Sunday, March 13, 2016

HOMILY 3-13-16

President Joseph J. McGowan, Jr.


Thanks for a wonderful sixteen-year experience 
as a Bellarmine University Chaplain!



Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.
John 11:1-45

Jesus had a large circle of friends, both men and women. Today we get an inside glimpse at three of those friends: Martha, her sister Mary and their brother Lazarus from the little town of Bethany, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was that special place in the life of Jesus where he and his disciples could stop in, get some rest, enjoy a hot meal and then go on their way! If you pay attention to the details of John’s gospel story about Martha, Mary and Lazarus, you soon realize just how close Jesus was to these people. This is a story about intimate friends, affectionate friends. 
First of all, we know that this Mary was the Mary who kissed Jesus’ feet in public, washing them with her tears, drying them with her hair, and rubbing them with perfumed oil. (When was the last time anybody kissed your feet? You have to be pretty close to do that, not to mention in public!) Read down the text and you see that John underlines again and again just how intimate these people were with Jesus: “Lord, the one you love is sick.” “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus very much.” “See how much he loved him!” They are even so close that these two women can “chew him out” and get away with it: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died.” And finally, seeing Mary weep, we are told that “Jesus began to weep,” too. 
One usually thinks of this story as the “raising of Lazarus,” but Jesus’ raising of Lazarus actually occupies a very small part of this story. Of the forty-four verses that constitute this story, only seven of them take place at Lazarus’ tomb. The miracle of the raising of Lazarus is the climax of this story; it is not the center. This is a dialogue between Jesus and the two women about God’s power in our lives. 
In his gospel, John’s stories always have two levels: one on the surface which is true and another below the surface which is truer still. This intimate story is meant to reveal to us not only the depth of their friendship, but also how intimate is God’s relationship with us! The pain of this family is the pain of God for his people. By listening in to the dialogue, we are also taught what they were taught: about the depth of God’s love for us, about God’s willingness to give us new life, and about God’s power over our worst enemy – death. 
(1) We are taught about the depths of God’s love for us. One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a priest is to convince people of God’s unconditional love for them. Why is it that so many of us have been trained by people who have dismissed these intimate stories of God’s love and have combed through the Scriptures, piecing together condemning, judging, and damning messages that they turn into a religion? Why did they, and why do we, find those negative messages more believable? I have received more letters questioning my “too lenient notions of God’s love” than any other critical letters since I became a priest. Jesus revealed the “true God,” not this “false mean god” that people have created since Adam and Eve. Even in that story, God says to Adam and Eve, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11). In other words, “Who told you that you were bad, separated from me, and defective? I certainly didn’t!” Jesus came to talk us out of the mean God we keep creating in our own minds. I can’t imagine trying to live my religion without being in love with God! I can’t imagine practicing a religion based on fear and dread! 
(2) By listening in on the conversation between Jesus, Martha and Mary, we are taught also about God’s willingness to give us new life. This eternal life is on both sides of death. Death does not have the last word. Eternal life is not just some promise for the future; it is available to us right now. We are in it, as we speak! Through Jesus and in Jesus, those of us who are “dead on our feet” can be resurrected now. We can be born again. For that very reason, I am naming the new program for retired priests and professional lay people that I hope to announce soon, publicly, "Catholic Second Wind Guild." It is for those of us who believe we can have "another life" in our senior years. I believe that we can act boldly on our own behalf to live purposeful lives, to help others, and to claim the powers that lie dormant within us. One of my favorite old movies is Harold and Maude. This is Maude’s message to Harold throughout the movie: “Oh, how the world dearly loves a cage! There are a lot of people who enjoy being dead.” Jesus came, not just to bring a wonderful life after we are dead, but right now! 
(3) And, as this gospel teaches us, God has power over our worst enemy – death. We live in a death-denying culture. Some of our expensive funeral practices would leave outsiders with the impression that we believe that we are going to come up with a cure for death someday! That makes about as much sense as leaving the runway lights on for Amelia Earhart. We don’t even know how to die. Modern medical technology robs us of the spiritual experience of “letting go” of this part of our life. Through Jesus and in Jesus, we are able to see in death that “life is changed, not ended.” I feel sorry for those who are conscious at death’s door without this faith. 
Over the years, I have had the awesome privilege of talking to some very conscious people getting ready to die: especially those with AIDS and with cancer. Some were not pious people, but most were deeply spiritual. Some were able to tell me that they accepted their approaching deaths and they wanted to “do it well.” Some were extremely thankful for the “eternal life” they had experienced in this world. Some looked with “joyful hope” for the “eternal life” ahead of them. You know, if you’re facing death, it doesn’t get any better than that! I hope I can do half as well. I pray for the ability to be conscious, filled with gratitude and ready to go when the time comes! Yes, I want to be conscious! I want to choose to let go and leap into that great unknown, to leap into the arms of God! 
The message is this: God loves you very, very much. He wants you to enjoy the eternal life that you experience right now, and he wants you to know that death does not have the last word. You can enjoy “eternal life” forever, starting right now!

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