"Don't Look Back"

(Thirteenth Ordinary Sunday, Year C)

This Sunday I have some good news for our parish. You are aware that since Fr. Peterson was assigned to Tacoma last July that we have had a variety of priests helping out on weekends here at Holy Family: Fr. Harrington, Fr. Linehan, Fr. Jennings and others. They have been a tremendous assistance and I am most grateful to them, but I had been hoping to find someone more steady who might also be free to help a bit during the week. A few months back I heard about one of the pastors who was retiring. We'd been friends for many years (we had even taken vacations together) so I called him. Of course my first concern was if he was facing any health problem. No, he is in very good health. My second question was if, even tho he would not be pastor, he wanted to continue his priestly ministry. He gave a definite yes to that question. Finally I asked him if he would like to come back to the parish where he had served so faithfully as pastor from 1988 to 1992. He said, yes. I'm sure most of you have guessed who I am talking about: Fr. Richard Gallagher.

Fr. Gallagher will be starting here the weekend after next, that is, July 11-12. Since he is technically "retired" we cannot expect that he will have the same full time ministry he did before. On the other hand he will not have the administrative responsibilities of being pastor so he will be able to devote himself more to direct ministry to young people and families that he loved so much and excelled at. Since I've been pastor here, many people have mentioned to me how Fr. Gallagher helped them in a time of difficulty. Interestingly his name is still on one of our confessionals. Neither Fr. Ross Fewing nor I took it down. I think it is an appropriate symbol for the good listener and compassionate person Fr. Gallagher is.

He is a priest who illustrates what Jesus calls us to in the Gospel today. Once you put your hand to the plow, keep looking straight ahead. Fr. Gallagher is a priest commited to God's people here in the Archdiocese. He has been willing to serve in more difficult assignments. Most recently he has been in Seaview and Raymond. Even tho the area is beautiful, it has been hard hit economically--and it's a long drive from there to Seattle where many of his friends are. But his concern was to serve people who might otherwise be overlooked. He did that too when he was here at Holy Family.

As in today's Gospel, Fr. Gallagher is someone who, when he put his hand to the plow, did not look back. There is a word for this and it is a hard one for us today. That word is fidelity. I've noticed that some people have a difficult time just pronouncing it. It is a word the bride and groom have to say during their wedding. Sometimes one or other will stumble over it. After the couple makes their vows, the priest will bless the rings and give one to each. As the groom places the ring on his bride's finger, he says, "Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Sometimes one or other will get tongue tied at the word fidelity. I once had a bride who could not say it at all. I was going to tell her, "Well, the important thing is not just being able to say fidelity, what matters most is living it." Sometimes hard to pronounce but much harder to live. We are not simply talking about sexual fidelity--altho that obviously has to be there. When you put your hand to the plow in marriage, it means to not look back on the single life. This keeping your focus straight ahead (and not looking around for other possible partners) requires a deeper fidelity--for better or worse, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death. Fidelity means to keep ones promise.

Fidelity in marriage does not envision a conditional clause. I once heard a man say, "If my wife gets fat, she knows that I am outta here." A word came into my mind for that guy, but I cannot say it in church even tho it is a necessary part of human anatomy. But really, has it come to that? Will we have to include in the marriage vows: "For better or for worse, for richer or poorer, for fatter or for thinner"? I for one give our young people a lot more credit than that. What they want above all is to make a complete commitment of their lives, no matter what.

We human beings are promise makers. We have a deep desire to pledge ourselves totally. That desire was put in us by God himself. We are by nature promise makers. But unfortunately we are also promise breakers. We fall down, we make a mess of it, we are tempted to throw in the towel. Here is where we have to make a choice. We can choose the narrow path which involves repentance and forgiveness. Or we can take the easy way, just pick up our marbles and walk away.

In today's second reading St. Paul describes our tendency to throw in the towel. The term he uses for this downward pull is the flesh. We are like a needle which if placed carefully on water will float. Even tho it is metal the molecules on the surface join together to keep it on top. But if a disturbance upsets that unity, the needle will sink to the bottom. If it is a lake, the needle will go into the mud and stay there slowly rusting. It takes an outside force to bring it to the surface again. We call that grace. It means letting go of cynicism, admitting that it was not the ideal that was mistaken, but we ourselves.

Some people today will even go so far as to invent an imaginary Jesus to avoid facing their true self. They have a Jesus in their mind who tells them, don't worry, everything is fine. I have heard them say things like, "I'm sure Jesus would not mind if I had a few beers. Or if I stay in bed rather than go to Mass. Jesus understands if I blow my top once in the while." Those people say, "Jesus is my best friend." Of course, it is great to have a friend who never challenges you. But not really much of a friend if he lets you destroy yourself--and others.

The real Jesus is more challenging than that. Suppose you come to him and say, "I'm unhappy with my wife and this other woman makes me feel good." The real Jesus is going to tell you, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery." In fact the real Jesus said exactly that. Mark chapter 10, verse 11.

There is a way we can be sure we are talking to the real Jesus. Certainly by checking what he said in the Bible, but also he has placed a representative here on earth. This is something people don't like today because it can go against their kind of vague idea of Jesus. But he did say to one of his apostles, "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church." When we listen to Peter and his successors, we are actually listening to Jesus. That is why the pope is called the Vicar of Christ. I'm not saying we wait for the pope to answer every question we have, but when he speaks we take him seriously.

I'd like to give an example that some may not like to hear. There are people who say, "Gosh, we need priests so bad and we have so many great women in the church who would make wonderful priests. I'm sure if Jesus were here, he would ordain a few of them." But, brothers and sisters, we need to be careful when we say things like that. The fact is Jesus has already spoken thru the Holy Father. He did not say he was personally against women being priests. The Holy Father has been very supportive of the full participation of women in every possible aspect of civil and religious life. But what he said about women's ordination is that Jesus has not given the church the authority to do that.

We live in an age that resents restrictions of any sort. But some are rooted in nature. For example only a woman can be a mother. I remember once watching Dustin Hoffmann go on about how wonderful it would be to be a mother. In one way it was touching, but in another comic to hear him talk that way. It is similar when a woman concludes she is being called to the priesthood. There is a certain nobility in her desire, but when all is said and done what she needs to do is take into account what the Holy Father has said. He is the voice of Jesus, the Vicar of Christ, in our world.

I'm mentioning this partly because this Sunday we take up the Peter's Pence collection to support the works of the Holy Father. It should certainly not be question of if you support him, give; if not refrain. We are not a political party. Our shared vision comes from a deeper source. And we have been privileged these past twenty years to live under one of the most extraordinary popes of all time. But even more important than the man is the office. It's like the father of a human family. If he has wonderful gifts and lots of energy, great, but even so the important thing is that he is father. As deacon Ted said last Sunday, it doesn't matter if we call him father, dad, pops or even affectionately "the old man," he is still father. The same always applies to the pope. He is our Holy Father who guides us. He helps ensure that the Jesus we serve is the real one, not a figment of our imagination.

The real Jesus is demanding. He tells us that he comes before even our father or mother. And that when we put our hands to the plowshare to follow him, we should not even glance back. We keep our vision focused ahead on the one who is the goal of our lives.

At this point I would like to call forward some people from our parish who are making a particular commitment to serve Jesus. They will bring communion to the sick and assist at Mass as extraordinary ministers of the eucharist. Some of them are nervous about assuming this tremendous responsibility. When they kneel down for the blessing, I will ask you also to pray for them in your hearts. And pray for each one of us that we will have the courage to turn our lives over to the one who has given us everything.



(Note: To focus more on fidelity, I edited the following from the original homily, but I leave it dangling here for future use. It is important that we communicate to our people that the radical claims of Jesus make sense only if he in fact is who he says he is, the Son of God.)

In saying "When you put your hand to the plow, don't look back..." Jesus was giving an incredible challenge. That was the case when he called Fr. Gallagher to the priesthood and it applies to each of us as well. I tried to imagine what that challenge would be like today. This is the image I came up with. Suppose I was to wander onto the campus of Microsoft over in Redmond. I come upon a guy who is sitting at his computer in total concentration. I say to him, "Can I talk to you for a second?" He says, "I'm kinda busy. I'm working on this program." I say to him, "Forget the program. There's something else I want you to do."

Amazingly he says, "OK," but then quickly adds, "Let me just save this. I've been working on this program for hours."

"No," I say. "If you even look back at your computer, you are no good for what I need you."

Now, at this point the guy might conclude I am crazy or even that I am some kind of dangerous fanatic. But he would have to make a choice. Who's he going to follow: Bill Gates or Phil Bloom?

Any sensible person would stick with Bill Gates. He certainly has a lot more to offer materially that I could ever dream of. But suppose the person making the offer was not me, but Jesus. Then you would really face a dilemma. Is this man Jesus worth giving up everything for? Should I trust my whole life to him? This in fact is the dilemna of today's Gospel. The question is a radical one. It comes down to this: Is Jesus God? If not, he has no more claim on you that I do. But if he is, then he has a right to make an absolute request.

He can say this to you: "Tell me, who is the most important person in your life?" You are not married so you answer, "It is my father." Then Jesus says, "If you don't put me ahead of your father, you can never be my follower." Anyone else who said such a thing would be insane or maybe an egomaniac like Jim Jones. But that is not the case with Jesus. He is stating the simple truth. Jesus in fact does rank ahead of your father, your mother, your wife, your children. The reason is that he created them as well as you.

At this point we can have an understandable fear about following Jesus. Not that we doubt his divinity. In fact, we know that he is God. But we can think, "If I really follow Jesus, I might lose what is most precious to me. The very thing that keeps me going. Maybe I will have to hand it over to him." Jesus' answer is that, yes, you will in fact have to give everything over to him. But do not be afraid. Anything that has real worth will be given back in a purified form. For example, if you place Jesus ahead of your parents, you will discover what your true relationship to your parents should be. The same if you put Jesus before your spouse and children. Or your job. Or your possessions. Or your vacation plans. Or your health. They all really belong to him. If you try to lay claim to them for yourself, they will not bring you happiness. But if you give them to Jesus, he will sort out which ones you need and when.

One hard thing for people is putting their children in Jesus' hands. We have so many expectations and we can feel so disappointed when they don't measure up. But the best we can do for them is turn our own lives over to Jesus and pray for them. Many people in our parish are discovering this by the holy hour they make before the Blessed Sacrament. Some people come on Wednesdays, others on Friday nite or Saturday morning. What they are finding is that the hour in Jesus' presence is the most beneficial thing they can do for their families.

This Sunday we are challenged to do something further for Jesus. That is to acknowledge his representative on earth, the Holy Father. One simple way we do this is by giving to the Peter's Pence collection. Monday is the feast of St. Peter and Paul so on this weekend we take up that annual collection for the works of the Holy Father. But we are also reminded to acknowledge that Jesus established Peter as his vicar, his representative. "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church." (Mt 16:18) This is important. So many people today pretend they are speaking for Jesus. They say things like "I am sure Jesus wouldn't mind if I had a few beers. Or if I stay in bed rather than go to Mass. I'm sure Jesus understands that I blow my top from time to time." And so on. People even say, "If Jesus were here in America, he would surely ordain women as priests." There's only one way you can decide a question like that. Ask what Jesus' representative here on earth, namely Pope John Paul II, says about it. I'm not saying we wait for the pope to answer every question we have, but when the pope speaks, we listen to what he says. Otherwise we are not Catholics. And what is perhaps more serious we run the danger of following an imaginary Jesus, one who simply endores all or our ideas and demands nothing of us.


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

2016: Becoming a Disciple Week 4: Consistency
2013: For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free
2010: Celibacy vs. Not Getting Married
2007: True Freedom
2004: Two Approaches to Jesus
2001: The Paradox of Jesus
1998: Don't Look Back

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