Sunday, June 19, 2011

God: Our True Standard of Fatherhood

(Trinity Sunday 2011 (A): This homily was given on June 19, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Exodus 34: 4b-6, 8-9; John 3: 16-18.)

For the audio version of this homily, click here: Trinity Sunday 2011]

Matthew Kelly, a very popular Catholic author, begins his book, Rediscovering Catholicism, with a little story. I begin my homily today with that story, which has a message for everyone—but especially for the fathers in the congregation on this Father’s Day weekend.

You're driving home from work next Monday after a long day. You tune in your radio. You hear a blurb about a little village in India where some villagers have died suddenly, strangely, of a flu that has never been seen before. It's not influenza, but three or four people are dead, and it's kind of interesting, and they are sending some doctors over there to investigate it. You don't think much about it, but coming home from church on Sunday you hear another radio spot. Only they say it's not three villagers, it's 30,000 villagers in the back hills of this particular area of India, and it's on TV that night. CNN runs a little blurb: people are heading there from the disease center in Atlanta because this disease strain has never been seen before.

By Monday morning when you get up, it's the lead story. It's not just India; it's Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and before you know it, you're hearing this story everywhere, and they have now coined it as "the mystery flu." The President has made some comment that he and his family are praying and hoping that all will go well over there. But everyone is wondering, "How are we going to contain it?"

That's when the President of France makes an announcement that shocks Europe. He is closing their borders. No flights from India, Pakistan, or any of the countries where this thing has been seen. And that's why that night you are watching a little bit of CNN before going to bed. Your jaw hits your chest when a weeping woman is translated in English from a French news program. There's a man lying in a hospital in Paris, dying of the mystery flu. It has come to Europe.

Panic strikes. As best they can tell, after contracting the disease, you have it for a week before you even know it. Then you have four days of unbelievable symptoms. And then you die. Britain closes its borders, but it's too late. South Hampton, Liverpool, North Hampton, and it's Tuesday morning when the President of the United States makes the following announcement: "Due to a national-security risk, all flights to and from Europe and Asia have been canceled. If your loved ones are overseas, I'm sorry. They cannot come back until we find a cure for this thing."

Within four days, our nation has been plunged into an unbelievable fear. People are wondering, "What if it comes to this country?" And preachers on Tuesday are saying it's the scourge of God. It's Wednesday night, and you are at a church prayer meeting when somebody runs in from the parking lot and yells, "Turn on a radio, turn on a radio!" And while everyone in church listens to a little transistor radio with a microphone stuck up to it, the announcement is made. Two women are lying, in a Long Island hospital, dying from the mystery flu. Within hours it seems, the disease envelopes the country.

People are working around the clock, trying to find an antidote. Nothing is working. California, Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts. It's as though it's just sweeping in from the borders.

And then all of a sudden the news comes out. The code has been broken. A cure can be found. A vaccine can be made. It's going to take the blood of somebody who hasn't been infected, and so, sure enough, all through the Midwest, through all those channels of emergency broadcasting, everyone is asked to do one simple thing: Go to your downtown hospital and have your blood analyzed. That's all we ask of you. When you hear the sirens go off in your neighborhood, please make your way quickly, quietly, and safely to the hospitals.

Sure enough, when you and your family get down there late on that Friday night, there is a long line, and they've got nurses and doctors coming out and pricking fingers and taking blood and putting labels on it. Your spouse and your kids are out there, and they take your blood and say, "Wait here in the parking lot, and if we call your name, you can be dismissed and go home." You stand around, scared, with your neighbors, wondering what on earth is going on, and if this is the end of the world.

Suddenly, a young man comes running out of the hospital screaming. He's yelling a name and waving a clipboard. “What”? He yells it again! And your son tugs on your jacket and says, "Daddy, that's me." Before you know it, they have grabbed your boy. "Wait a minute. Hold on!" And they say, "It's okay, his blood is clean. His blood is pure. We want to make sure he doesn't have the disease. We think he has the right blood type."

Five tense minutes later, out come the doctors and nurses crying and hugging one another-some are even laughing. It's the first time you have seen anybody laugh in a week, and an old doctor walks up to you and says, "Thank you, sir. Your son's blood is perfect. It's clean, it is pure, and we can make the vaccine."

As the word begins to spread all across that parking lot full of folks, people are screaming and praying and laughing and crying. But then the gray-haired doctor pulls you and your wife aside and says, "May we see you for a moment? We didn't realize that the donor would be a minor and we...we need you to sign a consent form."

You begin to sign, and then you see that the box for the number of pints of blood to be taken is empty. "H-h-h-how many pints?" And that is when the old doctor's smile fades, and he says, "We had no idea it would be a little child. We weren't prepared. We need it all!” … “But...but...I don't understand. He's my only son!” .... “We are talking about the whole world here. Please sign. We...we...need to hurry!"

"But can't you give him a transfusion?” “If we had clean blood we would. Please, will you please sign?" In numb silence you do. Then they say, "Would you like to have a moment with him before we begin?"

Could you walk back? Could you walk back to that room where he sits on a table saying, "Daddy? Mommy? What's going on?" Could you take his hands and say, "Son, your mommy and I love you, and we would never, ever let anything happen to you that didn't just have to be! Do you understand that?" And when that old doctor comes back in and says, "I'm sorry, we've got to get started. People all over the world are dying," could you leave? Could you walk out while he is saying, "Dad? Mom? Dad? Why...why have you abandoned me?"

I shared that story with our teenagers at youth group a couple of months ago, and it wasn’t until the very end that many of them said, “Oh, I get it. NOW I get it!”

Do you get it?

If you’re having trouble, look again at the first line of today’s gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

We cannot understand what it meant for God to give his Son, Jesus, in sacrifice for our sins except by analogy—and Matthew Kelly’s analogy in this story is one of the best I’ve ever come across.

But, remember, it’s only an analogy. Believe it or not, the reality of what God did for us is far more radical than what this story conveys!  For example, in this story, the son does not die willingly out of pure love—but Jesus did. Furthermore, in this story, the boy dies for men and women who are his equals. But Jesus died for inferiors—creatures—HIS creatures. It would be like one of us dying to cure all the dogs of the world of some dread disease.

And yet, even that doesn’t capture the essence of it, because, in the hierarchy of being, there’s a much greater distance between us and God than there is between us and dogs.

I hope that doesn’t offend anyone—but even if it does, the fact of the matter is it’s true.

This little story should also help us to understand why God must be the true standard of fatherhood for each of us—and not our earthly father! A father is called to give his best to his family—like God the Father gave his best to us, his adopted children—but no earthly father does that, because every earthly father is imperfect. For example, I had a great dad. I thank God for my dad. I thank God for the 14 years I had him in my life—before he died of cancer at the age of 46.

But my dad was not perfect. He gave my sister and me lots of love, and lots of support, and lots of care. But he didn’t do those things perfectly. I’m sure there were times, for example, when he disciplined us too much; I’m sure there were other times when he didn’t discipline us enough!

God, our heavenly Father, on the other hand, is perfectly just.

My earthly father also taught us right from wrong by his words and by his actions—but not perfectly. He was a sinner, like every earthly dad.

God the Father, on the other hand, is perfect. He never violated any of those Ten Commandments that he gave to Moses on the stone tablets we heard about in today’s first reading.

Some people have a poor image of God because they mistakenly make their earthly fathers, who have failed them in various ways, their standards of fatherhood. That leads them to look up to God and say, “You tell me to call you, ‘Father,’ and to love you with all my heart, but my earthly dad has hurt me and let me down at certain times in my life. Well, if that’s what fathers are like, God, then that must be what YOU are like! So, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can love you so completely and unconditionally—since you’ll probably hurt me, too.”

The right perspective is to see God as the full expression of what it means to be a father—since he gave us his “all” in giving us his only begotten Son—and to see our earthly fathers as reflecting the heavenly Father’s love to us. So instead of saying, “God the Father must be like my earthly dad”; it’s more proper to say, “My dad is a little bit like God the Father in all the ways he is good and loving to his family.”

On this weekend when we honor our earthly dads, let’s thank the Lord for the ways our earthly fathers have reflected his love to us over the years, however imperfectly. And then let’s ask God our Father, through his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to help our earthly fathers to reflect his love to us even more perfectly and more completely, in the future.