June 26, 2016
13th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C
(1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62)
25/26 June 2016 – Final weekend serving at St. John XXIII Parish, Knoxville, TN
Today is the turning point of the Gospel of Luke. Luke says that Jesus is resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. For the next ten chapters, Jesus will make his way to Jerusalem, teaching along the way about the requirements of discipleship.
As I prepare to move to my next ministry assignment in Austin, TX this week, the irony of today’s readings is not lost on me!
- Elijah anoints Elisha as his successor. But the Paulist succeeding me at John XXIII is one of the priests who decided that I could enter the Paulist novitiate.
- In both the first reading and the gospel, it appears as if saying farewell is a sign of weakness. This weekend, I wrap up two wonderful months of celebrating the golden four-and-a-half years I’ve spent with all of you!
I am sure that several of us will cry in the next hour. But before we do that, let us acknowledge that no matter where the journey leads, God is always with us, showering us with love and mercy. If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, the more closely we cling to Christ, the closer we will be to one another.
I had never met Sister Lora before. I didn’t know anything about her, except that she was a Sister of St. Francis. But she was going to be my spiritual director on this retreat, so I began to tell her my story. Even though I was a deacon living in Knoxville, I had chosen to do this retreat in my hometown of Pittsburgh, because my father was ill. I would be able to leave the retreat if something came up.
My life was in flux. In the past three months, I had finished seminary, moved to the South, begun full-time ministry, and convinced my father to move out of our family house because he lived alone and kept falling. I would be ordained a priest in two months. Finally, for the first time in my life, I was going to receive a sacrament after I had studied it! But the most shocking transition had happened the previous week: my father had… died. I hadn’t even told the people of John XXIII Parish that he was sick, since we had expected him to live out the full year. As I was sitting in Sr. Lora’s office, a friend was three miles away at my childhood home, preparing it to be sold.
I’ll never forget what Sr. Lora said, after taking all this in. (I would learn later that she had recently been thrown into an international controversy not of her own choosing.) She paused. She smiled. And then she said: “You have the opportunity to ask God for a gift.” If sacraments are graces from God, what was the specific grace that I needed at this point of my journey?
And so, for the next several days, I pondered this question. It was a profound opportunity for prayer. Sometimes, that’s the penance I give to people in confession: “You have the opportunity to ask God for a gift. What is the gift that you need at this point in your faith journey?” Sometimes, I ask people preparing for marriage to ponder the same question. I asked Bob Ketteringham to pray with it in the weeks before he became a deacon. It’s a question I pose to everyone in RCIA preparing for confirmation.
Over that retreat, as I continued preparing for ordination and began grieving my earthly father, I pondered what gift I should ask for from my heavenly Father.
I prayed with lots of Bible passages, but I didn’t think of our Scripture passages for today. The main point of today’s readings is clear: we can’t consider ourselves to be Christian disciples if we don’t make it a top priority to follow Jesus. I’m uncomfortable speaking to the secondary points – saying goodbye and burying the dead – outside of the context of the main point regarding priorities. Of course, the rhetoric of this passage is designed to make us uncomfortable, so any pat answers are probably getting away from Jesus’ and Luke’s intentions.
Would Jesus really force someone to choose between burying their father and following Jesus? I don’t think so. And when you think about it, it’s not Jesus who forces an “either-or” choice; it’s the nine words of the young man recorded by Luke that frame this as an “either-or” decision: “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” As my Paulist brother James DiLuzio asks: what if the young man had asked, “Lord, would you please come with me and help me bury my father?” Somehow, I don’t think Jesus would have refused.
But the young man probably meant something different. Jews buried their dead within hours, not days. Perhaps his father was still very much alive. Perhaps the young man wasn’t even his father’s primary care giver. Perhaps the young man was offering an excuse to put off traveling with Jesus for a few years… even though Luke tells us that now “the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled.”
Jesus said that there are two great commandments: to love God with all our hearts, minds, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can love both God and our neighbor. It is not a choice to love either God or our neighbor. Elijah seems to approve of Elisha taking the time to slaughter twelve oxen, make a fire with his ploughing equipment, cook the oxen, and feed them to his people – while these tasks take time, they become a way for Elisha to strengthen his resolve to follow Elijah, not a way to avoid the task at hand.
During that retreat in March 2012, I reviewed some of the insights I had gained on previous retreats. For years, I had asked the Holy Spirit to help me better realize that God loves for who I am more than for what I do. While I had made some progress on this transition in understanding God’s love for me, I still had a ways to go. It’s often hard to tangibly sense God’s love … but other people – the members of the Body of Christ – could make God’s love tangible.
By the end of the retreat, I had asked God to give me an overwhelming sense of his love for me at my ordination, as expressed in the people around me. And God delivered. In May of 2012, I felt the love of family, friends, and even strangers gathered at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York from all over the United States and from other countries. I felt the love of countless others who couldn’t join us that day, including my deceased parents.
And that sense of God’s love – no matter how much or how little I accomplish in my ministry – remains in me to this day. Over the part four years, I have shared your love, your joys and your sorrows, your triumphs and crises. And you have shared mine. This is the eleventh city I’ve lived in, but it has become “home” in a way that my beloved Pittsburgh is no longer home, and the other nine cities never were. Rocky Top will always be “home sweet home to me,” a place where I feel an overwhelming sense of God’s love. And that is because of you!
In a few minutes, we will receive a sacrament, the Eucharist. What gift do you ask of God on this point in your journey? Today, I am asking God for two gifts. One is profound and one is silly. I pray that, as I look into each of your faces in the communion line, that I will see the face of Christ even more than I usually do. I also pray that my tears don’t fall onto the communion plate!
Like Jesus, we are each on a journey to our destiny. Let us never forget that our ultimate destiny is eternal life not only with God, but also with one another!