Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 3, 2010

Bellarmine Chapel, Xavier University



(Based on Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17: 5-10)


The readings for today’s liturgy are a bit unusual in that they all converge on a single theme, which is not the usual case.


It’s easy to see that the church, by selecting these readings, wants us to reflect on the nature and quality of our faith.


Unfortunately, I’m afraid that when many Catholics hear the word “faith” they translate it into things like teachings or doctrines – or even dogmas. (Which is what parents are really saying when they talk about ‘passing along the faith to our children.’) For many people faith is about conceptual answers to conceptual questions.


That’s not what is going on here. There are much more profound issues at stake in these readings. They’re all about our interior, personal stance toward God and God’s ways. They’re about attitudes of the heart, which is some thing totally different from concepts and Q-and-A’s. It’s all about things like commitment and trust and willingness to experience dependence; about our readiness to stand in the face of mystery beyond our comprehension.


We begin with the obscure prophet Habakkuk. We can’t really understand what this first reading is all about if we don’t know the circumstances in which he writes.


His times are dreadful and dark indeed. It’s 600 B.C. and the Babylonians are in command.  The fierce armies of the Chaldeans are on the horizon. In only a few more years Jerusalem will be over-run; their holy temple will be sacked and in ruins; and the people will be led off as slave for 50 years. The leaders are engaged in all sorts of futile political intrigue, trying in vain to ward off the coming disaster.


And religiously the situation is, if anything, even worse. The king Jehoiachim has abandoned the Covenant that made them a people. They have fallen back to worshipping idols. And the cronies of the king are ransacking the treasury and pillaging and extorting the poor.


The prophet cries out to God: “How long are you going to allow this to go on? When does it end?” Scholars tell us that this is the first time in Israelite literature that one of the prophets challenges God. He calls Yahweh to account!


The Lord’s word to us doesn’t come in some timeless moment. God addresses us right  within our present situation. So when I read this passage earlier this week in preparing my homily, I couldn’t help thinking of the question that’s in the air these days. It’s like a current running underneath a lot of church conversations: “Why do you stay?”  Or it might take the form I’ve heard in many conversations: “How do you survive in this church?”


Why do we stay, indeed? How does one survive in today’s church when every day comes yet more revelations of abuse of our children and cover-up by our leaders? Why stay in a church in which leaders value the image of the church more than the safety of its children? Why stay in a church which is petrified of women* or vilifies and demeans our gay sisters and brothers? A church where some bishops threaten with serious spiritual harm civic leaders who happen to disagree with their political agendas?


Why stay, indeed?


Sadly, many have answered the question by simply walking away. For those of us who have stayed I believe our situation is an occasion of grace.


An occasion of grace? How can that be? I’m reminded of the insight of Henri deLubac, one of the great theologians at Vatican II. He said that our challenge is to love the sinful church, not some ethereal all-holy church. The sinful church—this motley collection of bumbling misfits—is the church loved by the Father, and besides, it’s the only one there is. Looking for an all-holy church is searching for salvation in some sort of Gnostic idea; it’s rooted in our avoidance of incarnation and fallibility and moral failure.


The Lord is offering us grace in the form of the challenge to move to a deeper place on our life journey. Our situation invites us to move beyond a comfortable routine and question, as the situation in Habakkuk’s day made him question. It challenges us to ask: What’s really important in my relation to Jesus? What’s the core of it all? What’s essential about our lives as his followers—and what is merely window-dressing?


These are salutary questions we as adult Christians need to ask ourselves all along our journey if we are serious searchers. The present situation is the gift that compels us to work at the task.


Our leaders are not the church. Here we are almost 50 years after Vatican II and the old unconverted mind-set is still at work in us. We still hear ourselves saying “Why doesn’t the church do XYZ” when we’re talking about the hierarchy. We still have not fully faced the difficult reality that we are the church. It’s all too easy to take our position outside the church and use our energies to throw stones at its leaders. We can only ask the question of whether to stay or leave, with integrity, if we first take our position within the circle of church, as individuals who have the dignity of being responsible for its proclamation to the world.


The real question is not about what others  have done or continue to do, but rather the question that Ignatius of Loyola came up against in the middle of his months of profound conversion: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What am I going to do for Christ?


How am I using the gifts with which I am blessed—every day? My time, my talents, the advantages that come to me totally unearned from living in this blessed country? And perhaps above all, the gift of my attention? To what do I attend? To what do I lend that most precious resource?


So we turn to the account from Luke’s Gospel. And we hear Jesus telling us this rather strange little parable, which seems to be a kind of throwaway. The workers are coming in after a long day in the field, and what will their master do, come suppertime? Of course he will order them to fix his supper; what master would do otherwise? They can eat later.


The passage is really ironic, because the master who will do exactly the opposite is Jesus himself.


Just think. He says at one point, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.” And when he brings us to the table, what is the first thing he does? He kneels to wash our feet. (In John’s Gospel there isn’t even an account of Jesus announcing the Eucharist; instead, in the place where the account would be, John places Jesus’ act of humility.) When we are at the table he says, “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I have from my Father.” He prays “that where I am you also may be” and he tells us why he acts as he does: “that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”


From the very earliest moments of the Jesus movement the community began to compose hymns that would give expression to their understanding of him. By the time Paul writes the Letter to the Philippians one of those hymns has already become well known. Listen to how they tried to capture what he was about:


            . . . though he was in the form of God,

            [he] did not regard equality with God

                something to be grasped.

            Rather, he emptied himself,

            taking the form of a slave,

            coming in human likeness;

            and found in human appearance,

            he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death,

                even death on a cross.       


After that, as our Jewish brethren might say, “all the rest is commentary.” All the rest. The hoopla around papal visits. The latest test that’s going to prove definitively that the Shroud of Turin is really genuine. Rosaries turning gold at Medjugorje. Who’s in line to become pope or bishop. Or pastor  . . .


And so we return to old Habakkuk. We find him climbing up onto the ramparts, on the wall of the city Jerusalem. He looks out over the plain and wonders what God’s response to his complaint will be.


And the Lord replies: “The vision will not disappoint!” It will come. But on my time, not yours. (And in case you failed to notice, in God’s time a thousand years are as a day . . .)


The vision will be fulfilled, our role is to wait in trust. As one of the hymns we sing in the black church puts it, “We walk by faith and not by sight.”


Timothy is reminded that his faith came from the example of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. We stay because we need each to face the struggles of this life; because this is the place where our weak faith is strengthened by the example of sisters and brothers who walk the walk, the living communion of saints with whom we rub shoulders every day. We can only ‘stay’ if we lean on one another.


We stay because we have a mission to work at and we can’t do it alone.


We stay because we follow a Lord who has made himself a slave, who waits on us at a rich banquet table and offers us food and drink beyond our wildest imagining, to still our hunger and slake our thirst—for everlasting life.




*  At my observation that we live in a church that is petrified by women, there was some laughter followed by applause. When I continued the sentence and spoke of a church that denigrates our gay sisters and brothers, the congregation was more restrained.