The following is an adaptation of a sermon preached Saturday, January 30, 2016 at a gathering of Catholic Church workers. The readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time were Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19, Psalm 71, I Corinthians 12:31 – 13:13, and Luke 4:21-30.
As we have been reflecting on vocation today, how fitting our beautiful first reading where, through the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks of how we have been known, dedicated, anointed – even before our birth. Yet implicit in the reading is a recognition of the struggle that lies ahead for those of us who say “yes” to divine call. The antiquated directive to “gird your loins” – which meant to tuck in your tunic so it was out of the way for strenuous activity, especially going into battle – seems to acknowledge that while we have been dedicated and called, that is no promise that this is going to be easy. In fact, it’s going to be tough. Jeremiah says God promises to make us a “fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass.” These are images of strength and solidness, an assurance that amid the challenges and conflicts of mission and ministry, God is unfailingly present to strengthen us.
We see this provision of God illustrated in the Gospel reading where Jesus is caught up in angry, violent conflict after his proclamation of mission. Perhaps we can take heart in the fact that – regardless of challenges we’ve faced in ministry– no angry mob has tried to throw us over a cliff!
Imagine for a moment, Ignatian contemplation style you are in the scene. The people are “filled with fury” and they “rise up.” Imagine their voices, the words they are saying, the way an electric energy of anger moves through the group and a mob mentality forms. They are ready to throw him over a cliff. What is it that Jesus hears and feels as he is caught up in the mass of people leading him to the top of the hill?
What happens next is truly surprising. Luke tells us Jesus “passes through the midst of them and goes away.” How is this possible? It makes me think of Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility – somehow, this man who is the target of so much rage is able to simply walk away and go about his business. Apparently, no one says, “hey, he’s getting away! Stop him!” The way Luke describes it, you can almost imagine Jesus quietly slipping out of the din and commotion, rejoining his community, and continuing his ministry – shaken, certainly, but unharmed from the encounter.
Is there an encouragement and lesson here for us as church workers? Is there is a way in which we can be surrounded by, and even the center of conflict and division, and yet some part of us remains untouched and untouchable? Some core, some center – in Jeremiah’s words is a “fortified city” – that through God’s grace is immune to whatever chaos surrounds us? In Merton’s words, a “hidden wholeness,” some inner place that remains strong and untroubled?
Even when we are discouraged by institutions and people who are supposed to mediate the riches of our spiritual tradition and inevitably fall short, we hold to this deep truth of God with us, active in the world for love and life. Like Jesus, can we “pass through the midst of them” and continue on our way with peace and inner certainty – trusting that we are known, anointed, and dedicated by God for service to God’s people?
Against this backdrop of Jeremiah’s moving words of being known, anointed, dedicated by God, and Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ clash with the congregation in his “home parish,” we can hear Paul’s well-known words about love with new ears. As all ministers know, this reading is a favorite for weddings, often associated with married, romantic love. Yet Paul was writing to an early community of Jesus-followers in regards to their relationships in the ekklesia – the Church – with one another in Christian discipleship. In his own way, Paul is challenging the Corinthians to gird their loins and acknowledging that authentic Christian living in community is hard. There will be conflict. In writing that love “doesn’t brood over injury,” there is an implicit understanding that there will be injury. Love does not rejoice in wrong-doing…but wrong-doing is going to happen. Love bears all things, he writes – and there is stuff we are going to have to bear. This truth resonates with each of us in our unique ministerial contexts. Love never fails, and at the same time, this is going to be hard. Dorothy Day echoed this idea, quoting Dostoevsky, that “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams.”
“The final word is love.” – Dorothy Day
I dare to believe that there is a core of strength, a core of love, which is a gift from our gracious and merciful God present in each of us…present in each member of the Body of Christ. We are bearing witness to it in each other as we hear and reverence each other’s stories of ministry and the living out of our “yes” to God’s call. The more that, with God’s grace and the support of each other, we can live from this core of strength, the more able we are to pass through the midst of the tumult – the conflicts caused by assignments of new pastors or bishops, the anxiety of parishes being clustered or closed, the dilemmas created by questions of conscience and obedience, the stresses of financial uncertainties, the scandals of power misused and abused. While we haven’t been nearly tossed over a cliff like Jesus, we have been personally and painfully touched by these realities.
Each of these readings recognizes in some ways the challenges of the life of faith and invites us to lean on God and one another – faithfully proclaiming with Paul that “love never fails.” We respond to these readings by connecting with that inner core of strength. We renew our commitment as ministers anointed and dedicated by God, girding our loins and trusting we are given the strength to live out the call, as broken and beautiful people in a broken and beautiful church in a broken and beautiful world.
About the author: Rhonda Miska (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). A native of Middleton, WI, she lives in Dubuque, IA.