Jesus’ First Lesson
February 9, 2003
Today’s gospel passage is a tremendously important one, because in today’s gospel, Jesus recognizes that he cannot do everything. As great as Jesus was, he shared fully in our humanity. Therefore, he had to live with limitations. He could not meet every need. This is what today’s gospel addresses. It describes the first day of Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum. It was a very successful day. All of the sick, all those possessed by demons came to him. Soon, Mark tells us, that the whole city was standing outside of his door. As the word of Jesus’ power began to spread, it became likely that the next day would be an even more demanding day.
This is why when Jesus sneaks out early in the morning to pray, Simon and his companions hunt him down. For they know that there are more sick, more possessed who need to be healed. They say, “Everyone is looking for you.” Get to work! But Jesus surprises them, for he says, “No, we are not going to stay here in Capernaum. We are going to move on and preach the Good News in other towns as well.” Now it certainly would be great if Jesus could have done everything. It would be wonderful if he could have stayed in Capernaum and healed all the sick and possessed there, and also gone out to the other towns and villages in Galilee and done the same. But he had limited time, limited energy. He had to choose, and Jesus chose to move on.
Now here is the question that comes from today’s gospel: If Jesus knew that he could not do everything, why do we think we can? At this point it is probably clear that today’s homily does not intend to address everyone gathered here today. Those of you who are lazy and inactive can stop listening now. Those of you who spend the day simply taking up space, watching television and eating bon bons, this homily is not for you. But I have been pastor here long enough to know that there are very few people like that at St. Noel. Most of the people that I know are dedicated, committed people who give themselves day after day, hour after hour, to others. People who are committed to their job, to their children, to their family, to their neighbors, to their church, to their friends. Filled with generosity, they give and give, and sometimes live in the illusion that they can do everything.
If you are one of these people, then this homily is for you. Because if Jesus knew he could not do everything, why do you think you can? You see there is no shortage of need in the world. There are plenty of good deeds that could be done. The minute you say to others, “Here I am to meet your every need,” the city will gather outside your door, just at it did for Jesus. Therefore, the secret of living is not simply finding a good thing and doing it, but choosing what are the important good things that I have been asked to do. The secret of living is to prioritize, to decide what is most important in my life.
This is why Jesus seeks out a quiet place to pray, because with all the needs pressing in around him, he needs to discern, he needs to ask himself, “What is God calling me to do? Is God calling me to stay in Capernaum and heal all the needy people there? Or is God calling me to move on?” Out of that reflection, out of that prayer, Jesus came to the conclusion that his mission was to move on and spread the gospel. He had to choose. He had to say “no” to some people. He had to prioritize because he could not do everything.
So the message of today’s gospel, at least for some of us, is clear: We need to take time to ask ourselves what are the things that God is really calling us to do. Once we locate those things, we must take steps to assure that we do not short-change them. We should never feel guilty about saying “no” to other good things no matter how much other people want us to do them. We need to know our call and our responsibility to God. Jesus could not do everything. Neither can we.
Complaining to the Lord
February 5, 2006
Job 7:1-4, 6-7
I don’t come to church to be depressed. I don’t show up so that my spirits can be pulled down. I come because I want my spirits to be lifted. I want to find hope. I want to leave with a more positive attitude then when I came. So what can we make of this negative and pessimistic first reading from the book of Job? It is one long series of complaints. Job says to his friends and to God that he lives like a slave, that his days are full of emptiness and his nights full of misery. He asserts that his life is too short and it is without hope. He sees goodness nowhere. What are these pessimistic words doing in the Word of God? Why is this fearful list of complaints found in our scriptures? Perhaps a story would help.
A number of years ago while Hungary was still under Communist rule, a Hungarian businessman entered the police station in Budapest to ask for permission to emigrate to the United States. The Police Officer was surprised by such a request because it was hardly ever granted. But he was curious. So he asked the man, “Why is it you want to leave your native country? Are you unhappy here?” The businessman replied, “I have no complaints.” “Is it perhaps your job,” said the official, “the job the government assigned you? Are you not pleased with your work, don’t you find it satisfying?” The man said, “I have no complaints.” “Perhaps it’s your living conditions? Do you want a bigger house?” Again came the response, “I have no complaints.” So finally the official put down his pen and said, “Look if you want me to even consider your request, you have to tell me why you want to go to the United States.” The businessman looked at him and said, “Because in the United States I can have complaints.”
A healthy country and healthy relationship allows people the freedom to have complaints. The long list of complaints in the Book of Job is the bible’s way of saying that God wants us to have that freedom. God wants us to be in a relationship in which we have the freedom to say what we think, what we need, and what we feel with complete honesty. Such honesty is an indication of the closeness of the relationship. Think about it. We very rarely entrust who we really are, or what we really feel to casual acquaintances. You could have just buried your father and if someone in the supermarket asks how are you doing today, are likely to respond, “Fine.” You could have just been diagnosed with brain cancer but when the UPS man asks, “how’s it going?” you answer, “Not bad.” We are polite to strangers. We are honest to the people we love.
When we are hurt, when we have a burden that is difficult to carry, our survival depends upon finding a relationship that is deep enough and free enough that we can entrust our pain to another. We all need relationships that are secure enough to handle our complaints. God wants us to be in such a relationship. God wants us to know that we can say what we really think, what we really feel and who we really are. God grants us that freedom even if such honesty involves anger, pain and pessimism. Now of course there is no guarantee that God will agree with our assessment of the situation. But God wants us to have the freedom to be who we really are in God’s presence. That is an indication of how much God loves us.
Therefore when we hear the pessimism and the complaints in the Book of Job, they need not depress us. Those complaints are a sign of the honesty and the depth of our relationship with God. And since God has given us such freedom, it would be foolish for us not to embrace it. So if you look at your life and you find there only happiness and joy, if your health is good, if you family is strong, if your relationships are life-giving, then thank God and lift your hands in praise. But if you know there is anger in your life, if you are carrying a hurt that you find you cannot put down, if you have doubts about life, if you have fear about the future, if there is in your heart an emptiness that you are afraid to express even to yourself, don’t hold it in. Don’t stand on ceremony. Don’t be polite. Complain to the Lord. Give the Lord your anger, your hurt, your doubt, and your emptiness. Say who you really are, what you really think, what you really need, how you really feel. I can assure you that whatever you say, God will not be surprised or offended. For whatever you can dish out, God is big enough to handle.
Of course if we can pray with this kind of honesty, it will change is. But in order to be changed, we must come before the Lord as the people we really are. When we give to God our anger, God can heal it. When we give to God our doubt and emptiness, God can fill it. When we complain to the Lord that we are desperate and without hope, we open the door for salvation.
Habits that Help or Hinder
February 8, 2009
Mark: 1: 29 – 39
There is a story from the middle ages about a poor farmer whose plow one day hit an iron box that was buried in his field. When he opened up this box, he found inside a scroll which gave directions to a fantastic treasure. It said that on a certain part of the beach on the shore of the Black Sea there was a magic pebble. If you rubbed this pebble against any kind of metal it would turn that metal into gold. Now this pebble looked like every other pebble, but you could identify it by touch. If you picked up the other pebbles, they would be cold. But the magic pebble would be warm.
Now this story seemed unreliable, but the farmer believed in it. He sold all that he had and moved to the shore of the Black Sea. He began his search for this great treasure. There were of course millions of pebbles on the beach, and it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But he began resolutely. He would pick up a pebble. If it was cold (and therefore not the magic one), he would hurl the pebble into the sea. Then he would then pick up the next pebble. He followed this pattern hour and hour, day after day, and year after year. Pick up the pebble. It is cold. Throw it into the sea. Pick up the next pebble. He never gave up. He kept trying until one day, a rather ordinary day, he picked up a pebble and it was warm. Then, in shear force of habit, he threw it into the sea.
Even when we are looking for the most valuable thing in life, the patterns in our life do not always help us. Even when we are searching for our ultimate treasure, the habits we set up sometimes can trip us up.
If we have children, we want to be good parents. So we set up patterns in our life to achieve that end. We place our children in the best schools. We encourage them to become involved in all kinds of activities, in ballet and basketball, piano lessons and soccer. We fill up our calendar with all of these good things. Soon the patterns take over. Our life becomes going from event to the next, driving from here to there, all with the best intentions. We know the importance of friends and relationships. So we reach out to others. We want to interact with them. We meet new people and set up plans. Before we know it, every night is filled with some social activity: bowling or a movie or a dinner or a party. Our social events begin to take over our calendar, all with the highest goals in mind. We know that we have to support ourselves and our family and plan for the future. So we dedicate ourselves to our work. We work hard and we look for a way of advancement. We take on extra responsibilities and extra hours. Perhaps we even take on a second job. Before we know it, it is the work that is guiding all that we do, all for the most noble of goals.
We set up patterns in our life to help us and they do help us. But they also have the possibility of taking over. Instead of helping us, they can begin to dictate to us. In that sense, sometimes the most valuable and important things are hindered by the very patterns we set up to attain them.
Jesus gives us another example. Jesus certainly had high goal in his ministry. He strove to do his Father’s will. He set up patterns in his life to achieve it: a pattern of teaching, a pattern of healing, and a pattern of proclaiming the gospel. Those patterns helped him and made him successful. Mark is very specific about this in today’s gospel. Jesus’ teaching, his healing, and his message attracted crowds so that soon the whole town was at his door. But Jesus also recognized that the patterns that he had set up in his life had to be evaluated. So early in the morning he went to a deserted place to pray. He went in order to assess whether the things that were filling his time were all as they should be. He went to reassert his authority over the patterns of his life. In that prayer he discerned that his teaching and healing needed to continue, but they had to continue in a new way and in different places. His patterns had to be reformed and redirected.
Obviously, what we are called to do is follow the example of Jesus. We must reassert our authority over the patterns of our lives so that they are helping us rather then dictating to us. We are called to follow Jesus’ example and to ask ourselves has my relationship with a spouse or a friend fallen into a routine? Do we keep doing what we have always done and never stop to ask ourselves are we really communicating? Are we really allowing our relationship to deepen? We have to ask ourselves is our calendar on automatic control? Do we just fill up one thing after another without ever stopping to ask what is important and what is not? Do we let the flow of life pull us along without ever asking what is in our heart and what is God calling us to do?
We are called to assert our authority over the patterns of our lives and that can be done in simple ways. We can take a few minutes each morning to draw back as Jesus did and ask what is important? What is God calling me to do? We can schedule a dinner with a spouse or a friend to ask what needs to change in our relationship? What is truly important? Perhaps once a month we can schedule an hour of time to ourselves when we can stand before the Lord and what is God’s will? Am I really living the life I need to live?
The habits in our life move us along. They fill up our days. But we are called to make sure they are moving us in the right direction. We should not be like the poor farmer whose habit to find his treasure caused him to throw his treasure away. We must not let the habits of our life keep us from the life God is asking us to live.
February 5, 2012
Mark 1: 29 – 39
Today’s gospel includes what is probably the shortest miracle of Jesus’s ministry. It is only two verses. Jesus comes to Peter’s house and hears that Peter’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. He goes to her, grasps her by the hand, and lifts her up. She is cured and waits on them. This miracle is noteworthy because of its brevity.
But, there is also something else that sets it apart. The miracle does not tell us the disease from which Peter’s mother-in-law suffers. This is unusual. Usually miracle stories point out the problem quite specifically: a person is blind or lame or is a leper. But this story does not describe the disease, but only the symptom: she has a fever. What is the cause of the fever? Does Peter’s mother-in-law have the flu? Is she fighting an infection? Does she have malaria? The text does not say.
This peculiarity becomes even more interesting when we examine the word which the Greek text uses for the fever. It is not a noun but a participle, a verbal form. It literally means she was in bed “burning up,” or she was in bed “on fire.” The question is in what sense was she on fire? Translators conclude that she was “on fire” because she had a fever. This is a logical and responsible translation. But what if we went in another direction. What if Peter’s mother-in-law was “burning up” not physically but emotionally? What if she was “on fire” not medically but personally? In other words, what if Peter’s mother-in-law was really upset about something?
What could she be upset about? You do not have to look far in Mark’s Gospel to discover a reason. Ten verses before Jesus comes to her house, her son-in law, Peter, together with his brother Andrew are catching fish at the sea of Galilee. Jesus comes along and says, “Follow me.” They leave their nets and follow him. Now, how do you imagine Peter’s decision would play out in the mind of his mother-in-law?
“He did what! You know that the only reason that I agreed that my daughter could marry that guy was that he had a job. He knew how to catch fish. Now you are telling me he has left his nets and is going around Galilee with Jesus catching people! Good luck with that! How are you going to put food on the table catching people? How is he going to pay for my grandchildren’s education?”
You could see how Peter’s mother-in-law could begin “to burn.” Even more so when after a few days she hears that at last Peter is at last returning home and is bringing this new Jesus friend with him, it would make sense for her to say, “I’m going to my room to lie down, and I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want to face Peter or his new friend. They’re all out of their minds.”
Now if we imagine that Peter’s mother-in-law is “on fire” because of Peter’s decision to follow Jesus. The whole meaning of this story shifts. Peter’s mother-in-law becomes an example of those times in our lives when people we care for disappointed us. When a family member or a friend makes a decision that we do not understand, a decision that we think is foolish. Such a decision perplexes us, depresses us, and, sometimes enrages us. Sometimes it sets us on fire. “He was always a boy with a head on his shoulders. Whatever moved him to invest his life savings with that crook?” “She was a girl with good judgment. What would move her to fall in love with that looser?” “Why is my son so preoccupied with his job?” “Why does my friend drink so much?” “Why won’t my daughter just talk to me?”
When people we care for make decisions that disappoint us, it causes us pain. That can make this story of Peter’s mother-in-law a very important story for us. In this story Jesus becomes our healer. Look at what he does. As soon as he enters his house they tell him about Peter’s mother-in-law: “She’s gone to her room, and she’s not happy. She’s burning up.” What does Jesus do? He does not judge the woman. He does not become angry himself. He goes to her, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up. She changes. She begins to serve them.
How does Jesus bring about this change? We are not told. But, it probably included him reminding her that as much as she loved her family, she could not run other people’s lives, that everyone had to make their own decisions. He probably also told her that God had a plan, and we cannot see that whole plan at once. It certainly involved the power of his presence. When she touched his hand and heard his words, she must have realized, “There’s something about this man that I trust. Maybe my son-in-law is not so crazy after all.” When people in our life disappoint us, we too must trust in Jesus. We must turn to him, take his hand, and ask him to remove our judgment and our anger.
Now, some people might not like this interpretation of the story of Peter’s mother-in-law. They might think that by seeing her fever as something emotional and personal rather than something physical, the significance of the miracle is reduced. But, I am not sure that is true. After all, aspirin can relieve a fever, but only the power of God can change a human heart.
Keeping the Demons Quiet
February 8, 2015
So what is it with Jesus and these demons? This is the second weekend in a row in which Jesus tells the demons to be quiet because they knew who he is. While the crowd and even Jesus’ disciples are trying to figure out his identity, the demons get it right. They understand that Jesus is the holy one of God. So why doesn’t Jesus let them say it? They know the truth. Why not let them proclaim it? Would it not be good marketing for Jesus’ ministry to have the endorsement of his enemies that he was truly the Son of God? But Jesus tells the demons to be quiet. He does so because he understands that truth in itself is not enough. As essential as truth is, it is not the whole of discipleship. This is because truth, at times falls short, and it can fall short in at least two different ways. Truth can fall short by being too narrow, and it can fall short by being too isolated.
Truth can fall short by being too narrow. We can know a truth, and it can be powerful, but there can be other truths that we do not see. This is the case with the demons. They know the truth of Jesus’ identity, but they do not see that if Jesus is the Son of God, they should submit to him. They know the truth of who Jesus is, but they do not see the truth of who they should be. We can experience narrow truth in our lives. Married couples know this. It is easy to see the truth of what is wrong with our wife or our husband, but it is much harder to see how we contribute to what is wrong on our part. Narrow truth also occurs in political dialogue. Partisan thinkers are convinced that they have the truth of what is going to be good for America. They can be right, but they can also be unwilling to listen to a person who sees another truth. When we experience narrow truth, it is important that we proceed with humility and the willingness to listen. Pope Francis is good at this. On many occasions he has insisted that he will not apologize for holding the truth of Jesus Christ. Yet he chooses to approach people of different faiths and even atheists with respect and the willingness to dialogue. He does this admitting that he might learn something that he did not know before.
So truth can fall short by being too narrow. It can also fall short by being too isolated. Truth is most effective when it is part of a relationship. Truth works when it is offered with care and with love. Again, the demons do not have this kind of truth. They know who Jesus is, but they have no desire to be in relationship with him. They do not want to listen to his teaching or serve him. The same can happen in our lives. Parents often know the truth of what is best for their children, but they also know that they have to do more than just tell them the truth. The truth needs to be offered as part of a relationship, as part of a commitment, and with great patience. When we try to help someone who is different from us, perhaps someone who is disadvantaged, we can see the truth of what they should do: this is how they should save their money, this is how they should eat, this is how they should guide their children. But simply telling that truth without respect and compassion for their struggle will produce little effect.
The demons know the truth of Jesus’ identity, but their truth is too narrow and too isolated. That is why Jesus tells them to keep quiet. But Jesus tells us to speak. Jesus commissions us to proclaim the Good News of God’s love to the world. That is why we must speak the truth of God in a way that is open to other truths. That is why we must announce the gospel with respect, patience, and love.
Approaching, Grasping, and Lifting Up
February 4, 2018
The evangelist Mark can be quite succinct. Whereas other evangelists will take a few paragraphs or even a whole chapter to tell a story, Mark can do it in a few words. Mark shows this ability in today’s gospel where Jesus cures Peter’s mother-in-law with three words. When he hears that she is sick he approaches her, grasps her by the hand, and lifts her up. Three words: approaching, grasping, lifting. And when he does this, she is cured of her fever. Although brief, Mark’s approach is nevertheless profound. In fact one could say that he has outlined the entire Christian life in these three words.
What does it mean to be a disciple? It means that there are moments in our lives when Christ approaches us, grasps us, and lifts us up. What do we mean by lifting up? Look at Peter’s mother-in-law. With her fever, she should have stayed in bed. But Jesus lifts her up so that she can provide for the people in her house. She does this immediately. As soon as she is lifted up she begins to serve others. So being lifted up is a call to service. This then is the pattern of the Christian life. Christ approaches us, touches us, and calls us to serve.
When did Christ approach you? Was it when you were a child and saw your parents praying? Was it when you were in college and struggled with the meaning of life? Was it when you were in difficulty and had nowhere else to turn? How did Christ touch you? Was it through the smile of the person you grew to love? Was it in the experience of finding consolation in the loss of someone who was close to you? Was it in your awareness of the poverty and violence that cripple our world? Whenever Christ approached you, however Christ touched you, he then called you to serve. We know this is true because this is what we do. We serve our families. We serve our friends. We serve those in need. But here is the important thing to remember about Mark’s gospel passage. The three words that Mark gives us must be kept together. Because if we try to serve without remembering Jesus’ approach and Jesus’ touch, that service can seem an imposition and can become a burden.
We’re always trying to serve our families, but that can at times be difficult. When your children do not listen or disappoint you, when your spouse does not understand you, it is easy to say, “What am I doing this for?” It is then that you need to connect your present service to the approach and the touch of Jesus. If you remember the joy and love that you felt as you first committed yourself to your spouse on your wedding day, if you remember the wonder that you felt as you first held a son or daughter in your arms, then you can understand how your service to them today is connected to a much larger love. We serve our friends, and we serve our country. Yet when our friends slight us or hurt us, when our country seems to forget its obligation to care for the poor and the disenfranchised, we can say, “What’s the use of even trying?” It is then that we need to remember how Christ touched us in the gift of our friend, the years that we have spent together, the experiences we have shared. It is then that we need to remember the blessing of being born in this country and having the freedom that it offers. Remembering Jesus’s touch will give us new energy and the will to serve.
A disciple is one whom Jesus has approached, touched and lifted up. But these three actions must be kept together. Because the one who approaches us and touches us is the source of our power, and it is only through him that we will find the strength to serve.
February 7, 2021
There was a man of deep faith, whose 8-year-old daughter was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. The doctors did not offer much hope. But this man firmly believed that God would cure his daughter. For months, he went daily to visit his daughter in the hospital. Before each visit, he would stop at his parish church and pray that God would heal his daughter. When the time came for her birthday, he wanted to do something special. So he bought her favorite cake to bring to the hospital. But, as was his practice, he first stopped at the church and knelt before the crucifix. He thanked God, for keeping his daughter alive and begged God to find a way that she could beat this cancer. When he arrived at the hospital, he sensed immediately that something was wrong. The doctor came out with a grim face, and held his hand. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “Your daughter died an hour ago.” The man froze. For several moments, he could not move, absorbing the terrible news. Finally, the doctor said, “Would you like to sit down? We could get you some water.” “No, thank you,” he said. “I have to do something first.” He left the hospital, drove back to the church, and walked down the center aisle, carrying his daughter’s birthday cake. When he reached the front, he hurled the cake at the crucifix. “There,” he said, “Thanks for nothing.”
How might we describe this action of the bereaved father? What should we call his assault on the crucifix? It might surprise you that the Bible would call his action a prayer. When you and I think of prayer, we think of speaking to God with humility, reverence, and thankfulness. To be sure, prayer is often like that. But the bible insists that, if we are going to pray, we must speak to God what we think and how we feel. And that can make things ugly. The psalms are filled with irreverent complaints against God: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.” Job’s words in today’s first reading are not sugar-coated: “My days come to an end without hope. My life is like the wind. I shall never see happiness again.” These words of desolation and despair might not seem a prayer to us. But Job is expressing how he feels. When he hurls those words against the Lord, it is an act of faith.
You see, when terrible things happen, people who do not have faith ignore or reject God. But people who truly believe, attack God. They demand to know, “Why did this happen to me? Where were you when I needed you? Why are your promises to me so empty?” This kind of honesty is the bedrock of prayer, because the bible understands that when we pray to God, we must come to God as we are. When our lives are filled with chaos and despair, prayers of violence and anger are sometimes the only prayers that we can say.
So, if your life is perfect, if you have too many blessings to count, then by all means, come before the Lord with humble and joyful thanks. But if you have just lost the love of your life, if the pain from your cancer is too much to bear, if you are furious over the injustice that exists in our world, then confront God and demand an answer. Cry out how worthless and negligent God is. If that is the way you feel, that is how God wants the conversation to begin.
And remember, however raw your emotions are, however devastating your accusation is, God is big enough to take it.