Mission: Moving on

Becoming all things to all people

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V.  February 7, 2021

One of the more hopeful signs of this time of pandemic, with the reduction of social interaction for many people, has been an openness of exploring their inner life, their spiritual dimension.  This week, Jesuit author Fr. James Martin published a book called Learning to Pray which is, as they say in the world of publishing, “selling like hotcakes”!   And to the great surprise of the podcasting world, the most-downloaded podcast (in the millions!) thus far in 2021 is one hosted by a Minnesota priest named Fr. Mike Schmitz, who is taking his hearers through the entire Bible, with a 365-day reading plan.  Although I cannot say that I have been able to listen every day, it is inspiring that people seem to desire to re-acquaint themselves with the wealth contained in our Scriptures. 

In January, in parallel with the book of Genesis, Fr Mike took his hearers through the book of Job.  And it is Job whom we hear from in our first reading today.  To be perfectly honest, I have sometimes wondered how certain books made the final cut for the Bible?  And with so much material to choose from, how did this particular text from Job make it into our lectionary?  We expect the Bible to be inspiring: to lift us out of the grind of everyday life; to give us hope.  Today’s reading from Job doesn’t quite do that. 

In fact, it reminded me of the song “A Day In The Life”, the closing track on The Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper album.  The song, compellingly powerful in its bleakness, features wasted lives, dashed dreams, car crashes, mind-numbing routines of daily life, and drug-induced escape.  The message of this passage from Job, on the drudgery of human existence, seems to find an echo in John Lennon’s bleak song: “Life sucks. You suffer. And then you die.”  In this time of pandemic, don’t we sometimes feel that way?  Each day numbingly like the one before, deprived of the human contact, the variety that is the spice of life strangely missing? 

The temptation, I suppose, is to wallow in the self-pity, as Job seems to be doing today.  To lament how awful life is … and give up belief that it can actually get any better.  So although we live with the hope that the effective production and fair distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines will promise us a better future, the fear and the fatigue sometimes overwhelm us.  Like Job, we lose hope. 

The Psalmist speaks to us in a more hopeful tone: he praises the Lord who heals the broken-hearted, who binds up our wounds, who lifts up the downtrodden.  Although we may sometimes feel alone, we are not in fact alone.  God is with us, God will never abandon us, and we will make it through this particular trial.  But how we make it through is our own choice.  We can simply endure it, grit our teeth and get through it, but without being fundamentally changed from within, without growing, without learning the lessons that God can use this time to teach us.  Or we can choose another path: the path of Jesus, as revealed to us in our Gospel reading today.

Today’s Gospel might also be titled, like the Beatles’ song, “A Day in the Life” … of Jesus of Nazareth!  It is, thankfully, quite a bit more hopeful, and more helpful to us as we choose how we want to live in these times.  It picks up right where we left off last week: Jesus teaching “with authority” in the synagogue of Capernaum: casting out the demons, amazing the crowds at his gifts for preaching and healing.

Today, we walk with Jesus through what seems to have been a “typical” day in his Galilean mission: teaching in the synagogue, sharing a meal with his friends, ministering to Simon’s mother-in-law, meeting the crowds, healing the sick, and casting out the demons.  Then very early in the morning, Jesus slips off to a quiet place to pray, to spend some quality time with his Father.  Refreshed and refueled, he moves on with his disciples to the next town, continuing to proclaim the Good News of God’s reign in word and deed. 

What is the common thread running through Jesus’ busy day?  Where there is despair, Jesus brings hope; where there is misery and brokenness, Jesus restores wholeness.  Jesus offers the people hope – hope in him, hope in the Father’s love, hope for salvation and forgiveness, for healing and wholeness.  In the Biblical vision, healing is never “only” physical, or “only” spiritual: it involves the complete package of body, mind, spirit, and relationship – with self, with others, and with God.  In this sense, Jesus’ mission is one of peace: not just the absence of hostility or conflict, but that rich Jewish sense captured by the word shalom: a state of physical, mental, and spiritual wellness, of individual and social prosperity, of right relationships, of global peace.  

By restoring wholeness – in private or in public; in his ministry of teaching, healing, exorcizing, compassionate outreach, and intimate communion with the one he called Abba – Jesus restores hope to his people.  He brings shalom.

One detail I am struck with in the Gospel is that very last part.  Jesus has gone off to pray.  We are not told how he prayed, for how long, or what he said or did.  But clearly, union with his Father, nourished by silent one-on-one time, was a real priority in Jesus’ life.  It was the life-blood that fed his mission, gave him the capacity to be fully present to others in his day-to-day ministry.  It is also what gives him the freedom not to cling to his successes, or become dependent on the expectations of others.  Even though “everyone is looking for him”, expecting him to stay and take care of all their needs, Jesus knows it is time for him to move on. 

There are others who need his teaching, his healing, his life-giving presence.  Although it might be more comfortable or easier to stay where he is, he goes where his Father needs him most.

Many of our parishes here in Montreal have been studying Fr. James Mallon’s book “Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission.”  One of the many important points made in this book is the invitation for parishes to become bolder in embracing “the Great Commission” at the end of Matthew and Luke’s Gospel: after promising the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus sends his followers out into the world, to “go and make disciples of all the nations.” 

This isn’t easy.  Most of us, frankly, are so invested in our own comfort zone of “maintenance”, of taking care of my own individual needs, or my family’s, or my parish community’s, that we have little enthusiasm for going out into the secular world, into a place that often feels unwelcoming or even hostile to our faith, our values, our world-view.  Jesus knew that in moving on, he was leaving behind a place where he was admired and respected, and out into the unknown.  Yet he says, “let us go out and proclaim the message to the neighbouring towns, for that is what I came out to do.” 

And that is what Jesus did.  He moved on. Eventually, he would send out his own disciples, two-by-two – first the Twelve, then later, seventy more: to share in his mission, to preach the Kingdom, cast out the demons, and heal the sick.  He forms them through solid teaching, through his own example of prayer, forgiveness, healing, and compassionate outreach.  He believes in them, and challenges them to take a risk, to dare to be all that they can be, for the sake of the Kingdom.  In the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians today, he calls them to become “all things to all people, for the sake of the Gospel, so that even more might be saved.” So too does Jesus do with us today: right here, right now.  

Perhaps, like Simon’s mother-in-law in the Gospel today, you are feeling unwell, or tired, or depressed, or overburdened. You are finding it hard to get up in the morning, difficult to embrace your daily tasks with any semblance of energy.  Now imagine Jesus meeting you, right where you are.  He bends down to you, takes you by the hand, speaks an encouraging word to you.  Feel his cool hand on your feverish brow, his strong hand holding your limp and tired hand.  Feel his strength flowing through your body, his healing touch in the very depths of your soul. 

Now stand up, praise and thank Jesus for your healing. As you do so, hear Jesus now invite you to share this good news with others.  Like this good woman, called by Jesus no less than her more famous son-in-law, Simon Peter, offer yourself in service. Service to God in Jesus, to your family and friends, to your church community, to a world so much in need of the healing touch Jesus can bring.    

Then, unlike Job who could only see his daily life as drudgery and without meaning or purpose, we can see our lives – even our pandemic-conditioned lives – in the light of hope.  The hope that comes from knowing that Jesus is alive, that he walks among us still, moving from place to place, calling us to share in his mission.  May Jesus continue to open our ears to his word, our eyes to his glory, our minds to his will, our lives to his plan, and our hearts to welcome him in each person we meet.  Then our days will begin to resemble his days, our life his life: for Jesus will be alive in us, working through us, as together we witness to the inbreaking of the Reign of God among us.  Amen!