Sunday, October 03, 2010

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Kindling the Fire
Picture: cc simon dukes
Dear sisters and brothers, the story is told of a man who discovered the art of making fire and shared it with a tribe of people living in the mountains. Not only did he show them how to make fire, he also taught them how use it. He showed them how to light up their homes at night, how to warm themselves in winter, how to cook their food when they were hungry. Unfortunately, although the people were very grateful to him for this wonderful gift, their leaders became jealous of the man’s popularity and had him killed. For a while after his death, the people continued to make fire, and to pass on the art of fire-making to their children.

But then something strange began to happen. The people became more and more concerned only with the external details of fire-making. Some of them even began to argue about whether or not certain tools and techniques were more authentic than others. So focused were they on the externals of fire-making that, as incredible as it sounds, they gradually forgot all about the fire itself. Although they continued to perform the practices they had learned, and even to pass them on to their children, they didn’t actually make or use fire anymore. And, as you might imagine, after several generations of this, some of the children eventually gave up the practice of fire-making altogether. What’s the point of tiring yourself out by vigorously rubbing two sticks together for no apparent reason? Better to spend your time doing something more productive and fun.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps a similar story might be told about our faith. Just as the techniques of fire-making can seem foolish when their connection with fire is lost, so too can the practice of coming to Mass, for example, or of saying our prayers, seem pointless when we lose sight of its connection with our lives of faith. Thankfully, our scripture readings today help us to recall this connection by inviting us to think about what faith should look like.

What do you think of when you hear the word faith? One of the things I think of is the Profession of Faith that we make every Sunday, the same one we will all be making after this homily: We believe in one God, the Father... But is faith only about professing a series of beliefs, sort of like making a pledge of allegiance? If it were, then it would seem unnecessary to do it publicly every week at Mass. Couldn’t you believe in something without having to profess it regularly? But our readings today tell us that faith is more than that. Notice how, in the second reading, Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful. More than simply reminding him about what they believe in, Paul tells Timothy to stir into flame the gift of God that he received when Paul laid his hands and prayed over him. More than simply a series of beliefs, for Paul, faith is a life-giving fire, a burning flame. And Paul asks Timothy to continue cultivating this fire of faith, this spirit of... power and love and self-control. And isn’t this why we come to church, why we say our prayers and profess our faith? It’s not just because we are commanded to do these things. More importantly, we do them because these practices help us to keep the flame of our faith burning in our hearts and in our lives.

But what does it do for us, this fire of faith? What can we use it for? According to our readings, during difficult times, our faith is especially useful, because it teaches us to wait. In the first reading, for example, the Babylonians are oppressing the people of Israel. And the prophet Habakkuk is upset by all the destruction and violence, the strife and discord that he sees around him. He complains to God. I cry for help, he says, but you do not listen! In response, God gives Habakkuk a vision of a time of relief. But this time will not come immediately. It will be delayed. God tells the prophet that he must wait for it. And the thing that will help him to wait is his faith.

In the gospel too, Jesus speaks about faith in terms of waiting. He reminds us that, in relation to God, we are not masters but servants. We do not call the shots. We should not expect to receive immediately whatever it is we may want. Instead, we should be willing to wait, as all humble servants do.

But it is important for us to be clear what this waiting in faith looks like for a Christian. Some people may think that our faith works in the same way a tranquilizer like Valium does. It helps us to wait by deadening our pain and putting us to sleep, so that we do nothing about our situation. But that is not so. When we need a job, for example, it is not enough just to say a prayer and to wait at home doing nothing. Instead, our readings show us a very different image of waiting. To see this, we need to recall that, in today’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to his disciples while he himself is on a journey to Jerusalem. And we know what awaits him there. We know that although he is heading towards his resurrection on Easter Sunday, he must first submit himself to imprisonment and torture and death on a cross. Jesus’ faith in his heavenly Father moves him to wait for the gift of new life, not by falling asleep and doing nothing, but by remaining awake, and walking to Jerusalem. Even though Jesus knows that his work of bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:18) will lead him to his death, he does not stop. He continues walking until he reaches his destination.

There are, of course, obstacles along the way. In the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22), for example, Jesus is afraid. He asks his Father to remove the cup of suffering from him. But his faith enables him to overcome his fear. Like what happens to that mulberry tree in today’s gospel, by faith, Jesus' fear is uprooted and planted in the sea of the Father’s love. Jesus shows us that to have faith is not just to wait for consolation, but also to continue walking on the path of service. To have faith is to allow the fire of faith to transform the crosses of our suffering into trees bearing new life.

Some years ago, I was called to the hospital. Someone was dying. Entering the ward, I knew immediately that I had arrived too late. The patient had died. The family members were gathered around the bed, grief-stricken. Some were weeping openly. Others looked lost and confused. Their sorrow was unmistakable. What could I say or do to help? Feeling a little lost myself, I opened my prayerbook and invited the family members to join me as together we performed the practices and recited the words prescribed for such occasions. We made the sign of the cross. I sprinkled holy water. We listened to the Word of God. We prayed for one another. And as we did all this, I sensed a change in the atmosphere in that hospital room. More than tears of grief, something else began to fill our eyes. And, in addition to the sorrow of loss, something else began to move our hearts. I left the hospital that day feeling that I’d experienced God. And it was not really my doing. I had led the prayers and performed the practices, but through them God had kindled a fire in our hearts that day, the fire of faith.

Sisters and brothers, what are we doing to keep this fire burning within, among, and through us today?

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