Our weakness, God’s abundance (August 27, 2017)

Today’s antiphon for the beginning of the Mass reads “Turn your ear, O Lord, and answer me; save the servant who trusts in you, my God. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I cry to you all the day long.”

I’d like to start this homily by sharing a story with you that relates to this antiphon in particular, and it starts with this little thing I’m holding in my hand – an oil stock.

You all are aware that every Holy Thursday the (arch)bishop blesses the oils that are used throughout the year. There is the Oil of Catechumens which is used for those to be baptized, there is the Sacred Chrism which is used at baptisms, confirmations, and ordinations, and there is the Oil of the Infirm, which is used to anoint the sick.

Most of us priests have what are called oil stocks, which is this little metal container that has a little cotton swab soaked with the latter oil – if you were to look closely you could see the little ‘OI’ engraved in this oil stock. We carry these around, usually in our cars or our pockets for the emergency call or request from a parishioner.

This particular oil stock has a special significance for me, because it was given to me under special circumstances that I’d like to share with you.

The story of this oil stock starts back at my first pastorship, at the parishes of Saint Joseph and Holy Rosary in Tacoma [Washington]. If you’ve ever drive up I-5, you’ll see near the Tacoma Dome a giant steep just south of the dome – that’s Holy Rosary parish. Four blocks south of Holy Rosary is Saint Joseph parish, where I also lived (we had nuns living at the rectory of Holy Rosary).

Let me just say, the commute was awesome! Quite a difference from my current assignment where my commute from end-to-end was closer to 100 miles.

The two parishes were great communities and fairly old in comparison to many of the churches in our archdiocese. Both communities were over a hundred years old, with the buildings being around the same age. Built in the gothic style, these are impressing buildings, with arches that go on forever, stained glass windows brought from Europe, and a classical beauty in the altars, statues, and architecture in general.

However, that kind of age doesn’t come without some history – and the burdens that may have been picked up along the way. Holy Rosary had over half a million dollars in debt, struggled mightily to make ends meet, and the building was old.

Here in Lewis county, we know about rain and the devastation that so much water can wreak. In Tacoma this generally isn’t as urgent as we don’t get that kind of volume there in flat land. But old buildings are, well, old, and a few years ago we had pretty big rains. To boot, at that time I was a fairly new pastor, still getting my feet wet (hah!).

Around the same time, a dear friend from seminary – who had discerned that God was calling him not to the priesthood but to married life – asked me to baptize the second of his four daughters in Everett at the end of the weekend. This was the weekend that the rains hit, pouring down all weekend.

Now church design seems to have gone through a phase where there was a principle that nothing should be placed on the outside of the church so that nothing would mar the outside appearance of the building. So instead of having gutters and drain pipes around the roof and down the side of the building, the walkway of the tower was lined with special material that would direct rain water to a drain and pipe that went down the center of the tower. The pipe would go down the middle of the tower and then exit through the wall at the bottom of the tower to finally carry water away from the building. This system worked well for about 80 years.

And then, at this parish that had significant debt and no money to speak of – on a day I was about to drive 100 miles to baptize my best friend’s child – it failed.

The first sign that something wasn’t right was a call through our parish emergency line. I’ve got this set up to ring to my phone with a big red cross on the screen, which always gets my heart pumping. It’s our alarm company, calling to alert me that there is a fire alarm (and possibly a fire) in the library in my church….which is located at the base of the tower.

Rushing all four blocks to the church, I barrel into the building. Thankfully there is no smoke and apparently no flames. Making my way to the back of the church to the library, I open the door and …. splash. I step into inches of water. There are inches of water covering the entire floor.

Looking up, I see that the ceiling tiles are coming down – but hanging from two wires, along which water is streaming down before falling to the floor, is the fire alarm that had shorted out after sending a false alarm to our company.

I’m just looking in disbelief at the room. I follow in the footsteps in carpenter, but I don’t know to fix any of this! So I call parishioners, beg and plead a number of them to come help place buckets and move what might be saved. A very gracious contractor even came and climbed the tower to assess the problem! No small task this, as the ladders are not a little sketchy – just before Jesus ascended He told the disciples “I expect the ladders at Holy Rosary to be replaced before I get back” ….. I guess the good news is that we still have time? But this contractor braved them nonetheless and effected a temporary fix.

Satisfied that at least we have temporary reprieve, I go off to celebrate the baptism of my friend’s baptism. Coming home the next home, I brace myself to face the music. And what a cacophony it was – the smaller church, built with the same design principle, had the same flaw and had also suffered a catastrophic leak.

So we spend go through weeks going through insurance claims, dealing with repair bids, assessing the extent of the water damage, heaters, blowers, and sealed off areas while it all gets fixed. But praise God, after all that, it is all fixed.

And the week after it gets fixed, the rains come back – not as bad as the first time, but pretty darn bad. And now conscious of how this could go, I am paying attention throughout the entire Mass, listening for any telltale sound of dripping. I was relieved by the end of the weekend to find that everything seemed to be fine.

On Monday, I am awakened to a phone call. This time, it wasn’t on the emergency line, but nonetheless it is from my groundskeeper at the smaller church. My groundskeeper at this smaller (still poor) church is a faithful woman, but 80-hundred years old: she’s not fixing anything. And she has a request:

“Father would you check the garbage can in the choir loft?”

“what do you mean?”

“Well, didn’t you hear the dripping during Mass?”

“[sigh]….no”

“you need to go up there, Father – it was dripping the whole time”

So I go up into the church, and sure enough there is a garbage can in the choir loft – just above a river of water that is flowing down the steps. The can had indeed caught all of the water – that had subsequently drained out a small hole a few inches above the bottom of it.

I have to admit that I had a bit of a melt-down right there with God. I want to say that we had words, but really, I had words – words that aren’t really repeatable in a homily.
Of course, the water is still there and needs cleaned up, so I go into the rectory and gather every towel in my possession while calling my secretary to cancel all the appointments of the day. Upon returning to the church, I open the door to see white footprints, about my size, that had been tracked from the choir loft to the door.

The paint on the floor of the loft – softened and liquified from the sitting water – had adhered to my shoes and was providing a clear path marking where I had walked out of the church.

….. cue more words that can’t be repeated.

So I get it all cleaned up, throw the towels in the washing machine, change my clothes (clean my shoes), and go down to the office, a complete wreck. The nuns at Holy Rosary call somewhere in the midst of this to report several small leaks at the rectory and oh by the way, the Holy Rosary church had some water issues again too.

If you’ve ever worked at a church you know that if the priest suffers, you’re suffering too. Because I’m calling around to get things fixed, my staff are calling everyone, and I’ve cancelled all my appointments except for one.

This particular appointment was made because a longtime and dear parishioner had passed away some time prior and his sister was handling the estate. He had some pretty significant medical and financial difficulties before he died and she was looking for some support.

So she comes in, and the first thing she does is hand me a box of religious items that had been recovered from among his belongings. Unsure of how they were supposed to be disposed of, she was hoping that I could do that for her, which I was happy to do.

And then she tells me that things are actually going quite better than when the appointment was originally made – the hospital bills were negotiated down and the house sold for more than anticipated. And Hal (the name of the deceased parishioner) had directed that if there was any money left over, a certain percentage would go to the church. This was a rather pleasant surprise, but I wasn’t expecting much as Hal wasn’t especially wealthy.

She writes a check and hands it to me – it’s for $34,000. And I look at her and said “Miriam, I think you’ve made a mistake.” ….which she assumes is an accusation of holding back, so she pulls out this big ledger and starts to justify the amount on the check. To which I quickly assure her: “no, no – I think you added a zero!”.
She calms down and explains that it turns out that Hal had more than expected and that this was the amount according to the percentage that he had set, it was to go to whatever needs the parish had. And shortly thereafter we ended our meeting and she left, me sitting there afterwards in stunned silence.

If this is what God gives when I curse at Him – twice – I wonder what it would be like if I just trusted Him?

So I, well, I played a little prank on my secretary, who was frantically calling around. I put the check face down on her desk and left so as to not interrupt here. And then I sat in my office and waited. Sure enough, the little red light on my phone blinks off as she hangs up and I hear as she picks up the check “FATHER MAURER IS THIS REAL?!?!” (“Yes it is, and you’ll be off to deposit that right now.”)

That one gift, that one response of the Lord, covered the nuns’ roof replacement, helped out with the leak at Holy Rosary, and helped us with a budget shortfall in that year (Saint Joseph’s insurance came through especially well for even the second leak).

This oil stock that I carry came from that box of religious goods of Hals, and I carry it with me as a reminder of that day, of this lesson: that the Lord does hear us when we cry out to Him.

All of that to ask you this question: how is that going for you?

I’m confident that I’m not alone in having those moments when I stand before the Lord and question what is going, what we’re doing. I still wonder this at times! Especially in light of my age and the great responsibilities of pastorship, I often joke with my staff “whose dumb idea was this?”.

I suspect many of us have that thought in our own lives – who thought up this putting me in charge of my work, of my family, of the souls of my spouse and children? What are you doing Lord that I should be in this position?

We can see this even with Saint Peter! When we look at the disciples we see a collection of guys who, well, they weren’t the brightest of bulbs. They were fishermen, so they weren’t well-educated to start off with, though dedicated and faithful to a degree. And Peter especially just didn’t get it. Every time that Peter opens his mouth and speaks to the Lord, he’s kind of like that kid in school who would raise his hand and everyone else thinks ‘here we go…’.

And so many time this proves to be true. Peter sees Jesus and asks Him to invite Him onto the water (which He does) and then he starts to sink, Jesus explains His Passion and Peter decries it so vehemently that Jesus has to rebuke him (“get behind me, Satan”), and even at the Last Supper when Jesus speaks of His death Peter gets a special warning of the trial he is to face – and Peter not only abandons Christ along with the rest of the disciples but goes on to indeed deny Christ three times.

And what does Jesus do when He returns? “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church”

…. ‘are you sure about this?’

And yet, Jesus sticks with that. While we may not be the foundation of the Church (Peter gets to keep that role!), we are indeed the foundation of our own lives, of the life that Christ has entrusted to us. And we do feel that way from time to time – ‘this is too much, it’s overwhelming, how is this going to work?’

I wonder if the Lord doesn’t put in charge, give us these responsibilities to emphasize first of all His trust in us: “I give you this not to test you, not to try you, but because I want you to know that I believe in you, I know you to be good, I know you can accomplish my will.”

And for the second reason: “Because I will support you – even as you are weak, I am strong. And if you allow me to fill you in your life, to be present to you, to send you even unknowingly and unwittingly these gives, you will be a firm foundation, you will build up in your life a beautiful structure that will glorify Me.”

So I ask you again: how is that going for you? Where are you in that story?

Maybe you have stories like I do with this oil stock, maybe you’re still crying out to the Lord, maybe you don’t know how to cry out to the Lord or fear that if you do, it will go unanswered.

I’d like to offer that encouragement to you, that the antiphon and its psalm does offer to us today, to cry out to the Lord even right here in the Mass, especially in the petitions and at the altar.

‘Lord I want to do the good things you ask of me, I want to treasure the gifts of my life, my family, my friends, my vocation. But it’s a lot, Lord. Please give me what I need! Help me so that I might do well, and glorify your name’
The Lord does hear the cry of all, not just the poor or the rich, but all of us. May we at this very Mass today pour out ourselves to the Lord – and perhaps find to our delight that the Lord not only chooses those who are weak, but also supports them.

May we cry out to the Lord, that He might have mercy on us, that He might shower us with gifts, and in glorifying our lives, He might glorify us and demonstrate through us His glory to not only us but to all those in need.

For all peoples (August 20, 2017)

There’s a phrase that’s been running through my head for the last two weeks: ‘those people’. You know the people I’m talking about – those people who drive too fast, those people who drive too slow, those people who make me uncomfortable, who when I see them coming I think ‘oh boy, here we go again…’, those people who talk to much – or are too quiet. The list goes on and on.

There can be whole professions who are ‘those people’. Police officers, judges, who all must be corrupt in some way. Those people who are clearly too lazy get a respectable job and instead end up working in one of those jobs I look down on. Those people from another country who don’t bother to learn my language. Those people who cross the border illegal. Those people whose culture is so alien to me that I just don’t like being around them.

Those people who voted for Trump. Those people who voted for Clinton. Those people who voted for Obama. Those people who voted for Bush. Those people who wasted their vote on a third-party vote.

Those people.

We’ve seen that phrase in the last couple of weeks. It doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum – we all have some group, some professions, even some cultures that we label as ‘those people’. And we saw where it ended up – one group of people streaming out from their anger against another group, both of whom took up the battle cry against their version of ‘those people’. And it wasn’t just protest, it was violence, it was the claim that ‘those people’ were not worthy of care, of respect.

And here’s an ugly word: racism. Because that’s something undergirding this movement of our hearts, that lies beneath the label of ‘those people’.

If we want to claim that this is only a problem for other people, we’re lying to ourselves. The fact of the matter is that when I look into my own heart, when we look inward, we use that phrase ‘those people’. And there are whole swaths of people who we just don’t want to be around, who make us uncomfortable.

And it isn’t just here in the United States, not just in Charlottesville. There was an report this week trumpeting the end of Downs Syndrome in another country. At first glance, this seemed worthy of celebration, until you start reading and realize that the method to eliminate Downs Syndrome is abortion, the ending of the lives of ‘those people’ before they’ve even been born. Because ‘those people’ couldn’t possibly add anything to the world or live lives of worth, right?

We see in Scriptures today the Canaanite woman who comes before Jesus. She is one of ‘those people’ – who don’t worship properly, apart from the people of Israel. And she wants help from the miracle worker whose fame has spread across land – ‘please help my daughter.’

The disciples try to send her away but she won’t go– she persists. And in the midst of all this, Jesus puts to words the sentiment that is hidden in the hearts of the disciples: ‘you’re one of those people – we don’t give the things reserved to the children of Israel to your kind’. And she responds, gives this amazing statement of faith: ‘even the dogs deserve some scraps’.

I imagine that Jesus, having laid bare the thoughts of the Apostles, now turns to her. He’s received her statement – made for her sake and for the hearing of the Apostles – and He affirms both her faith and His mission to offer healing and salvation to all peoples. ‘How great is your faith!’ – and her daughter is healed.

Behind the phrase ‘those people’, those whom we’ve labeled, separated ourselves from – there is a hidden temptation of contempt. ‘Those people’ aren’t worthy of my presence, of my love. They just need to go away. And Christ calls that out today, to His disciples then and to us now.

In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah speaks the words of the Lord that ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’. And we see written elsewhere from Saint Paul that there is no longer slave, freeman, Greek, Jew, man or woman. Of course, we all fall into these kinds of categories – but they are no longer to be sources of division.

What do we do about this? How do I respond to the reality that in my heart lies this evil, that in my life I have participated in these activities, I have spoken these words, or I have simply stood silently by while others do so? What can I do to break down the power of the phrase ‘those people’?

First in foremost, we need to recognize that we ourselves are ‘those people’. This is most evident in the sacrament of Confession – where we walk in, saying “bless me Father for I have sinned…. I’m one of ‘those people’”. And the Lord responds as He did for the Canaanite woman: ‘welcome! My healing is for you too – in the amount you need, with abundance and given in joy’.

We need to go to the sacrament and admit ‘I have been one of those people, I have been one who has caused division, who has let it fester in my presence, who has not spoken out against it.’ We need to confess this sin, for it is present not just in our country, not just in our state. It is present in this very room, in our parishes, in our very families. We need to confess our contempt for our brothers and sisters.

We need to lay this on the altar, admit our powerlessness to change ourselves or others – but with confidence in God, ask Him to come down and bless us, our families, our parishes, our world. We need to beg God to heal us, to make this house a house for all peoples.

One of the great things we celebrate in our faith, most especially in baptism, is that we are not ‘those people’ but rather we are His people. And that’s an invitation made for all – that we may be joined to Christ. And Saint Paul’s exhortation against division is no more evident that when we look at the saints across history – we see a rainbow of colors, a plethora of languages, and representation of so many cultures and countries. We see this even in the people gathered at an average parish Mass.

Christ reminds us that He wants to offer His love to all, regardless of skin color, culture, language, history, or sins. We are no longer ‘those people’, we are His!

As we celebrate Mass, as we see a country full of people yelling and shouting – unable to hear ourselves for all the anger that is festering and being brought to the surface – may we ask the Lord to make us that voice in the wilderness, a wilderness yet devoid of grace but thirsting for it nonetheless. May we be given the grace to offer a better way, even as we repent of the times when we have participated in contempt and division, in separation from others. May we proclaim the goodness we have received, the goodness that has been bestowed on us.

Today we celebrate what we see in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, we celebrate our part in that – because we too have been labeled by others as ‘those people’. And yet God has called us out of that vicious cycle, making us His own. Let us proclaim that Good News, that we are His people, that this offer is made for all through baptism into the Body of Christ – that this house may be a house of prayer, for all peoples.