Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 18:6-9 | Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19 | Luke 12:32-48
Almighty, everliving God who taught by the Holy Spirit we dare to call our Father, bring, we pray, to perfection in our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters that we may merit to enter into the inheritance, which you promised. 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 don't know if you’ve ever asked yourself a question like this, but it struck me today as I was preparing to preach this homily. That was: why is it that we go back to these ancient stories and try to listen as attentively as we can to experiences these people had thousands of thousands of years ago? Shouldn’t we just be concerned about what’s happening today, the world we live in? Why go back with the struggle of a group of people trying to find freedom from an enslaved culture? Well, it’s pretty obvious, I think. The answer comes — at least it came to me, and I was like, “Oh, yeah. Sure.” These are all stories of symbols, symbolism, loaded with symbolism. We’re not reading about people in the past. We’re reading about human nature. We’re reading about divine nature. We’re reading about the way the world functions, and without that kind of knowledge — I don't know — it would seem to me we could get lost in the kind of immediacy of a life that is today more complex than it’s ever been. There’s enough today to keep people occupied, much less what’s really going on, what’s really happening, the big picture. Well, the big picture for human beings has never really changed, and there’s three things that I’m going to talk about that I find in these readings that are an integral part of you and I being able to figure out what’s going on, what’s happening. Something’s happening here. One is faith. One is inheritance, and the other is sacrifice.
Nothing is clearer in the stories of scripture, and nothing is clearer, in a way, in terms of the way human beings survive that what they believe in is what is real to them. Their faith, their understanding of life creates the world they live in for the most part, and so one of the things we find in this relationship with this divine creature that is so clearly revealed in the Old and New Testament for us, we see that one of the essential things that he requires is that we believe in him, absolute belief and trust. I love the way it’s described in the first reading. This thing called faith is actually the participation in the promise that we’re hoping in. That means that, if you are hoping in a world that is getting better, if you are hoping in a world that someday will fulfill all of your needs, that there’s something that everyone’s working toward that is like a land of milk and honey, if you believe that, then you’re in it already. It’s so interesting that the first group of people in the story of salvation that we have in the Old Testament is a group of people who believe that there is something better than the world they’re in, which enslaves them and keeps them from becoming who God intends them to be, and so they believe when someone comes along and said, “I’m going to take you out of this into a place that’s wonderful.” And participating in that anticipation is somehow tasting and experiencing what’s coming. It’s the first time I’ve had any true insight into why it is that Moses didn’t make it into the Promised Land. I thought, “Well, what a bummer. He did all that work, and he never got there.” His work of faith was to help people get there, and his participation in it, with the kind of conviction that he had that no matter what was going on he knew it would happen — he participated in it before it happened.
Then there’s this other promise, a weird, strange promise. Everything God promises to you and me, everything we work for we may not achieve in this life, but somehow the working for it and the struggle we’ve had and the sacrifices we’ve had will create something for us in the next life — the next life. The only thing about the next life that I was sort of brainwashed into thinking was it was a sort of a dice throw about whether or not you would be able to get in, and it all depended upon your ability to do what you were told to do, your obedience. If you obeyed God, not so much necessarily worked for what he was asking you to do but always obeyed the rules and laws, you would then have a chance to get to the promised place after this life, but if you just sort of wallowed in your own self-interests or just became unconscious and didn’t think about it and broke the rules, you would be burning in hell. So it was kind of like something you didn’t want to think about that much, because it was an option. Instead of looking forward to something wonderful, you had to also have the fear of looking forward to something that would be terrifically, horribly painful and destructive. It’s like most things in life. If we don’t want to think about the negativity and the pain, we just don’t think about it. We deny it. So that’s faith.
The other thing is this strange thing about sacrifice. What is sacrifice? It seems that, if anyone is going to work toward the goal that God has promised us, they have to sacrifice, and what does that mean? When we look at the images of sacrifice that are made reference to in this set of readings, they’re pretty horrific. One is the fact that Abraham was given a son, and the son was the hope that God had given him that his posterity would continue, because there was no image of life after death back then. So the whole notion of whether your life continued, whether it made any impact on the world was that you continued to live in your children and your children’s children and on and on. It’s kind of a really simple and beautiful way of imagining the responsibility that we have to the generations that follow, that we do the work, and they often receive all the promises. They receive the promise. So there’s that notion of Abraham was asked to act as if that promise wasn’t going to take place, and so he was asked to sacrifice his son. The sacrifice was to murder him. The sacrifices in the Old Testament were to murder animals. The sacrifice to save the world, in terms of the New Testament, was the death of Jesus. So sacrifice is always connected in our heads with death and destruction, but if you look at the meaning of the word, it means an offering to God that God will find pleasing — offering to God that he will find pleasing. Does he take pleasure in killing the firstborn of all the Egyptians, of asking Abraham to kill Isaac or wanting his Son to die on the cross? Did he take pleasure in the pain of those situations? No, but they’re all symbols of what people are invited to give into or give up in order to be a part of this plan of salvation, continuing on and on and growing in the evolution of consciousness of all human beings. It’s a beautiful, beautiful plan, and when it comes time for it to unfold, the biggest problem we often have is our own control, our own desire to make it work, to feel like this is the way it should go. And that means that we’re controlling it, and we’re judging it. Those are the things that are so dangerous, to judge, to control, and so a sacrifice is to let go of judgment and control and to allow what’s happening to happen. So you look at your life, and you’re saying, “Well, I know how the plan is going, and I should become this, and then I’ll do that, and then I’ll be even better at that, and that’ll influence those people,” and on and on and on. Then we get it all set in our heads, and then the problem is God is looking at us, saying, “No, it’s not your plan. It’s my plan, and you can’t fathom it. You can’t understand it. It’s always going to remain in the shadows, in the darkness.” That’s why you have to have this thing called faith. Faith is belief in the things that you cannot see or feel or touch, but you know they’re real, and they’re operating, and they’re happening.
So we have an image in the gospel, and it’s a beautiful image of a symbol of what life is like and what it is. Here’s the image: God is the one who creates this world for us. It’s his house. We live in the house. We have a job while we’re here, and the primary job of every human being that’s ever been created is to serve, to serve God. But does God need service? Is God lonely, and we pray to him, and he feels better? Is he needing love from us in order to feel like a good enough God to continue his work? No, he doesn’t need our love. He doesn’t need our affirmation. We do. So what is it? What is it he wants? He wants us to take care of his creation. If we want to love God, love the people he created. That was a vision that St. Catherine of Siena — she said to God, or Jesus — she was talking to him, and she said, “How can I love you? Tell me. How do I love you?” And he just said, “Love the people around you. That’s all I ask. That is so pleasing to me. Take care of people around you. That’s loving me. That makes me smile and happy and makes me want to support you and give you things. It means you’re in the plan, and therefore you’re going to be used by me. Sometimes you’re going to be super-successful. Other times your whole life is going to fall apart, but that’s all part of the process of grooming you and forming you into the perfect instrument that God wants you to be.” It’s really not rocket science, but it’s mysterious. It’s mysterious. We’re all working for the inheritance. We all are believing that the inheritance is real, and the inheritance is given, not just to an isolated individual because of their performance. But it’s the individuals together, working together for the good, and it creates an environment, a culture, a community of people, and in that community, life begins to take root in them. And they grow, and they become, and it’s like a work we’re all working together.
The beautiful image in this gospel is the one where this master is off at a wedding feast. What would be the wedding feast for God? What was the big wedding for God? Look to the Old Testament. What is the most shocking thing he says? “You, my creatures, my human beings, you’ve evolved from much lower forms, from animals, but you become more and more like me. And the more I see something like me, the more I’m a part of it, the more I want to see it grow, the more my love is awakened in me to see it evolve, and so I want to marry you. I just want to marry you. I want to be inside of you. I want to be in your life. I want to be in your dreams, in your work, in your desires, in your emotional and sexual experiences of life. I’m in all that. I’ve made all that holy, and it’s participating in that fully knowing I’m there with you in that. We’re partners.” And so when he comes, he does the most unusual thing when those who are there are doing their right service. Part of the service was to open the door, and so they were at the door waiting for the master. The master comes, and the door is opened, and he said, “Wow, you’re wonderful. Let me just feed you.” So master puts on an apron, like Jesus put on an apron when he was washing the feet of his disciples. “I want to serve you. I want to serve you. You’re wonderful. You are doing my work on this planet, and I designed the planet in such a way that I will not work as directly with people as people wish. I’m there with them. I’m in them, but I’m using each of you to be the instrument of life to each other. And then when you’re doing that and you know it’s me inside of you enabling you to do it, you’re willing to sacrifice whatever you have to let go of,” because our egos are so incredibly, potentially destructive.
We have this dynamic in life. The masculine, the male has this seed in him. And he gives it to a woman, and the woman receives it. And she nurtures it and makes it turn into — she has this incredible gift inside of her to make a human being, incredible dignity in that creature, feminine creature, women making humans with the power of a masculine element. And then what happens is that, when this child is born, it cannot exist. It is so dependent, and if the mother was gone, the father can’t raise the child. It can’t feed the child with its own milk, so the woman takes the role of the nurturing one. So it’s like the masculine creates, and then the feminine nurtures. And that dynamic of those two things are so essential and powerful in our understanding of human nature, and they each have a shadow. Everything has a shadow, and what’s the shadow of the creative force of a masculine figure? Judgment, competition, story after story in the Old Testament of the father being the strong one and then the son growing in strength and the father killing the son. Judgment, competition, that has to be sacrificed. And the woman, the nurturing woman, what is her shadow? Control — control. The feminine so often wants to control as a form of nurturing, which is passed off as love, which is really not love at all but a need to continue to nurture, a need to never let go of her role of being the one who has the honor or, at least in her mind, the imagination that, “I am making this creature.” Children are not creatures of their parents. They’re creatures of the world, creatures of God.
Father, your goodness is beyond our imagining, y our desire for us to grow and to become all that you intend to be. Give us the faith of Abraham, our father in faith, who was able to trust in a promise even though he couldn’t feel it, sense it, but he never lost it. He never ever doubted that you would bring to him the gift that you promised. He struggled with that but ultimately knew and believed and trusted in this promise. Bless us with that same faith and trust that we are on a journey with our brothers and sisters, and we are moving and changing and growing and becoming. The world is growing more and more into the reflection of God that it was always intended to be, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.