Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kgs 5:14-17; 2 Tim 2:8-13; Lk 17:11-19

There’s a strange little passage in the first reading this morning that deserves some comment. After Naaman the Syrian was cured of his leprosy and the prophet refused a gift in return, Naaman asks for two mule-loads of earth. What’s the meaning of that? To understand the significance of that seemingly odd event we must remember the special place that the land of Israel has in the whole of the Jewish faith. The land (eretz Israel) was the very first promise of the Lord God to Abraham: "Go from your a land that I will show you." (Gen 12:1) The land—the actual physical soil and dirt—always has a special place in Jewish faith. The land of Israel is the best and finest place to worship the Lord God. That’s what Naaman wants two mule-loads of earth for: to build in his native country his own little plot of "the land of Israel" so he can worship the Lord God there...on the actual land (dirt) of Israel. That same reverence for the actual land of Israel continued through the centuries in Jewish belief and practice. For example, the best place to be buried was in the land of Israel. But since Jews were spread all over the world, how could that happen? They kept little bags of dirt which had been taken from the land of Israel when they or some of their friends visited there and had them placed inside their coffins. So they could be buried in the land of Israel.

This special reverence for the actual land of Israel is one of the issues that separates Judaism from Christianity. Very early on the followers of Jesus moved away from this special attachment to the land. The key reason seems to have been their recognition that God’s Spirit moved on people who were outside the traditional land and faith of Israel. In the eleventh chapter of Acts Peter is describing to the community in Jerusalem how he had seen the Spirit of God descend upon Gentiles, and "when they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God saying, Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." (Acts 11:18) The practical result of this was that "place" no longer mattered in the Christian perspective. You could be just as good a Christian whether you were in Jerusalem or Antioch or Rome. You could be a "good" Jew outside the land of Israel; but you could only be a "best" Jew in it.

And yet even within Christianity there is still something to be said for a recognition of some special places as holy and sacred. The study of the history of religions automatically includes sacred space and place as one of its primary categories whereby the holy is manifested. One of the tragic losses of our modern, mobile society is the loss by so many people of being able to identify a particular place or space as their own, "where they belong."

We Benedictine monastics have a little advantage there. The very structure of Benedictine life imparts a feeling of the sacredness of a place. Benedict never directly talks about that in his Rule, but it flows rather naturally from his insistence that the tools of the monastery should be treated as the "vessels of the altar." There’s a sense that "this is a holy place." And the Benedictine charism through the ages has seen the monastery as a sacred space. You can feel it as you walk through the ancient monastic buildings all over Europe. It’s here too in the United States. If you live in a place day after day and deal with all the people there, it may not seem like a very holy place. Visitors feel it more sharply. I’ve spoken to some of your visitors here at the monastery and heard things like, "This place is a God-send for me." I heard another lady say, "This place is a little bit of heaven for me." But it remains for us to again and again grab the appreciation that this little piece of ground here in Beech Grove is a sacred place, a place where God is especially worshiped.

The question that this reading of Scripture asks each of us is: what little bag of dirt would you like placed in your coffin?

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