You’ve probably heard the phrase “hedging your bets” – when someone takes precautions to limit their disappointment if things don’t go as hoped or expected.  For instance, if a friend insists that a stock will triple in value and advises you to invest a large sum, you might decide to invest only half the amount, just in case.  In such situations, being cautious can be understandable and wise.  But I wonder how often we bring that same level of caution into our faith lives.  How frequently do we find ourselves hedging our prayers?  For example, suppose a friend shares devastating news from their doctor.  In that case, we might offer practical support such as making promises to take them to appointments, running errands, cooking meals, helping with their kids, and checking with their extended family for additional needs.  Those are all thoughtful and appreciated acts of service.  But how many of us feel comfortable telling that person that we will pray for them and sincerely follow through on that intention – praying for their healing or even for a miracle to occur?

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 14th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 7, 2024.  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

I’m not exempting myself from these questions.  Especially in today’s world, thanks in part to social media, there has been a phenomenon called “prayer shaming.” This occurs when someone expresses that they are praying for someone in response to a tragic event, and others ridicule or criticize this as an excuse for not taking what they have decided is more substantial action.  Even when we tell someone, “I’ll be praying for you,” we might think that we are being courageous.  We might actually be intentional about it, thinking about the person during Mass or while saying a rosary or a novena.  These are all good things; please don’t misunderstand me.  But what’s important is our internal disposition and how we approach God with these prayers.

Sometimes, I catch myself treating my prayer lists more like news reports, where I just rattle off headlines to God.  It’s as if I’m a receptionist popping into the boss’s office, informing him of everyone waiting for him in the office or on the phone, all seeking answers.  Where I think that I simply need to keep reminding or pestering Him and imaging He knows what to do…  Rather then remembering that He’s not some boss… and He doesn’t want me to see myself like an employee either.  The amazing truth that He is a Good Father and in His goodness – He wants us to go to Him as His beloved sons and daughters with our thoughts, our feelings – to share what I’m celebrating, what I’m worrying about, what is keeping me up at night… the desperate cries…He wants us to go to Him, to trust Him, and, to let Him speak into any and everything that we are experiencing.

I found myself really challenged by these thoughts as I sat with today’s readings.  Both the prophet Ezekiel and Jesus Christ encounter people who claim to know God and believe in Him, yet quickly demonstrate the limited nature of their faith and belief.  In Ezekiel’s case, God sent him to the Israelites exiled to Babylon.  The people held on to the hope that everything would work out and that God would return them to their previous lives since the Holy City of Jerusalem, the temple were still there.  However, God tells Ezekiel to convey the message that they needed to let go of that hope because Jerusalem would be conquered and the Temple destroyed.  The people, especially those in leadership, had failed to honor the Covenant and had ruptured the relationship between God and His people.  As a result — Jerusalem – the temple – things that had been central to their identities would be lost.  That was unimaginable to them.  They demonstrated their weak faith, the transactional type of relationship they had created with God and their arrogance by putting themselves and their authority as priority in rejecting God’s prophet Ezekiel, as God’s words in the passage we heard described them as “hard of face and obstinate of heart.”

The reading was coupled with this Gospel for obvious reasons.  In this passage, Jesus’ friends, neighbors, and relatives, the people you’d expect to be the first to rejoice and welcome Him home and be receptive to His message, ministry, and presence, instead become hard-faced and obstinate in heart.

For a while, I tried to give the townspeople of Nazareth the benefit of the doubt.  But how could things turn so bad among those who knew him the longest?  They had witnessed him grow up and grew up with him themselves.  The day-to-day, year-to-year familiarity in such close proximity, as would have been typical in that ancient, small village in Judea 2,000 years ago, would have made it hard for them not to think they knew all there was to know about each other.  They knew Mary and Joseph, the Blessed Mother who the Angel Gabriel called “full of Grace,” and St. Joseph who scriptures say was a righteous man.  Those truths animated their lives and would have been observed by others, so they thought highly and admired the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  That’s why initially Jesus was welcomed and received to teach in the Synagogue on the Sabbath.  That wasn’t something any carpenter’s son would have just done or would have even been allowed.  They knew Jesus was special.  They just decided not that special, though.  The Gospel comes to this astonishing conclusion: “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there…  He was amazed at their lack of faith.”   You can hear Jesus’ heartbreak.   The one who, [two weeks ago at Sunday Mass, we heard] has power over nature in calming the wind and the sea, the one who [last week the Gospel told of His] curing a woman suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years, and raising a child who has died back to life, is unable to do anything significant in his hometown.

That’s telling, and it’s important because Jesus didn’t somehow lose his ability to do those things.  It was because they had become hard of face and obstinate of heart.  Miracles and signs occur to draw people into deeper faith and as God’s way of responding to people’s trust.

Both of these readings provide examples of how, throughout history, God’s people have constantly wavered in their conviction.  They try to confine Him or claim to believe, but only to a limited extent – based on what they think is acceptable or feasible.  They fail to realize that this doesn’t diminish God, but rather themselves, and what He can and desires to achieve with, in, and through each and every one of us.

The Israelites rejected Ezekiel because they didn’t want to hear about their sinfulness and faithlessness, which had caused their predicament.  They had the mistaken notion that things had to work out okay because the Temple was still there.  All the while ignoring the fact that even in the midst of the mess and exile, God was still speaking to them.  Trying to break their hard faces, obstinate hearts and become His Chosen People again.  In Jesus’ hometown, the crowd had already witnessed miraculous occurrences during the time the Holy Family lived among them for decades.  However, the image they had of Jesus did not align with what they had decided the Messiah would look like and do.

This brings me back to those challenging question about how often do I hedge my prayers.  Instead of being bold and asking for healing, a miracle, or for God to show up and show out in ways I can’t anticipate or predict, why do I hold back?

One significant memory from my own life occurred when I was a senior in high school.  I was in a horrific car accident, and my friend who was sitting behind me in the car sustained life-threatening injuries.  She had to be rushed by a helicopter to the nearest trauma center in Newark, New Jersey.   While, remarkably, I walked out of the car without a scratch on my body.  The whole night was like a dark, frightening and terrible nightmare that was sadly very real.  Hours later, when I was alone in my bedroom, and looking at the crucifix over my bed, I just gushed in my prayer.  Pleading with God, begging Him that my friend would live, that she would be okay.  At one point, as I prayed the Our Father, and got to the words “thy will be done” I said it like I had never said it before…  I had completely surrendered control over this – which was the only thing I could do since I had no control.  I guess I was in a place of real acceptance over that.  That was when there came this sense of peace where I knew God had stepped in and in this peace I was convinced everything would be okay – and I actually fell asleep.

I wanted to believe that the miracle meant the next day, I went to the hospital, and my friend was completely fine; checking out of the hospital and resuming her life as before.  However, the reality was far different.  She was on life-support machines in the ICU for weeks with no promises from the doctors or anyone else.  Despite the uncertainty, that experience that night convinced me that God was there and active.

Eventually, her life-threatening injuries began to heal, and she would be weaned off of machines.  She slowly started to recover and eventually went to rehab for everything from her memory to speech to walking.  And praise God, would make a complete recovery.  That night was a horrible night, and both of our lives were forever changed by it.  But I saw how God was active and moving in countless ways.  Even decades later, I was amazed that, at her initiative, we were finally able to reconnect.  When I had hoped to have the opportunity to ask for her forgiveness for being an inexperienced driver who made a bad mistake, I was stunned when she beat me to it and asked for my forgiveness for being in any way cold or distant to me after that fateful night.

As Catholics, we often refer to this celebration as “Mass,” but it is also known as “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” That emphasizes that the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary on Good Friday is made real on this altar.  We receive His death and resurrection into our very selves when we consume His body and blood in the Eucharist.  This communion allows us to experience the power and authority of Jesus Christ within us.  That intimacy between God and humanity is unparaleled – it is unlike anything the prophet Ezekiel or those crowds in the Synagogue of Jesus’ hometown experienced.  The man whom even the winds and sea obeyed; who raised the dead, who is risen from the dead Himself and lives forever is that close to us.  Why do we fear to be honest and vulnerable with Him?   What are we holding back from Him?  Is it that we are afraid to ask for things because we don’t want to possibly hear an answer that might be different from what we desire?

Again, that’s not said out of judgment, that’s probably true for many of us – I know it’s true for me at times where I struggle with doubt, where I hedge my prayers.  But that’s where Saint Paul’s reading providentially lines up beautifully today.  In this passage from his second letter to the Corinthians, he’s talking about a “thorn in the flesh” that he had begged God to remove from him.  People speculate whether it was a physical limitation, an illness or disability, or perhaps a sinful temptation that he struggled with.  Whatever it was, it was a personal weakness that he fought through most of his life, yet he came to hear from the Lord “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” and to actually believe that.  God didn’t remove the thorn, but He did save Paul from shipwrecks, restored him when he had been stoned and left for dead by an angry mob, sustained him through imprisonments and accompanied him even to death at the hands of executioners.   Every prayer was answered, some miraculously in his time and space, and some standing as a witness to the power and glory of God in ways that only made sense after his earthly life was finished.  These prayers of St. Paul strengthen, inspire, and renew the faith of countless souls who’ve read his words throughout the centuries and millennia.

Which comes to us today… Our God meets you and me here and now in this place.  Praise God, He’s already at work – that you and I are here is our responding to the Holy Spirit, where we went against those thoughts and temptations to ignore our Sunday obligation and made it here.  What is the Holy Spirit nudging you in your heart right now to lay bare before the Lord?  The prayer you haven’t made, that you’ve been hesitating to offer.  Unlike the crowds of His hometown who amazed Jesus with their lack of faith; will we dare to let him amaze us by our faith?