Saturday, July 28, 2018

Homily for 29 July 2018

29 July 2018
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Some people thought it was the end of the world.  The flames shot hundreds of feet into the air all around them, and the smoke was so dense they couldn’t always see who they were trying to rescue.  Over 1,200 people lost their lives.  It was the worst wildfire in U.S. history—the Great Peshtigo fire of October 8, 1871—just an hour north of here.

The fire extended into three counties: Oconto, Door, and Kewaunee Counties, on both sides of the bay of Green Bay.  It was a massive inferno: 1.2 million acres and over 2 billion trees were reduced to ash.  But, in the midst of that, a small area in Door County remained untouched.  It was around the chapel where the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to Sr. Adele Brise twelve years before.  The grass was as green after the fire as it had been before. 

There’s no logical, scientific, or natural reason why the fire should’ve stopped at the edge of the chapel grounds.  But it did.  By all accounts, it was a miracle.

And we have another story of a miracle in the gospel today: the multiplication of loaves and fish.  There’s no rationale to explain how Jesus was able to feed (fully) over 5,000 people with just five loaves and two fish.  It defies explanation—other than to call it a miracle.

And miracles are great things.  They’re signs to us that there’s more to life than meets the eye.  There’s more going on than we can know or understand.  And they also help to shore up our faith when it gets shaky.  Miracles invite people to believe in Jesus—to believe in who he is and what he says.  And so, miracles are good—and even necessary—things.

The problem with these kinds of miracles is that, of course, they don’t happen all the time.  You know, it’s great that the Peshtigo Fire didn’t consume the chapel and all those who took refuge there.  But wouldn’t it have been a greater miracle if the fire had been stopped before it even started?  Or with the feeding of the 5,000, it’s great that they were fed.  But why do people still go hungry and starve today?  If God can do these miracles, then why not do them all the time?

And the answer is actually pretty simple: Our faith isn’t supposed to be in what we can see and understand, our faith is in what we cannot see and cannot understand—namely, God.  Miracles help to feed our need for “proof” that God exists, that God is not bound by the same limitations of time, space, and physics that we are.  They’re reminders that while there’s “heaven and earth,” there’s also “a new heaven and a new earth” we’re looking forward to—in faith.

The entire “agenda” of Jesus in the Gospel of John is to move his people from faith in signs (and miracles are one of those signs) to faith in him—without the signs.    Now, he still does miracles—even today, because all of us are on a journey of faith.  We still need miracles to help us have faith.  But it’s as Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” [John 20:29].

So, miracles are good, and wonderful, and amazing—it’s why they’re called miracles.  But, at the same time, Jesus is pushing us to be amazed by what we cannot see, or by what strikes us being…ordinary.  And, of course, the Eucharist (and all the sacraments) fit that description.

Every time we celebrate the Mass, we’re in the presence of a miracle.  Bread becomes the Flesh of Christ.  Wine becomes the Blood of Christ.  Not a symbol of Jesus, not a reminder of his presence among us, but his actual presence.  It’s a miracle—it defies the laws of physics, the laws of science; it defies nature.  The Eucharist—according to all we know about the world and how it works—shouldn’t be here.  But it is. 

And this type of miracle is different than the miraculous feeding of 5,000 people, and the miracle of the Peshtigo Fire.  The Eucharist is a miracle we cannot see.  And, even with the Eucharistic miracles that do exist—miracles where the host becomes physical flesh and the wine becomes physical blood, proven as such under the microscope—even with those Eucharistic miracles, there still isn’t an explanation how it happened—mechanically speaking.

Now, we know how it happened.  The miracle happens because God sends down the Holy Spirit, and the priest (standing in the person of Jesus) speaks those same words of Jesus at the Last Supper.  Jesus is the Word of God, the same God who created the world “in the beginning.”  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  God’s spoken word makes things happen.  The miracle of the Eucharist happens because Jesus the Word of God said (and continues to say), “This is my Body, this is my Blood.”  Jesus’ words are transformative.  So we know how the bread and wine are changed.

But, again, the Eucharist is a miracle we don’t ordinarily see with our eyes.  We can only approach it with faith.  But that doesn’t make it any less of a miracle.  What’s one reason to come to Mass?  Well, to encounter a miracle; a sign that God—after all these ages—is still with his people, wanting his life and ours to be one.

So there’s the Peshtigo Fire, the feeding of the 5,000, and the Eucharist—all amazing miracles.  But then there are the “forgotten miracles,” the miracles of ordinary life that we have to remember are miracles—and defy science and the laws of nature.  And I’ll mention just two.

The first is human life.  But I don’t necessarily mean just birth and death; I mean human life in its entirety.  There’s a law of nature which Charles Darwin picked up on, and he saw it “survival of the fit;” the idea that only the strongest survive.  It’s foundational to the theory of evolution, and it’s observable all over the place.  But with human life, this particular law of nature is far exceeded.

We humans don’t need to be as intelligent as we are in order to “survive.”  We human don’t need the complex structures of society and commerce we have in order to “survive.”  The human ability to take raw materials from the earth and transform into something totally different is far beyond the need to “survive.”  The miracle of human life is that we’re made not just to “survive,” we’re made to “have dominion over the earth”—as it says in Genesis—and to “thrive,” not just “survive.”

Human life is a miracle.  Based on the laws of nature, human beings don’t need to exist, and we shouldn’t exist.  But we do.  Our very existence is a miracle—something to be amazed by.

And, second, is the miracle of faith.  No other creature in the known universe has the sense of a world beyond this one.  No other creature looks to the heavens for answers, or for consolation or inspiration.  We’re certainly members of the animal kingdom.  But there’s no animal out there like us, who has a conscience, a sense of “self,” a sense of the mysterious “other”—the “gods” who are part of our lives. 

That awareness of “something greater” is the miracle of faith.  Science can’t explain it.  The laws of nature maybe only hint at it.  There’s no rationale for us to have faith, or to look to the heavens.  But we do, as human beings have done for all of recorded history.  Faith itself is weird and amazing.  Faith is a miracle, like human life.  But we sometimes (maybe oftentimes) overlook it as being any extraordinary, or “out of this world.”

Protection from a blazing fire, the feeding of 5,000 people, the Eucharist, human life, faith itself—they’re all miracles.  They’re all things that shouldn’t exist—according to the laws of science and nature.  But they do.  And they exist as invitations for us to believe in something greater than ourselves.  Consider the miracles you’re aware of—even those “ordinary” ones—and how the Lord is calling you…to have faith in him.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Homily for 22 July 2018

22 July 2018
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

“They were like sheep without a shepherd.”  The people were huddled in a large crowd, for safety in numbers; there was no shepherd around to protect them.  They were restless, not quiet, not lying down; there was no shepherd to keep them at ease.  And they were too weighed down; there was no shepherd to get them back on their feet.  “They were like sheep without a shepherd:” fearful, vulnerable, uneasy, and troubled.  And Jesus saw that and took pity on them.

The image of the shepherd and the flock is so familiar that it’s easy to skip over it.  Psalm 23 is so familiar, too, that’s it easy to just gloss over it.  But that image of the sheep and the shepherd is key to who Jesus is and who we are.  Even the deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church are—in Jesus’ eyes—part of the flock.  He has to tell them to “come away...and rest a while.”  We’re shepherds of the flock, but I wonder if we aren’t more like the sheep dogs of the flock.  We, too, need a shepherd.  So this whole image of shepherd and sheep is one that we can’t overlook.

Obviously, we aren’t sheep.  But you can see why Jesus says his people are “like sheep.”  When danger is near, we run, we get together for protection; we find safety in numbers.  We like to play follow the leader; even if we don’t realize it, we let others lead us (for good or for bad).  We’re social creatures; it puts us at ease to know we belong, that we’re not alone.  We have strong appetites; we crave life, and sometimes we’ll keep eating and indulging in this or that activity to the point that we lose our way.  And sometimes life turns us upside-down, and we need help getting right again.  Those are all things we do; they’re also things that sheep do.  Jesus is right: we humans are “like sheep.”

And so, Psalm 23 is meaningful to us.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  We trust the Lord, and we trust that he knows what’s good for us.  He gives us what we need—his grace, his assurances, neighbors and true friends, family, love, wisdom, the community of believers, and so on.  When “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

“In verdant pastures he gives me repose.”  When life gets a little hectic, when we’re indulging a little too much in the goodness of the earth, he makes us lie down and rest.  He’s like a parent who has to say, “No, you don’t need another hot dog, you’ve already had four.”  It’s maybe a reason why Sunday Mass is an obligation.  Even if we don’t want to, Sunday Mass makes us stop, sit down, and take a rest; it makes us remember the verdant, green pastures of God’s grace that is given to us.    

“Beside restful waters he leads me.”  God’s love is like a deep river.  There are strong currents swirling within it, but the surface is calm and inviting.  So we’re not afraid to come and drink of his deep love and grace.  Jesus doesn’t lead us to a place of anxiety or fear, but to a place where we’re at peace because we know we belong there.  With God and with his flock, we always belong.  Hopefully, our experience of Mass is like that.  Here as we offer our prayers and thanks to God, and as we listen to Scripture and receive the Eucharist, hopefully we can say, “Jesus has called me here; I belong here; and he refreshes my soul.”       

“He guides me in right paths for his name's sake.”  Our God has several names: Yahweh, Emmanuel, Jesus.  And those names mean that the God “who is” is “with us,” and he is among us to “save us.”  In other words, the Lord our Shepherd lives up to his name by guiding us along right paths.  And I suppose that can sound very idyllic and beautiful, but I imagine from God’s perspective, trying to get his flock on the “right paths” is probably like trying to herd a bunch of cats.  He may want to take us down the paths of patience, forgiveness, putting others first, and so on, but we don’t always go.  But, still, the Lord nonetheless lives up to his name; “he guides me in right paths.”

“Even though I walk in the dark valley....”  A couple of weeks ago we talked about the assumptions we have about God.  And one assumption is that by following the Shepherd there won’t be any dark valleys in life; that with Jesus by our side (or us by his side) life should be nothing but sunny days.  But Scripture and experience shows us otherwise.  Even if our faith in strong, there are times when the mountains of troubles will keep the sun from shining in; there will be dark valleys. 

But, “even though I walk in the dark valley...I fear no evil.”  When we’re tempted to despair, when we’re tempted to worry, the Lord is at our side, whispering those all-important words: “Be not afraid.  Have faith in God; have faith also in me.”  But, as we know, those words aren’t always easy to pick up on.  Sometimes the storm of fear speaks louder than God.  But that’s also our choice whether or not we let that happen.  And that’s where the Shepherd’s “rod and staff” come in.

The rod is something like a club the shepherd would use to go after predators and robbers.  And the staff is what we usually think of as a shepherd’s staff, used to hold the sheep and for correcting them.  Jesus uses his rod and staff—with the help of the angels who especially fight for us.  But we also can use the rod and staff, the rod especially.  When fear and anxiety speak louder than God, we use the rod of our conviction to say, “Go away!  Get away from me, fear; stop bothering me!”  And it does—with practice.  “Your rod and your staff...give me courage.”

So the image of the shepherd and the sheep is important to us.  It helps to keep clear who Jesus is, and who we are.

At Christmastime, I imagine most of us put up a nativity scene.  There’s Mary and Joseph, Jesus asleep in the manger, and all the animals gathered around, wondering to themselves: “What is this baby doing in our feeding trough?”  Well, that nativity scene comes alive every time we hear the call of the Shepherd and come to Mass.  We come together with Mary and Joseph and all the angels, singing their hymns of praise.  And we gather around the manger, the place where the sheep are looking to be fed: the altar.

And what do we find there but Jesus.  Not a symbol of Jesus, not a reminder of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the living God.  With him beside us as our Shepherd, and within us as our food, what else can we say but: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want....”

Friday, July 20, 2018

Homily for 20 July 2018

20 July 2018

When it comes to death and eternal life, what we say and believe about it is largely a matter of faith.  But this isn’t just wishful thinking or human imagination gone wild.  Our Tradition and the Scriptures lead us to the door of understanding death.  And even science and reason helps with this as well.  But ultimately our peace about death rests in the person of God alone.

Now, when we hear numbers in the Old Testament, there’s usually a meaning behind them.  And we see this in the reading from Isaiah.  The “fifteen” years added to Hezekiah’s life is a symbolic number: it points to the reality of rest.  In other words, his life in death will be filled with rest from his struggles.  And five times we hear God say, “I” . . . I have heard your prayer, I will heal you, I will add, I will rescue you, I will be a shield.  “Five” is a symbol pointing to the reality of divine grace and favor. 

In other words, grace and goodness come from God alone.  That’s what the symbolism of numbers pointed to for Hezekiah.  Surrounded by those symbols which reveal God’s embrace of him, how could Hezekiah feel anything but comfort as he entered death and fuller life with God?  

And we Catholics have symbols, too: the symbols of the crucifix and the altar, both of which point to the reality that Christ is here with us on earth, walking with us.  And we have the greatest sign here as well, God himself present in the Eucharist.  Surrounded by these signs of God’s presence and companionship, we can face death—and even the ordinariness of everyday life—with assurance and peace. 

We can, and should, use science and human reason to help with our quality of living.  But ultimately our peace about death and life rests in the person of God alone, God who surrounds us with signs and symbols of his presence, God who is our hope and happiness.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Homily for 19 July 2018

19 July 2018

Darkness is often a place of growth.  A child is conceived and develops in the darkness of the womb.  A seed is nurtured and grows in the darkness of the earth.  And we humans mature and grow when the dark periods of life cast a shadow on our souls.

And regardless of why we might find ourselves in that darkness, our souls continually and almost instinctively desire the light of day.  “My soul yearns for you in the night, yes, my spirit within me keeps vigil for you” [Isaiah].  And that longing for daylight and life is what keeps us from getting stuck in the darkness.

But, of course, that Light and Life is Jesus.  Our Lord came down from heaven and enters right into the darkness of our pains and wounds.  And there he says to us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” [Mt 11:28].  We never go it alone.  Even the words of the prophets are there with us.  Isaiah affirms that the “dead shall live, their corpses shall rise; awake and sing, you who lie in the dust.” 

Regardless of why we find ourselves in the dark times of life, we know that Christ is there with us to see us through and to bring us back to life.  He who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, who descended to the dead, and on the third day rose and ascended into heaven [Apostles Creed].  He who has visited the land of the dead and brought life and renewed hope.

We meet Christ in the dark times of life; we meet him in the tomb.  But from there we grow with God who releases us—from darkness to light, from death to life.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Homily for 15 July 2018

15 July 2018
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Catholic worship is known for its “smells and bells.”  We surround ourselves here with all sorts of things that affect our senses. 

We see the beautiful stained glass windows, with a rainbow of colors, scenes and images that remind us of the communion of saints, expertly handcrafted.  We dip our fingers in the holy water as a reminder of our baptism.  It’s cool and wet.  We step into the place and smell incense or, more often, we smell the scent of many decades’ worth of burning candles.  It smells like prayer.  

We hear the bells in the tower, bells during the Mass; we hear the music; we hear the human voice speaking words of Scripture and prayer.  Our taste buds even get a chance at communion time, when we eat and drink.  We sit and stand, we kneel, we bow our heads, we process in and out.  We make the Sign of the Cross over ourselves. 

Catholic worship is a very bodily thing; it affects all our senses.  Even in the simplest, most austere churches there are a lot of “smells and bells” in how we worship God.  And that’s very fine; after all, God created the world and everything in it, and he reveals himself to us through it all.  So the “smells and bells” are okay.  They help us to lift our minds and hearts to God—at least, they’re supposed to.

We all know the story of the golden calf—how Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, but while he was gone, the people made a golden calf and worshiped it as their god.  Well, the smells and bells of our worship can inadvertently become a golden calf.  But, you know, that doesn’t happen because we don’t believe in God.  The Hebrews didn’t make a golden calf because they stopped believing in God.  They did it because the calf (or the bull) was associated with God—similar to how, for us, holy water, holy oil, bread and wine, incense, music, and so on are all associated with God.

It’s easy to experience the physical, tangible reminders of God’s presence while, at the same time, to miss the experience of worshiping God himself.

And this is where the Prophet Amos comes in, who we hear from today.  He lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is.  But he was sent by God to go to the northern kingdom of Israel.  Now, in the northern kingdom, King Jeroboam had set up two temples, one in a city called Bethel, and the other in a city called Dan.  And King Jeroboam put up a golden calf in each temple.

And the problem wasn’t so much that there were golden calves there.  In the Book of Numbers (23:22), God is described as being “like the horns of a wild ox.”  In Psalm 18(:3), God is described as being “the horn of my salvation;” meaning, the horn of a bull.  Even the Cherubim which the throne of God sits on are sometimes described as having the body of a bull or a lion.  The bull was a symbol of strength and fertility for the Hebrews (and for many other cultures at the time). 

The bull was a symbol of God’s strength and fertility, and even represented the presence of God himself.  So the golden calves in those temples weren’t so much the issue for the Prophet Amos.  The issue was that the people were worshipping the symbols and signs of God rather than God himself.  They were worshipping the “smells and bells,” rather than God himself.  And, as we heard, Amos got the door slammed in his face for saying that.

We like all those tangible aspects of our worship.  We like to see and hear; we like to taste and smell; we like to touch.  It makes God more “real.”  And while that’s true, the kind of worship we’re ultimately going for is worship “in spirit and in truth.”  Jesus says that in the Gospel of John (4:21-24).  Spoken prayer is good, but it’s better when our prayers are true.  Kneeling is good, but it’s better when we kneel out of reverence and love for God.  Eating and drinking at communion time is good, but it’s better when we digest and savor the Spirit of God we’re taking in.

We like all those tangible aspects of our worship—and we should.  But, at the same time, Jesus says to worship “in spirit and in truth.”  And when we look at the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians we can understand why.

Saint Paul puts out there essentially a list of all the good things God gives his people.  God has blessed us, made us holy, destined us for adoption; giving us redemption, forgiveness, wisdom and insight.  It’s basically a laundry list of reasons why we worship God.  But all these gifts God has for us are...spiritual.  Blessedness, holiness, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, wisdom, insight—those are things we experience “in spirit.”  Our bodily senses aren’t really part of it.

And so, worshipping God includes the “smells and bells,” but it goes beyond them too.  Worshipping God necessarily involves the spirit, because that’s where God’s blessings are mostly encountered.  For instance, it’s one thing to go into the confessional and to hear the priest say, “I absolve you from your sins.”  But it’s another to be humble before God and to feel that forgiveness “in spirit and in truth.”

It’s one thing to say the words of the Our Father.  But it’s another to really hear and take to heart what it is we’re praying for.  It’s one thing to give someone the Sign of Peace.  But it’s another to truly wish the peace of Christ upon someone. 

All the physical aspects of our worship are meant to be like a springboard, a jumping off point for worship “in spirit and in truth.”  And that really takes a lifetime of trial and error to experience what it means to worship in spirit.  But that’s where the Lord is guiding us. 

Catholic worship is known for its “smells and bells.”  We surround ourselves here with all sorts of things that affect our senses.  May those tangible, physical things help us to offer not only our voices, our gestures, our bread and wine, but also our spirit.  In the end, God is spirit.  What better and truer way to worship him than to lay open our spirit before him, in this place, and at this altar.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Homily for 12 July 2018

12 July 2018

Our readings highlight the idea of judgment and mercy—God’s judgment and mercy.  When others are hostile to us Christians, Jesus says in so many words: Don’t retaliate—just leave them for God’s judgment.  And that’s pretty much a threat, based on the fiery end Sodom and Gomorrah experienced.  So God’s judgment sounds pretty harsh.

But the Prophet Hosea describes God’s judgment in a very different way.  He talks about the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, and even God’s tenderness.  It’s almost like our readings today are talking about two different Gods; one who’s wrathful and the other who’s gentle and quick to forgive.  But, of course, there’s only one God. 

So either God is unstable or there’s something else at play here.  And what’s at play is the differences in the human characters in these stories.  As we know, there are people who are believers—more or less; who have accepted faith in God to some degree.  To these people (which is most people) God is slow to anger and quick to forgive.  They (we) are like children who are learning; and we don’t get overly angry with kids who are trying to learn.

But there are others who outright reject God and everything God is about: truth, goodness, beauty, harmony, relationship, etc.  They flat out reject it.  To those people God’s judgment would be harsh.  After all, if someone rejects the very Spirit of love, what else would they experience but the absence of love.  If someone rejects the very Spirit of truth and beauty, what else would they experience but the opposite of those things.

God responds to us according to how we respond to him.  If we let ourselves be his children, let he will treat us as children: with love, tenderness, and an abundance of forgiveness.  May we today renew ourselves as children of God, sons and daughters of God who wants nothing more than to love and be loved in return.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Homily for 11 July 2018

11 July 2018

“Seek always the face of the Lord,” our psalm says today.  And immediately we think of images of Jesus’ face, which is fine and good.  But the gospel reminds us that the “face of Jesus” can also be seen in other people.

Jesus called together his twelve Apostles and sent them out to do his work: proclaiming the Kingdom, curing disease and illness, raising up the lowly, and so on.  They were sent out to “be” Jesus to others. God sends many people our way, to help us and to raise us up.  And that all started with the Apostles. 

And so, as we “seek always the face of the Lord,” we also look to leaders in the Church: popes, bishops, priests, spiritual writers, the Saints.  Of course, we can also see the face of God in neighbors and in cherished friends.  And, if we look in a mirror, we might even see the face of God there.

“Seek always the face of the Lord,” our psalm says today.  Happily, the face of God is all over the place.  May the Lord help us to see him, and to be thankful. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Homily for 10 July 2018

10 July 2018

Saint Clare is known for saying: “We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become.”  And that sounds familiar because we just heard the same idea in the psalm: “Their makers shall be like them, everyone that trusts in them.”  And, of course, we all know the familiar proverb: “You are what you eat.”

Whatever we love or enjoy; whatever we give all our time and attention to, that’s what shapes who we are and what we become.  And this is actually a practical bit of wisdom—especially if, for example, we’re trying to change our habits or our ways of thinking. 

For instance, if we find we’re being too negative or self-critical, maybe it’s time to hang around with more positive people; maybe it’s time to give old habits a break and, instead, indulge in something constructive.  Wherever we give our time and attention, that’s what shapes who we are.

And this bit of wisdom has obvious importance when it comes to our lives as disciples of Christ.  After all, our God is a living God, who is passionate and devoted, forgiving and just, wise and patient.  If we want to more like our God (in whose image we’re made), then we need to give him more of our attention.  If we want to be truly alive, passionate about living, a devoted Catholic, a person of kindness, wisdom, and patience…then we want to hang around with the One who is all those things: God.

“We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become.”         

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Homily for 8 July 2018

8 July 2018
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Our friends here in the gospel do something we do all the time: We make assumptions, and then we let those assumptions direct us.  And that’s not a bad thing—especially when those assumptions are based on our experiences of life.

For instance, if I take my shoes off and think about running across the grass, I assume that if I do that I’m going to step on some stones, some thistles, and maybe something else that’s going to hurt.  And I assume that because that’s just what always seems to happen.  So my assumption is based on a pattern of personal experiences.  So the next time I think about walking on the grass barefooted, I might not do it.

Our assumptions, based on our experiences, guide us; they help make our decisions for us.  And, again, that can be a very good thing.  It keeps us safe and it’s how we learn.  But, on the other hand, the assumptions we have can also limit us.

For instance, it would be incorrect to assume that every time I walk barefoot in the grass, I’m going to step on something.  And so, it would be (not necessarily wrong, but…) unfortunate if I said: I’m never going to walk barefoot on the grass ever again.  I would be limiting my experiences of life if I let my assumptions dominate.

And so, our assumptions, even though they’re absolutely good and necessary, can become an obstacle if we’re not aware of them, or if we give them too much “weight.”  And that’s where our friends are today in the Gospel of Mark.

There’s Jesus standing in front of them in the synagogue.  He’s about average height: 5’9”—6’.  They hear his voice, they see his teeth when he opens his mouth; they see his beard and his hair.  He has brown eyes, and he’s dressed in the same type of clothes as everybody else.  There’s nothing particularly different about him.  And everybody knows who he is: He’s the son of Joe and Mary at the next farm over the way.

And so, what reason would they have to think they’re staring God himself in the face, or that they’re hearing the words of a prophet?  Other than what he was saying—which “astonished” people—they had no reason to think of Jesus as being different from any other preacher in the synagogue.  They didn’t see him as a prophet or as God himself, because…Jesus didn’t match their assumptions about prophets or God.

They assumed (from what they knew of their history) that prophets come from some distant land.  Prophets were supposed to be something of a curiosity, certainly not what we’d call “normal” people.  And prophets were supposed to be larger-than-life, like Moses or Jeremiah or Elijah.  Jesus was anything but that.  And so, the people “took offense” at him.  They were “scandalized” by him because he was a “nobody” (just like everybody else), trying to be “somebody;” namely, a prophet. 

But he didn’t match their assumptions about prophets, so the people just discounted Jesus.  They said, “Whatever.”  And “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there.”  This is a case where an assumption was very limiting.  The people had cut themselves off from an encounter with God.  And, of course, that’s something we want to avoid.

It’s sometimes said of God that we should “expect the unexpected.”  We should “imagine the unimaginable.”  We should “anticipate being surprised.”  In other words, when it comes to God, we have to be careful about our assumptions.  We can have them—and we should, but we can’t let them take the place of God.  Our faith has to be in God, and not in our assumptions about him.

This really is where the whole question about “the problem of evil” comes from.  The argument goes: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and if God is all good and all loving, then how can there continue to be evil in the world?  Why is there sickness and suffering?  Why is there natural disaster?  Why do “bad things happen to good people”?

All those questions boil down to the assumptions we have about God.  The assumption is that: God is all-powerful and loving, therefore, it only makes sense that he would use his power to rid the world of anything that is evil.  The assumption is that all God needs to do is snap his fingers and all will be right in the world.  And, yet he doesn’t do it; he won’t do it, or he can’t do it.  So, the assumption is that he is not all-powerful; or if he is, then he is certainly not loving or compassionate.

This question, the “problem of evil,” is all rooted in our assumptions about God.  And a good chunk of people leave the faith, or discount Christianity all together because of it.  Their faith is in their assumptions, not in God. 

If we want to know who God is—who the Christian God is—then we look to Jesus.  As much as the Old Testament is useful to us, and as much as the study of ancient religions is helpful, if we want to make good assumptions about God, we have to look at Jesus.  He is, after all, the “visible image of the invisible God.” 

And Jesus shows us that God’s brand of “power” looks a lot like “weakness.”  Saint Paul came to that conclusion when he wrote, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Jesus showed us “power” when he let himself be crucified.  He showed us “power” when he associated with the needy rather than people of influence.  He showed us “power” when he was incarnated in the form of a defenseless baby born in a manger.  God’s brand of “power” looks a lot like “weakness.”

And so, we can (and should) assume that God is all-powerful; but it’s a vastly different form of “power” than we usually expect.  That’s the value of having a big crucifix in our churches.  It’s why, when we come to Mass, it’s less important what I get from God, and more important what I give to God—my attention, my reverence, my love and adoration.  It would be great if God would just snap his fingers and wipe evil from the face of the earth, but we don't have reason to hold onto that assumption—based on what God himself (Jesus) has shown to us.

When we let go of our false assumptions (especially about God), then life becomes better.  And we actually become more of a partner with God—in his power and love.  Instead of waiting for God to do something, maybe he’s doing what he always does: maybe he’s calling on us to get up and do something for him—weak and limited creatures that we are.  God always does that: he always calls up people who are least likely to make a difference (in other people’s eyes).  That we can assume about God—that he uses the humble and the lowly to bring down the “powerful.”

And for that reason, we want to be careful with our assumptions, not only about God, but also about other people.  The Letter to the Hebrews (13:2) gives us the famous line: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have unknowingly entertained angels.”  And, really, what is hospitality but welcoming someone, accepting someone for who they are—without letting our assumptions about them get in the way. 

Hospitality is openness; it’s “expecting the unexpected;” letting ourselves be surprised by the person who’s standing in front of us.  Hospitality is about not letting our assumptions cut us off from encountering the other person.  Everybody has something to share; every life is precious to God.  Even people who’ve known each other for decades can’t say: “I know that person perfectly.”  That’s a pretty big assumption; to think I know somebody else perfectly, that’s there nothing else for me to learn.

Our assumptions are absolutely good and necessary.  But they can also limit us.  If we wish to encounter God, then we have to watch our assumptions about him: expect the unexpected, imagine the unimaginable, anticipate being surprised by God.  After all, our faith isn’t in our assumptions about God; our faith is in God—as he is.