I remember when I first started to speak about people living with HIV/AIDS in my homilies. I was serving in a parish community in Colorado Springs beginning in 1984. In the local hospitals during those early years, chaplains and clergy would stand in the hallway near the patient’s door and yell into the room at the person who was sick. Everyone in the medical and religious communities was afraid of this unknown, infectious disease. People who were in those hospital rooms were outside the boundaries of comfort, care and love from many people, organizations and institutions.
I started to learn more about AIDS when a young man knocked on my office door. He stood in the threshold of my door because he was afraid I would reject him. I then brought the issues of not only his life but of so many others who were ill to our community through the gospel message on Sunday mornings. I remember parishioners secretly handing me money after Mass to help with people who were losing their jobs, insurance and even their families.
I remember this complex mix of AIDS and preaching as I ponder these challenging sacred gospels from The Assumption of Mary through the Triumph of the Cross. Luke challenges us that the last will be first and the first will be last. We hear that many people are still knocking on our doors and saying, “Lord, open the door for us.”
As preachers we must realize that no person is out of the bounds of God’s love and mercy. We cannot claim in our preaching who will be first or last. The suffering of our people is fuel for our words as homilists. As the years go by, I realize to the depths of my being that people come to Mass in order to make sense out of their suffering. They not only hold up their pain to God but the pain of people in their families and communities. Preaching the issues of people who feel on the outside of God’s love is central to the mission of our ministry.
Today, I preach among people who feel outside of the institution of the Church and outside the boundaries of God’s fidelity. I am confronted with the narrow door every time our staff turns people away because we do not have the resources to help them. I understand the tight passageway into love when I hear a young mother who comes to our chapel just after her boyfriend has beaten her. I know the narrowness of the gate into the Kingdom when I still want to judge people who criticize other people living in urban poverty.
Jesus desires a fire of faith on the earth and yet knows there will be division among families. As preachers we keep the flames alive when we name the suffering of our people. We cannot just label people as “poor” or “sick” or “addicted” or “abused”. We must enter into the experience people face when these issues tear families apart and when housing is out of their bounds or when people cannot afford health care for their vulnerable children. We must then be prepared to face the criticism within our church families.
I hear from many preachers that it is easier to speak about official Church teaching than to open up the healing gospel for real people’s lives. It is easier to hide behind the door that names people as sinners than it is to search for the real reasons people sell their bodies, become addicted to drugs or even leave their wives and children. We cannot confuse obedience to the Church for the fire of faith that people need to find in the hurting lives. We all must touch suffering in order to heal it. When we all discover the truth of life we will all become more faithful to presence of God within the Eucharist.
Jesus reminds us in these gospels to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to our banquets so that we will not receive repayment here on earth. This means that all people who stand at our doors are already members of our communities. Our preaching must break through the labels we attach to people. We must articulate and model that people suffering all forms of poverty are fed just as any other member of our communities. We live an illusion when we think God’s love is only for those whom we think are deserving, or who have enough money to support the parish, or who do not challenge our comfort, or who will repay us with clerical perks and a better lifestyle.
Jesus also confronts us with the reality that we must renounce all of our possessions in order to be a disciple. As preachers, we stand with people who have little so that we all may trust God more profoundly. These possessions are often our attitudes about our neighbors and our narrow mindedness about God’s fidelity on earth. When we stand with people who feel they are on the outside of our communities, we can help them by using our preaching to knock on the door of God’s faithfulness and on the closed doors of our worshipping assemblies.