One of the unique experiences of being a priest is wearing the Roman Collar out in public.   A couple of weeks ago, two priest friends and I happened to be out for breakfast, and some anonymous fellow diners had very generously picked up the check – while another patron stopped us as we walked out the door to ask us if we wanted to know why he hated the Catholic Church.   Truth be told, not really… but when we wear our clerical clothing out in public, that’s part of what is expected – any and anything from the unnecessary kindness to the unexpected animosity.  To be a sign of being dedicated to Jesus Christ, His Priesthood, His Church – and to be accessible to all the various reactions.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 14, 2024.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

One recent interaction in particular was memorable.  I was at an Airport waiting to board a plane.  A guy came up and asked if I was a Catholic Priest, and he just said, “Father, my life is such a mess. Could you give me a blessing?” So many thoughts and reactions immediately went through my mind – you can never be sure how open and ready someone is to share stuff, how much they want to share, but having two hours till my plane took off, I took a chance,  put the book I was reading aside and just said: “do you want to sit down, and talk about what’s going on?” Within moments, he was spilling his guts about how he was raised Catholic but hadn’t been to Church in a very long time – even for Christmas this year; he was living with his girlfriend, they had found out she was pregnant, they weren’t planning on getting married, they didn’t want to be parents, but he knew abortion was, as he said it “didn’t feel right.” As my mind raced with all that was just laid out there, I couldn’t shake his initial request for a blessing.  It would have been a lot easier had I just extended my hand, said a spontaneous prayer, and made the sign of the Cross.  But the reality was my new friend was looking for more than that, which is why he spontaneously poured out the mess he was experiencing to a complete stranger that, more than likely, unless God’s providence intercedes again, he’ll never meet again.  He saw a priest and was reaching out to God, which is always, always a beautiful, precious, vulnerable, and sacred thing – whether it’s in the midst of an airplane terminal in St. Louis, Missouri, or here in this beautiful Church where we gather for Sunday Mass.  While our purpose for coming to Mass is ultimately to offer God the worship He’s owed – that’s why we respond it is “right and just” that we are here and offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  At the same time, God, who is All Good and All loving at the same time, turns his ear to our reaching out to Him.  Hearing our cries, our concerns, our prayers.  But how many of us really want to hear what God has to say to us?

It’s an important thing to reflect on.  When we’re praying, do we believe that God loves and cares for us and desires our ultimate good?  That He listens to us?  And that He actually speaks to us?  Do we really want to hear what He has to say to us?

Today’s scriptures give us some incredible examples of reflection.  The first reading gives us part of the background to one of the greatest prophets in Israel named, Samuel, whom God will direct to call and anoint Israel’s greatest of kings, King David.   But this is way before that moment in history.  At this point, Samuel was adopted by the priest Eli after being dedicated by his mother to serve the Lord.  Samuel is just starting to grow in knowledge and understanding of the ways of the Lord and is keeping night watch with the ark of the covenant in the temple – sleeping near the holiest of holy places on all the earth.  When Samuel hears his name being called, he immediately goes and wakes up Eli.  Three times!  There’s something comforting to me that these great men, revered throughout Judeo-Christian history, didn’t immediately catch that this was a miraculous moment.  That God was audibly speaking to Samuel.  Here, Samuel was doing what was right and just, honoring the Lord, serving the Lord, offering his sacrifices, worship, and prayers to the Lord.  He nor the priest Eli were prepared or expecting to hear God speaking back to them.

In the Gospel, we see a similar thing.  St. Andrew and St. John, who were following John the Baptist at that time, are directed to “Behold the Lamb of God.”  John is basically pointing them to go to Jesus.   As they encounter Jesus, the incarnation of the Word of God, as Jesus turns to them and asks, “What are you looking for?” they are unprepared to answer.  God Himself is speaking to them.  Asking them a direct question: What are you looking for?  And they didn’t have an answer.

Jesus, the Word of God, speaks to us today and asks the same question: What are you looking for?  And if you’re like me, it’s similar to the apostles; I’m a bit tongue-tied – where do I even start?  Immediately, lists start flying through my mind.   I try to prioritize what is most urgent, most pressing – the troubling things, the crises – the prayer requests that people have entrusted me with.  With this question being asked, you sense that this is such a pivotal moment, like the genie from the lamp has been unleashed, ready to grant wishes.  Which so often colors and distorts our vision of prayer.  Because this is not the Jesus magic show where Abracadabra here’s a miracle, and poof, he disappears.

Samuel and the first disciples show us that God desires a relationship with His people.  Samuel hears his name a fourth time being uttered by God, which, when you think about it, how much more gentle, intimate, and beautiful a moment of encounter that is – by that one word “Samuel,” God is communicating that Samuel is seen, is known, is loved by the creator of all things, the King of the Universe, the Lord God Almighty.  All of Samuels’s worship, his sacrifices, and his prayers have been heard, and now the Lord God is prepared to speak back to Samuel – the only response is for him to listen.    The disciple’s nonanswer of Jesus’ question with a question – an “Uhm… where are you staying?” hear the Word of God offer them an invitation to come and see, which they do.

Here and now, in this very time and space – the Lord God calls you by name.  You are seen.  You are loved.  You are precious to Him.  Those are undeniable facts that are written on every page of scripture.  Those truths are as real and present as bread and wine become the very body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, which we dare to “take and eat” in the Eucharist.  But we have to have the humility of Samuel and the obedience of the disciples who know who is God and who isn’t…  To listen to Him.  To follow Him.

That’s what I tried to share with that young man in our brief few moments in the airport terminal.  The fact that he approached me.  The fact that he knew what a mess things were.  I didn’t have to explain to him that he had made a lot of poor decisions – that living with his girlfriend and having pre-marital sex was wrong, that contemplating abortion is a terrible thing.  He knew those things.  He knew his life was a mess.  He knew he was distancing himself further and further from God with each of those decisions.  This is why I told him that God was using me and this encounter to remind him that he is loved and that God desires his fullness and has plans for him.  A plan for his flourishing where he didn’t need a blessing but could, in fact, become a blessing.  But he needs to start listening to all the ways God was speaking to him already.  He had been ignoring them and hoped “the mess” would simply disappear.   I told him that you’re one confession away, one absolution away from all that guilt, that shame that you’re carrying to be gone, but that doesn’t mean the consequences of those things are gone.  He’s offering you that free, complete, unmerited gift of mercy.  But you have to be prepared to listen and receive it – meaning, are you prepared to move out, support your girlfriend, and do everything to ensure your son or daughter is loved and protected?  If not by you two, then by couples out there desperately longing for a child of their own.  Because I’ll give you a blessing, but not to bless this mess – and bless continued bad decisions and mistakes – but to remind you of who you are – that God knows you by name…  He has a divine calling on your life, is blessing you to hear these truths, and is calling you to listen and respond to them.

That’s true for each of us as well.  Each of these men in the scriptures was far from perfect, broken men – who had struggles, set backs, fears.  They had sins that needed repenting and temptations that needed to be confronted.   Like us, in prayer, they called out to God.  What makes them memorable and notable is when He spoke back, they listened… they followed.

What will be our story?