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The inescapable vocation

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fifteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Finn considers the prophetic and apostolic call through the ages.

Amos stands on dangerous ground - Bethel is the religious centre of a breakaway kingdom in the Promised Land. As its priest, Amaziah, makes clear, the shrine legitimates the rule of a royal dynasty which has cut off the northern lands of Israel from Judah and from the Jerusalem Temple to the south. Worship of a golden calf at Bethel serves the political interests of an elite which has prospered by ignoring the plight of the poor. The unity of the Chosen People under God's covenant has been sacrificed for a lesser unity under King Jeroboam II and his court. And Amos now stands ready to prophesy against them.  

Amaziah, royal appointee and defender of the status quo, is desperate to be shot of this troublemaker. To this end, he plays fast and loose with the prophet's vocation. Amos should go back to Judah and earn his crust there - as though prophesy was just another job, a trade to be plied in one place as much as any other. But Amos is swift to reject such toxic rhetoric: he doesn't announce God's word for a living, and God sends his prophet to a specific audience with a specific message. To be a prophet is always to have an inescapable vocation; he has an unavoidable mission to tell God's truth, to uphold God's covenant, to proclaim the unity of all God's people, in the here-and-now.   

What was true for Amos in the eighth century before Christ was of course equally true for the Catholic martyrs of England and Wales in the sixteenth century: schoolteachers, priests, lawyers, housewives, monks and scholars, they found themselves called out of their former lives to defend the universality of the Church against Tudor monarchs whose pursuing of state supremacy over the Church secured dynastic marriages, filled state coffers with money from the sale of monastic property, and invested royalty with sacred majesty. It was not enough for these men and women to practise their faith in private, or to flee the authorities and go abroad.  

What, then, does God call on us to proclaim in the here-and-now today? To know that we must presumably first ask how God's covenant and unity are threatened at present. Perhaps Amaziah himself has a new job in Britain. He's become the politician, or the administrator, who tells us that ours is a secular society with no place for faith schools, or for Christian symbols in the workplace. He insists that religious beliefs cannot be accommodated in public institutions. Opponents gain no hearing from him: ethical arguments are dismissed as unacceptable for rational discussion because voiced by Catholics. The Church must cut its cloth according to the prevailing ethic in society.  

In reality, the unity which God wills for humankind is broken in many different ways. The poverty gap between rich and poor in the UK has widened in the past decade. In developing countries destitution, malnutrition, vulnerability to disease, remain scandals that may implicate Western nations as the beneficiaries of an unjust economic order. Within so-called 'developed' nations migrants and asylum-seekers may be isolated and humiliated, a far cry from the compassion which is to be shown to strangers by members of the Promised Land. Their advertised exclusion supposedly serves our national or cultural unity - whatever that is. As I write this sermon, I can only guess if and how these questions are addressed in the new papal encyclical from Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate (Charity in Truth).  

Yet the very existence of such an encyclical can inspire hope. It reminds us that the prophetic mission of Amos to speak the words given to him by God is not a dead letter or dead end. That mission to Israel continues, culminates, in the advent of the Divine Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, whose preaching is carried forward in today's Gospel by the apostles. The encyclical reminds us that His and their mission is likewise carried forward in the Church. Her vocation is inescapable. For - mercifully - whatever our disunity, whatever the false compromises, God has acted decisively to restore our full unity in Christ. As the Letter to the Ephesians insists, God chooses us to be His adopted children in Christ so that all things are brought together at the end under His authority.  

Finally, though, we should recognise from today's Gospel something of how our vocation is to be lived out. The apostles are to travel light on the road (that recurrent symbol of discipleship in Mark's Gospel). Without any of the belongings which others notice and respect, they are easily despised. They are to be dependent in their ministry for food and shelter on those to whom they turn. They are thus to adopt the guise of sojourners in the land; by their very vulnerability and exposure to rejection, they may call forth hospitality. Something of that simplicity must be ours. 

And if the apostles are rejected? They must shake the dust from their feet. What is the effect on those who reject them, when they see such apparently despicable people in turn shake off the dust from their sandals, as though it were the townsfolk who were not good enough for them? There is a proper dignity to the apostles which they must not forget. It may even shock from complacency those who rejected them. Something of that dignity is also ours.

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Readings

Amos 7:12-15|Ephesians 1:3-14|Mark 6:7-13

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