Heb 12:5-7, 11-13
Today's readings are neither comforting nor consoling. They will not soothe fears. They will not erase doubt. It is much more comforting to hear blessed are the poor or I am the Good Shepherd. Those sentiments will have to wait for another day. If anything, the readings from Hebrews and Luke will increase frustration; they will force us to ask questions: Why bother? Where is God?
Disturbing though they may be these readings are also important. They reflect a primary reality of human life. They reflect the lives of believers as well as those deemed to be saints, a life following Jesus is neither easy nor smooth. We must cope with doubt and uncertainty. Each of us must recommit daily and then continue the journey.
A recurring theme in the recent daily gospels has been that of exclusion. The gospels from Monday through Thursday, included variations on the themes of, many are called and few are chosen, the last shall be first and the first last. How many will arrive at the gate? Who will get through? Will I make the cut?
The first reading from Isaiah proclaims that people from other nations who hear of the True God, the God of Abraham and Moses, the only True God, will come to Jerusalem from all over the world to worship and offer sacrifice. These particular passages come from the end of the last chapter of Isaiah. The penultimate verse of this chapter, indeed the penultimate verse of the entire Book of Isaiah is: “And Sabbath after Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before Me, says the Lord.”
This is key: Worship, prayer, thanksgiving, and observing the Sabbath; ultimately, these are what will bring us through the narrow door.
The reading from Hebrews emphasizes that the journey is neither easy nor guaranteed to be pleasant. It is, in fact, a difficult journey, a journey of trial, a journey in which weakness is revealed. It is the journey of life as we experience it. It is a journey punctuated by struggle, doubt, and error. It is a journey of being disciplined for that error. There is no promise--there has never been a promise--that following Jesus brings a life free of challenge, a life without sorrow, a life absent suffering or darkness, or a life in which one never feels abandoned.
Pie in the sky preaching borders is cruelly delusional. Discipline is painful to receive. Discipline is painful to administer. It alienates the one who is disciplined from the one who disciplines and vice-versa.
It may take a long time before we can look the one who disciplined us in the eye without resentment, without feeling a sting or becoming defensive. Not one of us enjoys being criticized. No one enjoys being disciplined even when it is deserved. However, Hebrews includes a promise of relief: “At the time it is administered, all discipline seems a cause for grief and not for joy. But later it brings forth the fruit of peace and justice to those who are trained in its school.”
We recall discipline more acutely than we do praise. We learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. We grow more from adversity than we do in times of plenty and ease. It is paradoxical that sometimes the farther we feel from God the closer we are to Him, the more distant Jesus seems the more likely He is walking next to us.
In the context of this week’s readings, the gospel is a further warning against spiritual elitism, a warning against sectarianism and self-importance. . . a warning against assuming we are God’s chosen; His favorites, while everyone else is second class. We have all been guilty--and will be guilty--of saying or thinking something along the lines of, “What is someone like her doing here?” Or, in a variation on Groucho's famous statement, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that lets him in.”
Each one of us is the potential hearer of Jesus’ statement, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Away from me, you evildoers!” We are sinners. We are sinners loved by God to be sure, but sinners nonetheless. This is true even of those who are deemed living saints.
Think back to when excerpts of Mother Teresa’s letters were published, letters she wanted destroyed after her death. Some of the commentary was the fruit of reflection. Some pushed a vicious anti-religious anti-Catholic agenda. Some critique was absurdly psychoanalytic. or, worse yet, laden with hilariously pretentious and inaccurate new age psychobabble.
It seems that, despite appearances to the contrary, she was a woman who struggled with doubt for decades, a perceived saint whose prayer life was often arid. It appears that much of Mother Teresa’s life was one of frequent wailing and grinding of teeth; of working with an underlying dissatisfaction. For many of us her letters enhanced, rather than detracted from, her reputation for holiness because they demonstrated that though she struggled with doubt she never rejected Jesus.
Many have struggled with doubt, with dryness, with a sense of God that existed onlybecause of His perceived absence. Recall that Psalm 22 includes Jesus’ last words: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”
People will come from East and West, North and South, to take their place at the banquet of the Lord. We are invited to that same banquet. What matters more to each one of us? That we are first, last, or somewhere in the middle; or is it more important that we partake of the banquet?
The chapel in which I will give this homily at 8 AM Sunday (at this point in 9 hours). It is the Jesuit community chapel in St. Mary's Hall, the Jesuit residence at BC. No commute, just a short walk.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD