Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the graces that I have here at the parish is that whenever I go to parish meetings, we always pray through the Gospel for the coming Sunday and discuss it. The Spirit works through the community, and more often than not, I’ll start thinking about the readings in a different light than I might have all by myself. This week I met on Monday with the finance committee, and so as we prayed through this Gospel, I had my finance committee thinking cap on. So my first thought was, well, the place where Jesus is meeting is too small by far, so we’re going to have to initiate a building campaign, and that’s going to be a lot of work. The second thought was, great, they’ve cut a hole in the roof and now we have to pay to have that fixed! I did not share those thoughts out loud and, thankfully, the Spirit was working in the folks on the committee, who expressed much more pious thoughts!

There’s a lot of paralysis going on in these readings. In the first reading, it’s the whole nation of Israel that is paralyzed. They are in captivity in Babylon, and their oppression is pretty cruel. They longed for God to come and rid them of their exile, as he had when they were slaves in Egypt. Where are God’s mercies of the past? When will their exile come to an end? Isaiah speaks to them words of consolation today. God will not just lead them back to their land, making a way through the desert and a river through the wasteland. But he is also doing something new: he will deal with the root cause of their paralysis: sin. It was sin that led them into slavery in Egypt, it was sin that led them to captivity in Babylon. So if they are to be truly freed, truly healed of their paralysis, they need to be forgiven of their sins. And it is only God who can do that, so he takes the initiative to do that new thing among them. Praise God!

The paralysis in the Gospel is more literal, but also works on the figurative level here too. The center of attention might seem to be the paralytic, but really it’s Jesus. Jesus has the crowds captivated, preaching words that have them spellbound. So much so, that he can hardly move, for all the crowds around him! Seeing this, the paralytic’s friends take bold action: they haul him up onto the roof, make a hole in it, and lower him down, right in the midst of Jesus and his hearers. You have to imagine that the crowds are on the edge of their seats – except there probably wasn’t room for any chairs – and they were just waiting with eager anticipation to see what Jesus would do now. Who could heal a paralytic? Jesus speaks curious words: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” – What on earth can that mean? Who has the audacity to say he can forgive sins? Why doesn’t he just heal the man as the man had hoped for?

But Jesus is doing something new too. These last several weeks, we have been hearing about Jesus healing all sorts of people, including a leper just last week. And through it all, he’s been telling them to keep it quiet – not that they did! – because he wasn’t healing people just be known as a wonder worker. He’s trying to get at the root cause of the people’s paralysis, the real disease and not just the symptom. And that disease is, of course, sin. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Those are the words he speaks to the paralytic, because he insists on healing the man from the inside out. The physical paralysis was nothing, the really paralyzing thing was sin. Sin paralyzes us all from time to time. It affects our prayer life, our vocation, our relationships. It holds us back, it keeps us from moving on to what God intends for us. When we are paralyzed by sin, nothing good can come to us, nothing good can even be seen in us or by us. Sin is quite literally deadly. And so, yeah, Jesus can heal a man’s paralysis, but whoa, he can even heal the sinfulness of the whole human family. Now that’s a wonder worker! Healing the world of sin was the whole reason for Jesus being here in the first place. Praise God!

We are here today on the precipice of a new season of the Church year. This Wednesday is the beginning of our Lent, the beginning of that time of year when we all have the opportunity to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. It’s a forty-ish day retreat for us; we can take stock of those sins that have held us back, and bring them to our Jesus who came that they might be blotted out. And we know that, as good as our lives tend to be, as faithful as we try to be, we have, on occasion, blown it, both individually and as a human family. We have missed opportunities to be of service. We have held on to grudges and past hurts. We have broken relationships through the distractions of lust in its many forms. We have taken what belongs to others, maybe not giving an honest day’s work for our pay, or taking credit for work that was not ours. We have stolen from the poor, either by not making an effort to reach out to them, or by wasting resources. We have deprived God of the worship due to him, either by missing Mass for yet another soccer game, or by being inattentive at Mass or forgetting our prayers. We have taken the lives of others by allowing abortion to continue its pandemic spread through the world, or by not caring for the sick, or by allowing racial bigotry to go unchallenged. We have dishonored our parents and ancestors by allowing the elderly to die alone, or by allowing the cost of health care to be beyond what people can pay. You get the idea – our personal and communal sins have been myriad, and they have paralyzed us for far too long.

But our Lent is a gift to us. Our ashes remind us that we will not live forever, so the time to open ourselves up to change is now. We will have these days to concentrate on fasting, almsgiving and prayer. This is a gift, but also a responsibility; it is likewise sinful to ignore the opportunity completely. Our fasting might be food, or it might be something else that consumes us, like television or the internet. Our almsgiving can consist of any or all of the traditional ways of time, talent, and treasure. Our prayer can be communal or personal, devotional or reflective, whatever it is that is going to lead us face-to-face with Christ. This is also a time to rid ourselves of the sin that binds us, to hear those wonderful words spoken to us as well: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” We have so many opportunities planned for the Sacrament of Penance, that if you cannot find a time to go to Confession, you’re just not looking hard enough!

But if it’s the length of time since you last received that sacrament that is paralyzing you, then you need to hear what I always tell people about the Sacrament of Penance: Don’t let anything stop you. When you go into the confessional, tell the priest: “Father it’s been years since my last confession, and I might need some help to do this right.” If he doesn’t welcome you back and fall all over himself trying to help you make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and go find a priest who is more welcoming. Because it is my job to help you make a good confession, it is my job to make sure the experience is meaningful for you, it is my job to make you want to come back, and I take that very seriously. I know that Fr. Ted does too.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that you cannot let anything stop you from being healed of what paralyzes you. If need be, make a hole in the roof so that you can end up right at the feet of Jesus. Lent is our gift from God, that opportunity that he initiates to do something new among us. Let’s not ever turn away from that gift. Our staff had a retreat day this week, and in it we heard these words from the Rule of St. Benedict which I think tell us everything we should learn from today’s Liturgy of the Word: “Let no one follow what he thinks profitable to himself, but rather that which is profitable to another; let them show unto each other all … charity with a chaste love. Let them fear God, … and prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to life everlasting. Amen.”

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“I do will it.  Be made clean.”

When I was in seminary, I did my hospital chaplaincy in my fourth summer at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.  Every once in a while I would come to a room that was marked with a prominent sign stating that the room was quarantined and outlining a whole list of restrictions to any visitor who would enter.  Those restrictions usually required a mask and sterile gloves, and often a sterile gown as well.  The problem with all that is that it’s a real obstacle to any kind of effective ministry to the sick.  So we were taught to ask at the nurse’s station whether the protection was for the patient’s benefit or for ours.  If it was for the patient’s benefit, we would of course wear everything that was required; but if it was for our benefit we would have to assess how risky the situation was.  Often it wasn’t a problem for the brief time we would be visiting, and we would do without some of the protection.

Jesus today finds himself in much the same ministry situation.  A leper comes to him and kneels before him.  If we have been listening to the first reading today, we know that that kind of behavior was forbidden.  They didn’t have masks and gloves and gowns in those days, so the prescribed behavior was that the leper was to live apart from the community to avoid infecting anyone else.  But the leper doesn’t do that.  Instead, he comes to Jesus, and kneels at his feet, stating the obvious: “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  And of course Jesus agrees with those wonderful words: “I do will it.  Be made clean.”  But what’s worth noting here is that Jesus too ignores all those prescriptions in our first reading, and actually touches the leper, something that would have been completely unheard of.  Jesus too recognized that all those quarantine warnings were a real obstacle to any kind of effective ministry to the sick.

The issue is touch.  The Church realizes that God acts through the healing touch of doctors, care givers, family and ministers in the life of those who are hurting.  Every sacrament has what is called an “imposition of hands,” recognizing that the Holy Spirit makes the sacrament happen as the minister imposes hands in prayer.  That’s the whole reason for all those hand pictures in room 162.  In the rite of the Anointing of the Sick in particular, hands are imposed on the sick person’s head.  If there are family members or friends present, I usually invite them to impose hands too.  And then the priest imposes his hands by anointing the person with oil on their forehead and their hands.  All of this comes from the example of Jesus who actually touched those who were sick and raised them up.  There is healing in the power of touch.

But there is difficulty with touch, too, isn’t there?  Sometimes touch is misused, and sometimes touch is unwelcome.  There may be good reasons for those feelings, and we need to respect them.  Even the Church’s own Liturgy allows for adaptations of the imposition of hands in various circumstances.  For example, I almost never actually touch a penitent’s head in confession because there’s just two of us there, and I don’t want anything to even appear improper.  But still I have to recognize that the lack of touch is a real obstacle to effective ministry to those in need.  Because touch used in a healthy, prayerful and ministerial way is a sign of the presence of Jesus, in whose place I am standing, and an invocation of the Holy Spirit.  The Church simply recognizes that what our experience teaches us: in general, touch heals, touch empowers and touch guides.

If we’re having problems with touch and there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for it, maybe we have to look deeper.  Certainly if we have been abused or mistreated in some way, a reticence to be touched is understandable, but still is something we need to have healed.  But if we can’t bear to enter a hospital to visit a sick relative, let alone touch them, then we may have to look into ourselves and deal with our fear of sickness or death.  If we find it difficult to forgive others let alone embrace them in reconciliation, then we may have to look into ourselves and deal with the unconfessed sin in our own lives that keeps us from any kind of reconciliation.  If we cannot bear to put a quarter in the box being held out to us by a homeless person on the street, then we may have to look into our lives and deal with our own poverty; deal with what we ourselves lack in some spiritual sense.  Human nature longs for touch from the womb – mothers know this – and so if we now have difficulty being touched, whether that touch is an actual touch or a spiritual one, then there is something off, something wrong, some fear or sin that needs to be dealt with, some emptiness that needs to be filled up, and we’ll never be holy, never be whole until we do it.

We ourselves may have come to this Eucharist today in need of touch, in need of being made whole.  In the quiet moments of today’s Liturgy, it would be good for us to look into our hearts and identify what kind of touch we need, or what it is we need to deal with so that we can receive that touch in the Spirit in which it is offered.  That’s where we need to start, because we disciples are called to touch our world.  We will never be able to do that if we have not accepted Christ’s healing touch in our lives.  Only when we have can we go out and visit the sick, holding their hands and praying with them for God’s healing and mercy.  Only then can we embrace those who have wronged us and be reconciled with them.  Only then can we enter the homes of the poor, as our St. Vincent dePaul Society will be doing, and give them the hand up that they need.  Only then can we reach out to someone who is hurting, as our Stephen Ministry will be doing, and guide them back to grace.  Only then can we take the hand of a child and teach them about God’s love.

The world yearns for healing, yearns for the touch of Christ.  And Jesus will not leave things according to the Levitical Law of our first reading.  Jesus instead opts to break the rules and reach out to all of us needy ones, touching our lives with grace.  And he wants us to do that too.  He wants us to be fountains of his love and grace, healing the sick, releasing those imprisoned by whatever holds them back, and kissing the leper clean.  To all of us broken ones, he says loud and clear today, embracing us as he always does, “I do will it.  Be made clean!  I do will it.  Be made clean!  I do will it.  Be made clean!”

We usually take some quiet time after the homily.  But today, I would like to invite us all to respond to the Word of God in a different way.  Please stand with me now, take out the half sheets with “The Summons” on it, and sing together verses 1, 3 and 5.

The Summons

John L. Bell, Tune: KELVINGROVE 7 6 7 6 777 6

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be shown in you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the pris’ners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean in you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go, where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

Saturday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, we have the epiphany of Jesus manifested as one who identifies with sinners.  That is not, of course, to say that he was a sinner; quite the contrary, we know that Jesus was like us in all things but sin.  But today we see that he is certainly concerned with calling sinners to the Kingdom, and concerned enough that he will be known to be in their company.  He eats with them, talks with them, walks with them.

This of course, riles the Pharisees.  And for good reason; Jewish law taught that sinners were to be shunned; they were cast out of the community.  But Jesus has come to say that he hates the sin but loves the sinner, that nothing in us is beyond the power of God to redeem.  Nothing that we have done can put us so far away from God that we are beyond God’s reach.  And God does reach out to us, in tangible ways, in sacramental ways, in the person of Jesus and in through the ministry of the Church.

Sin is a terrible thing.  It’s often cyclical.  Because not only does the judgment of the Pharisees make sinners feel unworthy; but also does the guilt that comes from inside the sinner.   The more one sins, the less worthy one often feels of God’s love, and so the more does that person turn away from God, and then they sin more, feel less worthy, turn away again, and so on, and so on, and so on.

But Jesus won’t have any of that.  Instead, he walks into the midst of sinners, sits down with them and has a meal.  He is the divine physician healing our souls, and those who do not sin do not need his ministry.  But we sinners do, and for that we should be always grateful.

Thursday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today, Jesus manifests himself not just as one who came to do flashy deeds and heal the sick, but as one who does will that we would be made clean.  If we take the miracle we have in today’s Gospel at face value, then it’s really nothing special, to be honest.  Jesus comes off as a doctor with perhaps supernatural powers.  But when Jesus performs a miracle, there’s always something deeper he’s getting at, always something more profound that he intends to reveal.  The healing of the leper reveals that Jesus is one who intends to heal us from the inside out.

“If you wish, you can make me clean.”  It’s kind of a weird statement, don’t you think?  On the face of it, it’s obviously true.  Jesus can do anything he wishes.  So it really seems to be a test of what it is that Jesus wishes to do.  And in the light of continuing epiphany, Jesus reveals that he does, indeed, wish that the leper – and all of us too – would be made clean.  Notice that the leper doesn’t ask to be healed of his leprosy, although being made clean could certainly be construed to mean just that.  And Jesus doesn’t say, “I do will it, you’re healed.”  He says instead, “be made clean.”

I think Jesus intends for the leper, as he intends for all of us, that his sins would be forgiven, and that he would indeed be clean on the inside just as much as on the outside.  This may even have been the deepest desire of the poor leper’s heart, as it certainly may be for all of us.  To be made clean inside and out is certainly within the power of Jesus’ abilities, if he would just will it.  And today, we don’t have to tap dance around the issue or walk on eggshells to see if Jesus wills our complete healing.  We see that he certainly does, and for that epiphany we should continue to rejoice.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to live a life faithful to the Gospel today – while it is still “today” – and not to be deceived by sin.  The Psalmist exhorts us not to harden our hearts on hearing the Lord’s voice, as we so often do.  And so we bring our unfaithfulness and our slightly-hardened hearts and all of our uncleanness to the Lord, and with the leper invite him to make all of it clean.  He does will it; and so may we be made clean!

Thursday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Some people would say that Jesus was a peaceful man.  Saying that is really misunderstanding Jesus and who he was.  Because peace wasn’t necessarily his primary interest, at least not peace in the way that we often see it.

Because sometimes I think we misread what peace is supposed to be.  We might sell peace short and settle for the absence of conflict.  Or even worse, we may settle for peace at any price, swallowing our disagreements and never coming close to true healing in our relationships.  There are families in which never a harsh word would be said, but the underlying hostility is palpable.  There are workplaces in which there are never any arguments, but there is also never any cooperative work done.  Sometimes there are relationships where fear replaces love and respect.

And this is not the kind of peace that Jesus would bring us today.  This is the One who came to set the earth on fire, and his methods for bringing us to peace might well cause division in the here and now.  But there is never any resurrection if we don’t have the cross.  And so there will never be any peace if we don’t confront what’s really happening.  The fire has to be red hot and blazing if there is ever to be any regrowth.

And so today we have to stop settling for a peace that really isn’t so peaceful.  We may just have to have that hard conversation we’ve been trying to avoid.  Of course, we do it with love for our brothers and sisters, but out of love we also don’t avoid it.  Our words and actions must always be guided by the fire of the Holy Spirit, but we must never choose to neglect the Spirit’s guidance and instead just settle for something that is really not peace.  We have to work for true healing in all of our relationships.

The Psalmist tells us today that “the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”  That goodness resides in all those people God has given us in our lives.  This day, we are called to relish their goodness and work for lasting peace with all of them.

Saturday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

There is a wonderful, comforting message in today’s readings, and it’s a message that speaks to all of us when we’re at the end of the rope in our faith life.  That message is that God hears the cries of all of us who are poor in one way or another.  Whether we’re actually poor, or whether we’re oppressed, or are spiritually poor and struggling, or our relationships are poor, or we’re just feeling impoverished by a life that is one struggle after another: God hears us.  He can’t help but hear us. 

The Psalmist echoes the cry that goes on in all of us when we are in the midst of hard times: “Do not forget the poor, O Lord!”  How often when we are being tested, do we wonder where God is and demand that he do something right now?  It might even feel like we’ve been forgotten.  But today’s readings say that isn’t so.  God is with us, God hears us, and will always be with us in our need.

That’s what Micah is reminding Israel of in today’s first reading.  They can’t be ignoring the poor, because God doesn’t.  They can’t be oppressing the innocent, because God doesn’t.  They can’t be living evil lives, can’t be cheating people out of their inheritance, can’t be taking what is not theirs, because God does notice, and God will not ignore the evil deeds of this sinful people.  There will be justice for the poor, God will reach out to them in their need. 

Jesus, in the Gospel, was almost running for his life.  He knows that the Pharisees are turning up the heat and trying to kill him.  But he will not miss healing the sick and broken along the way.  He warns them not to make him known, but he does heal them.  Because he cannot be deaf to their cries for wholeness and healing.

That message of comfort comes to us this day.  Wherever we find ourselves this morning, whatever need we may have, whatever brokenness in us needs to be bound up and healed, we can know that God is aware of our needs, and will be with us in good times and bad.  No matter what.