt, “Even though we were slaves, at least we had a place to sleep, and we had food. This business of being on a journey to some kind of freedom that — I don’t think it’s worth it. I don’t like being uncomfortable.” Human nature, more almost an animal nature, go to what is most comfortable, what is safest.
So we have, in the story of salvation history, the first real work that God does with his somewhat stiff-necked people is to give them something to do. Follow him is one, and then to give them some commandments to follow, that is opening them to the nature that they are possessing, called human nature. Its core is so good. It respects life. It opens itself to God and to Spirit. It doesn’t want to lie, cheat, steal, or murder. It longs to be just content with who we are and where we are and what we have. It’s beautiful — the Ten Commandments. Then it grew into 600 plus laws. So what happens is everybody has these rules and laws they have to follow because they’ve been told to, but they keep not doing it so they need prophets. Prophets come onto the scene. That is the theme of the gospel and the readings today: prophets. What are prophets? Prophets basically come to tell you that you’re wrong, to tell you that you have got to stop it. You’re not faithful. You’re immoral. Mostly about morals, and also that you don’t believe enough in the God who created you. It has something to do with how you believe. So it is like they are being told that they are no good. They’re no good, and they’ll be punished. Then they are punished and when they’re in that horrible state, God comes back and rescues them. The story is that this is God’s reaction to you. The prophet says, “If you don’t stop, you’re not his favorite. He doesn’t like you, and he’s going to punish you.” So when you’re wallowing in your punishment and you’re feeling awful and laying flat on your back, he comes in and saves you, condemns you and saves you, condemns you and saves you. It’s a frightening pattern. It’s pathological and it’s still alive everywhere. “I will tear you down, tell you that you’re no good, and then I’ll be the one, me personally, or this religion or this government or this medicine, will save you.” The people that are in that role of saving you are the powerful ones, and that just increases this separation of the weak from the powerful, the good from the bad, the ugly from the beautiful.
So when you see this image of the prophet, you say, “Okay, did that work?” No, it was a miserable failure. Then the kings came along and tried to rule people and guide them on the way to authenticity and they were even a bigger disaster, because at least the prophets were persecuted, which kept them not feeling so inflated. But the kings were inflated, like anyone who is in control and able to both condemn and then save people. It’s the biggest rush a human ego can have. We see very much that this pattern is needing to be broken and so along comes this figure — Christ. He enters into the world, as we heard in the second reading all of the things he offers — life, forgiveness, redemption. “I’ll work with you. I’ll be with you. I’ll empower you. I want to show you who you are, and I want you to see yourself. I won’t tell you what you are doing wrong. I’m just going to give you some grace so that you can see what you’re doing is insane, that it is not working. But then you choose not to do it because I’ve written something in your heart that you will know the difference between the lie and the truth,” not because of the way it sounds initially, but whether or not it is effective. Somehow the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil makes people sick, but the tree of wisdom, the truth, makes them healthy and strong. So then we see Jesus with this new way of working with people. Instead of prophets going out and telling them, “You’re no good,” and then God coming back and saying, “I’ll save you,” we send two by two, two people together. Each one of them goes out into the world to do just one thing — to tell them the truth so they can see the truth which will make them healthier, more complete, less sick, less like animals, more communal, more supportive, more helpful. It’s amazing. You don’t realize it, but this is the first time we see the ministry of the truth going out, not in words but in flesh, in two human beings who are feeding each other’s weaknesses constantly. They come into your presence, and the line that’s so fascinating is that, they stay with you, wherever your life is. They stay until they leave. Just tell somebody, “Stay until you leave,” and it doesn’t make any sense. When you leave, you’ve left, but what it’s saying is — the staying is the key. Stay there with them. Feel with them. Be a part of them. Honor them. Forgive them. Show them the truth. That is the staying, and when that work is done, when the staying is done, then you can leave and go to the next one. But if you go to a place where they refuse to listen to anything other than the lies they’ve been told, don’t even bother with them. Shake the dust and leave. That is real ministry.
Father, the journey of your life with your people is reflected in your life within each of us. It’s always the same, a movement from illusion to truth, from lies to what is real. Help us on this journey. Open us to that which we believe, but the belief doesn’t produce what it promises, so we know somehow there’s something missing. So help us to see the emptiness of the lies and the fullness of the truth, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.