(Sunday Homily) The ‘Gates of Hell’ from Ferguson to Gaza

Wall Palestine

Readings for 21st Sunday in Ordinary time: IS 22: 19-23; PS 138:1-3, 6,8; ROM 11: 33-36; MT 16: 13-28. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/082414.cfm

Of course, you’re all following the news, I know. It’s so discouraging, isn’t it? Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq, and (now) Syria – again. . . .

It all reflects such one-dimensional thinking. I mean it gives the impression that in the eyes of public officials from the militarized cop in the street to the POTUS himself, the only solutions to social problems are found in shooting, tear gas, torture, and Hell Fire Missiles? Solving social problems requires locking people of color behind “the Gates of Hell” referenced by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.

In every case, diplomacy and negotiation seem out of the question. In fact, it’s a vanished art. Who needs it? After all, those damn “others” – be they African Americans in occupied Ferguson, Palestinians in Gaza’s mammoth concentration camp, or the ISIS militants – can’t possibly have legitimate grievances. They simply must be brought to heel by force – shooting, bombing, and killing their children and youth. We’re made to believe that alternatives such as dialog and working out problems by discussion and compromise are signs of weakness. So violence is the first resort. It’s the order of the day in a world ruled by machismo, revenge, violence, and the law of the strongest.

When we’re not bombing, we’re building walls with locked gates. Our “gated communities” and locked doors wall us off from unsightly ghettos and the realities of the world’s poor mostly non-white majority. Better to confine Palestinians in fenced off open-air concentration camps like Gaza, where there’s literally no exit. Then from time to time you “mow the lawn,” i.e. shoot the non-Jews like fish in a barrel – even though most of them are children, women, and aged people.

Better to build a wall along the Mexican border and then lock the gates, throw away the key and pretend that such barriers solve the problem of farmers and their children driven off their land by globalization, poverty and gangs. Better to justify it all by invoking the Ultimate White Privilege: “I feared for my life!” (We whites are the only ones who can get away with that one.)

All that brings us to today’s Liturgy of the Word. It’s about God’s interest in matters like those just enumerated – about politics, oppression and the liberation of non-white people like Jesus, Gazans and residents of Ferguson, Missouri. It’s about breaking bonds and opening the gates of hell so that every Inferno can be transformed into the Kingdom of God. It’s about refusing to be discouraged even though the flow of history make Jesus’ prayer, “They Kingdom come” seem like an impossible dream.

Start with today’s first reading. There the prophet Isaiah has God telling a courtier named Shabna to step down in favor of a man called Eliakim. Little is known about either one. The reason for including the reading today is apparently to establish today’s central point that God is concerned with the world of politics, and that God is ultimately in charge of what happens in that sphere. There can be no separation of politics and religion in the divine dispensation.

The responsorial psalm continues the “this worldly” theme set by the first reading. It had us all singing “Lord, your love is eternal. Forsake not the work of your hands.” Once again, emphasis on “the work of God’s hands” reminds us of God’s commitment to this world – including ghettos, the Gazan concentration camp, and rich people making life unbearable for the world’s largely non-white poor. The psalm goes on to praise Yahweh for divine kindness, truthfulness, encouragement of the weak, care for the impoverished, and God’s alienation from their proud oppressors – again all connected with life here and now.

Then in today’s Gospel selection, we find a reprise of the very reading we shared last June 27th (just two months ago on the “Solemnity of St. Peter and Paul”). We practically know this passage by heart.

The reading centers on three titles associated with Jesus of Nazareth – Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ. All three names are politically loaded – in favor of the poor rather than the privileged and powerful.

Jesus asks his friends, “Who is the Son of Man in history and for us today?” (Scripture scholars remind us that the “Son of Man” is a figure from the Book of Daniel. He is the judge of all those who oppress the People of God whether they’re Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks or Romans. He is “the human one” as opposed to a series of monstrous imperial beasts which the author of Daniel sees arising from the sea against God’s poor.)

So Jesus’ question boils down to this: who do you think has taken the strongest stand against Israel’s oppressors? Jesus’ friends mention the obvious heroes, Elijah and Jeremiah. But in the end, they settle on a contemporary political prisoner in King Herod’s version of Abu Ghraib. He’s John the Baptist who was Jesus’ mentor. (According to Jesus, John was the greatest of all the prophets of Israel.) He’s the Son of Man, they say.

Having set that anti-imperial tone, Jesus then asks the question, “What about me? Who do you say that I am?” No question could be more central for any of us pretending to follow the Teacher from Nazareth. How we answer determines the character of the path we walk as Jesus’ would-be disciples in a world filled with Fergusons, Gazas, Hell Fire Missiles and militarized cops. Our answer determines whose side we are on – that of Messrs. Netanyahu, Obama and Officer Wilson or of the Palestinians, Iraqis and Michael Brown.

Matthew makes sure we won’t miss the political nature of the question. So he locates its asking in Caesarea Philippi – a city Herod obsequiously named for his powerful Roman patron. Herod had commemorated the occasion by minting a coin stamped with the emperor’s countenance and identifying him as “the Son of God.” Caesar was also called “the Christ,” God’s anointed. Good Jews saw all of that as idolatry.

So Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” has the effect of delegitimizing Caesar and his empire. It’s also a swipe at King Herod. Peter’s response couldn’t be more political. Jesus, not Caesar is king, God’s anointed, the Son of God.

Neither could Peter’s words be more spiritually meaningful and heartening for those of us discouraged by events in Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq, and Syria.

The encouragement is found in Jesus rejoinder about the “gates of hell” and the “keys of the kingdom.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What powerful words of encouragement! For those who would join Jesus on “The Way” to God’s Kingdom, they disclose the very key to life’s meaning. In effect, Jesus says, “Here’s the key to opening ‘the gates of hell’ and transforming life’s Infernos into God’s kingdom: all our actions – even apparent failures like my coming crucifixion – have cosmic significance. Don’t be discouraged even when the agents of hell end up killing me – as they inevitably will.”

In other words, we may not be able to see the effect of resisting empire and its bloody agents in the short term. But each act has its effect. God’s Kingdom will come.

In today’s second reading, Paul elaborates the point. He said it’s not always apparent what God is doing in the world. After all, the ways of Transcendent Reality are deep and beyond comprehension – even by the wisest human beings. We may not be able to see God’s (political) purposes at close range. But ultimately their inscrutable wisdom will become apparent (ROM 11: 33-36).

Or as Martin Luther King put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

All of us need to embrace that wisdom, refuse discouragement and continue doing what we can to resist the forces of empire and unlock those “Gates of Hell.”

(Sunday Homily) Dear Pope Francis: Gaza Needed More than Tears; Next Time, Please “Walk on Water”

Walk on Water

Readings for 19th Sunday in ordinary time: I KGS 19: 9A, 11-13A; PS 85: 9-14; ROM 9: 1-5; MT 14: 22-23 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/081014.cfm

In today’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water – or rather, of Peter’s refusal to follow Jesus’ example of walking on the waves.

The account is relevant to the man in the Vatican who believes he is Peter’s successor. Israel’s month-long siege of Gaza invited Pope Francis to “walk on water” – to follow the example of Jesus in confronting demons. However uncharacteristic timidity left the pope sinking below the waves, out of sight and ear shot, cowering before Monsters like Obama and Netanyahu.

Let me explain. First off, consider today’s Gospel reading.

The story goes that following Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 (last week’s Gospel episode), Jesus forces the apostles to get into their boat and row to the other side. [The text says, “Jesus made (emphasis added) the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.” Perhaps these experienced fishermen (as opposed to the land lubber, Jesus) saw a storm was coming and were reluctant to set sail despite Jesus’ urgings.]

In any case, a storm does come up and the apostles fear they are about to drown. You can imagine them in helpless tears.

Then they see a figure walking on the water in the midst of high threatening waves. At first they think it’s a ghost. Then they realize that it’s Jesus. He’s walking on the raging waters.

Peter, the impetuous leader of the apostles, doubts what he sees. So he says, “Prove to me that it’s you, Jesus; let me walk on the waves just as you’re doing.” Jesus says, “Join me then over here.” So Peter gets out of the boat and, like Jesus actually walks on water for a few steps.

Then, despite the evidence, he begins to doubt. And as he does so, he starts sinking below the water line. “Save me, Lord,” he cries out again. Jesus stretches out his hand and saves Peter. Then he asks, “Where’s your faith, man? Why is it so weak? Why did you doubt?”

Of course, this whole story (like last week’s “Loaves and Fishes”) is one of the dramatic parables Matthew composed. If we get caught up in wondering whether we’re expected to believe that someone actually walked on water, we’ll miss the point of this powerful metaphor. It’s about Jesus’ followers doing the unexpected and irrational in the midst of life-threatening crisis.

You see, Matthew’s Jewish audience shared the belief du jour that the sea was inhabited by dangerous monsters – Leviathan being the most fearful. And fearlessly walking on water was a poetic way of expressing what Matthew’s community believed about Jesus, viz. that he embodied the courage and power to do the completely unexpected in the midst of crisis and subdue the most threatening forces imaginable – even the most lethal of all, the Roman Empire.

Jesus’ invitation to Peter communicates the truth that all of us have the power to confront monsters if we’ll just find the courage to leave safety concerns behind even in the most threatening conditions, to confront life’s monsters, and join Jesus in the midst of its upheavals.

Problem is we easily lose faith and courage. As a result, we’re overcome by life’s surging waves and by the monsters lurking underneath them.

And that brings me back to Pope Francis and his ambiguous response to the slaughter that took place in Gaza over the last month.

We expected more. Over the course of his still-young papacy, Francis has demonstrated wonderful courage attempting to join Jesus on the world’s dangerous waves.

• He’s adopted a comparatively simple lifestyle.
• He’s condemned neo-liberalism and growing income inequality.
• His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” implicitly endorsed the liberation theology his two immediate predecessors had tried to kill.
• More specifically, he adopted liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as the leitmotif of his papacy.
• In that spirit, his famous “Who am I to judge” gave hope to the LGBTQ community.
• He helped head off President Obama’s plans to bomb Syria.

That last precedent led me to expect more in the context of Gaza. I was in St. Peter’s Square for Francis’ hours-long vigil for peace. There the Pope did as much or more to head off U.S.’ insane plans to bomb Syria as did Russia’s President Putin. Along with Putin, Francis was the hero who subverted the monstrous plans of Obama and his State Department.

But there was no peace vigil for the Gazans. Instead two weeks ago the Pope broke down in tears as he delivered his Sunday remarks from the balcony over St. Peter’s Square. He said:

“Never war, never war! I am thinking, above all, of children who are deprived of the hope of a worthwhile life, a future. Dead children, wounded children, mutilated children, orphaned children, children whose toys are things left over from war, children who don’t know how to smile.” This was the moment when the tears came. “Please stop,” said Francis. “I ask you with all my heart, it’s time to stop. Stop, please!”

The words were powerful; the tears were powerful. But unlike the prayer vigil before a potential Syrian fiasco, they remained largely unreported. Nevertheless, for those with ears to hear, the Pope was lamenting Israel’s killing of Palestine’s innocent. (No Jewish children were killed during the Gaza massacre.) However, to overcome the Media’s deafening pro-Israel tilt, the Pope needed to be stronger and more specific.

Yes, his papacy has daringly left the safe harbor and courageously sailed into the storm. Yes, Francis clearly sees Jesus as his role model demanding courage in the face of today’s unprecedented winds and waves. Indeed Francis has gotten out of the boat to trample underfoot the beasts and monsters roiling the seas all around us. But in the case of Gaza, instead of walking confidently on the waters, he sunk in apparent timidity before the threatening monsters, Obama and Netanyahu.

But what more could he have done? What sort of miracle did I expect?

Well, he could have given courage to all of us who are far less daring than he; he could have performed a miracle more stupendous than actually “walking on water” by:

• Owning the fact that as the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, with far more power than Jesus had, he was truly able to end Gaza’s slaughter.
• Announcing plans to travel to Gaza in the midst of Israel’s monstrous campaign.
• Before leaving, specifically naming Israel’s assault on civilians as sinful.
• Identifying the U.S. as equally culpable with Israel for crimes against humanity.
• Actually traveling to Gaza in a white papal helicopter (even in defiance of Israel’s predictable prohibitions) and landing in the midst of Gaza’s devastation.
• Celebrating Mass in Gaza on a pile of rubble and refusing to leave till the Israelis stopped their slaughter.
• If the slaughter continued, traveling to the key sites of bombing and shelling.

“Impossible!” you say? Such an act would offend Israel and upset Israel-Vatican relations. Ditto for the U.S.

Hmm. Is the pope a politician or a prophetic religious leader? Please use your imagination and spin out what would have happened if the pope walked on water as just outlined. What do you think?

In any case, those much less courageous than Francis need his example so the rest of us might venture forth to walk on water in our own far less powerful ways.

Yes, in today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us all to do the impossible. Why are we doubting? Where is our faith?