AUGUST 19, 2007: Twentieth Sunday of the Year
Real faith is real work.
Most of us join a religion as part of our growing up, often taking on the faith our parents professed. We don't have much choice. We were "brought up" in their religion.
In the late 60s I began to teach junior boys religion in one of our diocesan high schools. My students often reminded me they'd had no choice in their religious training. So, they contended, I shouldn't expect them to accept "the stuff" I was trying to "cram down their throats." Part of their teenage rebellion revolved around rejecting their parents' faith.
Our sacred authors wrote nothing for 16 year old high school students. Their goal was to demonstrate the implications of faith for people who had freely committed to that faith.
Yet in some important sense, we don't give ourselves over to faith; faith "overtakes" us. In the title song of her recent album, The Calling, Mary Chapin Carpenter reflects on this phenomenon in her own life: "Deep in your blood or a voice in your head, on a dark lonesome highway, it finds you instead. So certain it knows you, you can't turn away, something or someone has found you today . . . . There's no other way, there's no other way."
Of course, no matter how deeply we're convinced there's no other way, we're constantly tempted to find one. Though Jeremiah freely committed himself to be Yahweh's prophet, he continually must deal with "outsiders" who attempt to stop him from being the conscience of his people.
In today's first reading, "the princes" try to have him killed because he proclaims peace during a time of war. They complain to the king, "He is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in the city, and all the people, by speaking these things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin."
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews offers a suggestion to those in his community who might be tempted to chuck their faith's calling because of "opposition from sinners." They're to focus on that "great cloud of witnesses" who have gone before them in faith, especially Jesus. (It might be good to remember that the Greek word for witness is "martyr.") "Consider how Jesus endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart."
Yet, even if we had no outside opposition, we'd still have to face the internal tensions Jeremiah refers to in his famous (and depressing) chapter 20 "confession," some of the same tensions Luke's Jesus brings up in today's gospel pericope. There's an "anguish" which comes from simply carrying out the call we accept - especially when we experience the effect it has on others. "Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth?" Jesus asks. "No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on . . . ."
We might be as convinced as Jeremiah that our calling was an essential part of us even before God "formed us in the womb," yet we still might not like the place it assigns us in our everyday lives. If we're normal human beings, we don't look forward to being a bone of contention for the "good folks" we daily encounter. Left to our own desires, we'd much rather live a more peaceful existence. We'd prefer someone else be the person "to set the earth on fire." More than anything else, the opposition of our loved often stops us from fulfilling our faith commitments.
Perhaps that's why Carpenter ends her song with the question, "Who would believe me? I can't really say. Whatever the calling, the stumbling and falling, I followed it knowing there's no other way."
I've discovered through the years that most junior boys, even in Catholic high schools, have yet to reach that dimension in their faith.