21st Sunday in OT: Who is Jesus for us? (Turning Point II)

The gospel for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time narrates what we call “Peter’s Confession.”  Jesus’s question, ‘”Who do people say that I am,” turns into “Who do you say that I am,” addressed to his disciples. Peter speaks on behalf of the group, “confessing” that Jesus is the Anointed One, Son of the living God. The text then has Jesus giving Peter the keys to the Kingdom. It is difficult to preach on this text because the story is pierced in two parts, what we read now and what we will read next Sunday. There, in stark contrast, we will read about Jesus telling Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, because you are an obstacle to me.”

For this reason, more than being drawn to discuss Peter’s confession, I direct my attention to what we started discussing last week. What I see in this gospel is a turning point. In the same way that Jesus experiences his own turning point upon meeting the Canaanite woman, he now forces a turning point on his disciples. He takes them to the region of Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city with a temple dedicated to the Greek god Pan; a place of diversity; also the source of the mythical Jordan River, and, interestingly enough, the furthest you can be from the Temple while still in Israel. There he asks them the crucial question about who he is for them.

It is not difficult to apply this to our lives. We not only are invited to reflect about the turning points of our past, but also to reflect about those waiting for us in the future. Sometimes, these turning points have to be provoked, willfully brought about, lest we stall in our relationships and in everything we do. Perhaps we could provoke a great turning point by asking those around us who are we for them.

But we also are in need of a spiritual turning point, so we should ask ourselves the question Jesus has asked from his disciples: Who is Jesus for me? Perhaps our relationship with Jesus has stalled also, or it simply does not exist to begin with. Perhaps it exists but we have never thought about it. Maybe there is something there that just needs a spark, and perhaps the spark in precisely answering the question, “Who is Jesus for me?” The answer we give is crucial, one that will shape the way we live out faith and our life.

No one can answer this question for us. When the disciples tell Jesus that people saw him as another John the Baptist, or another Jeremiah, or just another of the prophets, people were just trying to encapsulate Jesus in pre-established categories. They were not answering for themselves, but the way others wanted them to answer. Peter at least is able to say how he had experienced Jesus, even if we will see that his experience of Jesus is not without difficulties. Jesus establishes a unique relationship with each and every one of us, and this gospel is an invitation to reflect about it.

Blog Pic, Caesarea Philippi ShwebTurnPt1


20th Sunday in OT: Turning Points

The gospel of the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time presents us with another miracle, the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman. The text offers several options for the preacher. We could preach about the healing power of Jesus. We also could preach about the power of intercession. As some other characters in the New Testament, the woman is asking for healing for someone else—like the Roman centurion who asks for healing for his servant. That could have inspired a homily on our role to be intercessors for others.

Another possibility is to preach about perseverance. Jesus denies the woman’s request at first, but she insists until she gets what she wants.

Yet another option is to realize that the Canaanite woman is a foreigner and Jesus finds himself in foreign territory—in the land of Tyre and Sidon. The first reading this Sunday and the Psalm seem to point in that direction. The message of the gospel is universal, and we are to become welcoming, diverse communities. It would be a worthy topic, but we hear preaching about this so many times.

More than a healing, our power of intercession, perseverance, or preaching about diversity, in this text I see something that I find very powerful, and especially applicable to our own lives. I see a turning point.

Jesus is determined not to help the woman because he thinks the scope of his mission is to the House of Israel. There is no way to sweeten his words, to stretch the text to make Jesus mean something else: he is not planning to help the woman because she is not a Jew. The direction of his ministry, at this point, is clear. But through the dialogue with the woman, and seeing her faith — a faith that he did not see among the Pharisees, the Scribes, or his own disciples — Jesus reaches a turning point. He reconfigures his “strategy” and realizes the universality of the scope of his mission. After this turning point, there is no way back. Even the Son of God took a turning point, changed, reconsidered his mission.

We, too, experience turning points. We can look at our past and see moments that were turning points. Sometimes the turning points were caused by negative experiences: the death of a loved one, a serious diagnosis, losing a job, an accident…We can also see positive experiences provoking a turning point: like meeting a person with whom we fall in love, a new friend, or in my case, for instance, being invited to consider priesthood. Perhaps a conversation with someone suddenly brings about an epiphany (—which is what I think happened with Jesus.) Turning points: we comfortably go in one direction, but then suddenly everything changes and we take an existential turn.

It is about looking at our past and recognizing the presence of God in those turning points. How we gathered the necessary courage and took a leap into unexpected territory, coming out more like the person God wants us to be. But it is not about the turning points of the past only, but also about those waiting for us in the future. We have to be ready for them, reading the signs that God sends abundantly our way; paying attention to the people God places on our way; reading events and situations, opening ourselves to give to those events and situations with the depth with which Jesus allowed himself to be changed by the Canaanite woman.

Sometimes, turning points have to be intentionally provoked, like the crises we discussed last week. This is what, in my opinion, what Jesus does in next Sunday’s gospel.


19th Sunday in OT: A Storm Awaiting

This is one rare occasion when the blog post comes actually after the weekend. While we hope it does not happen often, it gives me the chance to write not on what I preached, but on what I would have liked to preach now that the weekend is over. The basic message is the same, but here we offer something more to think about.

The gospel for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time shows us Jesus walking on water, and it is obviously difficult to take our sight off this extraordinary event. But there is so much more going on in this text.

The gospel is a continuation of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. We have to begin by wondering why Jesus immediately sends the disciples away (to “the other side,”) and he dismisses the crowds and goes to the mountain to pray by himself. If we look at John’s version of the story, we may clearly see why. John says that after feeding the people, Jesus realized that the people wanted to take him “by force, to make him king” (John 6:15.) The people have been fed and think Jesus is the personification of the long awaited political leader that will liberate them from the yoke of Roman occupation. Jesus does not only realize this, but also that his disciples may be in agreement with this. Thus, he has to send them away—on a boat, always the symbol of the community (don’t we call the Catholic Church the Boat of Peter?)

Then, if we know how to interpret the symbolism, the gospel describes a community in crisis. A few miles off shore, away from the safety of the coast, they experience a storm, “tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against” them. In the midst of this storm, Jesus, after praying and discerning about what happened with the crowds and the reaction of his own disciples, appears in the midst of the storm as an anchor, a spiritual lighthouse, a reference in turbulent waters. Peter then tries to walk on the water himself, instead of resorting to the community, and only with his own power to overcome his doubts, he fails and sinks.

How do we apply this to our own faith experience? Jesus is asking us today to also go “to the other side.” To the other side of injustice, indifference, routine or dysfunctionality.  Each time we decide to change, to go to the “other side,” a storm happens, and it is inevitable. And we know it, and this is why so many times we do not do what needs to be done, or say what needs to be said. Then, relationships, situations, institutions get stagnant. A spouse does not tell the other spouse what needs to be said because a storm will come upon the relationship—better to leave things this way. Or a leader in an institution does not tell things the way they are, because a storm will happen. In a parish, for instance, the pastor may see that change is needed, but he may be afraid that parishioners may abandon the boat or withhold financial support if they start feeling like too many things are changing. No one likes change (I do, but I know I am in the minority.) Out of fear, as justified as it may be, we settle for indifference and our communities and relationships may become irrelevant.

Jesus is asking us to embrace the storm. He tells us what he said to his disciples standing on the water: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” If we take the step to do what needs to be done, the holy storm will come upon us, with the winds of resistance against our faces… but Jesus promises that He will be there with us—especially if, unlike Peter, we do not try to go through it alone, by ourselves.

What I did not think of during the homily: Jesus forces this crisis. Sometimes a crisis needs to be provoked. Peace for the sake of peace is not the solution. Sometimes the storm of conflict is necessary to reach the “the other side.” Because it is on the other side that Jesus waits for us.

Blog Pic, Jesus walks on water

18th Sunday in OT: The Feeding of the Five Thousand

After the parables of the Kingdom, the Lectionary jumps a section of Matthew’s gospel (the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth and the death of John the Baptist) to the narration of the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

Everything in life is a process, and even this miracle shows us this. The process begins with Jesus being able to identify the need of the people; it continues with Jesus being moved with compassion for that need (the texts puts it so beautifully: “His heart was moved with pity for them”) and then he acted with overwhelming abundance—not only did all have their fill, but also there were twelve wicker baskets full of leftovers.

Unlike the disciples, who are unable to act because they are overwhelmed with the difficulty of solving the problem, Jesus is able to see the little resources that were available—only five loaves and two fish. Jesus does not perform the miracle out of nothing, but out of the little they had available, as the starting point for the miracle of incredible abundance to happen.

We do not have the power to multiply the bread and the fish, but we can indeed attempt to follow the rest of the steps of the process: we can learn to identify the needs of others; we can then learn to be moved with compassion for those needs; we can then learn to identify resources—even if they are minimal; and then we can act, giving abundantly, as Jesus did.

Like the parable of the seeds that fell in different grounds, this text may also divide people in groups. There are some who simply do not see needs. Some see the need but for one reason or another, are not moved by it—it is not their problem. Some may see the need, and feel bad about it, but they are not able to solve it—just like the disciples in today’s gospel. They are overwhelmed by the difficulties to overcome, unable to identify the resources, even if minimal, that are available. But there is also the possibility of becoming a person, and a community, who sees the problem, feels the compassion, sees the resources and the solutions, and acts.

And I firmly believe we have much of a choice about what kind of people we want to be.

Blog Pic, Feeding...