Yesterday evening, I had the opportunity to celebrate mass for the people of Holy Family parish in Parkersburg. The pastor there, Fr. Dennis Quint, was celebrating a wedding in Ames for me so I offered a few months ago to switch with him, not knowing the tragic events that would take place this week for this community. In case you haven’t heard, a former student of Applington-Parkersburg High School walked into the weight room of that school early Wednesday morning and shot the beloved football coach, Mr. Ed Thomas. As you probably know, it adds to the tragedy this community has felt when a tornado cut a mile-wide path through the city a little over thirteen months ago. Despite a massive clean up and rebuild effort, there is still so much to do. As I drove into town, I noticed the phenomenon everyone had warned me about. There are no trees on the entire south side of town. You can see where the tornado went both by the neighborhoods filled entirely with new homes and the complete lack of trees in the skyline there verses the more northern area which still has older homes and taller, though some badly gnarled, trees. I tried to drive slowly to see what was left to do in terms of clean up. What no one could have prepared me for was a in the heart of the road that the tornado went down that had a listing of state championships won by Coach Thomas. I couldn’t help but think that this sign, most likely intended to be a defiant statement about the town’s strength and resiliency now stands as a reminder of the fragility of life and the in frustration, fear, and confusion that surrounds this inexplicably evil event.
I had been praying since Wednesday about what I should say to this community. The readings seemed to be a perfect fit for it. “God did not make death nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” So says the first reading from Wisdom. Jesus sees two hurting people in the gospel and gives them healing and peace. His statement to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction" is a profoundly comforting source of grace for those undergoing affliction. I had in my mind what I thought would be a beautiful, consoling, ten minute homily utilizing those two statements to talk about the fact that death is not God’s will but is a by product of the evil one and finish up by talking about how we need to be healed by Christ and be able to go in peace. Then, I got a call from Fr. Quint telling me that he had invited a person from Catholic Charities to talk at the end of mass so I wouldn’t even need to preach. Which, in some ways, was a good thing. It allowed me more time to think about things and put together this homily.
This Sunday, for all intents and purposes, marks the end of the Year of St. Paul. During this past year, we were encouraged by the Pope Benedict XVI to increase our ecumenical efforts through the intercession of St. Paul, utilize St. Paul in special Biblical studies and programs, and spend personal time studying him. I have tried in several homily to give special focus to St. Paul. Nonetheless, most of you probably have had no idea of this was the year of St. Paul but hopefully some of you did. If there’s one thing in the life of Paul that is true it’s that he had his fair share of experiences similar to mine in Parkersburg. At one point, Paul had to defend himself to the Corinthians against charges that since he broke his promise to visit, he was a liar. He had been jailed for proclaiming Christ and had nearly been killed by a mob of rock throwing town’s people a few months prior to the jailing. I mean he wasn’t just sitting around. He was busy. I can imagine St. Paul being prepared to walk into a city to preach and evangelize only to find out that some circumstance seemed to prevent him from doing so. There may have been an earlier Christian evangelizer that had a few of the details wrong and so he would have to straighten things out. Or, they may have already heard about Paul, thinking that he was a pest. Paul doesn’t really talk about these situations for some reason. I’d like to believe it is because his heart was so filled with the love of Jesus that he couldn’t help but evangelize. He fully believed that he was spreading the Good News to all people and probably even got energy from doing so.
The more I prayed over these readings, the more I realized that Paul speaks to us today, in my opinion, a more authentic model of Christian hope. Saying to grieving people that God did not make death could seem like you’re trying to make excuses for the most high. If God didn’t make death, why didn’t he at least stop it from happening? He does it for others, after all. He did it for some woman in the gospel. Why couldn’t he have done it for Ed Thomas? And, if death is from the evil one, then it could appear that I’m saying that the psychologically disturbed kid was from the devil. But, of course, we believe all life is a gift from God so I don’t believe this kid is the devil or that he should be killed or anything terrible like that. He and his family will suffer in different ways than the Thomas’ family.
I think St. Paul is much more encouraging because he uses an analogy of faith to talk about money. He basically said that God shared so much with us in his Son. We are, consequently, called to share that with others. Paul says that the same should be true of money. It’s not that the lazy should be rewarded but that those who cannot provide for themselves should receive the attention of those who have an abundance. I’d like to suggest that the same is true of good fortune. We all know people who are a lot worse off than we are. It may be financially but it just as easily could be spiritually, morally, or in terms of hope. How can we share the hope given to us in Christ with those who have no hope?