Welcome back to Ordinary Time. It’s after Easter and we’ll be in Ordinary Time until Advent. We begin with the Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah. Here he bitterly complained about people who stopped being friends because of his prophecy. They said: “Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.” But, he claimed, the Lord will prove him (Jeremiah) victorious for the Lord “has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked.” In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus told his followers to fear no one. Anything that happens in the dark will be revealed in the light and whatever is whispered in secret will be proclaimed from the housetops. Those who kill the body cannot kill the soul. He concludes with this: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others I will deny before my heavenly Father.”
For many years I’ve admired this quote from the 20th Century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968): “We have to read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” When I read this passage from Jeremiah I immediately thought of James Comey, the recently fired director of the FBI here in the United States. Earlier this month he testified before Congress where he was asked if President Trump asked or ordered him to shut down the inquiry about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mr. Comey quoted British King Henry II (1133-1189) about St.Thomas Becket (1118-1170): “Will no one rid me of this of this troublesome priest?” Upon hearing that, four of Henry’s knights found Thomas and killed him.
This requires some explanation. After Mr. Trump fired Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor for lying about meeting with Russian diplomats, Mr. Trump said to Mr. Comey” “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,” Mr. Comey took this as a directive, and when he refused to do this he was fired.
I don’t want to make this political but Mr. Comey quoted Henry II because he felt that Mr. Trump’s “request” was instead an order, much as Henry’s request demanded that they kill Thomas.
You see, Henry and Thomas spent many years as close friends. Henry appointed Thomas as his chancellor out of loyalty to his friend, and when Thomas became the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry expected his friend would choose loyalty to Henry over loyalty to the Pope.
Henry was wrong. Thomas clearly answered his call to the Church and recognized that his position called him to choose devotion to God (and his church) over his friendship to Henry. Henry saw this as a betrayal and it ended with Thomas’ murder. We don’t know if Henry was ordering Thomas’ murder but he clearly regretted Thomas’ murder. He did penance for this.
And now we can bring in Jeremiah. From our perspective we find it easy to admire prophets. Each week we read the Nicene Creed that says this:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. Italics mine
I often tell people that true prophets don’t want to be prophets. They have hard jobs. They are called to tell people exactly what they don’t what want to hear. When I was a seminarian the rector told me something I still value: “The role of the prophet is to comfit the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Everyone likes comforting the afflicted, but only the rare person has the courage to afflict the comfortable.
Simply put, the comfortable don’t want to be afflicted. They expect the people around them will compliment, admire, and support them. The person who declares that a powerful person is wrong inevitably faces opposition and even violence.
No one experienced this more than Jeremiah. The versus before this passage describe how he was arrested, beaten, and placed him in stocks for warning the people that God was displeased with them (and this was on the eve of Israel being defeated by the Babylonians and driven into exile). So great was his pain that he even lashed out at God: “You duped me O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.”
So how does this happen? I have a suspicion. We all have people in our lives who just can’t seem to keep their mouths shut, especially when they see injustice. They can’t just live and let live, they need to point out dishonesty and hypocrisy even when everyone else tells them to be quiet. And even when they pay dearly for their words.
And then we move onto the Gospel where Jesus tells us to “Fear no one,” and “do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Both Jeremiah and Thomas Becket paid dearly for their prophecy, and Becket paid with his life. Wouldn’t anybody with an ounce of sense pipe down and save his own life?
When Jesus tells us not to be afraid, and he says it a lot, he doesn’t mean that nothing bad will happen to us. Many years ago I did a little work in prison ministry (and loved it); one day I was speaking to an inmate who became Christian. He expressed surprise to me that when he chose to follow Jesus, his life still have pain in it, and this in the middle of a prison. I explained that choosing discipleship in Christ did not guarantee a lifetime of good times. Far from it. As a matter of fact, in some ways it makes our lives more difficult because we can no longer live only for ourselves. Christianity demands that we call out injustice not only when we are dealt unjustly, but when anyone is, particularly those who can’t defend themselves. But I also told him that if he lived his life in the service of Jesus, I was pretty sure that at the end of his life he would look back on his decision and smile.
I was a seminarian at the time and I explained that I knew a fair number of elderly priests, and with few exceptions, they seemed a contented lot. They weren’t wealthy or powerful; none of them cashed in stock options or made the cover of People magazine. And there were times when they had been taken advantage of or ridiculed. Some parishes treated them well and others didn’t. But in the sunset years of their lives they enjoyed nothing more than looking at the people they served who were inspired to serve others. Their eyes twinkled when they talked about a troubled young man went on to marry and become a faithful husband and doting father.
I recently heard from a parishioner from one of the churches I served as a priest. He wrote to me to talk about a conversation we had the night we met. I remember that night like it was yesterday and how conflicted he felt, and how he seemed to connect with what I was telling him. A few months ago he wrote to tell me that this was the darkest night of his life and he feels I saved his life. I don’t know if he was suicidal or was in danger to choosing a path of more darkness. Regardless, I was able to help him get back on the track of life. His life is now joyful and he credits part of it to the words I gave him that night.
I think those scenes happen more often than we think. Sometimes those scenes call us to listen, but sometimes they call us to speak out. I think of that inmate from so many years ago (and I can’t even look him up because I don’t remember his name). I hope he was able to find his voice and speak up in a place that boasts of layers of injustice. I hope somewhere along the line he has read about Jeremiah and Thomas Becket.
And for all of us, I hope we find the courage to not shut up.