Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Upright and Mobile

Readings: Amos 7:12-15; Psalm 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14; Ephesians 1:3-14 or Eph 1:3-10; Mark 6:7-13
Picture: cc Stecky

Dear sisters and brothers, I think you’re probably familiar with that series of pictures depicting how humans evolved from the apes, right? They begin, usually on the far left, with what looks like a chimpanzee walking on all fours, then progress to a couple of stooped figures who are already walking on two legs, and finally end with a human figure standing erect and holding a spear. Seen from left to right, these pictures portray profiles that progress upward. They seem to highlight, in rather striking fashion, one feature that sets humans apart from the apes: the ability to stand tall, to walk on two feet, to manipulate tools with one’s hands.

Some time ago, I came across a similar set of pictures that some bright spark had modified by adding several other images to the right of the original ones. You’re probably familiar with them too. After the erect figure with the spear, there is one who is a little bent carrying a rake. Next, we find a figure that’s even more stooped, burdened by the weight of a large pneumatic drill in his hand. And, finally, the series ends with someone crouched in front of a computer screen. In striking contrast to the figures on the left, the profiles of the ones on the right move ever downward. They seem to reverse the evolutionary process that went on earlier. And there’s even a caption at the bottom that reads: something, somewhere went terribly wrong.

Don’t worry, sisters and brothers. I’m not going to address the questions of human evolution today. It’s probably wise to leave those to the scientists. I’m not even sure how true it is that the ability to stand erect is a distinctive human characteristic. The quality that these pictures bring to my mind has more of a moral and spiritual nature. I’m thinking, for example, of how we typically refer to someone we consider a good human being, an honorable and virtuous person, as being upright. A Chinese phrase for such a person is ding tian li di (顶天立地), which, roughly translated, means one whose head reaches the heavens and whose feet are firmly planted on the earth. An upright person. And not only are the upright also often praised in the bible, but no less than God is described as being upright. Good and upright is the Lord, says the psalmist, who shows sinners the way (Ps. 25:8). Indeed, we may even say that to be human is somehow to share in the very uprightness of God.

But probably most, if not all of us, will agree that it’s not easy to be and to remain upright, especially not in the world in which we live. There are too many temptations, too many things that burden us and drag us down, including the ordinary anxieties of daily living, as well as the constant cravings of our hungry hearts. Even as we may shake our heads in stunned disbelief when we read about how Bernie Madoff could have gotten to the point of swindling billions of dollars from thousands of people, we are not totally unfamiliar with the process. As those evolution pictures show us, the decline can be quite gradual. One begins by cutting little corners, making minor compromises. One stoops lower and lower until, almost imperceptibly, one ends up so bent over as to be no longer recognizably human.

Which is why it is helpful to pay close attention to our readings today. Here we find the reassuring news that the Lord offers various gifts to help the faithful Christian, struggling to remain upright in a crooked generation. It is perhaps often the case, that when we listen to the gospel story of how Jesus sends out the Twelve, our attention is focused first on the things that they are told not to bring: no food, no sack, no money in their belts. But perhaps just as, if not more, important are the things that the Lord does allow. As we are told in the second reading, in Christ, God the Father has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. What are these blessings? How do they help us? How might we make better use of them?

Jesus’ first gift to the Twelve is already announced in the first sentence of the gospel, where we are told that he began to send them out two by two. Not one by one but two by two. The better to support and care for each other. To help each other to remain upright. Isn’t this also why we take the time to gather here every week, even though we could probably pray to God at home on our own? Isn’t this why many of us invest even more of our time in some form of communal religious activity, whether it be serving as a deacon or a lector, or singing in the choir, or doing a bible study? We do this because we realize that we are called and sent not just as individuals but also as a community. We know that each of us is a gift of the Lord to all the others. We help one another remain upright.

But that’s not all. If it were, the church would be nothing more than a club, a group of people who come together only to pursue a shared interest for their own recreation. Jesus’ second gift to the apostles helps us to guard against such potentially selfish and exclusive tendencies. Jesus advises them to wear sandals. Neither bare feet nor shoes, but sandals. Bare feet are OK for staying home. Sandals are needed for going out. Sandals also have an advantage over shoes. If you get sand in them, as you’re likely to when walking in the desert, they allow you to do precisely what Jesus asks the apostles to do when they are rejected: shake the dust off your feet and move on. Isn’t this an invaluable help to us in our struggle to be good human beings and faithful Christians? What better way to remain upright than to keep on moving? To remain engaged in the Lord’s mission of preaching repentance and healing to others. To be focused not so much on ourselves, not so much on the challenges that we may face, or even on the weakness and sinfulness that might continue to plague us from time to time, but rather on the mission that has been entrusted to us.

Even so, we are likely to encounter circumstances where these two gifts are insufficient. There may be times when our companions will fail us, when they will misunderstand and even hinder us in what are called to do. There may be times when the sands of rejection will accumulate so quickly as to make it all but too painful to soldier on. Isn’t this the experience of the prophet Amos in the first reading? Sent by God to preach an unwelcome message of repentance to a stubborn nation, Amos finds himself in a minority of one. Even Amaziah the priest rejects him. In such a situation, Amos has but one source of support. In a figurative sense, he leans on the one thing that Jesus advises the apostles to carry with them, a walking stick. Amos demonstrates to us the actual nature of this support and how it is to be used. Rejected by his own, Amos reminds himself of his own prophetic call. I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me, Go, prophesy to my people Israel. By recalling the beginnings of his own vocation, Amos finds the strength to continue performing the ministry entrusted to him by God. Leaning on the walking stick of his own call experience, he remains upright in the sight of God and the whole nation.

Sisters and brothers, being an upright Christian is truly a challenging thing. But the Lord blesses us with gifts to help us along the way. How well are we using them? Where are we in the evolutionary process today?