Homily: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
In March of 2003, I was an engineer who had set himself on a path towards a career in the automotive industry. I was at a point in my life when I knew that there were some things that would have to change—not so that I could be successful, but rather so that I could be happy—but I never thought that those changes would take me too far from engineering. Nevertheless, after participating in a parish mission, I realized that my life might soon be radically different.
You see, during that parish mission I had encountered Jesus in a very personal way; and when I encountered him I was suddenly deeply aware of my sinfulness (and of how broken I was because of my sinfulness). There I went to confession for the first time in what had been over 12 years and I experienced in a profound way the depths of God’s mercy. I left from that week knowing that my life had changed forever—that is, that God would be sending me in a different direction—even though I wouldn’t know what that direction would look like until some time later
One of the things that I did quickly realize, however, was that my life would now have to be focused on others. In other words, I knew that, because I had received God’s mercy, God wanted me to be an instrument of his mercy to others. Thus, even while I prayed to discern God’s vocation for my life, I began to involve myself in the various outreach ministries in my parish. Of course, (as Paul Harvey was wont to say) we all know the rest of the story: that the specific way that God was calling me to be an instrument of his mercy was to be a priest in his Church.
The prophet Isaiah was a minister in the Temple of Jerusalem. One day, while performing his liturgical duties in the Temple, Isaiah was given a vision of the glory of heaven and of the presence of God. In spite of the splendor of this vision, Isaiah turns away from it because, in the presence of God, he is acutely aware of his sinfulness—and, thus, his unworthiness to stand in God’s presence. Just then an angel carries an ember from the altar and “purifies” him by touching it to his lips so that he no longer has to fear being in the presence of God. Isaiah was mercifully cleansed from his sinfulness. In response, when the voice of the Lord calls out for someone to send on a mission, Isaiah promptly replies, “Here I am; send me!” Although he was already ministering to the Lord in the Temple, his experience of God’s mercy inspired him to volunteer to be sent forth on a mission to be the voice of God’s mercy to others.
Peter was a fisherman in Galilee. He must not have been a bad fisherman, either, because the Gospel tells us that Jesus got into the boat “belonging to Simon” and only those who had been successful could afford to own their own boat. After Jesus had instructed him to put out into deep water and lower his nets for a catch—at a time of day in which no one would catch anything, and after having spent the night (that is, the good time for catching fish) lowering his nets and catching nothing—Peter was astounded at the catch that was made and knew that he was in the presence of someone powerful. This realization was immediately followed by an acute awareness of his own sinfulness; and so Peter bows down before Jesus and acknowledges as much before him. Jesus, however, shows him mercy and gives him a commission to draw others to experience his mercy, too, when he says: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”
And although it wasn’t recounted for us in our reading today, Paul’s career as an Apostle is a direct result of the same pattern. On the road to Damascus—when he was still persecuting the first Christians—Paul encountered the Risen Jesus. After that appearance, Paul was acutely aware of his sinfulness. God showed him his mercy, however, and then sent him out to proclaim the Good News of his mercy to the nations. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, does acknowledge this for us when he says “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God [that is, the mercy of God] I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”
This pattern, I think, can be summed up in a simple phrase: Receive mercy, give mercy. In each of these examples that I’ve recounted—in spite of the very different circumstances in which each occurred—the person became aware that he was in the presence of God and, thus, became acutely aware of his sinfulness. Acknowledging his sinfulness before God, however, God showed him his mercy. Having received God’s mercy, he then turned to become an instrument of God’s mercy in the world. In other words, first he received mercy and then he gave it. And although this might seem to be something that only “exalted” figures in the church can experience—figures such as prophets, apostles, or priests—this is not an experience only for the “chosen few”. Rather, it is something that all of us can experience.
In order to receive mercy, one must first acknowledge his or her sinfulness before God. We are all sinners and so to acknowledge this openly before God invites him to show us his mercy. Then, having received his mercy, our lives our changed and we go forth, not to return to our sinful way of life, but rather to live our lives for him and to be instruments of his mercy in the unique vocation that he has given to each of us. Pope Francis, in a message for Lent a few years ago, said that “God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn.” In other words, when we receive God’s mercy we are transformed and, thus, enabled to give mercy to others.
Lent is still a little less than a month away, however, and for this I am grateful. I’m grateful because this is a message that we need to receive in the midst of Ordinary Time: the time in which we focus on our discipleship and the day-to-day living out of our Christian vocations. This simple formula—receive mercy, give mercy—is the story of salvation in a nutshell; and it is the story that must be on our lips and in our actions when we interact with others.
If you heard my homily last weekend (or if you pre-read my bulletin column this weekend), you’ll know that I exhorted us to reclaim the Church’s rightful title by becoming evangelical again. To do so, I identified three tasks of evangelization that we must take up: witness, invitation, and service. Witness: telling others about the mercy we have received. Invitation: inviting others to receive that same mercy. Service: mercy shared with others as a sign of the mercy that has been given to us. People today are starving to know that there is mercy for them and to experience it. We are in contact with the fountainhead of mercy, itself; and so we must be ready to help everyone find and experience it.
Nevertheless, we ourselves must regularly return to the fount of mercy to renew our experience of receiving mercy so that we can be renewed in our efforts to give it. This is where the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes in. When we regularly return to this sacrament, we renew that original encounter, in which we acknowledge that we are in the presence of God (and our unworthiness to be there) and then receive from him the mercy of his forgiveness. Having received God’s mercy we are told to “go in peace”: that is, to go and give witness to the mercy we have received in our words and actions. Without this regular renewal, our efforts at evangelization will fall short and the Church will continue to shrink.
Strengthened by our confessions—and, as always, by this Eucharist that we celebrate—we can become great instruments of God’s mercy and, thus, renew God’s Church. Our Mother Mary, received such great mercy when she agreed to give birth to God’s Son. She then turned and gave (and continues to give) such great mercy to others. May she intercede for us so that our efforts will be fruitful; and so that God’s kingdom of mercy may flourish among us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 9th & 10th, 2019