Saturday, September 8, 2007

Francis and the Sultan

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: my first Mass)

Just in case there’s anybody here who doesn’t think divine Providence has a sense of humor, for my first Mass I get this gospel: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother…he cannot be my disciple.” Fortunately for me, my parents aren’t here this morning; they will be at another Mass closer to home.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ words to us are shocking. Did not God create the family when he commanded our first parents to “be fruitful and multiply”? Did not Jesus himself teach us to call God “Our Father,” thus revealing that the structure of the family, which is so basic to our human society, has its origins in God himself?

So how are we to understand it when the Lord tells us to hate our families? First of all, we must interpret them in the context of the honor-shame culture that Jesus came from, rather than in the world we live in—one in which our concept of love and hate has been so influenced by the sentimentality of greeting cards and the easy-to-solve problems of sitcom families.

When Jesus says that we must hate our parents and families if we want to be his disciples, we should understand this “love” and “hate” in terms, not of feelings, but of priorities, of obligations, and of our social behavior. In the starkest possible way, Jesus is simply asking us, to whom do we give our first priority? To whom are we obligated in this world in the first place?

And the answer is clear: we must, first of all, give our love and allegiance to the God whom Jesus reveals. We must put God first. To put God ahead of all human prejudice and sin is only the first step. Jesus invites us to put our love of God before any human relationship or institution. But this never means than we forget or don’t love the people God has so graciously put in our lives! On the contrary! God is love, after all. But when we put God first, it is only then that we will learn how to love everyone else.

For me, Francis of Assisi is my hero in this. You’ll notice him on the souvenir holy card I had prepared for this Mass. The other man in the icon is the sultan Al-Kamil, brother of the more famous Saladin. Francis met him when he went on one of the Crusades. Francis was hoping to be martyred, but it didn’t work out. Instead, after trying to convert the sultan, Al-Kamil refused to carry out the required death sentence on Francis. Why?

I believe that the sultan was able to perceive that Francis simply loved God. Francis had no motive of human accomplishment or vanity in trying to convert the sultan. Francis didn’t see him as an enemy, or an infidel, or even a danger. He only loved God and wanted to share it. And that, my friends, as this story shows, breaks down even the burning violence of human war and the crippling entropy of human prejudice. The courage to love God first gave both Francis and the sultan the power to overcome, between the two of them, for a brief moment, one of the most enduring and damaging scars upon our Christian history—and one with a legacy with which we still suffer today.

If we too put God first, he will teach us, as he taught Francis, not only how to love our parents and our children, but also to love those whom the world tells us are our enemies. But if we try to love each other without reference to the God who is love, we will succeed in loving only partially. As our first reading from the book of Wisdom puts it today, our plans are timid on their own, and our choices unsure. We grasp the truth only with difficulty. If we are to love fully we need God.

So thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ and in this, the Eucharist he left us, God wills to become graspable by us! This means that the perfect love and truth that is God becomes available to us on our terms—as a human being, and as food our journey. So Let us approach this altar with joy and take his presence in this Eucharist into ourselves, become his disciples first of all, and learn how to love each other with a love that can change us, change the world, and even change history.

1 comment:

Contarini said...

Good sermon, Father! Perhaps your generation of priests will turn Catholic preaching around. . . .