Two Approaches to Pain
February 8, 2004
What does a person with a toothache think about? The answer is rather simple: he or she thinks about the toothache. Pain has a way of centering our attention. When we find ourselves in pain, it is difficult to think of anything else. In a way, this is good because the pain causes us to address the cause of the problem. We go out to the dentist and deal with our defective tooth.
But what do we do when pain becomes more complex, when we have to face chronic illness, when an illness can threaten our life, when the fear of what is to come overwhelms us? Facing long-standing suffering or pain, we must rally our spirits, lest that pain rule our lives. For pain wants our complete attention. Pain wants to absorb all of our time and energy so that there is nothing left for living.
In short there are two ways of dealing with suffering: getting rid of it or transcending it so that it does not rule us. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, that we are going to celebrate at this liturgy, pulls in both of those directions. On one hand, those who come forward to receive the anointing will be asking us as a community to pray for them, that their pain, their suffering will be eliminated. Often because of the prayer of the church and the intervention of good medical care sickness is indeed healed. At the same time, however, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick invites us to transcend our suffering. For when we celebrate the sacrament, we realize that God’s love is greater than our pain, greater than our cancer, deeper than our suffering. We recognize that the love of family and friends and community continues to be life-giving even as we cope with our sickness. If we can claim the love of God and the love of others who are around us, we can transcend our sickness and prevent it from dominating our lives.
So in a few minutes I will be inviting those who wish to come forward to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, to step forward in our midst and claim their need. At the same time, they will be asked to embrace the love of God and the love of the community around them. Coming forward is an act of faith. Therefore, if you hear God calling you to come to receive the sacrament, do not give in to excuses, especially to those of despair or unworthiness. Those are the two excuses that Peter adopts in today’s Gospel. When Jesus says, “Go out into the deep and catch some fish,” Peter first makes the excuse of despair: “Master, we have fished all night long and have caught nothing.” We’ve tried it, it doesn’t work, and it’s of no use. But because Peter pushes through that despair, he lowers his net and pulls in a great catch. Then he excuses himself out of unworthiness: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful person.” Of course, he’s a sinful person, all of us are, but God’s call does not depend on our worthiness. All that matters is God’s free choice to save us. Neither despair nor unworthiness is an adequate excuse for refusing God’s call.
So in a few minutes, as you are invited to come forward to receive this anointing, step forward in faith. This is not a time for excuses. It is a time for hope, a time to put all unworthiness aside and to allow the love of God and the love of the community to heal you of sickness or to transcend your pain so you can claim the life that God gives you.
February 4, 2007
Two experienced fishermen decided one day to go ice fishing. They walked out on the frozen lake, cut a hole in the ice, put worms on their hooks, and lowered their lines into the water. After about three hours they had caught nothing. Then a young boy walked by with some fishing gear. He cut a hole in the ice, put a worm on his hook, lowered the line into the water, and immediately pulled out a fish. He repeated this process over and over until a pile of fish lay on the ice. The two fishermen were amazed. One of them walked over to the boy and said, “Young man, we have been sitting here for three hours and have caught nothing, and yet you in a few minutes have caught a dozen fish. What is your secret?” The boy looked up and mumbled something that the man could not hear. The man noticed that there was bulge in the boy’s cheek. So he said to him, “Young man, if you don’t mind, would you spit out that bubble gum so that you could speak clearly and I could understand you.” The young man cupped his hands and spit it out. Then he said, “It’s not bubble gum. It’s my secret. You need to keep the worms warm.”
When we see someone doing something that we cannot do, we presume there is a secret. We presume that they know something we do not know, that they have a talent we do not have. Now this might be true about fishing, but it’s not true about being a disciple of Jesus. For we believe that when Christ calls us, he equips us at the same time. The call and the ability to accomplish the call are given together.
This is the experience we find throughout the scriptures. In today’s first reading, Isaiah is called to be a prophet. He immediately knows that he is inadequate. He is not properly equipped. He is a sinful man. He wants the Lord to find someone else. But the Lord does not find someone else. Instead, the Lord sends an angel to touch his lips, to forgive his sin, to equip him to be a prophet. When Peter is called in today’s gospel, he immediately sees that he lacks what is necessary. He is inadequate to the task. He tells Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.” Find someone else. Jesus does not find someone else. Instead he says to Peter, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” Jesus equips Peter for what his calling will be. Both the call and the ability to accomplish the call are given together.
Now this is a very important truth because we are called in the same way that Peter was called. We were given faith not just for our benefit but for the benefit of others. There is no such thing as private faith—faith just for me. To the extent that we believe, we believe not only for ourselves but to share what we believe with others. We, like Peter, are called to catch people. Now this may cause some of us to be worried. We say, “I don’t know how to share my faith.” “I’m not good with words.” “I don’t like talking about religion or what I believe.” Fine and good, all of us have different gifts. But if we believe, we are called to share that belief. The God who we experience in our own life is not to be just kept within us. Our faith in God is to be shared with others.
How we share it can vary. Sharing our faith does not mean imposing our faith on others. It does not require that we stand on a soapbox on Public Square or that we stop people in the supermarket and ask them whether they have accepted Jesus as their personal savior. That is one way to do it. But you can share your faith by using less words and more example. You can share your faith by waiting for the right circumstances.
Here is where it is important to remember that the call and the ability to accomplish the call are both given together. If you have been called to be a parent or a grandparent, you can be sure that God has equipped you to share your faith with your children. Do not imagine that it is the responsibility of someone who works professionally in the church. Your call involves sharing what you believe, and God has equipped you to accomplish it. You can find your own way to tell your children, “This is what I believe”. “This is how I pray.” “I know God loves you.” Whenever we find ourselves dealing with a friend or someone at work who is in need or struggling grief or loss, whenever we find ourselves called to reconcile with someone who has hurt us, that call is an invitation to share what we believe. We should not be reluctant to include our faith in our approach to others. We can say to the person in need, “I believe that God is with you as you deal with this loss or this problem. I will pray for you, because I know God loves you.” We can say to the person with whom we seek reconciliation, “I come and ask for forgiveness not only because I believe it is right, but because I follow the teaching of Jesus.”
We who have been called to believe are called to share that belief. The call and the ability to accomplish the call come together. There are no secrets, no things that some have and others do not. So the next time you find yourself with someone and you realize that that person’s life could have more meaning and comfort if they knew of a God who loved them and cared for them. Don’t stand there and wait for God to send someone to proclaim that love. Don’t stand there and wait for someone to share that good news. God has already sent someone. That someone is you.
Talking or Fishing
February 6, 2010
It might be good for us today to reflect upon worthiness. Are we worthy to have a relationship with God? We believe that God has made us and saved us. We believe that God has given us the status of sons and daughters and is calling us to eternal life. Are we worthy of that status or of that future?
The simple answer is no. There is no way that we can deserve a relationship with God. In light of God’s action and God’s love for us, none of us are worthy. So that’s the easy part: to understand that we do not deserve God’s love or God’s call. The difficult part is this: what are we to do with this insight? What are the consequences of recognizing our unworthiness? In today’s gospel, Peter has an answer. Peter concludes that, because of his unworthiness, Jesus should walk away from him. Peter sees Jesus’ power in the miraculous catch of fish, and he is overcome by his own sinfulness and inadequacy. So he says to Jesus, “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Peter concludes that he cannot be a follower of Jesus because he is unworthy.
Now the remarkable thing about the gospel is that Jesus does not even stop to engage Peter in a discussion about his unworthiness, but immediately sends him out to preach the good news. Peter says, “Depart from me, Lord, because I am a sinful man.” Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. From now on you be catching people.” Jesus said, “Yes, you’re unworthy, but I call you to be an apostle.”
The situation is not unlike the young man who took a job as a park ranger. And he was given the assignment of supervising one of the big lakes in the national park, where many people came to fish. His job was to ensure that the regulations of the park service were maintained, and he took his job very seriously. He watched the people as they came from day to day to fish. But he couldn’t help but notice that there was one man who brought back at least ten times as many fish as anyone else. And this made him curious and suspicious. So he said to this man, “I noticed the great number of fish that you are catching. Could I come with you one day, because I’d like to see your technique.” The man said, “No problem. How about tomorrow?” So the next morning the two went out in a boat together. The man drove the boat over into a small cove. Then as the ranger watched, the man reached into his tackle box and pulled out a stick of dynamite. He lit the fuse and watched until it was ready to explode. Then he hurled it into the water. There was a thunderous sound, and the water rose from the bottom of the lake. Soon there were dozens of fish lying on the surface. The man began reaching out and pulling them into the boat.
The ranger couldn’t believe it. “What are you doing?” he said. “It’s not legal to fish this way. You’ve broken almost every rule of the park ranger service. If everybody fished this way, there’d be no fish left in the lake. When we get back, I’m going to give you a citation and haul you in for a hearing. I assure you, they’re going to take away your license, and you’ll never be able to come to the park again. This is just unacceptable.” As the ranger rattled on, the man reached again into his tackle box and pulled out another stick of dynamite. He lit the fuse, and just as it was about to explode, he handed it to the ranger. Then he said, “Okay. Are you gonna talk or are you gonna fish?”
In a way, this is what Jesus and Peter’s conversation is like. Jesus says to Peter, “I know you want to discuss your own unworthiness, but I’m not interested. I want you to go out and preach the good news.” The remarkable thing in Jesus’ answer to Peter is that the solution to our own unworthiness is not to walk away but to walk forward, proclaiming the gospel to others. Sure we are unworthy, but God still needs apostles, those who are sent out to proclaim God’s love.
This insight is an important one, because you and I could take any good thing in our life and become paralyzed by our own unworthiness. Do we deserve the faithful love of a spouse? Do we deserve a new relationship after a painful divorce? Do we deserve to be a parent, entrusted with a new life to shape and mold? Are we worthy of a life-long friendship or a rewarding job? Are we worthy to live in this free country? We are not. They’re all gifts. We could easily point to all of our mistakes and sins, to all of our shortcomings and failures. But the point of the gospel is that, despite our unworthiness, Christ still sends us out, so that others might know God’s love through our witness and through our service.
So yes, in so many ways we are lacking and unworthy. But the issue is not our deficiencies but God’s mission and God’s kingdom. And so Jesus says to each one of us, “Do you want to focus on your unworthiness or will you go forth and proclaim God’s love to others? Do you want to talk or do you want to fish?”
God Is Not Kidding
February 10, 2013
Is 6:1-2a, 3-8; Lk 5:1-11
When God wants us to do something, God calls us. It might happen through a thought that comes into our minds, through the circumstances in which we find ourselves, or through an act of discernment by which we are trying to decide a direction. But when God wants us to do something, God calls, “Hey Gus, Carol, Michael, I want you to do this. Then it’s up to us to decide how we can respond, whether we can do what God asks or not.
In today’s Scripture readings we have the call of two famous Biblical characters. In today’s first reading we have the call of the prophet Isaiah, and in today’s Gospel we have the call of the apostle Peter. These characters, like most in the Bible, are called according to a set pattern. The pattern is this. God says, “Hey, I want you to do something.” The person being called says, “You’ve got to be kidding!” And then God says, “No, I’m not.” We see this pattern repeated over and over again: the call, “You’ve got to be kidding,” “No, I’m not.”
God comes before Isaiah in the first reading, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts!” Isaiah says, “You’ve got to be kidding! I am a man of unclean lips.” But God says to Isaiah, “I need someone to send and I want you.” Jesus asks Peter to lower his nets and there is a miraculous catch. Peter says, “You’ve got to be kidding! I’m a sinful man.” But Jesus says, “From now on, you will be catching men.”
This Biblical pattern is used in order to tell us what is primary and what is not. God’s call is primary. God’s call is more important than our qualifications. We are all imperfect, we all have shortcomings. Like Isaiah and Peter we are sinful people. But if we focus on those limitations and shortcomings, we will never be able to say “Yes.” We can always find someone else who is more gifted or better suited. So when the call comes to us, the Bible says it is perfectly okay for us to think these things, to tell God, “You know, I’m not the best qualified person here.” But we should also be prepared for God to say “I want you anyway.”
There are people here this evening who God is calling to be parents of teenagers. When you watch your children growing and changing and becoming more and more adolescent, you say to God, “You’ve got to be kidding! I signed up to have a baby but I’m not ready for this. I don’t have enough patience, enough wisdom, enough strength to be this kind of a parent.” And God says, “I know it. But I’m calling you, and I’ll be with you. Do your best.”
There might be some of us here God is calling to be reconcilers in our families. We see some in-laws or some other relations who are estranged from others. The thought comes to us, “Perhaps I should speak to one of them in order to bring about reconciliation.” Yet when that call comes, we say, “God you have to be kidding. I’m not the most diplomatic person. I’m not the one closest to this person. Why would you be asking me to do this?” God says, “I know, but you would have some authority if you reached out. Perhaps they will listen. I’m asking you to try.”
God might be calling us to do an act of kindness for someone at work who annoys us or to a kid at school with whom no one will associate. You say to God, “You’ve got to be kidding. I don’t want a new friend. I don’t want to hang around with this person. What will people think of me if I reach out?” God says, “I’m not asking you to be their friend. I’m asking you to do a simple act of kindness and to do it for me.”
Time and again God can call us to do what is difficult. And let’s be clear. We need to be sure that it is God calling us. At times we form thoughts or suggestions that come out of guilt or out of a warped sense of relationship. God will never be asking us to do what is impossible or to be a part of something that is abusive or hurtful to us. But God is perfectly capable of calling us to do some surprising things.
Of course, when God calls, we have every right to say, “You know, this is not my strength. I am not the best qualified. Perhaps you should think of someone else.” But once we have objected, we should also be prepared for God to say “I know all of those things. I am still calling you. And I’m not kidding!”
From Transition to Call
February 7, 2016
A man hails a taxi in front of his office building, gives his destination to the driver, and climbs into the back seat. About ten minutes into the drive, he leans forward and taps the driver on the shoulder. At his touch, the cab driver screams, swerves off the road, careens off a lamppost, and comes to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk. The astonished passenger apologizes. “I’m sorry”, he says, “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to ask a question.” “I know”, said the cab driver, “I’m sorry. But this is my first day driving a cab. For the last twenty-five years, I drove a hearse.”
All of us have to face transitions in life, and it is often difficult for us to manage them. Today’s scriptures present us with three people in transition: Isaiah, who is moving from a court official to a prophet of God; Paul, who is moving from one who persecutes the church to one of its greatest apostles; and Peter who is moving from catching fish to catching people. These transitions were in many ways exciting and attractive. But we can also be sure that there was doubt and fear.
Look at our own experience. When we enter a new school, when we begin a new job, when we commit ourselves to someone we love in marriage, we know that our life is going to change. Part of us asks, “Can I handle this? Will I find life in these new places?” When we realize that we will need to raise a child with a learning disability or care for an aging parent, when we make a mistake and our financial situation changes drastically, or when our family is influenced by divorce, it’s natural for us to say, “Do I have the strength to face this? Can I survive in these new circumstances?”
Peter, in today’s gospel, gives us an example to follow. Peter sees the transition in his life as a calling. His move from catching fish to catching people is not simply a change he must negotiate. It is a response to a request by someone he trusts. And Peter trusts Jesus. Even though he had fished all night long without catching anything, when Jesus asks him to lower the nets yet again, he does so.
Like Peter, we are invited to see the transitions in our life as callings. When we must face something new, either because of our own choice or because it is forced upon us, people of faith understand that the new challenge is connected to a God who loves us. A new job, a changed financial situation, the loss of someone we love in death are not simply random events we must endure. They are changes that God asks us to face. And the one who calls us can be trusted. The one who calls us will not forget us. The one who asks us to lower our nets will give us the strength to pull them up again. We might not catch as many fish as Peter, but faith tells us that our nets will not be empty.
February 10, 2019
Luke 5: 1-11
Years later, as he approached his own death, Peter may have remembered his first meeting with Jesus in this way: “It was a discouraging day. We had worked all night and caught nothing. I knew that I would never be able to pay off the debt on my new boat with this kind of luck. As I stood there brooding over the empty nets, a man stepped into my boat. I knew who he was—the new Rabbi that everyone was talking about. He wanted to preach from my boat. It was a peculiar request. But since I had no fish to sell and was free that day, I obliged him.
“As I listened to his words, they moved me. I began to wonder whether his promise of a better word could be true. Could God indeed be acting to bring about the kingdom?’ It was the power of his words that led me to agree to his next request: to go in the deep water and lower my nets. I knew there were no fish to be caught in the lake that day. I was a fisherman. If we had worked all night and caught nothing, we certainly were not going to catch anything in the middle of the day. But, as I pulled my net out of the water filled with fish, I looked into his eyes and my heart stopped. Because in that moment, I realized what he wanted. He didn’t want my boat. He didn’t want the fish. He wanted me.
“I knew I couldn’t do it. I was a fisherman. I didn’t know the Torah the way he knew the Torah. I couldn’t speak the way he spoke. I often spoke too soon and embarrassed myself. I was weak and gave up on things when they became difficult. There was no way, no way that I could follow him. And I told him so. ‘Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man.’ I am a weak man. I am an unreliable man. And then he said the words that changed my life. ‘I will make you a fisher of people.’ He was telling me that he would make me what I needed to be. I trusted him, and I left everything and followed him.
“I was still weak and sinful. I often misunderstood what he was teaching. I even denied him during his suffering. But, he was true to his word, and as often as I failed he was faithful. He made me what I needed to be. And now, as I look forward to my own death, I know that I will die as his disciple.”
On any particular day, Jesus can step into our boat and ask something new from us. And nine times out of ten, we will feel we can’t do it. We are not ready. The boss comes up to us and gives us two week’s notice. We say, “I can’t be unemployed. I have a mortgage and a family. At my age I can’t begin a new career.” Our spouse suffers a stroke and we become a care provider. We say, “I can’t do this. I’m not patient enough. I’m not strong enough to see the person I love so incapacitated.” We look at our body as it ages, and we realize that in 5, 10, 15 years, we will have to do less and depend more on others. We say, “I can’t do that. I know what it is to be happy being strong and healthy, but I have no idea how to be happy being old and dependent.”
In each one of these moments when we know that we are too weak, too unprepared, Jesus says to us what he said to Peter, “Don’t be afraid. I will make you what you need to be.” Then it all comes down to us. Will we trust him and say, “Yes.” If we do, like Peter, the road will not always be smooth, and we will fail often. But also, like Peter, we trust that Jesus will be true to his word and will change us.
When life turns on us in a new way, it can frighten us. But the good news is this: when Jesus steps into our boat, he does not intend to leave. He will stay with us until he makes us the person we need to be.