LOVE IN THE MIDST OF CONFLICT
Catholic Homily /Sunday Reflection
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
January 31, 2010
A familiar and favorite biblical character meets us as the Liturgy of the Word unfolds with the first reading in today’s celebration – Jeremiah – young, innocent, inexperienced, intimately loved by the Lord who, on account of that same love, called him and sent him to speak against “kings and princes, priests and people.” We know that despite his initial and later protestations, Jeremiah did as the Lord had told him.
He spoke to a fickle people whose attitudes ranged from crying unabashedly as the Law of Moses was read (as we heard last week), raising their hands proclaiming unalloyed Amens to the same Law, to fighting and flailing against God’s emissaries the prophets, complaining as they also did to Moses during their wanderings in the desert.
Jeremiah was sent to an interiorly conflicted people, who gave conflicting and even contradictory responses to a loving summons from a God whose love was unfailing and everlasting!
We see the same conflicting signals/responses from a people who stand witness to a momentous, historically significant event of Jesus unfolding the scroll and proclaiming: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Now, “all spoke highly of him.” Now, “they were filled with fury.” Now they are drawn with awe by his marvelous deeds; now, they are driven with hatred by his fearless pronouncements, wanting to “hurl him down headlong” from the brow of the hill.
We are a fickle, conflicted and ambivalent people much like the Israelites; our history pretty much like theirs – a history marked by sin and repentance, disobedience and forgiveness, aversion and conversion. Now we are filled with so much love; now imbued with so much hatred. Our moral temperature rises and falls like the weather; our commitments ebb and flow with the tides. We are, indeed, a “stiff-necked and rebellious people.” But on our better, more enlightened days, we willingly proclaim: “I will sing of your salvation.”
We are a people obviously in need of salvation. We are the people to whom prophets like Jeremiah, whom Brueggemann rightly describes as a prophet “designed by God for conflict,” were sent, and are still being sent in our times. To these prophets, God assures His predilection and love: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” To these same prophets, the Lord is at once honest and straightforward. He does not promise deliverance from difficulties, but He does promise one sure thing – not one of them shall prevail; he shall not get crushed by them!
Once again, we are confronted with the message of hope despite the reality of a conflicted and a conflictual world; a world that responds in a complex – if, contradictory – manner to the call and summons of God.
Today, though, as in every Liturgical celebration, the readings do more than remind us of the need for hope. It also invites and seeks to co-opt us to make that hope a reality. It was definitely a reality for the pious Jew then, who, despite the complexity and conflictuality in their known world and in their personal and social lives, took time to pray: “rescue me, protect me, never put me to shame, deliver me, save me … for you are my rock and my fortress, for you are my hope, O Lord!” (Psalm 71)
This reminds me of the painting done by Charles Pegùy that represents the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity as three little girls, three sisters who are in the act of running forward. Caridad (charity), Fe (faith) and Esperanza (hope), clasping each other’s hand, appear to be running excitedly forward, at the same time and at the same pace. But on closer look, it is actually Esperanza (hope) that takes both Fe and Caridad in tow!
How now do we allow ourselves to be co-opted in a good sense by the spirit of the liturgy, by what the readings today tell us? How do we face a world marred by conflict, characterized by a great deal of complexity, and populated by an anemic, ambivalent and non-committed people such as we are on most occasions? How do we deal with the non-accepting and rejecting side of ourselves that refuses total entry to the Lord in our hearts?
I suggest that we allow the hope (Esperanza) that lingers in our hearts, that little window that we always keep open come what may, that small sliver of belief that brought us to Church this morning, that pushes us to go on praying … I suggest that we allow this hope and this faith to lead us to where St. Paul is leading us – the way to love, the way of love, the way through love, the sister of faith and hope!
Ultimately, what is behind Jeremiah’s perseverance in his difficult, tortuous job, for which even the Lord forewarned him to “gird your loins,” that is, get ready for the tough job ahead, is reducible to the love God had for him. “For it is I this day who have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land.” It is the same love that brought courage and peace to the frightened disciples caught in a squall in mid-sea, a reassuring love of presence of their master and Lord who said: “Courage, it is I!” It is the same love that gave Jeremiah the needed strength despite the torment of getting more and more enemies as he prophesied. It is the same love that brought St. Paul to go through shipwrecks, floggings and imprisonment all for Christ’s sake. It is the same love that wrought our salvation through the path of suffering, death and resurrection of the world’s greatest lover. Only love, aided by faith and hope, can give us the strength to go through this world of conflict, complexity, ambivalence and moral indifference.
St. Paul gives us a listing of at least 15 characteristics of what love is. It is a tall order to do all fifteen all at once. But Jeremiah’s example shows us that working for at least one them can go a long, long way. He stood up and told them “like it is.” He patiently persevered to the end, despite the mixed reactions of his hearers, mostly ridicule and rejection. But his love for God, shown in return for the love he received from Him, gave him the needed strength to thrive and survive in the midst of conflict!
I ask you to remember today the quiet, unassuming Jeremiahs in our midst who go on and preach the Good News in the midst of so much difficulty and rejection, and the most painful of it all - indifference: the Holy Father, the Bishops and priests and deacons, religious women and men, catechists the world over, missionaries, evangelizers all – today’s unheralded heroes who stand up for the right, for the “rights” of God and of all the powerless – the least, the last, the lost and the lowest in this world! Christ’s love urges them to preach; their love for God keeps them going, despite trials and difficulties. In a very real and concrete sense, God remains their fortress and their strength.
God bless them all, and God love us all!