Monday, February 24, 2014


          Let me tell you a story.   When Franz was born his father was not married to his mother.  Franz’s natural father promptly went off to war and got killed.  Later Franz was adopted by another man who married his mother.    Franz was kind of wild as a child, not having the best upbringing.  He himself also fathered a child out of wedlock, a little girl.   But then a remarkable thing happened.  Franz fell in love with a deeply religious woman, and they got married.  Her strong faith began to change Franz.  He became religious himself.  While still a farmer, he also took on the job of sexton – a combination of janitor and sacristan - of the church in the little village in which he lived in Austria.  He went to Holy Communion every day.  He had three more daughters.
          When the Nazi’s took over Austria in 1939 his was the only vote in the entire district against ratifying the Nazi takeover.  For a while Franz had an exemption from military service in the Nazi army because he was a farmer.   But as the situation darkened for the Nazi’s he was eventually called up.  Franz did not know what to do about this.  His neighbors and friends were all serving in the army, but Franz thought it was wrong.  He began to question the morality of war. So he sought spiritual advice from his bishop.  The bishop was non-committal, tried to dissuade Franz from his foolishness, told him to serve his country.    Franz left unconvinced.   In 1941 Franz was called to military service again.  He went to the induction center and offered to serve as a medic or non-combatant, but refused to serve under arms.  He was thrown in prison.  His parish priest came to try and talk some sense into him.  The priest pointed out all the others who were serving.  The priest told Franz to be practical and think of his family.  But Franz remained firm in his refusal to fight for the Nazi regime.   And on August 9, 1943, at the age of 36, Franz Jägerstatter was executed by guillotine, leaving his wife and 4 young daughters. 

          Jesus today teaches us: “I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”
          Clearly, this is not practical advice.  It is not the way things are done in the world.  It is, frankly, crazy.  It is God’s way, not our human way.  Franz’s Bishop and his Pastor suggested and urged the human way.  “Be sensible,” they said.    Franz held on to God’s way.
          In the Gospel Jesus asks this set of questions:  “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?  Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
          It seems to me that the tax collectors and the pagans are reasonable, sensible, practical people.  They are the kind of people you can count on to act in their own self interest, and so act predictably and reasonably.  Franz’s Bishop and Pastor would approve.  And frankly, don’t we want ourselves and our children to be that sort of reasonable, sensible and practical person?
          In contrast to this Jesus points to God.  Frankly, God acts a little nuts.  As Jesus says, God makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust
.”   In other words God makes no distinction between the good and the bad, the just and the unjust. 
          And that is just plain silly.  If you are good, God loves you.  If you are bad, God loves you.  If you don’t care, God loves you.  God just loves.  That is what God does.  God loves.  And that is no way to enforce order and respectability. 
          None-the-less, God somehow makes it work.  God just keeps loving, and the universe somehow manages to plod along.
          That would be mildly disturbing but not particularly threatening in itself, but then Jesus makes it worse – much worse – by insisting that we should stop acting reasonably, sensibly, practically, and adopt God’s irresponsible, impractical, unreasonable behavior. 
          Jesus’ injunction flows from what we heard in the first reading today:  Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.”  That is what we are called to be; HOLY.  You and me and all of us.  It is nuts, it is dangerous, but it is our calling.  Being holy brought Jesus to the cross.  Being holy brought Franz Jagerstatter to the guillotine.  Being holy will also costs us.  
Perhaps some discomfort, some ridicule, some misunderstanding, some loneliness.  But it is the way to incomprehensible, glorious life.  It is a wonderful invitation from Jesus.  But the teaching of Jesus is not for the faint of heart.

          Back to the story.  After his death Franz Jäggerstatter’s fellow Austrian Catholics criticized him for failing to do his duty to his country and to his family.  The town fathers refused to put his name on the local war memorial, and a pension was denied to his widow.  His story was practically forgotten.  But one American sociologist - Gordon Zahn - heard of his story and wrote Franz’s biography.   People got to know about his story.  A film about him was made in 1971.  Eventually his home town dedicated a plaque in his honor.  And in June of 2007 Pope Benedict XVI declared Franz a martyr.  Franz was beatified, the step just before canonization as a Saint, on October 26, 2007.  The ceremony was held at the cathedral in Linz, Austria.   Attending the ceremony was his 94 year old widow, the lady whose faith had started it all, and all four of Franz’s daughters.  His feast day is May 21, the anniversary of his Baptism. 

          Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.”

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