In June of 1859, Charles Blondin stretched a tightrope a quarter mile across Niagara Falls. No one had ever attempted such a feat before, and a large crowd gathered to witness the event. To their amazement and delight he crossed over the roaring waters not just once but several times. They were wrapped in wonder as he crossed the falls backwards, with a blindfold on and then in a burlap bag. For his final act, he walked from one side to the other pushing a wheelbarrow.
As the crowd erupted in applause, he asked them, “Do you believe that I could walk across the falls with someone in the wheelbarrow?” “We do! We do!”, they excitedly replied. “Well then,” he said, “who wants to get in?”
The crowd grew silent. No one was willing to take up his challenge. Though they professed a belief that he could take them safely across, no one was willing to stake his or her life on it.
We have gathered here today to profess and celebrate our belief in God and in his Son, Jesus Christ. We believe that He can do all things and that He loves us. We believe that He died for us and that in His name we have forgiveness of sins. We believe that He has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us making us His children. Are we willing to stake our lives on that belief? Are we willing to give up our possessions, our time and our comfort to do what He commands us? Are we willing to face life’s challenges with hope and patience knowing that God will make all things work for our good? True faith is not only to believe that God can carry us through any difficulty, but to actually place ourselves in His hands and allow Him to carry us across.
Today’s first reading is taken from the prophet Habakkuk. It was written during a particularly difficult period in Israel’s history. The countryside had been ravaged by war. Poverty, disease and hunger were everywhere. The future was uncertain. It seemed that God had abandoned His people. The prophet begs God to show Himself and put an end to the misery all about him. When God finally does show Himself, He reassures Habakkuk that He has not abandoned His people. Rather, His plan is working itself out even in the midst of war, violence and suffering. God tells him and us that the just person is the one who trusts God even when tragedies arise. Unlike the rash person, they do not abandon their beliefs because they become difficult. Therefore, because they persevere in doing God’s will, they will receive His promise of salvation.
Nothing can deter God’s plan. No events of history, no matter how earth shaking, can thwart God’s will. We have to trust that He has everything under control, and that no matter how difficult our situation may appear, He will make it turn out for our good. Though we do not see clearly the road ahead of us and though it may seem impossible to believe that everything will turn out well, we have to place ourselves in His hands and allow him to carry us across.
We are living through a particularly difficult time in the Church’s history. Though we live relatively comfortable and peaceful lives, our spirits are assaulted daily by despair, doubt and worry. We are told that our faith has no place in the modern world. The media tempt us continually with images of all the pleasures a materialistic, self-centered life could bring us. Even worse, the scandals within the Church over the past decades shake our trust in our religious leaders. For these reasons, many have stopped believing. Many have chosen to leave. No doubt, many of us here have asked ourselves why we stay. The only possible answer is that we find Jesus here. No matter what the world may offer us, no matter what doubts may arise, in our hearts we know that Jesus will be here for us. And we trust that no matter what difficulties life may present us with, His plan is working itself out in our lives and in our world. And because we have trusted and stuck it out, we are beginning to see His promises unfold in our lives.
In today’s gospel, when the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, he responds that faith is not a matter of size but of strength. The smallest of faiths can uproot the sycamore. In another place, Jesus says it can move mountains. The apostles were correct, nonetheless, in desiring more faith and in recognizing Jesus as the source of that faith.
Our faith grows in strength when we profess it and live it even though everyone around us is making different choices. God strengthens our faith when we make decisions that go against our own comfort and desires because we believe His commandments are true. When we give up possessions and leave behind a materialistic lifestyle to live according to Jesus’ words, then our faith multiplies. It moves the hearts and minds of those whom we meet. It uproots sin and ignorance. It casts into the sea selfishness and hatred. When we place ourselves in God’s hands and trust that He will carry us across though we cannot see the way ahead, then He will reward us abundantly.
As we stand to profess our faith in an all-powerful God, let us entrust ourselves, our world and our Church to Him and commit to living His word with renewed fervor and confidence.
Living in an industrialized nation as we do, it is easy to forget how much poverty there is in our world. With all the advances in technology over the past century, we might even be deluded into thinking that most people in the world lead relatively productive and comfortable lives.
Unfortunately, just the opposite is true.
According to the United Nations, ten percent of the world’s population subsists on just one dollar per day. An astounding eighty percent of human beings live on less than ten dollars per day.
An estimated twenty-four thousand children die everyday because of malnutrition or lack of health care. Almost one and a half million children die each year because they lack clean water. Over two million children die each year because they are not immunized. And fifteen million children are orphaned because their parents have died of AIDS.
As it turns out, most of the world lives in total and abject poverty.
The thought of billions of people starving to death and suffering because of untreated illnesses can be overwhelming to us. We might feel that it is beyond our power to do anything about it, or that we lack the resources to help all
these poor people.
But, consider this. Every year, Americans spend eight billion dollars on cosmetics including lipstick, hair gel and deodorant. It would cost only six billion dollars to provide a basic education to all the children in the developing world. Also, in Europe and the United States, pet owners spend seventeen billion dollars annually on food for their dogs, cats and canaries. By contrast, it would cost only thirteen billion dollars to provide for the basic health and nutritional needs of people in poor countries.
The causes of poverty in our world are many and complex. Just sending money to the developing world is not the answer. Feeling guilty about the abundance of material blessings we enjoy will do no good either. Nonetheless, the reality of so many of our sisters and brothers suffering needlessly should challenge us to look at our lifestyles. Do we consider our money and possessions as gifts given to us by God to share with others? Or do we spend our money in whatever way we see fit with no thought about how it will help or harm others? Are we content to just make sure our needs and the needs of our loved ones are provided for? Or do we feel a sense of responsibility to provide for the needs of others?
The Bible makes it clear that we will be judged on how we treat the poor. In today’s first reading, the prophet Amos blasts the rich people of his land who hoard riches and enjoy lavish feasts all the while turning a blind eye to the needy. They use their wealth to isolate themselves from the poverty that surrounds them. Though these words were written some seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth, they could just as easily have been written about our own society. The woe that Amos predicts will fall upon the people of his day is the same that will fall upon any society that fails to care for the destitute.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus continues this theme. We are not told much about the rich man except that he is very wealthy and enjoyed the finer things in life. He very well may have been a decent person who was kind to others and religious. Yet every day he was content to step over Lazarus without a thought to helping him. He could not bring himself to acknowledge or care for the poor man at his door. For that reason, he suffered torment in the afterlife. If we are walking past panhandlers in the street or looking the other way when the needy turn to us for help, then we clearly have to take a hard look at how we are living our lives. God has set aside heaven for the poor. If we want to have any share in that everlasting life, then we must open our hands and hearts to any needy person we meet.
Preaching on last Sunday’s gospel, Pope Benedict XVI once said: “It is Christ who teaches us the right use of money and worldly riches, and that is to share them with the poor, thus obtaining their friendship, in sight of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Instead of using our wealth to isolate ourselves from the poor, we must use it to make friends with them. Our goal should be to be so generous with the needy that they pray for us. God hears the prayers of the poor and answers them. If we can get them to pray for us, we can be sure that God will shower us with even more blessings. Not only would their prayers serve us well in this life, but they would prove to be powerful advocates for us when we stand before the throne of God at the hour of our death. Imagine standing naked before God, conscious of the many sins we have committed during our life, and someone coming forward to say, “He gave me food when I was hungry”, or “She gave me her coat when I was cold.” Then we could have confidence that God would treat us with mercy because we have treated the poor whom he loves with dignity and compassion.
At this Eucharist, we are about to come face to face with a poor person. We meet Jesus who makes himself poor so that we may receive Him. In receiving Him, we become rich. Just as surely, we meet Him in those who require our help. We have been blessed with such an abundance not to enrich ourselves, but to be instruments of God’s generosity and providence in the world. The challenges of poverty and hunger are daunting. We might not be able to change the world, but we can make a difference in the life of someone we run into today. And if that person will be moved enough to pray for us, then we can be sure of continued blessings from the hand of God.
What is the surest way for a deacon or priest to get himself into trouble? By preaching about politics from the pulpit.
Whenever politics is the subject of a sermon most people will become offended or angered. Some people will take what is said as a condemnation of a certain politician or political party. Others will say that the preacher’s words were too strong while still others will claim that they were not strong enough. One or two people may even storm out of the church enraged that anyone would dare mix religion and politics.
In today’s society we have a tendency to want to separate politics and religion. We see religion as having to do with the after-life and politics with the here-and-now. Religion is private and politics is public. We do not want religious leaders to comment on public policy and we do not want politicians meddling in Church doctrine and discipline. We want to have a clear separation and even a towering wall between the two.
However, as with most issues in life, politics and religion are not always easy to keep apart. As followers of Christ, in particular, we are not only called to be saints in the Kingdom of God but good citizens of our country and of our planet. We bring our faith into everything we do – not only into our homes but into our communities as well. Faith for the Christian is never just a private matter. It touches upon every aspect of our lives including the choices we make as citizens of this great country.
Today’s readings help us reflect on why we are called as a Church to be involved in the political process of our country and how we are to do it.
First of all, our responsibility to stay in touch with current events, to vote our consciences and to lobby our politicians is founded on the commandment that we love our neighbor as ourselves. In the public sphere, our love for neighbor displays itself most keenly in our support for the poor and the needy. As followers of Christ, it is our duty to stand up for the most underprivileged members of society. It is our vocation to give a voice to the voiceless. Though they are the ones who most need the support of government, their concerns too often go unheard because they lack the money and influence to lobby politicians. Many like the unborn, children and immigrants cannot even vote. It is up to us, then, to use whatever influence we have to make sure that their needs are heard and acted upon.
Why should we care for the poor? Because God does. Our first reading from the prophet Amos makes it very clear that God takes note of any injustice that is visited upon the poor. Because they have no one else to defend them, our Heavenly Father promises that He will stand up for them. God will judge harshly those who have failed to see justice done for the powerless. When we stand before Him, we want to be sure that we did all we could in this life to be on the side of the little ones whom He cares so much about.
Concern for the poor is not only good religion, it is also sound politics. Government should be on the side of the needy. Wealthy people can take care of themselves. It is the poor who need government to defend them against those who would exploit them. Also, as the saying goes, “Everyone does better when everyone does better.” When the hungry are fed, when the homeless have shelter, when the penniless get an education there is less crime, less disease and less restlessness in society. We all benefit when the common good is served.
Secondly, today’s gospel teaches us that we are all called to be faithful stewards of the good things God has given us. This refers not only to the way we manage wealth, but to our use of this planet. As a society we have become increasingly aware of how our lifestyle affects the environment. In particular, as Christians, we should have an even greater concern for the planet as God’s creation and for nature as the revelation of His goodness and providence. We should be at the forefront of efforts to reduce pollution and preserve nature for everyone’s enjoyment especially for the generations to come.
Our involvement in environmental conservation is particularly important in our world today. Too often, environmental activism is used as a cover for population control. In much of Asia and Africa, we see the distribution of contraceptives, forced sterilization and coerced abortions promoted as a way to reduce the population in the name of cleaning up the planet as if human beings are another form of pollution. As followers of Jesus committed to the belief that every person is made in the image and likeness of God we have an obligation to influence the environmental movement. We must promote the dignity of human beings who are also part of the environment rather than treat them as pollutants to be exterminated for the supposed good of the planet.
Finally, our second reading teaches us that we should pray for politicians and all those who have authority over us. We too often have a disdain for those who enter politics. However, we should be praying for them, asking God to guide their hearts to do justice for the poor and to preserve our planet. Their actions have a tremendous influence over our lives so we should be raising our hands daily to our Heavenly Father asking Him to give us women and men of courage, insight and virtue to lead us as a country and as a world to be more peaceful and more just.
Well, it seems that not too many of you have walked out on me today. I thank you for opening your mind and heart to this message which can too often be seen as too controversial for the pulpit. However, as followers of Christ, we are called to bring the good news of God’s love wherever we go including into the public square and the voting booth. In particular, we are called to announce God’s love for the poor and to preserve His creation for the good of all. Then God’s Kingdom will increasingly influence the earthly city making His peace and justice more of a reality in our world today.
It was one of the boldest robberies in the city’s history.
A book store in Nanjing, China began to notice that many books had been missing from its shelves. By the end of the day sometimes as many as thirty titles would be unaccounted for. At first they wondered whether there was confusion among the employees about how the books should be organized on the shelves. However, after taking an exhaustive inventory of their stock, it was clear that the store was the victim of theft. Because of the volume of books being stolen, they concluded that it had to have been the work of as many as fifteen thieves.
To put an end to it, plain clothes detectives began casing the store, walking up and down the aisles and keeping an eye out for any suspicious behavior. One day, they noticed a man who would park his electric bike at the entrance to the store, browse the shelves and walk out the front door with as many as twenty books in his satchel and take off down the street. They were shocked that the thief stole the books so brazenly. And, when they followed him down the street and caught up with him at his apartment, they were even more shocked at what they found inside.
The thief whom police identify simply as “Mr. Lee” admitted to having stolen as many as eight hundred books from the local store. Their subjects ranged from history to social science to biology. When the police asked him why he stole so many
books, he admitted, “I could not comprehend the meaning of life. I was hoping to find the answer by reading those books.” Unfortunately Mr. Lee also admitted that despite all the reading he had done over those months, he was no closer to understanding what the purpose of life on this planet is. However, he will have plenty of time to reflect on it behind bars.
Unfortunately, of all the books Mr. Lee managed to make off with, the one he did not read was the Bible. In it, he would have learned that he was created by God and that he was good. He would have learned that all men have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God but have also been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. In those pages he would have discovered that he has an eternal destiny to live forever with God in heaven and that this life is a preparation for an eternity of bliss. He would have come to find out that the meaning of life is that we deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, our master.
Sadly, in our world today, there are many people like Mr. Lee. They might not steal hundreds of books, but their hunger for meaning and purpose in life manifests itself in different ways. They are the young who cannot seem to find their way in life. They are the addicts who try to escape the burdens of life but instead find themselves shackled to alcohol and drugs. They are the intellectuals who hope to find meaning in science but end up with more questions than answers. And, finally, they are the people who have just given up, who fail to expect anything at all out of life and are just trying to get by.
It was for these people that Jesus came to earth. As today’s gospel tells us, it was just such people that Jesus welcomed and ate with. He did not come to congratulate those who were already good, who thought they already had all the answers. Rather, he came precisely for those who were stumbling through life, going down one dead end after another, looking but not finding. He came to bring the light of faith and truth to just such people. And He rejoiced whenever they accepted His invitation to leave everything behind and follow him.
Jesus saw something in sinners and the lost that we often fail to notice. It is they who have the hunger within them, the burning desire, to know the truth. It is they who have the courage to go out of their comfort zones and try new things. As the poet, T.S. Eliot wrote, “It is only those who are willing to go too far who discover how far one can actually go.” Jesus knew that it was just such people – people with a desire for truth and the courage to pursue it – that would make the kind of disciples he needed to transform the world. And it was just such people that He welcomed, ate with and challenged to follow Him.
As followers of Jesus ourselves, confronted with the challenge of today’s gospel to seek out and find those who are lost, we have a decision to make. Will we be like the Pharisees who were self-satisfied, who did not want to take risks, who were happy to sit back and criticize everyone else who did not meet the standards of righteousness they had set for themselves? Or will we be like Jesus and those who chose to follow Him? Will we have a hunger to know the truth and the courage to pursue it? Will we get up and go when Jesus calls us or will we tell Him that we are too comfortable where we are?
During his recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis said this to the three million young people gathered there:
“Today, we need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey; a Church able to make sense of the “night” contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a Church which realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture.”
If we are to be true followers of Jesus, then we have no choice than to seek out the lost sheep of His fold. We have no choice but to share His love for those who are seeking the meaning of life but have no idea where to find it. Then we can rejoice with Him, and with all the saints and angels in heaven, as the lost – ourselves included – begin to find their way home.