Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Blind in Our Midst

The Blind in our Midst

“…many rebuked Bartimaus, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me.”Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take courage; get up, he is calling you.” (Mark 10:48-49)

There is so much going on in today’s gospel reading.  Jesus is leaving Jericho with a “sizable” crowd.  When one is with a crowd, the herd mentality sets in.  The crowd is focused on one thing whether it’s a long line at the store or at a ballgame or a concert; the crowd has a common goal or a common interest.  In this case, the crowd was focused on following Jesus and not letting anything or anyone distract them from getting between them and the Lord.  Now normally that in and of itself is a good thing, but not when one has such narrow vision that you ignore the needy in your midst or are just plain rude to those around you.  This is also a common trait of a crowd: don’t distract the herd from it’s goal lest you be submitted to ridicule or shame.  For example, a fan of the opposing team at a ballgame or someone who takes too long at the checkout counter or someone who is holding up traffic on the expressway.  Crowds have very little patience and even less tolerance.  And so it is in today’s gospel.  A blind man hears that Jesus is coming so he cries out to him: “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.”  Bartimaeus addresses Jesus with a Messianic title, but the crowd has no time for him. They tell him to be silent which only prompts the blind man to call out all the more to Jesus.

And this is where things start to change for everyone involved in this story.  Jesus stops.  He says, “Call him.”  Jesus singles out the blind man, and because he has done this, the crowd changes its tune.  They go from rejecting Bartimaeus to encouraging him: “Take courage, get up, he is calling you.”  Why did the crowd have such a complete transformation? Why were their eyes opened to the reality of this poor man?  Well put simply, by singling Bartimaeus out, Jesus had restored his dignity.  The blind man goes from being ignored and shunned to being recognized and called by the Lord.  He is given importance by Jesus, and thus the crowd changes its attitude and their eyes are opened as well to the marginalized in their midst.

We sometimes have this attitude too in our spiritual life and our life here in the church.  We tend to be so focused on what we need and what we want in our relationship with Christ that we tend to forget those who are around us.  For example, and I mentioned this a few weeks ago, sometimes we come to Mass and are so trapped in our own little liturgical bubble and we sit far away from our brothers and sisters that we have no time to create community in the liturgy.  In fact, sometimes it bothers us when we are forced to interact with those around us because we (falsely) think that the Mass is all about Jesus and me when it really is about Jesus making us a community, built up and lifted up by the sacrifice on the altar.  So no, we don’t celebrate Mass by ourselves or in a vacuum we have to acknowledge our brother and sister sitting near us because they are Christ in our midst. 

Let me bring this last point home with a story from my first months of priesthood in my first parish.  I love my first parish.  I’ve always said that it’s like my first love that you never forget.  They taught me how to be a priest.  And as is the case with all loves, there are things that get under your skin.  There are many wonderful and holy people that I encountered there especially during the last Mass of the day, which was our biggest Mass.  I used to say that because we had so many visitors since some called us a “beach parish” that the parishioners would sit in the first four to five pews of our modest church and the visitors that I couldn’t recognize from week to week would sit behind them.  Well, one Sunday during my first summer there, my aunt and uncle (God rest his soul) drove all the way across town to visit me and attend Mass.  My uncle sat next to a woman who seemed bothered by his presence like if she didn’t want him or anyone sitting next to her. During the Our Father she would not hold his hand.  That’s not a necessity so it can be forgiven, but during the sign of peace she would not exchange the sign of peace with him.  It’s as if, like I said before, she was attending Mass in a liturgical bubble where she could not be bothered.  Now at the end of Mass, not knowing what was going on in the pews, I noticed my aunt and uncle and pointed them out to the community and welcomed them.  At this point, the lady turns to my uncle as if he had just appeared out of nowhere and says:  “Oh, so you’re Father’s uncle.”  Too which my uncle responded something like “Oh, now I exist.”  It was only after I had singled him out that he became visible to this poor woman who I never got to meet yet I’ve always wondered who it was because there are so many good and holy people there that I love dearly there.  The priest singled out his uncle and the uncle went from being an unimportant random person to an important relative of the priest that warranted attention

Yes there are people around us, especially at Mass, the “faceless Christ” as Pope Francis likes to call them that need our attention.  We need to welcome everyone with open arms and give them the dignity that Christ gave the blind man.  Remember that when Bartimaeus finally approaches Jesus, the Lord asks him: “what do you want me to do for you?”  Of course, the blind man wants to see, but Pope Francis pointed out in his homily this morning that this question indicates Christ desire “to hear our needs.”  So yes, we obviously need to see.  As a community we need to see and not get caught up in our rigid ways so that we can be a place of welcome, a place of encounter, a place where dignity is restored to the marginalized, the sinner, and the ostracized.

Jesus, Son of David, have pity on us, and help all of us to see.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Archive: The Missionary and the Toilet Brush

(Was traveling today, so here's the homily that I preached on World Mission Sunday on October 21, 2012.)

“…whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant…” (Mark 10:43)

Today the church celebrates World Mission Sunday. Every year on this Sunday, I’m reminded of my experience of missions in Mexico when I was a teenager.  I remember specifically the first day we arrived in our village.  We were going to spend two and a half weeks out there in the mountains of southern Mexico serving the poor, and when we got there we were assigned chores.  I have never forgotten that when we sat down to divvy up the daily chores, one of our young college missionaries named Jimmy was the first one to raise his hand to volunteer to clean the toilets every morning.  I was 15 at the time and thought this kid was crazy.  Why would he want to do such a disgusting chore every single day?  Little did I know at the time that he was teaching me a great gospel message that we hear in today’s gospel.  Greatness lies in total service to others without thinking of one’s self.  Jimmy was hard on me that first of three summers that we spent together on missions.  I never realized how self-centered I was as a teenager until one night that Jimmy basically spelled it out for me.  No one except my father had ever been that harsh with me but at the same time, he did it with great love.  Here I was thinking I was going to Mexico ready to set the world on fire by preaching God’s word but it was in the little things that God really made himself present:  in taking care of children so their parents could go to Mass, in doing my own laundry by hand in a bucket, in drawing water from a deep well for the other missionaries, in walking miles just to bring the presence of Christ to someone who may have felt forgotten by their Church.  It was in the selfless examples of my fellow missionaries, it was in the great faith of the poor people we were called to serve, and in my long and sometimes difficult talks with Jimmy and seeing his dedication to our mission that this young teenager slowly started to discover his priestly vocation.

Next summer it will be 20 years since I went on missions to that place that I once called an “oasis of Christianity” because you see the gospel come to life in the love and the faith of the poor.  They rely solely on God and not on anything of this world.  It is there that I met some of the poorest people I have ever known, but at the same time some of the greatest and most powerful.  Christ reminds us that to be the first, to be truly powerful, we have to be the slave of all.  Being able to experience this first hand at such a young age set the tone for the rest of my life.  These people who we were coming to serve delighted in serving us!  They would constantly be giving us food that more often than not meant that they were depriving themselves and their families of food so that the missionaries would could eat from their harvest.  The priest that accompanied us always said that the bread that these poor people gave us was as sacred as the bread that we broke on the altar.  It was such a joy to be a missionary, and I carry that spirit now as a priest.  World Mission Sunday is supposed to remind us that not only are we called to remember those who are preaching the gospel and helping the poor around the world, but also that we don’t necessarily need to travel to foreign lands to be a missionary:  we are called to be missionaries right here in our homes, our work, and our schools.  We are called to serve and be a slave to all even if it means doing something as menial as cleaning toilets so that somebody else doesn’t have to.  For it is in the small tasks preformed with great love that we truly achieve greatness.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

All In

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
We all come to Mass because we have this question.  We all long and hunger for the transcendent, for something greater than ourselves.  We want what the young man in the gospel wants: we want immortality, and thankfully, the young man has gone to the source of immortality in Jesus himself.  But let’s break down this encounter: the man runs to Jesus, kneels before him and asks this question.  Jesus tells him to obey the commandments.  And here’s the thing:  this is by all accounts a good man because he says that he has followed the commandments from his youth.  He is a good man that needs just one little thing to get him over the hump and get him into heaven: he must sell all he has.  What Jesus knows is that this man is possessed by his possessions.  The material is what is preventing the young man from greatness.  Here’s the beautiful detail that St. Mark adds: Jesus looked at him, loved him, and told him to free himself of the material to store up for himself treasure in heaven.  But he couldn’t do it, and we are left with the heart breaking scene of the young man walking away sad, face fallen, because he had too many possessions 
So where does that leave us?  Like the disciples, we look at this encounter with Jesus and the young man and think, “If this good man who follows the commandments can’t be saved, then what chance do we have?”  Ok, so the disciples weren’t as dramatic but they were worried about their salvation.  Jesus applied the importance of letting go of his wealth to this particular young man.  For us it may be something different.  What is holding us back from spiritual greatness? Let’s face it: we know the commandments. We know right from wrong. We know what we need to do. 
So we got the desire, but why don't we follow through? Because we don't want to cut certain things out of our lives. The young man couldn't cut out one very important thing out of his life even after Jesus looks at him with love! Jesus wants to communicate this love to him, but his possessions wouldn't let him be selfless, unattached, totally living a holy life.   Jesus asked a lot from this particular young man, but he isn't asking much from us right now: observe the commandments and I would add: do one spiritual thing right.  For example: Come to Mass every Sunday.  Why do I continue to harp on that?  Why do I insist? Because I believe, no, I know that this is the path to pure joy and growth as a parish. This is the path that doesn't lead us to walk away sad like this young man. We got to nail this one thing down as a parish: dedication to the Eucharist every Sunday. Then Jesus will start asking for more because we will be ready to take on more. But right now, as a community, let's be consistent with our Mass attendance. Let's be consistent with the time we give to God. Let's cut out the excess, the distractions and just do this one thing right. Jesus was ready to call this man to spiritual greatness and he is ready to do the same with us.  This is like Jesus playing a spiritual game of poker with us and goes all in to prove his love for us.  If we’re on the other side of the table, we have only two options if Jesus goes all in: will we do the same or will we fold?