The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Homily: Independence Day - Wednesday, 13th Week of Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Ps 50; Mt 8:28-34

How blessed we are to be Americans!

223 years ago, our Constitution, drafted by our founders and ratified by the states, went into effect. In the first ten amendments to that Constitution, what we call our Bill of Rights, the God-given rights of the people were protected from the government. That’s right; the Bill of Rights limits the government, not the people. It protects us from our government.

And to ensure future generations understood its importance, the very first of the rights guaranteed by the founders was the right of religious freedom. The First Amendment begins with the words:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
And so, we have the right to worship freely without the threat of government interference.

Yes, how blessed we are to be Americans!

And how fitting, too, that today we should hear this Gospel reading from Matthew as we celebrate our independence, including our nation’s commitment to religious freedom. But before we touch on the issues that face us today, let’s first look at Matthew’s Gospel.

This visit by Jesus to the land of the Gadarenes is truly a remarkable incident, a unique event in His public ministry. Jesus, who spent virtually all of His public life among the Jews, does something very different. He crosses the Sea of Galilee and enters the province of Gadara, a place populated largely by pagans. Gadara is depicted as a district especially under the sway of the Evil One – God’s name is not invoked there, His law is not obeyed – and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find demoniacs dwelling there in their natural habitat.

It must have been a disturbing visit for the disciples, as evidenced by the fact that we hear nothing from them. They were accustomed to people coming to Jesus for healing and instruction and forgiveness. Indeed only moments before, on the way across the Sea, the disciples themselves had begged Jesus to save them from the freak storm that had arisen. Yes, they had heard many people pleading with Jesus for help; and had even
uttered some of those pleas themselves…
Heal my servant, Master…

Lord, that I might see…

Lord, save us, we are perishing…
How different were these cries for help from the cries they heard this day in this strange place…
What have you to do with us, Son of God?
"What have you to do with us, Son of God?"
What a remarkable question these demons ask. How darkly urgent is their need to separate themselves from Jesus. And how do they do it? By denouncing him as the Son of God! Imagine that! Yes, in spitting out their hatred, their poison, they can do nothing but proclaim the truth. We sense some tiny remnant of goodness in their nature, but one that is exclusively intellectual. They know who Jesus is. But knowledge isn’t love.

Through their own choice they’ve totally disfigured the beauty of their souls, a beauty created in the beginning by God. Now, no beauty remains. No moral order remains. And so this acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity escapes from them, just as everything else does, with destructive violence.
What have you to do with us?
Yes, indeed, what can the spirit of evil have in common with the Son of God? In a sense, this question, what have we in common, is the same question the centurion asked of Jesus when he uttered, “Lord I am not worthy…” But for the demons it’s not a matter of unworthiness, but rather a question filled with hollow pride:
“How dare you come to us. Don’t you, Son of God, have better things to do? Leave us alone.”
You see, the demons can lie to everyone except to God.
“Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?”
These demons can’t believe that Jesus has entered this place among the tombs of the dead where evil believed itself safe from God’s Word. But now…now they know that Jesus’ redeeming work knows no boundaries. The Word of God must spread throughout the earth, and no place is exempt. They know, too, that their hold over a portion of humanity is only temporary, for they scream at Jesus, reproaching him for coming before the kairos, before the appointed season of definitive judgment and the expulsion of the forces of evil.

How odd. While they clearly know who Jesus is, and hate him for it, they appear pathetically misinformed about the extent of their authority. And so they resign themselves to being cast out. But unlike the centurion who saw his servant’s illness as an evil that needed Jesus’ healing intervention, these demons, having made evil the cause of their very being, find only torment in their Healer. Rather than surrender to Jesus’ healing presence, they beg Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs – a choice that reveals their true condition.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus offers each one of us healing and life. There is just one other choice, and it leads only to death.

How humiliating this must have been for Satan. Satan, the pure spirit, is routed by the mere presence of this Divine Person who embraces the weakness of our human physical and psychological nature. And Satan still lurks about seeking souls who will admit him. But at the same time, in the presence of Jesus Christ, he is powerless. When Jesus is present, in our individual souls, in our families, in our parish, in our community, in our nation, Satan has no power. He can do nothing.

But when a people and a nation turn away from Jesus Christ, when a people decides that the presence of God is an embarrassment, that the name of God is an insult to their intelligence and freedom…then they create a vacuum that Satan is only too ready to fill.

For most of its history our nation turned openly and willingly to God for help and guidance. “In God we trust” is still embossed on our currency. And we still pledge ourselves as “one nation, under God.” But sadly, although religious freedom is a fundamental human right, one that comes not from man but from God, much of recorded history is the story of men trying to deny it, to take it away.

Throughout the history of our own country many have sacrificed their lives so you and I can reap the benefits of religious freedom and the other rights enumerated in our Constitution. But even today, these rights are threatened, and sadly by our own federal government. The Department of Health and Human Services has mandated that the private health care plans of Catholic institutions must cover sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception. And so the Church – and brothers and sisters, that’s you and me – faces a severe attack on our religious liberty by forcing us to pay for that which violates our deepest religious and moral convictions. This mandate, then, first and foremost, is an attack on religious freedom.

Like those who came before us and sacrificed so much to guarantee the freedom that you and I take for granted, we too are called to defend these rights. As the prophet Amos told the people of Israel in our first reading: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live… let justice prevail.” God expects us to act, brothers and sisters, so justice will prevail!

You and I may think we’re not important enough for our voices to be heard, but that’s simply not true.  Just consider how God has called on the weak and the obscure to be His messengers.

Consider Amos, the simple sheep herder of our first reading, the pruner of sycamore trees, and how he bravely confronts the hypocritical and unjust leaders of Israel.

Isaiah and Jeremiah, both called from the womb to be God’s great prophets.

David, the young shepherd, raised up by God to be King of his people.

John the Baptist, dwelling in the desert, but destined from the moment of creation to be the herald of Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters, we too are called by God, just as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, David and John were called from obscurity to take God’s word to the world. Like that tiny mustard seed in the Gospel, wondrous things can come from even the smallest voice. Today, as we face this challenge to the most fundamental of our rights, you and I are that seed. We must speak up. We must defend our right to religious freedom, in both the public square and the ballot box. Doing so is a responsibility, an obligation that derives not only from our citizenship, but even more so from our faith.

Satan would love to turn us into another land of the Gadarenes, but believe me, that will not happen if we, as the People of God, as the Body of Christ, as a nation of free men and women, turn always to Jesus Christ as our sole guide, as our Lord and Savior.

Yes, how blessed we are to be Americans.

Let us pray that our children and grandchildren will always be able to say those same words.

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