Delivered at All Saints, Morton on the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 9, Year C)
As I prepared for this Liturgy, and particularly for this homily, I will admit that an image I could not quite shake was an acceptance speech at an awards ceremony, like the Academy Awards. Now, perhaps the younger people here may have no idea what I mean when I say “Academy Awards.” I suspect that is not altogether a bad thing, to be unfamiliar with this annual event. I have not watched this awards show in well over a decade, but who can forget the image of the announcement, “And the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor goes to . . .” and the surprise on the face of the winner, who proceeds to the stage, hugs all the people around him waits for the applause to end, and then breathlessly give an acceptance speech, thanking every person all the way back to childhood who helped that person win this award. A long list! And sometimes the orchestra started to play, cutting the speech off somewhere between thanking the third grade music teacher and that first agent which got that role of an invisible extra on a 30-second toothpaste TV ad.
So while I will not rattle off a list of names, and it could be lengthy, believe you me, I will simply say that I am truly grateful to be here with you all, and I, and my family, are grateful for your prayers, and for the many ways our move to this Parish of Tazewell County, and the Rectory in Pekin, has made us feel welcomed, loved and inspired.
And yet I continued to ponder this image of the acceptance speech. It struck me that many of the speeches, despite even a dozen people being thanked, seemed someone to still be about the actor. Yes, the words were thankful, but the overall spirit seemed more self-centered. I do not have any examples of this, but it is a sense I remember having when I watched these sorts of shows. Yet occasionally there was a winner whose speech really did point beyond that person, and do so in a poignant, touching way. Maybe it wasn’t even the words that actor said in this remarks, as much as the presence he or she had — a dignity, a depth, a strong yet humble presence.
Jesus is pointing to this distinction. The distinction is between, on one hand, a kind of self-centeredness, and, on the other hand, one that is God-centered. The seventy-two (in some ancient manuscripts, it is 70) return from being sent out like lambs among wolves, return from pronouncing Peace to all houses they enter, return from healing the sick, return from proclaiming “The Kingdom of God is near.” They return from representing Jesus to the local community of Samaria, which would have been a hostile environment.
They return, and say to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Now it would be wrong to judge the 72 as bluntly self-centered. I say that because Our Lord did not judge them, as far as Saint Luke relates to us. His response to them is loving. He confirms their accomplishment — “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” And he affirmed the spiritual power they have when they represent Jesus — curing the sick means they have power to overcome all power Satan may have spiritually, and hence behaviorally, over people. And, indeed, the 72 had not forgotten the holy Name of Jesus, and had invoked it in their evangelism.
Yet Jesus is a gentle guide, a wise spiritual director. “However,” he says, “do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” He detects a creeping pride. And he reminds them that the greatest glory is not what we do, even when it is God who works through us. Our greatest glory is what God has already done for us. He created us, he called us into covenant with him. So often he gently coaxes us toward into ever-greater humility. This is what the Sacraments are for: gently coaxing us into humility.
This passage from Luke tells us a great deal about the true nature of religion. That word, religion, is so abused today. In this national political season, we have only begun to hear to thrown around like a dagger. In the secular world, “religion” means a system of beliefs. But in the Catholic tradition of Christianity, of which Anglicanism is a part, religion is in essence a verb. It is activity; it is dynamic, not static.
Religion is that activity, that way of living, that ties or binds ourselves to God. It is motion. It is experiential. It is working with people, saying good-bye, and then later on, often seeing them again. Just as the 72 were dismissed by Jesus and sent into evangelism or mission, we are dismissed each Sunday, and sent by God in peace to love and serve the Lord as he lives and breathes in all people, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces. And we return the following Sunday. We return not because our tails are between our legs, usually, but because God calls us and we respond. And he ever-calls us into humility, because only in humility can we serve the Lord.