17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
2 Kings 4:42-44 | Ephesians 4:1-6 | John 6:1-15
Oh God, protector of those who hope in you, without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy, bestow in abundance your mercy upon us and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
SOMETHING is happening to me. I think if you listen to me on any kind of regular basis, you can feel it, sense it. It’s a change, a profound change in my understanding of the core issues that I feel that I have always been challenged to understand, to make real in a world of other images. I remember vividly, when I was ordained, thinking, “I get this incredible power to do sacraments,” these magical, wonderful things that effect change beyond what I would think any human being would be capable of. It is a wonderful part of the priesthood — the ritual and the sacraments. But as I have gone back and studied what it means to be ordained by the church, someone lays hands on you. Supposedly the tradition says that the person that laid hands on me had hands laid on them, that was a holy man or had a role to pass on wisdom. It goes all the way back to St. Peter and is a long long list of people, the church, the leaders, and the preachers. So when a priest or any minister in any religion or any prophet ever stands up and ever says to a group of people, “This is the truth. This is what God wants you to see. This is who he is. This is who you are. This is what you are here for,” we trust that that voice is going to speak the truth. But what is fascinating to me when you look at the overall picture of salvation history, you see that human beings are very very susceptible to not discerning the truth from a lie, especially if it comes from someone who seems to have the position of authority.
Adam and Eve, as childlike creatures living in this garden, have this creature called Satan, and I don't know what he looked like, but he obviously looked like an authority figure. They were childlike humans and they had been listening to God who was certainly someone they could trust would give them the right information. But they just took that for granted, like children just believe their parents are always telling the truth; we do believe that in a lot of authority figures. So here is an authority figure talking to human beings for the first time and just contradicting something very simple that God said. “Don’t do this.” And this figure said, “No, do it. He didn’t really mean don’t do it.” He doesn’t say, “God meant it, and it’s true, but let’s really not follow him. Follow me. Dump God. I’ll take care of you.” Nothing that literal or that honest. No, it was, “No, no. He didn’t mean that. No, he wants you to become like him.” This is an amazing thing that the serpent said to Adam and Eve because it is the goal of creation and salvation history that we grow, evolve and become like the one who created us. We are made in his image, in his likeness. We’re to become like him. So the interesting thing about this voice that seduced them into doing the wrong thing, it was talking in many ways about a truth but then twisted it just enough to say, “Well, don’t do what he is saying to do. Do this.” And they did it. The most fascinating thing about that event and what it teaches us more than anything else, is that there is nothing about human nature that is corrupt, but it is about human nature being vulnerable — vulnerable and easily confused. What is interesting is that there was something in Adam and Eve when they did that, that made them think that whatever they were feeling about what they had just created or what was created in them, or when they made a decision to live in a world that was good and bad, right and wrong, there was something inside of them that felt it wasn’t right, even way back then. “Something about this doesn’t feel like this is who I’m supposed to be.”
You know that feeling. You’re ashamed. “I’m ashamed. There’s something wrong with me. I’m hiding myself.” First words that God speaks to sinful human beings, “Where are you? Where are you?” God then sends his children into the world so that they can learn. Then we’re in this process of learning, and the process is, in a way, that story repeated over and over and over again. It is here always that there is a figure in our life, an authority figure telling us what is real. Sometimes they tell us the truth. Sometimes they lie, because they are human. So I look at the history of salvation and see obviously there are all these patriarchs, prophets, and kings; all of these people speaking for God. Sometimes the prophets, when told by God to say something, they said, “I don’t want to say that. I’ll say something else,” or, “I don’t want to do it. I’ll do something else. I don’t want to see these people healed and transformed. I want them punished.” So in the beginning, the great prophets had a hard time always making sure that they spoke the words that God asked them to say to the people. Their own wants and desires and their own view of the world got in the way. It has been true of every religious leader from the beginning, except for one. The one who walked the earth that we believe, in Christianity — not that everything he said can be taken literally as the truth, because it’s all in different context, but he was a man rooted in, dedicated to listening to every word that came from the Father’s mouth. That was the first of the temptations. That was his most potent statement. “I will not buy into any lie.” So we trust him, but there were thousands of years before Jesus arrived, and the Pharisees became the classic failure of all leadership in religious communities. They were so hypocritical. They were performing. They didn’t really believe what they were teaching. They didn’t know God, and I’m not saying that is what all religious leaders have been, of course not. However, that is the shadow of any religious leader or teacher and we need to accept it. It does not mean that people who struggle to do this, because they don’t do it perfectly, can’t do it. No, they can. They can do it. The gospel can be taught, but look at the system that we have had. I would say that being taught about God, being told what you’re supposed to do has a great, great weakness. If you look at salvation history, it’s like we had to leave that kind of system and go into something different. That is why God then entered into the world to teach us a new way for us to learn about ourselves and God, that is not from some outside force, but from going inside and finding in there, the truth.
It was in seed form in that story of Adam and Eve, and now it seems to me, in the church, particularly at this time, when we don’t have the kind of trust, naïve trust we used to have in leaders — we always thought they told the truth. I always thought a doctor always told the truth. A priest always told the truth. My teachers always told the truth. My parents always told me the truth. That naïve world is gone, and it should be gone. But why would God give it to us, when it was imperfect, unless he was preparing us for something other than that that could be more effective? What is that? What is pretty clear if you look at the salvation history as the whole story, not just a part of it. One of the disadvantages of being a Catholic, I think, was that we weren’t encouraged to read the Bible as a kind of whole story. We would always get short stories filled with truth and some man would get up and tell us what the truth was. He would unlock the code. He would give us what is sometimes hidden in it, because you couldn’t just take it all literally. So we have had that system, but it’s clear that God is saying, “No, there is something else.” And there are all of these hints that imply that maybe we are not going to find the truth in another teacher, though a teacher can be incredibly important and helpful. But by going inside, into the spiritual realm, into our heart, into the world of mystery.
Now, if you look at the overarching story, we have some figures that we are supposed to be very attentive to who are not necessarily visible to our eyes, but they’re all around us. We have this wonderful teaching about angels. They are messengers. Is an angel a better messenger than a minister in a pulpit? Well, I think so? I’m not picking on people in the pulpit, because I’m one of those guys, but we can certainly be misled by our own past history and by our own way of seeing things and what we’ve learned. So we can’t guarantee you that we’re giving you something that is pure and absolutely in all cases that what we say is infallible or whatever. No, we are struggling like you, and if we are sharing our struggle with you in the pulpit, I think it works. If we get up there and say, “This is it, and this is what you must do,” that’s dangerous. But we have angels. Why? We have angels all around us because they are there to fill in what a human minister can’t do or what an institution can’t do. Then we have another group, the dead. We are told to pray for them, because they are still alive. They still exist in a different place and we are also told to count on their intercession. That is very much a part of the Christian teaching that is carried through in Catholicism and in most Christian beliefs. Judaism, Christianity, Islam all believe in angels, and I think they also mostly believe in this power of these people all around us guiding us. So we have the teachers. We have the scriptures. We have voices that speak to us and that are dedicated to us. We have all of that, but where does the rubber meet the road? Where is it that we are promised to encounter the truth, the true message, what God really wants to say to us? It is in God’s presence living inside of us. God inside of us. Jesus is the model. Jesus said, “Father is in me. I’m in the Father. I want to come and dwell in you. If I come into you, the Father will be in you. I’m in you. The Father is in you. The Spirit is in you.” What are we doing? Communicating, communicating, teaching.
The image of this miracle that’s in the first reading in the gospel is so powerful. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is the most common miracle reported in all the scriptures. Why? Because it says you will be in a world where you don’t think there is enough, not enough wisdom, not enough love, not enough forgiveness. Most of you can feel that the world is scarce. There isn’t enough, and the problem is everything we need, everything that is needed to nurture us, to fill us with wisdom, to fill us with understanding, everything is there in abundance inside of us, in a miraculous place where God speaks to you. It is called your conscience. It is the ultimate norm of all right and wrong in the tradition called the Catholic Church. It was promulgated so clearly in Vatican II. That is where we go. Does that mean we don’t need these other teachings? Of course we need them, for a lot of reasons, but what an incredible promise. There is enough. You have enough wisdom and insight that is not dependent on an institution’s strengths or weaknesses or how close a religion is to the message of Christ. That is not what you’re dependent on. You are dependent on this inner voice that will never, ever fail you. There is enough nourishment. There’s enough wisdom. There is enough patience. There is enough goodness. We just have to open our eyes to see the abundance that is there and feast on it.
Father, you have made a promise, through Abraham, that you will be our God and you will guide us, and we will be your people. It was beyond our imagining that you really meant that you would enter into us and become engaged in our decision making, engaged in opening our eyes to see what is real, what is true, to discern that which is darkness and lies. So bless us with the confidence that we should have that all things work together for the good for those who are open to your guidance. Help us to trust that guidance, to be still and listen and know that, with you as our guide, there is no way we cannot reach the goal that you have prepared for us. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.