Sunday, January 24, 2016

Extremely Personal

   Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

Fr. Stephen Imbarrato has a lot to say about abortion.
He’s one of those who, despite threat of storm,
made it to Washington for Friday’s annual March for Life.
It would be easy for critics to write him off:
“There goes another man—with no wife, no kids—
talking about issues he couldn’t possibly understand!”

But you can only say that if you don’t know Fr. Stephen’s story.
You see, long before he entered the seminary,
at a time when he was away from the Church and the Sacraments,
just a few years after Roe v. Wade,
Stephen Imbarrato was living with his girlfriend,
and they got pregnant.
He didn’t tell his girlfriend to get an abortion,
but he also never told her he’d stand by her and their child
should she choose to have the baby.
He did, however, list for her all the reasons
this was a bad time for them to become parents.
“It is your decision,” he told her,
“and I will support you in whatever decision you make.”
That made it clear he thought of this baby as her responsibility.
And so she had an abortion.

Years later, after Stephen had come back to Christ
and was pursuing his call to the Catholic priesthood,
he tracked down his old girlfriend to ask her forgiveness.
It was only then that he learned they’d been pregnant with twins.

Fr. Stephen has a lot to say about abortion.
His message is one of God’s incredible mercy
in the face of human sinfulness;
his message is one that comes from firsthand experience
on both ends of that equation.

Standing before the congregation in his hometown synagogue,
Jesus announces:
Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.
It’s certainly one of the shortest homilies in Christian history—
less than ten words.
(Please—don’t get your hopes up!)
But it’s also one of the most powerful sermons ever given—
and one that only the Son of God could give.

You see, in our day as much as that of Jesus,
people can get the false impression
that the word of God is limited
to some commandments carved into tablets of stone
or prophecies recorded on long parchment scrolls—
cold rules and lifeless rumors,
rather removed from our everyday reality.
Likewise, many are convinced that things
like God’s favor and forgiveness and freedom
are nice-sounding concepts and high ideals—
but little more.

That’s why it’s so critical for us to recognize what Jesus is doing here
at the very start of his public ministry.
He’s come to reveal that the Word of God is personal—
in fact, is a Person.
The Lord God (unlike what many ancient cultures imagined)
does not dwell atop a lofty mountain
or somewhere beyond the clouds—
aloof from this world and distant from its problems.
Rather, God knows them intimately.
He knows them as Creator;
being the designer of human beings—
indeed, of the whole universe—
no one could be better suited to write the Users Manual.
But God has come to know this world as its Redeemer, too.
God has come in Person, in human flesh and blood,
and he’s come not just with a message, but on a mission:
to open eyes that they might really see;
to let captives and the oppressed go free.
This is a God who understands,
because he shares our human experience firsthand.

That’s the glad tidings—the good news, the Gospel—
that Isaiah saw coming from afar!

My friends,
we need to do like Fr. Stephen:
we need to share with others what we know
about God and his great mercy.
And when I say, “what we know,”
I’m not talking about matters
which are the result of intense training or in depth study—
although such things have their rightful place.
I’m talking about sharing what we know
from our firsthand experience.
It’s pretty rare that well-crafted arguments or articles
win large numbers of souls for Christ.
What’s generally more fruitful
is to do just what God did in Jesus:
to enter into another person’s lived experience.

There’s no program I can institute and organize as your pastor
to make this happen.
It’s a decision each Christian must make—
a matter of priority, which only you can set.
We need to make ourselves available and vulnerable to one another.

It can start with something as simple
as a smile and a friendly handshake
extended to a parishioner you’ve not met before.
When St. Paul says that,
as diverse members of the one Body of Christ,
we bear each others burdens and share each others joys,
that’s meant to be more than a poetic metaphor;
it’s meant to be the meat and potatoes
of your daily life and mine.
And while it’s something you do because you’re Catholic,
it’s actually done best when we’re not here at church.
It’s something you do in line at the grocery store
or in the stands at a hockey game,
something you do for the student in the next desk at school
or that coworker you know is bearing a heavy cross.
Lend a listening ear.
Promise to offer a prayer.
Whatever you do—make contact!
With compassion, with humility,
enter into another person’s experience
and share your own story.
That’s how the good news gets out:
in action, even more than in words.

Pope Francis has declared this an extraordinary Holy Year,
that you and I might do in Malone
what Jesus did in his hometown of Nazareth:
Bring the glad tidings of God’s mercy to those around us.
So in the Pope’s own words, let us pray:
            Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us
            to be merciful like the heavenly Father,
            and have told us that whoever sees you sees God.
            Show us your face and we will be saved.
            You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
            of the God who manifests his power
            above all by forgiveness and mercy:
            let the Church be your visible face in the world.
            Send your Spirit and consecrate
            every one of us with its anointing,
            so that the Jubilee of Mercy
            may be a year of grace from the Lord,
            and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm,
            may bring good news to the poor,
            proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
            and restore sight to the blind.

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