In high school and college, on my list of career options that I was considering pursuing was a career in journalism. I wasn’t sure if it would be print journalism (like newspapers or magazines) or mass media because I enjoyed my experiences in both forms. I had done everything for our High School and College newspapers, from writing stories, designing layouts, creating opinion pieces, and holding various editor positions. I had a stint on our college radio that attracted tens of listeners. And I was able to take some introductory classes in journalism. One of the lessons that came up in all those experiences and have stuck with me ever since was the journalistic cliche “If it bleeds, it leads.” It’s a crude saying that’s been around for generations pointing out the reality that the bigger the scandal, the crisis, or the tragedy, the more people would be talking about it and looking for more information about it.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 13, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this 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- Father Jim
Thirty years ago, there was a lot of thought, debates, and discussions over the ethics of this reality. Particularly with us idealistic and eager student journalists with our teachers, advisors, and mentors. We wanted to be relevant and popular and create things people would want to pick up and read. But in a High School community and College campus setting, you’re still kids dealing with sometimes more significant issues and unsure of the consequences of what you share and how you convey that. How do you handle sensitive stories that could be embarrassing to someone? Was something gossiping, or was this a legitimate story that needed to be covered? Where was the line between censorship and discretion? So, for example, when our football team suffered a humiliating defeat to one of our rivals, there weren’t a lot of ways to sugarcoat it; our advisor counseled us not to shame our fellow students. When one of our high school teachers had to resign due to what most of us suspected was an alcohol addiction, that was handled far more cautiously, carefully, and discreetly. In the decades since graduating and leaving journalistic ambitions behind, and simply being a consumer of news, I’m thankful for all that I learned. Especially keeping that unfortunate but true saying “if it bleeds, it leads” in mind.
As any professional in the news industry, today will tell you, journalism has changed dramatically, especially with the virtual and online world that continues to expand in ways that were unimaginable 30 years ago. First and foremost, we can almost immediately be connected to an important historical event or alerted of some dangerous occurrence. Often that comes from someone with their smartphone, which cuts out the long wait between getting an alert and trying to get a news crew out to a scene. Wednesday Night, for example, was shocking for me just scrolling through my social media. A video of the assassination of a Presidential candidate in Ecuador was right there on my phone minutes after it happened.
But with every person being able to share things, and that desire for notoriety, likes, follows – there’s not much discretion or thoughtful reflection about the implications. And sadly, because of these expansions of social media sharing, even the “professionals” have lowered their standards, abandoned their ethics, and will look at what is trending, what is going viral, repackaging it, and broadcasting it themselves. If it bleeds, it leads has become called “Clickbait,” meaning news organizations often share things that will provoke anger, fear, and outrage to get someone to look at their story. The more they can keep tapping into those emotions, the more they’ll stay tuned, follow them, and subscribe to their services, which has been disastrous mentally and spiritually. The magazine Vanity Fair observed, “the way cable news traps us in the daily drama, forces us to watch the news ping-pong back and forth across our screens, locked in a variant of feelings that have gone from the cringe-y pleasure derived from watching bad things happen to other people to where that pleasure is gone, but the compulsion grows ever stronger because the bad things are happening, or are about to happen to us.” Whether watching cable news or seeing and sharing it on a tweet or a Facebook post, people are being drawn into this dangerous vortex where we’re losing sight and perspective. Think about how often you’ve heard that the country is about to explode, war is inevitable, the Church is collapsing, and the world is ending. I’ve been guilty of that, so Fr. Jim is forbidden from watching the news at night. All I allow myself is Seinfeld re-runs before I go to bed.
But it’s tough. It’s a challenge because bad things are happening; frightening realities and difficult things are going on. We can’t (and shouldn’t) hide our heads in the sand and pretend that’s not true. And people trying to stay rooted in their faith are often looking to find meaning in the midst of those things. How do we learn to be “in the world but not of the world” as the Scriptures tell us – to navigate things we see and hear in the news and not lose our faith and perspective?
Today’s first reading from the Old Testament, the first book of Kings, has part of one of my favorite stories from the Old Testament about the prophet Elijah. It was only a snippet of a bigger story. To give you the context that was left out, Elijah had just gone toe-to-toe with the prophets of the false, pagan god Ba’al. Actually, it was toe to 450 toes. There were 450 prophets of Ba’al and just Elijah. The pagans had convinced Queen Jezebel and a whole bunch of Jews to abandon faith in the Lord God and to follow this false pagan god. It’s this epic spiritual battle where the prophets have this big showdown. They each have these sacrifices of a bull, and they would call down fire from their respective gods to prove which was real. All 450 false prophets spend hours to no avail – the Bible recounts it: they remained in a prophetic state until the time for offering sacrifice. But there was no sound, no one answering, no one listening. When Elijah goes up, he sets up an altar with 12 stones recounting the 12 tribes of Israel, built an altar with his sacrifice on it, and had them drench the sacrifice and altar with water and pray, “LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, LORD! Answer me, that this people may know that you, LORD, are God and that you have turned their hearts back to you.” With that, fire comes down from heaven and completely devours the sacrifice. The people go nuts. They fall prostrate to the ground; they cry out, “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!” And guess what? The next day, it was as if it didn’t even happen. Queen Jezebel was livid – Elijah was now a marked man and fled for his life. And now he comes to this mountain where he is waiting for the Lord God. This is what we heard today – this beautiful passage, a strong and heavy wind goes by – but the Lord was not in the wind… There’s an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake… There’s a fire… but the Lord was not in the fire… after the fire, there was a tiny whispering sound -when he heard this, Elijah hid his face. Meaning God was in that tiny whispering sound.
Sometimes people mistakenly think that this means we only encounter God in the tiny whispering sound. But that’s not the case, we just heard how God had shown out with fire from the sky just one chapter earlier. And all those other references, “a strong heavy wind,” “earthquake,” “fire,” were some of God’s greatest hits! Moments of encounter that had happened before in the history of Israel. They just weren’t how God was revealing Himself and His activity at this particular moment. The point God was highlighting to Elijah was that didn’t mean He wasn’t attentive. That didn’t mean He wasn’t aware of what happened. That didn’t mean He didn’t care for Elijah. Elijah had started to think that. He was being faithful; the whole world was going to hell; he thought for sure God showing up in that dramatic fashion would result in mass conversions which it didn’t. And in fact, Elijah becomes somewhat whiney and pessimistic himself. In the verses before and after his realization that God is there in the small, tiny sound – Elijah’s been complaining, saying “I can’t do this anymore.”
Elijah was having a moment. He was letting the daily headlines, the narrative, the polls, and the attitudes of the people get to him. Why was the civil leadership so corrupt? Why weren’t the religious leaders doing more? When was God going to step in? He had done it before; why not now? We find that Elijah is starting to let his own desired outcomes, his expectations to eclipse what God had just accomplished. In some ways, he’s struggling as much as the fickle people who saw the smackdown against Ba’al and the next day were onto the next story, the next headline… He needed to be pulled away from all the drama of the world and be alone with God in order to recover. Remembering God was still very much in charge, had never stopped caring and loving Elijah or all the people that God had sent Elijah too.
St Peter is in a similar boat (pun intended) in today’s Gospel. What are the headlines that would be very easy for them to focus on? Jesus’ 12 chosen ones are in the midst of a horrific storm threatening their lives. The fishermen onboard think back to their former lives before Christ and their experiences on the sea and are convinced this could be their end. The winds and the waves eclipse in the memories of their hearts all the miraculous things they’ve witnessed and participated in with Jesus to the point that as Jesus walks on water, they’re so terrified it didn’t even cross their minds it was Jesus; they think He’s a ghost. Peter is the one who boldly asks if it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water. He’s putting himself on the line rather than just putting Jesus to the test, which is what makes it such a moment of incredible faith. Jesus invites him, “Come,” and we hear another miracle – Peter walks on the water! And as we’ve often heard before, when Peter stops focusing on Jesus Christ and starts to pay attention to all the bad news, he begins to drown.
What makes Peter different from Elijah, though, is what is essential. What does he do when he starts to drown? He cries out in prayer, “Lord, save me!” What an amazing and beautiful prayer. He recovers his perspective at this moment of crisis. Realizing he became overwhelmed the minute he allowed all the waves and the wind to distract him from Jesus. But how does Peter avoid getting himself into that moment of crisis in the first place? Or any of us, for that matter?
For each of us, that we’re all here today is great. It’s essential for us as Catholics to be together for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass every Sunday. But we need to do something else. Which, with all the dramatic things we’ve heard in these readings, can be lost as a tiny whispering sound. The short line at the beginning of the Gospel passage tells us Jesus “went up on the mountain by himself to pray.” Think about that. Jesus needed that intimacy of his own personal time with His Heavenly Father. Jesus needed prayer to be refreshed. Jesus needed to be away from the noise of the crowd and the demands and align Himself with God’s will. He was not allowing the fickleness and the ever-changing narrative of the world to dictate things but allowing the Father to continue to direct His steps. If Jesus needed that, then so do we. I know in my own life that I can be like Elijah wanting to perform some miraculous feat that will show out and show up the false gods, the idols that so many in our world seem captivated by. To be like Peter and be able to walk on water to maybe divert people’s attention from all the craziness in the world. But then I realize how arrogant that is and how Jesus has entrusted me to share in His priesthood. That at every Mass all of us experience a far greater miracle than Elijah could’ve ever imagined God Himself being made real and present as the bread and wine becomes Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
To fully appreciate that, maybe we need to unplug, disconnect from the barrage of information we’re bombarded with constantly tempting us to keep scrolling, keep listening, keep watching where hours go by without even realizing it. Again, not saying ignore any of the news or our responsibilities as citizens. But not allowing that to be our excuse that “I have no time for daily prayer…” “I can’t listen to a podcast like ‘The Bible in a Year’ I have 20 other media personalities that I have to listen to” “I have no time to pray the rosary, I have three hours of cable news to watch regurgitate the same story and get me outraged more and more.” We need more time and space for God’s voice in our daily lives, where we can be mindful of His constant presence so that we come to a place where we allow what bleeds to lead – be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.