Monday, July 05, 2010

Learning from suffering

My Dear friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. For the past several weeks, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on the time I’ve spent here at St. Thomas. Sometimes it happens because a former student emails, text messages, or even calls to reminisce about old times. It certainly happened two weeks ago at the coffee and donuts when you threw me a going away party in listening to the stories that people told. It also happened when I was cleaning out my office and found a note reminding me of something that I should have followed up on two years ago. To be honest, I’m still not certain if it’s too late to call that person back or not. I guess I’ll just leave it for Fr. Jack.

On Friday, I was helping a former student roof his house and, one of the other roofers came up to me and said, “You’re the priest from St. Thomas, right?” I, of course, said that I was, although I’ll admit that I wondered where the conversation would lead. He said that he was present at church when I gave a homily about God’s love. He said, he remembered that one of my examples of showing love was the Obama fist bump with optional explosion. He said it was one of the best he’d ever heard. The funny thing is that I only vaguely remember giving that homily. I sort of remember walking into the congregation to display the aforementioned fist bump but not much else. And the really crazy thing is that, even though I don’t remember that homily, I’ll never forget the ones when I got a complaint email afterwards. I think it’s always tempting to hold on to the struggles and trials of life even when life is much better, the struggles behind us, and we have learned lessons from those trials.

The first reading today from the Prophet Isaiah is dealing with just such a situation. Despite being defeated in war, exiled to Babylon, and suffering as slaves, God tells his people “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her, all you who love her; exult, exult with her, all you who were mourning over her!” The people are told to not look back on past disappointments but to live in their current condition of renewal.

The question then arises, of course, what do we do when we are in the middle of suffering? Paul answers that question in his letter to the Galatians. This letter is somewhat unique compared to Paul’s other letters because he is so disappointed by the Galatians’ willingness to believe in these people called Judaizers who want pagans first to become Jews before they become Christian. You might remember me talking about this group in a previous homily. In this concluding passage, Paul is talking about how he has been marked with the marks of Christ. The suffering Paul has felt is that the Judaizers have put so much focus on the mark of circumcision that they have driven away people he evangelized who have been marked by faith in Christ. Paul exhorts them to remember that the only mark that matters is the mark of Jesus and nothing else. It’s rather doubtful that St. Paul was talking about this but this is the passage that was a source of support for St. Francis, St. Pio of Petriclina and others who were graced to receive the stigmata and truly “bear the marks of Jesus” on their bodies. Their stigmata are a sign of their faith in Jesus and his church. Nonetheless, most of us will never have actual physical stigmata but will wear the spiritual marks of Jesus on our bodies given to us in baptism by faith.

It was in faith that Jesus called 70 of his disciples to go forth in evangelization in the gospel today. He challenges them not to bring a lot of stuff but just to go and he gives them advice on how to handle those who aren’t open to the gospel message. It’s almost like he’s trying to help them to deal with the very things that Isaiah and Paul dealt with in their writings but trying to prepare them ahead of time. On the one hand, a lot of suffering comes from our own dependence of physical objects. Anyone who has ever packed up a house or apartment knows this is true. But Jesus knows that some of their suffering will come from people who are unwilling to listen to the gospel message. Jesus first says not to be concerned if people spurn your offers of peace because your peace will simply come back to you. He goes on to tell the disciples to say as they leave the hard hearted, “'The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.' Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town." In other words, the disciples had to be prepared to let go of whatever unreceptive people said and did to them as they began to evangelize.

Suffering is a confusing and frustrating thing. We tend to try and avoid having to go through it, hate every second we are in it, and hold onto it too long once it’s done. Suffering gets in the way of our relationship to God and others and makes living a holy life a struggle. Our constant challenge as believers is to know that suffering is one of the marks of being a Christian. It’s what unites us ever closer to Christ who suffered and died for us on the cross. We cannot avoid it. We cannot ignore it. We can’t even always be prepared for it. But, when it comes, we can draw strength from the one who suffered for us.

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