Readings: Hb 1:2-3; 2:2-4; Ps 95; 2 Tm 1:6-8,13-14; Lk 17:5-10
As a deacon in my previous parish on Cape Cod I conducted a weekly Liturgy of the Word with Holy Communion at a local nursing home. After the liturgy I usually helped our volunteers return the residents to their rooms.
On one occasion I was pushing Teresa in her wheelchair. I’d known Teresa for several years. She was in her 90s and had recently started to have some mental problems. But one thing hadn’t changed: she talked incessantly. It didn’t always make complete sense, but it never stopped.
On this particular day as we approached the elevator, Teresa was chattering away when we encountered Connie, another woman, standing in the center of the corridor. She was screaming at the top of her lungs. Teresa asked me to stop the wheelchair. She then reached out and touched Connie’s forearm, rubbing it gently, not saying a word. The three of us remained there for what seemed like an eternity -- Connie screaming, Teresa rubbing, and me just wondering how long all this would go on. But after a few minutes Connie’s screaming dropped in both volume and frequency; and a few minutes later stopped completely. Teresa then gave her arm a final squeeze and said quietly, “We can go now.”
I wheeled her into the elevator and as soon as the door closed, Teresa said, “Connie’s OK, she’s just afraid because she doesn’t have much faith.” She then went on talking about how good the spaghetti was the night before.
Reading today’s Gospel passage I couldn’t help thinking about Connie and her fears and her lack of faith. She reminded me of the Apostles, because the Apostles were afraid. On their way to Jerusalem, they sensed the mounting threats and danger. And yet Jesus continued to lead them into the heart of it all. Their faith, what little they had, was drowning in a sea of fears. And so they turned to Jesus and said, "Increase our faith!"
Jesus responds by telling them that it's the quality, not the quantity, of their faith that's important -- that with even the smallest amount of real faith, they could command the forces of nature -- a faith to move mountains, Matthew tells us in his Gospel. Jesus goes on to tell them a parable that ties their faith to their role as His disciples, that true faith only comes when we accept the nature of our relationship with God and with His people.
You see, Faith is a strange commodity. When we attempt to look at it objectively, it defies all logic. For, ultimately, faith comes down to trust in that which is unseen and, in most instances, unknowable.
And I'm not speaking only of supernatural faith. You and I exhibit remarkable faith every time we turn on the television, dial a phone number, send an email, pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, or take a seat on an airplane. Each of these is a true act of faith -- an act of natural faith, certainly, but faith nonetheless. If we were to examine just one of these everyday tasks and the chain of events that must fall into place to ensure its success, we might take a second look at our faith.
Back in my Navy flying days, I developed a friendship with Father Mark, who at the time was a new Navy chaplain. We were about the same age, both in our late twenties. He was a remarkable man, a man of tremendous faith -- supernatural faith -- who made a big difference in the lives of many of the young sailors who made up his flock. But despite this strong faith in God, he suffered from an almost paralytic fear of flying in helicopters. Unfortunately, flying in them was part of his job. Every Sunday we would fly him from one ship to another so he could celebrate Mass for their crews -- a mission we called the "Holy Helo."
To make matters worse, he usually had to be lowered from the hovering helicopter to the deck of each ship using the rescue hoist -- not a pleasant experience, especially in high seas. It often took him several days to recover emotionally, just in time to start worrying about the next Sunday's flight. I'll confess that my fellow pilots and I took a perverse pleasure in doing little things to heighten his discomfort. I won't go into that here. Let's just say that his mistake was in letting his fear show.
Well, over time Fr. Mark and I became friends and shared many long conversations, usually after dinner. I recall one evening in particular. After kidding him about his fear of helicopters, I asked how he could have such faith and yet be so afraid of flying.
He looked at me as if I were from another galaxy, and said, “Faith in God is easy, especially since He’s a loving God -- so loving He allowed His Son to become one of us and sacrifice His life for us. But helicopters…well, God didn’t make them. They're fallible devices made and flown by equally fallible men -- thousands of parts moving at high speed. It's enough to frighten any sane person."
I also remember asking him, "Well, then, why don't you trust that God will look after you and keep you safe, even when you're in a helicopter?"
"Because He never promised to do so. Look," he said, "I enjoy the life that God has given me, and I'd like to enjoy it as long as possible. That's only human. But how long I live, and when and how I die, well, that's God's decision.”
Sane words from very sane man.
You see, brothers and sisters, God calls us to do one thing in this life: to serve Him and His people. And as His servants, we should expect nothing in return. God doesn't promise his servants safety. He doesn't promise us long and happy lives. He doesn't promise success, or fame, or wealth, or beautiful children, or a nice home.
God promises us one enduring thing: eternal life. Oh, it's a great thing -- the greatest gift He could ever give us. But He also told us that to achieve eternal life, to collect on this promise, we must love Him in return and do His will. And this often means carrying our cross, whatever it might be.
How did Jesus put it? “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, we are unprofitable servants, we have done what we were obliged to do.” This is how Jesus wants us to live our lives. Most of us probably fail as often as we succeed, but maybe with time and wisdom we'll become better servants.
That’s assuming you’ve ever even thought of yourself as a servant. Have you? Or do you think that’s a role more suited for priests and nuns and deacons. God doesn't really expect that of everyone, does He? Well, I am afraid He does. We’re all called to serve God and His People, each in his own way.
Too many of us Christians seem to think that because we go to church every week, we can live as we wish. Or we believe that because we stand and recite the Creed together, because we drop our envelopes in the basket each Sunday, God owes us salvation.
Yes, these folks live lives of servitude all right, but not as servants of God. They serve the world. This is a foolish and dangerous belief. Jesus told us clearly that salvation is not earned. It’s a gift. We can never put God in our debt. We can never have any claim on Him. For God owes us nothing. We owe Him everything. When we’ve done our best to live by His commandments, when we’ve fulfilled all our duties, we’re still no better than slaves before the Master.
But there the comparison ends. For God isn’t a slave owner. He’s our loving Father, and we’re His children. Indeed, this is the essence of the Good News: that we have a generous, loving God, who wants His people to serve Him out of love, not out of duty.
There’s a beautiful line from Psalm 95: "If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts." Well, His voice is calling us, calling you and me. And He's calling each one of us individually. We might hear His voice, but if our hearts are hardened it’s not likely we’ll listen to it.
Teresa heard His voice in the nursing home and planted her little mustard seed of faith simply by being there for someone in distress. And so, like Father Mark, who went on to ask me a bunch of tough questions that night in an aircraft carrier’s wardroom, let me leave you with something to think about.
One question Fr. Mark asked me 40 years ago is the same question Our Lord put to His disciples almost 2,000 years earlier.
What kind of servant will you be?