Sunday, July 10, 2016

It’s Time to Be Neighbors

The Good Samaritan, by Eugène Delacroix, 1849
On Friday morning, I decided to scrap the homily I’d been preparing for you today.  I felt like I had to address this past week’s seemingly endless news of violence upon violence.  Homilies are supposed to help make Scripture relevant to us today, so if I were to avoid what’s going on in the real world for a feel good homily, I wouldn’t be doing my job.  Fortunately for me, the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit nudged our Church Fathers some 45 years ago to select a Gospel for today that’s perfect for times like these.  In times like these, it’s time to be neighbors.

In our Gospel passage, Jesus is talking with a lawyer who wants precise answers.  So when Jesus confirms that the key to eternal life is loving God and loving neighbor, the lawyer wants Jesus to be more specific; he wants Jesus to tell him exactly which neighbors he has to love.  You see, “the general meaning of ‘neighbor’ at least for Hebrew speakers, is a person in intimate or legal relationship.”[1]  Not everyone falls into that category, so Jews of Jesus’ time generally understood “neighbor” to mean those within the Jewish community.  And therein lies the rub of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Samaritans and Jews hated each other.  They were mortal enemies.  By having a Samaritan come to the aid of a Jew, Jesus is telling us that the command to love our neighbor extends to all.  Everyone deserves our love:  Jew or Samaritan; Catholic or Muslim; gay or straight; saint or sinner; Trump supporter or Clinton supporter; every race, creed or color.  The simple message of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that everyone deserves our love!

Unfortunately, I think we’ve forgotten that simple message.  We have way too many enemies, and not enough neighbors.  “The Gospel would totally denounce the modern world as a world without the neighbor, the dehumanized world of abstract, anonymous and distant relationships.”[2]  We spend our time staring into hand-held devices and computer screens to avoid looking each other in the eye.  We categorize people by what they are to avoid having to learn who they are.  We judge people by their differences to avoid the uncanny notion that we are, in fact, created equal.  And every time we do these things, we grow further and further apart from our neighbors; we begin to demonize those who disagree with us; we disregard more and more the God-given dignity of every human being and the sanctity of human life; and we slowly, but surely, lose touch with God. 

It’s time for us to be neighbors again.  It’s time for us to remember that our neighbor isn’t just the person next door who’s comfortably separated from us by a neatly trimmed privet hedge or white picket fence.  Neighbors cross lines and boundaries: 

-         Neighbors bring each other casseroles; 

-         Neighbors help old ladies cross the street; 

-         Neighbors open doors for each other; 

-         Neighbors ask each other how they’re doing and listen to the answer;

-         Neighbors honor their commonalities and respect their differences; 

-         Neighbors pray for each other; and

-         Neighbors do all of these things for each other no matter what or who the other may be. 

If we want to be a neighbor, we have to “go beyond friend and family and extend welcome and mercy to the outcast and even to one’s enemies.”[3] 

We’re created to be neighbors.  As our reading from Deuteronomy tells us, God’s commandment to love God and neighbor is written in our hearts; we just have to carry it out.  (Deuteronomy 30: 14)  It’s in carrying out God’s love for every person that we prove that we love and serve the one who made peace for us through the blood of his cross.  (Colossians 1: 20)  Now I’m no dreamy-eyed idealist.  I know that there’s no quick-fix to the problems we face today.  But I am confident that if we just start acting the way we were made to act, if we just start being neighbors, things will be a whole lot better.  

As I scrambled to put together my new homily for today, I stumbled across a Facebook post by an African American woman named Natasha that she labeled, “Feeling Hopeful.”  Natasha’s post reads as follows:

So this morning I went into a convenience store to get a protein bar.  As I walked through the door, I noticed that there were two white police officers . . . talking to the clerk . . . behind the counter about the shootings that have gone on in the past few days.  They all looked at me and fell silent.  I went about my business to get what I was looking for.  As I turned back up the aisle to go pay, the oldest officer was standing at the top of the aisle watching me.  As I got closer, he asked me how I was doing.  I replied, “Okay, and you?”  He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, “How are you really doing?”  I looked at him and said, “I’m tired!”  His reply was, “Me too.”  Then he said, “I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now, is it?”  I said, “No, it’s not.”  Then he hugged me, and I cried.  I had never seen that man before in my life.  I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me.  What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning that was absolutely beautiful.  No judgments, no justifications, just two people sharing a moment.[4]

I’m feeling hopeful, too, because among all of the violence out there, there are still people like Natasha and that police officer who know that in times like these, it’s time to be neighbors. 




[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus:  The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York, Harper Collins, 2014) at 85.
[2] David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2012) at 150.
[3] Michael F. Patella. “The Gospel According to Luke,” New Collegeville Bible Commentary, Daniel Durken, ed. (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2009) at 258.
[4] Natasha Howell, Facebook, July 9, 2016.

Monday, July 4, 2016

True Freedom


          The other night, the Meyers gathered in the family room to watch The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the 2008 film that looks at the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of two 8-year old boys: Bruno, the son of a Nazi concentration camp commander; and Shmuel, a Jewish prisoner. The movie, poignant and disturbing in all of the right ways, prompted a family discussion about the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II, and how they could do such horrible things to their fellow man. Though historians, psychologists and others can do greater justice to the subject than I could ever hope to, I tried to explain that the Nazis were themselves prisoners – prisoners of their own lies, fears, willful ignorance and sin. Trapped in these disorders, they denied the self-evident truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[1] Because they denied the Truth, the Nazis defied true freedom.

          Freedom is, of course, an act of reason and will to act on one’s own accord. But, true freedom isn’t what we often think or hope it might be: true freedom isn’t the right to do whatever we want. If it were, there’d be no such thing as right and wrong; there’d be no such thing as truth. If each person were free to do whatever he or she wanted to do, truth would be subjected to individual will. What you want to do is right for you, and what I want to do is right for me. While that may sound delightfully libertarian, it’s really a recipe for unhappiness and utter chaos.

          Just think about it, if we were each free to do whatever we wanted, we’d have no right to establish community standards, create laws or judge the acts of another, even when they infringe upon our own rights or the rights of others. To use a simple example, imagine that you decided that green meant go and red meant stop, but I decided that green meant stop and red meant go. In a free-for-all world, neither of us would be right or wrong, and neither would responsible for any harm that might arise from the inevitable accident that awaits us. Now let’s get more serious: if we were each free to do whatever we wanted, we’d have no right to denounce, stop or punish theft, rape, child abuse, murder or even genocide. How free would we be in a world that permitted such atrocities in the name of freedom? How free would we be if the value of human life is determined by individual will? How free would we be in a world where lies, fear, ignorance and sin reign? Just ask the Holocaust victims.

          That brings us to true freedom. True freedom “is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness.”[2] As the words suggest, true freedom is always decisively bound to objective Truth, that is, to God. God has written his law in our hearts and minds; he has spoken to us through the prophets; he abides in our consciences; and he has most intimately revealed his Truth to us in Jesus Christ. When we live as God teaches us, we live in true freedom, a freedom that respects the God-given dignity of all people, honors individual rights and promotes the common good. When we live as God teaches us, we grow to understand that we’re truly free whenever we set aside our personal desires for the benefit of others; we’re truly free when we work for justice and peace in our world; and we’re truly free whenever we lay down our lives for a friend. As Jesus said, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 31-32)

          Elie Wiesel – may his memory always be a blessing – understood true freedom. In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the Holocaust survivor turned author and political activist said:

As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.[3]
We’re truly free when we understand that our freedom rests not in self-interest, but in self-sacrifice. That’s the freedom that our soldiers fight to protect and defend. That’s the freedom we celebrate on Independence Day. That’s true freedom.

__________________________________________
[1] United States Declaration of Independence.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1731.
[3] Elie Wiesel, Noble Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1986.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Farewell to the Piano?

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about a beautiful piano composition called Farewell to the Piano, originally known as Abschied vom Klavier.   Although its attribution to Ludwig von Beethoven is questioned, the story goes that Beethoven composed this tender little piece to bid adieu to his beloved instrument as his deafness grew more and more profound.  The song first came to mind while practicing for my piano recital, and it’s been echoing in the concert hall of my mind ever since.  It makes me wonder whether it’s time for me to bid farewell to the piano.

I’ve been taking piano lessons for the good part of nearly forty years now, and you’d never know it.  You see, God blessed me with a keen ear for music – I can predict the top 10 American Idol finalists in their first audition and can pick out a single sour note buried deep within a 50 piece orchestra.  I love all sorts of music, and music plays an important role in my spirituality.  But while the good Lord was busy installing the gift of music in my ears, he neglected to endow my hands with a lick of the dexterity needed to make good music.  You can imagine, then, the frustration I feel every time my good ears hear the bad music generated by my clumsy hands in their futile attempt to tickle the ivories.
     
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m extra hard on myself and that I notice my mistakes much more than anyone else does (except for my piano teacher).  I know that I’m not a bad piano player, but I also know that I’m not a good piano player either.  I’m consistently inconsistent.  In one moment, I’ll nail a piece; in the next, I’ll make mistakes that I’ve never made before.  That inconsistency fuels an insecurity that makes me very uncomfortable playing in front of other people.  That’s why recital time makes me wonder whether it’s finally time to bid farewell to the piano.

I firmly believe that God gave us every talent we have to use for the benefit of others; but I also believe that God didn’t give us every talent.  We can’t be good at everything.  I’ve never been good at sports or fixing things, but I have other talents that have brought me great joy and success.  Hopefully, they’ve benefited others as well.  That being the case, I have to ask myself whether I’m wasting my time (and money) trying to master a talent that I wasn’t given.  Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result?  Could my energies be better spent exercising a real talent that might actually do someone some good?  Perhaps, but I also have to consider whether pursuing the seemingly unachievable is doing me some good.  If nothing else, playing the piano keeps me well-fed on humble pie, reminding me (over and over again) that I’m not practically perfect in every way. 

          I was having so much trouble this year with my recital piece that I considered bailing from the recital.  Although the audience is tremendously forgiving, my practice runs through the music were consistently inconsistent, and I just didn’t feel like making a fool out of myself.  In the end, I decided that I had to go.  I had encouraged another adult student to play in the recital, so I felt obligated to put up or shut up.  I also felt that I owed it to my piano teacher, who had survived yet another year with her indisputably most challenging student, and to my daughter, whom I “harp” on regularly to practice her instrument of choice.  The recital was yesterday.  I played my piece, and it was fine; not perfect, but fine.   With that frustratingly familiar result in hand, I wonder whether it’s time to bid farewell to the piano.  Nah.  Pass the humble pie.

Click here to listen to Farewell to the Piano.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Prayer for Peace

For all touched by the senseless violence in Orlando, and for all praying for peace.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.  And let perpetual light shine upon them.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen

Prayer of Saint Francis

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Pointing Fingers - Homily for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

          Frank was concerned that his wife Pat was having hearing problems, so he called the family doctor to discuss what to do.  The doctor gave him a simple test to help assess how bad her hearing loss was.  The doctor said, “Stand about 40 feet away from her and speak to her in a normal conversational tone.  If she doesn’t hear you, stand about 30 feet away and try again, then 20 feet away, and so on.”   That night, when Pat was in the kitchen cooking dinner, Frank stood about 40 feet away from her and asked in a normal tone, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”  There was no response, so he moved closer, about 30 feet away, and repeated, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”  No response.  Twenty feet, 10 feet, still no response.  So Frank stood right behind her and asked one last time, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”  Finally, Pat answered: “Frank, for the fifth time, I said we’re having chicken.  Do you have a hearing problem?”  As Bob Marley said, “Before you start pointing fingers, make sure your hands are clean.”  And that’s the message of today’s readings.[1]

          If today’s readings teach us anything, they confirm that the problem of finger pointing is one of Biblical proportions.  King David, in our first reading, has no problem pointing a condemning finger at the hypothetical rich man who helped himself to the poor man’s prized lamb.  Yet, he fails to realize that Nathan’s parable was all about his own sin of taking another man’s wife as his own.  And the Pharisee in our Gospel is quick to point out the sinfulness of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet.  But he fails to see his own shortcomings as a rude host who has neglected to offer Jesus the customary welcoming rituals of the time.  It seems that we mortals have a tendency to point fingers at others.  Why is that?

          People point fingers at others to deflect attention from our own faults and sinfulness.  “When we can’t bear to see something painful in ourselves, we want to get rid of it.  We want to relocate the ugliness we feel about ourselves and put it into someone else.”[2]  Psychologists call this subconscious phenomenon “projective identification.”  We project our unwanted behaviors away from ourselves by identifying unwanted behaviors in others.  Once identified in another person, sinful acts become safely condemnable, or so we think.  Because in reality, when we point fingers at others, we don’t define them; we define ourselves. Think about it.  If I condemn someone’s appearance, then I’m insecure about my own.  If I condemn someone’s wealth, then I’m covetous of that wealth.  If I condemn someone’s success, then I’m envious of his success.  As illogical as this behavior sounds, we do it all the time.  That’s exactly what King David and the Pharisee are doing in today’s readings.

          Pointing fingers is a pointless exercise because judging another’s sinfulness is like comparing apples to oranges.  “You commit the sins that tempt you, and I the sins that tempt me.”[3]  While we may feel good about ourselves for not committing other people’s sins, there’s no virtue in not committing sins that don’t tempt you.  We’re also not qualified to judge others.  “We can only judge if we can fulfill two conditions:  that we know the other’s heart totally, and that we love them unconditionally.   Only God can possibly meet these two conditions, therefore, only God can judge.”[4]  And how does God judge?  By offering complete forgiveness and mercy to all who are willing to accept it. 

          All four readings this evening emphasize God’s never-ending willingness to forgive.  “Throughout salvation history, God’s love is so great that he never stops forgiving people’s sins and giving them another chance at repentance.”[5]   But before we can receive God’s forgiveness, we have to point a finger at ourselves, acknowledge our own sinfulness and accept that we need God’s forgiveness.  “Before we can be cured, we must want to be cured.”[6]  And therein lies our challenge.  I’ll be the first to admit that confession isn’t my favorite sacrament.  It’s not easy to confess our sins; it requires self-awareness, self-accusation and a whole lot of humility.  But fear not, in the words of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem:  “Your accumulated sins do not prevail against the wealth of God’s compassion; the supreme physician is too experienced to be defeated by your wounds.  Just hand yourself over in faith and tell the doctor your disease.”[7]  So it’s up to us.  “God never tires of forgiving us; we’re the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”[8]

          This Jubilee Year of Mercy isn’t just an occasion to let heat and air conditioning escape through fancy, open doors.  By declaring a Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is calling every one of us to remember that God’s mercy endures forever, and he’s challenging us to accept the gift of God’s mercy so that, together, we can be a Church whose doors are always open to offer mercy to others.  Mercy begins with acknowledging that we, ourselves, need mercy.  Mercy begins with understanding that every time we point a finger at another, three fingers are always pointing right back at us.    





[1] Bob Marley, Judge Not, Beverley’s (1962).
[2] Jennifer Kunst, “Three Fingers Pointing Back to You:  Why We See the Bad in Others Rather Than Ourselves,” Psychology Today (September 14, 2011), https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/headshrinkers-guide-the-galaxy/201109/three-fingers-pointing-back-you.
[3] Frank Sheed, Society and Sanity:  Understanding How to Live Well Together (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2013).
[4] Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart: Discovering Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions (Novato, New World Library, 2001) at 122-123.
[5] The Didache Bible, 2 Samuel 12 at note 12:13, p. 343.
[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, Harper Collins, 2001) at 54.
[7] Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 2.6.
[8] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Nov. 24, 2013) at 3.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Spiritually United - Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

             When he was just six years old, Christopher Hodge was taken from his mother by the police outside of a grocery store in Lincoln California.  He lived in foster care for some time and ultimately was adopted by the Hanson family.  When told of his pending adoption, Chris knew that he’d never see his mother again.  Chris lived a wonderful life in a loving family.  He grew into a fine young man, a loving husband and a devoted father.  But he never forgot his mother.  Twenty-seven years after he last saw his mother being put into the back of a police car, something inside of him made Chris want to find her.[1]  Though separated by time and space, Chris and his mother were spiritually united.  Today’s readings tells us why.

          In our Gospel passage, Jesus is praying for us.  He’s praying for us to be united with each other and with God just as he and God are united.  What’s the unity that Jesus prayed for?  It’s the unity with God that gave Saint Stephen in our first reading the courage to witness to the truth in the face of persecution and the unity with his fellow man that gave him the mercy to forgive his murderers.  It’s the unity between divinity and humanity that invites all of us in our second reading to come and receive God’s gift of life giving water.  “It[‘s] a unity of personal relationship – a unity based entirely between heart and heart.”[2]  It’s a spiritual unity.
   
          We humans are both physical and spiritual beings.  In a world that’s become somewhat addicted to material, tangible, and scientifically proven things, our spiritual nature is often neglected.  We fail to appreciate that “[t]he center of our being is a spiritual reality.”[3]  As the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” 

So what does it mean to be spiritual?  Well, there are lots of definitions of spirituality out there, but my favorite is quite simple:  “connectedness.”  Spirituality is “[t]he basic feeling of being connected with one’s complete self, others, and the universe.”[4]  Our spiritual nature tells us that we’re connected with each other and our world in ways that we don’t fully understand.  Above all, it tells us that we’re connected with a transcendent God who invites us into loving communion with his Holy Trinity.   

Our spiritual nature was breathed into us by God in creation and remains united with God forever in Jesus Christ.  You see, Christ is the bridge between humanity and divinity, between mortality and immortality, between time and eternity.  Through his incarnation, his life, death and resurrection, Jesus established “a living chain across time and history.”[5]  In other words, our spiritual nature is eternal – it’s not bound by time and space the way our physical nature is.  Through Jesus, our spiritual nature unites us with our past and our future, with our living friends and relatives no matter where they’re located, with those who’ve died, with all of humanity, and, most importantly, with God.  “The entire purpose of God’s plan of salvation is to draw every person into communion with the divine life of the Trinity.”[6]   That’s what Jesus is praying for in today’s Gospel.  Jesus prays for all of us to be united with him, the Father and the Holy Spirit because he knows that perfect love, joy and peace can be found only in God.  

What does this all mean practically speaking?  It means that our true happiness rests in our being stuck with each other forever – if we choose it.  Yes, God offers us the gift of eternal communion with him and each other, but he’ll never force it upon us.  We still have free will.  Participating in communion with each other and the divine Trinity is our choice.  Now some of us may feel a little relieved to have that choice as we uncomfortably look around the church thinking, “I don’t want to spend all of eternity united with that person.”  Well, just remember, every time we create division, every time we draw a line, Jesus is on the other side of the line.

Living in spiritual union with God and with each other isn’t always easy because sometimes it requires us to change and to grow.  To be in spiritual union with God, we have to put ourselves in proper orientation with God; we have to understand that God is God and we’re creatures.  We have to submit ourselves to a higher power, acknowledge that we can’t control everything, and trust that God’s plan is the best plan.  To be in spiritual union with each other, we have to respect and appreciate the God-given dignity of every person, including ourselves.  When we appreciate the dignity of every person, we transcend ourselves and experience the interconnectedness of all people with God.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not always in spiritual union with God and neighbor, but I keep trying because I know that it will change my life for the better.

Spiritual unity with God and neighbor changes our lives for the better because it’s the medium through which the eternal peace and happiness of heaven is transmitted to our world.  When we’re in spiritual union with each other, we allow ourselves to see the better angels of our nature; we offer the benefit of the doubt; we empathize; and we forgive.  Spiritual unity with God and each other allows us to transcend all bounds, even twenty-seven years of separation.

          Kathleen Hodge was arrested in that grocery store parking lot in Lincoln, California for drug possession and child neglect.  As she was led to the police car, she knew she’d never see her son again, but she thought about him every day since.  Chris was thinking about her, too.  Though physically separated, they were spiritually united.  With the help of Ancestry.com, Chris and Kathleen were reunited some twenty-seven years later.  Their first words to each other were the same:  “I love you.”  The bond between a mother and her child, indeed, between all of us, is made in heaven out of perfect love, joy and peace.   That’s why Jesus prays for us to be spiritually united.

Readings:  Acts 7: 55-60; Psalm 97; Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20; John 17: 20-26  


[1] Long Lost Family, Season 1, Episode 9.
[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 2 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1975) at 218.
[3] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers:  The Relentless Widow, Luke Year C (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2006) at 151.
[4] Ian Mitroff and Elizabeth Denton, “A Study of Spirituality in the Workplace,” Sloan Management Review, vol. 40, no. 4 (Summer 1999) at 83.
[5] Shea at 148.
[6] The Didache Bible, note, John 17: 21-26 (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014) at 1446.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Get Out of the Boat - A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter


 Here's the homily I would have given today, had I not confused the preaching schedule.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit intervened for the good.  You be the judge . . . .

          A bishop, a priest and a deacon were out fishing on a lake when they realized that they had left their beverages of choice on shore.  The priest said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get them,” as he stood up, stepped out of the boat, walked across the water and retrieved their drinks.  Upon his return, they soon found that they also had left the bottle opener on shore.  So the deacon said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get it,” as he stood up, stepped out of the boat, walked across the water and retrieved the bottle opener.  The bishop was amazed and humbled at what he had seen, so when they noticed that they had also left the pretzels on shore, he felt obliged to demonstrate his trust in God in a similar way.  Nervously, he stood up, stepped out of the boat, and quickly plunged to the bottom of the lake.  As the priest and deacon were hauling the bishop back into the boat, the priest said to the deacon, “We probably should have told him where the stones are.”  The deacon replied, “What stones?”  In the priest, deacon and bishop we find reason, faith and courage, the three key components of Christian belief that today’s readings present so beautifully.

            If nothing else, our readings this morning tell us that Christianity can be hard to believe.  In our first reading, we find the apostles rejoicing because they suffered dishonor in Jesus’ name, while in our Psalm we learn that God can turn our mourning into dancing.  So apparently we’re called to believe that God can transform curses into blessings.  In our second reading from Revelation, John learns that the Lion of Judah who will open the scroll of God’s providence is, in fact, a Lamb that was slain.  So we’re called to believe that power reveals itself most fully in weakness and humility.   In our Gospel, we encounter the risen Jesus feeding his apostles.  So we’re called to believe that Jesus, who suffered, died and was buried, rose again from the dead.  Christianity can be hard to believe because it doesn't always align with our expectations.  To believe all that Christianity teaches, we need reason, faith and courage.  Allow me to address each in turn.

          I’ll begin with reason.  The priest in our little joke observed his surroundings and used his God-given gift of reason to find a way to get out of the boat and walk across the water to shore.  Christian belief doesn’t require us to check our brains at the door.  Jesus came to take away our sins, not our minds.  That’s why “Catholicism is an intellectual religion.  If it holds something to be true, it has reasons for this claim, reasons that should be valid in logic and in evidence.”[1]  And if we take the time to read Scripture, the Catechism and the magisterial teachings of the Church, we’ll find that they are.  In his somewhat infamous lecture at Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI said that it’s both “necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason.”[2]   God is the source of all knowledge - knowledge obtained through Divine Revelation and knowledge obtained through reason.  Faith and reason do not contradict each other.  “There is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith.”[3]  God gave us our brains to use them, not just to contemplate the world around us, but his eternal truth as well.  After Jesus’ gruesome death and burial, the apostles saw the risen Lord with their own eyes; they touched him with their hands; they spoke with him; and they broke bread with him.  They had ample evidence to believe, through the use of reason alone, that the one who appeared to them “was not a vision, nor the figment of someone’s excited imagination nor the appearance of a spirit or a host; it was Jesus who had conquered death and come back.”[4]  Christian belief requires reason.

          Faith – We’re often told in religious contexts that we need to have faith, but what does that really mean? At its core, “faith is, not a system of knowledge, but trust.”[5] Trust is an essential component in life because we simply can’t know or do everything. I’m a lawyer; I’m not an electrician. You may well find me reviewing a contract before I sign it, but you won’t find me rewiring my house. We trust others who know more than we do all the time: our doctors; our teachers; and especially at this time of year, our accountants. Well, “[w]e also need someone trustworthy and knowledgeable where God is concerned. Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who makes God known to us.”[6] Jesus is the one who makes the superabundance of God’s love and peace available to us, if only we have faith in him. Our good deacon in the joke relied upon faith to get out of that boat and walk across the water to shore. The apostles had fished all night and caught nothing. They had every reason to think that they wouldn’t catch anything at all. But when they faithfully follow Jesus’ instruction, they gather so many fish that they can’t even haul in the net. Christian belief requires faith.

          Saint John Paul II said that “[f]aith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”[7] But these two wings are useless to us, if we don’t have the courage to step out of the nest in the first place (or the boat, as the case may be). Courage is essential to Christian belief. In an increasingly secularized world, religious belief is often greeted with patronizing disdain. That’s because Christianity calls us to the highest standards of moral living – God’s standards – and human standards don’t always live up to God’s standards. So for some, it’s easier to criticize and dismiss God’s standards as archaic, irrelevant or oppressive than to try to live up to them. For some, it may seem easier to go along with the critics and ignore what faith and reason compel us to believe. I encourage you, particularly our teens and young adults, to have the courage to believe anyway. That bishop didn’t want to leave the safety of the boat, but he had the courage to do it anyway. I challenge you to be like that bishop and the apostles in the Temple, summon up the courage to proclaim Christ crucified unabashedly, even if it’s not the cool thing to do, the easy thing to do, or the dry thing to do. Christian belief requires courage.

          Let’s face it, Christianity is hard to believe. It takes reason, faith and courage. But if Christianity weren’t hard to believe, it wouldn’t be worth believing at all. You see, “the entire purpose of the Christian life [is] to make us, not simply better people . . ., but to make us divine, to conform us to a participation in the life of the Trinity.”[8] What greater goal could we have than to be holy and burning with God’s eternal love through Jesus Christ? Scripture shows clearly that every encounter with Christ is life-changing. But first, we have to engage our reason, our faith and our courage and believe. You can’t walk on water, if you don’t get out of the boat.



[1] James V. Schall, The Order of Things (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2007) at 170.
[2]  Pope Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason and the University, Memories and Reflections (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006) <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006>.
[3] Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998) 16.
[4] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 2 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1975) at 283.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Faith and the Future (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2006) at 33.
[6]Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, (Vatican City, Libreria Vaticana, June 29, 2013) at 18.
[7] Pope John Paul II at 1.
[8] Robert Barron, The Strangest Way:  Walking the Christian Path (Maryknoll, Orbis, 2002) at 29.