When we hear our Gospel readings each Sunday during our liturgies, we often hear the story of people of great faith. Last Sunday, we heard about a synagogue official who had faith that Jesus could cure his daughter who was at the point of death and about a woman who had suffered from hemorrhages for 12 long years who had faith that Jesus could cure her with just his touch. Yet, today, we hear Jesus bemoaning the lack of faith of the people in his native town, of those who questioned his authority and did not believe what was right before their eyes.
Faith has been one of the obvious themes in our Sunday readings these past few weeks. Faith has been explicitly mentioned in these readings again and again. As we think about the reality of faith in our own lives, we might think about how tough it is to reconcile our faith and the values of our faith with a lot of changes going on in our world today, changes some people dream for, and the same changes that others see as the world turning its back on religion and on people of faith. Our state flag, our healthcare system, the Greek debt crisis and our world’s financial system, racism, the killings in the church in Charleston, what constitutes a marriage, and even Pope Francis’ warnings about our environment – these have been the red hot issues that have been on the news and in the newspaper. They’ve provoked anger, passion, and many disagreements. I think we have all witnessed those on both sides of the conversation on these issues lash out judgmentally and without sensitivity, especially in postings on Facebook and on other social media sites.
Our Catholic Church has bravely spoken out on many of these topics in order to set a tone as how they fit into our life of faith. It is not easy addressing these topics as a priest, let me tell you, but last week and this week, when they are on the minds of just about everyone, young and old alike, I would be negligent if I did not address them as a priest. We can look at what our Church leaders are saying. Addressing the killings in the church in Charleston, South Carolina, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia had this to say: “All life matters, and when life is taken in such a violent way, all people of good will are devastated. ... May love be our mission and give us the strength to drive out hate, today and always.” The mass killings we have seen in recent years in this church in Charleston, in the movie theater in Colorado, in the marathon in Boston, and in the elementary school in Connecticut point to the way some lash out against innocent victims in displays of anger and rage. Responding to these situations is not easy, but we cannot ignore this reality. The message of reconciliation and healing and a sense of solidarity in community that comes from our Church can help heal and challenge our society with the reality that we face today.
One thing that I am proud of here at St James is our diversity. We try very hard to welcome everyone here no matter who they are – the visitor as well as the long-time parishioner, the children and the youth as well as our Happy Hearts members, the recent immigrant or someone whose family has been here at St James for generations. As Jesus reached out to those who needed healing in their lives, as he reached out to those on the margins or to those who were different than he was, Jesus asks us to do the same. Are we always as warm and welcoming as we should be? Do we seem to be impatient and in a hurry rather than being compassionate and welcoming. Yes, we the priest and the staff at St James are human beings, and sometimes we do not live up to the standards and values we want to embody. I as the pastor want to apologize to anyone who has had their feelings hurt or who have not felt our warm embrace. And I ask your forgiveness and pardon, and I ask that you reach out to us and help us welcome you back if this is the case.
Let me make a few observations that we could keep in mind as our society continues to grapple with a lot of these big issues that are redefining us and that are having such an influence on the way our daily lives are lived out. First of all, as Pope Francis announced in his recent encyclical, on the issue of the environment, he appealed for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet, to have a conversation that includes many different sides, where we are all able to express our opinions and concerns. We as a Church should have the opportunity to express our point of view, to read the signs of the times and to dialogue with the Modern World, to quote the Second Vatican Council. To do this, we Catholics need to keep abreast of what our Church teaches and to have the courage to express our opinions. Fortunately, there are a lot of writings coming out of the Vatican and from our US Bishops than can help us understand our position of faith.
Another thing we need to keep in mind is that importance of respect. In his response to the marriage decision of the Supreme Court, Archbishop Cupich of Chicago wrote about the importance of treating our brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian with dignity and respect, with compassion and sensitivity. Archbishop Cupich emphasizes that this dignity and respect is to be real, not just rhetorical, that it reflect our Church’s commitment to accompany all people, no matter where they are on their journey. When some feel like they are disrespected, we are called to reopen the avenues of conversation and dialogue.
And that brings us to the importance of being witnesses of the Gospel message in our words and our actions. Yes, marriage is definitely being redefined in our country and throughout the world, but even though this change is a big one that goes beyond our Catholic definition of marriage, we can recognize that there have been many changes to the secular world’s view of marriage throughout the past couple of decades. Those couples in our Church who live out the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony in the Catholic sense of marriage are truly witnesses of faith to our world and they have a lot to teach us. When I interview the couple that is wanting to be married, I ask them if they give themselves to each other in holy matrimony unconditionally, if they understand marriage to be a lifelong union, and if they intend to be faithful to the spouse. That is how we in the Catholic Church understand marriage – but it is often viewed very differently in the secular world. Just as Christ loves the Church as his spouse, we can more fully understand that relationship through the witness of those husbands and wives living out the sacramentality of holy matrimony. We in the Catholic Church will not waiver in the sacramental and covenantal characteristics of holy matrimony, no matter what our government decides marriage is in a secular sense. However, today there is a great opportunity for us to evangelize and minister to the world in the ways we live out our faith. I think of how in the 1960s those who were seen as counter cultural were the hippies and the flower children being so different from the norm of society. These days, those being counter-cultural are the priests in their Roman collars, the nuns in their habits, the devout Catholics practicing their faith with zeal and conviction in the midst of a world that is turning its back on a lot of those values. Look at how Pope Francis has been a witness to our world in his blunt, direct, honest words and in the justice and dignity he declares for all. We can be witnesses in our own way in whatever vocation we are called to by God.
The people of Jesus’ native town did not understand what was unfolding before their eyes. In response, they did not have the courage to continue down the road of faith. We are called to be courageous right now, to not only continue on our journey of faith, but to be witnesses to the world. In the Fortnight for Freedom that concludes this weekend, we have been proclaiming the importance of having the religious freedom to live out our faith and to be able to bear witness to the message of the Gospel. We have celebrated many different saints who have courageously proclaimed the Gospel, even to the point of persecution and martyrdom. Blessed Junipero Serra, whose feast day was celebrated on July 1, was a Franciscan priest in the 18th century who spearheaded the founding of the Catholic missions in the state of California. Even though he will be canonized in Washington DC by Pope Francis in September, there are some in the California state legislature who want to replace his statue in our nations Capitol with someone else. It shows how some want to eliminate any voice or influence our faith has in modern society. However, we can learn from the motto that Father Serra used in his work in the missions: “Always look forward and never turn back.” We are to have hope and faith in the future, knowing that whatever reality we need to face in our lives of faith, God will be there at our side. He will be there as we proclaim Christ’s Gospel to the world. While there will be those who try to silence our voices and our witness, we are called to continue along that journey of faith.