Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

It’s been a stressful last few weeks or last few months. It even seems like years. There’s been a lot of yelling, finger-pointing, name-calling. It’s been going on for so long, or it just feels like it, that even if it’s coming from people we have been told to trust to be concerned for our welfare, despite that it’s directed at significant portions of society that have always lived with a heightened fear for their safety, many still refuse to even pay attention or check under the rug. Rather we have just chosen to ignore it or brush it off as unavoidable political bluster in a season of imagined grievance and exaggerated discontent. It’s an unfortunate consequence of our acceptance of alternative facts and fake news. Instead of doing our own homework and thinking for ourselves, many just wait to be told the version of reality they prefer. And when we find ourselves entertained by the promise of security and prosperity without the inconvenience of discernment or a shared struggle, we have surrendered to the illusion that security and prosperity are our right, that nothing or no one had better get in our way. Perhaps we have forgotten the tumultuous seasons of discernment and shared struggle that brought this nation into being. No one ever promised us a rose garden. Rather, there will be plenty more seasons of discernment and shared struggle. It is a cross we all must bear.

I have purposely avoided any of the political conventions these past two weeks. I just didn’t have the luxury of riding an emotional roller coaster while also attending to the details of daily life reassuring parishioners that St. John’s is still here, comforting the sick and the dying, offering God’s mercy and reconciliation, baptizing babies, preparing couples for marriage, paying bills, walking the dog, staying sane and healthy. I really did not have the energy to cringe and wave my fists at the TV and go to bed disgusted and disillusioned. I’m not saying there’s nothing out there that gives me hope. Oh, no. Hope is all I’ve got. I’m also hoping we return to sanity and compassion and genuine care for the welfare of others. I’m hoping we recognize once again our need for discernment and shared struggle. I’m hoping we ignore the yelling, the finger-pointing, and the name-calling. I’m hoping we can be less cynical and defensive, that we can start listening and trusting one another again, and that it becomes a greater priority for us to be united than to be right. Idiots among us will continue to poke the bear. No doubt it is a distraction, and they will create a following. But it will take discipline on our part to refuse the emotional roller coaster they keep inviting us on. We have bigger fish to fry.

Our Christian discipleship invites us beyond the yelling and finger-pointing and name-calling to contribute productively to the establishment of God’s kingdom in our midst. But when we demonize those with whom we disagree, we no longer see them as partners in this shared venture. Opportunists will know how to arouse our fears and animosities to their advantage. They are able to manipulate our insecurities best when we have surrendered our ability to reason objectively and make mature decisions.

God, however, invites us to participate in his plan with full understanding and free consent. Maybe God should take lessons from political campaigns. Jesus desires that our choice for God be sincere, transparent, intentional. He makes no attempt to hide the truth about what awaits those who want to follow him. Most of the details by their very nature will be a little fuzzy. But God appeals to our sense of integrity and conviction, inviting us to step forward in trust and confidence. If there are any unknown variables, God wants to reassure us and prepare us from the start.

Jesus speaks today about the cross, his cross, the very reason the Father sent him to share our human nature. And Peter now stumbles, who just last week earned high praise from Jesus and admiration from his fellow apostles for professing him to be the Messiah, Son of the Living God. It seems he had a narrower grasp of the Messiah’s person and mission. Jesus does not even acknowledge his delusion. Instead he boldly declares that anyone who desires to follow him must bear the cross of suffering. This is where discipleship and life intersect. Whether or not we admit it, all human existence brings with it some uncertainty, fear, inconvenience, suffering, and loss. Jesus asks that we acknowledge the cross with open hearts and minds. The cross is a constant in the human equation. Our denial of it does not diminish its power or reach.

And Jesus suggests that suffering has a purpose, which we will never completely grasp in this life. A tinge of death will always accompany every encounter with the cross. But in the natural cycle of all created living things, death is not the end. It is never the end because new life will always follow after death. It is the age-old story of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground, there to die and decay, there to bring forth new and abundant life, generating more grain for food and the promise of future harvests.

Jesus teaches us that embracing the cross is necessary for all who seriously desire to follow him. The cross is not an evil to avoid nor a problem to fix. Rather, the purpose of suffering, the purpose of the cross in our discipleship is the generation of new life. When we answer the invitation to fasting and penance, when we extend a little more patience and kindness, forgiveness, compassion and mercy, we invite God to break the shackles of selfishness that enslave us. We give God permission to knock sense into us, that we might reorder our priorities and awaken to truth we have long ignored. Yes, there is inconvenience in setting aside time for prayer, for listening to God’s Word, for reflecting on the blessings of life, for celebrating truth and goodness and beauty, for attending to the poor and the vulnerable, for helping to ease their suffering. The burden the cross imposes is not meant to go to waste. It possesses power to transform our hearts unto the likeness of God’s heart, giving us hope and renewal. “Do not conform yourselves to this age,” Paul writes, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Transformation is only effective when we sincerely and actively engage in the search, the discovery, and the struggle to live the faith we claim in Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah’s love for God was genuine and intense, and God’s word was a fire burning within his heart. He spoke of how it made him weary. He complained how he became the object of derision and reproach because God’s message which he spoke was often of violence and outrage. Today we hear him cry out on the verge of despair, an experience shared by many parents, teachers, and people in ministry. But we know that Jeremiah persevered, that he witnessed to truths powerful men found inconvenient. He remained confident in the God he trusted. Jeremiah is still among us. His spirit lives on in the colorful and powerful preachers and teachers and saints who force us to think.

Who among us would volunteer to speak God’s challenging message? Yet for those who are serious about their discipleship, the shadow of the cross will never be far. Jesus proclaims for all to hear that his kingdom cannot be established without the cross, and we are called to bear our share of it, not for ourselves, but for the life of the world.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020