Sunday, February 18, 2018

Animals & Angels

Just a heads-up: I'll be away on vacation in Florida this week with my family, so there will be no homily posted next Sunday.  This afternoon, I went cross country skiing.  Tomorrow afternoon, I'll be on the beach...

   First Sunday of Lent   B 

I haven’t verified it, but this Sunday’s gospel reading has to be one of the shortest in the entire Lectionary—only four verses long.   Which might have you wondering: Does that mean a short homily, too?  Only time will tell…

Most of you know I like to go backpacking, and often enough I spend a night in the woods alone.  If I’m camping in the winter, the first question I get asked is, “How do you stay warm?”  You can stay pretty toasty on a cold night if you have the right gear.  But if I’m camping at any other time of the year, the first question is usually, “Aren’t you afraid of animals?”  (“Lions, and tigers, and bears—oh, my!”)  If you take proper, commonsense precautions, wildlife is not a problem.  (I don’t keep any food with me in my sleeping bag, for example.)  The only critters that have been a minor nuisance are a few mice…and I’ve seen many more of them in the rectory than around my campsites!

Our very brief gospel passage this First Sunday of Lent finds Jesus camped out in the wilderness, spending forty days in the desert.  St. Mark tells us that, while there, “he was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”  At first glance, that seems rather straightforward.  But let’s dig a little deeper…

Jesus Christ is true God and true man.  It’s in his human nature, of course, that Satan dares to tempt him.  Jesus is like us in all things but sin.  Which means that, like us, his human nature includes body and soul, a blend of the material and the spiritual—one might say, of the animal and the angelic.

Now we can begin to see Mark’s deeper meaning!

Each Sunday, we profess in our Creed to believe that God the Father is the maker “of all things visible and invisible.”  Thus we human beings, by God’s design, are the very hinge of the entire cosmos, for in us matter and spirit meet.

When body and soul are working together as they should, it’s a truly beautiful thing.  Consider someone playing a beautiful piece of music.  Of course, there are the physics of how the instrument makes a sound, how the sound waves travel through the air, how those waves impact you eardrum, and then your brain “hears” what’s being played.  But that doesn’t really explain beautiful music, which conveys feeling and meaning and the passion of the performer. 

Or think of the men’s figure skating competition at the Olympics on Friday night.  Those guys train hard, and must develop a lot of technical skill.  Yet a great performance isn’t merely physical, but displays a certain grace of movement that’s hard to put your finger on.  When we experience such harmony of matter and spirit, between animal and angel, we’re given a little taste of the world as it was meant to be.

But you don’t need me to tell you that this world isn’t how it was meant to be.  And that’s because of sin.  Sin is when body and soul get out of sync.  We seem to be at war with or within ourselves.  I do the things I know I shouldn’t, and sometimes even do things I don’t really want to do.

Sin is when body and soul get out of sync.  When body and soul get separated, that’s death.  One leads to the other.

There are essentially two ways for our matter and spirit to get out of whack.   The first is to put too much emphasis on the physical, on the body.  “If it feels good, do it!”  We become pleasure seekers, who let our urges and passions run wild.  We begin to act like animals.

The second is to put too much emphasis on the spiritual, on the soul.  We turn into puritans who think that the body is evil and grow suspicious of everything.  As a result, we become self-righteous and joyless, acting as if we were angels.

How are we to get body and soul back into harmony?  That’s the very purpose of Lent.

Jesus emerges from his own season of fasting preaching a very simple yet profound message: “The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  Jesus tells us first to repent.  Just as wild animals can be tamed, so do we require a certain amount of discipline to bring us back in line.  Our bodily passions require good boundaries—adequate fencing, if you will.  Repentance is making any and all necessary changes—turning away from our sinful thinking and behavior, and turning back toward the Lord. 

And Jesus also tells us to believe in the gospel.  We are not all of us little gods—authorities unto ourselves.  Our spirits require proper guidance and direction.  Not all the angels are good; the devil himself is a fallen one.  And so we are called to the obedience of faith, to faith in the gospel, in the “good news”—which is good because it brings us life and freedom, and which is news because it remains as relevant today as ever.

Repentance and faith bring body and soul, once divided by sin, back into harmony—and that harmony we call holiness.  It’s what we see perfectly in Jesus, who “was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”  This all hints at the ultimate reunion of matter and spirit, of body and soul: the resurrection, which we will celebrate with the great feast of Easter at Lent’s end—and which we await on the last day.

Such a restoration of creation, putting things back as they were originally meant to be, is something God has been working on since Eden.  We see that in the story of Noah and the flood—the very end of which we hear in today’s first reading—when God gives a fresh start to the human race and all life on earth.  And we experience that in the Sacrament of Baptism—as St. Peter reminds us in our second reading—which is a bath for the body that results in the deep cleansing of the soul.

Always remember that you are so much more than your body.  Nor are you just your immortal soul.  You are a human person, an utterly unique blend of matter and spirit that puts you at the pinnacle of creation.  But even more, by Baptism you have become a child of God.  But just as Jesus wrestles with Satan right on the heels of his own Baptism, so do we continue to face temptation from the world, the flesh, and the devil.  Let us give ourselves over to the disciplines of repentance and the obedience of faith this Lent, and so allow God to restore us to harmony within ourselves—to the way he originally intended us to be.  Then we’ll be able to walk with Jesus among both the wild beasts and the angels.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Outside In

On the way out of early Mass this morning a woman told me, "Father, your beard is looking very biblical today."  I'm not sure how she meant it, but I took it as a compliment...

   Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

How about that first reading today?  All the talk about scabs and blotches and pustules is so appealing—especially first thing in the morning.  If you read the entire chapter from Leviticus, it goes into great and gory detail about how to distinguish one nasty sore from another—and it was the temple priests’ job to check them all out.  As we were doing the dishes after supper last night, I told Fr. Scott, “I’m awfully glad I’m a New Testament priest and not an Old Testament one!”  Gross!

But as bad as it would have been to be an Old Testament priest, it would have been far worse to be an Old Testament leper.

Wasn’t it bad enough to be terribly sick?  But all kinds of regulations are laid out for lepers: they must dress in torn clothes; they must live outside of town; wherever they go, they must cry out, “Unclean!  Unclean!”  Most intriguing to me—no surprise—is the part about muffling one’s beard.  Back in the day (and even still in the Middle East), a man’s beard was considered his glory.  (I rather like that idea!)  In times of mourning or distress, a man would cover over his glorious beard with the edge of his robe as a sign of sorrow.

All these restrictions can sound pretty harsh.  In fact, we might think they’re downright primitive or backward.  Why do they seem to hate sick people so much?  If only they had antibiotics and good dermatologists! 

But we mustn’t forget that these rules are found in the Scriptures.  They are part of the law given by God.  Three considerations can help us understand why this is a bit better.

(1) True leprosy—although exceptionally rare and quite treatable today—was a highly contagious, very debilitating, and oftentimes fatal disease.  Kind of like not shaking hands at the Sign of Peace when you have a cold, minimizing contact with lepers was a matter of public health.

(2) These laws are not so much medical as they are spiritual.  To be ritually “unclean” meant—above all—that one was forbidden to enter the temple.  (Many other things besides blotches on your skin could render a person unclean for a period of time.)  But to be unclean was not a moral matter—as if to say a person were sinful or wicked.  You see, the temple in Jerusalem represented paradise; it was a symbolic effort to recreate Eden—the way God originally meant things to be.  Thus anything that spoke of death—such as leprosy, bleeding, contact with corpse—was to be kept outside, since death was never part of God’s plan for us.  The distinction between clean and unclean was meant to serve as a reminder that this world isn’t as it should be.

(3) Of course, we’re tempted to think, “But we’re so much more civilized and enlightened than that.  That sort of thing would never happen today.”  But remember when AIDS first came on the scene—and all the irrational fears and the stigma?  What about the immigrants and refugees who, if given legal entry, often end up segregated into slums and ghettos?  I also think of registered sex offenders who have served their sentences and are trying to reform their lives.  Given all the legal restrictions concerning where they can live and what they can do, many of them end up in housing that looks an awful lot like the leper colonies of old.  Yes, we must take prudent precautions to keep people safe…but maybe we’re not so very different after all.

“A leper came to Jesus…”  Right away, in the first words of this Sunday’s gospel, we should take note that this leper has come into town and isn’t crying out, “Unclean!  Unclean!”  He isn’t doing what he’s supposed to.  He’s breaking the rules.  Is he reckless?  Or courageous?  I’d guess that he was desperate.

And kneeling down, what does the leper ask of Jesus?  “Make me clean.”  Notice that he doesn’t ask to be cured, but to be cleansed.  He wants to be restored to a place in the community: to be reunited with others, reunited in worship; to be in touch with God, in touch with God’s people.

And how does Jesus respond?  He “stretched out his hand [and] touched him.”  Jesus breaks the rules, too—but not just to be a rebel.  He could have healed the man by simply saying the word.  So why touch him?  Imagine how long it’s been since anyone has touched this man.  He’d been banished, forbidden all human contact.  In touching him, Jesus not only heals his sores, but meets his human desire, his deep human need to be accepted, to belong.  According to the old law, to touch a leper was to make oneself unclean.  Jesus turns that right around.  His actions say that those who stay in touch with him don’t have to be worried about being tainted.  Those who are touched by Jesus are made clean, and they then bring the cleanness, the purity of God to the world they touch.

There are plenty of outcasts in the world today, whether they’ve been pushed out through their own fault, through someone else’s fault, or through the fault or no one whatsoever.  There are plenty of folks who feel like outsiders: “I’m good for nothing.   I’m not worthy.  If they only knew how I really am.  Could anybody love me?”  And there are some we have cut off:  “They’re too rich/too poor.  They’re a different color/speak a different language.  They lead a different lifestyle.”  We keep our distance.  We put up barriers.  And sometimes, we even justify this on religious grounds: “I’m just going stay all safe and snug here in my little Catholic bubble and not be contaminated by the evils of the world.”

Jesus came to unite us.  (It’s the devil that divides.)  Jesus came to bring together the scattered children of God—to bring us into communion with himself and with each other.  So as members of the Body of Christ, we are to continue his work.  Remember in the first pages of the Bible, at the end of each day of creation, God looks over what he has made and calls it good?  There’s only thing that God sees and pronounces not good: after creating Adam God declares, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  Coming together as one: that’s how the world was always meant to be!  Strengthening our bonds of community, reaching out to those on the margins—that’s what we’re called to do.

But it’s risky business.

The leper in the gospel quickly changes his tune.  He didn’t cry out, “Unclean!  Unclean!” like he was supposed to, but—despite Jesus’ clear warning—he starts announcing to anybody who will listen, “Look!  I’m clean!  I’m clean!”  And what’s the consequence for Jesus?  “It was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.  He remained outside in deserted places.”  Those circumstances should sound familiar.  Jesus is now like the leper was before: marginalized, pushed out.  In freeing that man from his isolation, Jesus takes it upon himself.

Are we willing to take that same risk?

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.  Your forehead won’t be marked with the sore of leprosy (please God—I hope not!), but it will be marked with a smudge of ashes.  And there’s a good chance that others—coworkers or classmates, family members or friends—may notice at mealtime that you’re fasting and abstaining from meat.  You’ll be rather clearly marked as a Catholic for all to see.  Now you don’t need me to tell you that what the Catholic Church stands for flies in the face of much that’s promoted by contemporary culture. 

Like the marks of leprosy, your fasting, your abstinence, your ashes will be a reminder of death: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  They’ll be a reminder that this world isn’t as it should be—a reminder that much of it is unclean and in need of intense purification.  But the world doesn’t like to be reminded of that.  And so some people might misunderstand you.  Some people might question you.  Some people might mock you.  Some people might reject you.  But know that if take that risk, that if you do find yourself pushed out, that that’s precisely where you’ll find Jesus: on the outside, in deserted places.

I’m really glad I’m not an Old Testament priest—and not just because of all those pustules!  I’m glad because, as a New Testament priest, time and time again I get to bring people to Jesus, and to see him touch them, and to see their souls cleansed, and to see their deep wounds healed, and to see them reunited with God and with his people.  But that’s not a duty or a privilege reserved to the clergy; it’s the right and the responsibility of every one of us here.  What Jesus has done for you and for me, we are called to go forth to do for others.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”  So out to the margins and gather in the outcast.  And make a real effort to work on relationships right here within our parish community.  And take a chance on living your faith for all to see, even if it means you might get the cold shoulder.  Do it all for God’s glory!  That’s why Jesus brings us together as one: to give ever-greater glory to God.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Tell Me Why

   Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I’ll have to ask my mother to check my memory, but I seem to recall her telling me that one of my first and favorite words as a young child was, “Why?”  I’d ask that question about everything, and as a follow up to each answer: “Why? Why? Why?”  Of course, the eventual response was, “Because I said so, that’s why!”

Our first reading this Sunday is taken from the Book of Job.  It’s not exactly the most uplifting story in the Bible.  You’ve got to love how it wraps up:
            …I shall not see happiness again.
            The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.
Thanks be to God?  We’re supposed to be grateful for that unhappy ending?

The Book of Job is more than 40 chapters of “ugh.”  The poor guy can’t catch a break.  First, all his sheep are struck by lightening.  Then thieves steal all his camels.  Then all his children a killed during dinner when the house blows down in a windstorm.  And then Job’s covered with boils from head to toe.

This tale of woe is quite a downer, to say the least.  It can leave us asking, “Why?”  Why is this book even in the Bible?  It’s certainly not a feel-good story.

The Book of Job wrestles with a couple of perennial questions.  (1) Can human beings love God for his own sake (and not just to get something out of the relationship)? That’s certainly an idea worth exploring, but we’ll leave that one aside for another time.  (2) Why?  Why is there suffering in the world?  Why do bad things happen to good people?

Several “friends” (we’ll use the term loosely) come (so they say) to “comfort” Job in his anguish.  But their message is far from consoling: “Surely you must have done something to deserve this!  Why don’t you man up and accept responsibility?”  They believe that suffering is a matter of divine punishment.  Our reading today is part of Job’s response to one of these so-called friends.

Job himself wonders why all this has happened: “Maybe God is upset with me for some unknown reason.  Maybe the Lord’s fickle, or unreliable.”

In the end, God himself speaks up.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  In typical Jewish fashion, God answers a question with a question:  “Who are you to ask?  Who are you to question me?  My ways are not your ways.”

The mystery of suffering forces us to reckon with the fact that God’s will doesn’t bend to mine; I, rather, must bend to the will of God.

Why?  Why is there suffering in the world?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  We don’t know!  The Lord’s message to Job and to us is essentially:  “You’re just going to have to trust me.”

That’s where the Old Testament leaves us.  But things are rather different after Jesus.  That’s because, in Jesus, God himself comes to suffer.  In effect, he’s saying, “Let me show you, once and for all, that suffering will not defeat me.”  The New Testament may not answer our repeated question, “Why?” but when it comes to suffering, Jesus does show us how.

In the gospel last Sunday, we found Jesus driving out an evil spirit.  Today, he’s curing the sick.  In a few short chapters, he’ll calm a calm storm at sea.  Since the original sin of Adam and Eve, our world’s been a mess.  This is no longer paradise!  But how does Jesus respond to this mess—to the demons, the disease, the disasters he encounters?  He rebukes them all, and they obey.  Christ has come to heal this broken world.  Even now, at the very start of his ministry, we see that for sickness and sorrow, for the devil and death, it’s the beginning of the end.

Two Sundays back, we heard how Jesus called four fishermen—Simon and Andrew, James and John—to be his first disciples.  This Sunday’s passage comes just a few verses later.  And where do we already find Jesus?  Already at the bedside of Simon’s mother-in-law!  Jesus clearly takes a keen and immediate interest in the personal lives of those who follow him.  “So tell me about your family.  Would you mind if I came over to the house?  What’s that about your wife’s mother?”  Jesus gets right into the nitty-gritty of their lives.

Does Jesus cure everyone who is sick?  No.  There were still sick people in Galilee.  There are still sick people today.  His mission wasn’t one of medical miracles.  Physical healing wasn’t the reason he came.  But when he does cure the sick, and the manner in which he does it, makes something crucial very clear.  As the French writer and thinker Paul Claudel put it about one hundred years ago, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it.  He came to fill it with his presence.”  God is right there with us when we’re hurting.  We do not face any of our trials alone.

Jesus has had a particularly busy day.  He begins by preaching in the synagogue.  Then he drives out the unclean spirit.  Next he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.  After she prepares a quick bite for him, it’s back to work: more sick people, more possessed people, until after the sun goes down.  And this was all on the Sabbath—supposedly a day of rest!

What does Jesus do early on Sunday morning?  He goes off to a deserted place.  It’s not hard to imagine why: he’s got to be tired.  It’s hardly a stretch to think he needed a little time and space for himself.  But his disciples find him, and what do they say?  “Everybody’s looking for you.  The people—they need you!”

Isn’t that always the way?  You’ve had a tough day, or maybe a tough week, and all you want is a few minutes to yourself, to sit down in your comfy chair, to put your feet up…and the phone rings.  Or there’s a knock at the door.  Or someone’s calling for you from upstairs.  Someone needs our help.

How do we respond?

(Sigh!)  Sadly, all too often, we moan and groan, don’t we?  We drag our feet, as if something’s being taken away form us.  Our response is an unwilling one.   Whether we’re dealing with a minor inconvenience or a major crisis, we view it as one more thing to be endured; like Job’s sleepless night, we’re just waiting restlessly for it to be over.

Or, we can do like Jesus did.  We can get up and go.  We can say, “Yes,” to those who need us.  We can willingly submit to our troubles.  We can give of ourselves.

St. Paul gives us an example of this.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, just before the section we hear this Sunday, he tells us about what he’s freely given up for the sake of gospel.  For one, he’s given up a salary.  He has every right to financial support as a preacher and teacher, but he has decided to forgo it, so as not to be a burden on anyone.  He’s also given up having a wife and family.  “The other apostles might have ’em,” Paul says, “but not me!” 

Now, he doesn’t write this to be all proud and macho.  (“See how tough I am?  See how holy I am?”)  Paul shares this because this is the way of Jesus: this is how Jesus lived; this is how Jesus died.  It’s the way of self-sacrifice: to willingly lay down my life and join my sufferings to those of Christ.  Sure, life is hard—sometimes really hard—no question about it.  But as God proved beyond all shadow of doubt on that first Easter morning: suffering does not have the final say.  That’s the very heart of the gospel! 

And so, no matter what may come, I can put all my trust, all my hope, in the Lord.  God’s got a plan, even if I can understand very little or nothing of it.

St. Bernadette was the young French girl who saw the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in February of 1858.  She was no stranger to suffering.  She grew up poor and sickly.  When she first spoke of the apparitions, she was harassed and ridiculed.  Later fleeing the curious crowds who wished to see and touch her, she became a cloistered nun and died in the convent after a long illness at the young age of 35.  But Bernadette didn’t waste her time asking, “Why?  Why?  Why?”  Instead, she turned to Jesus to better learn how.

In one of her notebooks, Bernadette wrote this heartfelt prayer:
            I beg you, O my God…
            not that you spare me from suffering,
            but that you do not abandon me in the midst of it;
            that you teach me to search for you in suffering
            as my only comforter;
            that you sustain my faith, strengthen my hope,
            and purify my love in suffering;
            that you give me the grace to recognize your hand in suffering
            and to desire no other comforter but you.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
On that Sabbath in Capernaum, Jesus came to Simon’s mother-in-law on her sickbed.  Today, in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus comes to us here.  He is present now, with all the same power and love as then.  Let us open our hearts to him.  Let us expose to him our wounds.  Let us give him our suffering and sorrows, our weakness and brokenness.  Jesus wants to heal us.