Tuesday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I want to feel bad for Lot’s wife in today’s first reading.  Not only is she not even called by name in the entire reading, but she gets turned into a pillar of salt just for a backward glance.  But, sad as it is, this is the whole point of the reading, and it’s not like they weren’t warned – the angel was very clear: “Flee for your life!  Don’t look back or stop anywhere on the Plain.  Get off to the hills at once, or you will be swept away.”  So in some ways, she deserved what she got.  But I think the reading is getting at something a little deeper here than a mere glance over one’s shoulder.

Indeed the real issue is, what did that looking back mean?  Sodom and Gomorrah were being destroyed for their wanton evil.  They may have once been wonderful cities, but they had become centers of every kind of evil and debased action.  And this evil was so pervasive that no other corrective action other than total destruction of the cities would do.  If yesterday had not been the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, we would have heard the famous reading about Abraham and God bargaining to save those cities.  At the end of it all, God agrees at Abraham’s urging not to destroy the place if just ten righteous people could be found there.  Obviously the righteous numbered less than ten, amounting to just Lot, his wife, and his two daughters.

But, so pervasive was the evil of that place, that it infected even Lot’s wife, who didn’t just glance back to see if she dropped something.  No, the backward glance was more likely sorrow for what she left behind; she was not untainted by the scandal of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The lesson is that when God leads us forward, we cannot debase ourselves to look back.  The Psalmist has it right today, as always, when he says, “For your mercy is before my eyes, and I walk in your truth.”  Your mercy is before my eyes, so I need to look forward, not back.  Looking backward leads us to our old sinful ways; looking forward is what leads us to our God.  So if God is giving us the chance to move forward, as he did for Lot and his wife and his daughters, then we can do no less than fix our eyes on the path ahead, cutting our ties with everything that is behind us.

Saints Peter and Paul

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was. They had too much at stake. Having both messed up their estimation of who Jesus was earlier in their lives, they knew the danger of falling into the trap. So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate. And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord. We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ. He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath.  We must never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.

Perhaps Saints Peter and Paul can inspire our own apostolic zeal. Then, as we bear witness to the fact that Jesus is Lord of our lives and of all the earth, we can bring a banal world to relevance. Perhaps in our renewed apostolic zeal we can bring justice to the oppressed, right judgment to the wayward, love to the forgotten and the lonely, and faith to a world that has lost sight of anything worth believing in. To paraphrase Cardinal Francis George, the apostolic mission still has a Church, and it’s time for the Church to be released from its chains and burst forth to give witness in the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father

Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings

220jesus_womanThese readings today are just incredible. In one sense, they give us a reason for hope and a foundation for faith, but in another sense, they raise some pastoral questions that are difficult to answer. The very first words of today’s Liturgy of the Word reach out and grab us: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” And perhaps we already knew that. Perhaps we know that God does not intend our death or our suffering, but the really hard thing for us is that he permits it. Why is that? Why would God permit his beloved ones to suffer so much here on earth?

When I was in seminary, I worked as a fire chaplain the last couple of years. We were called out one wintry night, just before Christmas break, to speak to some medics who had extracted a nine-year old child from a badly mangled car, only to have the child die on the way to the hospital. These medics were from a neighboring fire department, so we didn’t know them, and I didn’t have too much hope that the conversation would go well. But, to my surprise, these men did open up and expressed the frustration they felt.

One of the men was Catholic and he was the one who had the task of extracting the child from the car. His enduring question was, why did this innocent child have to suffer and die? There was no answer for that question, but my fellow chaplain was able to give some meaning to it all when he pointed out that the child died in front of Marytown, a Franciscan monastery near our seminary that provides 24 hour exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He pointed out that he died near the physical manifestation of Christ’s own body, and that Jesus was always letting the children come to him. They had struggled so much to find a reason for this sadness, but only faith could provide help in the situation.

Which is the story of today’s Gospel. Two people reach out in very different ways to end suffering and provide healing. One is a man, who approaches Jesus and falls at his feet, begging the teacher to heal his daughter. The other is a woman, who dares not make herself known, who sneaks up behind Jesus to touch his clothing. The situations were different, but what unites them is their faith. They have faith that reaching out to Jesus in their own way will bring them the healing they desire.

And there was a pretty serious leap of faith involved for the hemorrhaging woman. Touch was her enemy. She had suffered much at the hands of many doctors. Not only have their ministrations failed to heal her, but they have also left her penniless. And to touch anyone in her state of ritual impurity makes them ritually unclean too. So she is totally marginalized: she is a woman in a patriarchal society, afflicted by an enduring and debilitating illness, she has no money to take care of herself, and she is unable to be part of the community or participate in worship. Things could not have been worse. Finding the courage to reach out to Jesus, even in her impure state, she is healed by her faith.

Now that same faith was lacking in the people who were attending to Jairus’s daughter. They may have believed that Jesus could cure her illness, but now that she is dead, his assertion that she is merely “sleeping” meets with ridicule and scorn. So Jesus has to throw out the faithless ones so that they would no longer be an obstacle. The child cannot reach out to Jesus so he reaches out to her, taking her hand, and raising her up.

So it’s as simple as that. An act of faith on the part of the hemorrhaging woman and the synagogue official provide healing and restore life. But how realistically does that match our experience? I am guessing that those medics threw up a prayer or two in addition to all of the life-saving actions they performed on that nine-year old when he was in the ambulance with them, but the boy died. How many of us have prayed faithfully, constantly, only to be met by seemingly deaf ears? We don’t even have the same opportunity as Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman. We can’t reach out and touch Jesus in the flesh. So I can’t stand here and tell you that one simple act of faith is all it takes to make all your problems go away.

But what I will say is this: as I have walked with people who have suffered, those who have reached out to Jesus in faith have not gone unrewarded. Maybe their suffering continued in some way, but in Christ they found the strength to walk through it with dignity and peace. Maybe Jesus won’t always stop the bleeding of our hurts and inadequacies and woundedness. But through his own blood, he will always redeem us. We who are disciples need to make those acts of faith if we are to live what we believe.

I am struck by the Eucharistic imagery at the end of today’s Gospel. Jesus comes to the home of Jairus and finds his daughter asleep in death. He reaches out to her, touches her, and raises her up. Then he instructs those around her to give her something to eat. We gather for this Eucharistic banquet today and Jesus comes to us, finding us asleep in the death of our sins. Because we are dead in our sins, we can hardly reach out to touch our Lord, but he reaches out to us. He takes our hands, raises us up, and gives us something to eat.

We come to the Eucharist today with our lives in various stages of grace and various stages of disrepair. At the Table of the Lord, we offer our lives and our suffering and our pain. We bring our faith, wherever we are on the journey, and reach out in that faith to touch the body of our Lord. We approach the Cup of Life, and whatever emptiness is in us is filled up with grace and healing love, poured out in the blood of Christ. As we go forth to love and serve the Lord this day, all of our problems may very well stay with us, remaining unresolved at least to our satisfaction. Our suffering and pain may very well be with us still. But in our faith, perhaps they can be transformed, or at least maybe we can be transformed so that we can move through that suffering and pain with dignity and peace. And as we go forth, perhaps we can hear our Lord saying to us the same words he said to the woman with the hemorrhage: go in peace, your faith has saved you.

Saturday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s first reading reminds me of times growing up when I’d laugh at inappropriate times, which was pretty often. Come to think of it, some things might not have changed that much, but I digress. But growing up, especially when there was tension, I’d often laugh, and I’d hate it when I got caught. “Who me? No, I didn’t laugh…” That kind of sounds like the conversation between the Lord and Sarah today. Yesterday, it was Abraham who laughed, and for the same reason. They simply could not believe that God’s generosity and blessing could overcome the limitations of their advanced age. But God had plans for Abraham and his family, and so age and even laughter could not prevent the beginnings of the covenant.

Contrast their incredulity and lack of faith with the faith of the centurion in today’s Gospel. Jesus didn’t even have to go to his house to cure his servant. The centurion’s faith was so great that even distance provided no obstacle to blessing. As I mentioned yesterday, we can’t be too hard on Abraham and Sarah. They didn’t yet have the experience of the Lord that we have, or even that the centurion had. That centurion had seen Jesus’ mighty deeds and probably had come to believe because of that.

This raises a rather uncomfortable pastoral question, I think. How many good, faithful people, have prayed their hearts out, totally trusting in God’s power to heal and save, and yet their loved one remains ill, or perhaps was not saved from death. That’s a hurt that a lot of people carry with them for a long time, it may even be that they have felt they had done something wrong or perhaps didn’t have quite enough faith. The answer of course, is that none of those are true. God’s answers to prayer can take a lot of different forms, and sometimes he doesn’t answer the way that we would have picked. That doesn’t mean that God is not merciful, just, or good, and it doesn’t mean that we are not faithful. It just means that whatever the blessing is, it’s different that we expected, and perhaps we can’t even see it just yet.

The responsorial psalm today is actually Mary’s Magnificat, her song of praise and faith. What a wonderful model this is for all of us who struggle with faith and who struggle with the way God answers prayer sometimes. Mary’s life was not without its struggles and pain, but still she was able to sing, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” That is the prayer for all of us who struggle but still have faith.

Friday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Lord, if you wish you can make me clean.” In some ways, that is the biggest understatement in all of Scripture. We would say to the leper, “of course God can make you clean, God can do anything God wants to do.” But for the leper, I think it’s less of an understatement than it is a statement of faith. He has obviously heard of or maybe has even seen some of Jesus’ other mighty deeds, and he is expressing the faith that Jesus can help him. The big “if” for him, though is the “if you wish” part. And of course, Jesus does wish, and he is made clean.

In our first reading, God wishes to bless Abraham and Sarah too. They display far less faith than our leper, but in their defense, they are new to the whole experience of God. They would be happy enough for God to just bless them through Ishmael. But God intends to do more for the aged couple: he will give them a child through Sarah. Abraham laughs in the face of such overwhelming blessing. But it is God who has the last laugh: he indeed gives them a son through Sarah, whom they are to name “Isaac,” which in Hebrew means, “God laughs.”

God can do anything God wishes. Nothing is an obstacle for God, except perhaps for our lack of faith. If we have the faith that our leper had in the Gospel reading, we might well be amused to see what God can do in us and through us and among us. That doesn’t mean every whim of ours will be God’s pleasure, but it does mean that the ways he blesses us might make us all laugh for joy.

Thursday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So today we learn that just because we call on the Lord, that doesn’t mean that the Lord is at our whim, someone we can summon in the same way as we press a button on the remote and the television comes to life. That’s what the whole nasty business with Abram and Sarai was about. Instead of trusting the Lord’s promises that God would make Abram the father of many nations, they took matters into their own hands and then were displeased at the result. That’s what happens when we forget to trust in God and instead trust in ourselves and in our own ability to do something clever.

The same is true for the scribes and Pharisees, and also for the wanna-be followers of Jesus. They might claim mighty deeds in Jesus’ name, but Jesus can see their hearts and knows that they are not really open to the fullness of the Gospel. Simply crying, “Lord, Lord” will not get them into the kingdom of heaven. If they’re not willing to set their house on the rock solid foundation of Christ, they will not stand, and they will fall apart with the first of the storms.

And so we disciples have to be careful about our relationship with Christ. It’s not something we can neglect and expect it to be deep and rich enough to lead us to eternal life. We have to be people of integrity, spiritual people who know who our Lord is and who are open to the fullness of his teaching. He teaches with authority, not as the scribes of old, nor as the so-called authorities of our time – like Oprah or Dr. Phil. If we want teaching with authority, all we have to do is open the Bible, and fall in love all over again with this Lord who gave himself for our sakes so that we can all be one with him in the kingdom that has no end.

Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It’s time to get going, to set out on the journey.  That’s the message of our Gospel today, and I think it’s a timely one, coming as it does as some of us are preparing for, or maybe even returning from, our summer vacations.  I have fond memories of taking vacations in the summer with my family when I was growing up.  Dad loved to drive even long distances, so he’d be up and ready to go at like five in the morning!  We had packed the car the night before, and got started early to avoid any rush hour traffic.  Even though I’m not really a morning person, I used to look forward to those early-departure journeys.  I think it’s just fun to be going somewhere else, no matter what time of the day it is.

The point of a journey is often to set out and begin something new, to reach out to new horizons.  Jesus was always doing that in John’s Gospel.  The reading we have today is at the end of chapter four, in which Jesus has been standing next to the sea, teaching the people by means of parables.  He has told them the parable of the sower who went out to sow seeds, the parable of the mustard seed, and the lamp placed on the lamp stand.  He is explaining the kingdom of God to them, but they don’t quite get it.  Even the disciples have to have it explained to them.  When he’s done the best that he can with them, he is ready to move on.  There are other people that need to hear the Good News, others who need to know Jesus’ power and authority.

And so he sets out on the journey, and the reading says that the disciples take him with them in the boat “just as he was.”  That’s a curious detail, I think.  But it makes me remember those trips with my dad.  It’s time to get going, no time to change clothes or freshen up, just get in the car – or in this case, the boat – and let’s get started on the journey.  But the journey isn’t always without its problems.  On vacation trips we may run into traffic, or if in the air, perhaps turbulence.  On the sea, the disciples experienced the raging waves of a fearsome storm.  So they wake Jesus up, because apparently these storms don’t really affect him, and he rebukes the storm, and then rebukes the disciples for their little faith.

We’re all on a journey.  That journey, like that of the disciples, is from fear to faith.  We very rarely have time to thing about it; we just have to get in the boat and get moving, just as we are.  The journey is not always smooth: storms arise, and when they do, it often seems like our God is sleeping, seeming not to care that we are about to perish.  I’m not going to fill in the blanks for you – you can all do that well enough.  You’ve been on many journeys in your life, and sometimes the ride has been bumpy.  But if we stay on the journey, we definitely get to experience this One whom “even wind and sea obey.”  Even when our God seems to be sleeping, he is never unaware of our situation, and his love for us is never on pause.

The thing is, sometimes the storm doesn’t seem to stop so quickly as it does in today’s Gospel reading.  Would that Jesus would stand up in the boat of our uncertainty and yell out: “Quiet! Be still!”  But maybe he is.  Maybe the “Be still” is directed at us and not at the storm.  There is a contemporary Christian song which I like that has a wonderful line in it: “Sometimes he calms the storm, and other times he calms his child.”  That song has given me peace in many situations.  Because as frightening as the storms of our lives can be, they are no match for the grace of God.  Even if God allows the storm to rage in our lives, if he is with us, calming us, we have nothing to fear.  And maybe that is the occasion when we make progress on that journey from fear to faith.

I want to talk about two other journeys today, because they are heavy on my heart.  The first one was the final journey of my dad.  I think of him not just because of our vacation trips together, but of course, because this is Father’s Day.  On the last day of his life, I gave him the last rites, which I had done countless times before and since.  But that was the hardest thing I have ever done as a priest, and also one of the most significant.  When I was done, I went down to the chapel and cried for about half an hour.  Finally, Jesus came to me and gave me some consolation.  He wasn’t going to calm the storm this time, but he did calm me.  He reminded me that dad prepared me for so many journeys in my life, and I just had the incredible honor of preparing him for his most important journey, the journey home.  Dad kept saying that day, “It’s almost time to go.”  And he was right.  This man who got up early for every vacation we ever went on was not going to get a late start on the journey home.

Today we remember those fathers who have gone home and we honor those fathers who are still with us.  The example of their lived faith helps us all to make our own journey from fear to faith.  Today we pray for God’s blessing on all fathers and on the institution of fatherhood in general.  We are grateful for their heroic witness to faith that places value on God, virtue, and family when our society would sooner ridicule those three.

The last journey I want to talk about today, is of course, my own personal journey.  This is my last homily here at St. Raphael, and it’s time for me to move on to whatever lies ahead for me.  This one will be a little harder to talk about, so I’m going to begin with a little humor.

The new priest arrived at his parish, and found a note attached to three envelopes in a little bundle.  The envelopes were numbered one to three.  They were from the priest he was replacing and the note said that if ever things got bad and there was a little storm, he should open an envelope, beginning with the first.  He chuckled a bit, and set them aside, and things went so well that he almost forgot about them.  Until there was a controversy.  Things were getting ugly, and he remembered the envelopes and decided to open the first.  It said, very simply, “Blame me, your predecessor.”  So he did.  He blamed the priest before him, and everyone accepted that, and they moved on.  But eventually there was another controversy, and so he decided to open the second envelope.  It said, “Blame the pastoral council.”  So that’s what he did.  He blamed the pastoral council and things blew over and they moved on.  But, after a little while, there was a third controversy, so in desperation, he opened the last of the envelopes.  This note was a little longer than the others, but the first line really got his attention: “Prepare three envelopes.”

Well, Father Dennis didn’t leave me three envelopes and I won’t be leaving any for Father Dindo either.  But I did want to take a moment and express my gratitude for three things.  First, I am grateful for the ways you have cared for me.  I know that many of you pray for me and all priests every day, and that is a powerful thing.  But you have also brought me soup when I was sick, you’ve stopped to tell me how a homily touched you, you’ve written me an encouraging note.  Your love for me and your nurturing of my vocation has been so powerful in these first years of my priesthood, and I will always remember that.

Second, I am grateful for the ways you have cared for my family.  In a very real way, you have been part of my family.  You have been there for me during the illness and death of my dad.  When my family has been here for Mass on occasion, you have been so welcoming of them.  After three years, it seems like we’re just getting to know each other, but in some ways, some very important ways, it seems like we have known each other forever and I love that.  It has been wonderful to be part of your families, and wonderful to have you as part of mine.  Family may move away physically, but spiritually, we will always be part of each other.

And finally, I am grateful for the ways you have cared for others.  I have enjoyed serving with you on Service Day, raking leaves in the cold but having a great time helping others.  I have enjoyed serving with you on various commissions and committees here at the Church – even though meetings are not my favorite thing! – we have accomplished so much together in Christ’s name.  Whether it was worshipping together for 40 Hours Devotion, or helping out the food pantry with donations on Holy Thursday, or whatever it is that we’ve done together, what we did became so much more by doing it together.  Your willingness to pray and to serve and to witness is what makes St. Raphael such a great parish, and I will always love that.

So thank you for the great blessings you have been to me these last three years.  We now set out on a new journey.  Me to St. Petronille, and you to welcome Fr. Dindo.  The ride may be smooth, or it may be bumpy.  But however it is, we know that Jesus will be with us through it all.  He may calm the storm, or he may calm his children, whichever is most appropriate.  And we know that the journey from fear to faith will lead us back one day to the place we really belong, at the banquet table in the kingdom of everlasting life.  May all of our life’s journeys end up in that same, great place!