Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fr. Matthias Neuman's homily for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The Lectionary gives the option of two versions of today’s gospel passage. It can be read in full text (as I just did) or in a shortened version (which omits the section about the woman with the hemorrhage). I chose the longer version because it contains a very instructive point for all of us: that oftentimes in the midst of doing something very important, another very important issue intrudes. One can be making a retreat and you receive a phone call about an urgent family matter that needs your immediate attention. You can be right in the middle of a project and an emergency with someone else suddenly comes up. Anyone who has ever been in any position of leadership or management experiences this all the time. It’s almost a continual thing; day-in and day-out important matters are interrupted by other important matters. And we have to suspend one while we attend to the other. Or we give ourselves half and half. That’s always been true. Just ask any mother.

The biggest issue remains HOW we react to that situation, which we have to deal with almost continually. Here, I think, the gospel text is not so helpful. Because Jesus succeeds marvelously in both. The woman with the hemorrhage is cured and the little girl raised to life again. For most of us that doesn’t happen. The greater likelihood is that one or both issues will suffer from our divided attention. And that bothers us!

We are getting here to one of the central issues in a spirituality of Christian ministry: that sometimes (maybe most of the time) we have to be content with doing a less than perfect job. And yet to do the best we can and continue on. When I used to teach the Church and Ministry course, I’d always try to impress the students with the fact that they aren’t going to live up to their own expectations. People begin ministry with very high expectations and even noble aspirations. They are quickly deflated. Time and time again you will face situations where you know that if you had more time, more resources, more personnel you could have done a much better job than you actually did. But the fact is: you didn’t have the time, the resources or the personnel. Still you have to do the best you can with what you’ve got and keep going. Because what you are doing is worth doing. When I was still teaching in the seminary, one day out of the clear blue I received a letter from a woman who had taken one of my workshops in Louisville, KY. She wrote: "I’ve been in ministry for fifteen years and it’s been immensely satisfying. I wanted to write and tell you that the best piece of advice I received in my ministry formation was a comment you made in that Louisville workshop. You said: ‘Sometimes you have to be satisfied with doing a half-assed job.’ That’s gotten me through a lot of tough times."

Part of the problem is St. Paul. Whenever he writes about Christian ministering, he sets the bar way too high. Like in today’s reading, "You excel in every respect, in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness..." Or that famous passage, "I have become all things to all people..." (1 Cor 9:22) We come away with a sense that every act of ministry has to be done perfectly. But that completely ignores our human fallibility and limitations. But then let’s don’t blame Paul too much, because he does recognize those limitations: "we hold this treasure in earthen vessels." (2 Cor 4:7) We forget to balance that aspect of Paul’s teaching with his urging us to perfection.

Today’s gospel invites us to spend some time exploring that core issue of the spirituality of Christian ministry: that sometimes we have to be content with doing a less than perfect job.

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