At the Masses last week, day after day we heard the prophet Amos denouncing Israel for her sins. Those Old Testament readings prompted me to give a slightly tongue-in-cheek homily on Thursday.
I told the congregation that I knew just how to get moved if I ever got tired of being pastor at Christ the Redeemer (not that it could ever happen!). I said if I wanted a change, I could make it happen in just three weeks.
The first Sunday I would preach a very tough homily on contraception. On the second I would preach an uncompromising homily on same-sex marriage and the homosexual lifestyle. By the second week I’d probably be run off the property—either by angry Catholics or the human rights police— but if not, I’d preach a third homily about a collection of other Church teachings on private morality or social justice.
That homily made one sincere parishioner ask me “well, why aren’t you preaching those bold homilies?”
I explained that I was exaggerating a bit, and that I do actually speak about tough topics from time to time. But I added that the main reason I don’t give fire and brimstone homilies is simply that I preach in front of a congregation that includes many children. Sometimes I wish we had a Liturgy of the Word for all those under 16, giving priests the freedom to speak plainly and boldly about certain topics.
The first reading today presents the prophetic call of Ezekiel, who doesn’t have the luxury of making any excuses. He isn’t given any choice in the matter. God doesn’t seem concerned about the results of Ezekiel’s preaching. All God wants is for Israel to hear His word. The rest is up to the people, not the prophet.
You and I are in the same boat in the modern world. We’re pretty sure how our friends and neighbours—and even our children—are going to react when God sends us to speak His word to them. But it’s not really our problem: the end result, the free response of others to the Christian message, is God’s concern.
The same thing comes across in today’s Gospel. Jesus is also a prophet, and like many of the Old Testament prophets, he will be rejected and killed. Even the residents of Nazareth, who know him and his family, take offense at him.
The message of these two readings is simple enough. Don’t think you can be an authentic witness to Christ without causing offense. It’s neither possible nor required.
In last week’s I mentioned the Canadian bishops’ statement lamenting the legalization of marijuana. During the homily a young man whom I know and like gave me a look that could kill straight across the church. And, to his credit, after Mass he told me what he thought.
Now I hasten to add that the interaction hardly made me feel like Ezekiel or Amos or Jesus. But I still have to say I preferred hearing “great homily Monsignor” to the conversation I had with the young man.
The point is, it doesn’t matter. Watering down or avoiding the truth in order to avoid negative reactions is not what God wants us to do—whether we are pastors, called by ordination to preach, or lay Christians, anointed to the prophetic office through baptism and strengthened for it by confirmation.
When I explained to the parishioner last week that my preaching is restrained by the presence of youngsters, I added a second reason—that Catholics expect the Sunday homily never runs longer than ten minutes. You can’t even warm up in ten minutes if you want to preach a convincing sermon on contraception or other complex moral topics.
But if I’m really honest with myself, a lack of courage does have something to do with it. I’m afraid of the reaction from some, or unwilling to face the rejection that goes with a prophet’s job.
So perhaps we could both work towards more prophetic homilies in the parish. I could learn to be more like St. Paul, content with weaknesses, insults and persecution. And we could all pray for open hearts ready to hear without offense the prophetic message of Jesus.
Whether we’re fearful speakers or rebellious listeners, God’s power and grace are sufficient to overcome our weakness.