What would cause you to lose your faith? Quite a question, huh? As we hear Jesus go through a litany of pretty frightening realities in this Gospel passage, that could be what He is asking. He used one example that was specific to his day, time, and audience. Saying to this group of Jewish listeners who would have viewed the magnificent temple of Jerusalem with even greater awe, wonder, and reverence than Catholics view St. Peter’s Basilica – The Vatican in Rome. Because even more than it just being this incredibly beautiful place, why it held such an important place in their hearts and minds, spiritually and culturally, was you’d have to imagine St. Peter’s Basilica being the only Church in the world. That’s what the temple meant to them and now Jesus says to these followers who were faithful Jews it would be utterly destroyed . . . When that terrible thing happens, he seemed to be asking them, will that cause you to lose your faith?
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the 33rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – November 13, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
But even after that example, Jesus used plenty of others that are understandable to anyone of any age.
When there are wars and insurrections . . . nations rising against nation, kingdom rising up against kingdom? Jesus is wondering – would that level of insecurity, that kind of instability be the thing that causes you to lose your faith?
Or how about natural tragedies – things like powerful earthquakes, famines plagues, and pandemics (if that’s a natural thing, not to get into that debate)? These inexplicable, unpredictable things, which take place suddenly and cause unbelievable heartache, stress, and loss to people, both the just and unjust – to the most devout of believers and to those who are not believers, at all – Jesus asks, when these things occur – which they will in this still broken and imperfect world – will those events cause you to lose your faith?
Or, if somehow after all that, you still hang on and hang in, even as the physical structure that you look to as the foundation of your faith, (the temple) disappears . . .the wars, insurrections, and lack of peace in the world reveal itself in a real and violent way . . .the natural disasters, often mislabeled as ‘acts of God,’ occur in your world . . .
If, after all that, you are hated, persecuted, maligned canceled by those you were closest to in this world – family, friends even to the point of death – all because you have chosen to follow, you have placed your trust in, you have believed in Jesus – will that be the breaking point where you lose your faith?
Far from happy thoughts . . . but to Jesus they are real, they are legitimate. They are realities that every one of us has faced to one degree or another in our lives and the lives of those closest to us. Whether its scandalous stuff that’s happened in the Church that makes us feel like our temple has been destroyed; or the division we see among people in our nation or around the world; the horrific scenes of different natural catastrophes; the memories of COVID sadly still fresh in our minds or the accelerating hostility towards anyone who professes or attempts to follow Christ and the teachings of the Church (sometimes even from people who are supposedly within the Church) – with all this happening, many are worried and fearful that these might be “the end times.” All of these things do shake people to their core. When we consider more personal trials and struggles – an addiction, difficulty at home or at work, a divorce, a death, a health problem – those more personal attacks on us and our lives can be just as, if not even more devastating than, all of the things that Jesus lays out for us in today’s Gospel.
As we look around our churches at Sunday Mass, we see fewer people here than there were just a few years ago. Pollsters tell us that at least some of those have lost their faith. As sad as that is, though, we’re left with Jesus asking – what will cause you to lose your faith? Will anything?
A couple of years ago, I read this story about a woman named Mary Johnson – a devout Christian from Minnesota. In 1993, while at work she received a call that is every parent’s worst nightmare come true. Her son had been at a party, an argument had broken out, and her son had been killed. When Mary got the news that the person they arrested for this heinous crime was a 16-year-old boy, she said “Hate set in then and there…” She reflects on it saying, “Here I was a Christian woman, full of hatred.”
Can any of us blame her for feeling like that? Can any of us be confident we wouldn’t have the same reaction? Especially as she describes the roller coaster of emotions that the trial was for her – first she was glad to learn the 16-year-old would be tried as an adult for first-degree murder, only to become later enraged when the judge changed the charge to second-degree murder for the killer, Oshea Israel, whom she described as “an animal” she wanted “caged up for the rest of his life.” During the trial, Mary needed to be restrained from going after Oshea’s mother. After the trial, and his being sentenced to 25 years, Mary talks about how the “bitterness ran deep, anger had set in and I hated everyone. I remained like that for years, driving many people away.” It seemed nothing good within her, not to mention her faith was gone.
As those years passed, though, at one point she came upon a poem that changed her life. It was about an imaginary meeting between two mothers – one whose child had been murdered and one whose child was responsible for the murder. Mary the mother of Jesus and the mother of Judas Iscariot. Twelve years after Mary Johnson first felt that hatred within her, had first called Oshea an animal and wanted him caged up, she knew what her Christian faith was calling her to do- something she had not done, something that seemed impossible for the grieving mother to do – she knew she needed to forgive Oshea.
She reached out and asked to meet him and for 9 months he turned down the request out of fear – fear of what she would say or do, fear at how he might be vulnerable in a state prison. But eventually, he agreed. She describes in vivid detail the day she met him. She even remembers the hand lotion that was given to her while she waited to see him. The lotion was called, “Beyond Belief” which seemed incredibly appropriate. The prisoner and the grieving mother met for over 2 hours. Mary started by saying that she didn’t know him, and he didn’t know her, and asked to get to know him better. Mary Johnson spoke about her son, and Israel spoke about his life. As the meeting came to a close Mary Johnson told Oshea Israel, “I forgive you from the bottom of my heart.” Shocked, Oshea asked, “Ma’am, how can you do that?” And Mary simply broke down and started crying – she even had trouble standing. To prevent her from falling, Oshea grabbed onto her and ended up hugging her like Mary was his own mother. After Oshea went back to his cell, Mary Johnson was shocked by the encounter saying, “I just hugged the man who murdered my son.”
That’s what faith did for her. She talked about how from that day on – the anger, the hatred, the animosity, the pain – it all left her. She had a new freedom, she had a new vision. Her faith in Christ had made her recognize that her son was in God’s hands – and even more incredibly, she felt a responsibility for Oshea, who she calls her “spiritual son.” Upon his release from prison – She helped him to find housing right next door to her. Oshea describes that while he has humbly accepted Mary’s forgiveness, he’s still trying to forgive himself for what he did. And he works with Mary, on what they call “The Forgiveness Project” as they go from location to location together sharing their story.
As soon as I heard that story, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have that kind of strength or faith. Heck, I never want to be in a position to find out. And I don’t think Jesus set those things in motion so they could find out for themselves, either. As I’ve said already, there are plenty of things that have occurred that made many people to lose their faith.
But what Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel have shared is their testimony and their witness is that, even when they were far from God’s love, He never abandoned or forgot them. Despite the incredible, crushing grief, rage, anger, and even hatred they felt, Jesus was never far from them, or their lives. When Mary was ready, when Oshea was ready, that whole awful situation – and both of them were transformed by Jesus Christ. They realized that the core of their faith – that they were children of God – had never changed. The grieving mother, the prisoner wasn’t their identity. God’s beloved daughter and son were their true identity, an identity they eventually recognized in each other. The Gospel passage we proclaimed ended with the words, “By your perseverance, you will secure your lives,” but what Mary and Oshea testify to is how Jesus preserves His faith in each and every one of us, here and now.
Jesus isn’t sharing this challenging, difficult Gospel to frighten us. He’s telling us He knows how hard, how unfair, how unjust the world can be, how cruel people can be. But Jesus is fair, He is just, and He loves us. He loved us into existence and never stops, to the point that He’s worried about every hair on our heads. His unwavering faith in His Father enabled Him to carry and be nailed to a cross. That faith was affirmed as Jesus emerged from a tomb three days after His death. That faith continues to bring healing and restoration and new life in all who continue to follow Jesus.
Thanks be to God – we are here today. Despite whatever it is we’re dealing with, whatever may cause us to doubt, cause us to waver, even if we’re here with a heavy, distracted heart – Jesus is rejoicing in that perseverance. Encouraging us not to give up. Ever. Because He will never lose faith in us.