Sheep are mentioned in the Bible more than 500 times – more than any other animal. The obvious reason is the pastoral culture of the times in Israel – there were a lot of sheep around in the Middle East.
But sheep also make for a good image of those who follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob –but most especially followers of their most famous descendant: Jesus Christ.
The reasons being that sheep are biologically and anatomically defenseless. They do not have natural ways to protect themselves --- so they desperately need a shepherd.
Second, sheep often get themselves into trouble. Although sometimes sheep are stereotyped as being dumb – they are actually quite intelligent – but the reason they get into trouble is because they are followers – it’s just part of their herd instinct – so they desperately need a shepherd.
Sheep also get into trouble because of their sight. Sheep have excellent peripheral vision – they can see far on either side without turning their heads – but it is difficult for them to see what is directly in front of them.
So sheep often stray from the path to get a better look or because they are curious. They are easily sidetracked or lose their way. Sound familiar?
And of course it is their tendency to get distracted and lost that, again, they desperately need a shepherd.
Good shepherds in Jesus’ day were devoted to their sheep. They would talk – even sing to them – in order to calm them and make them feel secure. They would anoint them with oil as a repellent against pests.
A good shepherd provided nourishment, refreshment, and protection. Good shepherds were so involved with their sheep that they knew and called each one by name. They were willing to risk their own comfort and even their own lives – for the sake of their sheep.
This is the caring and sacrificial relationship Jesus had in mind when he says, “I am the good shepherd – I know mine and mine know me. They will hear my voice and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Our good shepherd is a guide who can be completely trusted as we follow after him.
Once upon a time – a man fell into a deep hole and could not get himself out.
A sensitive person came along and said: “I feel your pain down in that hole.”
A practical person came along and said: “I knew you were going to fall into a hole sooner or later.”
A self-righteous person said: “You do know that only bad people fall into holes.”
A news reporter wanted an exclusive story on the hole, its origins, and the full scoop on the person who had fallen.
A self-pitying person said: “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen the hole I once fell into.”
An optimist came along and said: “Well, things could be worse.” While a pessimist said: “Things will get worse.”
But Jesus, on seeing the man – called him by name, took him by the hand – and lifted him out of the hole. . .
Jesus lifting us out of the holes we sometimes stray into --- what a good image to help us understand what Jesus means when he says: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
How often do we stray from the path of the Gospel – get sidetracked or lose our way – falling into sometimes very deep holes:
Unemployment, addiction, debt, loneliness, illness, concern for our future, worried about those we love, plagued by our past mistakes and present sins ---- life can be filled with deep, dark holes.
Christ is the Good Shepherd – and he is here to help us --- but he will never force himself upon us.
Jesus simply invites-------- invites us to hear his voice – invites us to take his hand – invites us to follow after him.
Do we have the courage as well as the humility to admit that we are trapped in a hole – and need Christ’s help? Are we able to extend our hands and hearts and allow Jesus to lift us up? Are we willing to allow the Good Shepherd to help us in our need?
Jesus said: “I am the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Do we hear his voice –and are we willing to follow after him?
Thomas. Doubting Thomas: that’s how we all know him, isn’t it – what we all call him. . . the one who tried to deflate the balloon of Easter joy. . .
Thomas. Doubting Thomas.
One moment in his life determining his reputation from that point on.
Why don’t we remember Thomas as Missionary Thomas – as he was the most active of all the Apostles in spreading the Good News of the Gospel – traveling to modern-day Turkey, Armenia, Iran, India – some think all the way to China. . .
Why don’t we remember Thomas as committed Thomas?
In John’s Gospel when Jesus wanted to go to Bethany to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead – the other apostles knew this was too near Jerusalem for Jesus to be safe as the Jewish officials were already plotting against him. Only Thomas was the one to say to the others: “Let us also go to die with him.”
Why not Thomas the master carpenter? It is said that Thomas specialized in making plows, yokes, pulleys, ships, carts, as well as houses. We probably had no idea about these talents of Thomas. But instead------- we do know that he doubted. . .
Why not curious Thomas? Later in John’s Gospel as Jesus explained that he was going to leave them, but they should not let their hearts be troubled because he is going to prepare a place for them – everyone else just sat there ------ but it was Thomas who said, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way.” And Jesus told them all, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” One of seven “I AM” statements in St. John’s Gospel. . .
We could even remember Thomas as faithful Thomas – for after he does see Jesus, without even having to put his fingers in Jesus’ hands or his hand into Jesus’ side, he proclaims: “My lord and my God!” – the strongest affirmation of faith that any of the apostles make in the four Gospels. . .
It turns out that Thomas should be known for his faith and zeal----
but instead it is Thomas. Doubting Thomas. One moment in his life determining his reputation from that point on. Perhaps it is just human nature to look for weakness, rather than strength – something to criticize rather than praise. . .
It was a dark and stormy night many years ago. Unknown to me, the storm had knocked out the electricity for an hour or so – so my alarm did not go off on time. The next thing I know, someone was knocking at my door to wake me to come for daily Mass – as I was already pretty late at that point.
For my remaining years at Holy Family, I often heard the daily Mass crowd begin a story with “remember that time Fr. Matthew was late for Mass??”
I was at Holy Family for nine years. . . a rough estimate would be that I had 1,728 daily Masses during that time. I was on time 1,727 times –and late once – and yet, “remember that time Fr. Matthew was late for Mass” is what stuck with people. . .
One moment in my life determining my reputation from that point on.
I’m sure you know the feeling, too. You lost something once, your forgot something once, you were late getting somewhere once,
you ruined a meal once ---- you forgot a name, a date, a phone number, an address -- once --- and then the mistake follows you-- if not for the rest of your life – at least for a time that is beyond reason.
We’re like a bunch of chickens in a coop looking for the weakest among us – because if everyone is picking on someone else – they’re not picking on us.
Is that why the disciples passed on this story of Thomas – to hide their own doubts??? Because if they had truly seen the risen Lord – why were they still cowering behind locked doors????
This is the second Sunday of Easter --- our spring training of Lent is over – and now it’s time for us to put the Gospel into practice. . .
Perhaps Pope John Paul II, in declaring this 2nd Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday – knew that we are not going to get anywhere in our practice of Gospel Values unless MERCY is the sure foundation of our witness. When he established this feast, he simply called all of us to be “Apostles of Divine Mercy.”
MERCY: A love that responds to human need in an unexpected or unmerited or unearned way. . .
MERCY: a virtue that has at its core FORGIVENESS.
MERCY: a love which is benevolent, which is compassionate, which raises us above our weaknesses to the infinite heights of the holiness of God.
Pope Francis has said that Jesus Christ is the face of God’s mercy. And Jesus showed the mercy of God when he healed the sick, welcomed the stranger and pardoned those who persecuted and killed him.
And Jesus showed Thomas mercy – responded to him in an unexpected or unmerited way --- notice Jesus did not chastise Thomas in anyway, did not accuse him of being weak in his faith --- simply told him to do what he had to do in order to believe: “put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side: and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Jesus says to Thomas and to all those gathered that day ---- and to us who gather on this day:
“Peace be with you.” Jesus brings peace in the face of fears, pain – and yes, doubt. Jesus’ mercy knows no limits – because God’s mercy knows no limits.
Instead of getting down on Thomas’ shortcomings or any of ours – we should rejoice in the fact that the Risen Lord is the remedy for our ailments, and the answer for our unbelief --- and as we learned during our Lenten spring training: we are called to be like Jesus!
Author Peggy Noonan once wrote in the Wall Street Journal: In a way, the world is a great liar. It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day – it doesn’t.
It says it adores fame and celebrity, but it doesn’t, not really.
The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose --- goodness.
It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that – brought into the world, make it better.
That’s what it really admires.
It’s a good reminder, isn’t it? Your biggest impact won’t come from having lots of money, a fancy title, or a big house. It will come from your capacity to positively impact the people around you.
It will come from you being a merciful person.
It is said that Thomas’ dying words were:
“Lord, thank you for all your mercies. Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
As we continue to celebrate this Easter season – may we come to know all of God’s mercies – so that we can be merciful people to one another.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.” A Gospel reading we sometimes hear at funerals – for good reason.
For nature reveals a truth that is at the center of our Christian faith – that within the hard outer shell of a grain of wheat is contained the beginning of new life. The only way for this seed to bear fruit is to die and then be placed in the darkness of the earth.
St. John ties this truth of nature to the “hour” when Jesus was glorified –when his purpose of life is most made known: it was NOT at his birth when the angel choirs sang glory to God –
it was NOT when Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish and fed 5,000 people – it was NOT when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. . .
No, in St. John’s gospel the “hour” of Jesus’ glory is when he offers himself to God on the cross – and suffers and dies. Jesus greatest hour, his greatest accomplishment occurs on the cross – which is why the final words Jesus speaks in his earthly life are: “It is finished.”
Like the seed that dies in order to bear fruit, Jesus died that we may enjoy the fruit of eternal life. We call this the paschal mystery: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus --- it is the paradox that one must die in order to really live.
The Church presents us with this Gospel passage NOW – in order to put us in the right mindset for what is coming in these next two weeks.
For next Sunday, we shall hear not just prophecies about Jesus’ death – but we shall read on Palm Sunday, once again the story of Jesus Passion, Crucifixion, and Death. And those events will unfold for us day by day during Holy Week.
We hear this Gospel of the grain of wheat NOW to help us understand why Jesus goes to his death --- and why each of us must follow Him to the cross.
For if we are unwilling to die to our sin by going to the cross with Jesus --- and get back on the right track by dealing with the rats in our lives –
then we will not experience the new life Jesus died in order to give us.
I’m pretty sure that’s why Jesus told us we need to take up our cross daily – and follow after him---- because going to the cross, allowing the seed to die – is not something we just do once a year ---
there is always some selfishness to turn away from, some failure to overcome, some weakness that needs to be strengthened. If we don’t detect these things in our hearts and lives – then we aren’t looking hard enough. . . So daily we must ask: what inside of me must die in order for me to live more fully: to live more like Christ?
What do I need to turn loose of or overcome– so that the divine life of grace can take root within me and grow and bear fruit?
So this is the ultimate commitment we must make during Lent and on our journey of life: to follow Jesus to the cross –
To nail our faults, failings, sins, and rats to the wood of the cross in order to free ourselves from the past in order to change – or as we heard at the very beginning of Lent – to repent and in the Gospel ---so that we can be the kind, merciful, gentle people God is calling us to be.
Change isn’t easy.
To develop new habits and new mindsets can be very difficult. But change we must.
Growth isn’t optional if we want to follow the Lord with all our minds and all our hearts.
But change isn’t easy: we resist it. We wish that we could do without. We expect it of others but hope they don’t expect it of us.
Change isn’t easy.
It’s hard to say goodbye to the old version of ourselves. It’s hard to admit that we have fallen short of our potential in the past. It’s hard to shed our skin and reveal our new, vulnerable self to the world.
But unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies – it remains just a grain of wheat: it fails to produce fruit.
So do we dare to commit ourselves to this journey to the cross over the next two weeks?
We can if we remember that the only way to get to the new life of Easter – is through death on the cross on Good Friday.
Since hopefully during these days of Lent -------we all want to make a commitment to use prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to get rid our rats and get back on the right track of turning away from evil and doing good—of seeking after peace and pursuing it – we might all benefit from this story:
A young man went to see an older, wiser man for advice on being a good person – because it was something he truly desired.
The older, wiser man said to him: “to be a good person, you need to learn how to make better decisions.”
“And how do I learn how to make better decisions?” the younger man asked.
“Well,” the older man said, “to make better decisions you need to get more experience.”
“And how do I get more experience?”
“Well,” the older man said, “to get more experience, you need to make more BAD decisions.”
It’s tempting to wait until everything is perfect before making a decision and taking action, but that’s not how life works and that’s not how we grow.
The reality is that making choices and doing anything of importance is a risk. We may do the wrong thing, we may make a mistake and others may give us a hard time about it.
But the consequences of making a bad decision with good motives is rarely as damaging as making no decision and doing nothing.
So, if you want to be a better person by making better decisions – just make decisions.
Do something. . . anything!
Take action, make mistakes --- and learn from them.
In time, all of us can become more intuitive and wiser about the best course of action for our lives.
And that’s wisdom we don’t get from sitting around doing nothing.
So yes, as we heard last week – God gave his guidance and direction to the Israelites –
You shall not have other gods besides me.
Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.
Honor your father and mother.
You shall not kill, steal or lie.
And the Israelites tried their best to keep those promises – and sometimes they were successful – but many times they failed: “in those days, all the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations. . .”
But God did not give up on them: “Early and often did the Lord, the God of their ancestors send his messengers, his prophets, to them, for he had compassion on his people.”
And so after a time of enslavement and suffering in Babylon, some say this exile lasted up to 70 years –
the Israelites return to their homeland – and started over:
They rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem which had been burnt and torn down.
The priests Ezra and Nehemiah read aloud to the people from God’s word – and all the people re-consecrated themselves to the Lord.
The Israelites had fallen – but they had gotten back up -------- only, in time, to fall again – a pattern that repeated itself throughout the Old Testament.
But every time they failed – they gained experience from their mistakes, became a little firmer in their convictions, listened a little more attentively to the messengers, the prophets, which the lord sent them early and often.
God never gave up on them – and God will not give up on us --- God just wants us to keep on trying!
Never giving up on God, never giving up on ourselves, and never giving up on each other.
There’s a Japanese proverb that says: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
And Confucius once said: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in raising after every fall.”
So we get a splash of color today on this Laetare Sunday with the Rose Color Vestment – a splash of color to remind us we are more than half-way through our Lenten journey. . .
And human nature being what it is – some of us still may not have gotten into the Spirit of Lent yet – and that’s okay --- because it is never too late to start.
And some of us who have started, may have stumbled and fallen in keeping our Lenten promises – and that’s okay too --- as long as we learn to make better decisions through the experience our bad decisions have brought us. As long as we get back up after we have fallen.
One thing to remember in all of this – our Lenten journey as well as our life journey --- is that we don’t have to do this alone:
“God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love God has for is, even when we were dead in our transgressions – brought us to life with Christ – by GRACE, this great gift from God --- we have been saved.”
So that goal of ours that we should all have as Christians – to walk in the light of Christ so as to be more like Him: hold on to it.
Work on it.
Constantly remind yourself of it.
Sit down quietly and ponder it.
Never give up on it.
We have that goal for a reason ---
And IF, but more accurately, WHEN we fall – we just have to make the commitment to get ourselves up, dust ourselves off – and start all over again: walking in the grace of God.
In case we don’t know how bad habits take root in our lives and grow as fast and defiantly as weeds—Darren Poke, in his Better Life Coaching Blog gives us this explanation:
How do bad habits grow and what are some of the warning signs that we need to watch out for?
The example I would like to use is that of bad driving habits, but you will be able to see how this pattern applies to any area of your life.
Let’s just say that one day I slept in and was running late for work. I then have a critical decision to make. Do I risk the wrath of my boss and show up late – or do I take my chances and speed a bit on the drive?
I make the decision to speed in order to get to work on time. . . But when I get to work, I feel guilty because I’ve never chosen to speed before. I hope that a speed camera didn’t catch me and fine me.
After a few weeks of nervously checking the mail for a traffic violation notice – I have a sudden realization: I GOT AWAY WITH IT! I broke the law and there were no consequences.
I now have another critical decision to make. I can either buy another alarm clock and make sure that I never need to speed again – OR -- perhaps I will be less uptight next time and if I find that I’m in a similar situation in the future – I’ll just put the pedal to the metal – and speed again.
The reality is that if you get caught doing something wrong, like speeding, you COULD just consider yourself unlucky. However – chances are that if you get away with something that you know is wrong a couple times --- you will feel less guilty and the potential is there for a habit to begin.
And then the third critical decision is made. I purposefully start to set my alarm 5-10 minutes later than normal – knowing that I can just speed in order to get to work on time. I do so with little regard for the consequences and – in fact – become slightly annoyed that there are people out there trying to catch me.
At this point – I have a bad habit which formed -- and it will take a lot of will power to break this pattern of behavior.
When someone speeds, lies, steals, cheats, curses, slanders, belittles, abuses, gets intoxicated, is unfaithful ---- ONCE – the second time is always easier. And if we get away with it – and there are seemingly no consequences --- before long, a bad habit is formed.
St. Paul in his letters tells us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our temples sometime get cluttered with all kinds of bad habits –
and they need to be cleansed just as sure as Jesus chased the money changers and the sheep and the oxen out of the temple in Jerusalem. . .
In the 1780s, a boat shipwrecked off the coast of Hadawax Island which is in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska --- and a few stowaway rats made their way from the ship onto the island, resulting in a mass infestation so great – the island was eventually re-named: Rat Island.
After their arrival, the rats decimated the local bird population – by eating eggs, chicks, and even adult birds.
Over two hundred years later – in 2008 – a group called Island Conservation, finally intervened and successfully removed all the rats from the island. I don’t know how – maybe with lots of rat traps or people running around with nets. However they did it – it was done with the efficiency of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland!
Since then, most of the local bird life has recovered, with many species returning to the island that haven’t been seen there for many years.
It was an extraordinary recovery and a great victory for wildlife conservation.
We all have rats in our lives: bad habits that are destructive to ourselves and others.
As Darren Poke told us – it’s easy to develop bad habits that start small and slowly get bigger until they take over our lives and we become defined by them.
BUT IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO DEAL WITH THEM! And Lent is a most excellent time to do so. Through the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving—let’s make the changes that we know we need to make in order to drive some bad habits – rats if you will – out of our lives.
Let’s ask for forgiveness. Let’s ask for mercy. Let’s ask for the grace, the help that we need – to create new habits that are more aligned with our goal of following after Christ and imitating his actions in our lives.
Let’s use the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to get rid of our rats and get back on the right track of turning away from evil and doing good – of seeking after peace and pursuing it.
It won’t happen unless we make a commitment to do it – just like we have been challenged so far this Lent – to spend time in the desert --- and to commit to climbing the mountain. . .
ANNOUNCEMENT AFTER COMMUNION:
Today I received my second covid shot –and I encourage all of you to receive a vaccine. It’s not that I am going to start living recklessly – but I will feel a little safer doing the things I have to do – like going into hospitals and care centers.
For all of you still at home – know that we are anxiously awaiting your return to us – but only when you feel safe and confident to do so.
I would like to thank everyone for the fantastic job you are doing on continuing to support us financially at St. Patrick. Whether you are here or not—we still have bills to pay – mostly salaries to our teachers and others who minister in the parish.
If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us the importance of electronic giving – and remember you can always donate using your credit card so you pick up a few points along the way!
Our school enrollment is already strong for next year – we are staying current on our debt payments – so are looking forward to great things continuing to happen here at St. Pats – all thanks to you!
Deacon Jim Koger and Deacon Mike Lewis preached this weekend: No homily available.
So it is the first Sunday of Lent – time to get moving on our Lenten journey.
So imagine we are a train sitting at a station. It’s going to take a lot of energy to get that train moving. And even then, progress is slow, the wheels seem to meander around. But then something shifts:
The wheels turn faster, momentum builds and before too long, the train is an unstoppable force.
No one but the driver, the engineer, can stop it from getting to its destination and if anyone was to try – they had better get out of the way or they will get run over.
What if we expended all that energy and power to get ourselves moving --- only to discover we’re moving in the wrong direction because we’re on the wrong track??
I think that is why every year the season of Lent begins in the desert. “The Spirit DROVE Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days.”
Like Jesus, like the Israelites, like John the Baptist, like the early Church fathers and mothers – to begin our Lenten journey – the spirit drives us into the desert.
Why? I think to make sure our heads are on straight – our hearts are in the right place – and to make sure we are on the right track before we come barreling out of the station. . .
We are driven into the desert – that is times and places of quiet and isolation and reflection however we can carve them out of our busy schedules --- our inner room, as St. Matthew’s Gospel told us on Ash Wednesday – where we go and close the door in order to spend time with God -- so that we can be apart from the influences of culture and society.
The uncertainties of the desert create a need for God and a dependence upon God.
God lets us do without – so we can come to know God as our provider.
God lets us be lonely – so we can come to know God as our ally and friend.
God lets us be frightened and worried – so that we can come to know God as our peace.
God lets us be weak – so we can know God as our strength.
In the desert – God reveals Himself. In the darkness of the desert – God become our light.
In the confusion of the desert –we learn to let God be our guide.
In the desert – God separates us from the influences of the world, as well as the things and people we have learned to depend on – so that we will learn to depend on God.
In the desert, with the help of God’s grace, we put ourselves on the right track – having learned to reject Satan and all his empty works and empty promises.
The spirit drives us into the desert – so that God, alone, can lead us out.
So after carving out those places of quiet and isolation and reflection from our busy schedules – and having placed ourselves on the right track – it’s time to get that train rolling.
If we have not started anything by way of prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- thenstart today. Even the smallest actions toward turning away from evil and doing good – seeking after peace and pursuing it – will make a difference.
It may take a lot of effort to get the wheels turning – as it always seems to be hard to get Lent going – as we usually don’t jump into Lent with much enthusiasm --- but once we have started, momentum can build quickly.
And then once we off and running with our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – no once can stop is.
We can be that unstoppable train. We can become those people God wants us to be.
We can live the Baptismal promises that call us to reject sin and Satan and to embrace Jesus’ way of compassion, forgiveness, and mercy.
We just need to leave the station –AND be sure we’re on the right track. . .
It was a strategy that worked well for us at Advent – so I thought -- why not use it for Lent? And so ---- Let’s begin with the end in mind. . .
So at the end of Lent comes Easter and the 50 day Easter season. Throughout the Easter season we always do something different. Instead of professing our faith using either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed --- we do it by renewing our Baptismal promises ---- which, as you should recall – has us answer a series of question by saying “I do” to define ourselves as followers of Christ by what we reject – do we reject Satan and all his works and empty promises ----- and by what we embrace: do we believe in God the Father almighty, in Jesus Christ his only Son, and the Holy Spirit?
Yes, Christians define themselves by not only what they turn FROM --- but by what they turn TOWARD.
Lent, then, is the preparation period of 40 days that comes before Easter. It is a time to “whip ourselves into shape” so that we are ready to profess anew who we are as Christians and to make the commitment to do what Jesus did: live with compassion, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness.
For some of us – there is plenty to do to get ourselves back on the path WITH Jesus because of how far we have strayed from his ways.
For others, there may not be any major changes --- maybe just be a little fine-tuning that needs to take place --- for no matter how hard we try to imitate the life and teachings of Jesus – everyone of us stray – if but a bit.
Lent, itself, always begins with a question that helps us do the major overhaul, or the fine tuning we need to be about in order re-align ourselves with Jesus.
The question for us this year as the Ashes are sprinkled upon us: WILL YOU TURN AWAY FROM EVIL AND DO GOOD --- SEEK AFTER PEACE AND PURSUE IT?
That can be a tall task – and it will take some effort to achieve. But through our prayer, our fasting, and our almsgiving during these 40 days of Lent– we hope to achieve it.
And if we successfully practice turning away from evil and doing good – seeking after peace and pursuing it --------------------- then we should have no problem renewing those Baptismal promises every Sunday throughout the Easter season that commits us to follow after Jesus and doing what Jesus did: living with compassion, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness.
Ordinarily as you know – we would receive Ashes on our foreheads. Since that involves touching each and every one of you – which is not safe during these covid times – you will come forward – slightly bow your heads – and the Ashes will be sprinkled on the top of your head ------ which I understand is the practice elsewhere in the world --- it just hasn’t been our way in the United States.
Ashes are a sign of repentance – and the desire to “whip ourselves into shape” so that we can follow Christ more closely.
My name is JOAB. King David of Israel once cursed my family by saying:
“May Joab’s family never be without one suffering from a skin disease” – and so here I am – generations later: a leper for more than 30 years all because my great-great-great grandfather killed Abner: a commander of King David’s army.
At first my leprosy wasn’t very bad. My family did their best to cover up the first few signs on my skin. Gradually, as the white, flaky areas started to spread, it was impossible to hide – so my loved ones bowed to the law and sent me away.
I understood the need for my exile out of towns and separation from any contact with others.
Because, of course, leprosy was contagious. But beyond that, these signs of inflammation and disease of my skin indicated that I was a sinner – or so it was thought at the time. Something inside of me was decayed or unclean – and that was showing itself on the outside of my body in the form of the disease.
That’s the real reason a leper like me is expelled from society and from contact with anyone. Any person who even got close to me would be rendered unclean themselves – you caught both the disease and the underlying sin at the same time.
So I, and everyone else like me – lived in isolation in the wilderness. The disease was bad enough – but the isolation was worse.
The feeling of being unclean, contagious, untouchable – all leading to the feeling of being UNLOVABLE—was the real horror.
I examined myself over and over again and asked: “what had I done? What inner disorder is showing itself on my skin?”
It did not matter that I could not figure that out. After a while, you just feel horrible about yourself. You start seeing yourself as one disgusting mess.
I happily did what the law required of us untouchables – I shouted: “Unclean – unclean” whenever anyone got close – to warn them – that I was no good, that I was toxic, that I was to be shunned at all costs.
Most people just alerted their paths to avoid me and the other lepers with me. Sometimes people would shout obscenities at us – just to make sure we would stay in our place of exile and not come any closer.
Most just had fear in their eyes. One time I heard a person damn me to hell – saying that’s exactly where I belonged for having done what I did – even though they, nor I, knew what that something was.
One fateful day, I heard someone say: “Maybe the prophet from Nazareth could help these wretched souls. After all, he has been curing so many.”
Another said: “Who knows. I hear the Nazarene eats and drinks with sinners. Why should he not start to hang out with lepers and other despicable people?
It could not have been but a few days later that I came out of the cave I used for shelter to the sound of a group of travelers coming by. I did my customary shouting: “Unclean – unclean!”
Then I saw him. I knew who he was immediately – such a stunning man – walking with such confidence, yet his bearing communicated such peace.
Then his eyes met mine – and there was no fear at all in those eyes. Just compassion and love. It was so clear, in just this connection of our eyes – that he felt sad about my state – and he understood my isolation.
For the first time in a very long time – I felt courage and hope. Going against everything I had been taught by the Jewish Law – I ran up to him and fell on my knees in front of him and boldly said:
“Lord if you wish – you can make me clean!”
My actions and words got everyone to stop in their tracks – and they listened to what he would say.
I think I actually stopped breathing when he reached out and touched me. TOUCHED ME! He touched the unclean, contagious, untouchable, unlovable ME.
You cannot possibly know what it is like to feel so vile and then to suddenly be touched in the way that he touched me – the feeling started with the touch of his hand to my skin – but that touch went way deep – possibly even touching my very soul.
And then he spoke those words that I will never forget: “I do will it – be made clean!”
My shame left me immediately. And then my skin was transformed. The tears of joy must have told him how grateful I was.
HE – just smiled and embraced me. And every one of his fellow travelers embraced me as well. We were all laughing and crying at the same time. He, this man they call Jesus – was laughing and enjoying it the most --- for I was lost, but now I was found. Once unclean – but now clean. Alone – and now would know loneliness no more.
What a joy. What a gift. What a day!
Jesus had restored me to communion again because he had compassion on me.
And you know what – he has the same compassion for anyone who suffers in anyway what-so-ever: physically, mentally, spiritually. . . .
And so my advice to you – is to be bold. Just say: “Lord if you wish – you can heal me!”
Give him that chance to also restore you.
And then be imitators of Christ – looking for ways to include people rather than exclude them – looking for ways to lift them up rather than put them down – looking for ways to love them rather than to shun them: do everything for the glory of God!
So my name is Joab – and that is my miraculous story – and I am sticking with it. Peace to you and yours: And blessed be the name of the Lord!
In the three year cycle of readings that we get for Sunday Mass – there is only one other time besides today – that we read from the Book of Job.
This summer, on the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time – we will read 4 short verses of Job – today it is a whopping 5 – and yet the book of Job in the Old Testament is 42 Chapters long!
Our reading today is taken from chapter 7 – about the time things begin to turn sour for Job:
“I have been assigned months of misery. I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. I shall not see happiness again.” Job says.
Rabbi Harold Kushner based his book: Why do bad things happen to good People, on the book of Job and says 30 years after its publication, he still hears from people who wonder where God was when they needed him the most . . .
This is Matthew’s condensed story of Job--- to help us understand the answer to that question when we are wondering the same thing.
There was a rich man named Job – who lived in the land of Uz in Israel. Job was a good man. He always put God first in his life.
One day when God was talking with his angels, Satan dropped by. God asked Satan: “Have you ever seen such a good man as my servant, Job?”
Satan liked to argue with God and said: “Anyone can be good when they have everything a person could want. . . Job has a home, family, cattle, and great wealth.
Besides all that, you don’t let anything harm him. Job doesn’t have a clue what it is like to be miserable. If he did, he would be no friend of yours!”
So satan asked God, “Hey, let me prove to you that Job will be a big cry baby and start saying bad things about you the minute something goes wrong.”
Since God was convinced that NOTHING would stop Job from loving and honoring him – God replied: “Okay, but I know Job will always be faithful to me – do what you want – just don’t hurt him.”
So satan rubbed his hands together and said – “Yes, I am out to get Job. . .” And so it began.
Meanwhile, Job was sitting quietly, when one of his servants came running up to him and said:
“My master, some men from out of the desert came and killed all of your servants – and they drove away all your cattle – I alone survived the tragedy.”
While this servant was speaking, another man came rushing up to Job and said: “Master, you will never believe it! All of your shepherds and sheep were struck by lightning and killed – I alone survived the tragedy.”
Yet another man came running and yelling, “Sir, three bands of enemies have stolen all your camels and killed the camel drivers – I alone survived the tragedy.”
Finally the last messenger arrived crying, “Oh no, Job, all your children have been killed. A giant wind blew the house down on them – I alone survived the tragedy.”
So in the course of one day, Job lost everything but his wife and his own life. Job went from being rich to being poor in just a few hours. . .
Did Job get angry with God? NO – he fell down on his knees and said to God: “With nothing I came into the world and with nothing I shall leave it. The Lord gave and now the Lord has taken away: Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
With all that went wrong, Job did not blame God or stop loving or trusting God. . .
And so God called to Satan: “See, you could not make Job turn from me! There is no man on earth more perfect than Job.”
But Satan said, “Trust me – if you let me hurt him, so that he is in great physical pain – he will start calling you names and lose his faith in you.”
God really did not want Satan to hurt Job – so he said: “Okay, you can make him uncomfortable – but that’s as far as you can go.”
So Satan immediately zapped Job with huge sores from his head to his feet. Job became very miserable – but he still did not blame God or say anything mean about God.
Job’s wife tried to convince him that he should curse God and just die – but Job could not do that. He loved God too much.
Job was beginning to wonder why God had allowed all of this to happen to him. But then he thought, God doesn’t just punish those who love him – there must be something God wanted him to learn from all of this. And so Job prayed that God would open his eyes to see the meaning of his sufferings. . .
It was then that God spoke directly to Job: “Can you begin to know my greatness?
Were you there when I created the world: the light, the sea, the stars, the earth and everything on the earth? Can you attempt to instruct me?”
Job got the message. He did not need to know WHY things happened, he just needed to keep trusting God and God’s love for him.
God then gave Job back his health, double his previous wealth, and blessed him with a long happy life.
And that’s the lesson of the book of Job – that no matter what happens to us – or happens around us --- we need only know that God is in charge – and then continue to trust in God – no matter what – which of course is more easily said than done. . .
Because even though we are not the God of the universe – had nothing to do with the creation of the earth and all that is on it –
we almost always think our way is better than God’s. . . And that’s the type of thinking that can get us to start questioning our faith and the power of God. . .
Every week, after the Our Father, we pray:
“Deliver us lord, we pray, from every evil. Graciously grant
peace in our days. That by the help of your mercy – we
may be always free from sin and safe from all distress – as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior: Jesus Christ.”
It is only when we place our trust in God alone – that Jesus will approach us – grasp our hand – and lift us up out of whatever misery has befallen us.
It is only when we place our trust in God alone – that we truly become good stewards – recognizing that everything we have is a gift – and are able to echo Job’s words: “With nothing I came into the world and with nothing I shall leave it. The Lord gave and the Lord can take away: Blessed by the name of the Lord!”