26th Sunday of the Year
Migrant and Refugee Sunday
‘I want to tell you right away how much
the Church esteems and loves you,
and how much she wishes to assist you
in your spiritual and material needs.’
Pope John Paul II, Alice Springs 1986 to the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Reflections on the readings
Divisions among humans are pervasive. The Church is not immune to it either. The body of Christ is fractured by scandals, disagreements and power plays which impact on the kind of witness we offer. Jesus today warns against allowing divisions to take make a home in our communities rather than hospitality and solidarity, love and respect, with vulnerable people - in this case children. On previous Sundays, we were reminded that the greatest among us serve others (Mark 9:35) which when practiced guard against divisions. In his wonderful book The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross, Fr Jon Sobrino says that agreements on orthopraxis (right actions) are more important than orthodoxy (right belief). His point is that let divisions be because of issues of justice, equity, climate change, care of the Earth and listening to the poor rather than the beliefs of others. We can be silent on doctrinal points but not when love, solidarity with the poor, hospitality, and justice do not find a home in our communities.
Among many themes in today’s readings from keeping clear of sin, God’s care for those in trouble, healing, the one that threads through all the Scriptures is God’s surprising and unexpected work through unexpected people in unexpected ways. The challenge is for us to be open to this expected grace and presence. We are also warned how sin destroys peoples’ as well as mother Earth. The clear challenge today is for us to be active and prophetic in our lives and make real and meaningful contributions to our world wherever we find ourselves. Whether it is in our relationships with other communities of faith or with the poor, the fundamental issue is that we receive from them the gifts they have to offer and make God present in our world. Rightly or wrongly, Jesus’ followers are often seen as silencing questions rather than embracing them. We are known for rejecting and denouncing other faith groups, women, and other groups, rather than embracing and working with them. We are seen as more eager to ensure that those who are ‘for’ us look like us, speak like us, and think like us. The point is that we miss so much of God’s presence among us as revealed in the gifts others have to offer. We end up being oppressive and destroying rather than liberating, comforting and healing. The willingness to abandon exclusivism might result in experiencing God through the other, through the stranger, through women, through children, through our First Nations sisters and brothers, and these in the most unexpected places. We can make space in our lives when we are open to and invite suggestions, experimentation and a willingness to be with others that we find transformation is possible. This cannot occur in communities that are exclusive, condemnatory and rigid. It means getting over labels and abandoning the restrictions we place on others that have nothing to do with their ability to promote God’s reign.
In recent years, attacks on people who have raised their voices for the protection of Indigenous lands such as in Amazon, the Philippines and Australia have increased. These prophetic people have been murdered because they we called to utter ‘this is not right’. As we commemorate this Season of Creation until October 4, we find that even within the church, organisations and agencies have been attacked for promoting climate justice, ecological conversion and for protection of Earth’s ecosystems.
Clearly, Jesus’ anger is towards people who abuse their positions of leadership and power. He shows us where he stands and who he sits with. Moses and Jesus direct our attention beyond petty turf wars and the necessity for a Spirit of cooperation with others who do it differently. Last week the disciples argued about who among them was the greatest. Jesus commanded them to be servants and to welcome the powerless (a child) as they would welcome Jesus. We must be prepared to hear something different, to hear the voice of the Spirit crying from the edges of the church and society – from young people, Indigenous people, women, gay people, the poor, the refugee person, Moslems and Jews. God's word comes not just from within the institutional church, not just within our own community, but beyond from outsiders. Even their very presence powerfully proclaim God’s word about justice. And to do justice is to show respect by listening to people who know injustice in their lives and to insist on seeing things from point of view. Doing justice depends, not on telling people what to do, but upon listening to them and then asking them, what they believe needs to be done, to find out what they are already doing. Jesus challenges us whenever our behaviour impedes our ability to listen to peoples’ cries for mercy, for justice, for peace. They do not need to be taught or told as much as to be heard, trusted and respected.
All this touches on today’s readings. In the Book of Numbers, Joshua (hierarchy) was scandalised that two of their number prophesied (Nm 11:26) without having been on the mountain to receive the Spirit as the other Elders. They stayed with the people, in the messy camp, and shared the Spirit there. In the face of calls for them to stop, Moses was clear: ‘Would that all the people of God were prophets! Would that the Spirit be bestowed on them all!’ Moses’ response needs to be ours today. It has been the response of Pope Francis. God’s Spirit is upon everyone, raising women, children and men to be prophetic; to raise their voices as the earth cries out to us, as children who are abused cry out to us, as women live with violence and seek equality cry out to us; as countries suffer under the boot of other countries cry out to us. This is the gospel calling! We must acknowledge how prophetic voices from expected places in the church and the world are disregarded, silenced, misinterpreted and misjudged.
In Mark’s Gospel, as in the Book of Numbers, a scandal was brewing among the disciples because outsiders were casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Like Moses, Jesus responded, ‘For whoever is not against us is for us.’ (Mk 9:40). The implication was that it is good works (orthopraxis) that matter not the badge (orthodoxy) one is wearing.
Despite attempts to silence people, despite abuses and scandals, pain and suffering, we can, if we care to look and listen, see green shoots emerge from Pope Francis down to people we share with in the community. The Spirit is present in many people and places – in the churches and in the wider world. They emerge from the grassroots in surprising places. People are still doing the ‘gospel’ things as they always have with people on the periphery of the Church and non-church groups. That Spirit still calls us into every deeper truth, a thirst for justice and beauty and goodness.
When James condemns those who act unjustly and abuse their power, he could also be talking to corporations today that inflict pain on, and crucify, the earth and its people: war manufacturers, mining companies, logging companies, pharmaceutical companies, and corporations that do not pay fair wages to workers.
I have just participated in a webinar hosted by the US Peace Council on the harm and suffering caused by US sanctions to 39 countries on this planet. These are a form of war and directed the people from countries that do not follow US dictates. The hope is to make the lives of the people in these countries so intolerable that they will oppose their governments and support the US regime-change agendas. Cuba has lived with these for over 60 years and Zimbabwe for over 30 years. Sanctions deny countries food, medicine, and trade as their assets are frozen. In this time of pandemic, many countries are unable to access Covid vaccinations. Sanctions now imposed on Afghanistan are makes it impossible to access vaccines and food. Cuba, despite its generosity to other countries in medical assistance, is deprived of obtaining vaccines for the pandemic.
This is toxic politics, toxic economics and toxic religion. Yet, God is still among us. God’s reign is among us and the Spirit blows wherever. It does not require a stamp of approval. No person or group enjoys a monopoly on the Spirit.
Jesus did not divide people but tried to broaden the horizons and open the hearts of his disciples by encouraging them to look beyond the boundaries they impose on themselves and for him. Those who show hospitality to the needy understand the Reign of God. Such actions subvert systems based on exploitation of the weak. We need to look to ourselves and pray for the ability to respond in new ways to God’s call to follow and that following is recognising others on the journey who are not like us. We cannot settle for being ‘reasonable’ Christians. Jesus came to disturb us and show us there can be no compromise with injustice. If we are truly to follow him, we say ‘I’ll stand injustice no longer’ [E.M. Forster, Howard’s End].
The readings remind us that we too have been given a share of God’s prophetic spirit. It is not reserved for certain people. It is given freely and stirred up freely, to the surprise of many people who thought they were specially chosen to receive such a gift. This gift calls us to speak truth to power, to be open to others who also speak truth to power, who also sit with the ‘other’.
grant us the courage to reach across borders
so we form alliances
with all people of goodwill.
strengthen us to work
for the restoration of the whole of creation. Amen.