Apologies for such a late post…I had every intention of doing it on Monday, but the day got away from me, and yesterday I was way too busy to work on it. I’m finishing this on my iPad while my car gets serviced, so I’ll come back later and fix any typos and insert some links.
So let me tell you a story about my sister. She won’t be happy with me telling this – probably – but then again, as her big brother, it’s basically my obligation to look for ways to embarrass her. And I am exceedingly good at being her big brother.
So she woke up one morning last December and didn’t feel particularly well. No big deal; we all have those days. She worked from home most days anyway, so it wasn’t going to present a major hassle. Bit of a headache, a low-grade fever: just one of those things. As the day went on, however, she felt worse and worse. The headache was getting to be miserable. She was getting sick to her stomach. Couldn’t work anymore; had to call her boss and go off-line. Tried to eat. That wasn’t happening. In fact, that’s when things got scary – because when she went upstairs to throw up, she collapsed. And couldn’t get back up.
Thank God her boyfriend Dave had stopped by to check on her on his way home. Because when he went to help her up, he realized that she was slurring her words, and one side of her face was slack. Since when do 34 year olds in good health have strokes? But that’s what this looked like. So he gave her two options: Do I call your Mom first or 911 first? Knowing her, she gave him a third option, but I probably can’t repeat it in church.
Dave is unfazed by her shenanigans and so he called both Mom and 911, and soon enough, Erin was on her way to AGH. It was, in fact, a stroke, and it was a big one. (And soon enough, I was on the way to AGH, but that’s another story. Suffice it say that the experience of giving my little sister the Last Rites was the most powerful moment of my priesthood thus far.)
The next couple weeks were a blur, between her being in ICU, the step down unit, and eventually a rehab facility…all the while I’m trying to pastor a fairly large parish and it’s Christmas. I think she handled it better than the rest of the family did. Praise God, there was no major damage done to her cognitive abilities, and no major changes to her personality (I guess that’s a good thing), but there were some pretty serious physical issues to overcome. Her entire left side, while not totally paralyzed, was pretty deficient. She had to learn to walk again. And she couldn’t move her left hand at all.
Our family has two defining characteristics: we are highly sarcastic, and we are exceedingly stubborn. So while we laughed at the paralysis, we were also convinced that she would regain all of her motor skills.
The head doctor of the rehab unit, on the other hand, has no redeeming characterisitics. (Well, aside from being a highly comptent medical professional who has devoted his life to helping other people.). His take on the whole situation was that she needed to be realistic and accept the fact that she was never going to get that left hand back. His was one of those voices you hear in today’s Gospel that says, “This saying is hard – who can accept it?”
We all have those kinds of voices in our lives. And sometimes, we are those voices. Your rehab is going to be really hard – why bother doing it? That instrument is going to be really hard to learn to play – why bother practicing? That professor is too hard, why bother taking him? It’s going to hard to forgive so-and-so for what they did – why bother making peace? It’s too hard to be holy; why bother avoiding temptation?
This saying is hard – why bother having faith?
The thing is, those are all stupid questions, and we know it. Sure, rehab is going to be hard, but why wouldn’t I do it? Yes, that prof is really hard, but she’s an expert in her field, why wouldn’t I study under her? Yes, it’s all kinds of terrible to get up in the morning and work out, but why wouldn’t I do something to make myself healthier? (NB: I’m living this struggle currently.). Yes, it’s hard to have faith – especially in these days, when it seems that the Church has let us down – but why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I, when the reward is so great?
For the last several weeks, we’ve been hearing from the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel. Jesus has made quite clear what the reward is for those who faith: eternal life. If they believe in Him, if they believe in the food He is going to give them in the Eucharist, then they have access to the Father. They have the path to eternal life. Yes, faith is hard, but why wouldn’t I do it?
I figure there are primarily three reasons why people don’t have faith. I’m sure if we asked, we’d get all kinds of responses, but they essentially can be distilled to these three. The first is weakness. Having faith requires us to be strong, because it often means we have to move and behave in a decidedly counter-cultural way. It can also mean undergoing persectutions of various sorts. And I think we often underestimate ourselves, or perhaps overestimate our adversaries…but either way, we don’t need to rely on our strength alone. In fact, we were never intended to. When Christ stretched out His arms on the wood for he cross, he did so to take on your weaknesses, your burdens, and your struggles. And He did it so you might share in His victory. Too weak? Nah.
A second reason for people not having faith is fear. This is the one that they are least likely to admit to, for obvious reasons; but that’s what it is. Having faith means ceding control, and we like being in control. We might cede control here or there to those in authority over us, but there’s some consolation in the fact that we can at least see them, hear them, or question them. That’s not always the case with God. Giving control to Him is frightening. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.” But it’s also the most liberating, because with Him, there is no cause for fear. He knows how this ends, and He only desires your good.
The last objection is the easiest overcome, and perhaps the silliest, but nonetheless, still very real. It’s laziness. Faith requires work. Having faith – especially nowadays – is pretty counter-cultural, and moving in that direction can be exhausting. We get pulled in so many directions these days; when given an option, it seems reasonable to want to take a break. That’s exactly what the devil wants you to think. Just put it off…you can always get back to it later. This is why Joshua was so insistent in the first reading that the people, right now, today, make the decision: will they follow the God of Israel or not? He could pose the same question to all of us. Right now, today, are you willing to make the choice to follow the way of God? If not, tell me what exactly is that you are choosing…but choose something today. Don’t put it off.
Weakness, fear, and laziness. Three great motivators to say something like, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Weakness, fear, and laziness: three lies that will just hold you back. Faith is hard, but you are well-equipped to do it. ANd the reward is too great not to.
Just to close the story from the beginning: even though her rehab was going to be “too hard” and she needed to “be realistic,” she persisted. And shortly before I left my previous parish to come down here and do this work, she made the ride up to my parish to join me for Mass. And when the time came for Communion, she walked down the aisle with no walker, no cane, no help of any kind. She was one of the last people in my line that day, because like any good Catholic, she sat in the back…but also because she had to stop to tie her shoe.
She used both hands.
One thought on “This saying is hard: homily for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time”
Father Mike, I remember this event so clearly and moved to tears when I met your wonderful and determined sister at your last mass with us. Your 3 points about faith are spot on – thank you for the reminder that we need to be aware of our choices. They have eternal consequences. May you and your family be blessed – you remain in our prayers! 🙏✝️