Fr. Paul's Homily
Saturday morning, after the 8:30 Mass I was asked to give a little blessing to the 3-4 grade football team before they headed to St. Maria Goretti for their first football games. As I gathered with the kids I noticed that a few of them already had many dirt stains on their shirts. I asked, “What happen to you?” The response was, “We were playing!!” For some kids, it does not take long to get dirty!!
We get dirty when we actively engaged in any situation and give our best. Our readings today are about “doing the work of our faith” so I would like to talk about “Getting dirty” for the Lord!
Our first reading from Isaiah, the prophet, talks about someone who accepts great suffering for the sake of God. This person does not quit because of opposition, but accepts the physical and emotional pain with determination. We hear this particularly in the phrase, “I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Have you ever set your face with determination, tightening your jaw and focusing your eyes? It is a look that says, “Nothing will keep me from reaching my goal.”
The Gospel carries a similar theme of suffering and determination. Jesus has taken his disciples 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee to the town of Caesarea Philippi. There he asked them the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with an inspired answer, “You are the Christ” which can also be translated The Anointed One, the Messiah. In the Matthew version of this Gospel, Jesus immediately praises Peter, saying that he will be the rock upon which his new church will be built. St. Mark does not include this statement but goes directly to Jesus’ teaching that he will suffer greatly, being rejected and killed but then he will rise.
This notion of suffering does not fit in with what Peter understands as the role of The Christ. Peter say the Christ as the one who would be a king with power and glory, not one who would suffer and die. So, Peter, with an amazing confidence, tries to correct Jesus, probably telling him to not even talk about such things! Jesus comes back with very strong and confronting words: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Jesus leaves no doubt that suffering and death will be part of his ministry, but then he takes a huge step forward when he includes his own followers in this suffering, saying, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” In other words, he is saying to Peter, “Peter, not only will I suffer, but so will you if you want to be my follower.”
Do we see suffering as part of following Jesus, or do I see faith in Jesus as a way of avoiding suffering? Sometimes we unconsciously accept a certain attitude like:
“If I am a good Christian, I will not bet cancer.” Or
“If I am a good Christian, my children will all be successful.” Or
“If I am a good Christian, my bank account will be larger.”
Have I followed this thinking, that following Christ will be the way to avoid suffering? Christians do get cancer; Christians also will struggle to pay their bills.
The cross of Jesus relates to what we will experience if we are to be his follower. This takes us to the second reading today from the Book of James where James points out the integral connection between faith and good works. He says, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” He then gives an example, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” St. James is being very honest and direct here. Faith in Jesus is essential, but if that faith does not lead to good words, then it is dead.
I have sometimes compared this to “Love”. You can say “I love you” all day long, but if you do not show this through loving actions toward the other, then those words mean nothing. Love has to be lived out in concrete ways for it to be real. So it is with faith. Faith must be lived out in concrete ways if it is to be real.
I remember a family that gathered with me to plan the funeral of their father. One of the sons shared a story of his father that affected the son deeply. One cold winter day, the father and son were walking along a street downtown and they saw a homeless person, sitting on the street with no coat. His father did not say a word, but simply took his coat off, put it around the shoulders of the homeless man and kept walking, accepting the coat air as his cross to carry. This son never forgot this profound witness of his father.
And this is where the suffering of the Christian comes in. It is the suffering that we experience in following Jesus. So, arthritis is not your cross. Your cross is when you take care of your grandkids, even though your arthritis is painful. Lack of money in your account is not your cross. Your cross is the effort to stay hopeful and trusting and not let the money issues turn you into an angry, bitter person. The cross comes from following Jesus’ command to love one another.
Let me share a story: The baby will not stop screaming. On the third floor of a brownstone in New York City's Harlem, a woman holds the two-week-old infant in her arms. The little body trembles and twitches with pain, but Clara Hale has no medicine to offer against that agony, unless you count love. In an old bentwood rocker, she soothes the hurting child. "I love you and God loves you," she promises. "Your mother loves you too, but she's sick right now, like you are." She coaxes the baby to nurse at a bottle. She bathes the child, croons softly, tries a little patty-cake game.
"After a while, maybe you get a smile," she tells a visitor. "So you know the baby's trying too. You keep loving it -- and you wait."
Clara Hale is 79 years old, a tiny, birdlike woman with nut-brown skin and a curling halo of white hair. "The baby craves something he doesn't understand," she explains. The "something" is heroin, and it may take a month before the baby is cleansed of the addiction that began in his mother's womb.
Mrs. Hale found a prescription for heroin babies, when she started cradling such drug-poisoned babies: lots of patience and calm, mixed with megadoses of love.
It's a moving story that tells of Clara Hale spending a lifetime caring for other women's children. In a fifth-floor walkup, she raised 40 foster children as well as three of her own. And now she operates a place called Hale House, a unique haven in the heart of the drug darkness of New York's Harlem. The time the article was written, she had cared for 487 babies of addicts. This is faith in action and St. James would have smiled!
So can we hear the scriptures today? Do we hear Isaiah who says that physical and emotional pain should not keep us from following God? Do we hear Jesus in the gospel who says we must pick up our cross and follow him? What is that cross? It is what happens when we put our faith into action and we accept the suffering that comes with loving each other. Let us be courageous and “set our faces like flint.”