27th Sunday of the Year Hebrews 1:2–3, 2:2–4; 2 Timothy 1:6–8, 13–14; Luke 17:5–10
If you had faith God and God’s power make all things possible to those who believe. Let’s play a game. Suppose you got into a time machine and traveled back into history to the year 1776. Suppose you took with you a copy of this morning’s daily newspaper. Suppose that when you arrived back in 1776, a couple of people took the newspaper and tried to read it. How much of it would they understand?
Most experts say that they probably wouldn’t understand enough to make sense of it. It would be like reading a foreign language. Consider just a few words that people in 1776 would not understand: automobile, airplane, astronaut, expressway, supermarket, air conditioning, stock market, baseball bat, surfboard, radio, television, spaceship, moonwalk, long-range nuclear missile. Now, suppose the people asked you what television is. You’d say it’s a way of seeing something as far away as China while it’s actually happening in that country. Suppose the people asked you what a long-range nuclear missile is. You’d say it’s a way of firing a huge bullet in the United States and destroying any city you wished in Russia. Suppose the people asked you what a moonwalk is. You’d say it’s someone on earth taking a spaceship to the moon and walking on its surface. What do you think the people would say to you? If those people had any sense at all, they’d say you were absolutely crazy. You were out of your mind. For anybody with any sense at all knows that you can’t see something in China while it’s happening as you sit in your living room in New York. Anybody with any sense at all knows that a bullet fired in the United States, no matter how big, can’t wipe out the entire city of Moscow. Anybody with any sense at all knows you can’t fly like a bird to the moon in a horse and buggy, get out, walk around, and return to earth again. The point of our game is to show that what the people of one century consider senseless and impossible the people of another century consider matter-of-fact and commonplace. The point of the game is to show that what the people of one century never dreamed of the people of another century consider ordinary. There’s an important lesson here. If we approach life with the attitude that something is possible, we’ll probably accomplish it. On the other hand, if we approach life with the attitude that something is impossible, we’ll probably fail to accomplish it. For the people of one century are poor judges of what is or is not possible in another century. Let’s now play another game. Let’s suppose someone from the year 3000 arrived on the planet Earth today in a time machine. Suppose the person had a newspaper that contained no stories of violence, poverty, or wars between nations. Suppose the paper contained only stories of love, prosperity, peace, and friendship. What would you say? If you had any sense at all, you’d say such a world was impossible. You’d say such a world was totally unreal. You’d say the newspaper was filled with propaganda to impress the people of the 20th century. Why? Because anybody with any sense knows that where there are people there will be violence and hostility. Anybody with any sense knows that where there are people there will be rich people and poor people. Anybody with any sense knows that where there are nations there will be violence and war. There’s another important lesson here. If we approach life with the attitude that peace on earth is impossible, we’ll probably fail to achieve it. If we approach life with the attitude that, at heart, people are uncaring and selfish, we’ll probably fail to achieve a society that is caring and selfless. If we approach life with the attitude that nations are inherently violent and hostile, we’ll probably fail to achieve world peace. And that brings us to the most important point of all. Peace on earth is possible. Love among people is possible. Harmony among nations is possible. And the reason these things are possible is that Jesus came among us and taught us how to live. The reason they are possible is that Jesus said they were possible. That’s what he meant when he taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer “May your Kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The reason they are possible is that Jesus died to make them possible. The reason they are possible is that Jesus rose to make them possible. That’s what Jesus is trying to tell us in today’s gospel. “If you had faith as big as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Pull yourself up by the roots and plant yourself in the sea!’ and it would obey you.” The good news of today’s gospel is that, through faith, the power of God is at our disposal. As a result, nothing is no longer impossible— not even a world in which there is no more war, not even a world in which there is no more poverty, not even a world in which there is no more hatred. Remember! What the people of one century consider impossible the people of another century consider commonplace. It’s just a matter of vision and faith. It’s just a matter of believing Jesus when he says: “If you had faith as big as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Pull yourself up by the roots and plant yourself in the sea!’ and it would obey you.”
27th Sunday of the Year Hebrews 1:2–3, 2:2–4; 2 Timothy 1:6–8, 13–14; Luke 17:5–10 Faith darkness Faith involves times of darkness, caused by human nature, ourselves, or God. Late one afternoon, archaeologist Gene Savoy and a companion became lost in a jungle in Peru. A sickening feeling came over them. They knew that if they did not reach camp by sundown, they would never reach it alive. They began to run about feverishly, searching for the trail that brought them into the jungle. Suddenly they realized that this feverish running was only making matters worse. Then they stopped and stood perfectly still. As they did, a thought flashed through Savoy’s mind. God is in the jungle; it is God’s house. Gene had been introduced to the beauties of nature when he was a boy in Oregon. His parents had taught him that God created the universe, sustains it, and resides in it. Why had he closed his eyes to God’s presence in the jungles of Peru? Didn’t God create them, also? Doesn’t God sustain them, also? Doesn’t God reside in them, also? Instantly, Gene relaxed and put all his faith in God, in whose house he was. He said later, “I looked up into the beautiful emerald world of wild orchids, and fragrant blossoms where hummingbirds hovered. Yes, God was here, too.My heart quieted.’’ Then something within Gene seemed to say, “Walk a few paces to the left.’’ He did. And there was the tiny trail! Gene said later, “I am proud of my archaeological discoveries. But my greatest discovery, I believe, was in recognizing God’s presence everywhere.’’ That story fits in beautifully with today’s Scripture readings. First, it illustrates Habakkuk’s words in the first reading, when he says, “The just man, because of his faith, shall live.’’ And second, it illustrates Jesus’ words in the gospel reading, when he says, “If you had faith as big as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Pull yourself up by the roots and plant yourself in the sea!’ and it would obey you.” This brings us to an important point about faith. It’s a point we tend to forget— one that can cause us unnecessary worry. The point is this: Even the strongest faith in Jesus and God tends to go in and out of focus. What is clear to us one day becomes cloudy the next. Like the sun, our faith sometimes goes behind a cloud and disappears for a while. We’ve all experienced this in our lives. How do we explain it? These times of darkness are usually caused by one of three things: human nature, ourselves, or God. First, they may be caused by our human nature, which has “highs’’ and “lows.’’ In other words, our faith simply reflects the natural highs and lows, or mood swings, of everyday human life. Commenting on these mood swings, one writer says: “On one day, life is beautiful. . . . We appreciate everything and everyone. . . . On such a day it is difficult to know why we ever thought life was difficult. On another day, however, nothing is right. . . . It is a time when we number more enemies than we have and find fault with every friend. On such a day, it is difficult to know why we ever thought life was easy.’’ Anthony Padovano, Belief in Human Life Our faith is like that. It is subject to mood swings. These mood swings simply go with the territory of being human. Second, the periods of faith darkness may be caused by ourselves. We can bring them on by neglecting our faith. That is, we can let our faith grow weak from sin or from lack of spiritual nourishment. In other words, just as our body grows weak from abuse or lack of physical nourishment, so our soul grows weak from sin and lack of spiritual nourishment. Third and finally, these periods of darkness may be caused by God. That is, God allows them to happen in order to strengthen and deepen our faith. In other words, God uses them to help us mature in our faith, just as God helped Abraham mature in his faith. Abraham was thrown into darkness when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac. (Genesis 22:1–12) Regardless of the cause of these periods of darkness, the agony they can produce is great. In his novel The Devil’s Advocate, Morris West describes the agony of a person experiencing a long period of faith darkness. The person says: “I groped for God and could not find God. I prayed to God . . . and God did not answer. I wept at night for the loss of God. . . . “Then one day, God was there again. . . . I had a parent and God knew me. . . . I had never understood till this moment the meaning of the words ‘gift of faith.’ ’’ And so we come back to our original point. At times in our lives, our faith seems to go behind a cloud for a while. This creates a period of faith darkness. Sometimes this darkness is simply a reflection of our human nature, which is subject to mood swings. Sometimes it is caused by neglect of our faith: either through sin or lack of spiritual nourishment. And sometimes it may be caused by God, in the sense that God uses it to strengthen and deepen our faith. Our response to these periods of darkness, therefore, should be to accept them and to use them in whatever way God seems to be indicating to us. This is the message we can take home from today’s readings.
27th Sunday of the Year Habakkuk 1:2–3, 2:2–4; 2 Timothy 1:6–8, 13–14; Luke 17:5–10 Faith darkness An opportunity that affords faith growth. The apostles said . . . “Make our faith greater.” Luke 17:5 It was the last day of school and a high school teacher was picking up books left behind. One was open to this quote by novelist Morris West. The sanctions of being a man are so horrendous, that it seems madness to try to relate them to any kind of a divine plan. You are conceived without consent . . . with your sentence [of death] already written in the palm of your helpless hand: a cancer will eat your guts; . . . a drunken fool with an automobile will mow you down; . . . the believers are the lucky ones. . . . But belief is a gift. . . . If you have not the gift—or you lose it— you are thrust back on reason. “Testimony of a 20th-Century Catholic” by Morris West, America magazine (December 2, 1967) In the margin of the page, next to the quote, a student had written “How do we get the gift of faith?” Iam sure millions of nonbelievers have asked that same question at one time or another in their lives. But for most baptized Christians, like the student, is is probably the wrong question to ask. The Christian’s problem is usually the one alluded to by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. The Christian’s problem is not that we have not received the gift of faith. We have all received it in Baptism. The Christian’s problem is that the gift of faith in Baptism comes to us, so to speak, in seedling form. And it is up to each of us to cultivate it, so to speak, by prayer and good works, so that the sunshine of God’s grace can grow it into a great tree. But, I hear you say, what about the person who is not baptized and will probably never be baptized? Didn’t Saint Paul write to Timothy— and I quote him: Christ Jesus . . . gave himself to redeem the whole human race. That was the proof at the right time that God wants everyone to be saved. 1 Timothy 2:5–6 What about the person who never was and never will be baptized? How will that person be saved? The answer to that question deserves much more attention than we can give it now. But the answer comes down to this: God gives to each of us a conscience. This great gift allows us to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong. If someone, through no fault of their own, was never exposed properly to Jesus or his teachings and, therefore, was never baptized, they still have the gift of conscience. And if they follow its dictates, they have the necessities for salvation. The important thing for them is to obey the dictates of their conscience. Cardinal Newman says of conscience: It witnesses to the unseen. It is more than our own self. . . . We cannot destroy it, we may refuse to use it, but it remains. . . . Its very existence throws us out of ourselves, to go seek him . . . whose Voice it is. Apologia Pro Vita Sua We might draw this parallel between Baptism and our conscience. Just as Baptism gives us a seedling— or tiny plant—of faith, so conscience is a seed, so to speak, that can grow into salvation. And as we just saw, both the tiny seedling and the tiny seed need to be cultivated by prayer and good works— if they are to grow and mature properly. In both cases, the seedling and the seed are gifts. And if they are cultivated, they can mature, with the help of God’s grace, into a mighty tree. That brings us back to the story of the student who wrote in the margin of the book,“How do we get the gift of faith?” In all probability, the student, who was a baptized Christian, had written the wrong question in the margin of the book. The student’s problem was probably the one alluded to by Jesus at the end of today’s Gospel. The student’s problem was one that occurs from time to time in every Christian’s life. It is this: There are times when the flame of faith flickers and seems to die. And a period of darkness sets in. Such periods of faith darkness are usually linked to one of three things: our human nature, God, or ourselves. First, they may be linked to our human nature. We all experience mood swings. They go with the territory of being human. On some days everything is bright and sunny. On other days everything is dark and cloudy. And so, the mood swings of our faith often simply parallel the mood swings of our nature. Here we should hasten to mention that in some people these mood swings can be very high and very low and can last for longer periods at a time. Second, the darkness can be traceable to God. In other words, God allows the darkness to take place. That is, God permits it for our own spiritual growth and our own spiritual good. Our job is to open our hearts to God’s grace so that this can happen. Finally, these periods of darkness may be caused by ourselves. We can bring them on by neglecting our faith. That is, we can let them grow weak from spiritual abuse and lack of spiritual nourishment, like prayer and sacrifice. In other words, just as our body grows weak from physical abuse, so our soul grows weak from spiritual abuse. Regardless of the reason for these periods of faith darkness that occur in life, we should seize them as opportunities to trust in God and open our hearts to God’s grace. In that spirit, let us close with these words of Cardinal Newman, written during a period of faith darkness: Lead kindly, Light. . . . Lead Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home; . . . I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step [is] enough for me.