Sunday, June 30, 2019

Look Ahead!

Burying people properly – or the equivalent in other cultures that have other practices for taking care of the dead – is a very important thing for most people in most of the world. That is one reason why we Christians consider it one of the seven corporal works of mercy. Nowadays, of course, cremation competes with traditional Christian burial, and after-the-fact memorial services and so-called “celebrations of life” often replace real funerals. So Jesus’ strange words, Let the dead bury their dead, might not sound quite so shocking to some people today as they would certainly have sounded to people in Jesus’ time.

In the ancient world, being properly buried was something people worried a lot about, and providing a proper burial for one’s relatives was an absolute never-to-be-neglected social and religious responsibility. And even hardened, post-modern hearts can still be moved by the famous episode near the end of Homer’s Illiad, when King Priam of Troy sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to give him the body of his son Hector, so he can be given a proper funeral. So maybe Jesus’s harsh words still have their capacity to shock even us!

Of course, it’s not as if the potential disciple Jesus was talking to had just lost his father that day. In pleading, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father,” what he probably meant was something like “Yes, I’ll follow you – when I’m ready, when my affairs are all in order, someday, but not right now.” 

But things don’t always go according to plan. Who knows when one’s life will be in order and one will finally be ready? God’s call comes when God calls – whatever plans we may have made and whether we are ready to respond or not. I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying about the problem of planning one’s political career in advance – surely all the candidates who were on the debate stage last week have heard it  - that there is no timing in politics, just time. Well that’s the way it is with God. It’s not our carefully thought-out and well-planned timing that counts, but God’s time.

Jesus’ exaggerated-sounding, shockingly over-the-top statement is saying that this is the moment and now is the time to respond. God’s call, when it comes, is always now – always in the present, pointing us forward, never looking backward.

Even Jesus’ closest disciples sometimes seemed much more intent on looking back than ahead. Hence, their preoccupation with the old quarrel with the Samaritans – a typical example of forgetting everything but one’s grudges. Of course, Jesus understood the power and pull of the past, its hold on us, the way it can constrain us. But he was free enough to live in the present, and he wanted his disciples to do the same.

Looking back to what was left behind risks turning one in upon oneself. Our self-absorbed society encourages that – with legions of therapists and counselors and advice columnists and life coaches and personal trainers and spiritual gurus for those who can afford them. But becoming a disciple is all about getting outside of oneself. Living in the present pushes us forward to the future – free for the fullest possible involvement in God’s great plan for the salvation of the world.

For freedom Christ set us free, said Saint Paul. We are being invited to live in a new kind of freedom, free to join ourselves to God’s great plan for the salvation of the world – free to reduce our emotional dependence on all those things that keep us stuck in ourselves, all those things that keep us so anxious and inhibit us from moving ahead. As Pope Francis has written, “the Lord is calling us to conversion, to be set free from exclusivity, indifference and the throw-away culture” ” [Message for 2019 Day of Migrants & Refugees].  The fact is, when it comes to what matters most, we can’t look back and move ahead at the same time. We have to choose between what holds us and frightens us here and now and the freedom to follow Jesus into the future.

Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 30, 2019.

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