It’s not easy to admit that many times in my 20 plus years of priesthood I have felt like a failure. Sometimes people ask for my prayers in dealing with a difficult situation they’re facing and it doesn’t seem to get rectified the way they were hoping. I’m thinking of some good friends who’s marriage was on the rocks – they were both good Christians, they were trying and despite their efforts, and my prayers, they still got a divorce. Or – a few years ago, when I was the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Newark, we didn’t have any applications or interest from men discerning the priesthood, so I started fasting one day a week, every week as a way of turbo charging the prayer… well my tenure in that position didn’t result in any substantial numbers or increase (truth be told, they went the other way). Or- I’ve prayed with people sick in the hospital or on their way to the hospital offering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and there’s not been the miraculous healing I’ve hoped for. Those (and many other) times I know I was immensely frustrated and discouraged – not just at the situations themselves but personally, spiritually.
Hi everyone! This is my homily for October 6, 2019 – 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings for today’s Mass can be found HERE Thanks as always for reading; sharing this blog on your social media sites; and your feedback and comments. I appreciate it! Have a great week – God Bless – Fr Jim. AUDIO . Also you can get the audios of the homilies from iTunes as a Podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fr-jim-cherns-homilies/id1440618142?mt=2
I’m sure at least a few of you are thinking “probably shouldn’t ask that guy for anything.” You’re not the only one – I remember early in my priesthood a guy from the parish was going into the hospital for a minor surgery and being a new young priest, excited to do all the priestly stuff I offered to celebrate the anointing of the sick to pray for his healing. While he was in the hospital, the surgery didn’t go as planned, there was some complications, that was followed by an infection. This minor procedure which should have been a one day in and out thing turned into several weeks. When I stopped into the hospital a couple days later to visit him he jokingly started screaming “AHHH GET HIM AWAY FROM ME” followed by “What kind of grades did you get in seminary?”
It’s disappointing as a priest – just as its disappointing for any of us when our prayers don’t seem to get answered. And if you have ever had that type of experience, when we hear this Gospel, it can make us feel even more like a failure. Jesus says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you … Hearing that, my impulse is to think “I don’t care much for mustard – I’m not looking to move a tree… I just want my prayer list answered… What am I doing wrong???”
I wonder if that’s how the apostles felt when this was the response they got from Jesus to their request “increase our faith.” Put yourselves in their shoes (or sandals). They had seen what Jesus was able to accomplish – Jesus had fed thousands with a few fish and couple of loaves. Jesus had cast out demons that had tormented people for years – gone in an instant… People were healed at Jesus’ touch or even just at His word (even non-Jews experienced those healings from Jesus was even more shocking, more surprising to the crowds back then). For the apostles, they had been commissioned to go out and do the same – to heal in Jesus’ name, to offer His mercy, His forgiveness, His blessings, His favor. At first that was exciting. They were touched themselves by Jesus and were excited to share what it was they had received.
But the more they heard Jesus preach – the more anxious they got. They loved Jesus but were getting worried that not everyone else was falling in love with Him. They were seeing the dividing lines being formed between those who were and those who weren’t following Jesus (some to the extreme plotting to kill him) Then when they reflected on their own experiences of being His missionaries, bringing Jesus’ healing to a world that desperately needs it (even if it seems reluctant or in some cases hostile to receiving it) they knew they weren’t batting a thousand. For example, there had been one particular occasion prior to this passage where they hadn’t been successful at casting out a demon who had tormented a boy. Here was a child in need and they seemed unable to do anything. That failure stung – they probably thought to themselves “what did we do wrong? we followed his example, did exactly what Jesus did when he came to this boy and finally cast out the very demon we weren’t able too…” So all of these thoughts, concerns, fears, failures that had been weighing on their hearts and minds comes out in this moment as they give voice to them, saying pretty directly: “Increase our Faith.”
Just reading that – it’s kind of aggressive. They didn’t ask Jesus for more faith they kind of demanded it. They didn’t even ask for correction or guidance. They just presumed that their tanks had run low and that’s why things weren’t working out. That’s why they weren’t more successful. So Jesus’ response to them seems like a smack down. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…”
But Jesus isn’t smacking them down. He loves them and us. And part of the problem the apostles had is something that I realize I struggle with as well. When they say Increase our faith – it’s self focused… And sometimes we don’t realize that’s how we’re treating our faith: we want the power, we want the authority, we want to be able to unleash miracles. Not that there aren’t prayerful words being offered – coupled with great intentions – but maybe there wasn’t much faith in Jesus after all. That’s what Jesus’ response is all about. He’s saying it’s not a matter of quantity, it’s what have we done with the gift of faith we have already received.
Do we truly believe in Him –
Do we truly trust in Him?
Do we recall who He is… what He has done what He is doing?
Because too often we’re treating prayers as a magic potion expecting that do this, say that and “alakazam- healing!” That’s not faith. That’s how prayer, turns into superstition. (I had a friend who was praying a novena – which is basically a 9 day prayer for a specific intention, asking for St. Jude to intercede for him on this intention – and because he missed a night his response to me was “crap, now my intention won’t be answered…” that’s not faith – that’s twisting and manipulating a beautiful prayer practice into some superstition) When we whether consciously or subsconsciously start to treat prayer like that, that’s what leads to lukewarm or a lack of faith. And that’s what we hear sometimes in our prayer: someone is struggling, someone is ill, some tragedy has occurred and our response is this vague “you’re in my prayers.” What are those prayers? Are we just calling attention to the problems like giving Jesus a news report – Jesus, so and so was just diagnosed with cancer. Jesus, this person is failing out of school. Jesus I’m floundering, I’m in crisis, I’m depressed… But we’re not bold enough to ask Him – Jesus help her conquer that cancer. Jesus remove the obstacles that are preventing him from thriving in school Jesus I know you’ve saved me and you will save me now, you will see me through this crisis, you will melt this depression…
In my own life – I can see that the times and experiences where I didn’t see God’s presence or activity – was because of a lack of faith on my part. I realize how there were times when my prayers were just reciting headlines. I wasn’t legitimately asking Jesus to do anything. Why? Because I left defeatist, disbelieving thoughts invade my prayerful thoughts… I was too worried – what if this doesn’t turn out the way I’m praying for, hoping for. Let me hedge my bets, ask small, in case he doesn’t show up… Just tell him what the problem is and let him figure the solutions. That is the failure. Because that’s not prayer… that’s not faith.
Faith is remembering, giving thanks and proclaiming that we have a good God. We have an amazing God. We have an awesome God… who in Jesus Christ has gone to hell and back for us. To save us from sin. To save us from death. To restore us and bless us with abundance and fullness of life. Jesus worked miracles throughout his earthly life. He did those things, not to perform a feat to shock and awe people into following Him – every miracle was intended to invite people into deeper and deeper trust in Him. To the point that we can pray from the depths of our heart “thy will be done” and sincerely mean it. Knowing that His will is a good will. He has great things in store for us.
Think back in to one of Jesus’ greatest of miracles in the Gospel of John. The two sisters Mary and Martha’s have a brother named Lazarus who was sick and was dying – and they sent word to Jesus to come and heal him. Martha, Mary and Lazarus – they weren’t just followers of Jesus. They weren’t just people in the crowd – they knew him on a personal on an intimate level. Jesus had eaten in their home. Jesus was their true friend. So when they sent word – they expected all will be well. They expected He will show up right away. Or heck, he didn’t even need to show up, He can just speak a healing word from wherever he was and all would be well. The Gospel tells us that Jesus receives that report He deliberately delays returning there (John 11: 4- 6 When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.) By the time He finally arrives, He finds that Lazarus has been dead for four days. There’s tremendous grief, terrible sadness at this loss. Even for the sisters, as Martha says to him “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11: 21) You hear in that her sadness but you also hear that she had faith in Jesus. What’s essential is what happens next – she still does. Yes she’s grieving and mourning the death of her brother, but she doesn’t waver as she says “[But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”(John 11:22) Think about it, she doesn’t see a way, know a way for things to be bettter – but she has faith, she has trust in Him who does… Jesus calls her to dig deep in on that faith as he asks her for a deeper profession of faith as he says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” In the midst of the storm – in this bleakest of situations – a sealed tomb with a body already decomposing, she professes her faith in Jesus. And it’s then that the unthinkable happens. It’s there that Jesus astounds the crowds, and the family bringing Lazarus back to life.
Over 2,000 years later, we are a part of that history of goodness of God’s salvation. 2,000 years Jesus continues to work miracles in our day and age. One of the most amazing of which is the one that too many of us Catholics take for granted and treat as ordinary which we’re here for right now. That from this altar, the bread and wine becomes Jesus’ very body and blood. That Jesus becomes as real and present in that host in that chalice as he was when he walked in Galilee those centuries ago. He says you and I are that loved, that special to Him, that important to Him – He wants to be that close to us… He wants to nourish our faith so much that He tells us to take and eat His body and blood. Why – so that we will let Him live within us… That we will desire to become more like Him and trust and know that He wants this miracle to multiply many times over in our own lives. So that we will not live in fear despite whatever it is we’re going through or facing but rather go forth in confident faith let Him work wonders in and through our lives and our witness.
I’ve known that truth in my very life. I’ve experienced legitimate miracles. Back in my senior year of High School when I had a car accident and a friend of mine almost died, and in many ways was expected to die – in my panic, my shock, somehow I knew deep within that Jesus was with me – and that somehow all would be well. I didn’t know how, or what shape that would take… It wasn’t like the next day I went to the hospital and it was okay -but over the months and years that followed, praise God, my friend was restored, she was healed… I so desperately wanted to do something to fix everything, especially since I was the one driving – the accident was my fault. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything but trust in God. All I could do was pray, hope and trust as I said “thy will be done.” It seemed small and insignificant. Kind of like a mustard seed. But in hindsight I can see that was more than enough: He never abandoned me – He restored my friend… He worked miracles.
He still wants to. But we have to stop looking all around, looking elsewhere for answers… We have to stop hedging our bets or rather hedging our prayers and ask big, ask bold prayers for Jesus to do what he wants to do for you and me… As we worship Him, as we receive His Body and Blood and He comes into that innermost core of ourselves – He wants to answer our big our bold prayers. More than moving Mulberry Trees – He wants to move, change and transform us into becoming His most faithful of followers.