Sunday, July 11, 2010

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

It was on Easter Sunday 2009 that Brendan Marrocco’s life changed forever. Private Marrocco, a gung-ho 22-year old serving in the U.S. Army, was on patrol in northern Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded under the vehicle he was driving. The blast blew off all of his arms and legs. Some of the shrapnel cut through his carotid artery. By the time he reached the emergency room, he had lost eighty percent of his blood. Few thought that he would make it.

Miraculously, however, Brendan Marrocco managed to survive. He became the first veteran of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to live after losing all four of his limbs in combat. Fifteen months and fourteen surgeries later, he has made a remarkable recovery. His willingness to push himself through therapy to the point of exhaustion and his good humor have won him all kinds of admirers and have helped him to learn how to use four prosthetic devices. He is now considered a prime candidate for a rare double arm transplant.

But as amazing as his dedication and effort have been, Brendan Marrocco would never have made it without the support of dozens and dozens of people - everyone from an army of doctors, nurses and physical therapists to famous athletes. Perhaps the most important of these people is Brendan’s brother, Michael, who left a well-paying job with Citigroup and moved to Washington to be at his brother’s side. In exchange for his presence and assistance, U.S. Army provides him with room and board and $64 a day for his living expenses.

Their mother didn’t think that the more reserved Michael, whom she said wasn’t a caregiver by nature, would be able to handle a job as demanding as helping a quadruple amputee. But he has. When asked why he chose to quit a great career to do a job that others could certainly do, he said simply, “It needed to be done, and I was best prepared to do it.” For his brother Brendan, Michael Marrocco is the Good Samaritan.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives us a timeless parable that tells us what it really means to be “neighbor” to one another and gives us a flesh-and-blood definition of love. In the process, he also turns some conventional ideas of what it means to be righteous on their heads.

When challenged by “a scholar of the law” to tell him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus quoted to him two provisions of the law. The first was a portion of the Shema Israel, the first of all of the commandments, from the Book of Deuteronomy (read Deut. 6:4-8). The second came from another part of the Torah, Leviticus 19:18, one of a long list of laws governing the people of Israel in their care for themselves and in their relationships with each other, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Because he wanted test Jesus further and to prove his own (self-) righteousness, the legal scholar asked him to define what it meant to be a neighbor. It was then that Jesus demonstrated that he not only knew what the law was but also understood what the law really meant. At the heart of the covenant between God and his people was the simplest commandment to remember and one of the hardest to follow: love.

In Psalm 19, we are reminded that God’s words are “spirit and life;” and God’s laws are described as perfect, trustworthy, right, clear, pure, true, precious and sweeter than syrup or honey. Aren’t these also various facets of love??

Of course, it is easy to love in the abstract. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Few things would be harsher or more dreadful than finding the victim of a robbery on the side of the street horribly beaten, stripped naked, and left for dead. But that’s exactly what the three men in the parable found as they traveled on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

The priest and Levite—two reputed “experts” on the law—“passed by on the opposite side” of the road. Their motivations aren’t explained in this gospel passage. However, some Bible scholars have speculated that perhaps they were trying to avoid risking ritual impurity by touching an apparently dead body. Others have suggested more practical reason: to avoid a possible ambush and being victimized themselves. Whatever may have been going through their minds, and no matter how much it may have made sense from a legal or practical point of view, they chose not to get involved. They decided it was none of their business.

By contrast, the Samaritan—who would have been considered a “half-breed” and unorthodox or even a heretic by the priest and Levite—made it his business to help some one in need; and he did more than call 911! “Moved with compassion,” he rendered first aid to the victim, took him to an inn, helped him some more, and then left him in the care of others with a promise to cover the entire bill. Would Medicare, your insurance company or your HMO do that?

As Moses taught the people of Israel in his final sermon to them, following God’s word and law aren’t too difficult to grasp. “No,” he admonished them, “it is already something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” God later underscored that message by sending his Son: the living embodiment of his love and as St. Paul describes in our second reading “the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation.”

As followers of Jesus, our first commandment is to love. As the example of Michael Marrocco reminds us, it simply needs to be done; and through the saving grace of the cross and our baptism, we can be the ones best prepared to do it. +

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Homily for 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Inter-dependence Day

Today our country celebrates an important event in our nation’s history: the Continental Congress’ approval of our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. To some extent, it also celebrates a myth, for no person much less any country, can be completely independent. This is especially true today, when technology enables children here in the USA to learn in the same virtual classrooms as their counterparts in China, South Africa and Brazil and the economic woes of Greece and Portugal cause anxieties on Wall Street.

It was also true in 1776. Our founders recognized this even in their Declaration when they wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government….
We are dependent on each other; and the government we have is more or less the government we choose—or at least the government we tolerate. Our most fundamental rights are gifts from our Creator. The recent BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has caused some tensions between Great Britain and its former colony; but our nations’ leaders recognize that we still have a ”special relationship.” We’re still trading partners. The roots of our legal system are thoroughly British. We have been allies in two world wars and today we are fighting together in the Middle East. We are, in truth, far more interdependent than we are independent.

If our independence is something of a myth in our relations with people and nations, it is undeniably so in our relationship with God. In the extreme, it is the definition of hell itself: eternal separation from God. The people of Israel had their own bitter taste of this during their exile to Babylon. As a result of their own idolatry, their desires for earthly power, and their desire for independence from God and his covenant, God allowed them to be overwhelmed by a stronger enemy. Their best and brightest were carried off to a foreign land. Jerusalem was laid waste and the Temple—the place where they believed God would forever dwell as their protector—was destroyed.

As they returned to a place they could barely recognize, God offered a word of comfort. In our First Reading from Isaiah, the prophet uses the image of a mother breastfeeding and comforting her child—the antithesis of independence. We depend on God. As St. Paul once proclaimed to the people of Athens, quoting one of their poets, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28a).

Having experienced true freedom in Christ, Paul wanted to contrast the boasting/pride that some put in circumcision and their adherence to the Law of Moses with his own reliance on the saving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For Paul, the mark of circumcision was an illusory sign of “do-it-yourself salvation,” while his own “marks of Jesus” were a sign of what Christ had done for him through his cross and resurrection and the cost of responding to that grace.

Just as there is no such thing as “do-it-yourself” salvation, there is no “do-it-yourself” discipleship or church. Jesus recognized this himself when he appointed seventy-two more disciples to complement the work of the Twelve. He saw that the potential harvest of those who could be transformed by the proclamation of the gospel was far greater than the number of disciples sharing in his work of preaching, teaching and healing. He was well on his way to Jerusalem, he knew that his time was running out, and he needed to hand on his mission to others who would continue to carry it out—and to do so together.

In an era in which there are over a billion Catholics worldwide and even more people whom the Church could reach with the Good News, we are finally starting to take seriously the need to rely not just on priests, deacons and religious but also lay men and women, young and old, to be ministers who are:

Nourished by a “full, conscious and active participation” in the liturgy (Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 14).

Trained to claim their baptismal roles as “everyday evangelists.”

Ready to step up with urgency, wishing peace and relying on Providence to supply their needs—a bold act of faith in an era when many churches in places like Saginaw are trying to survive and thrive in a tough economy.

Trusting that the Lord will also give them the power they need to triumph over the serpents of doubt, the scorpions of despair, and the “full force of the enemy,” in whatever form it may take.

In concluding the Declaration of Independence our nation’s founders wrote:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Even in declaring their independence from a king, they had to acknowledge their dependence on God. May we not forget it, either. +