All posts for the month February, 2012

February 19, 2012 at Saint Mark Catholic Church in Norman, OK

Isaiah 43: 18-25 + Psalm 41 + 2 Corinthians 1: 18-22 + Mark 2: 1-12

This weekend, as we move quickly into the Season Lent and still adjust to a new calendar year, I want to give you a “State of the Parish” address with some pastoral commentary leading up to the publishing our annual report which will appear on the web site before the end of this month. I am prompted to do this for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I am leader here, and every now and then a leader needs to take a good look ahead and look back to make sure someone is there. I have done that over the last several weeks, and I want to tell you what I see. My opinion is that the past is not nearly as good as what lies ahead if you will get reenergized, refocused, and renewed for the journey which is what Lent could do for us.

When I look back this it what I see. Fewer and fewer people are looking ahead and willing come with us. Some are along for “the ride” so to speak, meaning they want a “free” ride as long as it’s easy. Some are bumping into things that get in the way because they didn’t know what to expect. Some have gone back and given up. Some were not prepared for the journey and they are confused and long for what they think were better times in the past (Like those who murmured against Moses in the desert when they didn’t like the diet.)

Here are some facts that lead me to say those things. Three weeks ago the church in this country celebrated a tradition that has made Catholicism in the United States great: Catholic Schools. At each of the Masses, I called up all the children from this parish who attend our school. The total number of children who came forward at all three Masses was 77. I had the deacon count at each Mass. There are more 215 children from this parish who claim to be Catholic at All Saints School. That means 138 children did not attend Mass that Sunday here at Saint Mark. Where were they? I know where many of them were: at home, in bed, or playing computer games. I hear confessions of children, and it frightens me when they say: “Father, I’m sorry I didn’t go to Mass.” What frightens me comes when I ask why and they tell me that their parents wouldn’t bring them because they were too tired or too busy. What frightens me is that Jesus said that anyone who messes with the conscious of a child and causes them to sin should be drowned with a mill-stone around their neck. It is the strongest language in all the gospels. We are spending an enormous amount of money to have that school for what? For 77 our of 215? There is a problem here, and it is not simply at the school; but that is the easiest place to see it. There are 121 children in Religious Education and 215 in the school for a total of 336. The roles of this parish count more than twice that number. Where are those children? What does it mean, I wonder, when a couple stands at that font as you see them do about 39 times a year and promise to bring their children up in the practice of the faith? When are they going to start? I’ll tell you when, in the 7th year of the child’s life when they want something: First Communion. Then half the children come to us not knowing how to say the Hail Mary!

There are 3000 members of this parish according to the roles; but of course the roles are a mess because on 50% of you responded to repeated pleas in October and November to update the data. Why only 50% If there are 3000 members of this parish, why is Sunday attendance averaging around 1200? How has Sunday Mass attendance become optional? How in world can anyone stay home when the Body of Christ is being broken and shared at this altar? How can anyone say they are too tired to give thanks in face of that crucifix! I’ll tell you why. There is no faith, and what concerns me is that where there is no faith, Jesus will work no wonders. There is evidence of that in the Gospels.

What I see when I look back is that we are living in a world that not only does not believe in Jesus Christ, it does not believe in sin. Of course, without sin there isn’t any need for Jesus except for some entertainment and a curious distraction now and then. That was the problem there in Capernaum in today’s Gospel. They liked the miracles, but as soon as he said anything about sin, trouble broke out. When I look back what I see is that many have perfected the “blame game” – you know how it goes: it’s always someone else’ fault; and with that they have sunk so far into denial that sin and guilt, conscience and repentance are little more than the subject of late night comedians who mock us with their jokes and their laughter. You know what Sister George taught me: “A guilty conscience is God talking…. better listen.” Of course if you don’t have a conscience, you’re deaf.

I wonder, but I’m not sure which came first, the collapse of our responsibility for personal sin or the the overwhelming sinful nature of our corporate/communal sin with which we now live so comfortably with systems of injustice and evil. So we shrug off the corporate and moral decay of business and finance while tolerating theft, lies and cheating as simply the way things work. I think it is just the tip of the ice berg that is about to sink western civilization as we have known it. That we give a wink and a shrug to sexual exploitation, consider the bombing of women and children as justifiable casualties in a mad effort to preserve our way of life that many would consider immoral and ungodly just rolls off of us. That our children cheat and lie, and that some adults teach them to do so means nothing. The message our children are getting is that there is no sin. The biggest sin for a child these days is getting caught. In this community soccer, basketball, or football practice or the other games with which we amuse ourselves are more important than prayer and worship. This is curious in face of the First and Fourth Commandments. That someone might sit here not be too sure of what those Commandments are only makes my point.

Like the Israelites making their way to the promised land, we are making our way through pagan territory. We must not let the gods of this territory turn our face away from our destination nor should we sacrifice our children to their gods. I intend that strong image and language. With many exceptions, but not too many, the children in this community are over-indulged and privileged. Parents in this community be vigilant to protect their children from this plague. I hear children talking all the time about their feelings, and way too many parents are always protecting their children’s feelings without every teaching their children to have a concern about the feelings of anyone else. Children, hear me. Listen to me, if you pay more attention to the feelings of others, you are gong to be great and noble. Thick skin and a soft heart are a lot better than thin skin and a hard heart. Decide what you want. One will make you lonely, desperately lonely. The other will bring you Joy and more friends than you could ever imagine.

One more observation about the state of the parish. We are not growing very fast right now, and some will blame that on the economy. The collection income in the 12 months of 2011 was $50,000 less than then the previous year. Now in fact that is less than the collection for three Sundays, so maybe it doesn’t mean much except to confirm that we are not growing much right now. Other things are growing, and nothing costs less. In tune with the times, the expense side of the budget was wisely cut last year, and we are paying our bills and meeting our obligations, but we are not growing, and we are not fixing things that break. Look up at the lights. They are not burned out. The computerized lighting system has failed after 11 years of constant use. The new one will cost about $50,000. Get the comparison? How many of you turn off and on the lights in your kitchen by going into the closet of a bedroom or into the garage, and flipping the circuit breakers?  That is what we do here now to get the lights off and on.

Our construction loan this month will finally go under $3 Million Dollars. Ten years ago it was $5 Million. In a parish this size, that debt should be gone and should not pose any problem. Look at the cars in this parking lot – the make and model. Why that debt is still such a burden that consumes almost 50% of our income every month leaves me speechless. The first debt at this parish with less than 300 families was gone in less than 5 years. As with so many things, there is always this thinking that it’s someone else’s responsibility or problem. I can’t live that way, and I can’t lead that way.

Now let’s look ahead. In three days Lent begins. The season of repentance is a season that amounts to nothing if you don’t believe in sin and forgiveness. Yet this church will be packed with people who want their Ashes, as though receiving the ashes does not come without accepting the responsibility for conversion and change. To claim the Ashes is to claim the sin that they signify. To expect forgiveness without any  intention of changing the behavior that brings one to seek forgiveness mocks the forgiver.

This season must to be a time of very intense self-examination and very real renewal for this parish and for each of us as individuals. If we are renewed, this parish will be renewed. It is dangerous to think and feel that any of us is doing as much as we can and so have no need to pursue greater and deeper growth. When we tell ourselves that we are doing all that we can we drift. We drift away from the very instruments for personal renewal that God provides for all of us in His Church, notably worship and penance. The truth of the matter is, none of us is doing all we can do.

The Gospel today is not the story of a paralyzed man. It is the story of Jesus who forgive sins as easily as he heals a cripple, and it is the story of some people who have faith. Please note that it is their faith that Jesus compliments and acknowledges. It is because of their faith that a man gets up off his mat. When I look ahead, I see this parish and everyone of it’s members up on the roof bringing people to Jesus. That is not going to happen if the people of this parish do not see the needs of others, and demonstrate their courage and their faith in what God can do. “Faith” in biblical languages is the same word we also use for loyalty. It is time for some faith expressed in loyalty. Running around town from one parish to the next to find the most convenient Mass time so that you can do all the things you want to do and still not miss Mass is disloyal, and more seriously, it turns the Eucharist into a private devotion whereby you get to Mass, but your community is not strengthened and encouraged by your presence. This town is notorious for “floaters” as the leadership of every parish in the county calls them. Those who are here one week and gone the next — off to get what they want without any inconvenience.

Some are at St Thomas or St Joseph today and they might be here on Ash Wednesday. According to national statistics, one third of catholics attend Mass once a month, so that third of our parish is relaxing at home right now or taking the places we want in a restaurant in about 45 minutes.

Do they need this message? Of course, but they won’t hear it. Do you who are here with me need it?  I think yes, both to encourage not to be at home next week, but even more to so be aware, challenged, and ready to stand as Catholics against those who will not. We have in this desert a tough time. We need to stick together. Our values are under attack. Our traditions and customs by which we pass on the truth of our faith are not widely respected, so we simply must do more: do more to embrace, to call, to encourage those who are week and short on faith. We must pray for them, look for them, and welcome them. Perhaps if there was a bit more joyful personal attention to them when they are here, they might realize how rich, how wonderful, and how comforting and blessed we are to be here. Don’t you suppose that’s how that man on the stretcher felt?

Those friends of faith could have found all sorts of easier ways to get their friend to the Lord. They could have run and yelled: “Fire, everybody out!”. They might have simply served up some free food outside that would have emptied the room. Nobody every passes up a free meal…. Yet, they did it the hard way and it brought them the best news they could have ever hoped for: “Your Sins are forgiven.” Let’s get ready for Lent: a time of renewal, of grace, forgiveness and new life.

February 5, 2012 at Saint Mark Catholic Church in Norman, OK

Job 7: 1-4, 6-7 + Psalm 147 + 1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23 + Mark 1: 29 – 39

Remember what we discovered about Jesus and his dual role in Mark’s Gospel last week? He is both Teacher and Exorcist. As we spend this year with Mark’s Gospel pay attention to how often Mark will insist that the work of Jesus is driving out demons. Unlike the other Gospel writers, Mark sees the greatest miracles of Jesus in terms of his conflict with evil and the consequences of evil. So today Jesus has left the synagogue today, and he goes immediately to where people live. His life, his work, his presence is among the living, and there he finds suffering and sickness.

There is an important detail here that we ought to keep in mind. It is the fact that there is a difference between disease and illness. Disease is a malfunction of biology. It is chemical thing that affects an organism. Plants get diseases. Illness on the other hand is much more far reaching because it disrupts human life, relationships are ruptured, and identity is lost. Curing is aimed at disease. Healing is aimed at illness. Jesus is a healer, and so are his followers, the church. We have no idea what diseases people had who came to Jesus, but we know what afflicted them, and we know what he did about it.

Sickness or possession then and now isolates and alienates people. It takes them out of their proper place, their role, their very identity. It is not hard to see the correlation between sickness and possession and sin. The consequences are the same. Sin breaks relationships. It takes us out of our proper place, our role, our identity, and so it is an easy leap from healing to forgiving, a change we shall soon see in Jesus, who, in healing often begins to say: “Your sins are forgiven.” The point is, the presence and action of Jesus is not just to cure, but more than that: it is to heal what is broken, relationships. When he raises up Peter’s mother-in-law, she immediately resumes her proper place. She goes back into her role as servant. 

This is still the opening day for the ministry of Jesus. It is still chapter one in Mark’s Gospel. He has been in a synagogue and in a home. He has been teacher, exorcist and healer. But this is not all he has come for, and it is not all he will do. We have no idea what happened to that man in the synagogue after his exorcism. We do know what happened to the woman in this Gospel. The fever leaves and service begins. God’s service to her becomes her service to others. She is not only cured, but she is healed. In this woman, service is not menial work. It is the hallmark of the new humanity that Jesus came to establish: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” 

Curing sickness, driving out demons restores individuals to family and community, to the circles of love that grieve at loss and rejoice in reunion. As the ministry of Jesus unfolds in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus avoids the distraction of popularity. He attracts crowds. To the disciples this means success. Fame and notoriety drive Peter and his companions to hunt down Jesus. Jesus however, called followers, not fans. What he does, these cures and exorcisms are signs of a new revelation of God. They are manifestations of a spiritual revolution.

Suffering is an invitation to heal our alienation from God and neighbor. The healing may or may not result in a cure. If a cure does happen, then there is a struggle to persevere in the healing that was begun in sickness. The Gospel begins with cures and exorcisms, restorations to health. The Gospel must eventually lead to personal transformation leading us into a deeper, more profound and life giving relationship with one another and God. It must lead to conversion, a change of life, of heart, and of soul. That conversion will lead us to service and deeper into the mystery of human suffering, the likes of which Jesus endured to lead us and show us. Unlike many other stories of exorcism or healing that lead us into the identity of Jesus, this story is not so much about proving the identity and power of Jesus as it is the story of one human being doing whatever is in his power to ease the suffering of another human being. You don’t have to be divine to do that.