To listen to today’s homily, please select the audio file below:
If you remember, last Sunday in Mark’s gospel there were two stories about Jesus. He raised the synagogue official’s daughter to life and he healed the poor woman who touched his cloak in the crowd. You would think miracles like that would enhance his reputation and convince people that he should be listened to.
Yet, after recounting those stories, Mark’s gospel continues today with a surprising rejection that took place when Jesus returned to his own hometown, Nazareth. News traveled fast even in those days, and the people there would have heard of the marvels he had done elsewhere in Galilee.
The gospel doesn’t say why Jesus returned to Nazareth on this occasion. Someone sick? A funeral maybe? We forget Jesus had obligatory ties like that to his own family. Whatever the reason he was there, when Jesus went into the synagogue to pray and to teach, he was rejected by the people of his own hometown. “His family is here, we know them.” “He’s a carpenter, the son of a carpenter.” “We know his mother Mary.” They dismiss him.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, for sure. Jesus was rejected at other times by other people, but you have to think his rejection in his own hometown was hard on him. Yet, he didn’t turn away from them, for sure.
If Jesus experienced rejection, I suppose churches have to experience rejection too, and recent statistics seem to indicate that’s happening in our country now. Last month the Pew Research Center published a report on America’s Changing Religious Landscape, which noted a sharp decline in church membership, particular in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. About 28% of Americans, mainly among the young, say they are “ religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’ A good number of that 28% were likely members of our churches once.
A recent survey by the Gallup Poll has a similar message. It’s a study of how Americans view moral issues, and notes a shift to the left on key moral issues over the last 12 years. What moral issues? A majority of Americans now believe that sex between an unmarried man and woman is ok; divorce is ok, doctor assisted suicide is ok, gay or lesbian relations are ok, having a baby outside marriage is ok.
The authors of the study say that “the public is now more accepting of sexual relations outside of marriage in general than at any point in the history of tracking these measures, including a 15-point increase in the acceptability of sex between an unmarried man and woman…acceptance of divorce and human embryo research is up 12 points.
Are differences over moral issues like these responsible for some people leaving our churches? I’m sure they are. What should our church do about it? Turn its back on those who disagree with its moral teaching? I like what Cardinal Wuerl of Washington wrote after the recent supreme court decision on marriage equality:
“Are people who share our faith but struggle with the Church’s understanding about marriage still welcome at Church? Because Jesus came to save all people, all are invited to be a part of God’s family – his Church. Faithful to her Lord and Founder, the Church welcomes everyone. It is the home for all who seek to follow Jesus as his disciple. This welcome is extended to everyone: married couples with children, unwed mothers and fathers, the single unmarried, couples who struggle with infertility, men and women with same-sex attraction, individuals facing gender issues, those whose marriages have broken down and suffered the trauma of divorce, people with special needs, immigrants, children born and unborn, the young, seniors, and the terminally ill, sinners and saints alike. If the Church were to welcome only those without sin, it would be empty. Catholic teaching exhorts every believer to treat all people with respect, compassion, sensitivity, and love. All are called to walk with Jesus and so all who try to do so have a place in the Church.”
The cardinal offers a number of suggestions for meeting this situation, but I like one particularly. “All Christians have the responsibility to learn and to grow in their faith in order to share it with others. We should be able to explain what we believe and why we hold it. This means taking up the challenge to be better informed on Church teaching and why such belief is part of the vision rooted in Gospel values. This is all the more important when we find the teaching difficult.”
Our church is over two thousand years old. It has a lot of experience in human nature and in the wisdom that comes from Jesus Christ. Our duty is to engage those who disagree with us, not to turn them away. To meet them respectfully, sensitively and with love. That’s the way Jesus himself would do it.