Mass Commissioning Lay Ministry Candidates

June 19, 2017 

Today’s gospel passage is taken from Jesus’ treasured “Sermon on the Mount.”  We’re quite familiar with its opening verses and the soaring words that we’ve come to describe as the Beatitudes.  You know those verses well.  “Blest are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are they who mourn.  …  Blessed are the merciful.  …  Blessed, too, are the peacemakers.”  …  They’re words of affirmation, words of hope and words that every one of us appreciates hearing and seeks to make our own.

Today’s portion of that sermon is a little less appealing on its surface.  Its tone and intensity are vastly different than most every other lesson that Jesus offers in the words that he shared on that hilltop overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  When coupled with the few verses that follow today’s installment and that challenge us to go so far as to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us and to in essence “be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect,” it’s hardly surprising that some scripture scholars see today’s gospel as the central message of the entire Sermon on the Mount – and as an essential element of authentic discipleship.

Yet, we can focus so much on the teachings of Jesus that exhort us to do extraordinary things – to turn the other cheek – to pray for those who persecute us – and to love our enemies – that we can easily overlook what lies at the heart of this passage and the lesson it contains for every Christian.

Yes, without a doubt, forgiveness and reconciliation are the foremost building blocks of the great law of love that Jesus demands we embrace in our relationships one with another.  But Jesus calls us to be much more than merely law abiding citizens of his kingdom.  The type of love that Jesus describes in this portion of his sermon gives us insight into the path to be followed by his disciples.

The word that Jesus uses for “love” is the Greek word agape.  …  Agape indicates not a romantic or emotional kind of love that we have for special people in our lives, but, rather, a state of benevolence and good will that begins with recognizing the humanity we share with all people who call God their “Father.”   …  It calls us to love the unlovable, to reach out to the alienated, to embrace those who are different, to dismantle whatever walls divide and isolate people and to build bridges that bring people together.  …  Agape is a love that seeks the well being of all, recognizing that despite our differences, we are all bound together as brothers and sisters – children of one God.

We celebrate this evening the very special achievements of those of you who have engaged our lay ministry formation program for service to this local Church of Scranton.  We’re so very proud of each of you.  You’ve learned a great deal.  You’ve grown in your understanding of our faith and in your desire to give that faith a voice – and hands – and a heart – as you seek to forward to ministering to the people whom God has and will continue to entrust to your care.

Yet, for all that you have experienced and have come to know and understand in a deeper way, today’s gospel – not chosen especially for this day but providentially taken from the readings for this very day in the Church year, Monday of the 11th Week in Ordinary time – is a powerful reminder to all of us, and particularly you, our newest Lay Ministers in the Church of all that should lie at the heart of the ministry that you are called to share.

The words of Jesus in the gospel speak to us in many ways.  They challenge us to forgive – to break the cycle of evil that so quickly can escalate in our lives – to be selfless in our service to one another – and to love without counting the cost.  Above all, Jesus’ words call us to live the gospel message with integrity.

And we do live our faith with integrity to a certain extent, don’t we?  …    While we may have enemies in our lives, most of the time we understand the consequences when we fail to forgive or at least attempt to move forward in peace.  …  As a people – and even as a Church – we’ve made strides in reaching out to certain groups and individuals who have for far too long been forced to live on the peripheries of life.  We do a reasonable job in offering them support and we do our best to treat them with dignity.

But as we reach out to the people that we are called to serve – to feed them – to cloth them – to teach them – to care for them – to work with them – how to we really see them?  …  Do we see them as mere objects of our ministry through whom we find fulfillment?  …  Or do we allow ourselves to see in them – no matter their background, situation or circumstance – the face of Jesus?  …  Do we welcome them in our lives, allow them to minister to us, and journey together with them?  …  And do we love them as brothers and sisters?

We’ve all been given a treasure – to participate in the mission of Jesus and so build God’s Kingdom in our midst.  Pope Francis shared these powerful words some time ago to a gathering of lay ministers like you.  “The first and fundamental consecration that a person receives sinks its roots in our baptism.  No one is baptized a priest or a bishop. They baptized us as laypeople and that baptism is the indelible sign that no one can ever wipe away.”

So, my sisters and brothers, go forth and live your baptism!  Use well, wisely and generously the gifts that God has given to you.  And ever and always recognize that in the sacred trust that is yours, your ministry – and mine – is always to recognize and proclaim Jesus and the power of his mercy and love.