Unclean Lips

(Fifth Sunday, Year C)
In my years as a priest I have noticed a paradox (a seeming contradiction). Sometimes I have worked long hours, for example to prepare an adult education course, and gotten disappointing results. On the other hand, responding to something totally unexpected I have seen enormous fruits. I remember once just dropping in on a group of adolescents who were preparing for a quince años (fifteenth birthday) celebration. The girl's mom asked me to give them a blessing. Before doing it, I gave them a short talk about the importance of confiding in their parents--and also in their spiritual father. I asked them if they knew who their spiritual father was. After a number of guesses, one of the boys said, "It's you, Father." That led into a conversation about the sacrament of reconciliation--and later a beautiful penance service. I felt like Peter in today's Gospel hauling in a full net, kind of wishing some other priest were there to help me with the confessions.

All priests--indeed, everyone involved in the apostolate--has had similar experiences. We work hard with meager results--because we are doing it on our own. Then we listen to the Lord who tells us, "Lower your nets for a catch." We say, "I'm tired. I can't go now. It's not the right time." But we obey, we lower the nets and we bring up a huge catch, so big we are looking for others to help. We want to recruit new apostles. We even pray for vocations.

Something strange, even terrible, can happen at that point. We can start to tremble a little bit. We get a glimpse of the truth. We are nothing. God is everything. Like Peter we want to step back. "Lord, I am a sinful man." But Jesus says, "You can't get out of it that easy. I know who you are. You're a fisherman. A mediocre one at that. But I will make you a fisher of men."

Jesus then sets about purifying us. We have a powerful image of that in the call of Isaiah. Like Peter he confesses his sinfulness. "I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips." Then God sends an angel to take an ember from the altar. He presses that burning coal to the prophet's mouth. "Your wickedness is removed, your sin purged."

The Fathers of the Church recognized that burning coal as the Eucharist. The priest takes the host from the altar, touches it to our lips and purifies us. Interesting that God first wants to purify our lips. You know, we have gotten so used to sins of speech. We don't even think about them any more. We live in a society where people can say anything about anybody, from the President on down. I remember once talking to people in a parish about the sin of gossip. I mentioned that I also had been victim of it. After Mass a woman came up to me, all upset. Not that people had irresponsibly criticized her pastor. She wanted to know what the gossip was!

If you wish to find out where our society is, try this experiment. Ask any ten people if they can name the Prime Minister of Canada. You'll be lucky if one can. But ask them if they can think of the name any former White House intern! See the difference. We could care less about Canada even tho it is our main trading partner. But we love gossip. We all know a lot about Monica Lewinski. Few of us could even identify Prime Minister Jean Cretien's picture. Do you see what we have come to? Like the people back in the time of the prophet Isaiah we have become a people of unclean lips.

We need to have our lips purified because the words we speak to one another are so important. St. Paul reminds us of that in the second reading. He talks about how careful he was in preaching to the people. He wanted to hand on to them only what he himself had received. This is so different from our attitude today. People are constantly talking about how important it is to be "original." To say or do something that no one else has ever thought. But St. Paul did not strive for "originality." If you told him he was an original thinker, he would have been insulted. "No, I am only handing on to you what I myself received. Before I started preaching, I laid everything down before Peter. He calls him 'Cephas' the Rock. Paul wasn't out to found a new Church; he knew Jesus build his Church upon Peter, the Rock.

In his preaching St. Paul did not strive for originality. He handed on what he himself received. Just so he brought a message which revolutionized society. His message was: "Christ died for our sins. He was buried. On the third day he rose from the dead." That is the earliest creed, the earliest profession of faith we can find in the New Testament. And it is what we celebrate two thousand years later. We sometimes call it the Pascal Mystery. We are baptized into that mystery. We celebrate it every Sunday when we participate in the Mass. As St. Paul says, "By it you are being saved. Stand firm.

From Archives (Homilies for Fifth Sunday, Year C):

2016: New Beginning: Nowhere to Go But Up
2013: Like Fresh Walnuts
2010: Cleanse My Lips
2007: Before the Grandeur of God
2004: Not Worthy
2001: Do Not Be Afraid
1998: Unclean Lips

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bulletin column Feb 7, 2010

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Fr. Jeffrey Keyes comments on the Super Bowl

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