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October 18, 2009

“God’s Partner in Health”
Homily at the Mass for the Celebration of Dr. Paul Farmer’s Birthday.
Based on the Gospel of Matthew 25, St. Ignatius’ Church, New York City,

Good evening and welcome everyone, and especially, a very happy birthday to our friend and special guest of honor, Dr. Paul Farmer. I went to college at Duke University with Paul in the late 1970s, and I’m happy to be with you all to celebrate Paul’s life and work, and to pray together.

I guess we all have Paul stories. Mine go back to when we were in the same fraternity, and lived down the hall from each other. I remember the dozens of people he brought to his room for parties and discussion each night. I was amazed because it seemed to be a different crowd every night. He always brought people together. I remember that he seemed to be the smartest person at Duke, yet he hardly studied, and despite his active social life and pre-med studies, he wrote the weekly theater and culture review every Friday on the back page of the big Duke newspaper.

Once, I was having lunch, and started reading his review, which began: “This play is a threnody…” I remember putting the paper down and wondering what the heck that word meant and how would Paul know it. Shortly thereafter, I remember walking into the Duke library, the fifth largest in the country, and there in the massive lobby, was a display in big glass cases on drugs and their hazards and benefits, called “Altered States,” by Paul, as if this was a little hobby he had on the side. He was amazing. He was a supernova in our little universe.

Back then, we all knew Paul was a genius. What we didn’t know was that Paul would take his enormous talents, energies, creativity, and great heart and put them at the service of the world’s poor from Haiti and Rwanda to Peru and Boston; that he would create an important non-profit organization to bring medicine and healing to the world’s poor; that he would inspire a new generation of doctors to be partners in health; and that he would point the way forward not only to new cures, but to the profound questions of life—What does it mean to be a doctor? What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be human in an inhuman time?

So Paul, we your friends celebrate your life today, give thanks to God for your life and work, and pray that together we might carry on this Gospel mission to serve the poor and marginalized, to heal humanity, and to create a new world of justice and peace.

And we’ve chosen this great text from Matthew, a parable about the last days, when God will judge us not on our success, our bank accounts, or our power, but on whether or not we served the poor. Perhaps I could offer a few points for our reflection, before we go to the party.

First of all, the Gospel states clearly: If we want to know where God is; if we want to know what to do with our lives; if we want to achieve salvation; if we want to win God’s praise--we need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, welcome the stranger, visit and heal the sick and visit and liberate the imprisoned. This is the work before us. This is what it means to be a Christian. This is what it means to be human. Period.

But what’s even more shocking is why we should do this. Jesus does not say--Do this because it’s the right thing to do--even though it is. He doesn’t say--Do this because it’s the moral position to take--even though it is. He doesn’t say--Do this because it’s the only practical, political solution left for the world—even though it is. He says--Do this because “whatever you do to the poor, hungry, homeless, stranger, sick and imprisoned; whatever you do to the least of these, to the marginalized and oppressed and powerless--you do to me.”

Shocking! If we serve and heal and help the poor, we serve and heal and help God. That’s the whole point of our work. That’s the whole point of life: God.

This is what Paul and Partners in Health and all of you are trying to do with your lives--to serve Christ in the poor and marginalized, to relieve their suffering. And it’s the best thing we can do with our lives. So on this happy occasion, I just want to thank you Paul and thank you all and encourage all of us to keep at this great work, to fulfill this text, to carry on this Matthew 25 mission for the rest of our lives.

But notice that our parable is not so much about individuals, but about nations. It says that God will judge the nations of the world and divide them into two groups, the sheep and the goats. So we might ask, What does God think about our nation? I propose that God sees that we are only 4.7% of the world’s population, that we hoard over 60% of the world’s resources, that we steal the oil and natural resources from poor nations, that we by and large ignore their poverty; that we are the richest nation in the world, yet over three billion people live in misery, a billion people are now starving to death, according to a UN study this summer, and some 40,000 die of starvation every day. So I think God is not pleased with us as a nation and wants us to serve the poor and end poverty.

But as we ponder the global politics and economics of Matthew 25, as we serve Christ in the hungry, homeless, sick, and imprisoned, eventually we come to Jesus’ politically incorrect conclusion: “Whatever you do to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, you do to me. Whatever you do to your enemies, to humanity, to creation, you do to me.”

I think we’re invited to go all the way on this Gospel journey, this Matthew 25 journey, like Archbishop Romero, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Paul Farmer and learn and say that war not only makes people hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick and imprisoned---it tortures them, it kills them, it vaporizes them! War crucifies Christ all over again.

So as Matthew 25 people, we have to work for the abolition of war itself, and poverty, hunger, nuclear weapons, global warming and every injustice. As Matthew 25 people, we are on a journey to a whole new world of nonviolence, to the God of nonviolence.

The good news tonight, as we celebrate Paul’s birthday and life; as we pledge to carry on this holy work with Paul; as we give our lives to this vision of nonviolence; the good news is not only that our God sides with the poor and the marginalized; that our God is a God of justice, peace and nonviolence; that our God calls us to be God’s “partners in health”--- the good news is that our beloved God is saying to Paul on his birthday, and to each one of us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant! Come, you who are blessed! Inherit the kingdom of love, compassion, peace and joy which has been prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”

All I can say to that is: Let the party begin!

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For information, see: www.pih.org

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