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The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 26, 2018

We might hope that in these waning days of summer the Church would cut us some slack by giving us some light fare in the Sunday readings – something not overly challenging.  But, no, today’s readings are anything but light. They’re kind of a full court press!  Both Joshua in the first reading and Jesus in the gospel present serious challenges.

     Joshua stood before all the tribes of Israel - people so favored by the God who had delivered them from Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land, so favored and yet so unfaithful – and he put before them the question of their lives: whom will you serve – the false gods of the Amorites whose country you have taken over, or the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, the God of the Burning Bush, of the Exodus? Whom will you serve?

     And then there’s Jesus.  He has just revealed himself as the Living Bread come down from heaven and promised to give his own flesh and blood as food and drink.  He has put this “hard saying” before his disciples without equivocation or apology, and he has watched many of them turn away from him to return to their former way of life.  He then turns to the Twelve and puts a question to them – a question not so different from Joshua’s question: “Do you also want to leave?” he asks.

     As usual, it is Peter who speaks up, speaks for the others, and his answer to Jesus is reminiscent of the answer the people gave to Joshua when they said, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord…we will serve the Lord for he is our God.” Peter’s answer to Jesus echoed that but was even more direct and much more personal, “Master, to whom shall we go?” he said, “You have the words of eternal life!” 

     But, my friends, that question of Jesus, “Do you also want to leave?” may well hit us between the eyes in the wake of the terrible revelations and scandals in the church that have come to light in recent days. The “hard saying” that prompted people to no longer walk with Jesus in his time pales by comparison with the incredibly hard sayings we’re having to deal with in our time. And so it’s not difficult, is it, to imagine Jesus asking that question of us now:  “Do you also want to leave?”

     Like the Twelve, we do have a choice, and like the Twelve, we have a history: we have walked with Jesus, some of us for a long time; we have heard his word and felt his healing touch; we have feasted at his table and have witnessed his wonders in our lives and in the lives of others. But the similarity stops there because, unlike the Twelve, we have had to struggle with feelings of betrayal and deep disillusionment over things that have taken place in his Body, the church. We have been scandalized by the actions and inactions of priests and bishops anointed to speak in his name.

     I attempted to address this – however inadequately – in the letter I wrote to you last week. I won’t revisit what I said there. But I do want to offer a word of hope and to do so, let me take you to a familiar gospel story - the one where Jesus and his disciples are together in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and a great storm comes out of nowhere and threatens to capsize their boat and drown them all. Jesus is in the back of the boat, comfortably asleep on a cushion, and the terrified disciples wake him up and shout at him, “Teacher, doesn’t it matter to you that we are going to drown?”

     Isn’t that how you feel in the midst of the current tsunami? ‘Why are you asleep, Lord?  Don’t you care? Don’t you see that we’re barely holding on, that we’re drowning, some of us even losing faith?  How could this happen in your church?’

     And we need to ask those questions, my friends. We do. In fact, we must. And then we also need to hear the calming words of Jesus, “Quiet! Be still, where is your faith?”  But the only way we will ever be able to hear those calming words is if those in the church who are called to lead and to preach the gospel—and I include myself--are willing to make some fundamental changes, courageous changes - changes from the inside-out, changes that will eviscerate the clerical culture in the church and eliminate clerical privilege, changes that will let in fresh air, lift the veil of secrecy, and create total transparency, changes that will give lay women and men far greater involvement and oversight in the Church. Only in this way will the church be able to emerge from this awful moment, only in this way will church leaders be able to regain trust and the people begin to regain their shattered faith.

     “Do you also want to leave?”  That question of Jesus is a haunting one. We all know people who, in their anger and disillusionment, have chosen to leave. I make no judgment about them. But for those of us who, with God’s grace, choose to remain – I hope we can find both rationale and reassurance in Peter’s response to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

     And, my friends, where will we find the Lord if not in the Church, the holy yet sinful church, the church Jesus entrusted to people like Peter who could be hot one moment and cold the next, brave yet cowardly, faithful yet faithless?  Peter who was a saint but also a Satan, to use Jesus’ own words?  For reasons we will never understand, Jesus entrusted the preaching of the gospel to a church made up of saints and sinners. I say that not to let anyone off the hook – least of all those who have abused or those who have covered up. I say it simply to acknowledge what we know to be true.

     My friends in Christ, today, perhaps as never before, Peter’s words, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” demand of us the most challenging act of faith we will ever make.  As we make it – or struggle to make it – we will do well to include in our prayerful embrace those who once made it, who might want to make it, but who no longer can - those so turned off by what has happened in the church that they are no longer able to find Jesus there.  And for us who still do find Jesus in his bruised and battered Body, may our love for the church make us relentless in pushing for and praying for its reform.  As I stated in my letter to you, we have our work cut out for us.

     It all starts here at the Eucharist. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”

Father Michael G. Ryan




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