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9/19/21 Homily: Receive Him in My Name

Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]


We can describe our gospel passage today in two parts: Jesus’ method, and his message. We’ll begin with method. Today, we hear our Lord speak about his Passion and death for a second time. But the disciples did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him.


We can’t really blame them. We benefit from a treasure trove of theology from the last two thousand years that helps us understand this mystery in the light of the Resurrection. But the disciples did not. At that point in their journey, they could only be confused at Christ’s words.


Their lack of understanding leads to argument. And their argument leads to the most asinine of preoccupations; namely, wondering which one of them was the greatest?


But Jesus doesn’t scold them for their absurdity. Nor does he try to “dumb down” the foretelling of his Passion. When the time is right, they will understand his words as he spoke them, and believe. But only after it had come to pass. In that moment, Jesus entered into dialogue with them, and transformed their argument into a teaching moment.


The lesson for us is that life is filled with teaching moments. Every conversation we have can be used for teaching. Sometimes we’re the teachers, and sometimes we’re the students. Sometimes we can be both in the very same conversation.


Today, I ask that we all thoughtfully consider the conversations we have throughout our days, and ask ourselves: as teachers, “What am I meant to teach in this moment? How can I elevate this discussion into a true dialogue? And as students, “Is my heart open to learning from this person before me? What am I being taught in this moment? What am I meant to learn?”


The object of learning may not even be information. The lesson may be simply to learn how to be at peace in another person’s presence, regardless of differences in personality or opinion; learning how to speak with another person, and not at another person.


That’s the method: engaging others thoughtfully and charitably in conversation, no matter the topic; both learning and teaching in that same conversation.


Now, the second part of gospel passage today: the message. And he sat down and called the Twelve and he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”


In concise terms, Jesus identified himself with that child. Now, in their cultural context, that child symbolized the most marginalized person in the world. Strange as it may seem to us today, children were often dehumanized in many parts of the ancient world. Christianity essentially invented the idea of children as full human beings who ought to be treasured and protected. This was a natural outgrowth of that radical Christian belief that every human being has infinite value, as a beloved child of God, from the first moment of existence—namely, conception.[1]


That’s a very radical message, which should shock us, if we really appreciated it. If it doesn’t, we may have become desensitized from Christ’s message, or even inoculated against it. Or we may be blind to our own prejudices against the marginalized and outcast.


Jesus put that child in the midst of the Twelve to summon them to care for the most marginalized person; even a single child. That’s a controversial position. It should strike a nerve. Whoever cared for that child as if caring for Christ would be the greatest among them. That was his message.


How does this relate to us? What’s our Lord’s message for us today? God still identifies himself with the most marginalized in society. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you did it to me,” says the Lord.


Of course, the most marginalized continues to be the pre-born; those voiceless children who have yet to be born. We must be their voice, and cry out for their protection without wavering.


But I want to say a word about another marginalized group, which I fear is at risk of also being gravely dehumanized. I’m referring to those who may not be vaccinated for whatever reason.


I know this is a highly politicized topic. We’re living history as we speak, and we’re jarred out of our comfort zone. This may be the most divisive issue today. I’m not here to choose sides. But I am here to preach against hatred against any other human person.


It’s frightening how in some circles, it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to view the non-vaccinated with fear, anger, and resentment. In matters of sin, we often say: hate the sin, but love the sinner. Love everyone, even if we may not love what they do.


But for some dark reason, a terrible malice grows against the non-vaccinated. It’s become personal. The non-vaccinated are demonized, and anyone who seems to defend them in any way is subject to “cancelation”.


Our own civil leaders seem to encourage this animosity against them—against fellow citizens, neighbors, and even family—with rhetoric like, “our patience is wearing thin; your refusal has cost all of us.” Even among fellow Christians, charity towards the non-vaccinated becomes less common. The faith is used for political advocacy. And the visible Church, rather than being counter-cultural, becomes a pandering echo chamber of secular prejudice.


I know this issue hits close to home. I’ve wondered at what point I’d be asked to check for vaccine passes at the door to this Church; and turn anyone here away if they didn’t show me the right “papers”; or report those without the right documentation.


It wasn’t that long ago (just two years in fact) that from our comfortable place in human history, we could look back on certain practices from the past and condemn them as crimes against humanity. We wonder how these things could happen. How could human dignity be so violated on such a wide scale?


But in the midst of our own crises, it can be frighteningly easy to go down the same road. We can be tempted to repeat history. Human nature is slow to change. Fear and ignorance so often give rise to tyranny. History has proven this time and time again.


But the Lord endures throughout all of history. The Lord is still to be seen in the face of the poorest of the poor, in the outcast and marginalized, and yes, even in the face of that person whom you and I may despise the most, simply because he or she is not vaccinated.


Whoever receives that person in Christ’s name, receives Jesus. That person really is the servant of all, and is the greatest among all of us.

[1] Cf. Apr. 23, 2015 internet article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, How Christianity invented Children, (https://theweek.com/articles/551027/how-christianity-invented-children)

Rosso Fiorentino. Descent from the Cross. 1521. Oil on wood. 375 × 196 cm. Pinacoteca Comunale di Volterra, Italy (public domain)