Blue Mass – Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish, Dickson City
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time C – September 8, 2019 

          It is a privilege to join with all of you as we recognize and give thanks for the incredible gift of service, faith and love that so characterizes the lives of the First Responders whom we honor during this special mass today.  To each and every one of our First Responders, on behalf of a grateful community, allow me to offer words that are spoken all too rarely but are so heartfelt this day:  “Thank you.”  Our world is a better place and our lives our richer because of your efforts.

Now, with great appreciation for so much of what lies at the heart of our gathering today, let’s do what we do every Sunday:  reflect for a bit on the Word of God and how it speaks to our lives today and especially this day of celebration.

Today’s gospel passage on this 23rd Sunday of the Church year features two short parables that are found only in Saint Luke’s version of the Good News, both of which call us to reflect upon the cost and the consequences of our actions.   Simply put, Jesus’ words are meant to make us fully aware of the cost of discipleship – the cost of being a Christian.

Jesus begins his reflection on this reality by using the image of the cross that he would carry to teach us about life and our true calling within this wonderful yet broken world.  He then challenges us – through the same cross – to seek reconciliation rather than dominance – to love and forgive without limit or condition – to give totally and completely regardless of the cost or sacrifice.  …  Such is the path of the authentic disciple – the faithful follower of Jesus.

In short, the words of Jesus make it quite clear that the choice for discipleship demands that we let go of all those empty things that we often grasp so desperately and instead humbly open our hands in service and prayer.  …  But Jesus’ reflections on the cost of discipleship prompt a question, at least in my mind.  How do we measure authentic discipleship?

Jesus reminds us time and again to take care not to judge harshly as we seek to assess the presence of authentic discipleship in our lives and in others.  Yet, he also reminds us that we will be judged less on the externals of religion – what we profess and how reverently we pray – and far more on how generously and selflessly we’ve loved.  …  “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Can you see the difference between discipleship that quite righteously talks a good line but never demands that we practice what we preach – vs. – discipleship that preaches love through the lived experience of justice, mercy and forgiveness.

So how do we measure the presence of authentic discipleship in our lives?  …  We can begin this assessment by honestly looking into our own hearts.  …  We can also begin it by looking at our place within this parish community and the broader communities in which we live and work and by asking ourselves how generously we have embraced Jesus’ example of love and service on the cross.  …  And my friends, I’d further suggest that the example of our First Responders, whom we honor this day, is a most appropriate place to begin such an assessment.

Every day, you – our First Responders – make incredible sacrifices to bring peace and harmony to our world.  While far from being perfect – for none of us are – your selfless efforts to love, to serve, to heal and to protect remind us that it is indeed possible, with God’s grace, to live out the gospel in a tangible, loving and selfless manner.

Given the upheaval in our world and in our own country these days, the shooting at the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that took the lives of 22 innocent souls a few weeks ago could have just as easily taken place at the Walmart on business Route 6.  …   The violence at a bar in Dayton, Ohio that claimed 10 lives could have happened in a café on Main Street.  …  And far too many violent attacks on houses of worship in Pittsburgh and San Diego and countless other places could have taken place right here – in this sacred space.

While praying that God will spare us from such violence, we acknowledge today, during this Mass, that you, our First Responders, daily place yourselves in harm’s way in the performance of your duty – a duty linked to the burdens of your work that we often fail to sufficiently appreciate. In celebrating this Mass for you, we thank you for your commitment to the common good. We thank you for your sacrifices.  And we thank God for your resolve to serve in a selfless manner the countless people entrusted to your care.

Today, as we prepare to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we pray for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.  We pray for their families and for you, their colleagues and their friends. They, more than any, have embraced the example of Jesus and have loved selflessly and completely.

A few years ago, I read a story told by an army sergeant that I have never forgotten.  One day, he and his troop were making their way through a field in Afghanistan.  All of a sudden, one of the soldiers saw a grenade.  Without hesitation, he immediately jumped on top of it.  Thank God, the grenade was not live.  Afterwards, upon hearing the story, a reporter said to the soldier:  “I would not have done that for a million dollars.”  The soldier replied, “Neither would I.  I did it for my brothers and sisters.”

What motivated the soldier is the same thing that motivates each one of you – your love for one another and ultimately your love for God – a love that is so great you freely offer the gift of your very life.  That’s what Jesus did on the cross, isn’t it?  And that’s what lies at the heart of our faith and the discipleship to which each of us is called in today’s gospel.

My friends, we honor you today as heroes of our Church, our society and our world.  We honor you because you have chosen to respect and reverence life – the noblest thing that any of us can do.  …  You are heroes because you serve your brothers and sisters without discrimination.  …  You are heroes because in the face of evil, you respond firmly and resolutely to protect and serve the common good.  …  You are heroes because when duty calls, you are there and willing to give all that you have – even your own life – for others.  …  You are heroes because by your efforts, you build up the human family – the family of God.

My brothers and sisters whom we honor today, may our words of gratitude this day and our sincere prayers for your well-being speak to your hearts and fill them with peace.  May they assure you of God’s abiding protection.  And may they enable you to know how grateful we are for your commitment, your sacrifice and your selfless love.  Thank you and God bless you always.