The following is my homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
I’ll never forget the first time I held a sparkler. While they don’t interest me much now, they were so amazing when I was little. To see the bright light, the sparks going everywhere, the crackling sound; you could write your name or just stare at the light show right in front of you. I’ll never forget the first time I held a sparkler… because it did not go very well. You see, I was little, five or six, I don’t know, and when I saw all the older kids playing with one I begged my parents to hold it myself. Knowing it was dangerous, my mom made me promise that I would not touch the end. “You need to be very careful. Hold it like this,” she said. She must have told me three times. “Sure, sure, uh huh, I’ll be careful I promise. Can I have one, please please please??”
I’m sure you can see where this is going…
To be fair, I was very careful…. while it was lit. I didn’t touch the sparks, I didn’t put it in my pocket, didn’t attack anyone with it. In fact, I waited until it was completely out… to get distracted and grab the hot end with my other hand.
Yeah… not the greatest childhood memory.
But really, how many times did we do things like that when we were kids? We were told over and over to be careful—not to run in the house, not to drink juice in the living room, to be gentle with our younger siblings—only to have it end in an unfortunate way. How many times did we hear our parents say, “how many times have I told you?” As children, sometimes, we can be a bit foolish.
And now, I find that to be an interesting world, “foolish.” We hear it proclaimed today in both the first and second readings, a call not to be foolish but to be wise. I find it interesting because it says nothing about how smart we are, doesn’t imply malicious intent; it’s the sort of word that we use when someone knows the right thing to do, is able to do it, but gets so distracted by something unimportant that they end up doing something careless. Being foolish is being told over and over not to touch the end of a sparkler, not to run in the house, to be gentle… knowing that bad things can happen, and yet still getting get burned, knocking something over, or hurting someone.
Of course… being foolish is not limited to being a child, is it? Adults, sadly, can be just as foolish, and this is the danger that the people of the Gospel face today. You can almost hear Jesus’ frustration growing. Here he has been preaching all day about how he is the bread of life come down from heaven. Over and over he has said this—he even performed a miracle and fed five thousand people—and the people still do not believe. “How many times do I have to tell you? I am the bread of life. Unless you come to me, you will have no life within you.” I do not suspect that these were bad people; I don’t think that they were intentionally denying the divinity of Christ, the power of the Eucharist, the life-giving nature of the resurrection. No… they were just being foolish. The answer was right in front of them, but they were too focused on the wrong things—just too distracted—to accept what Jesus was saying and to do something about it.
And it makes me wonder. Here we are, having heard some variation of this Gospel for four straight weeks now, some variation of Jesus proclaiming that he is the bread of life, the life-giving food, the grace of God given to us in bodily form—how many times we have heard this message! And yet, I’m left wondering whether it’s truly sunk in. Having heard these words for four weeks now, I wonder if they have changed our lives… or if they haven’t just become like the words of our parents telling us to be careful, words that go in one ear and out the other without catching our attention or changing our actions, words that we hear but don’t actually lead us to act wisely. “Yeah, sure sure, bread of life, of course, Jesus from heaven.”
Some many find these readings a bit repetitious, maybe even a bit boring, but not me. I have to say… I actually love hearing it over and over again. I’m not sure about you, but I can be a bit hardheaded in my faith. Sometimes, I need to hear something over and over until it clicks, until I actually start to believe what I’m saying, until I actually start to live what I’m believing. Sometimes it takes two, three, even four times or more for me to do what’s right.
I think of how many times I went to mass over the years, heard the word proclaimed, ate the bread of life… but left the same way I came in. It was right in front of me, but I foolishly didn’t even notice it.
I think of how many times I’ve said yes to God, yes to following God’s will, being a good Christian, yes to turning my life around… only to forget the path I was on and fall short. The path was clear and easy to follow, but I foolishly took another path.
I think of how many times we as a Church have asked the world to trust us, proclaimed ourselves to be a people of truth and love… only to have more scandals, more coverups, more revelations of devastating systems of sin be brought to light. We were entrusted with such an amazing responsibility for the sake of the world, but now the world simple sees us as fools.
How frustrating this can be for us, feeling so foolish.
And yet, despite all of this, how many times has God continued to call our name?
How many times has God continued to give us everything we could ever need?
How many times has God continued to wait patiently while we were acting foolishly?
I tell you, I love these readings. I love being reminded over and over and over again of the power of Christ to give new life where there is nothing but death because it shows me how patient God is with us even when we’re foolish. It shows me that when something is important, God isn’t just going to give up on us and let us get away just because we weren’t listening. It gives me hope that even if I have fallen short before, even if I have let my friends, my Church, and even myself down, even if our Church has let the world down over and over again, there is still time to say yes today. There is still time to start again today and make things right. There is still time to accept Jesus as the bread of life come down from heaven and to let him live in and through us in everything that we do.
Because truly, with God, it doesn’t matter how many times we’ve been told not to touch the sparkler but did anyway.
It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve heard what was true and didn’t listen.
And in a way, it doesn’t even matter how many times we’ve let people down. We can’t change the past.
All that matters is that we have today, this very moment, to finally choose wisdom over foolishness, to begin to right what is wrong, and to say yes to God with all our heart.