A Relationship Not a Bargain
July 31, 2005
Romans 8:35, 37-39
A missionary bishop was called to confirm a group of children with severe mental and physical handicaps. Not one of all the children could do even the most rudimentary academic work. The chaplain at the home where the children resided warned the bishop, “You can speak no longer than two minutes. Anything longer is outside of the children’s capacities. You should have one point and speak in simple, concrete language.” The bishop was nervous about addressing the children, but this was the homily he gave them: “My dear children, your mothers and your fathers, your brothers and your sisters love you deeply. This is why they keep gently stroking your head and your hair and your cheeks. This is also what happens in confirmation. God strokes you, because God loves you so much. In the next few minutes I will come and anoint you on the head with oil in the sign of the cross. That is God stroking you and loving you.”
A few minutes later the bishop approached a young boy with severe cerebral palsy. As he made the sign of the cross on the boy’s head, the young man grimaced and then, with great difficulty, said the work “Stroke.” He had understood the homily. Moreover, he appreciated the central truth of the gospel, that our God is a God who strokes us out of love—just as God stroked Israel and made Israel God’s very own, just as the father stroked the prodigal son, just as Jesus stroked the little children, the lepers, the poor, the hungry, the sorrowing, the persecuted. At the center of the gospel stands a God who strokes us out of love. And for all that we cannot understand about God, and for all that we cannot explain about life, our faith rests on this central truth of God’s love for us.
The apostle Paul in today’s second reading gives a powerful expression of this foundational tenet of Christianity. Paul says, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not hardship or distress or persecution, not famine or poverty or violence, not the present or the future, not life or death. In all of these things we are more than conquerors, because of God who has loved us.” In this forceful expression of the gospel Paul makes clear what faith is and what it is not. Believing in Jesus is not a bargain. It is a relationship.
Many people who want to market Christianity will try to make it into a bargain. “If you do this, God will do that. If you believe and pray, you will be wealthy or healthy. If you believe in Jesus you will not have to experience sickness or worry or pain.” But in Paul’s expression there is no sign of such bargaining. In fact, Paul admits painfully that we as believers in Christ undergo the same trials and tribulations as everyone else in the world. Believing in Christ does not insure us that we can avoid cancer, or that our marriage will last, or that we will be able to protect the people we love. Believing in Christ is not a guarantee to a charmed and easy life. What faith is, is the acceptance of a relationship. What faith is, is believing in a God who caresses us with blessings and who gently strokes us in our pain. Believing in Christ is admitting that there is a God who will never stop loving us.
Now if we could make our faith a bargain, we could convert the world. We could fill up all the churches. Because who would not want to avoid the trials and tribulations of living? But believing in Christ does not remove us or protect us from the pains and struggles of life. What faith does is give us a relationship in which we can cope with all of our pains and struggles.
The gospel guarantees us of one thing and one thing alone: God will not stop loving us. Nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ. Not sickness, not aging, not family upheaval, not even death. To have a relationship with an ever-loving God, as the center of our faith is not a bargain that will impress everyone. But for those of us who believe in Christ’s death and resurrection, for those of us who recognize the loving strokes of our God, this relationship is the gospel; this relationship is life; this relationship is everything.
Doing the Impossible
July 31, 2011
There was a saying that became popular in the U.S. Army during the Second World War: What is difficult, we will do immediately. What is impossible will take a little bit more time.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible. They are in a deserted place and, without resources or means, he asks them to feed a crowd of over 5,000 people. All they have is five loaves and two fish. This simply can’t be done. And yet, by the end of the story, all have eaten and are satisfied. Indeed, 12 baskets of fragments are left over. So how are we to understand this story of Jesus? Why does Jesus ask his disciples to do the impossible? And is he in some way asking us to do the same?
A popular Christian storyteller by the name of Bob Benson relates an incident from his own life that can help us answer this question. Bob was planning to go to his parish’s summer picnic but he was running late. By the time he was ready to go, he realized he didn’t have any food to bring. He looked in his refrigerator and all he could find was two slices of bread, one dried slice of baloney, and a little mustard in the bottom of the jar. It would have to do. He made himself a pathetic baloney sandwich, put it in a brown bag, and went to the picnic. He found a place in the pavilion next to a family that had brought a feast: fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, sliced tomatoes, olives, and four homemade chocolate pies. Bob opened his bag and began to eat his sandwich. One of the members of the family next to him saw this and came over and said: “Bob, I have a suggestion. Why don’t we put our food together? We have more than enough chicken, potato salad, and baked beans. Moreover, everybody in our family loves baloney sandwiches.” So that’s what they did. Bob ate like a king, although he came like a pauper.
Now, in effect, this same thing is what happens in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells his disciples: “Bring me what you have, the fives loaves and the two fish—whatever. Let’s put that together with what I have and then see what happens.” Jesus extends this same invitation to us. When we have to face something that seems to be impossible in our life, he invites us to join our resources. At times we have to face a new challenge in our work, at home, at our job, at school. We look at the challenge and say: “I don’t think that I have the wisdom or the skill to pull this off. Doing this seems impossible.” Jesus says: “Why don’t you take your skill and put it together with mine, and let’s see if we can do this together.”
When there is somebody we love who is in trouble because of sickness, a dysfunctional relationship, or an addiction to alcohol or drugs, we want with all our hearts to make that situation better for them. But we know it’s a decision they need to make for themselves. We cannot make it for them. Jesus says to us: “Why don’t you bring me your care and your love and we’ll put it together with my care and love. Then together let’s see if we can make a difference”.
When we lose someone that we love because of death, misunderstanding, or divorce, when we have to leave a situation that is comfortable and familiar and face something that is unknown to us, we can look at those situations and say: “I don’t have the strength to do this.” Jesus says to us: “Bring me the strength that you have and let’s put it together with my strength. Then together let’s face the future.”
Now, the invitation that Jesus gives us is quite specific. He doesn’t say to us: “Sit back and let me do everything.” He asks us to contribute what we have, no matter how small it might seem. He wants us to bring to him the little strength, wisdom, or hope that we have and put it together with his.
Of course, there is no guarantee that every time we try we will succeed and that all of our troubles will evaporate. But when you have to face the impossible, it is better not to face it alone. If something is difficult, do it immediately. But if something is impossible, it is better to join your forces with the Lord.
The Power of Service
August 3, 2014
An important aspect of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes is its connection to the events of Jesus’ life. Matthew provides that connection for us at the beginning of today’s gospel. He says, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
Now Jesus’ relationship to John the Baptist was a deep one. John was an inspiration and a model for Jesus’ own ministry. So when Jesus heard of the violent murder of John by King Herod, it was a deep blow. Jesus decided to withdraw to a deserted place to grieve his loss. This reaction by Jesus shows his true humanity, but it also stands for all the times in our lives when we have to absorb a deep loss or carry a heavy burden. It could be, as it was for Jesus, the loss of someone in death. But it could also be a fractured relationship because of divorce or misunderstanding, the consequence of a disastrous decision made by ourselves or someone we love, or a turn in our own health that reduces our abilities and leads to fear. When such blows and burdens come to us, we want to be alone. We need time to heal. Like Jesus, we desire to withdraw to a place by ourselves.
But the gospel goes on from here. Although Jesus wanted to be alone, the crowds followed him on foot. Although he desired time to heal, the needs of others were great. They wanted to be cured. They wanted to be fed. So when Jesus disembarks from the boat, he sees a vast crowd. He would have every right to say, “Are you kidding me? Don’t these people know what I am dealing with? I need time by myself to grieve my loss.” Yet Jesus did not exercise the right that was his. Instead, he was moved with pity. He cured their sick and fed them with the loaves and the fishes.
Jesus reacted in this way because he was committed to his ministry. But also, on a deep human level, Jesus understood that sometimes the best way to heal our losses and carry our burdens is by reaching out in service to others. When life strikes us with a blow, we have every right to withdraw and lick our wounds. But that consolation has a time limit. If we withdraw for too long, our solace can become isolation and our comfort can become unhealthy. But when we reach out and share our gifts with others, we not only help them but we also learn that despite our loss we still have something to contribute, we still have a future. So if you are grieving, if you are hurting, if you feel empty and unloved, depressed or alone, you can withdraw and reflect. But be quick to reach out. Ask yourself, “What can I give?” There is a real power in helping another person, and that power can raise us above our losses and our burdens.
Even though he was dealing with the loss of John the Baptist, Jesus fed thousands in the wilderness. Our willingness to reach out of our pain to help others might not be as grand a gesture as Jesus’. But it is still true compassion for our neighbor and healing for us. And that, in its own way, is a miracle.