Sunday, August 2, 2020

What To Do?

10 years ago today, I waved good-bye to my predecessor. Then I got into the parish car, drove to the church, walked into my new office, sat down at my desk, looked around, and wondered out loud, “Now what do I do?” Soon enough, of course, the challenges began to pile up. That very week, I was told there were termites in the church’s wall and the church’s ceiling was in danger of falling down. 10 years later, there are still termites, but we did get a new ceiling. Meanwhile, I began this year replacing a broken boiler, with a global pandemic thrown in for good measure. So much for wondering what to do next!

The pandemic, as the Pontifical Academy for Life has recently reminded us, “has brought desolation to the world.” It “has given us the spectacle of empty streets and ghostly cities, of human proximity wounded, of physical distancing. It has deprived us of the exuberance of embraces, the kindness of hand shakings, the affection of kisses, and turned relations into fearful interactions of strangers, the neutral exchange of faceless individualities shrouded in the anonymity of protective gears.”

And yet, what will separate us, Saint Paul dramatically asks, from God’s love for us as revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord? His answer is that nothing will! Not termites, sinking ceilings, broken boilers, and annual operating deficits – not even, presumably, a global pandemic, or any of the other serious problems Paul confronted, anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword.

Paul’s point was obviously not that those things are no longer real or that they don’t still threaten us, but that God’s power is greater than the forces that dominate our world – and so can overcome all the worries we struggle with in ordinary life, worries which, if we let them, will become obstacles that threaten to separate us from God and the salvation his love intends for us.

Nor does Paul confine his concern to impersonal forces. Like most people for most of human history, he experienced his world as affected by the presence of powerful beings, demonic beings, who make this world a very dangerous place.

In Paul’s time – as again in our own increasingly re-paganized society – desperate people turned to falsehoods like astrology in order to cope with the threats from present things and future things. Of course, who needs demons to worry about, when we are surrounded by unseen viruses! But then we have historically invented and reinvented many such demons to fulfil our fantasies – the demons of illusiory independence, national exceptionalism, and individual self-sufficiency – the falseness of which this pandemic has once again demonstrated.

Paul’s conviction, which he hopes has become ours as well, is that God’s power is greater than that of any force that might seem to separate us from God’s love.

The point is that, if we really believe in God’s omnipotence and in his love for us as revealed in Jesus, then we will react differently to the stresses and challenges we might otherwise be beaten down by. But we have to believe in both God’s omnipotence and his love. A God who was not all-powerful would be of at best limited value for us in this threatening and dangerous world. An all-powerful God who didn’t also love us, however, would only add to our sense of danger. That was precisely the problem with the pagan religions the Gospel was liberating so many of Paul’s contemporaries from. No wonder scared, terrified pagans – both ancient and modern – have consulted astrologers! Can you blame them?

If God had not revealed himself – and his love for us – as he has done in his Son Jesus, we too would be equally desperate, clutching at any illusion – any demon or demagogue - that promised to fix things in our favor.

God, however, has revealed his love for us – not as an abstraction, but as a person, Christ Jesus our Lord, whose heart is moved with pity for us and satisfies us with food we could never buy on our own.

There will always be an insurmountable gap between our meager human resources – our 5 little loaves and 2 fish – and what God can accomplish on our behalf. Once we are willing to put ourselves at his disposal, however, God’s great love for us, present and active among us in Christ Jesus our Lord, will transform us by his blessing and enable us to accomplish, on his behalf, what we could never ever have imagined doing on our own.

And so the same Christ who feeds us whenever we assemble in his presence also commands us – in the solidarity which unites us as his disciples and as his Church – to join him wholeheartedly in feeding the world with the bread we receive and share when we recognize and perpetuate his presence in our world.

Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, August 2, 2020.



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