Homily for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2007
In thinking about the anniversary today of my mother's and my brother's death two years ago I have the feeling that when they died I was only just getting to know them. There was so much more to know and appreciate about them. It is only looking back that you realize it. And that for me is a loss. May be you have a similar experience.
I remember one of my mother's bits of wisdom for her children when she thought that they might be straying from Mass. She would say, you have to be grateful for what you have. You need to give something back from all you have received. That memory, and what it says of her faith, is one that stays with me: to have grateful hearts.
A report in the media during the week concerned the late Pope John Paul II. In a new book of memoirs, the Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz describes the Pope secretly escaping from Rome with a couple of other priests to the Italian mountains to ski. Dressed in jacket, beret and sunglasses so he would not be recognised he had time to distance himself from the pressures of work in the Vatican.
These two anecdotes illustrate a suggestion I read from Gustavo Gutierrez, the founder of liberation theology who said that to nourish a healthy spirituality you need to provide for yourself three things: first, prayer, both private and communal, second, the practice of justice, and third, having those things in our lives that keep us mellow and grateful, that is, friendships, good wine, creativity, and leisure. Spirituality can be unhealthy. It can be obsessive, narrow, exclusive, intolerant. We see that evidenced everywhere.
I like the idea of being "mellow and grateful". We all know people who can be bitter and arrogant. We all know people who try to inflict their ideas or religion on us with little compassion for their hearers. From my experience I believe that if we preach the Gospel with bitter or arrogant hearts then it is not the Gospel we preach. What we say might be true but it can fall far short of the Gospel, Good News. We would be just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, as St Paul tells us today. Rather we share the Good News out of gratitude for what we have received as sheer gift; as an unbelievable surprise; as an undeserved offer of love. Then we can offer it as gift to others in our turn.
Both Jesus and Jeremiah struggled with being at peace while facing opposition and rejection. Jesus sought the leisure of prayerful solitude where he could recreate himself. For Jeremiah it was a constant struggle with the seeming overwhelming demands God placed on him. Yet he stood in the conviction we read today, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you." God knows us better than we know ourselves and better than we could ever know someone else. That God was so immersed in his personal life was what sustained him and assured him that it was indeed God's word that he spoke. For him it was an awesome gift. But the passion with which he preached was not bitter and twisted even though he complained to God that the task was too difficult. It was full of trust in God.
Paul's famous words personifying love are addressed to the Church in Corinth which was far from united around Christ. By describing what love is not, Paul is implying what his hearers really are, namely, jealous, rude, pompous, quick-tempered and so on. They need to be patient, kind, tolerant, all fruits of love. He and Jesus set an impossible ideal yet one achievable because such love is God's gift. The prophet's life must be founded on love of God and the people to whom he preaches.
Jesus, Paul and Jeremiah, all faced rejection and apparent failure in their mission. Yet they are revered still. They went to their deaths as the ultimate price of their preaching still able to forgive those who taunted them with grateful hearts. We express out gratitude in this Mass, this Eucharist, this thanksgiving sacrifice.