31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
One thing I like about the Catholic liturgy is that, contrary to popular perceptions, it is not about purely pious talk. It has to do with real life issues of real people in real time … with people who struggle with a myriad of challenges … here and now. Our Opening Prayer opens with a reality check: “God of power and mercy, only with your help can we offer you fitting service and praise.”
Only with God’s help … wonders like serving and praising God are there for the doing, but only with His help. Wonders like what the famous Shema, O Israel demands from everyone – loving God with all one’s heart, mind, strength, and soul, are possible only on account of God’s help.
So … what business have we today to talk about this? Shouldn’t we just raise up our arms in surrender and tell ourselves … “Nah … this is not for me … It takes too much effort … way too much for my puny capacities?” Who among us here can really mean what he or she says, and say what he or she means, as we all respond after the 1st reading: “I love you, Lord, my strength?”
Loving God and only Him … is this possible at all? Today, the Good News leaves no doubt as to its feasibility, possibility, and advisability. It’s all found in our short response. We can, indeed, love God … for He it is who makes it possible, for God is our strength! “I love you, Lord, my strength!”
This much, the readings themselves tell us. The first reading assures us that the command of the Lord is attached to His merciful and compassionate promises … “to give [us] a land flowing with milk and honey.” Answering to this command is, furthermore, made possible “because he remains forever, and he has a priesthood that does not pass away.” Hebrews tells us that “he lives forever to make intercession for [us].” But the same letter-writer to the Hebrews makes sure we realize that everyone, including those appointed high priests, are “men subject to weakness.”
Subject to weaknesses … this is the story of all of us. This, too, is story of what Weigel calls a certain “grittiness” in the Church. Peter and the original company of Jesus, not excluding Judas, were men full of grit. They were not born perfect. They loved the Lord, but they also denied him. Two of them shed tears after the deed. One raised up his arms in surrender and faded away in utter shame. The other looked up to Christ’s outstretched arms on the cross and drew strength from the very same Lord he betrayed. He loved the Lord, his strength, and eventually gained enough strength and courage to be crucified upside down.
The Church is full of grit – then and now. The great American writer Flannery O’Connors once wrote that we can suffer as much because of the Church, as for the Church. We are a community of saints and sinners. In my 29 years of priesthood, I can vouch for the fact that fellow religious and fellow priests in and out of the congregation, have made my life a little harder in small and big ways, and a little less rosy than it was painted during the idyllic novitiate months. (For the record, I need to mention that I, too, have caused others pain and distress, knowingly and otherwise).
In the Gospels, we are told of well-intentioned and otherwise good people, like the young man, who came to the Lord, asking “what else to do beyond what the commandments asked.” He had the makings of a good disciple. He had what, in our times, we refer to as “good materiality” for a possible vocation to the priesthood. But, weak as he was, he turned away sad, when accosted with the truth. Peter, the weak man, at some point, did an unexpected marvel. He walked on water. He was on the way to becoming a wonder-worker like his Master and Lord. But he, too, turned away from the gaze of the Master. And he sank.
Sometimes, we may think that weighed down with so much weakness and sinfulness, we may really be unworthy to serve the Lord. All too often, we give up and get lost, or we are inundated by the flood of weaknesses and sinfulness. We feel not only gritty, but all covered with muck. We turn away sad from the Lord.
I’d like you to hold on and hold fast, as we reflected on two weeks back. Hold on to your love and hold fast to His love! This is what we really mean today as we bellowed: “I love you Lord, my strength.” Yes, we love God … only God, no one else but Him. But in our weakness, we need to allow the other side of our prayer to take hold of us fully and truly. He is our strength. He is our salvation. He loves us more than we can ever love Him. If he could love a weak and unfaithful Peter, he can love even if we grovel in the grit, grain, and gravel of our sinfulness.
But there is one thing we need to do … beyond the letter of the law … beyond the commandments that are really, in the words of Keenan, “commandments of compassion,” windows that open to the reality of a loving and living God, who demands love, not sacrifices. Those who do so, merit hearing what the Lord tells us today: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
In our life of struggle against so many odds, in this Church and world that is full of all sorts of “grittiness,” there are two sides to the coin of God’s command that we hear again today. Difficult as it is, we can do it only with God’s help. Important and life-giving as it is, we need to define our whole lives in terms of its demands. Gritty as we are, we can succeed only with God’s help. Gritty and graced as we are, at one and the same time, we are called to do everything exclusively for Him who loves us with an everlasting love. Only with God’s help; solely for God’s love!
Only with your help, O Lord, can we offer you fitting service and praise. May we live the faith we profess and trust your promise of eternal life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Opening Prayer).