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 that we first received from Christ in baptism. As some of you probably know, Fr. Hertges and I spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week at our leadership training class. This time we talked about leadership of the entire parish. It incorporated a lot of what we’ve already learned but it also forced us to recognize three different kinds of leadership situations. There are new initiatives, problems, and ongoing improvement. I imagine, if you think about it, you all have these three categories of activities in your life. You have the things that you want to start new, like a project around the house or something that you’ve always wanted to do but just haven’t had the time. You probably also have things that aren’t working in your life, areas that you know need work but you just haven’t got to them yet. And then there’s the stuff that is working right now but that you have ideas of how it can improve. According to the leaders, we should have between three and five new activities going, one to two problems we’re trying to solve, and one to two programs we’re trying to improve. I felt this great sense of relief when I heard those parameters defined. The leader said that, if we get any more than that, we are overloaded and need to admit that we simply cannot take on more. Yet, it also lets me know if I’m just being lazy by saying no or if I’m legitimately too busy to take on another project.
I was really struck this week by one phrase from the first reading in connection to this. The Prophet Isaiah is addressing an Israel that has been taken to exile in Babylon. He is talking to a people who feel demoralized, a people he warned to reform their ways before God got fed up with them and sent them into exile. And, yet, his message isn’t that they are just getting what they deserve. He tells them about a hopeful future. He preaches the Word of God to them that God still cares for them and still wants what’s best for them. In fact, God so cares for them that, not only will their release from exile be a source of salvation for themselves or just their fellow Jews. God says to them, “It is too little…for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel. I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation reach to the ends of the earth.”
What a big job! I’m sure that there had to be at least one person who said that being a light to the nations is just too big, just too difficult. And yet, God called them to not dream too little, to not act too diminutively. And, what’s really amazing is that God is calling them to do this despite the fact that the nations to which they are called to be lights are the very same ones that just invaded their lands, beat them militarily, did bad things to their women and children, and took the best and brightest back with them to be their servants in Babylon. It would be tempting to think that their goal should be just to go back home and reconstitute Israel. But God has bigger plans for them.
The same is true in the gospel today. John the Baptist, who seems to forget that he leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when he first met Jesus, claims points out to his followers what it means for Jesus to fulfill and complete his ministry. It won’t be a simple baptism to remove sins any longer. Now it will involve receiving the Holy Spirit. There’s something different with Christian Baptism that other people’s baptism and it involves receiving the Holy Spirit. The people that originated because of John’s ministry but later became Jesus’ follower are given something new, something bigger than a removal of their own personal sins. The Holy Spirit connects us to the life of the trinity and makes us all connected to the life of Christ.
Part of what I love about the formula that our class gave us is that we tend to image the church as an institution that has everything pretty well settled. Go to mass every week. Go to confession once a year. When you’re sick, call a priest. And you’re doing pretty good if that’s what you do. God says to the church, “It is too little…” We must advocate respect for human life from natural conception to natural death. We must be a voice that seeks understanding and tolerance between the members of various religions. We must testify with John the Baptist that the Christ is the Son of God to those who feel lost and alone without God. In some ways, each of these things aren’t new but the way we do them must be continuously renewed to speak to new challenges and new people. It is too little if we just fix problems and try to keep refining what we’ve done in the past. We must keep our ears open to what God is calling us to do that is new.