20 Aug 2017
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
There are events in human life which repeat themselves. And one of these we might “exile and return.”
In 586 B.C. the city of Jerusalem was overtaken and destroyed; the people were sent into exile, spending the next forty-seven years in Babylon. And then they were free to return home. But when they got back to Jerusalem they had to rebuild; not only their buildings and such, but also their way of life: their values, their standards, their practices . . . everything.
Or think about World War II. The Jews were thrown into exile again, only that time in their own country. And then after the Nazis were defeated, Germany as a whole was in exile. Both Jews and Germans found themselves in a new world, in a new reality. And in order for them to “return,” they had to rebuild; not only buildings and infrastructure and the economy, but also their ways of life. It wasn’t until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down that we might say they finally came back from exile.
And then, lastly, we can take the events of September 11, 2001 as those which changed the world as we know it. Society was thrown into exile, into a foreign world where we had to figure out how to deal with the new threat of terrorism. And that’s an exile that we’re still trying to find our way home from.
There are events in human life which repeat themselves. And one of these we might call “exile and return.” In the world of philosophy it’s called an “epistomological crisis:” a crisis where everything we thought we knew has been suddenly turned over, and we’re left with a mess that we have to make sense of.
Just this past week a local family lost both a mother and daughter in a drunk driving accident. In a split second, an entire family was thrown into exile; into a foreign land where everything is turned over and nothing makes sense.
And on a parish-wide level, of course there was the merger of three communities into one eight years ago. And that’s very definitely an experience of being in exile. We’re in a territory that’s unfamiliar; we’re experiencing a way of living in the world which is foreign. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves as a single parish.
We might think of how things used to be, when there were men’s groups and ladies’ groups; when everybody had their own parish picnics, when people really got involved in their local communities and there was overabundance of volunteers and energy. But all of that—all of what we thought we knew about being a Catholic parish—was overturned.
And while the temptation is try to “go back” to what once was, it can’t be done. Once the Jews were hauled off to Babylon, there was no going back. Once World War II happened, there was no turning back. There’s no way to undo September 11th; there’s no way to undo a tragic accident; there’s no way to go back to the way things were before. The only way to get out and to “return” is to go forward.
The Lord spoke through the Prophet Isaiah, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” And Isaiah wrote this after the exile; he wrote it when the people had returned and had to rebuild. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” And that statement reflected the terms and conditions of their new reality. They were back in Jerusalem, but life was going to be very different.
Foreigners had never been entirely excluded from the worship of God, but now in their post-exile life, the doors were thrown wide open to people who were not Jewish. That was part of the new reality. It didn’t mean that their understanding of things before was wrong; it just means that life was different now, and there was a new set of rules and standards to live by.
But even while the rules had changed, the fundamentals were the same as they always had been. The people who belong to God (as Isaiah says) are those: who observe what is right, who do what is just, who join themselves to the Lord and minister to him and love him, who become his servants, who keep holy the Sabbath, and who remain firm in keeping God’s covenant. That’s the core around which the Jews rebuilt themselves.
In effect, the Lord was saying to them: It doesn’t matter what race somebody is, as long as they do these things, they have proven that they belong to me. When Jesus encountered the Canaanite woman, we see that she was put to the test. In God’s eyes, the fact that she was a Canaanite was irrelevant; Jesus saw in her someone who was a truly faithful person. She turned to the Lord for help, to offer her pleas of intercession for her daughter, and she remained firm in the Lord’s covenant in spite of the fact that others would look down on her for doing that.
Jesus says, “I came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And in that Canaanite woman, he found one of his lost sheep. She was a Canaanite by birth, but she was an Israelite in her soul. It wasn’t really until Saint Paul started to go out and preach the gospel to the Gentiles that the Jew’s return from Babylon finally reached its fulfillment. That was almost 570 years later!
It can take a long time to come out of exile, and for life to be ordered rightly again. It just takes time. It can even take generations. Think of the ancient Hebrews wandering in the desert for forty years. When we think of our own situation in the parish, why should we expect that life will be “normal” again quickly?
The only ones among us who know St. Clare as St. Clare are those who are 13-14 years old and younger. I’ve heard that it can take at least two generations for a parish merger to move from “exile” to “return.” It can take forty years of being “in the desert” before we can say the merger is complete, and we can get on with what we’d call a “normal” parish life. We only have eight years under our belt; we have a ways to go yet, and that’s to be expected.
In the meantime, we listen to what the Prophet Isaiah says, and we try to implement it: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” It’s a pretty straightforward instruction from God to his people who find themselves in a new reality.
When he says the word, “house,” the Lord means two things. He means a physical building as well as a family (or “household”). When Jesus quotes that line from Isaiah in the gospel of Matthew (21:13), he uses the Greek word, “oikos.” And “oikos” is the same word used for a dwelling or a family.
In the first Letter of Peter, we hear: “Come to him, a living stone . . . and let yourselves be built up into a spiritual house” (2:4-5); into a spiritual “oikos,” a spiritual family, a dwelling place for the Spirit of God. When we strip away everything else that happens in the church, in a parish, the core that’s left is what Saint Peter talks about here. Whether we’re in exile or we’re on the return journey, the core of what we’re about is that, first, we come to the Lord and, second, that we let him build us as a spiritual, holy band of disciples. That is essential. Without that core understanding of what we’re about, then we’re not only in exile, but we’re also lost and without hope.
“My house”—my church buildings, my people—“will be a house of prayer.” If we had a banner with a coat of arms on it, it would show a heart pouring out in prayer, in supplication, in love to the Holy Trinity. We’re not just a community of people; we’re a community of pray-ers. Just like that Canaanite woman, God recognizes us as his own by the fact that we turn to him; that we offer him prayers of intercessions for the needs of others; that we meditate on his great love for us individually; that we pray with faith, hope, and charity.
We’re a community of people—a “house”—which is God-oriented. It’s no mistake that in Catholic churches, the altar, the tabernacle, the ambo, and the crucifix are our focal points. It’s not a mistake that the seating is arranged such that the people of God are all facing toward those symbols and signs of God’s presence. The church building itself—God’s “house of prayer”—is a physical reminder that at the core of our identity is the fact that we are God-oriented.
We come here to go to the Lord. We come here to pray, to intercede, to offer our thanks to God. What we have here, in effect, is the Church within the church; the “house of God”—the “family of God,” gathered inside the “house of God”—the church building. “My house will be a house of prayer,” says God. Whether it’s brick-and-mortar or flesh-and-blood, the house of God is directed toward God.
As we go from “exile to return,” while we adjust to new realities in life, we also commit ourselves to what is essential and unchanging. We keep God as our focus, and let ourselves be built up as a spiritual house, as brothers and sisters who worship and pray to the one Lord of all, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.