Years ago in a lecture, Father Ed Hays asked, "Is it possible to do everything Jesus wants us to do and eventually achieve salvation without belonging to a church?"

Since the well-known writer understood that the historical Jesus never founded a church as such, he answered, "It's certainly possible." But then he immediately added, "Since the vast majority of people, including myself, need some sort of formal structure to help them carry out the good news Jesus proclaimed, you can see why churches as we know them came into existence."

Yet, as Sunday's sacred authors presume, institutions originally created to convey God's message can get so bogged down in "institutional things" that the message is rarely proclaimed.

A new prophet

Amos addresses this issue in our first reading (Amos 7:12-15). Notice how often prophets do their prophesying in "sacred places:" shrines and temples.

Like the quotation falsely attributed to Willie Sutton about why he robbed banks -- because "that's where the money is" -- prophets proclaim God's word at shrines and temples because that's where the "good" people are.

Prophets, who are the consciences of the people, never try to convert pagans to the true faith; they're sent by God to convert those who already believe in a faith they've rarely practiced.

True word

That's why the Amaziah/Amos confrontation takes place. As high priest at Bethel, Amaziah doesn't need a "dresser of sycamores" from the Judaean wilderness to confuse the flock he's cultivated for years at this national shrine.

He has dozens of "prophets" on his payroll: flunkies who faithfully tell the pilgrims what Amaziah wants them to be told. Only when Amos arrives at Bethel's gates do people actually hear Yahweh's word.

The prophet is emphatic about one point. Yahweh, not Amaziah, took him "from following the flock and said,...'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'" No wonder Amaziah wants Amos out of there. The institution the priest helped create and sustain is more important to him than the word of God, which the institution originally was meant to proclaim.

Something similar seems to be behind Jesus sending out His Twelve to preach repentance (Mark 6:7-13). As we know from Jesus' original proclamation of the Good News in Mark 1, repentance is a total change of one's value system, a 180-degree turn in one's life.

Before anyone can be a follower of Jesus, he or she must be willing to admit that, no matter how serious they are about practicing their religion, they must always leave enough space to make the turns God wants them to make.

That's why Mark goes into detail about what the proclaimers are to wear and eat, their living arrangements and behavior. They're not even to worry about success or failure. Their job is simply to proclaim the healing word of God, not to create a safe, comfortable environment for themselves.

Chosen by God

We don't have to go far today to surface what Christian institutions were created to proclaim. We need only listen to the second reading (Ephesians 1:3-14).

Paul's words should echo throughout our whole Eucharist: "God...has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens as He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the word, to be holy and without blemish before Him. In love, He destined us for adoption to Himself through Jesus Christ....In Him, we were chosen...so that we might exist for the praise of His glory, we who first hoped in Christ."

What a message!

If any of our religious institutions fail to proclaim that message, we can be certain a new dresser of sycamores is standing outside that institution pounding at its gates and trying to bring God to the people living snugly inside.

(7/13/06)