[Today is Day 8 of my new quarantine period after return from Ireland a week ago. With classes at the university starting tomorrow, I’ll have to beg your indulgence with sections from a homily of three years ago… but with this being the anniversary week of both Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina, still sadly all too timely in the wake of the devastation wrecked by Hurricane Laura.] See Jer 20:7-9, Rom 12:1-2, and Mt 16:21-27.
Just over a week ago, the nation reeled under the impact of Hurricane Harvey, which bodes well to be the most destructive and costly natural disaster in our history. Millions were transfixed by television coverage of the calamity, as Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont, among smaller towns and communities, were torn asunder by the winds and then flooded. In all this, it was heartening to witness the heroic efforts of so many citizens (including undocumented immigrants) to save the desperate and helpless, even pets, from the rising water. Miraculously, there seems to have been little looting, although it seems impossible to avoid some bad behavior even in such trying situations.
To say that we live in difficult times is an understatement at the very least. But impending disaster has often been the lot of humankind, and today’s first reading from the Book of Jeremiah returns us to one of these threatening calamities from the ancient world.
In prison, Jeremiah first complains to God that his faithful preaching of the message God entrusted to him has resulted in opposition,
hatred, persecution, and now — chains. He’s had it. God fooled him, duped him the reading says. Jeremiah had to trust God very much to use that tone of voice!
But the prophet has been put on a very painful spot. The Babylonians are threatening Jerusalem, and the frightened King Zedekiah wants to nail down an alliance with his pagan neighbors to defend the city. He also wants Jeremiah to predict success. But God has revealed to Jeremiah that the city will be taken and the king and nobles led away into captivity.
That’s not what Zedekiah wants to hear. It gets even worse. Jeremiah is beaten and thrown into prison by the son of the High Priest. But Jeremiah keeps right on preaching, even after the king has him freed. No one believes him, of course, and so he complains bitterly to God: “O Lord, you deceived me, and I fell for it!” [20:7]
So the background of today’s first reading finds Jeremiah dealing with his own fear and reluctance to tell the emissaries of King Zedekiah what they do not want to hear, what the king does not want to hear, what no one wants to hear. It is not good news. And he has already paid for it by being beaten and imprisoned. Now he fears for his life. But he goes on preaching the truth, and in the end, he suffers for it. But he also knows that God will one day redeem the captives and bring the exiles home again. He will be vindicated. He testifies, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.” [Jeremiah 31:31.]
Now if you remember back to the readings of 25th of June, the 12th Sunday of the year, what St. Paul wrote to the Christian Romans of the first century was not only that sin and death came into human experience through Adam but that grace and life also overcame them through Jesus Christ. In both cases a single human being changed everything – for the worse or for the better. On a deeper level, he , too, was talking about resisting the pressure of the majority who just happen to be wrong, just as in the story of Jeremiah.
In today’s passage, Paul changes his pitch, but not his message, exhorting the Romans not to be shaped and determined by the views of the age, the wisdom of the world, but, as he says, “to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Then you can judge what is really God’s will — what is good, pleasing, and complete.
Back in June, Matthew’s gospel was focused on Jesus’ exhortation not to let people intimidate you, especially when it comes to speaking out fearlessly against injustice and evil. Now, several chapters later, Matthew recalls how Jesus warned his followers that anyone who wants to be his true disciple must be willing to suffer and die for that Gospel, that message of Good News.
And so it all comes around — like Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus, to preach the uncomfortable truth, to resist the easy path of violence and revenge, to oppose those who seek security in military might, alliances, and weapons of mass destruction — all this will result in fierce opposition, persecution, imprisonment, and possibly death.
Now what has any of that to do with us? Over the past year, we have been exposed to a barrage of hate-filled speech, directed against many of our own citizens and to others in the greater world. We have been tempted to withdraw assistance from the poor and needy, the aged and infirm, those who in the bible’s favored terms are most in need of aid – the orphan, widow, and resident alien in the land. Many of the calamities faced by the people of Jeremiah’s time were directly attributed to such oversight and hard-heartedness. That alone should give us reason to examine our private views and public policies.
But we also hear exhortations to be resolute and brave, despite the threat of persecution, preaching the Good News as Jesus did, and to act with compassion and generosity as so many of our citizens have wonderfully done over the past trying weeks.
Let us pray, then, to be transformed by the renewal of our minds, as we struggle to view our world not as the self-righteous see it, or generals or security analysts or weapons manufacturers or oil barons see it, but as God sees it. And it would be wise especially for us, as Americans — so rich, so powerful, so dangerous in the eyes of the wretched of the earth, to listen to their voices, to pay attention to the appeal of the pope for peace in the Middle East and Asia, to remember Jesus’ words to us today: “What profit would anyone show if they were to gain the whole world and ruin themselves in the process?”
As the Church looks at time, we are approaching the midpoint between the end of the Easter season and the beginning of Advent. That usually falls on Sept. 24th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is probably less deliberate than fortuitous. But as the liturgical year draws to a close, the selected readings sometimes appear random, if not haphazard. This Sunday is a good example, although there is a subtle thread that connects them… not least with the times we live in. After all, the world has been living in the shadow if the Covid-19 crisis for about eight months and it’s not showing much inclination to wind down. For many of us, we are living in a world significantly different from the one we knew a year ago.
We have already learned a valuable lesson, although one we should have mastered ages ago. To disregard the health, safety, and welfare of our neighbor is an invitation to eventual disaster. I can’t help thinking of Edgar Allan Poe’s great if scary short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” If you have not read it recently, look it up.
In the meantime, there is much to learn from these readings. They are, first of all, about inclusivity, to use the current term. And they are also about faith, persistence, and healing. [Isaiah 56:1,6-7, Rom 11:13-15,29-32, Mat 15:21-28.]
Isaiah looks forward to a period of welcome to all people in God’s house, not only the faithful Jews: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’…” He continues, in a beautiful passage slightly trimmed in the reading, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56-58).
In this section of his letter to the Christians of Rome, St. Paul shows to what lengths he would go to ensure the salvation of all, a gift ultimately of God’s mercy but made effective by the ministry of reconciliation. We are all one. The time for distinctions, prejudice, and discrimination on whatever grounds is past.
The point is driven home effectively by the account of Jesus’ healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician women he encounters on one of visits outside Palestine, today’s Lebanon. She is a Canaanite, who were hereditary enemies of the Jews and by then considered pariah. But she has heard of Jesus and throws herself on his mercy, literally at his feet, for the sake of her daughter. (A shorter and slightly warmer version of this encounter is found in Mark 7:24-30, which seems to be Matthew’s source.) “Woman,” Jesus says, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly” (Mat 15:28).
Obviously, God has little regard for the racial, geographical, religious, ethnic, or national excuses people invent to disparage and torment each other. We are all God’s children. To treat one of them as any less is to distance oneself from the mercy and justice of God. Another way of putting it, here following one of the greatest Christians of all,
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;
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. (St. Francis of Assisi)
What began as a fairly normal year (in the strange world of Trump, Brexit, etc.) too quickly turned into an annus horribilis that would daunt even the queen. A confluence of unexpected catastrophes, from the Covid crisis and the economic downturn, to repression of peaceful protests, and worsening relations among the world great economies, was deepened this week by the explosion that wiped out much of the center of Beirut. That alone was heart-breaking, as I had been there several years ago and witnessed the promising results of a decades-long effort to restore the historic parts of the city following a decade of ruinous civil war.
We are left wondering, week by week, how did all this happen in such a relatively short time? The stormy waters seem about to overwhelm us.
When we turn to the readings for today’s liturgy, we are reminded of the perils that somehow inevitably befall us. But we are also reminded of the hope that sustains us. [1 Kings 19:9,11-13, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:22-23.]
The reading from the Book of Kings seems jarring at first glance, especially considering its backstory. The prophet Elijah, who is one of God’s truly wild men, has just scored a stunning defeat over the priests of Baal. He celebrated by taking them all 450 down to the river Jordan and cutting their throats. Jezebel the queen, who was as powerful as she was vicious, sends him word that he’s as good as dead himself and in fact will be by that time tomorrow. So Elijah flees and seeks refuge on Mt. Horeb, about 200 miles south. There, seeking some sign, he is about to turn in his prophet badge when God appears to him — not in the tempest or the earthquake but in a still small voice after the storm.
In this reading, we do not hear Elijah’s repeated complaint about the infidelity of the Israelites or God’s answer, including the promise that Elijah will not only find a successor both to himself and to Ahab, but that he will slaughter God’s enemies. Instead the reading focuses our attention on the manner in which God appears. Not in sound and fury, but after it — above it. It is one of the major theophanies of the Old Testament. God comes to us in very unexpected ways.
In the second reading, Paul’s impossible hypothesis reminds us of the unexpectedness of God’s presence in our lives. He would generously, heroically sacrifice his own salvation if it would help the Jews of his time to recognize God’s saving presence in Christ. Somehow, he knows that God has not abandoned the Jews, that God will never abandon them, even if he does not know how God will eventually accomplish their salvation.
But it is the recognition of God presence in unexpected places and unacceptable ways that leaps out at us in the Gospel, which continues where it left off last week with the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee. When a gale comes up just before dawn, after a very rough night fighting the wind and the waves, they see the impossible — Jesus walking on the water, an account also found in the gospels of Mark and John. It was a memorable experience, one of the wonderful images that has come down to us in the form of a proverbial phrase.
In the story, it is first of all a terrifying experience, scarier than the storm itself. Peter, of course, throws himself overboard once he recognizes Jesus. But he first raises a doubt, a challenge that will almost sink him. “If it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” I can do it! But is it really you, Lord?
Jesus simply says, “Come.”
So Peter does. But out on the waves, in the full force of the storm, he suddenly remembers something — and his confidence wavers. He founders and Jesus plucks him by the hand. “Why did you doubt?” Jesus chides him.
Matthew says that Peter doubted because when he felt the force of the wind. Jesus tells him, “because your faith was small and weak and you were afraid to admit it.”
Why do we doubt?
In her book, “Walking on Water,” the late Madelaine l’Engle tells us, “… think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus. As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”
But it takes faith. Like Elijah, Paul, and Peter, we have to remember how to recognize the presence and power of God in the most unlikely places and forms. Christ is very frequently — perhaps most of the time — not where we prefer, but where he has some business of his own to accomplish. On the other hand, that business is very likely to have something to do with our salvation — our deepest welfare, our ability to assist others, to contribute some measure of hope to the world.
And so we strive to hear the still, calming voice of Jesus over the fury of the storm. We listen for the three great commands of hope he speaks: “Have courage, it is I, do not fear.”
There are plenty of stormy gales in our lives, plenty of times we would like to turn in our badges.
As a new and frightening disease ravages the world, when our homes are destroyed by violence as in Beirut this week, when our families are killed, our country devastated by civil war, or when our friends and relatives are suddenly taken from us in mindless gang wars or random shootings. Or even in less violent forms, when we have to confront a family member or colleague at work about alcoholism. Or to live with the grief of a child’s leukemia or the guilt feelings that attend having to place an aged parent in a nursing home, or accepting the discouragement of a broken marriage, or the fact that you’re not getting promoted at work, or you’ve lost your job, or that you have to repeat the fifth grade, or that someone you love has died. The seas of life turn violent at times.
At such moments, it is difficult to hear the voice of God calling to us over the storm. But the voice is there. At one time or other, God calls each of us to walk on the water — to listen to that still, quiet voice in our heart, and in the world of creation, and in scripture and history — and to have courage. “It is I.” The strange and wonderful thing is that sometimes we find that we haven’t sunk at all, that the waves are growing solid under our feet. And sometimes we have to be plucked out of deep water by the hand of God.
In the world today, preoccupied as it is with the Pandemic, elections, and sports events, it is all too easy to forget that famine is stalking the lands of Africa and Asia, and soon will likely reach vast areas of Latin America. If it is true that “the poor you have always with you” (Mat 26:11), you can be sure that many of them will be hungry and thirsty. And no less true that we in the affluent nations are increasingly called upon to do something about that.
In today’s gospel reading we come to one of several accounts of Jesus that involve the multiplication of loaves of bread and even some fish. Or
perhaps division would be more accurate. An account of feeding five thousand men, not counting women and children, appears in every gospel. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus works two miracles of loaves and fish, first feeding five thousand men and then four thousand. Luke and John mention only one such event. In any case, it was a very ancient and widespread tradition in Christian circles and never disputed.
Not until the eighteenth century, anyway, when these events, whether one or two of them, were discounted as embarrassing fairy tales or examples of mistaken perception. I’m sure you have heard such explanations many times. One of the oldest is that Jesus simply convinced all those men (and perhaps women and children) who had followed him out into the desert but who had cannily hidden loaves and fish in their clothes, to divvy them up later. That’s the real miracle, we are told. Sharing. Presumably the second mob learned nothing from the first one, because according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus had to do it over again.
Sharing is wonderful, perhaps even a miracle in a world where greed and stinginess are considered virtues. But that is not how the gospels have it. No matter how we twist the texts around, there isn’t a word about people sneaking food around in their tunics. On a hot day in Palestine, it would be pretty hard to keep all that smelly stuff secret, much less eat it afterwards. But the plain fact is that the text says the people were hungry, they had no food, and no money to buy any. Sound familiar?
And if the evangelists were fools or liars, why should we should believe the stories of all those people following Jesus out into the desert in the first place? Or that people actually ate bread and fish, or that there were baskets and baskets of leftovers. Why not grapes and dried mutton? Or roast beef sandwiches? Why is it only the middle part of the story we are expected not to believe?
Even today, it would take a large bakery to produce a thousand loaves of bread to order in a day, and a small fleet to produce twenty-five hundred edible fish. One wonders what happened to the leftovers.
All the gospels tell us that there were five thousand men present. Matthew adds the telling feature, “not counting women and children.” That is why my friend Megan McKenna calls this the feeding of the ten thousand. Or perhaps even more. One way or another, twelve baskets of leftovers is hardly a lot. You get much more than that after a rock concert on a hot summer night.
But why believe any of it? Why are these stories there at all?
Matthew doesn’t say. Mark simply notes that the disciples did not understand, and Jesus says the same thing later on in John’s gospel. I have a strong suspicion that the enlightened scholars of the eighteenth century (and today) also failed to understand. But what is there to understand?
Not that Jesus was able to work miracles, or even to turn stones into bread, which he refused to do to entertain the devil. As Jesus himself says, the miracle of the loaves is a sign, a sign that the Reign of God has come into the world, a reign we are still having trouble recognizing. As the responsory psalm for today tells us in no uncertain terms:
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
And satisfy the desire of every living thing. [Ps. 145:15-16.]
Feeding the hungry is a sign of the compassion of God. And from the verdict of the Son of Man found toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, without that kind of compassion we can’t even enter the Kingdom of Heaven.