Tag Archives: Fear

12TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME 2017

Jesus’ words always strike home and are remembered because they are so consistent with our human nature. He says things that people understand from their own experience of life. The joy of finding something long lost or misplaced, the sadness of a loved one’s death, the sight of a sunrise or a beautiful baby — no need for words of explanation; they are self-explanatory and universally understood.

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus speaks about fear, as normal a human response as any other we can name. But he says we are not to fear, which seems like an impossibility. I don’t think we can be blamed for asking how we can keep from being afraid — of someone, for example, who is about to do us bodily harm. But in the context of his whole teaching, that could not have been what he meant. Of course he knew that such a reaction of fear is a natural and necessary reflex to serious dangers that threaten us. It’s really our first defense that calls into play all our life-preserving energies.

My take on this statement of his is that he is reminding us that the greatest mystery of our lives is that we are connected to our Creator, the sustainer of our lives, living and active within us always. He goes on: as long as we remain aware of that union we are strong beyond our ordinary powers. It is when we allow ourselves to grow weak in that faith, even to the point of practical denial, that we have reason to be afraid.

Jesus reminds us of how intimately the Father — his affectionate name for God — knows every one of us. He says that the Father can identify each of us down to the last detail, the last cell of our bodies.

This is a clue to what empowered Jesus, what kept him going despite the tremendous odds he faced and the frequent signs that his mission was not going well at all. The religious and civil authorities were opposing him, using every device at their disposal to stop him and to turn his followers away from him. How many sleepless nights did he endure, worrying about how things would go tomorrow? And then the threat of being murdered.

What empowered him, what kept him going, was that he knew himself and the God who lived with and in him always.

“Identity crisis” has been one of the fashionable ills of our age. If one lives chronically victimized by fear, it is possible that that person doesn’t know who he or she really is. Whether it’s a general fear of the unknown future, a fear of death, fear of loneliness, fear of one’s own inadequacies — whatever form it may take — there’s simply more to human life and to the human person than that.

We are known and loved and cared for by the one and only God personally, directly, constantly. That’s who we are. That’s what Jesus experienced and spoke about over and over again.

So, fear is necessary and unavoidable and often very helpful, but it is meant to be tempered by the simple and profound realization of God-With-Us.

We are not talking about a gimmick that can be turned on and off. It is rather a way of life that involves deep reflection and a kind of surrender that is possible only to the genuinely and sincerely prayerful person.

We have to pray for each other that this may be the attainment of all.

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27TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2016

A Jewish surgeon said to the mother of a young lady, a dear friend of one of my nephews, “I suppose that in your sense I’m not a very religious man, but I want you to know that before every operation I rededicate these privileged hands of mine to God. I know that during the surgery they are no longer merely my hands; they are really the hands of God.”

That statement introduces very nicely the topic of religious faith.

Whoever the actual author of what is called the Gospel of St. Luke may have been, it seems that he placed today’s account right where it is because he wanted it to follow a whole collection of Jesus’ teachings. Much of those teachings of his were radical, of course, very different from what the apostles and disciples were accustomed to hearing from their rabbis and in their synagogues and temples.

Immediately before making the statement about faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus had been talking about unconditional forgiveness, something jarringly new to his followers.

He talked about the triumph of carrying personal crosses.

He talked about the renunciation of distracting wealth.

He told the story about the prodigal son with its surprise ending and its obvious contrast between human and divine love.

He taught about the permanence of the marriage bond.

He instructed his hearers on stewardship over personal possessions.

And then, maybe the hardest lesson of all, he spoke about authority seen, not as power over, but as service to others.

All of this was so different from what the apostles and disciples had known and lived that it was a perfect place for the author of the gospel to inject this note: the apostles asked Jesus to give them more faith because they were thinking, “There’s no way we can accept and live these teachings unless you somehow make our faith stronger than it is right now.” “As a matter of fact,” Jesus says, “if you had faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, you could do marvels.”

How can we assess our faith in God, in the Spirit, in Jesus? We can say at least this much: that faith cannot be measured or determined by the emotional responses that may accompany it. And it can’t be the total absence of fear: we know that Jesus was terribly afraid at times while deciding to act boldly out of faith. Faith can’t be the complete absence of sin either; even sinners are called upon to be faithful. It seems that the standard of true faith is simply that it be a sincere trust in the love and the power of God.

Faith is the deep conviction that God is actively, lovingly present to us at all times, combined with our invitation to God to act freely in and through us. Quantity or strength or size has no meaning here: the mere fact that faith exists, that we have it, is enough. It may be compared to the smallest switch that unleashes, that turns on, the awesome power of a great machine.

But our faith can be easily weakened by our fear of where it is going to lead us.

And Jesus urges us to trust God as we once trusted our parents and see what God will do in, with and through us. We’ll find ourselves acting in remarkable ways: we’ll forgive and forget; love and accept; rule by serving; see and understand; suffer and rejoice – all as God does.

Even if we think our faith is weak and small, we must be aware that we have it and that it is our link with God and that through it God can transform us into someone like Jesus!

HOMILY FOR 12TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR 2015

I vividly remember standing as a teenager at the edge of a raging flood and seeing this awesome, frightening demonstration of pure, raw, unstoppable power.  I imagined myself in it and the total helplessness and panic I would experience in its clutch.  But I recall also thinking that, if I could safely reach the water with a long stick and extract a cupful, it would be as mild and harmless as what came out of our faucets at home.

That contrast has always fascinated me: I mean that destructive forces are generally made up of large quantities of benign substances.  The fire that consumes a forest or a building is, after all, essentially the same as the fire that cooks our food or heats our houses.

Think, too, of this: if we had absolutely no fear in us, if we saw nothing as threatening in any way to our health and safety, we would not survive.  We’d jump into the flood waters or grab the white hot poker or consume the poisonous mushroom, and so on.  We are alive today because all our lives we have been appropriately afraid – something we began learning in infancy.

But, as we all know from multiple personal experiences, fear can become excessive and consume us.  What we used to call “nervous breakdowns” (Is that term still in use?) were often the result of fear gone out of control.  My mother – strong, resourceful, religious, and independent in so many ways – was a woman whose fears and worries would at times totally consume her and lead to long bouts of nervous breakdown.  I saw up close and for long periods of time what unbridled fear can do to a human being.

The topic of fear stands out clearly in the famous Gospel story we just heard again of Jesus and his apostles in a boat when a violent storm came up.  The terrified apostles wake the sleeping Jesus and, in an unmistakably accusatory tone of voice, demand that he rescue them.

Once again we have to say that we can’t be sure how much, if any, of the story is factual and how much of it comes from the creative imagination of the first Christian community of believers and followers.  So, what happens next is open to debate and difference of opinion.

Did Jesus actually lift his arms over the angry waves, did he point to the black clouds above, did he shout a chilling command of supreme authority that all should be quiet and calm?  And did the storm then obediently disappear?  Or is this graphic description instead the Gospel writers’ colorful way of saying that whenever we find ourselves tossed about and terrified by the storms of our lives he is there, without fail, totally silent, but there to lead and reassure us?  I choose the latter.

I feel strongly that there is a fine line between an underlying, overriding trust in the presence of a provident God on the one hand and, on the other, the misguided belief that God makes good things happen in our lives, often in response to our prayers for intervention.  I suspect we do not yet have the language to express that difference adequately; but I believe we must work at it, understanding it better and articulating it more clearly and convincingly.  It may have something to do with recognizing that God’s way of acting is not the same as ours and that the divine presence and divine love are more like an energy, an ultimate power source, that somehow fuels our actions, giving them strength and efficiency beyond our natural ability.

The God Connection!