Not an Answer, but an Invitation
January 18, 2003
“Teacher, where are you staying? “ “Come and see.”
The two disciples in today’s gospel ask a simple, straight -forward question: “Teacher, where are you staying?” An answer to this question could be given in a moment, in a couple of words, but Jesus does not provide them. Instead he says, “Come and see.” The disciples come to Jesus with a question; he responds with an invitation. Instead of responding in words, he offers an opportunity for the disciples to travel with him, to walk with him, and perhaps to find what they are searching for.
I do not know how frustrating it might have been for the disciples not to have their question answered, but it is very instructive for us. Because what Jesus is revealing in this short encounter with the two disciples, is the basic pattern by which God deals with humanity, the way that God interacts with us in our lives.
We come to God with questions. God gives us invitations. The questions are many and can be drawn from a number of different circumstances. Why do the innocent suffer? Why is our world so violent? Why is someone that I love sick? Why can’t I find a job? Why do our political and religious leaders fail us? How can I protect my family? Why am I so depressed and lonely? Where can I look for hope? Questions, real questions, that we place before God. But God doesn’t answer them. God simply says, “Come and see; come follow me.”
How much easier it would be if God would simply explain things to us, if God would tell us what is going to happen, if God would tell us what we want to know. But God does not tell us. God says, “Come and see.” God responds in this way because on the deepest level, God knows that what we really need, what our life really requires, is not information, but trust. God knows that we could never comprehend, we could never absorb the mysteries through which God is building the kingdom. God understands that we could never take in all the twists and turns by which God is saving us. So instead of trying to reveal this information to our limited minds, God asks us to trust. God says, “Come and see.” Live moment to moment, walk day to day, until gradually you begin to recognize the plan that is unfolding before your eyes. God invites us to trust, to believe that God is in charge, that there is a plan and that that plan will eventually lead us to life.
The power of this truth is expressed beautifully in a passage from John Henry Cardinal Newman, which I’d like to share with you this morning.
Newman says, “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. God has not created me for nothing. I shall do good. I shall do God’s work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place while not intending it—if I do but keep God’s commandments. Therefore, I will trust God, whatever, wherever I am. I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may be a service, in perplexity, my perplexity may be of service. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve God’s kingdom. God does nothing in vain. God has a plan. God may take away my friends, throw me among strangers, make me feel desolate, make my spirit sink, hide my future from me. Still God has a plan and I will trust the One who guides me.”
We come to God with questions, God responds with invitations. We come looking for information, God invites us to trust. This is the challenge for every believer: to accept God as trustworthy. For we are asked not to be frustrated when instead of giving us an answer, God invites us to “Come and see,” when God invites us to walk for awhile until the truth emerges. For those of us who know our God, that invitation is not impossible. For as soon as we take up the journey, as soon as we begin to follow, it becomes clear that we will not travel alone. Step by step, day by day, God will walk with us until in time we come to a place where every question is answered and where all goodness comes to light.
Carrying Certainty with Openness
January 15, 2006
A man, who had a deep love of drama and the theater, heard of a new magazine to which he sincerely wanted to subscribe. It was called Theater Arts and it contained articles about the theater and reviews of most of the major productions throughout the country. He knew that it was published in New York City, but other than that he only had the name. So it occurred to him that he might be able to make contact with the magazine by calling information and finding the phone number. He called the information operator.
She asked him: “What city?”
He said: “New York City.”
“What listing are you looking for?”
He said: “Theater Arts.”
There was a pause and then the operator said: “I’m sorry sir, but we have no listing for any person named Theodore Arts.”
He said: “Oh, I’m sorry, you misunderstood me. I’m not looking for a person. I’m looking for a magazine, Theater Arts.”
There was a pause and then the operator continued in a rather testy tone, “I’ve already said, sir, we don’t have a listing for anyone named Theodore Arts.”
The man took a deep breath and he said: “Mam, the word is Theater,
T-H-E-A-T-E-R,” to which the operator responded:
“Sir, that’s no way to spell the name, Theodore.”
If there is humor in this story, it is not humor in which the operator was able to participate. From her perspective, she was dealing with a difficult man who did not accept her expertise. She was certain that the information she was giving was correct and was frustrated that the man could not accept it. Now, in a certain sense she was correct. There was no listing for “Theodore Arts,” but the very certainty of what she knew blocked her ability to see something larger. She lacked openness to another perspective, to a new possibility that could have made all the difference.
Openness is a virtue that is sorely lacking in our culture. People are believing things with more and more certainty and are being more and more divided from one another because of it. Whether the discussion is the war in Iraq or health care or abortion or the latest nominee for the Supreme Court, more and more people are certain that they are right. Such rightness then defines them as enemies of those who think differently. In our time, truth is clothing itself in a religious perspective. People who believe in Israel, who believe in Jesus, who believe in Mohammad, believe that they are right. At least for some, that rightness seems to warrant doing terrible things in the name of Israel, in the name of Jesus, in the name of Mohammad.
Now, I am not saying that truth is up for grabs. All of us are called to find the truth and we are able to believe things deeply. But mature faith carries certainty with openness, an openness that there might be more to learn. Such openness understands that there may be something more which we do not see. Being open in this way can enlarge our truth and open new possibilities that we cannot imagine.
In this regard, Andrew is our model in today’s Gospel. Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist and he was certain that John the Baptist was sent from God. Yet Andrew carried his certainty with openness. Therefore, when John pointed to Jesus and said, “Look, there is the Lamb of God,” Andrew did not respond, “No, He’s not,” or “John, you must have lost your mind.” He was open enough to hear what John said, to follow Jesus and explore for himself. He eventually became a disciple of the Lord. You and I are called to follow the example of Andrew, to hold what we believe with an openness that there might be more, to realize that the truth is always larger than the small clear piece which we are able to grasp.
So the next time that you are in a political conversation, try to see more than the truth that you believe and are trying to protect. Listen to see if there is a larger picture, a different angle that you might recognize. Will that listening change your political views? Probably not, but unless we’re willing to listen to others, how do we ever expect to develop a wise social policy or a peaceful world? The next time you encounter someone, who you find difficult to love, someone who annoys you or frustrates you, see if you can recognize a larger truth, something bigger than the hurts and the resentments which you carry. See if you can find some understanding or compassion that could change the relationship. Will that effort on your part mean that you will come to respect the person who frustrates you or become his or her close friend? Probably not, but unless we are willing to listen, to enlarge our thinking, how do we ever expect healing or reconciliation to happen? How can life move forward, if all we’re willing to do is to hold on to the certainties of the past?
All of us are called to learn from our own experience. We need to make judgments about what is true and follow them. We need to determine what the truth is and let it guide our lives. But wise people understand that no one person possesses all of the truth; and the followers of Jesus recognize that we are most in tune with the will of God when we carry the truth which we can see, with an openness to the truth which is still hidden from us.
Faith Is not Instruction but Experience
January 18, 2009
When we think of faith, we usually think of words. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth.” Or, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Or, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” I suppose we associate faith with words because we associate faith with instruction, learning the catechism, preparing for first communion. But faith is not primarily a matter of words, it is a matter of experience. And we do not find God through instruction, we find God in the patterns of our lives.
The Jesuit theologian, John Powell, tells of a student that he had in the first course in Theology that he ever taught. The student’s name was Tommy and the time was the 1960’s. Tommy was a rebel with an attitude. He had hair down to his shoulders and he was the ‘resident atheist’ in the class, the one who kept objecting and criticizing and ridiculing all that Fr. Powell was trying to teach about a loving God. Despite this antagonism they made it through the semester. When Tommy came up with his final exam and turned it in he said in a cynical tone, “Fr. Powell, do you think that I will ever find God?” “No,” said Fr. Powell. “I don’t think that you will ever find God. But I am certain that God will find you.”
Years passed, and one day John Powell was told by a colleague that Tommy had contracted cancer and was terminal. Immediately Powell wanted to connect again with the boy. But before he could do that, Tommy showed up one day in his classroom. He was drastically changed; his body was wasted, his hair was gone because of chemotherapy; but his eye was still bright, and his voice was firm. “Tommy,” Fr. Powell said, “I’ve thought of you often. I hear that you’re very sick.”
“Yes Father,” he said, “really sick. It’s a matter of weeks.” “I’m so sorry,” said the priest.
“Ah Father, it could be worse,” he said. “I could be in my fifties without any purpose or ideal and without faith.”
“Faith?” said the priest. “Yes Father, faith. That’s why I’m here. Remember you told me how God was going to find me. I came to tell you that it was true. When you said that to me, I just brushed it off. I didn’t think much more about it. But when they removed the tumor from my groin and told me it was malignant and had spread to my vital organs, I began to search for God. I read the bible, I prayed, I talked to a lot of people. But despite my efforts, I could not find God. I pounded against the bronze doors of heaven, but God would not come out. And after months of trying, I gave up. I decided – what’s the use. I didn’t care about God or the after life. But then I remembered something you said in class. You said: ‘The saddest thing in life is to have never loved. But the second saddest thing is to have loved and never told anyone about it.’
That made sense to me and I decided I was going to spend the rest of the time I had talking to the people I love. And I began with my most difficult relationship, my Father. I always admired him, but we could never talk or communicate. So I pulled together my courage and one evening came into the room as he was reading the evening newspaper. ‘Dad,’ I said. ‘Yeh.’ he said, still reading the newspaper. ‘Dad, I need to talk to you.’ ‘Okay,’ he said, still having his face buried in the pages. ‘Dad, this is really important, I need your attention.’ and the paper came down a few inches. ‘I don’t have much time left, and I just want you to know, I love you.’ The paper fell to the floor and my Dad did two things I never saw him do before, he cried, and he hugged me. Then we talked all night.
The other relationships in my life were easier, telling my mother, and my sister, and my friends. And I spent a good deal of time contacting all the people I cared about and telling them what they meant to me. But then one day Father, and this is why I’m here, I turned around and God was there. God didn’t come when I asked, but God came. When I couldn’t find God, God found me.”
John Powell took a deep breath. “Tommy” he said, “that’s one of the most beautiful descriptions of faith I’ve ever heard. Do you think there’s any way that you might come into my Theology class this year and tell your story?” “Of course, Father,” he said. “I’d be happy to.” The two of them set a date for Tommy to come in. The date came, but Tommy never made it.
Faith is not primarily a matter of words. Faith is allowing God to touch us in the experiences of our lives. When the disciples come to Jesus in today’s gospel and ask for information, “Teacher, where are you staying?” Jesus does not answer them. He says, “Come and see.” He says, “You have to experience it.” Jesus knows that words can point to faith, but words are not faith. You can’t find God in a catechism. You can only find God in the experiences of your lives. And you can find God in any experience. You can find God in the joyful experiences, in the love of a spouse, in success at work, in closeness with your friends. And you can find God in pain. You can find God working through problems in your marriage. You can find God worrying about your finances. You can find God like Tommy in sickness or even approaching death.
This is why we must be like the disciples. We must be willing to come and see: to look for God in both the joys and the sorrows of our lives. And if we examine our lives and our experiences, and God seems to be absent. If we look for God, but can’t find God. It doesn’t mean that we’ve made a mistake or that we’ve looked in the wrong place. It is then that we as disciples know that we must be patient. When we are unable to find God, it is then that we believe that God will find us.
When God Keeps Calling
January 15, 2012
1 Samuel 3:3b-10; 19
Either God is real or God is not. Either God cares or God doesn’t. But this much is clear: if God is real and God cares, God will ask things of us. God will call us to do things that are a part of the Divine plan. Now those of you who have been following me so far might be thinking to yourselves, “I know where he’s going to go with this homily—he is going to remind us that God calls us to serve, and that we should be ready to respond.” And those of you who are high achievers might have even gone further and come to the conclusion, “That is a good idea. I should keep my ears and eyes open in case God calls me, so that I will be ready to say yes.”
Now these thoughts could be used for a very good homily. But they are not the point of this one. Today, I do not intend to encourage you to be ready in case God calls you. Today I want to suggest that it is possible that God has already called you, but you have not noticed. This suggestion flows from today’s first reading, the call of the prophet Samuel. God keeps calling Samuel but he does not understand. He thinks it is Eli who is calling him. God calls a second and a third time. Yet Samuel keeps missing the divine invitation.
The scriptures are suggesting that we may be in the very position of Samuel. God is calling us and perhaps has been calling us for some time, but we have been hearing that call as another voice. If this is the case, then the focus of this homily is not how to get ready in case God should call us but how we might find signs in our life that God has already called us. What might such signs be? What indications might we find in our own life that reveal that God has been calling us, but we have missed the invitation?
Another aspect of today’s first reading can help. When God calls and Samuel does not hear, God does not give up. God calls again and again, creating a repetitious pattern in Samuel’s life. This suggests to us that we should try to identify patterns in our lives which keep repeating. They could be signs that God is trying to get our attention.
When you look over the last number of weeks or months, perhaps a certain person keeps coming to mind. It could be someone who you love, or somebody with whom you had a disagreement. When you recognize this pattern, you might say “Isn’t it strange, that I keep thinking of that person? It probably isn’t significant.” You dismiss it. But perhaps you should not dismiss it. Perhaps that repeating pattern is a call of God for you to contact someone to express gratitude or to ask for forgiveness.
Perhaps, over the last number of weeks or months, there have been a number of times when you thought you were unhappy in your marriage or when you worried about one of your children. You may have dismissed the thoughts are random. But what if they were not. What if they were God calling you to address the issues in your marriage or help in the life of a son or daughter?
Perhaps repeatedly you have felt afraid. You have not been feeling right. You have begun to fear what will happen as you grow old. You may have said, “These thoughts keep coming to me. It seems silly to worry over them.” But perhaps they are not thoughts to worry over but to listen to. What if God is asking you to call your doctor or begin to cope with your advancing age?
Because God is real and loves us, God does call us to act. But there is no guarantee that we will recognize that call at once. That is why, when we become serious about being disciples, the first thing we should do is look for patterns in our lives. When things keep repeating, we should not dismiss them. Of course, it is possible that a repeating pattern is just a fluke or arbitrary occurrence. But it is also possible that it carries a much deeper significance. A repeating pattern could be the voice of God.
Thankfulness and Generosity
January 18, 2015
All in all, I think I was a rather average child. There were some things I could do rather well, but there were other times where I simply got stuck. An example of this happened just before I entered the first grade. My mother decided that it was time for me to learn how to tie my own shoes. So she carefully showed me how to make a loop with one of the laces, wrap the other one around it, tuck it underneath, and pull. I watched her do this and tried many times, but I just couldn’t pull it off. I remember sitting for days on our front porch trying to tie my shoes but always ending up with two loose shoelaces in my hands.
It took Mrs. Peterson to save me. Mrs. Peterson rented the second floor of our house. Coming home from the supermarket one day, she found me on the front porch, hopelessly trying to tie my shoes. She stopped. “Trouble?” she said. “I just can’t do it,” I said. Mrs. Peterson set down her groceries and knelt down in front of me, facing my untied shoe. She said, “Well, you can also tie your shoe this way.” She made two loops, one with each shoelace, crossed them, tucked one underneath, and pulled. I watched her, and on the second attempt I succeeded. “Thank you,” I said, and I ran to tell my mother. Now, I think I could still be sitting there on my front porch today, trying to tie my shoes, if Mrs. Peterson had not come along. She had a piece of information that I needed in order to proceed with my life.
Something similar is happening in today’s first reading from the Book of Samuel. Samuel would eventually become one of the great prophets of Israel: a spokesman for God. But in this story, Samuel is stuck. He simply cannot figure out who is calling him. Every time he hears the voice of the Lord, he runs to Eli and says, “You called me.” Every time Eli sends him back. This happens over and over again. It is finally Eli who figures out what’s going on. He tells Samuel that it is the Lord who is calling him and that he should respond and listen. Samuel accepts Eli’s wisdom. The next time he hears the voice, he opens his heart to the Lord and begins a new life as God’s prophet.
This story of Samuel is calling us to remember how much of our lives are dependent on people who, at key moments, showed us how to see. They might have showed us how to do something or understand something or believe in something. They might be examples of how to succeed or change or dream. They might be members of our own families or close friends, or simply people who step into our lives for a moment or two. But each one gives us something essential that allows our life to continue.
This story of Samuel, then, leads us to thankfulness and to generosity. It asks us to remember who are the people in our life that gave us a gift that allowed our life to develop. Who are the people who inspired us to enter a certain career or showed us how to love or how to believe in God? It asks us to remember those people and be thankful for them, for without them we would not be the people who we are.
The story of Samuel also calls us to generosity. Each person here today has something that they know and believe, that someone else is waiting to hear. We do not need to be perfect people to share those gifts. Eli, after all was not a perfect person. He was a corrupt priest whose ministry was about to come to an end. But he knew this—he knew that it was the Lord who was calling Samuel. So he shared it, and his generosity made all the difference. All of us here have truths that we know and believe. We must be willing to share them with others just as others shared them with us.
Mrs. Peterson has been dead now for over thirty years, but I still remember her in the morning when I tie my shoes. Her simple act of generosity allowed my life to go forward. Remember the people in your lives who gave you the gifts that made you who you are. Be thankful for them. Allow their generosity to move you to share what you know and what you believe with others.
The Freedom and Faith of John the Baptist
January 14, 2018
We have every reason to suppose that John the Baptist saw his ministry as a mission from God, that God was calling him to announce the coming of the kingdom. And if we can trust the gospels and other ancient sources, John’s mission was a huge success. Thousands of people went out into the Judean desert to be baptized by John, and John was able to form a group of disciples who supported him and assisted him in his work. John took his mission seriously. This is what makes John’s action in today’s gospel so remarkable. When John sees Jesus passing by, he says to his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and his disciples leave him and follow Jesus. At the height of his influence and success, John did not try to hold on to his disciples but instead sent them to the Lord.
Now, John was able to do this because he was a man of faith. He believed that God had a plan, and his role was only part of that plan. So when he saw Jesus, he realized that his work was done. He had come to prepare the way of the Lord, and the Lord had now arrived. John had the freedom to let go of his mission and his disciples because he believed that the same God who had called him to preach would continue to be faithful to him. Even though John’s work was finished, John believed that God was not finished with him. Trusting that God would not forget him, he was able to proclaim, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and step aside.
You and I need to follow the freedom and the faith of John the Baptist, as various callings in our lives come to an end. Parents need to do this. For years they give themselves to their children, providing, guiding, and protecting them. Then comes college, a job out of town, and someone they wish to marry. If we, like John the Baptist, believe that God has a plan for our children and we are only part of that plan, then we can find the freedom to let go of our children, even as we trust that God will not let go of us.
We have maybe worked for years building a career, serving other people through a job of which we are proud. Perhaps we have been attending a school where we are comfortable and have made a lot of friends. Then time comes for retirement or graduation, and we have to leave what we know and the people we know behind. If we, like John the Baptist, can be proud of the work that was done and now ended, we can also trust that God will lead our lives in a new direction and that direction will have blessings of its own.
Perhaps we’ve been fortunate to have good health our whole lives, having energy and strength to play hard and to work hard and to help others when they are in need. But, as we grow older, we begin to realize we have less energy and less strength and that we will have to depend more on others. The witness of John the Baptist tells us that we should not lament the good things that have ended but trust that, even in our fragility and dependency, God can still bless us.
If we try to hold onto things that are finished, we will become angry and unhappy people. That is why we need the example of John the Baptist, the example of his freedom and his faith: the freedom to say, “This part of my work is now done,” and the faith to believe that God will never be done with us.