Message: To ask why we care for the poor leads us into the synthesis.
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) Pope Francis devotes a section to the homily. What's the difference, he asks, between a dull homily and one that sets hearts on fire? It comes down to this: "Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart." There's a big difference between proclaiming a coherent synthesis, as opposed to "ideas or detached values." The first enlightens people, whereas detached ideas lead to boredom.
Pope Francis made me think.* I know I have bored people - I have "losed them and confused them." But I also know that when I have that synthesis in my heart, when I grasp the big picture and burn to communicate it, people come alive.
Today and the next three Sundays we have an opportunity to move toward a synthesis. This year Ash Wednesday comes late (March 5) so we will hear the major part of Jesus' sermon on the Mount before entering the season of Lent.
Today's reading are good ones to lead into a unified view and they also can illustrate the danger of operating without a synthesis - of preaching detached ideas. Isaiah urges us to help the poor: "share your bread with the hungry," he says, "and shelter the oppressed and homeless." And Jesus speaks about doing "good deeds" so that our light will shine.
These words of Isaiah and Jesus are so important and (let's be blunt) so generally accepted, that many conclude they are the synthesis - the entirety of the Gospel: Do good and be kind to the poor.
That's nice and who can disagree? A more embracing synthesis comes into focus, however, when one asks a simple question: Why help the poor? Why worry about anyone else? Why not just look out for "number one" and others do the best they can?
Why indeed? The question might seem frivolous (especially from the keyboard of Catholic priest) but that is because you and I are part of three thousand year tradition that proclaims our responsibility to each other - and especially to the less fortunate. When Moses led our ancestors through the desert, he gave us a revolutionary program for how to treat the widow, the fatherless and the immigrant. He does not conclude, however, with an appeal to our generous hearts (he knows better, cf. Gen 8:21). Instead he pronounces these powerful words: "Remember, you were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, ransomed you from there; that is why I command you to observe this rule." To put it simply: We serve the poor, the underserved, because God first rescued us. We owe everything to him; therefore, anything we give is ultimately not our gift, but his.
Let's try to fix this in our minds: we care for the poor, not because of some innate goodness and generosity, but because of our own radical poverty. If we fail to give, our ingratitude condemns us. By giving we express gratitude and recognize God's gift to us: He ransomed us from Egypt, He saved us through the perfect sacrifice of his Son. As you can probably tell, I am trying to express the synthesis - what ties our lives together.
I am writing this homily from Peru where I am spending four weeks with a project to aid the underserved - the Mary Bloom Center. Today's readings and those of the next three Sundays provide insights for why we serve the poor, how and when we should do it and what it means for our relationship to God.
During my travels (11-hour plane rides and 16-hour bus rides) I have been reading and meditating on Evangelii Gaudium and will be using that letter of Pope Francis for a retreat with the workers at the Mary Bloom Center - and for reflection with the delegation of 16 people that arrives on February 8. The words of Pope Francis will help us all.
To ask why we care for the poor leads us into the synthesis - the Big Story of why God created the universe and how he saved us from our misery, our radical poverty. We will explore that synthesis in the next three weeks before Lent as we read major sections of the Sermon on the Mount.
I would to conclude today with three promises from Isaiah. If you share your bread with the hungry and shelter the oppresses then 1) your wound will quickly heal, 2) you shall call and the Lord will answer and 3) the gloom will become for you like midday. Amen.
*Because of our all-pervasive media some people worry about Pope Francis. Rather than relying on what the media read into the pope, I encourage you to actually read him. A good part of the media's enthusiasm comes from the perception that Pope Francis is repudiating "conservatives." For my part, I smile because I know the pope and I are on the same page - and meanwhile it is sweet to hear the pope praised by "liberals." St. Paul refers to those who "proclaim Christ out of partisanship, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me..." He asks, "What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed and in that I rejoice." For sure you and I are not St. Paul and we also can fall into the trap of proclaiming Christ out of partisanship (a sin against the second commandment).
From Archives (Fifth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies
Podcasts of homilies (website of my niece, Sara)
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Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru