23 Ordinary C – October 13, 2013 – Insiders, Outsiders and the City of God
Last week while the country was focussed on the ineptitude in Congress a rally took place on the Washington Mall and in other cities. Large numbers of people assembled to urge the House of Representatives to coalesce around a plan, schedule a vote and send a bill to the White House. The protest was not about the government shut down, the debt ceiling or the Affordable Heath Care Act. It was about immigration reform!
According to the Pew Hispanic Center every year about 300,000 unauthorized people enter the country mostly from Mexico. It is a nation that struggles with poverty and where it is impossible for many to earn a living wage and provide basic needs for their families. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops has joined other religious leaders with its support for comprehensive immigration reform.
Naaman, the protagonist in the first reading, was considered a foreigner in the land of Israel. This prominent general in the Syrian army, was an outsider. But in the eyes of God he was no different from the Israelites. At first Naaman thinks Elisha healed him from a skin disease. Then he realizes that the hand of God does not require the power of a prophet.
(There are interesting side bars in this reading. 1) Elisha does not want to be paid for ministering to Naaman; 2) the Greek word for the “washing” that cured Naaman is baptizein meaning to be dipped in water. Christians could interpret this word as a reference to baptism and 3) it was thought that God only resided in a certain place like Israel which is what prompted Naaman to ask for dirt to take back to his country so God would dwell there as well.)
This parable, however, is about human plight, those dilemmas in life that none of us can escape. Naaman’s healing symbolizes that the gates of restoration, reconciliation and salvation are open to all peoples regardless of who they are or where they are from. The gospel story has a similar theme. There are no barriers where God dwells. There are no outsiders. For example the Samaritan who was healed by Jesus was not allowed in the Temple. But that did not stop him from thanking Jesus personally.
Insiders and outsiders. Everyone of us sets up certain boundaries in our lives. We build fences around ourselves for different reasons. Some people are shy. Others are afraid of strangers and think that a strong defense will protect them. Of course the walls that surround us also strengthen our identity. They give us a sense of belonging to a family, a church, a nation. But these same comforts can also be exclusionary. Not all fences make good neighbors much less advance the causes of peace. Consider what exactly is being accomplished by the construction of fences between Israel and Palestine and along the border between Mexico and the United States.
Our religion, which is catholic, meaning for all peoples, also has many boundaries. We Catholics love our traditions, our stories, our rituals, our sense of community. However, even though today’s biblical texts offer us a vision where everyone is welcomed in the house of God we still treat other religions as outsiders. We even act toward some of our own members as if they were outcasts.
Scripture scholar Diane Bergant suggests that the people who live on the margins of society or religion perhaps are not on the fringes after all. Maybe they are the new centers. She proposes when outsiders are respected, acknowledged and greeted with kindness, when they are given a chance, they become the symbols of restoration, for healing and salvation. They reveal the presence of God working in our lives.
Our worship provides a way for us to tap into the unrestricted presence of God. We do not make God present during this liturgy as if God were not present beforehand. Brazilian theologian Claudio Carvalhaes writes that our liturgies have structures within which we can expand human possibilities. While this is true our worship can also divide us into different theological and ethical camps. Some of our prayers, biblical texts and song lyrics are still exclusionary. Our liturgical spaces create boundaries between clergy and laity. All of our ministries are still not open to all baptized members of the church.
At St. Vincent’s we say all are welcome in our house and at our table. But we know in our hearts there are limits to the hospitality we can offer because of our borders, our laws. Nevertheless, we move forward doing what we can do and always looking for ways to improve. We move forward like Elisha and other prophets who challenged the status quo. Humbly we raise our voices like the protesters in Washington, DC demanding immigration reform. We do what we can in this parish and in the larger community to advance the kin-dom of God on earth.
That was the message of Pope John XXIII when he opened the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council fifty-one years ago this past Friday. The Pope said the Council “prepares a path that leads toward the unity of the human race, which is so necessary if this earthly city of ours is to resemble the heavenly one….” It is a message we cannot afford to forget.