In a matter of days, my beloved college students will be returning to campus for (hopefully) a return to a normal, in-person, Academic Year. After a year where half of them were on campus, half were online in the bizarre hybrid that seemed to be the norm for everyone in all walks of life, it’s a relief to be talking about them coming back and trying to plan and prepare for it. But that’s where there’s a bit of a challenge for me with this younger generation – planning and preparing. You’d think that they would be raring to get back, to get started and focused on what to do, where to go, have things in order. Yet in the last week, I’ve had kids explain with the same responses I heard before the pandemic “I still don’t know when I’m moving back to campus…” “I’m not sure what my class schedule for the semester is…” Mind you move-in starts tomorrow, classes start in about a week and they purportedly choose those classes months ago. It’s not that the University hasn’t communicated to them about when the dorms reopen, or they don’t remember what they took or can’t take their phones out instantly logging into their accounts seeing the schedule they’ve registered for. In their minds, they’re not solidified. They’re thinking Maybe I’ll move in Monday – or maybe I’ll wait till next week…when’s my roommate moving in? Do I want to get there before him to pick out which bed I want? They’re thinking about changing their schedule – maybe I’d like to sleep in late – maybe I’ll take that class early so I can get a job – maybe I’ll plan all my classes on these three days to have two days off… oh wait I heard that teacher is easier than that one, but if I take her than that means I have to move this other class.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this, my homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 22, 2021, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments! For the audio version you can get them at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. Thanks again… I hope you and yours experience all of God’s blessings today and always! In Christ – Father Jim
We can roll our eyes at these “first world problems” – especially in light of so many major ones that we’re all well aware of. But it’s a symptom of a bigger issue that affects more than my beloved kids. Among mental health experts, there’s been a lot of discussion about the seriousness of what’s described as analysis paralysis – the reality that a growing number of people seem incapable of making a decision because there are too many options available. Sounds crazy, but it’s not. The University of Washington did a study in a grocery store where they presented customers with the choice between a booth with six flavors of jam to taste and another with 24 flavors. The data revealed that customers were far more likely to make a purchase from the booth with only six choices. So even if one of those 24 flavors of jam could be the best thing you’ve ever tasted, you’ll never know because your brain simply can’t process all the possibilities.
It seems illogical, doesn’t it? But people tend to be more satisfied with a final decision when they have fewer choices. Psychologist, Barry Schwartz argues in his book, The Paradox of Choice, that with too many possibilities, whether it’s over who to date, choosing a movie, even picking a salad dressing it’s easy for us to imagine that we could have chosen a better one. Because our mind starts running through the different scenarios and comes up with this combination of regret, missed opportunity, escalating expectations, and eventually self-blame that make us miserable and dissatisfied with our decisions. It causes some to not make any choice at all, hoping to leave all doors, all options, all possibilities on the table (not realizing not making a choice is in fact a choice, a decision)
This has affected people’s spiritual lives as well. We have a lot of people believing that all religions are at some level all the same just “different paths to the same destination.” Or that the distinction between Catholics and other Christians is like the difference between flavors of ice-cream – we like chocolate – they like rocky road or strawberry… And there’s been this growing view held by a majority of people (who believe in God or in a “power greater than themselves” and a concept of an afterlife) who will tell you that the most important thing is to be a good person… that’s all that matters. All of those things make nice talking points that allow for polite conversations with people of a variety of different backgrounds. All of which allows people to believe or not to believe in anything. All of which leaves Catholics feeling comfortable to pop in for Mass and then skip for months or weeks. But all of those thoughts and perspectives go against the Gospel. And our scriptures today make that point pretty clear.
God is being completely direct. You need to choose. And there are only two options: Follow me, or leave. These aren’t parables that have a lot of different possible meanings that we can hear differing opinions on. These aren’t confusing passages that have different cultural contexts we need to clarify. There’s no “grey area.” God has no – and will tolerate no rivals. He will not be treated as one option among many others. “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve,” Joshua – the successor of Moses asks the people of Israel in the first reading. After God had saved the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt – parting the Red Sea and leveling the Egyptians who changed their minds and then pursued them in order to recapture them… after God led them through the wilderness and provided heavenly manna – this bread that literally fell down from the heavens so they could survive on their journey to the promised land that He had promised them and fulfilled… a journey that took far longer than it should have because of their weak faith and hearts – that in spite of that, God remained patient and faithful to them to bring them there… after all of that, in this first reading we find that here they are in this promised land. The people are still not single-minded in their faith and devotion to the Lord God. They still dabble with the false pagan gods they had been exposed to as slaves in Egypt. Maybe thinking I prayed for this from the Lord God and it didn’t seem to happen, maybe there’s another option, another choice out there, maybe there’s a pagan god from Egypt I should consider… maybe there’s no god at all, so maybe I should do whatever I want.” Joshua clarifies the reality – we have freedom, free will – one of the greatest gifts and risks that the Lord God almighty has taken with us His creatures. But there are only two options that the people need to decide – either the Lord God or not. And if it’s the Lord God we need to follow what he says or leave.
This is fulfilled as all of the Old Testament is in Jesus Christ in one of the most dramatic encounters we find in the Gospels. [Apart from last Sunday because of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary liturgically bumping the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time] For the last 5 weeks we’ve been on this mini-retreat so to speak with the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel. 5 weeks ago, this was a huge crowd of well over 5,000 closer to 10,000 people who thought Jesus was cool, Jesus was great – he took 5 loaves, 2 fish, fed everyone till they were full – not just a small bite or something – but miraculously multiplied those 5 loaves and 2 fish so everyone would be satisfied and everyone would be full and ended up with 12 baskets of leftovers. The next day, a large number went after Jesus not because they were blown away by such a miracle that was a sign He was God and maybe they should listen to what He has to say – but because they were hungry again. The people who had fish and bread for dinner wanted breakfast. And Jesus began this discourse talking to them about what they need to live – both now and for all eternity – was the bread of life. Not bread, like manna in the desert, but Jesus’ very flesh and blood that we need to eat – or even more graphically the word really means to chew. It’s meant to be dramatic. It’s meant to make the listeners – then and now – uncomfortable. Jesus is being clear, eating, chewing His very flesh and blood – which is what the Eucharist is, that’s essential in our deciding whether we are following Him or not. And the listeners need to choose, to decide whether they will follow or leave.
We can’t miss or shouldn’t miss – John doesn’t sugar coat what happened “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” This moment was a decisive moment of departure. And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat things either. He doesn’t run after them to try to convince them to keep the door open, reconsider. He doesn’t say “guys, guys wait – maybe you didn’t understand, I didn’t mean actually eating and chewing my flesh and blood – it’s a symbol, it will make sense when you see it under the appearances of bread and wine.” Jesus means what He says. Jesus is God and either people will trust Him even when it doesn’t make complete sense at the moment because they believe He is God and follow Him or not. And Jesus respects their decision – as disastrous as it is – and turns to those remaining and asks them “Do you also want to leave?”
That’s the question we’re left with ourselves today. If we truly want to be followers of Christ, then we have to recognize this is a decisive choice we are making. Jesus isn’t just a flavor that we prefer among many equals – but rather that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. That this is a consequential choice. Because when Jesus says “the flesh is of no avail” – He’s telling us this is a choice between living according to our flesh, our human desires and vision, mired in choices about the things of this world – which leaves us constantly calculating, reconsidering, wondering what I want, what I think will make me happy, and never truly being satisfied or aligning myself to His flesh – living a life ordered and focused on Him and Him alone.
That doesn’t mean God forgets how imperfect and broken people we are. The people of Israel say to Joshua in that first reading that they choose the Lord God and well, spoiler alert, they still will fail and fall for idols along the way (and God in His love and mercy will keep making new ways for them to come back to Him). Simon Peter is very clear in his words in this Gospel passage today, but we know that he will struggle and fail, as will most of the apostles and earliest of disciples. And that’s true for us who find ourselves here today. Our choosing Jesus, our deciding that the Catholic Christian faith is the clearest, consistent, way of following Jesus and the Church that He founded, of feasting on His body and blood in the Eucharist – it doesn’t mean that we don’t have doubts… it doesn’t mean we don’t struggle at times – individually or even collectively as a Church. Sadly it doesn’t even mean the Church is perfect and free of scandal and has leaders who perfectly emulate Jesus anymore perfectly than each of us do individually. But it does mean I keep moving with Him who is perfect. It does mean I come every Sunday for Mass, I do pray, I do go to confession, I do serve others in need in the midst of my own struggles. It means I bring my fears and my doubts to Him. Because I’ve chosen Him above all others. That this is a decisive and definitive choice that defines my life – now and for all eternity – because we too are convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God.