As a priest, I’ve believed for a long time now that the strongest and closest presence of Jesus is found, after the Eucharist, among the suffering. Among the dying, those dealing with any number of illnesses; those fighting the awful battle of depression or any sort of addiction. Those of us who are healthy on the other side, awaiting our turn for something to come along and snatch away our good body, mind, or spirit, our reaction towards those who are fighting some difficult condition, such reactions will run the gamut. Reactions will go from true compassion and understanding to the point of getting deeply involved in the life of someone we know and love, and sometimes even a stranger. It could be someone dealing with addiction or any life crisis, knowing they may have little time left on this side of the grave. From that reaction to the other end that totally dismisses and avoids a person who is suffering, because we may not know how to be around someone who is ill, which is never a comfortable situation. It’s like, “What do I say? What do I do? I’m too uncomfortable in those situations, so its best to avoid them.” Or, telling an addict to just get over their problem, grow up, and move on. If it were only that easy! One thing’s for sure, though, and you can take this to your religious, spiritual, Christian bank; where suffering is found, whatever the reasons and whatever the cause, you can bet that Jesus the Cross-carrier is intimately present. I believe his deepest, most loving presence is found, not even in the beauty of nature where God can be experienced in moving ways, but rather in a place like a hospital, or nursing home, or anywhere where human brokenness and bondage is found. How can the poor, the hungry, the weeping, those who are hated and insulted time and time again, how can they be called blessed by Jesus? What’s so blessed about any of those real, human conditions? So, all those hundreds of people; men, women and children who appear most days at the St. Francis Xavier Soup Kitchen at St. John’s Church on Temple St. here in lovely Worcester, Jesus says all of them – every one of them – is blessed for being hungry. Have you seen that crowd? If looks mean anything, then they don’t look blessed. Yet, looks mean something to Jesus. Remember the Gospel where the Lord is openly critical of the religious leaders wearing their long robes, their beautiful tassels and phylacteries, the best shoes around, sit at the best places at the banquets where they can be seen by all, but they don’t lift a finger to ease someone’s burden? Looks do matter to the Lord. And the number one look for Jesus, if you will, is not found on the big screen, or the athletic field of any professional sports team, as impressive as Fenway Park is. Our Lord’s number one look is found in the person or the group, no matter what they wear, who dress themselves every day with the shirt of compassion, the pants of mercy, the tie of kindness, the dress of love. Better known as the look of love. These are the ones for whom these words in Jeremiah are written; ‘Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is in the Lord.” In the 4 blessings of Luke’s Gospel in chapter 6, each blessing that Jesus speaks is not only for one type of person; the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated. Every blessing addresses two types of persons; the poor, and those who ease their burden. The hungry, and those who feed them, such as the many at the Soup Kitchen who volunteer, being just as blessed as those who walk through the doors in search of a meal, where each volunteer and each hungry person become one in Christ. It’s a form of social Christian marriage in that moment, where the feeder is feeding the feedee. And there’s the weeping, and those who remain strong enough to offer comfort and solace to a sorrowful soul, being another form of Christian marriage, if you will, where the sorrowing and the comforter become one in Christ. And the fourth blessing of Jesus, the hated, the despised, and the insulted, and the “lover.” The one who brings spiritual love to the many whose reputations are torn asunder, to the prisoner, to those who are insulted for being true to God’s holy teachings. In each blessing there are two people; the one who is tormented in some way, and the one who eases the torment instead of piling it on. In each of our Lord’s blessings we’re in need of finding ourselves in there somewhere. To not find ourselves in these blessings is a matter of being indifferent, or being fearful of becoming a partner in any social Christian marriage, to which Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Divine presence is most deeply found in the suffering, the suffering of body, mind, and spirit. In those real situations, we’re invited to turn them into blessings by becoming one with another person in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord.
Do you think Simon Peter, who would go on to become St. Peter, our first Pope, someone crucified upside down according to tradition, and someone the other Apostles would look to as a leader among equals, do you think he really meant what he said when he spoke these words to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord?” We know he meant every word in the second half of that phrase, “For I am a sinful man.” He was certainly a sinful man for doubting the request of Jesus to toss the net onto the other side of the boat, because the side he chose was not producing any catch. Yet, there’s Simon Peter totally exasperated by the request from someone who knows a thousand times better than him. Exasperated at someone who can see all the fish in the sea, all the souls in the world in one vision, both our personal world and the entire world, guiding us where to locate and throw our nets, never for our demise, but always for our benefit. What does our Lord benefit from Peter catching all the smelly, delicious fish from the Lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee? Do we really think that Christ receives any benefit from leading us to a place each day where we can make a big catch for him? Yes and no, but much more yes. At the end of the day, if Jesus wanted to take that net from Simon Peter’s boat and throw it to the other side without assistance from anyone, and haul in a huge catch, don’t you think the Holy Spirit and his Father in heaven would have helped, and finished the work on their own? Of course! God can do whatever he wants to do on his own, without any assistance from weak, feeble, doubting, crazy human beings. In order to catch us and save us for eternal life and all the joys of heaven, as well as all the Christian joys in this present life, God is quite capable of catching the fish on his own. He’s the best Net-Thrower there is. That’s the “no” answer to needing our assistance. But, as I suspect we know, the “Yes” answer is God’s desire for us, because the “Yes” answer to Jesus receiving some benefit to the daily catch has been happening since the time Simon Peter threw the net to the other side of the boat, even with doubt in his heart. So, I offer a couple thoughts that we love about Jesus in this scene on the lake. First, when our Savior receives many benefits from the catch of fish, so do we. Our lives are intimately tied in with the work of Christ spread throughout the world, where he receives benefits everyday through our actions of love. Every work of mercy, large or small, is not only a catch for our Savior, it’s a catch for us. So, may we stop this foolish thought where it exists that any act of love that a person performs originates from our own power and capacity. Like Colonel Potter used to say on MASH, “That’s a bunch of Horse-Hockey.” Peter tried catching fish all night long on his own and came up empty. That’s the result for anything in our culture without God at the helm. Without our Lord giving the command. But when we heed his command, even with a snicker towards him like the great Peter did, the catch is large. And second, in the words of Simon, “For I am a sinful man.” The most honest and loving words Peter ever spoke. While Simon Peter is denigrating himself for doubting, snickering, and not trusting, our Lord’s heart is smiling at those words of Peter. No wonder why he made St. Peter the leader among equals! Anyone who is capable of looking into the deepness of their soul and openly admit their sinful weakness, that’s the person you want running the operation. It’s this type of healthy spiritual honesty that will cause the Lord to not depart from Peter, and from us too. Our solemn belief is that God doesn’t give up on anyone. Look at St. Paul – the other great Apostle – in this second reading today as he writes about himself; “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am.” Paul created for himself a universe of separation between he and the Lord when persecution was his livelihood. But even a universe of separation was not wide enough where Jesus couldn’t close the gap. There’s no giving up on God’s part, and I’d like to think that all of us here can relate to that truth in a very personal way. He loves us too much, such as unconditionally. But unconditional love is not, “Do whatever you feel like doing.” God’s unconditional love commands us to conversion and repentance. Not to continue to live in sin, like Peter and Paul could have done. But instead to throw the net to the other side of the boat where we find holiness and Christian virtues. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Peter certainly meant the second half of that spoken reaction, for he was a sinful man doubting the potential catch found in the words of Christ, “Throw the net over there, Peter!” But, “Depart from me?” Not in a million years. Maybe Peter meant these words too, in the moment. But it was a request that was – and still is – impossible for God whose symbol is a Cross. The love that flows from the Cross is far greater than any willingness for God to depart from us. Divine love is far superior to Divine separation, because of a Cross. And the same Simon Peter will come to know this firsthand, upside down, in his love for Christ.
Nobody knows us like God does. He knows the ins and outs of our lives, the ups and downs, the external and the internal. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born I dedicated you.” These words of God to the great Prophet Jeremiah speak not only to the intimate closeness of God’s presence to us, but they also speak to the first half of the Super Bowl game. How so, you ask? God is the only one who knows the outcome of the contest, unless you subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the game is already rigged and fixed. We’ll assume for the sake of this Super Bowl homily, that the game is not jeopardized in any way prior to the opening kickoff. Because prior to the opening kickoff of our birth, which for some of us was long ago, God had a plan. Some of that plan has been as smooth as a Tom Brady drive with less than two minutes to go. And, some of that plan was like having the football ripped out of our hands, causing a fumble in our lives. However, the first half of life is a time when only God knows the eventual outcome. Most football games are not won or lost in the first half; just ask Dismas, the guy who was crucified next to Jesus and gladly heard every one of those saving words spoken to him by Jesus in the most compassionate and loving Aramaic, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The first half of our Super Bowl does not dictate the outcome. We always have time for a comeback of immense proportions if needed. We hope the Patriots don’t need to do so, again. God formed us and knew us, and loved us and saved us. We shouldn’t lose this insight in the first half of the Super Bowl of Life. But perseverance is the key that opens the door to a better second half. At halftime, we sing, using the refrain of today’s psalm, “I will sing of your salvation.” I doubt they will be singing of the Lord’s salvation at halftime at the Super Bowl in cold Atlanta, unless one of the teams is losing by three touchdowns, where they will need his saving intercession. The halftime show, we’re sure, will be entertaining. But I prefer the melody of the Lord’s salvation. The 3rd quarter of life’s Super Bowl is similar to this world famous 2nd reading from St. Paul on the greatest of all virtues, love. How so, you ask? After being formed in the womb with God knowing the span of our entire lives even before our conception, and addressing the uncertainties of the first half, wise people come to embrace, understand, and implement the power of love. Faith is the virtue that moves mountains. Love is the virtue that moves God. It’s in the 3rd quarter of many of our lives when we need to score more points on behalf of Jesus. The 3rd quarter is when – for many of us – the outcome of this game begins to set in. It’s when we start watching the clock of age, knowing that love is the best preparation for entering the final quarter of our lives. There’s nothing sadder than an angry elderly person. There’s nothing more beautiful than a loving elderly person. The 3rd quarter is the time to search harder for the many attributes of love that Paul writes. To be patient; to be kind; to not be jealous, pompous, inflated, or rude. The bad stuff, where it exists, is for the younger years, the less wise, those who think they’re going to live forever. Or those who have no fear of God. Love is the greatest of the trio of faith, hope, and love, because it never fails before God. and. Love is the most perfect imitation of our Savior. The 3rd quarter is the time to score many points through love’s power, because there is no better preparation for the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl of Life. Therefore, this Gospel that moves from the synagogue to Jesus being chased out of town to the edge of a hill, is a most fitting Gospel for our Super Bowl. How so, you ask? Because, probably like tonight’s game, it was a close call. You see, when we become more loving in our lives, there’s someone who doesn’t like it. The guy with the pitchfork! Luke left that part out of the Gospel story; they chased their native Son Jesus out of the town with pitchforks in their hands. The 4th quarter is a time for trusting even more in the Lord, for he is an Eternal Rock. Some rabid fans would consider this eternal rock to be Tom Brady, but it’s really God. At this point in the game, as we approach the end of life itself, the question still remains, “Who’s going to win this game? Who’s going to win our soul?” The 4th quarter is the most serious quarter of this game, by far. The first 3 quarters and halftime were a buildup to the 4th quarter. A very important buildup. A buildup that will form and shape the outcome of this game. For those who are winning by 5 touchdowns in the 4th quarter because you’re entire life you’ve been true to the Lord your God, you’re in a great place spiritually. Stay there and finish the game without changing any of your plays connected to your faith and good works. For those of us with more uncertainty of the outcome of our personal Super Bowl, there’s no need to allow ourselves to be pushed to the edge of a hill at this stage of the game. Jesus will walk through the midst of all that danger, and he will come to you. The 4th quarter is the time to remain intently focused on Christ, every day, because they can’t kill our Lord. And when they finally do put him to death, he returns to the field 3 days later. He formed you in the womb because he loves you, and has a plan for you, whatever our age. Sing along the way whenever you need a halftime. We all need a joyful halftime in our lives. Allow the greatest of all virtues, love, to score many points for you. And, in the final 15 minutes of life, or 15 years of life, trust in his presence walking with you, because he is alive forever. Not even Tom is a better quarterback than Jesus. But we’ll settle for Tom tonight as the Patriots win another Super Bowl.