Sunday, August 18, 2019

Homily – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – The Deacons

Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Hebrews 12:1-4
Luke 12:49-53
          Jeremiah is facing abuse for prophesying a bleak future: Jerusalem will be captured soon by Babylon.
King Zedekiah was actually placed on the throne by Babylon. But the King and his princes defied Babylon leading to a year-long siege of the Holy City.
Jeremiah’s words were exacerbating an already tense situation, angering the princes who felt they had everything under control.
Prophets speak truth to power and are persecuted for their words and their actions.  God is showing us the cost of following His voice.  Isn’t it the same today?
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is reminding us of the costs of following him. He’s talking about His ministry causing many divisions among the People of God.
Luke’s Gospel was written at a time when the early Christian community was being expelled from the synagogues, when the early Christian community faced persecution, imprisonment, and death for following Jesus. Fear can drive of bad behavior.
Jesus knew brother would betray brother. Son would betray father. Mother would betray daughter. And so on.
Jesus is using the metaphor of an earth on fire. This was reality for the early Christian communities.

Fire is a biblical image for purification (think of Gold being tested), but it’s also representative of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
As we know with fire, it can be warm and comforting, or it can be destructive and terrifying when out of control.   
These readings remind me of the life of a deacon hero: St. Lawrence of Rome.  His feast day was celebrated last weekend.
St. Lawrence was a deacon who served the poor in ancient Rome in the early Christian church. He was given great responsibility by Pope Sixtus II (the Second), and was charged with being the “keeper of the treasures of the Church.”
He lived at a time when the Christian Church was being persecuted and martyrdom was commonplace in the mid Third Century.
When the Pope and four other deacons were arrested and executed, Lawrence was released to gather up the “treasures of the church” to hand them over to Rome.  He was given three days to do this.                
When three days passed, Lawrence came before the Roman soldiers and the Prefect to surrender the promised “treasures,” but instead he presented the poor, the sick, street beggars of Rome and said, “Here are the treasures of the church.”
For his actions, he was roasted to death over a hot fire.
Lawrence is the patron saint of the poor, but also the patron saint of cooks for his famous line while roasting on the fire, “You can turn me over. This side is done.”  
Lawrence prayed as he was being burned alive that God would bring the entire pagan Roman Empire to Jesus Christ.  
His prayers were answered 55 short years later when Constantine legalized Christianity and eventually became a Christian himself.
The word “martyr” actually translates to “witness.”  We hear of the cloud of witnesses in our faith in Hebrews today.
Many famous deacons have been wonderful witnesses to the faith: St. Stephen, the first Christian martryr, St. Francis of Assisi (yes, he was a deacon), and St. Ephrem the Syrian, the only deacon-doctor of the Church noted for being a great homilist.
Recently, the Catholic Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate.
Popular Church commentator Rocco Palmo calls the restored diaconate one of the greatest success stories of Vatican II.
Deacons are the only religious vocation that’s actually growing in the Church today. Nearly 50-thousand permanent deacons serve the world Church in 2019. 18-thousand deacons are now serving in U.S. alone.
The permanent diaconate started as a conversation in Cell Block 26 at Nazi death camp Dachau. This was the place set aside for clergy called the “Priesterblock.” During the Nazi reign of terror, over 24-hundred priests were kept there. Most were put to death.
The priests were kept apart from the other inmates because the Nazis didn’t want the clergy to give fellow inmates hope.
Many priests in the prison camps lamented the lack of Catholic clergy with both a foot in the Church and a foot in public life. These priests felt the presence of permanent deacons could have helped prevent what happened in Nazi Germany.
A number of these priests survived the death camps and years later led the effort to restore the permanent diaconate during Vatican II. 
Deacons are not universally accepted by all in the Catholic Church.
The division Christ speaks of today is even present in His Church today over the matter of deacons.
On the right, deacons are sometimes rejected by people who don't believe in Vatican II’s reforms. On the left, deacons are sometimes rejected because there are no women deacons. This is the reality of the Church today. Deacons understand this.
As disciples, Jesus calls us all to places and situations that may not always be comfortable or easy.
As we are reminded today, Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.”   
May we all accept Jesus’ warning of the costs and consequences of following Him. May we all accept the fires of persecution that come from following God’s voice and never lose our joy or our hope. May we all always celebrate and honor the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us to show us the way.

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