September 26, 2021: Homily-26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Bumper-stickers or short written statements on passenger cars especially taxis and privately owned public transports are the order of the day in the third world, especially my country Ghana. Even some houses and door post have them displayed. Some of the words or statements are words of exhortation or thought provoking statements while others are insinuations.

I always read them whenever I see one in front of me. Once in a while I get kind of angry, especially if the sticker expresses some sort of hateful or intolerant attitude.  And sometimes I’m just puzzled and think, “Why in the world would they want THAT on their car!”  My guess is that most people are not neutral about bumper stickers.  You’re either someone who really likes to put them on your car, or you’re someone who would never do such a thing.  There really seems to be no in-between.

There’s one other kind of bumper sticker I see from time to time.  These are the ones that I actually kind of admire, kind of respect, kind of agree with.

And the one that immediately comes to mind is the bumper sticker that reads, “COEXIST”.  I’m sure some of you have seen that one before.  The design wasn’t originally meant for a bumper sticker.  It was actually the winning entry in a design competition in the early 2000s (won by a designer from Poland, I’m told).  And the design itself has evolved and changed somewhat over the years.  What is so unique about the design is the way it incorporates symbols from various faith traditions and belief systems.  Originally the design had the crescent from Islam for the “C”, the star of David from Judaism for the “X”, and the cross of Christianity for the “T”, and some other symbols.

What I like about this symbol is the idea it is trying to convey, that it is our responsibility to respect the beliefs of others, our responsibility to live peacefully with people who might not think like us or pray like us or see God in the exact same way.

The human family is just that – a family – ONE family – and we have a responsibility to get along, a responsibility to try to understand one another, and dare I say – a responsibility to love one another.  We are all in this together.  That’s not a cliché.  It’s the truth. We all know people who have real difficulty in accepting the sentiment behind a bumper sticker such as “COEXIST”.  Maybe you are one of those people.

Religion among other things has always been “tribal” in nature, always been something that if we are not careful, can lend itself to what I would call an “extreme” kind of communal identity – an identity that categorizes everyone as being either “one of us” or not, “on our side” or not, “in God’s favor” or not, “people who have the truth” or not.  Many of us or maybe all of us at one time or another if we are being totally honest, have probably thought that we’ll only agree to “coexist” if others would be willing to come over to our “side” – believe the same as us, pray the same as us (and maybe even vote the same as us).  Many of us struggle with being okay with that.

I guess you agree with me that this is nothing new.  I don’t have to tell you that.  We even see it clearly on display today in both our First Reading from Numbers and in the Gospel passage from Mark.  In that first passage, Joshua and others are upset when two men who weren’t in the camp began prophesying.  You see, the seventy elders who had remained in the camp had had a religious experience – an outpouring of the spirit that had been on Moses, and had begun prophesying themselves.  They couldn’t understand and weren’t too happy that the same thing had happened to the two men who weren’t there.  Evidently, they thought this was somehow not fair.  I guess they kind of thought that God would only act through them, that he was “theirs”, and that they somehow were more special in God’s eyes.  Moses, as you could imagine, would have none of it, and admonishes them for it, saying,

Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

And in the Gospel Reading a similar thing is on display.  John asks Jesus to stop someone from driving out demons in Jesus’ name.  That might seem like a strange thing to try to stop. After all, ‘driving out demons” is a good thing, right?   The problem was, this person was not part of their group, was not in the inner circle, so-to-speak – was an outsider.  John wasn’t happy.  But neither was Jesus, with what John said and utters his famous line,

“For whoever is not against us is for us.”

For how much I admire the sentiment behind the popular bumper sticker “COEXIST”, I’m always a little worried that some will interpret it in the narrowest sense – as if we are called to simply “tolerate” one another, or “put up with” with one another, or simply “refrain from harming” one another.  That would be a shame, for what God invites us to embrace and maybe even demands from us is so much more.

God wants us to affirm truth and wisdom and insight wherever we find it.

God wants us to acknowledge and champion goodness in whomever it resides.

God wants us to sincerely believe that listening to and understanding one another is much more important than simply talking or trying to convince.

God wants us to trust and believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in every person open to God’s grace.

God wants us to believe that conversations about these sorts of deep mysteries are opportunities for both persons to grow, for both persons to encounter God in the other – and are not arguments to be “won”.

God wants us to find things in common to celebrate, and not get fixated on differences that become unnecessary obstacles.

In other words God wants us to respect the spiritual journeys of everyone – people who are on the exact same journey as us, people who are just trying to make sense of and find meaning in the world, in creation, and in one another.

And that doesn’t mean that we have to believe that every single belief is as good as any other, or that every religion reflects reality in the same way or to the same extent as every other, or that we shouldn’t cherish the faith as it’s been handed down to us – a faith that continues to sustain us and give our lives hope and meaning and joy.  Cherishing our faith and respecting the beliefs of others are not mutually exclusive.  We can do both and we MUST do both.

And so, “coexisting” is really just a kind of starting point, a sort of minimum threshold that (hopefully) keeps us from heading down a path to hostility or suspicion or contempt.  But, my dear friends, we can’t be satisfied remaining in that somewhat impoverished place.  God wants so much more from us and for us.

He wants us to be compassionate.

He wants us to try to place ourselves in the shoes of another, and see situations from a perspective other than our own.

He wants us to forgive.

He wants us to learn from one another.

He wants us to find commonalities that we can embrace.

And he wants us to love.  Not once in a while.  Not when we feel like it.  And not just love those who are just like us.

He wants us to love everyone.   All the time.   Without condition.

After all, that’s how he loves each one of us – all his children all over the world.

My dear friends, we waste so much of our time only seeing and focusing on the differences.  And God, well, God sees us all the same.

Can’t we do likewise?

Father Boat

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