Homily: Healing and Thanksgiving

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The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
2 Kings 5:14-17
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
2 Timothy 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19


Today our readings teach us about two things: God healing us, and our thanksgiving to God for healing us.

In our first reading, we have the end of the story of the healing of Naaman. Namaan was a Syrian, the army commander of the king of Aram, and he was highly esteemed and respected. But he had contracted leprosy. Naaman’s wife had an Israelite slave girl who spoke of a prophet in Israel that could cure Naaman. So the king sent Naaman to the king of Israel, along with a letter and gifts for Naaman’s safe passage. One of the interesting things about this story is the Israelite king’s response. It says, “When he read the letter, the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed: ‘Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy?” The king tells us that the deadly affliction of leprosy is so horrific that it only a god could cure it.

So, the prophet Elisha hears about this, and sends a message to the king: “Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.” So, when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s dwelling, Elisha sends word to Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan River, and he will be healed. And the valiant military leader is a bit insulted. First, Elisha doesn’t even greet him himself, he just sends a messenger out to tell him. And second, the Jordan river is a muddy little creek compared to the great rivers of Syria, and third, just bathe in a muddy river? That’s it? So in anger, he storms away. But his servants plead with him, saying, “if the prophet told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more since he told you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?

Image result for naamanAnd then this is where our reading picks up. Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times at the word of Elisha. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean of his leprosy.” It wasn’t just that his skin was healed of leprosy and became the normal skin of a grown man. He was made new. His flesh was like that of an infant.

And then we have the second part: Naaman is thankful for God’s healing. He tells Elisha, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel… please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth, for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the LORD.” This is a strange request to us, but it shows the belief that gods were territorial, and Naaman wanted to take ground from Israel to worship the God of Israel back in Syria.


So now let’s see how all this relates to the Gospel. Jesus is traveling through Israelite and Samaritan lands and is approached at a distance by ten lepers asking to be healed. “And when he saw them, he said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ As they were going, they were cleansed.” So leprosy referred to a number of different skin diseases, some of them were temporary, some were not, and included in that was what we know as leprosy, that killed off the nerve endings, leading to infections, until the person died. Image result for israelite lepersIn the book of Leviticus, Moses had established procedures for the priests, who were responsible for protecting the physical and spiritual health of the people, and declaring people clean or unclean, part of, or separated from, the community. So if someone had a skin disease, they would be declared unclean, and they had to stay away from others and shout “unclean” to protect the healthy community. But if it seemed that someone had recovered from their disease, they would present themselves to the priests, who would declare them to be clean, and the person would take a ritual bath, wait seven days (the number of the covenant), then there would be a sacrifice with blood and water being sprinkled seven times, and the person would be restored to the community.

So, these ten lepers don’t shout, “Unclean.” They shout, “Jesus, heal us!” And Jesus responds by fulfilling the Law: “Go show yourselves to the priest.” And as we know, they discovered along the way that they were healed. But one of the ten, not one of the Israelites, but the one that was one of those foreigner, no-good, Samaritans, “realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” And at the end it says, Jesus said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith (your trust) has saved you.


Ok. So. Let’s put this all together. The Samaritan and Naaman the Syrian had three things in common. First, obviously they were lepers! Second, they were both healed by their faith and trust in God, after obeying in faith what they were told to do. So that ties us back to last week: faith and trust. And thirdly, they were both foreigners, gentiles. What was our responsorial psalm? “The Lord has revealed to the nations (the gentiles) his saving power.” So part of what is happening here, is not just healing of lepers, but healing of spiritual wounds and division, and the converting of gentiles. Jesus is expanding the covenant, so the New Covenant won’t be just with the children of Abraham, but open to all the children of Adam.

Next thing: Remember what the king of Israel said? “Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy?” Who cured Naaman? God. Who cured the ten lepers? Jesus…who is really God.

Naaman tried to thank Elisha with gifts, but Elisha refused, because it was God who healed Naaman. The Samaritan returned glorifying God, and fell at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him. Did Jesus correct the Samaritan? Did he say, “Stand up, I’m just a man, like you”? No. Because he is God, who has the power to heal, and wants to heal, the world—not just Israel, but all humanity.


As a closing reflection… There was a particular kind of ritual sacrifice in Israel that was described by Moses, but it became popular much later. The Todah sacrifice was not offered in atonement for sin or in reparation, but in thanks and praise to God for a specific act of deliverance.  The Todah was a festive sacrifice offered as part of a seven-step sequence of experiences, in which you (1) began in a situation of distress, (2) you cried out to God, (3) made a vow to offer the Todah sacrifice if God would save you, (4) God saved you, (5) you paid your vow by offering the Todah sacrifice in the temple, (6) you had a festive party as you and your family and friends ate the meat of the sacrifice and all the bread that was involved, and (7) you gave public testimony to all assembled in the Temple concerning how God saved you.

So you would bring the animal to God in thanksgiving, and then the priest would ritually sacrifice it, and then rather than burning it up or keeping it, he gave you back to you for a thanksgiving feast. The Passover is a kind of Todah feast… and so is the celebration of the Eucharist. Eucharist means, “thanksgiving.” From the Psalms, we learn that it was common to offer a wine-libation (offering) as part of the ritual.  This cup of wine, poured out in offering to God, is described: “The cup of salvation I will take up.”  Related imageOver this “cup of salvation” Jesus will later speak: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we bring bread and wine to the priest. The priest offers it to God. God accepts the sacrifice, and changes it into the even greater sacrifice of the meat/substance/reality of the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice. God then accepts that sacrifice, and then the priest gives it back to us for our thanksgiving feast with our family and friends, as we share with each other our stories of how God has saved us from our distress.

Those who were at any of the Forty Hours Eucharistic Devotions evening liturgies last week prayed Psalm 116, which is a Todah psalm. It says, “How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving… I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, In the courts of the house of the Lord...”

In Every Mass, we’re called to grow in this spirit of thanksgiving, because the Eucharist is Jesus’ own prayer of Thanksgiving to the Father. During the Mass, the priest says, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God.” It is our duty and our salvation, to thank God always and everywhere. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave thanks as he offered the bread that would be his broken body, and he gave thanks as he offered the wine that would be his spilled blood. Related imageJesus gave thanks, because Jesus always thanked the Father, because it is right and just. As much as he would suffer in Gethsemane and in his Passion, he was giving thanks, here in the Last Supper, for the victory he knew (through faith and trust) he would have. The Mass is the school in which we participate in Jesus’ own thanksgiving, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving the Church makes to the Father; the offering made through Jesus, with Jesus, of Jesus. The Church’s perpetual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Father through him, with him, and in him, from the rising of the sun to its setting.

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Homily: Having Faith

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The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
Luke 17:5-10


God does not always respond “yes” to our prayers. Sometimes, he has to tell us, “no.” But very often, he tells us, “Wait. Not yet.” So, “Yes, No, or Wait.” A few years ago some atheist came out with a YouTube video that pointed out that, well, there are only these three logical possibilities. If you pray for something, it will happen immediately, or it will happen later, or it won’t happen. He said, if you pray to a milk carton, what you ask for will happen immediately, or happen later, or not happen. So praying to God is no more reliable than praying to a milk carton. And that seemed to sound very convincing, and probably affirmed a whole lot of people who already didn’t believe in praying to God. 

But it misses something very important. And that is trust. Faith and trust are parts of a relationship. I don’t trust a milk carton to have my best interest, my salvation, as the underlying reality behind whether or when my prayer is answered. Because it’s just a milk carton. But when I offer my prayer to God, I trust that the answer to my prayer, whether it’s yes, or no, or wait, is determined, not randomly or by coincidence, but by His divine wisdom, and his divine love for me. 


In our first reading, the prophet Habakkuk is wrestling with the two biggest obstacles to faith: suffering and unanswered prayer. Habakkuk was writing as the Babylonians were destroying Jerusalem, torching the Temple, and marching the Israelites into exile. Yet Habakkuk, as God’s prophet, is trying to encourage the people to remain faithful (and you think you have a hard job!). So in our reading, he is complaining to God—where are you? How can you let this happen? He says, “I cry for help, but you do not listen!  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.

And then God responds: “Write down the vision clearly… so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time… and will not disappoint; … wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.” God says, I know about the suffering. But suffering isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Suffering has a purpose, even though it’s painful. I am not only guiding the unfolding of events, but I am with you as you suffer these events. What was the result of the Exile? The Israelites examined themselves, repented of their spiritual and social corruption, and rededicated themselves to their trust in God. Then almost immediately, the king who held them captive was inspired to release the Israelites to return to their land. Huh. Maybe God had it all planned out.

Saint Augustine, in the 5th century, wrote that God sometimes delays answering our prayers because our heart is not yet ready to receive how he intends to super-abundantly answer our prayer. If you’ve really had prayer answered, you know, he’s not going to answer your prayer on the same little scale that you expect. He’s going to blow you away with how it all comes together, nothing like you’d expect. And so he inspires us to remain faithful, while he expands our hearts with longing, until we are truly ready for his gift. God will not settle for giving us less than his best for us. It’s all or nothing. Either we follow his way of preparing us to receive his answer to our prayer, or we impetuously decide that he just doesn’t answer prayers.

Maybe you saw the movie, “Evan Almighty,” where God, played by Morgan Freeman, appears to Evan’s wife and explains to her, “Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them circumstances that will bring them closer to each other?” He opens her eyes to the fact that He has been responding to her prayers all along; that God doesn’t normally perform big flashy miracles. He works quietly in the situations of life, often in ways that could be missed, because he doesn’t overpower the working of nature, he just lovingly nudges it in the right direction.

We need to maintain our faith, our trust, that God is truly who he says that he is, and that he is doing what is best for us. That might mean he doesn’t answer our prayer. If we pray for something that seems good to us, it might be something that in reality is bad for us, and no matter how much we plead, beg, and desire, God will not give us what we want. And as I’ve said before, all Christian prayer ends (either explicitly or implicitly) with Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thy will be done.” Christian prayer is, at its heart, a matter of relationship, a matter of faith, and trust, that God truly has our back, that he is protecting us and providing for us.


So we have faith as an essential aspect of our relationship with God. Here in our psalm we have a second aspect of faith: of responding in faith to God. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” We need to respond in faith to what God instructs us to do: to give more generously; to stop for someone who needs help; to fight some habit of sin in your life, or begin building a new good habit; in short, to trust that God is guiding you to do what you need to do, and in faith to obey that guidance.

Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert; Where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works.” Meribah and Massah was a point along the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, when the Israelites had just recently received the beginning of the manna, the miraculous bread from heaven, in response to their complaint of hunger. And now they were quarreling with Moses about being thirsty. And they said, “Is God in our midst or not?” What a bunch of ungrateful jerks! So in this place, God guided Moses to tap the rock with his staff, and water came out to quench the thirst of the Israelites. Moses named the place Meribah and Massah, meaning the place of “tempting” and “testing.” Although God conceded to their whining, he also said that because of their unfaithfulness—their hardness of their hearts—none of them would enter the Promised Land. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”


In the verses immediately before our Gospel reading, Jesus implored his disciples to forgive their repentant offenders. Something we know is often difficult to do. And their response is the beginning of our reading: they asked Jesus for more Faith so that they could meet this demand. In addition, the Apostles were asking for greater confidence and trust, so that they might work the miracles which they had seen Jesus perform. Jesus responds by telling them of the power of faith, even a little faith.

Related imageA handful of mustard seeds looks like a handful of ground black pepper. A mustard seed, like faith, is easy to lose if we’re not careful. It not necessarily the smallest of all seeds, but it was an expression for something very, very small. And yet, when planted, it grows into a large strong bush. It doesn’t always look pretty, but it doesn’t take much to make it grow, like a weed. Like faith.

The mulberry tree’s famous feature was its very strong and expansive root system. There were rules in Israelite city planning, so-to-speak, that trees couldn’t be planted within 30 feet of a well, so that the tree roots wouldn’t damage the well. Image result for mulberry tree rootsBut for mulberry trees, the distance was doubled to 60 feet, because of how notoriously spread out their roots would grow.

And yet, Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” God needs us to leave the door open for him to work through us and in our lives. If we’re cynical, pessimistic, and unbelieving, about God’s desire to heal us and give us abundant life, we’re tempted to close the door on him… to rashly decide he just doesn’t answer prayers.


So the first two aspects of faith were subjective—aspects of faith within us (our faith in God, and our response of faith). This third aspect is objective: the doctrine of The Faith, what we believe as the Church, and who we believe in as God. It is the content of the Christian Faith, contained in Sacred Tradition, which includes Sacred Scripture. So when we profess the creed, the first two words are subjective: “I believe,” and the rest is objective: the core beliefs of Christianity that I believe.

So also in this objective faith is the moral teaching of the Church that has developed to guide people in living out the faith. Jesus gives us clear moral teaching, built on the law and the prophets of the faith of Israel. And the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, interprets and applies the moral truth to the new situations and controversies as they have occurred, from the first century to the twenty-first century, since Christ. The understanding of faith and morals develops, it grows, in more detail and precision over time, but it doesn’t evolve and deform into something it wasn’t before. The truth is unchanging, but our understanding of it develops.


And finally, at the end of our gospel reading, Jesus gives us a very humbling instruction. He teaches us that if we are doing great works of generosity and kindness, and if we are faithfully living the teaching of the Church, and we’re fighting against sin… we shouldn’t be bragging about our greatness, and expecting a gold star sticker. Living out the truth God gave us is simply the expectation. And our response should be, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

That can be a bit deflating if we’re feeling high on God’s consolations and blessings. But it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to help us along with what St. Therese called “The Little Way.” To embrace our smallness, and marvel at God’s greatness, and what He can do with us if we offer him our humble mustard-seed, childlike faith. It’s the joy we receive from experiencing the great works being done through us as certainly greater than we could do ourselves, and how wonderful God is to bless us as his instruments of his great works… like commanding a mulberry tree to plant itself in the sea.

If we are obedient to the life of Faith, if we are faithful to the moral and spiritual teaching of the Church, if we learn to trust, even (or especially) when it seems almost impossible, if we allow God to grow our hearts and souls in humility, that we might in acknowledging our littleness, make room in us for his greatness, then we are truly doing what we are obliged to do: to faithfully live the cross and the glory of the Christian life.

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