It has taken me about two weeks since getting back from Italy to shake off a really nasty cold. But I’m better now, way better than I’ve ever tried to convince many of you. You may have seen me the last two weekends, alternating cold sweats and hot flashes, giving the elbow shake, looking more than slightly medicated. No, it wasn’t funny. Now it looks like everyone at the parish office is fighting a cold. I try to be aware of everything going on at the office, but it isn’t easy with a head cold. So I ask for your patience and forgiveness if you’ve hit a few bumps trying to get things done. We’ve never all had a cold at the same time. A friend half-jokingly said I still get no sympathy since I was in Italy. Okay. So, I would also have you know that since returning home, I’ve lost ten pounds. It’s not the best way to lose weight, but I’ll take what I can get.
Incidentally, since getting back two weeks ago, we’ve had 5 funerals here at the parish. The first one was for Tom Griffin, two days after coming home. Then there were funerals for Bob Pardee, Mike Topolosky, and Alfred Leverton. The last funeral was for Joe Dantoni on Friday. Thankfully, I don’t have any more funerals to announce. Well, there is that funeral for Fr. Robert McEleney in Lynchburg on Wednesday which I plan to attend. He was one of our retired priests who passed away Thursday. But no funerals at our parish … that I’m aware of.
Whenever I sit down with family members to prepare a funeral, I like to spend time listening to their stories. Sometimes I will be handed an obituary, painstakingly prepared, listing in black and white every gold star, every accolade, every merit badge, every citation, every milestone achievement. I will take it with a smile, but tell them I still prefer to actually hear what they have to say as they remember their loved one, recounting otherwise insignificant details, recalling subtle gestures, facial expressions, passing conversations. A written obituary doesn’t give me any of that. And my intent is always to find that running theme in their loved one’s life, that seldom articulated plot line which undergirds most every major life movement, that recurring chorus in the unfolding drama of one’s life that becomes clear only in hindsight. And usually, they arrive at it even as we talk. “He was always trying to fix things.” “She was always giving people something to eat.” “He was forever trying to prove he was nothing like his father.” “She tried to tell us life was always worth celebrating.”
I remember a creative writing exercise in high school. We were to write our own obituary. It might sound morbid, but it did give a bunch of teenagers a moment to reflect on where our young lives were headed. And also, it makes sense that I should want to write my own story, and not leave it to others to figure out from the pile of random and disjointed details that I leave behind.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus is at the beginning of his public ministry. He had much yet to accomplish—a central unifying message to get across to his listeners, many hungry mouths to feed and broken lives to heal, hardened hearts to break open, and closed minds to transform. Essentially, a wonderful bright future was unfolding ahead of him. But the gospel writer is looking back upon that moment from a time and place farther along in history. It would be his task to look back upon Jesus’ life a generation or more later to figure out what he was all about. The evangelist Matthew is writing for a Christian community with roots in Judaism. And he takes his listeners back to the prophet Isaiah. ”The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light; on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.” It is a simple image, but it brings together all of Jesus’ life and ministry for us, every word he ever spoke, every sign he ever performed, every life he ever touched. He came as light where once there was darkness.
So it makes sense that we who profess to carry on Jesus’ mission in the world should reevaluate our purpose. We might look back upon the last 2000 years and acknowledge those times when we digressed far afield, sometimes right in the face of what Jesus tried to accomplish all along. St. Paul referred to one such occasion in the life of the church of Corinth in the first century, when members of the Christian community were more concerned whose prestigious coattails they were riding. “I belong to Paul.” “I belong to Apollos.” “I belong to Cephas.” “I belong to Christ.” These days, we might still hear variations of the rhetoric. I had some choice examples, but decided not to add fuel to the fire. But do we strive to advance Jesus’ own mission and purpose? Do we find ways to shine God’s light where darkness still makes its home? Does the gospel message we proclaim invite those searching for the truth to give us an honest look? Are we trying to shine God’s light or our own? Do we help dispel darkness or create it?
For several months now, the Parish Council has been discussing how to express more concisely our mission as a parish community. You may have seen it in the bulletin. We took it down from 144 words to 15. I am confident it lines up with Jesus’ own mission and purpose that we strive to carry on. But the idea is for every group of people who gather and minister from this parish community, and perhaps every family and individual, to take a look at their own mission and purpose and find a way of expressing it so we’re all on the same page, that as St. Paul suggests, we as a unified Christian community would agree in what we say, and that there be no division among us. It would be great if we were more intentional about being who we claim to be, not leaving it to history to define us after sorting through the pile of random and disjointed details we leave behind.
St. Matthew gives us an image of Jesus we can wrap our heads around. Jesus is the light of God that shines upon those who sit in darkness, and upon the darkness that still covers part of our lives. What about us? What are we all about? Are we about Jesus’ mission and purpose? Or should we leave it for others to figure it out after we’re gone?
Rolo B Castillo © 2014