Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Power of Keys

This was my homily that I preached last weekend at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Carmel, Indiana.

Most of us probably don’t realize this, but every day we carry around a little bundle of power in our pockets, purses, etc. No, in spite of what all of the advertisers are trying to convince you of, it isn’t that latest smartphone with the 80 billion aps on it. It is, in fact, our keys. You see, keys are powerful. Sure, practically speaking they don’t seem to do much: they lock and unlock our doors and start our cars, but when you look at it a little more broadly, you see that they do in fact have a lot of power over how we live our lives. Just think about the last time you lost your keys. How powerless did you feel? Particularly in America, without our keys we are immobilized. We can’t go anywhere because we can’t unlock, let alone start our car, and we wouldn’t want to leave anyway, because we either wouldn’t be able to lock the house or, if we could, we wouldn’t be able to get back in. So, yes, keys are apparently pretty powerful. Well, maybe not exactly. It’s not the keys themselves that have the power, but rather it is those who possess the keys who have it. Parents, of course, know this. How often have you—against your better judgment—handed your car keys over to your teenager with the ominous warning, “I expect you to bring it back in one piece, got it?” You realize that putting keys in their hands is handing power over to them and so you feel it is your duty (and rightfully so) to remind them of the responsibility that comes with it. This, I think, can help us understand our readings today, because in both we see that power being handed over to another by the conferring of keys.

In the first reading, we see that it is God himself who has this power. In the reading we see that God is exercising his power over the keys of the kingdom, taking them from one and giving them to another. Shebna was given power over the kingdom of Judah, yet he was not a good steward of the authority given to him. So the Lord stripped him of the keys and gave them to Eliakim, whom the prophet identifies as the Lord’s servant. Teens, could you imagine losing the keys to the car to your little brother or sister? Multiply that by a couple hundred thousand and that’s what you have going on here. You see, God was looking for a good steward for his kingdom, someone who would serve the needs of his chosen people well. Shebna, apparently, didn’t cut it, so the keys were given to Eliakim.

In the Gospel today, we see a similar scene, though in this instance it is more like a test. As a group, the disciples are able to report all of the facts about what others have been saying about Jesus. Yet when Jesus confronts them and asks them to weed through all of that and tell him who they say that he is, only Simon Peter is recorded as having a response. As a result, Jesus reveals to Simon his plan for him in his Kingdom. Two things, I think, are important to note here. First, Jesus carries the authority to confer the keys of the Kingdom of God. Now, no Jew in their right mind would ever presume to do this, because they all knew that God alone had the authority to do so. Thus, Jesus is either outside of his right mind or he really is God. (fyi, as Christians, we believe the latter. ) Second, Peter, in confessing that Jesus is the Son of God, proves that he acknowledges Jesus’ authority and that he is ready to be a steward of God’s Kingdom. Thus, it is only after Peter makes this confession that Jesus reveals to him his true calling, represented by conferring on him a new name and by giving him the keys to the Kingdom. This is such a rich story that we could spend a lot more time unpacking, but, unfortunately, we don’t have time to do so. What’s important for us to see today is that Peter’s faith—his ability to respond to God’s grace and confess what was unknowable to his human senses alone, that Jesus is God—is itself a key to unlocking God’s loving plan for his life. My brothers and sisters, faith is a powerful key.

Of course, as we encounter this reading today, we, too, are confronted with the same questions. “Who do they say that I am?” Well, for us, that’s a relatively easy question to answer. We have nearly 2000 years of history and study behind us to help us. In fact, there’s a whole theological science—called Christology—that’s dedicated to answering just that question. The challenge comes, as it did for the disciples who were with Jesus that day, when Jesus asks that second question, “Who do you say that I am?” No matter how deftly we synthesize 2000 years of Christology to make it sound like our own, if we answer using only the knowledge we’ve gained through study of what others have said, our answer will never be more than just that, what others have said about Jesus. This question cannot be answered by study alone. Rather, it also requires a relationship.

Think about it. If a close friend came up to you and said, “What are other people saying about me?” how would you respond? My guess is that it would be things like, “Oh, they say ‘he’s a nice guy,’ or ‘a good worker,’ or ‘a great soccer player.’” Or perhaps, “‘she’s a good mother,’ ‘an excellent teacher,’ or ‘a nice boss,’” etc. etc. And what if your friend then turned to you and said, “Well, who do you say that I am?” If you don’t have a good relationship with that person, what more can you say except what everyone else has already said? Yet, if you have a relationship with that person, you can look at him or her and say, “You’re Greg, or Susan, or Cindy. You’re Larry, or Samir or Elaina… and you’re my friend and I know that you’re a good person.” Do you see the difference there? Without a relationship we are unable to see that person for who he or she is. My friends, the same applies for our ability to answer these questions from Jesus today. We can’t just listen to what other people have said about him. Rather, we have to spend time with him and get to know him. Then we will be able to respond, “You are Jesus, my friend. And because of this I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” My friends this is a powerful confession. It is powerful because it unlocks for us the relationship in which God can reveal his plan for us—his plan for our happiness—and so entrust us with the responsibility to help bring about his kingdom here on earth.

Whether or not you are ready to make this confession today, the important thing to remember is that there is always room for each of us to deepen our relationship with God. Each time that we encounter him in both the Word and the Blessed Sacrament—whether here in the liturgy or in private prayer—we should ask him to reveal himself to us more and more. However it is that you decide to do that—whether it is through Bible Studies, time in the adoration chapel, participating in a Christ Renews His Parish weekend or any other of the hundreds of ways we have available to us here in this parish—let God unlock the faith in you that will be your key to unlocking the life that he has planned for you, a life that will lead to your eternal joy in heaven. My brothers and sisters, we can even begin right here. As we each approach to receive Jesus in this Eucharistic meal, let us imagine Jesus asking us that question, “Who do you say that I am?” Then, let’s let our “Amen” echo Peter’s words and thus unlock for us the joys of God’s Kingdom.

~ Given at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, Carmel, IN – August 20th & 21st, 2011

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Listening with a discerning heart

Here's the text from the homily that I preached at St. Ambrose in Anderson this past weekend (the St. Mary's homily was a cut version). Please feel free to comment!

In the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is a spoof on the medieval “King Arthur” fables, there is a part where the “knights of the round table” have to cross a bridge spanning a deep chasm, a bridge that is guarded by a bridge keeper. The keeper is made out to be a fearsome, intimidating creature and to get by him each person must answer three questions correctly. Sir Lancelot, the brave, is the first to approach. Encountering the keeper and with much bravado, he awaits the questions: “What is your name?” “Sir Lancelot of Camelot.” “What is your quest?” “To find the Holy Grail.” “What is your favorite color?” “Blue.” Stunned at the ease of the questions, Lancelot nonetheless proudly passes onto the bridge. Sir Robin, having seen this, pushes to the front, expecting to pass with similar ease. As he arrogantly approaches the keeper he too is questioned: “What is your name?” “Sir Robin of Camelot.” “What is your quest.” “To seek the Holy Grail.” “What is the capital of Assyria?” “What? I don’t kno… ahhhhh!” Having answered wrong, he is thrown by an invisible force into the chasm. While the rest of the scene is worth recounting, I’ll invite you to go to YouTube or Netflix to see it. The point is that Sir Robin mistakenly assumed that the questions would be the same for each traveler. Instead of listening for the particular way that the keeper would question him, he answered without discernment and so was lost.

In today’s first reading, we hear of a similar encounter. In this case, it is the prophet Elijah who is on a journey and God whom he is encountering. For forty days Elijah journeyed through the desert to Mount Horeb, where he then took shelter in a cave. Perhaps to us, these facts seem simply to be background to the story of God’s encounter with Elijah. Yet for the Hebrew people, each of these details would have had a powerful impact on their interpretation of the story. The forty day journey in the desert would have reminded them of the forty year journey of the Israelites through the desert and into the Promised Land. And, while most of us might not make the connection, the ancient Israelites would know that Mount Horeb, where Elijah ended his journey, is also known as Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments and where God formed his covenant with the Israelite people. There, God called Moses up to him on the mountain and spoke to him. When he did, the people heard loud peals of thunder and the earth shook beneath them. Thus, you can imagine that it was quite a shock to the Israelites when they heard that when God called Elijah to come out to meet him that God was not to be found in the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Elijah, even though he was intimately aware of the way God had spoken to his people on that very mountain, did not presume that God would speak to him in the same way. Rather he waited with a discerning heart to hear the particular way that God would speak to him and instead found the Lord in a small whispering sound.

In our Gospel reading today, we hear the continuation of the story we began last week. After feeding the five thousand with just five loaves and two fish, Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him, dismisses the crowd to their homes and finally gets the retreat he was looking for. As Jesus spends the night in prayer, Peter and the disciples find themselves fighting against a rough sea. Thus, as Jesus approaches them, the disciples, already stressed out, react as if they are seeing a ghost. To calm their spirits Jesus calls out to them in what must have seemed to be a “tiny whispering sound” amidst the crashing of the waves in the tumultuous waters. Even amidst this chaos, however, Peter, like Elijah, immediately discerned the Lord’s voice and asked that the Lord would call him to him. He could do this because, in times of calm, he spent time with Jesus, building a relationship with him and getting to know his voice. Thus, in times of distress, he could weather the storm and hear the particular way in which God was speaking to him and calling him close.

The challenge of discerning God’s voice in the midst of our noisy world is greater than ever. That is why it is ever more important to build a relationship with God in times of calm, so that in times of storm and distress we will know which voice to listen to. A child lost in a shopping mall is made deaf by his anxiety until the voice of his mother breaks through, calling him to her. God calls us to this kind of relationship, a relationship in which we come to know and trust his voice, so that when we are tossed about by the waves of the world, we will hear him calling to us in order to calm our spirits.

So why is this important? Well, quite frankly, our response to God in times of distress is the measure of how authentically we are living out our faith. When the world seems to be crashing down around us, can we, like Elijah, wait to hear the Lord’s voice? And when we do, can we, like Peter, trust in that voice calling us out into what by all human standards seems to be certain destruction? Finally, can we rely on the Lord so completely, that we cry out only to him when all seems to be lost? If your answer is “yes” to all of those questions, great! You are in a great place and I am sure a witness of faith to others. I suspect that many of us, however, have to answer one or more of those questions with either “no” or at least “I’m not sure.” If so, that’s ok, I assure you that you will not be thrown into a deep chasm! What is most important today is that you leave here realizing that your relationship with God may not be where it ought to be, or perhaps that you have some work to do to make how you live your life in faith line up with the way God has called you to live it. If this encounter with the Word of God—the Living Word contained in these Scriptures—calls you to pursue a deeper relationship with God, then it has fulfilled the purpose for which it was sent. If it hasn’t, I invite you to look again at this Word and to pray for the wisdom to understand the particular way that God is speaking to you through it. Either way, let us recognize that in this church, which is our boat amidst the rough, rude sea of the world, Jesus comes to us in the form of the sacrament offered here on this altar and calls us to him. Trusting in the faith handed down to us from the disciples who were with him on the sea that night, let us come now—unreservedly—to receive him and give him homage.

~ Given at St. Ambrose Church, Anderson, IN – August 6th & 7th, 2011