And someone, of course, did rise from the dead – Jesus himself. That last line was a bit of foreshadowing. And many among the scribes and Pharisees remained unpersuaded. The Kingdom of God demands trust in God, not in ourselves , not in any human beings. Our own resources are laughable in the face of the salvation and compassion and mercy poured out on us through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. But we have to be persuaded of that. Our Savior did, in fact, rise from the dead to put an end to our death. If we are persuaded by that, we don’t need to trust in anything or anyone but him.
In today’s readings, God proves himself trustworthy, yet again. He appears to Jacob in a dream and promises that he will be with him wherever he goes, protecting him, and bringing him back to the land, which he would also give to Jacob’s descendants. In his joy, Jacob reacts by consecrating the land to the Lord.
In the Gospel, Jesus heals not one, but two people: he stops the hemorrhage of a women who had suffered from the malady for twelve years, and then he raises the daughter of one of the local officials. In their joy, news of Jesus’ mighty deeds spread all throughout the land.
The Psalmist prays today, “In you, my God, I place my trust.” It’s a call for us to do the same today. We certainly don’t know how God will answer our prayers or even when he will do so. He might bring healing, but maybe in a way we don’t expect. But his promise to Jacob is one in which we can trust as well: he will be with us wherever we go, and he will protect us.
Our readings today, I think, are very poignant and to the point. As a pastor, I see a lot of suffering, and it breaks my heart when my parishioners are going through hard times. Whether those hard times are brought about by death or sickness, or by relationship problems, or by poverty or job circumstances, or whatever it is, those hard times can be a real test of faith. 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? This is one of those sticky questions that sometimes make people doubt their faith.
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? It was a long evening of conversation that really centered around faith that provided some consolation, although it could never really erase their sadness.
Which brings us to 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 please note that that same faith was lacking in the people who were attending to Jairus’s daughter. Even if they believed that Jesus could cure her illness, she is now dead, and so 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 still 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 would never stand here and tell you that one simple act of faith is all it takes to make all your problems go away. I always say that faith is not a magic wand.
But I will also say 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, or even in some cases got worse, but in Christ they found the strength to walk through it with dignity and find 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. For those medics I spent the evening with, the conversation of faith didn’t bring the boy back, but it did provide them with healing and peace and a sense that in God’s time, all would be made right.
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, glorifying the Lord by our lives 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 find 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.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is a perplexing one, to be sure. But in the light of Easter, we can see that Jesus was proclaiming that God is doing something new. Not only that, but God wants us all to be part of that new thing. Addressing Nicodemus, Jesus said that the old ways of worshipping and living were no longer sufficient, and really no longer needed. God was looking not just for people’s obedience, but also, mostly, for their hearts.
We see those hearts at work in the early Christian community. The reading from Acts this morning tells us that the believers cared for one another deeply, and were generous in that care. “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.” They were even selling their possessions to give to those who were in need. Nobody felt needy, nobody felt cheated, nobody felt like they were doing more than their share. People were worshipping not just with their minds, but also with their hearts, and their worshipping didn’t stop when they left the worship place.
So the same has to be true for us, really. We have to be willing to give of our hearts, to believe not just when we’re in church, but also when we are in the rest of our life. We have to trust God to take care of us when we stick our neck out to help someone else. We have to trust that even when we are doing more than other people are, God will take care of the equity of it all and never be outdone in generosity. We have to worship not just with our minds but also with our hearts.
In these late days of Advent, we pray the “O Antiphons.” These antiphons are the various titles of Jesus as found in Scripture. Today’s antiphon is “O Root of Jesse” and it is found as the antiphon for the Canticle of Mary in Vespers: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”
Zechariah in today’s Gospel certainly knew what it was like to stand silent in the presence of the Root of Jesse. Having been promised a son by an angel of the Lord – what one might consider a very trustworthy source – his disbelief moved him to silence in God’s presence. Here is a man who, one would think, should know better. But maybe his years of childlessness have led him to accept a life that was not God’s will. Certainly we could not blame him if the angel’s message was a bit unbelievable; we who have the benefit of so much science would probably be a little harder on the angel than Zechariah was.
When you’re accustomed to living without hope, any sign of hope can be met with an awful lot of skepticism. Would Elizabeth and Zechariah ever give birth to a child? How would that even be possible? Would God save the world from the darkness of sin and death? Why would he even want to? Can God be born here among us, giving us rootedness and a solid foundation for our lives? Why would he even care?
Better to be silent than to voice our lack of faith and hope. Then, in the stillness of our hearts and souls, maybe God can give rootedness to our scattered lives, bring hope to a world grown dark in sin and crime and war and too much death. Today’s Gospel has God bringing hope to a elderly, childless couple. God forbid that we would doubt that he could bring hope to us too.
We pray today: Come, Lord Jesus, come root of Jesse, give rootedness to our lives that are sometimes adrift in despair or apathy, give hope to a world grown cold in darkness and disappointment, give life to a people burdened by sin and death. Come, let us stand silent as we await the dawning of your hope in our lives, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay!
On March 4th, in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty-second President of the United States, for the first of four terms. As he began his presidency, the country was in economic crisis, mired as it was in the Great Depression. There were all kinds of concerns in the country at that time, with the economy going into some frighteningly uncharted waters. In his Inaugural Address, he addressed those concerns head-on:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” That one phrase – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – became the watch phrase of his presidency and has been quoted in many terrifying situations ever since.
Sixty years later, in 1993, for the occasion of his fifteenth anniversary of elevation to the Papacy, Pope Saint John Paul II did a series of interviews with Italian Radio that were collected into the wonderful little book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. The first interview concerned his acceptance of the papacy in his own life. His Holiness was asked if he ever hesitated in his acceptance of Jesus Christ and God’s will in his life. He responded, in part:
“I state right from the outset: ‘Be not afraid!’ This is the same exhortation that resounded at the beginning of my ministry in the See of Saint Peter. Christ addressed this invitation many times to those He met. The angel said to Mary: ‘Be not afraid!’ (cf. Lk 1:30). The same was said to Joseph: ‘Be not afraid!’ (cf. Mt 1:20). Christ said the same to the apostles, to Peter, in various circumstances, and especially after His Resurrection. He kept telling them: ‘Be not afraid!’ He sensed, in fact, that they were afraid. They were not sure if who they saw was the same Christ they had known. They were afraid when He was arrested; they were even more afraid after his Resurrection.
“The words Christ uttered are repeated by the Church. And with the Church, they are repeated by the Pope. I have done so since the first homily I gave in St. Peter’s Square: ‘Be not afraid!’ These are not words said into a void. They are profoundly rooted in the Gospel. They are simply the words of Christ Himself.” And these words – the simple three-word phrase – became the watchwords of his papacy: “Be not afraid!”
Both of these courageous men echoed the words of the Gospel that had formed them. Roosevelt had been formed in an Episcopal boarding school whose headmaster preached the duty of Christians to help the less fortunate. He had lived through polio. Saint John Paul as Karol Wojtyla had lived through and beyond the Communist control of his country, buoyed as he was by his Catholic faith. Both of them heard the same words we have in today’s Gospel, words that inspired and encouraged them, and words that they lived by:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
So, brothers and sisters, of what or of whom are you afraid? Is it enemies, or at least broken relationships, like the prophet Jeremiah in our first reading and the mysterious enemies in today’s Gospel reading? Is it the stain of sin or the finality of death, as Saint Paul related to the Roman Church in today’s second reading? The truth is, we live in scary times – honestly, people have always lived in scary times. We could be afraid of an uncertain economy in a state nearly bankrupt. We could be afraid of violence in cities, terrorism abroad, and various forms of crime.
We could be afraid of an uncertain or serious medical diagnosis in ourselves or a loved one. We could be afraid about a new chapter of life: children going away to school, family moving away from home, a new job or the ending of a current one. The truth is, life is uncertain at times, and there’s a lot to be afraid of.
But, if we listen to FDR and JPII, we know that fear is useless. It doesn’t add a second to our lives – actually, it probably robs us of important moments. Fear contributes to poor health, and worst of all, fear decimates our spiritual lives. We are always and forever in need of hearing those important words: do not be afraid.
So, okay, Father Pat, that sounds great, but how exactly do we get to the point of not being afraid? How do we make that important journey from fear to faith?
Well, I think that, for inspiration, we can look at Jeremiah’s journey in our first reading. Because Jeremiah wasn’t telling a hypothetical story, he was relating his own experience. Prophets always and forever are speaking God’s word to people who often don’t want to hear it. He had been accusing the religious establishment of turning away from trusting God and turning instead toward making alliances with worldly powers. Not a popular message for the religious establishment and not a popular message for the worldly powers. So the priest Pashur had Jeremiah arrested and scourged to keep him quiet.
But after his release, Jeremiah didn’t keep silence. He continued to prophesy that if the nation continued in that way, they would come to doom and destruction and exile. At that point, even Jeremiah’s friends were waiting for him to fall, and just prior to the reading we have today, Jeremiah famously poured out his lament before God by saying, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” It’s almost as if he was saying, “This isn’t what I signed up for!”
However, right in the middle of today’s reading is an important pivot in his outlook: “BUT the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion…” Jeremiah is not going to be like the people he’s prophesying against: he will not turn from trusting the Lord. In the second half of this reading, he makes a strong act of faith that the Lord will be his champion, which is ultimately true.
Lots of people in today’s society talk about changing your attitude to change your situation. “Believe and you can achieve” and all that nonsense. But they’re getting close to the right place. We do have to change our attitude if we want to move from fear to faith. But we can’t shift to relying on ourselves or any other worldly power, because if we do we are so likely to fail. We have to shift our attitude to make Jeremiah’s act of faith, remembering that our Lord has defeated sin and death. If he could do that, he can shepherd us through our fear.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to wave a magic wand and make all our troubles go away, or even answer our prayers according to our pleasure. He will answer prayer in his way, in his time, but he will be with us through it all. Because we are worth more than many sparrows. Do not be afraid.
At the heart of our practice of prayer has to be trust in God. We don’t – or shouldn’t – need signs to convince us of God’s love and care for us. But don’t we do that all the time? Aren’t we just like those Galileans looking for a sign? We might be hesitant to take a leap of faith that we know God is calling us to make, but are looking for some kind of miracle to get us off our behinds. We might know that healing in a certain situation will take some time, but we want God to descend, wave a magic wand, and make it all go away.
But just as the royal official trusted that Jesus could cure his son, so we too need to trust that God in his goodness will work the best for us, in his time, in his way. Isaiah tells us today that God is about to create a new heavens and a new earth, where there will always be rejoicing and gladness. But how hard it is for us to wait for that new creative act, isn’t it? We just really want to see that big picture now, please, we want to know what’s on God’s mind and where he’s taking us. But that’s not how God works is it?
It can be hard for us when we look around for blessing and don’t see it happening on our timetable. We forget, sometimes, that a big part of the grace comes in the journey, even when things are really painful. The Psalmist says, “O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world; you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.” Notice how he does not say that God shielded him from going to the nether world. But the nether world was not the end of the Psalmist’s story.
We don’t know where God is taking us today – or any day, for that matter. We have to trust in our God who longs for our good, just like that royal official. And we have to believe in the power of God to raise us up, just as he raised his Son from the dead. We all long to celebrate our Easter Sundays, but our faith tells us that we have to get through our Good Fridays first.
Could you do that? You have someone close to you at home, and you know Jesus is near and one visit could heal her or him. Yet, you realize the unworthiness that you have, that we all have, for him to come under your roof. Would you have faith enough to tell him not to come, but just say the word? Would you be confident enough that his word would heal your loved one? I think that’s an important question for us, because we are often completely solid in our faith until something happens, and then we tend to fall apart. But faith is so necessary, especially in those trying times.
We pray the centurion’s iconic words just before we all receive Holy Communion. We acknowledge our unworthiness, and we also express our desire that our Lord would say the word so that our souls would be healed. And then he does, by feeding us on the Eucharist, giving us grace and strength to live the Gospel and live our lives.
So that’s the faith we are called to have, and I wonder if we have that kind of faith when we pray. Do we trust God enough to let him “say the word” and then know that we don’t have to set “Plan B” in motion? Today’s Scriptures call us to greater trust as we begin this Advent journey to the house of the Lord. In what way do we need to trust God more today?
God is extremely patient when it comes to extending mercy. That’s what Jesus is talking about in this rather odd parable. I have to admit that I’m no gardener: I’m just not patient enough for that! So I needed to do a little digging to get a real sense of where this parable is going. I discovered that there are a couple of things we should all know before we roll up our sleeves and dig in to this little story. First of all, fig trees actually did take three years to bear fruit. During those three years, of course, they would need to be nourished and watered and pruned and tended. It was a lot of work, so when those three years of hard work were up, you better believe the farmer certainly wanted fig newtons on his table! And the second piece of background is that, since the days of the prophet Micah, the fig tree has been a symbol for the nation of Israel, and Jesus’ hearers would have known that. So when they hear of a fruitless fig tree, it was a little bit of an accusation.
Conventional wisdom is that if the tree doesn’t bear fruit after three years of labor and throwing resources at it, you cut it down and plant a new one; why exhaust the nutrients of the soil? And if you’re an impatient gardener like me, why exhaust the gardener?! But this gardener is a patient one; he plans to give it another year and some extra TLC in hopes that it will bear fruit.
So here’s the important take-away: God is not like Father Pat; he’s the patient gardener! And we, the heirs to the promise to Israel, if we are found unfruitful, our Lord gives us extra time and TLC in order that we might have time to repent, take up the Gospel, and bear fruit for the kingdom of God. That’s kind of what Lent is all about.
But we have to remember: we don’t get forever; if we still don’t bear fruit when the end comes, then we will have lost the opportunity to be friends of God, and once cut down in death, we don’t have time to get serious about it. The time for repentance is now. The time for us to receive and share God’s grace is now. The time for us to live justly and work for the kingdom is now. Because we don’t know that there will be tomorrow; we can never be presumptuous of God’s mercy and grace.
The consolation, though is this: we don’t have to do it alone. The Psalmist today sings that our God is kind and merciful: We get the TLC that our Gardener offers; the grace of God and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We can trust in the Lord God, our great “I AM,” to come to us and lead us out of captivity to sin just as he was preparing to do for the Israelites in the first reading today. We can put our trust in God’s mercy. We are always offered the grace of exodus, all we have to do is get started on the journey and begin once again to bear the fruit of our relationship with Christ.