Saturday, August 2, 2014

Heeding the Lord and being satisfied

          Well, I made it back from vacation in one piece and I had a great time.  I was off in Oregon and spent a lot of time in the woods (notice, I didn't say wilderness, because these were all pretty well trafficked parks), a great time with my friend Debbie, and I was able to see the ocean (well, a little bit).  Bookend that with visits to my family in Illinois and I have to say that it was a pretty fruitful vacation.  Thanks to Fr. Mike for taking on the extra load at the parish so I could get away.

I know.  Total postcard, right?  Snapped this with my phone.
So, there's the pacific ocean, covered, as it mostly was, by fog.

Homily: 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle A
          I recently returned from a trip to Oregon where I was visiting a friend and taking some time to rest and to enjoy a part of our country that I haven’t had the opportunity to visit before: the Pacific Northwest.  While I was there I visited Crater Lake.  Crater Lake is a geological anomaly, as it was formed by the collapse of Mount Mazama: a volcanic mountain over 400,000 years old.  About 7,700 years ago a huge eruption from the upper part of the mountain followed by a “ring” eruption around the center of the mountain caused it to collapse in on itself, forming the “crater” (or caldera, as geologists know it) that now holds the water known as “Crater Lake”.  At its deepest point it is 1,949 feet deep, making it the deepest lake in North America.  Its fresh water is deep blue in color, which provides a striking contrast to the steep, pumice rock slopes that surround it on all sides.  It is truly an incredible thing of nature to see.
          The land that surrounds it is relatively untouched.  This is in part because of protection by the National Parks Service, but it is also because it appears to be a pretty harsh land.  Driving up to the lake (whose outer ring sits about 6,900 feet above sea level), I was struck by how arid the land around the lake seemed to be.  Vegetation was scarce and the trees that were green and appeared to be growing were interspersed with trees that haven’t survived the extremely harsh winters that this area experiences (the lake averages over 530 inches of snow each year and there was still some patches of snow on the ground when I was there).  These trees that hadn’t survived were a mangled mess; their trunks twisted and bent around in ways that give evidence to how they had been subject, year after year, to the crushing weight of 40 plus feet of snowfall and the harsh winds that constantly beat the sides of the mountain.  These trees, it seems, just ran out of the life force necessary to overcome these harsh conditions.
          I think that our lives can sometimes feel like life on the side of that mountain.  Perhaps we’ve had it hard from the start.  Maybe our seed fell in pretty rocky ground and so we didn’t have much chance to set down a good root.  Maybe our parents or grandparents struggled after the Depression and our family never recovered to enjoy a level of economic security that could provide good opportunities for us, such as a college education or vocational training.  Perhaps we’ve had to struggle to provide for our own families: always on the edge—and sometimes over the edge—of failing to make ends meet.  Year after year, season after season, the weight of the world lays heavy on our shoulders.  After many years, we begin to look like those trees that hadn’t survived: twisted and bent in unnatural ways that give evidence to the harsh environment that we grew up in.
          Even if we did fall into more favorable soil and were able to put down a good root, the harshness of the world is still something to contend with.  Perhaps a sudden severe illness or an accident snatched away the life of a close family member or friend.  Maybe a sudden job loss causes a life-long dream to crumble.  Or maybe we’ve experienced an irreconcilable betrayal by one we’ve committed our lives to.  Whatever it is, this world, it seems, has a way of placing a crushing weight on our shoulders and of beating us relentlessly with a cold, dry wind; so much so that we often feel like we have nothing left to give: as if all of life force within us has been spent.
          For folks who have experienced the harshness of the world, the demands of the Christian life can seem to be too much to handle.  “Turn the other cheek… Go two miles with the one who forces you into service for one… Give also your tunic to one who demands your cloak…  These and many other demands that Jesus makes of his followers throughout the Gospels can be very challenging and, for those of us weighed down by the harshness of the world, they can seem to ask for much more than we have to give.  If so, then the Scriptures that we’ve heard today have Good News for us.
          In the reading from the prophet Isaiah, we heard the Lord declare to the Israelites, who had been oppressed by the harshness of exile, “All you who thirst, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”  For a people oppressed by the harshness of exile, this was welcome news; and for us, who still find ourselves oppressed by the world’s harshness, this word comes to us as a message of hope.  Because if we feel like we have nothing left to give, it’s OK.  The Lord asks nothing of us but that we heed him—that is, that we place ourselves under his care so that he may provide for us.  This is a promise that only God can make, for only he can promise relief without cost.  For the ancient Israelites, this promise found fulfillment when they returned to their homeland from exile.  Yet, this, too, was just a foreshadowing of the ultimate fulfillment that God would complete when he sent his Son, Jesus, to save humanity from its exile from heaven.
          In the Gospel reading today, we find that Jesus truly is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.  Jesus, weary and saddened by the news of the death of his cousin John the Baptist, seeks out a deserted place to mourn this loss.  Yet when he arrives he finds that the crowds who had been following him were waiting for him there.  “His heart,” already heavy with the news of the death of his cousin John, was nonetheless “moved with pity for them.”  He saw that they were a people weighed down by the harshness of this world and so, in spite of his own sorrow, he ministered to them, curing their sick and teaching them.  And when evening came, instead of sending them away to find their own food, he miraculously provided food enough to fill all who were present.  The crowd had come heedfully to Jesus and, without paying and without cost, they ate their fill.
          My brothers and sisters, this is the same banquet that God is calling us to today.  We who have been beaten down by the harshness of the world and who feel like we have nothing left to give to him come here today and are offered, not an abundance of physical food, but a banquet of spiritual nourishment; enough to satisfy our hungry hearts and to strengthen our spirits to persevere through the harshness of the world.  If we come heedfully—that is, placing ourselves completely under God’s providential care—we too will find that Jesus, although burdened with the weight of the world, nonetheless still cares for us and does not leave us to go away hungry seeking to satisfy our weary hearts.  Thus we gather today to give thanks.  Just as life still finds a way to persevere in spite of the harsh conditions that surround Crater Lake, so too the life force within us—strengthened by this word and by this sacrament—will always find a way to persevere.  And so, my brothers and sisters, come—without paying and without cost—to this banquet prepared for us by our Lord.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – August 2nd & 3rd, 2014

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