Third Sunday In Ordinary Time – Year C
January 23, 2022, 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs, CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Nehemiah 8:2-4A;5-6;8-10 Psalm 19:8-10;15
1 Corinthians 12:12-14;27 Luke 1:1-4;4:14-21
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
One of the buzzwords among church people in the early two-thousands was “missional.” And among the subjects now required for ordination in many denominations is “missiology.” What does it mean to be “missional?” What does it mean to be educated in “missiology?”
When many people think of missionaries, they think of church people from Europe or North America converting non-Christians into Christians. Missionaries have been accused of allegedly destroying local cultures by participating in the colonialization of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia.
In the minds of some, primitive people should be allowed to keep on living primitively, without the scientific advances of Western civilization. Despite modern medicine bringing longer life spans and better farming techniques raising living standards, missionaries have acquired a negative reputation in the minds of those for whom political correctness is their guiding star.
However, let’s forget about that negative baggage, and instead, look at the mission of the church from a broader perspective. The Church relates to the world in at least two different ways, “missional” and “attractional.” A “missional” church believes its people are sent into the world. An “attractional” church is one that waits for people to come to it. Some contemporary ecclesial theorists preach that all churches should be “missional, and not “attractional,” as if one excludes the other. However, such a dualistic view is very narrow-minded, and therefore, unproductive.
As usual, the more dualistically one looks at life, the more one throws out the baby with the bathwater. A church should strive to be both “missional” and “attractional.” While churches will fail if they remain passive and don’t go out to meet the world, churches without a program to attract people will not succeed either. A church sent into the world with an unattractive message will at best be ignored and at worst received with hostility.
We can see this in the one big aspect of messaging the traditional church does not get; that is, stay out of everyone’s bedrooms. Look at the legions of people who have walked away from churches over issues like same-sex relationships, contraception, divorce, and other sexuality-related issues. Numbers don’t lie.
You would think the church would have learned by now that its traditional message in those areas is a losing endeavor that does not contribute to the success of the church, but some people think that if you do more of the same thing that doesn’t work, it eventually will work. That is the very definition of stupid.
Intelligent people do something different if whatever they are doing doesn’t work over a long period of time. Church people can walk out of the church into the world with a message that they think is a correct one, but if it falls on deaf ears, they will attract very few people, and thus be totally ineffective.
The point is, “missional” and “attractional” are not contradictory terms; they are complementary concepts. The church has to both go where the people are and be able to attract people to the church. When the church does that, it is God-like in the fullest sense. Our God is a God who sends us into the world to do God’s work by establishing God’s Kingdom. But our God is also a God whose love attracts us and a God who awaits our faith and love.
Jesus was at once both missional and attractional. God sent Jesus to the world to redeem it by reconciling humanity to God so that humanity can be like God and achieve unity with God. The message of love that Jesus preached attracts us to a God of love who genuinely cares for us and always judges us with mercy.
Today’s Gospel is the starting point of the mission for which God sent Jesus among us to attract people to God. The words Jesus spoke came from the prophet Isaiah, more particularly, that portion of the book known as “trito-Isaiah”, meaning the third and final portion of the book describing the arrival and re-establishment of the Jewish people in Jerusalem that began in about five-thirty-eight B-C and progressed in four stages through about four-forty-five B-C. This series of events is known among scholars as the “Aliyah.”
For the Jewish people, the Aliyah era was a time of return and restoration. Groups of exiles in Babylon made their way back to their homeland where they undertook the restoration of their religion and way of life. They began by rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and reviving its worship.
Today’s First Reading, taken from the Book of Nehemiah, has Ezra the Priest reading from the Law of Moses to re-establish traditional law and culture. The message is, “Be glad we’re back home to be who we are instead of what others want us to be.”
The specific portion of Isaiah which Jesus read should be understood in the context of the Aliyah and the re-establishment of the law of Moses that defined the previous Jewish society and culture in the land of Judah. Part of the Law of Moses explicated in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy evidenced a concern for poor people.
You will recall that several of Deacon Sharon’s recent homilies referred to the four Suffering Servant Songs in the Book of Isaiah. In the passage which Jesus read in today’s Gospel, the author of Trito-Isaiah imagines himself realizing the mission of the Suffering Servant.
The prisoners mentioned in the passage Jesus read from Isaiah are the Jewish exiles in Babylon.
The year of favor is the sabbatical year, traditionally the time for the cancellation of debts and the release of Hebrew slaves as described in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. What is supposed to happen is that every seven years, all debts are canceled and all slaves are free. While slavery has become illegal everywhere, a vestige of the concept of debt cancellation survives in our legal system as statutes of limitation; that is, after a period of time, you can’t sue to collect a debt.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus spoke in both the tradition of Moses who liberated the Jewish people from the Egyptians who held them as slaves, and in the tradition of Isaiah proclaiming liberation of the freed exiles returning from Babylon to Judah. Quoting from the words of Isaiah, Jesus established Himself as the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied. The historical context in which Jesus was speaking had the Jewish people in his day dominated by both the Herodian kings and the Roman Empire. Both were rich, powerful, and self-serving.
What Jesus proclaimed in today’s Gospel was, indeed, his Mission Statement. Those of you who’ve worked in business have no doubt heard the term, “mission statement” numerous times. Every organization seems to have one. According to Business Dictionary Dot Com, a mission statement is “a declaration of an organization’s core purpose and focus that normally remains unchanged over time.” The Business Dictionary goes on to state that properly crafted mission statements serve as filters to separate what is important from what is not; they clearly state which markets will be served; and, they communicate a sense of intended direction to the entire organization.
The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel fulfill that definition. Jesus unabashedly declared that he came as a Messiah with a mission to bring freedom from oppression generated by ongoing domination by the rich and powerful over the poor and weak. This is quite a contrast to the ideals espoused by those who promote a theocratic government.
The way Jesus interacted with both the Herodian establishment and the Roman empire does not support the notion that the church should be a pillar of contemporary society rather than question or oppose its values and practices.
No doubt should exist in anyone’s mind that God did not send Jesus to be a cheerleader to reinforce social norms for purposes of maintaining the power structure of a domination system. The message of Jesus was precisely the opposite of all that. Jesus called us to love each other, not license powerful people to force weaker ones to do their bidding.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is calling the church to a countercultural mission. The Church can, and must, speak as the voice of who are the least among us, both economically and culturally. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the church sycophantically parrots every elocution of so-called “progressive” politicians. Instead, God calls the church to soberly assess those solutions which will most pragmatically solve problems and to prioritize which problems need the most urgent and most serious attention. Doing it that way is in the best tradition of Jesus.
What exactly, however, is the tradition of Jesus? In the days of Jesus, there were two main groups of people involved in the Second Temple at Jerusalem. One was the Sadducees, the hereditary priestly caste, who worshipped the letter of the law, and the Pharisees, who were more concerned with the spirit of the law.
The Sadducees were law-and-order people who lived “by the book.” They were like today’s conservative fundamentalists and strict constructionists. By contrast, the Pharisees spent their time arguing the nuances of the law and how the law might be applied on a practical basis to real life, along the lines of what is known as the Wisdom Tradition.
Although the Gospels repeatedly present the Pharisees in a negative light, Jesus himself was a Pharisee. His dialogues with other Pharisees and his explication of the law of Moses should be seen in that context. Rather than reinforce the past, Jesus built on it by offering a new commandment to love one another as he loved us. The love of Jesus for humankind is what drove him to the cross. Rather than compromise his principles for the purpose of saving his own life, he allowed himself to be killed. Jesus took the mission on which God sent him so seriously that he was willing to die for it.
Inevitably, many preachers faced with today’s lectionary extrapolate on what Jesus said in today’s Gospel as a call for action for the church to become involved in ending poverty and freeing prisoners, either by becoming involved in secular politics or undertaking social service activities. Historically, churches have not only nurtured prison ministries, but they have also operated hospitals, homeless shelters, food kitchens, and similar endeavors. Those are good and valuable missions.
But not every church is equipped with the personnel and resources to do those things, particularly a small church such as ours. As explained in the portion of the twelfth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians omitted from today’s Second Reading, God calls different people to different roles in the Church. Some are apostles, some are teachers, some are prophets, and some are healers. But we are all part of the Body of Christ. Similarly, God calls each church to a particular mission.
So what can we do here at tiny Saint Cecilia’s that is responsive to God’s mission to the world and that harmonizes with today’s Gospel? What is our particular mission to build up to Body of Christ in its role to propagate the reign of God?
The answer lies in understanding today’s Gospel at more of a spiritual than a physical level. Poverty is not only a lack of money. One can be spiritually impoverished. A spiritually impoverished person is one who does not know God. By that, I don’t mean intellectual acceptance of traditional religious doctrines. I mean knowing God on a much deeper level that goes far beyond doctrines, so deep that it is not necessary to name God as such.
I’m talking about appreciating and respecting the created universe and our earth.
I’m talking about appreciating and respecting your own dignity and self-worth.
I’m talking about appreciating and respecting the self-worth and dignity of other people.
I’m talking about basic human compassion, prioritizing people over principles, and prioritizing human needs over money.
And one does not need to be incarcerated to be a prisoner. One can be a spiritual prisoner. Some traditional religious doctrines, can, if not questioned, confine your mind in very dangerous and non-productive ways.
I’m talking about the rejection of science, like using pre-scientific understandings of sexuality to condemn same-sex relationships like the conservative Christians do.
I’m talking about using religion to facilitate and validate intrinsically bad acts, like killing in God’s name or hitting children.
I’m talking about using religion to increase personal material wealth, like Joel Osteen and his “prosperity gospel.”
So what if we understood today’s Gospel as Jesus calling us to a mission to bring good news to those who are spiritually impoverished and need spiritual nourishment?
What if we understood today’s Gospel as Jesus calling us to a mission to free those who are spiritually confined to experience God’s love?
What does that look like for us here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community? What is our unique gift to the mission of the greater Church beyond our doors?
At most churches, music is a tool to enhance their missions. At Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, however, music is our mission. Why?
Church Music uniquely nourishes our souls.
Church Music heals our spiritual wounds and infirmities.
As a form of worship in and of itself, Church Music is the prayerful thought that testifies to sacred truths.
Church Music empowers people to step away from the commercialism and craziness of secular life to contemplate ultimate things.
Church Music gives us a glimpse of something beyond the materialism of our contemporary values to focus on our journey to become one with God.
Music is unique.
You can’t see music.
You can’t touch music.
You cannot eat music.
But music’s palpable presence makes itself felt, not only in a physical manner, but in ways that reach down into the deepest crevices of the soul.
The mission of Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is to make music to bring good news to the spiritually impoverished so that they may inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Music does that like nothing else.
Music, at its essence, is the sound of the Holy Spirit, like the sound of the Holy Spirit that overcame the Apostles at Pentecost.
When created from the heart and with truth and pure intention, music is a spiritual expression of the most universal nature and the highest order.
Our mission is to create music to propagate the fullness of God’s kingdom to every corner of the Universe from our abode on that blue island in the midst of cold outer space that we call the earth.
Through music, Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is truly a “missional church.” We are a musical community of God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, offering music.
Through music, we are an agent of God’s mission to the world.
Through music, we free the human spirit to interact with God.
Through music, we are “in mission.”
Through music, we are truly The Church. AMEN.