By Mary Oldham Hannemann
A returned Maryknoll lay missioner recalls her ministry in Kenya as she reflects on the Mass readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time and the freedom needed to follow Christ. This reflection was first published in 2019.
“You were called for freedom, brothers and sisters” (Galatians 5:13). Today’s readings contain a common thread of the freedom that God offers to us: freedom from what enslaves us, from what holds us back from our calling.
Elisha was called to be a prophet and to leave his life of farming. He had to let go of his past livelihood to follow Elijah. He burned his plow, cooked the meat of his oxen as a gift to others, and set out on this new chapter in his life. The Gospel reading has a parallel message of Jesus telling his disciples that following him requires the freedom to make a deep commitment.
God beckons us to follow not half-heartedly, but with our whole selves. Being a follower of Christ can require that we leave behind the known, the familiar. Joining the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 2009, I left my previous career as a chemical engineer, to follow a call to serve others in Kenya in a project called HOPE: Helping Orphans Pursue Education. This project supports students who have lost one or both of their parents so that the students are able to complete elementary school, high school or a technical college program.
I found that although I had traveled far, made a multi-year commitment, and learned about their cultures and language, I didn’t have answers to the complex challenges my students faced. Supporting these students couldn’t be the effort of one person. It required the support of a community.
Paul’s writing to the Galatians in today’s second reading reminds us of the need that we have for one another. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I experienced such community through the Community-Based Health Care program in Mombasa. The nurses, social workers and community volunteers showed compassion for the students and for me as a newcomer. As a Lay Missioner in their community, I was reliant on their compassion, patience and service to support the students in the HOPE project. I witnessed great generosity of neighbors who freely made sure children had enough food to eat after a death of a parent so that the children, now orphans, could stay in school.
Are today’s readings only for those discerning a change in career? I think not. Leaving behind our plow can represent the many barriers or safety blankets that we hold on to when we are asked to love God above all else and to truly love our neighbors. This isn’t something that we can do on our own. Our responsorial psalm today reminds us that God is with us, even in the dark of night, in the tough times.
God offers us our portion and our cup – what we need. Let us ask for the freedom to be who we are called to be. May we have the courage to identify the barriers that hold us back and to leave them behind so that we proclaim the Gospel with our lives and love our neighbors as ourselves.
Featured image: An abandoned plow is shown in a field. Returned lay missioner Mary Oldham Hannemann reflects on the freedom needed to leave everything behind and heed the call to follow Christ. (Dru Kelly, Unsplash)