Does it happen to you, as it does to me, that, as you look back over your past life, you see that certain encounters, happenings, statements stand out as having had an enduring influence on your own thinking, your values and behavior? As I settled on a theme for this homily and was struggling to compose the introductory words, I experienced just such a recollection, something that I had not consciously thought about in many years.
This is what it was: some 40 years ago, I was being treated by a chiropractor in northern New Jersey, a good Christian man, not a Catholic but a younger than middle age married man with several children. On one of my visits, in a moment of confidence, he told me that his practice was booming; he had so many patients that he could hardly keep up with the demand. (Among them, by the way, were two priest friends of mine, both of whom were absolutely convinced that the man was a healer who, more than anyone else, had helped to make them well enough to resume their recreational athletics.)
But, in that conversation, that my memory has held onto all these years, the chiropractor told me that a few years into his practice he had, as he put it, made a pact with Jesus that he would never turn anyone away who could not afford even the modest price of a treatment. And so, he said, he knew almost nothing about the finances of the practice, which he left completely to his office staff.
At the other end of the pact, he said, was Jesus, who, he was certain, was assuring him, “You take care of the poor that come to you, and I’ll take care of you.” And that’s the way it’s gone ever since, he told me. “I’m a wealthy man,” he said, “although it’s never been my goal to be that.”
Now, if I had heard that story from someone else, I’d be suspicious and even doubtful, because it sounded like the magic of the fundamentalist Christianity that I despise – “Send in your generous donation and within 9 days your petition will be miraculously granted…”
But my brain has preserved the memory of the chiropractor’s confession of faith for more than four decades. I know that it frequently sheds its light on the process of my personal decision-making. This makes me think that I saw something in it that was important for me to hang on to and to share with others, as I have just shared it with you.
The important point I see it illustrating is this: our religion should not be allowed to remain merely academic or intellectual or a matter of ritual. It has to be intensely personal, a relationship between the living Jesus Christ and ourselves. Prayer should be a kind of on-going conversation between us and him. A real Christian cultivates an awareness of the presence of the risen Jesus in his or her daily life and communes with him.
In the second reading, St. Paul, who suffered cruel imprisonment, brutal physical torture, and virtually every hardship the human being can experience, ends up by assuring us that God will supply whatever we need through Jesus.
So, unlike the ungrateful, unresponsive invited guests in Jesus’ parable about a king’s wedding reception for his son, we must not ignore the offer of Jesus to take part in our lives in a minute-by-minute working relationship that can only enrich us in every conceivable way.
The symbolism in this Gospel passage leaps out at us. The boat is the church; the persons in it are the members of the church, including you and me; the darkness and the rough waters are the troubles that make life sometimes so hard for us. Jesus is both with the occupants and not with them: he is far away and yet prays for them and then takes action to save them in the crisis that ensues. Their faith in Jesus is still mixed with fear and doubt, not fully confirmed yet.
It’s so clear that the whole story is a description of who and what we are today: a people called into a community of faith, responding to the one who is forming us — and at the same time experiencing fears and doubts and always having to struggle against the inadequacy of our faith.
As Matthew’s Gospel unfolds, it makes several statements of faith in Jesus recognized as the long-awaited Messiah. In this connection, I think first of the words attributed to Peter at the foot of Jesus’ cross: “Truly this was the Son of God!” Matthew is thereby letting us know that, even to persons for whom belief in Jesus would seem to be impossible, the gift of recognition and belief is given, so convincing is the evidence of Jesus’ life, what he taught, and what he did.
We are among those fortunate recipients. Our lives include occasional storms and scary darkness. For example, who can know for sure whether a cancer will disappear or linger and deliver a deadly blow? No one. At such a time, we wait in darkness and fear. The helplessness and hopelessness of the poor, the terror of war-torn countries, the anxieties of the abused and the unloved — how natural, how perfectly understandable that when we human beings are afflicted we respond first in fear and doubt. God then seems as far away as Jesus was from that threatened boat.
I was 7 years old when my 2-year-old sister was apparently dying from whooping cough. My father was called home from his place of business — I can still see his white shirt and Navy blue tie as he clutched me and my 4-year-old brother and said, “Dear God, please make my little daughter well. We love her so much.” He led us in saying the Lord’s Prayer. Never before, and never since, until he himself died, did we ever pray that way at any other time. But I learned from it what it meant to feel helpless and hopeless and to trust in the saving presence of God and the compassionate Jesus.
The response to our prayer cannot always be what we want it to be — or what God wants it to be! But when we are disappointed in that way, God and Jesus provide us with strength and wisdom and new hope to move on to calmer seas and brighter skies.
It’s quite obvious that most of the praying done by us Christians is prayer of petition – asking God to grant favors or work miracles or support us in our plans. That’s quite natural: we are always in need of more than we think we can accomplish on our own and so we appeal to God, as pagans appeal to the forces of nature or to their invented gods, or as others resort to lucky charms and superstitious practices. It can’t be wrong to ask God to act on our behalf: the history of the human race’s relationship with God is filled with such requests. Even Jesus left us, his followers, an asking prayer, the “Our Father,” as we call it and which we’ll be saying again together in just a few minutes.
However, while recognizing the legitimate place of petitionary prayer in the life of a Christian, we must emphasize that its most perfect expression is what we find in that beautiful prayer of King Solomon, which we just heard in the excerpt from the Hebrew Book of Kings. Solomon asked but one favor of God, and that was the power to know always what would be the right thing to do in order to serve the people well and to please God. Solomon was overwhelmed by the enormity and the complexity of the kingly office he had inherited from his father, King David, and saw himself as too young, too inexperienced, too lacking in knowledge to rule wisely. And so he begged, not for personal riches or for victory in battle or even for a long and healthy life, but for wisdom and understanding so that he could rule with justice and compassion. To this day he is honored for that remarkable goodness of character.
Have you ever been told by someone that he or she has prayed for you for a long time? I have, often. I remember that, when I reported for my 20-year assignment as pastor at St. Brendan’s in Clifton 39 years ago, among the lovely greetings of welcome I received was that of a woman who told me that she had prayed for me every day of the previous eleven years, ever since the day we first met. I can’t tell you, as I couldn’t tell her way back then, how much that meant to me. Many times since, I’ve wondered how much of the strength and wisdom that job demanded came through the caring prayers of people like her.
Was it Plato or Aristotle or some other Greek (I can never keep those sages straight) who said that we do not achieve wisdom until we reach the age of 50? But we pray, and others pray for us, and we ask the Spirit of God within us to guide us in the way of wisdom even before we have attained it sufficiently ourselves. We ask to be able to interpret the events of our life more objectively, freer of personal prejudice. We ask to understand the meaning and eventual purpose of everything we experience. We ask to remain confident, patient, peaceful, especially in times of great personal stress and bewilderment, in times of sorrow and fear and disappointment. Prayers like these are answered always – but we have to trust enough to voice them.
The Gospel passage today is about the Kingdom of God – hidden among and within us, found by persons of faith — the Kingdom about which Jesus said, Seek it first and everything else will be given to you. How do we pray? What do we ask for? The Kingdom of God is recognized wherever there are justice and mercy and kindness and forgiveness and peace and patience and love. Our prayer should always reflect those concerns above all others. Jesus assures us that every particular need of our own complicated lives will be provided if we ask first for wisdom and understanding as the underpinnings of justice and love.
Our technological achievements are not evil, as some extremists say they are. Pope Pius XII, back in the mid-1950s, when I was in seminary, said that modern technology is a tool of the Spirit of God that had the potential to bring the peoples of the world together in mutual respect and love as never before. Well, that potential still exists; it’s not the machines and the technology that get in the way, it’s we humans.
Modern marvels, from iPhones to supersonic jets, deliver, of course, convenience, pleasure, comfort; but inner peace and deep down joy they cannot possibly give us. No machine, however sophisticated it may be, can ever bring two hearts together. Nothing that is not spiritual (and I don’t mean only religious) can bring whole peoples together. No house, however luxurious, can unite a family or strengthen a marriage.
What Jesus shared with us was his awareness that we can reach unity and lasting peace only when they are based on an active, intentional attachment to the God who lives within each of us – only when we open our minds and hearts to God’s wisdom and God’s love. We experience true peace and unity by becoming contemplatives who are also active in the world.
I heard a TV talk show host say that, one evening when everything was set up for an interview, he looked around for his celebrity guest and saw him standing several yards away, leaning on a camera, his head resting in the crook of his arm, his eyes closed. After several seconds the guest moved up to the set and took his seat at the table just in time for the interview to begin. The host asked him after the taping what he was doing for that short time, and the man answered, “I was praying.”
Seeking the wisdom of God, who lives within us, can be as simple as that. Bishop Fulton Sheen said that whenever he was about to converse with someone who had come to him for counsel he always paused for a minute or two to open his mind & heart to direction by the Spirit of God.
When we listen eagerly to God, as God’s word comes to us in worship, in prayer, in moments of silence, we become more & more disposed to listening to each other as well, because we learn to expect God’s message there, too. There is never a time or a circumstance in which dialog with God is not readily available. Driving alone to give a retreat in Chicago some years ago I found it easy to commune with the Creator both in nature and in the many interesting people I met along the way, whose stories of love and courage and generous service revealed the presence of God to me. In my home or in someone else’s, at the table, in my comings & goings, there is never a doubt in my mind that God is there more completely than I am.
The Christian church began with controversy and confrontation at every level of its early organization. It’s too bad that today uniformity is so overstressed. It’s not our differences that tear us apart; quite the opposite: diversity, even in matters of faith, can be a help toward unity. It keeps us thinking and probing and dialoguing in the effort to get closer to God’s truth.
It’s when we are not paying sufficient attention to the source of our life that we drift farther and farther apart from each other. That must be why Jesus stressed what he did in those last days of his earthly life: that we follow his example of listening to God always so that we would have increasingly more life to share with those we love – and those we still don’t love.
Getting accustomed to looking beneath and beyond the words of bible readings to find their real meaning, what would you say is the message of the three we just heard – the first from the Hebrew bible, the next from a letter of St. Paul, and the third from the gospel, this particular excerpt from St. Luke’s version? The word urgency came to my mind from all three: that we resolve now to remain conscious of the presence of the Spirit of God in whatever we are doing, saying or thinking. That’s a fairly good definition of a spiritual person: not a holier-than-thou fanatic who goes around in a daze of personal devotion that makes everyone uncomfortable, but a person who views life and all its parts through the lens of the Spirit within and around him or her.
I recall in this connection that it was Pope Celestine the First who, in one of the earliest centuries of the church heard that some priests were dressing in distinctive ways to distinguish them from ordinary people. He wrote to them and said he found this disturbing because priests should be distinguished not by what they wear but by their conversation and their love.
But, we all ask, where is God when a bloody war is raging, as is still happening today all over the globe? Where is God in the drug-abuse scene? Where is God when conflict tears a family apart? Where is God on Death Row? Where is God in AIDS or cancer? Countless millions of persons have found reason to say, “I turned to you, Lord, but you did not answer me.”
It’s our concept, our image of God that is the problem. God is not a person like us, however bigger and better. God is pure spirit; God is force; God is energy, God is love. When we deliberately align ourselves with that benign force, with that energy, that love, our own human powers are enhanced, they are magnified.
How God “answers” and when God answers are not for us to say or even to know. Our part in the pact is to maintain unyielding faith in the goodness and the love of God.
A high school classmate of mine, at the funeral of his young daughter many years ago, said to the overflowing crowd of mourners assembled in the church that day, “My wife and children and I thank you for being here today to celebrate the life and mourn the death of our beautiful daughter. It must be that God loves her more than we do, because God gave her to us in the first place for these too-short 19 years. At this time of sorrow, God asks of us only faith and love. In this tragedy, too, God is only good.”
Who would dare to limit the power of God especially in the troubles of our life?
There may be no time or circumstance in our ordinary lives when we more need that awareness of Jesus’ presence than when things are not going well for us or for those we love. He says to us, “Come to me, you who are burdened, and I will refresh you.” The “refreshment,” by that or any other name, may be just the vision of light at the end of the tunnel, and restored confidence because Jesus is leading the way — Jesus, who called himself “the way.”
Faith can falter even in the most convinced and loyal believer. There’s no shame in that. We are, after all, only human and very limited. We live in a kind of darkness, a shadow in which not everything is perfectly clear. To trust in a Jesus we have never seen is no small challenge at times. But, if we make the commitment, no matter how feeble it may occasionally be, our faith in him will grow by experience. We will increasingly sense his real presence in and with us and we will be only the stronger and the more at peace for it.