“Hello my friends, my name is Fr. Gary Pennings. I have been appointed by Archbishop Naumann to be your new pastor. I was reading the readings for this week and I read through that first reading of Ezekiel, ‘Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they whom I am sending you.’ I got a little nervous when I read that. No, I know this is a great place. 18 years ago Msgr. Tank and I arrived here at the same time. We both moved here together. A few of you probably remember me from way back then. I only stayed a year. I was his associate pastor then, his assistant. I only stayed a year and then I went out to be pastor in Marysville and of course he stayed until now and he’s been a great mentor of mine. We’ve been long time friends, but those are big shoes to fill, so please don’t expect me to be Msgr. Tank. He is a priest’s priest. He’s one that we all look up to, but I do have my own gifts. I don’t have as many as he has, but I will do my best to serve you, but I can’t be him. I’ll have to be myself.
A new pastor is a little bit akin to an arranged marriage. You didn’t pick me, but you’ve got to live with me and I didn’t pick you, but I’ve got to live with you and by God’s grace we’ll fall in love with one another. The readings today reminded me how God’s ways are not our ways. We often try to control God or we try to conform him to our image instead of the opposite. We can’t always predict how his grace is going to unfold. The Gospel, he’s a hometown boy, right? They all know who he is and now he’s claiming to be the Messiah. He’s performing these amazing deeds and they can’t respect it. He’s not respected in his own town and Jesus was amazed by their lack of faith. They didn’t have faith. They had a preconceived notion about how things could be and they weren’t willing to submit that to the mystery of God and to trust in Him that he can do things that might seem impossible and so they didn’t have faith and not many miracles happened there because of their lack of faith. Even St. Paul, he had to accept a truth that prior to that occasion where he had the encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus he probably would have never bought into, but after he encountered the risen Lord his life was forever changed and he was able now to say that power is made perfect in weakness. Paul would have never said that before encountering Christ. He realized that when he was weak, in other words when he got out of the way and let God work, let the grace of God take over it was no longer I who live, but Christ who lives with me then miracles happened. Then amazing things happened. When he was weak, that’s when he was strong. His world view was turned upside down by encountering Jesus Christ and so should ours.
I was ordained 28 years ago. I was a late vocation. I was 46 when I was ordained. I was a paramedic most of my life. The last 12 years before I went to seminary I was, I guess they call it a deputy chief nowadays of Johnson County Med Act the paramedic service here in Johnson County and I was ordained on June 2, 2001 the same day that the Kansas Speedway opened up there in Kansas City, Kansas at the Legends and Archbishop Keleher was my ordaining bishop then and I don’t know if you remember him, but he was quite a jovial guy, quite a character and he said, ‘Well everyone thinks the action is up there, but I say the action’s happening here!’ That was his statement at the ordination, but I recall that day that I was ordained, the day the race track opened because every time I go to a new parish I give what I call my race track homily and it’s about an analogy between life and a car race. So, the goal of a car race is to run the race, right? To be out on the track to encounter all that happens there the close calls, the advances, the wrecks, the messes, but they can’t stay out there the whole time. Every once in a while they have to come into the pits to have their tank filled with gas, to have their engine tuned, to have tires changed, to have things calibrated. Well that’s an analogy of the Christian life. You are on the race track. The work of the church happens out there. In all the messiness of life in places of work, of school, of politics, of socializing, of ups and downs, of trials, of tragedies, of joys that’s where the Gospel is lived. That’s where the Gospel is proclaimed. That’s where Christians who see the world differently attract other people’s attention. People notice when they say, ‘Huh, how can they have such confidence despite all the trials? How can they have such hope in the midst of tragedy? How can they be so upbeat when the world seems to be falling apart? How can they have such trust in God’s goodness? How can they be so kind even when I don’t treat them very well. That’s where the work of the Church happens. This is the pits so to speak and Fr. Viet and I are the pit crew along with others and you come in here every Sunday to have your spiritual tank filled to have your spiritual engine recalibrated to be nourished by the word of God and by the body and blood of Christ to be strengthened for what? To run the race, to be there out on the track of life. The Church’s work doesn’t happen here. Here’s where God changes you. Here’s where God calibrates you. Here’s where you’re transformed and where your world view about how you think things should be is changed to become in accord with God’s view and then probably the most important words in the Mass, ‘Go now and live the Gospel! Go and announce the Good News! Go and be that joyful disciple! Go and transform the world! Go and be leaven in the dough of the world. That’s the mystery of the Church. Here is where God works through his mechanical team so to speak, but the work happens on the race track, the race track of life. So, I’m the pit crew and I’ll do my best to keep you calibrated and tuned, but you do the work and the work happens for the most part out there.
There’s a few things you’ll hear often from me because I preach it all the time: Prayer. Prayer, prayer, prayer, pray, pray, pray, pray without ceasing. You don’t know how to pray, pray anyway. I’m still trying to figure it out. Keep praying, keep praying. Prayer is how we stay in relationship with the Lord. Just look at all of your other relationships if you’re not communicating, if you’re not communing, if you’re not communing, if you’re not together, if you don’t have intimacy, look at marriage- marriages without intimacy are a cross. Intimacy with the Lord is how we come to know him, not just about him how we come to know Him. Learn to pray, pray, pray and there’s no one way to pray. The most important part of prayer is to shut up and listen. Listen. We talk a lot in prayer and I always preach to myself because I have to convince myself to be quiet long enough to listen to the Lord. The second thing you’ll hear me preach about a lot is rightly ordered love. Sin has affected our ability to love properly. Our ability to love is tainted by sin, so we have selfishness, all kinds of things that come in. We use people for our own benefit. We think what will I get out of this. We don’t see it as self-sacrificing as willing the good of the other. We have to learn how to love like Jesus loved and his grace, his teaching, his grace from the sacraments will help us do that, but sometimes it’s a life-long learning because in Heaven there is no disordered love, only ordered love in Heaven and so we have to learn how to love now while we’re here with God’s help. We can’t do it alone.
And last, the importance of evangelizing, the Church exists to evangelize. Look at Jesus’ words to his disciples, ‘Go and announce the Gospel to every creature.’ I always thought that was funny. I guess that even means dogs and cats. Announce the Gospel. Proclaim the Gospel. Live it! Go and make disciples of all nations teaching them everything I have commanded you.’ he said. And so, evangelization starts in my own heart through prayer, through rightly ordered love and then I go out and I begin to share it. I begin to live it. I begin to encounter all of those things on the race track of life and I become an instrument of the Lord to lead others to Him. Those are the things I will probably harp on for as long as I’m here. So let’s pray for each other over the next however many years the Lord wills me to be here. Pray that I be a good pastor to you and I’ll pray that you be open to the truth of the Gospel and that you be willing to let it change you because that’s what prayer is about. Prayer is not about twisting God’s arms, it’s about us changing. We are the ones that have to change so that we can joyfully together continue this adventure that’s called discipleship, being a disciple of the Lord Jesus. What a great gift we have in our Catholic faith. I’m so happy to be here. As I said, pray for me and I’ll pray for you and let’s hope that this arranged marriage turns out very well. Thank you. Have a wonderful holiday weekend. God bless you.”