A student visited his old school, 20 years after his graduation, and met an old science professor of his. The professor happened to be grading exam papers, and the student was surprise to notice that the questions were exactly the same as they were two decades ago. He asked the professor about the possibility of the leakage of the exam paper such that the students would have known the questions in advance. The professor smiled wryly and answered, "Don't worry about that, my dear boy. I've changed the answers every year."
This is in some ways more sobering than funny. We sometimes hold science up, or the body of knowledge that scientific method develops, as a kind of objective truth. A good definition of truth is “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.” There was a time in the late 1800 when scientists were convinced that there was essentially nothing of true value left to discover – just before Albert Einstein proposed the existence of the photon in 1905. I can tell you I spent last week looking at the safety aspects of a new particle accelerator technology that will undoubted help open new scientific frontiers in the decades to come.
As human beings, we search for truth. When we think we find it, we pick it apart and try to study what makes it tick, what makes it real. We do all the things we learned to do in school, we compare, contrast, and analyze. Sometimes we do these things because they are virtuous things, but we can use them as a defense against an emerging reality that they may just completely change our lives. As long as we are analyzing it, we don’t have to deal with the consequences… We try to insulate ourselves from things that challenge us to move out of our comfort zone. Pope Francis, in his papal exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” He tells us that our lives as Christians proceed not from dogma but from relationship: “…personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.” He says further, “Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. The Gospel offers us the chance to live life on a higher plane, but with no less intensity: “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort.”
We find this in our first reading today. Where the people want a prophet to deliver the word of God to them This passage is reminiscent of Chapter 20 in Exodus when Moses just read the commands to the Israelites with Mt. Saini in the background wreathed in smoke and lightening with the sounds of thunder and trumpet blasts rolling down to them. They were afraid, they moved away despite Moses telling them not to fear. This is followed in Exodus by God’s admonition to create no thing that ranks with Him, nothing of silver or gold, no idols. It’s as if God understood that this distance, this additional degree of separation could have some very bad consequences - allowing space for things that substitute for a relationship that has, at it’s very core, the very real and tangible experience of relating to God. Lets just stand back and appreciate this from a distance… Let’s allow for things that are more comfortable, perhaps even distracting…
Our second reading finds us right in the middle of St. Paul answering a very real and practical question about the nature of the marriage covenant, speaking of the duty that spouses owe to one another - how even good and meaningful things can cause us to have divided allegiances. Intentionally, or unintentionally, things of this world can get between us and God.
This is in the midst of a city that is a crossroads of travel and commerce. A cosmopolitan city of Greek, Roman, and Oriental influence with luxurious temples – one to Aprhodite. This temple could been seen from far out at sea and was served by a thousand enslaved women who served as prostitutes to travelers and city dwellers alike. In-fact, over half of Corinth’s population were slaves. The city was given over to all kinds of licentiousness and was seen as a moral cesspool. The Greeks had a work Korinthiazomai – to act like a Corinthian – and it wasn’t a compliment. You can imagine that that in 40 AD, Paul encouraged the early Christian community to step out of this moral mess and live as if Christ’s return is imminent. Paul’s message was meant not to criticize but to encourage a life that is not enslaved to passions but attuned to teachings of Christ and lived in the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the message for us today is that sometimes we substitute things that seem more certain than faith, seem more tangible, like human physical interaction, wealth, power, the body of knowledge that scientific method has made available, the vast informational resources available on the internet… All of these things can be voices that clamor for attention, voices that claim to offer certainties that are alternatives to the Gospel. When these things fail to satisfy – after consuming so much of our emotional and physical resources – the buffeting we get from all these alternatives can divide, or worse, can harden our hearts. A divided heart is much less free to respond.
The Gospel today bridges time and presents us with one like us, who speaks with the power and authority of God. A prophet like Moses but from among us – yet God incarnate. Instead of withdrawing to a safe place we are encouraged to open our hearts and focus on the one voice – the voice of that prophet, savior, redeemer. To allow ourselves to be astonished, overwhelmed. The Greek word used to describe the reactions of those listening to Jesus in the temple, the work that translates astonished, depicts ‘action in motion’. They were moved by his words and his actions. This was a new experience and they were not afraid to share it. The Gospel says that Jesus’ reputation spread far and wide. I sometimes wonder why we seem to have such difficulty openly recognizing Jesus; Jesus, the reason we are all here right now! In today’s Gospel, the demon or should I say demons, have no trouble recognizing who Jesus is. This demon is many noisy demons, full of talk, distraction. The noisy demon wants to keep wrestling with trust an avoiding surrender. What does Jesus say?
QUIET. QUIET. The unclean is made clean in the presence of the peace of Christ. By silencing the noise, by moving to a place of silence and focusing on the one voice, anxiety becomes peace. Sometimes it seems that the questions asked by the restless noisy demons are the same questions that echo in me – what do you have to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to suppress me? Are we somehow worried that the individuality that we hold so sacred will be crushed under the weight of Jesus?
Just as Jesus spoke in the temple on the sabbath, he speaks to us this morning in church, in the Gospel today, appearing in our lives not to dominate as the demon accused but to liberate as he promised! To open our eyes to the things that distract us and cause us anxiety - and to free us from these things because they keep us from him who loves us. This voice of authority comes in love to free us in a new covenant relationship with God that is not fear but is FAMILY. As we prepare for the sacrament of the Eucharist, the intimate and loving presence of Christ, let us pause for a moment, yield that one that piece of our life that has been insulating us from a deeper relationship with Christ and move CLOSER IN. Amen.
Feel free to share this. There is no pride of authorship or any copyright. It is the synthesis of many things I read in preparation for a homily from too many sources to be named individually.