Strong words! Serious words! Jesus’ message on that mountaintop in Galilee [Matthew 5:17-37] was meant to challenge – and continues to challenge – not just you and me, but a whole way of life, that of his 1st-century contemporaries, our way of life today. You may have heard something different, Jesus says, but I say to you! On the other hand, Jesus also assures us that his message is not something totally new. I have not come to abolish, he says, but to fulfill. In doing so, Jesus invites us also to fulfill our mission in life. Remember his words from last Sunday, of which today’s gospel is a continuation, commanding us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a challenge to our natural human tendency to do the minimum, to take the short cut, to focus on ourselves. In the new kingdom, to which Jesus is inviting us, anger and insults and contempt are as out of place as murder and must give way to the tough tasks of reconciliation and forgiveness. Obviously, anger and insults and contempt do less damage externally than murder does, but they still say something about what I am like inside, about what is going on in my heart. Jesus challenges us to confront the powerful subtlety of sin within ourselves and out seemingly infinite capacity to makes excuses and do the minimum, to take the moral shortcut to mediocrity. And, as the little parable about the gift at the altar illustrates, nothing can compensate for closing ourselves off from others, for staying focused on ourselves.
Jesus in today’s Gospel is telling all of us that, if we want to respond effectively to his challenge to full Christian commitment, then we have to look at ourselves – at all our feelings and emotions and experiences – in the light of what God has made us for and how he expects us to get there, and then stretch ourselves by accepting the Lord’s invitation to full membership in the community of his disciples, who care for and support one another to be – not just what we can be- but what God himself is enabling us to become.
That is at the heart of what life in the Church is all about. No one of us is perfect, and we don’t get there on our own, but we can advance together as a community within which we care for and support one another, helping one another to do more than the minimum and in the process spreading the kingdom’s frontiers farther and farther into the world beyond us.
Today is the 3rd Sunday before Lent, and that means it is time to speak about this year’s Bishop’s Appeal. Abruptly put that way, it sounds like a change of subject. But it is not really. Doing our part, both individually and as a parish community to support the mission of the Church has always been part of what it means to be part of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles and letters of Saint Paul, there are a number of clear references to the collection Paul was taking up to support the Mother Church in Jerusalem [Acts 11:29-30; Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Galatians 2:10]. In doing so, Saint Paul was trying to accomplish two things. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were in real need, and Paul wanted his somewhat better-off Gentile Christian converts to help them out. But he also wanted the different local communities to understand that they were all part of one Church, all on the same journey together. As I said earlier, we don’t get there on our own. We advance together as a community within which we care for and support one another, helping one another to do more than the minimum and in the process spreading the kingdom’s frontiers farther and farther into the world beyond us.
Our parish is where we experience Church most closely, most directly, most intimately, and that is why we all love our parish and support it in so many ways, not just financial. But our parish is one part of our local Church in East Tennessee, the Diocese of Knoxville, which is in turn one part of a Universal church with a world-wide mission. To advance the Church's mission, we all have to pull together as a local Church, as a diocese, to make possible the things the Church needs to do – the absolutely essential work of Catholic Charities, for example, which responds to so many human needs in our communities. Another is the formation of future priests and deacons - necessary if the mission of the Church is to continue into the future. So this is not just some “special collection.” This is at the heart of being who we are and doing what we are called to do in the world.
Many of you who have contributed in the past have already received a letter in the mail. Maybe you have already sent in your pledge. If so, thank you. If you haven’t yet, you’ll have a chance to pledge next Sunday. So please give it serious thought this week.
The Bishop’s Appeal is obviously not the only thing we do as a diocese, as the Catholic Church in East Tennessee. But it is an important part of making all those other things we do possible.
Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time and the 2014 Bishop’s Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 16, 2014.