True Fasting

PopeFrancis-mercy“Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes?…

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!”

from today’s 1st Reading for Mass, Isaiah 58

“Into deep water” — Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dignity NoVA/DC
February 9/10, 2013

Readings

DeepWaterMost of us are familiar with the word “vocation.” When we hear that word, many of us might think of it in its limited notion of a “vocation to religious life or the priesthood” or other ministerial vocation. That’s certainly a very legitimate use of the word, and it’s understandable that our own idea of “vocation” might be so limited because that’s how we’ve heard the word used. How many of us have heard in various parishes frequent prayers for “an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life”? How many of us might even have been asked by a friendly religious sister, brother, or priest when we were younger, “have you ever thought you might have a vocation”? And, of course, there are a fair number of us here in our own gathering who either explored or lived that type of “religious vocation” for a significant part of our lives, and so it’s very understandable that this legitimate, but more narrow concept is what comes to mind when we hear that word.

Today’s scriptures, however, speak to us very poignantly about a much more fundamental and basic understanding of vocation. The word itself comes from the Latin word, “vocare” – meaning to name, to summon, to call, or to invite. All of those ideas are wrapped up in the biblical calls that we hear today from all three readings — from Isaiah, First Corinthians, and the Gospel of Luke.

Although the calls of Isaiah, Paul, and Peter are different, they each have some common elements that can help us understand our own calls, our own vocations. What are some of those elements? Well, to begin, the person called usually has a sense of unworthiness; a sense of “Oh no, not me! You’ve got the wrong guy, Lord. I don’t have what it takes!” We hear that reaction from Isaiah who says, “I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Paul describes himself as “one not fit to be an apostle,” and perhaps most dramatically, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

This sense of unfitness, sinfulness, and unworthiness is not some sense of pathological self-hatred. It’s not an expression from people whose self-esteem and self-worth have been so damaged by life that they don’t see in themselves any goodness at all. No, this reaction is honest and real. It’s rooted in a deep and utterly honest understanding of who they are. As I was reflecting on the scriptures for today, one of the phrases that I kept returning to was Jesus’ command to Peter and his fellow fishermen, “Put out into deep water.” To know ourselves, we need to go deeply into our hearts and souls. Knowing one’s self as fully as Isaiah, Paul, and Peter surely knew themselves certainly required self-awareness at their core. And so, when they find themselves in the presence of something much greater than themselves, in the presence of what is Good and True and Holy, a humility that comes from having looked at themselves honestly and deeply causes them, at first, to turn away and to feel deeply their own unworthiness. Humility is not a virtue that I don’t think is in very high regard in our day and age — and perhaps that’s especially true for this city if Washington, DC. Humility is a virtue that reminds us we are limited, imperfect, and that we cannot save ourselves; that we cannot have and do it all. And yet, such true humility in knowing oneself seems to be a requirement for discerning the call of God in our lives.

Fortunately for Isaiah, Paul, and Peter however, what they see of themselves, though accurate, is not complete. For them — and for all of us if we have the courage to listen and to hear God’s calls in our lives — that sense of unworthiness is not where the story ends. What happens next is that God or Jesus responds in a way that heals or removes that sense of unworthiness… what was lacking has been provided, what was limited has now been made whole. Isaiah speaks of the burning ember that touched his lips, but Jesus simply says to Peter, “Do not be afraid.” It’s almost is if Jesus is saying, “Yes, I know you are a sinful man. I know your shortcomings, your weaknesses, your limitations. I know you more deeply than you know yourself because I see beyond those shortcomings, weaknesses and limitations and see the great possibility that lies in the depths of your soul.”

Because they did not get stuck in seeing only their limitations, but were able to let go of that limited vision of self and begin to see themselves as God sees them – each of these: Isaiah, Paul, and Peter – was able to respond almost immediately with a response that embraced that divine call. Isaiah responds in words: “Here I am; send me!” while Peter and his companions respond in action: Luke tells us that they simply brought their boats to the shore, left everything, and followed Jesus.

I suspect that very few of us have ever had such a dramatic encounter with the Divine as those we hear today. And because God’s presence in our lives is rarely made known in such grand epiphanies, it might be a bit more challenging to experience God’s call in our lives. Some of us might even wonder what our call is, or whether we are called at all? Although the specifics differ from each of us one to the other – surely our common call to follow Jesus is the same. At its core, that call is a call to Love. It is a call to live each day with kindness and compassion and understanding – especially for those in our world who are most in need. Right now, God is calling each of us in one way or another to live the Gospel more fully, more faithfully, with greater humility, and with greater love. What that call sounds like, only you can tell. The only question is, how you will respond?

(c) Copyright 2013 – Timothy J MacGeorge

Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dignity Nova/DC – September 15/16, 2012

Readings

Our first reading for today should be very familiar.  It’s part of a long section from the prophet Isaiah that includes what scripture scholars refer to as the “four servant songs.”  Beginning in Chapter 40 and going through Chapter 53 of “second Isaiah” or “deutero Isaiah,” these poetic passages introduce the Servant of Yahweh in what we as post-resurrection Christians see as prophecies about the Messiah.  The sacred author describes this Servant:

  • First, as Chosen – “My chosen one in whom my soul delights.”
  • Second, as Missioned – “I will make you a light to the nations.”
  • Fourth, as Suffering – “He was oppressed and afflicted; … like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”

It’s from the third of such poetic songs that we hear today, as the Servant of God is described as steadfast and obedient. Even when faced with the violence and cruelty of rejection, God’s Servant has set his face “like flint,” trusting in the presence and promise of God, believing that whatever may befall him, God is there.

That’s the backdrop by which we must hear the words of Mark in today’s Gospel. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s a prelude to the real question that the disciples must answer – and one that we must answer as well:  Jesus wants to know, “Who do you say that I am?” This is a question not of Identity, but of Being.  Jesus wants to know if they have yet grasped who HE IS?

And while Jesus must surely have been pleased with Peter’s quick declaration, “You are the Christ – the anointed one – the Messiah,” we know that Peter the Rock quickly becomes Peter the stumbling block.  In not wanting to accept the fact that Jesus’ Messiah-ship is different than what he (Peter) thinks it should be, Peter in that all-too-human, cocky, “just like a guy” kind of way, stops being a disciple, a learner, a follower … and figuratively jumps out in front of Jesus.  Peter at least did have the good sense to rebuke Jesus in private – and you can almost see the two off to the side with Peter saying some version of, “Hey, look Boss, you’re supposed to be the Messiah, not some common criminal who is going to suffer and get rejected and get killed. Where’s the victory in that? Where’s the Kingdom in that? You’re sounding not like a winner, but like the worst possible loser.  C’mon, get with the program!”

But Jesus will have none of it.  Then, Jesus does an interesting thing.  He “turns around” and looks at his disciples, and then he rebukes Peter.  It’s almost as if both by his actions and his words, Jesus teaches Peter the lesson he needs to learn.  Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan” and telling him to “get behind me.” In doing so, Jesus is telling Peter that he has forgotten who is the leader and who is the disciple.  What Jesus is saying is that ‘on this, my journey of doing the will of the Father – a journey that leads ultimately to rejection and pain and suffering and even death – you as my disciple belong behind me, not in front of me. I am leading the way, because I am doing the will of my Abba/Father. ’

And then, Jesus speaks in a way that certainly must have been confusing to those disciples and the crowd that heard him – as it’s certainly something confusing to us.  The Christian scriptures and the teachings of Jesus are often filled with paradox.  Paradox is the sort of statement that seems contradictory; it’s the type of statement or declaration that makes no sense to our rational, logical, Western way of thinking – to what many spiritual guides calls the dualistic mind.  If the way we experience life and the world and others and reality is dualistic – namely, always in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, yes and no, in and out, included and excluded, black and white … or, for that matter … Democrat and Republican, male and female, American and foreigner, rich and poor, gay and straight, young and old… the list could go on and on! … if we experience the world only on this way, then we will never fully understand and grasp the many paradoxes of Christian faith.  In this instance, Jesus proclaims what is perhaps the ultimate paradox of Christianity – life means death, and death is life. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.

Earlier this week I was listening to an audio book by a psychotherapist who has worked in the gay community for a long time.  He made a comment almost in passing that struck me.  He said that we as gay people – especially gay men and women of a certain age, though I suspect it’s true of many of us regardless of age – sometimes have difficulty accessing our feelings, sometimes have difficulty being fully aware of our emotional self.  And, he pointed out, when we do have access to that side of ourselves and are “in touch with our emotions,” the feeling that very many of us have the easiest access to is our anger.  The therapist was making this point in the context of gay men and their relationships, having grown up largely in a society and culture that was, more likely than not, unwelcoming. Having to hide who we are for much of our lives, being taught by the dominant culture that we are some sort of abominable aberration, and having the experience of being rejected in so many direct and indirect ways – it’s no wonder that many of us have such anger.  As I heard that, what struck me was not only the probable truth of his observation, but also how equally true it probably is for us as Gay Catholics in our religious context of “the Church.” Perhaps I’m just speaking for myself and engaging in a little projection, but I know that I have anger – dare I say, a “righteous anger?” – toward the institution I love so dearly called Church.  I suspect I’m not alone in saying that.

Whether we can see that in ourselves or not, each of us is challenged by the Gospel of Jesus to follow him even when and perhaps especially when we experience anger, when we feel hurt, when we know pain, and when we are rejected.  In those situations our first tendency is to be not like Jesus or the Servant of God, but rather like Peter, isn’t it?  Our inclination is to put up our defenses, saying this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, and change the game plan to what we want. Now … don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that situations that give rise to anger and hurt and pain and rejection are necessarily part of God’s plan and that we should simply be passive and docile in the face of what may truly be situations of injustice or even evil.  What I AM saying is that the mind and heart we must bring to those situations – and really to every person and every situation in life – is the mind of Jesus, the heart of the one sought always to know and do the will of God.  After all, doesn’t the passage from the Letter of James remind us that action is essential to a life of faith … that claims of faithfulness are empty and meaningless if we don’t put that faith into concrete practice that make better the lives of others in need? Let our prayer this day and every day be that we do, indeed, have what it takes to be faithful disciples of Jesus, following him wherever the Spirit of God may lead us.

(c) Copyright 2012 – Timothy J MacGeorge