Unassuming: 21st Sunday OT 2016

For reasons you will easily understand, I read a book not long ago about dealing with merging and closing of parishes. It said a lot about grief and pain and conflict and reconciliation. Something started to feel a little bit ‘off,’ and it eventually dawned on me what it was: Jesus was barely mentioned. This book was written by a brother priest, and Jesus does come up from time to time — just not a lot. I think that the author probably assumes that Jesus is behind and beneath everything he’s saying, a constant foundation, the cornerstone the whole thing is built on. Even if he isn’t mentioned very often, Jesus isn’t some mantra you call up like name-dropping; He’s the background and the basis of everything. He’s an assumed presence that goes without saying.

For the sake of discussion, let’s call this the Big Assumption. I realized I’ve been guilty of it too. I’ve given sermons and counseling sessions that were about lots of things connected to Jesus, connected to discipleship, but just assumed that everybody knew it was all about Jesus and so I maybe didn’t really… you know… mention Him.

That assumption actually works sort of alright for many of you. You live out your relationship with Jesus daily and intentionally. You might not claim to be doing great at it, but it’s most definitely your goal. You know and could never forget that everything we do and say here about flows from the living presence of Jesus Christ, Who is someone we know and follow in a personal and intentional way. It’s obvious to you that everything — every bit of incense, every drop of holy water, every genuflection, every word and every action is about the worship of Jesus Christ, as someone we know and follow as disciples. You get that! But does that describe everyone in a Catholic pew, or a Catholic classroom, or a Catholic house? The Big Assumption is that it does. The Big Assumption: the moment you identify it and name it, you know the assumption is wrong.


I’ll bet you’ve known people just like I have who, as kids, were youth group rock stars. They did everything their parish offered them: every class, weekly Mass, and every single youth activity, the whole program, 100%… they may have attended Catholic schools K-12… and they came out of all that not really having a relationship with Jesus. What right do I have to say that? Simply that in many cases, they told me so. In other cases, I watched them walk away and could tell they weren’t leaving because they were abandoning a relationship with Jesus lived in the Church. They were walking away because they didn’t have one. Here’s the worst of it: in most cases, they didn’t even know it was missing. They did their parish’s whole program and got through the Sacraments, and went on trips, and learned lots of stuff. And they came through all of that without knowing Jesus — and without even realizing that they were missing out on something important by not knowing Jesus.

I can prove this to you with one devastatingly common phrase: “I grew up Catholic.” How many times have you heard someone say, “I grew up Catholic?” Let’s think about that. What do they mean? They probably mean they have at least one Catholic parent. They probably mean they spent some of their childhood sitting in church. They very likely went to Catholic school or Sunday school. If you ask them what they mean by ‘growing up Catholic,’ that’s the kind of stuff they would say. Now, ask them, ‘did you grow up with a real, living, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which at some point you rejected and abandoned?” I think most will respond, “um, no, I wouldn’t say I ever really had one of those.”

Now for the good news: the answer is here in the Gospel. God’s Word knows about this issue and knows how to tackle it. This whole sermon is built out from Luke 13:26, which is a challenging scene, to say the least. People are knocking on the door of the Kingdom, and Jesus is saying “I don’t know where you’re from.” They respond, “we ate and drank in your company, you taught in our streets.” And they cannot enter because the Lord says again, “I don’t know where you’re from.”

Okay, first of all: ouch.

Second: what in the world does this mean? Well, what they’re saying, “we ate and drank in your company, and you taught in our streets,” pretty much boils down to “we sometimes hung around in your general vicinity. We’ve heard of you, even seen you around, we’ve known you from a distance.” Isn’t that what they’re saying? And when Jesus says “I don’t know where you’re from,” that doesn’t mean he’s ignorant about their geographical history. Doesn’t it refer to a lack of actual relationship? These guys are victims of the Big Assumption! They’ve been around Jesus stuff, been marginally affiliated with Jesus stuff, and they think that’s all there is to it.

One thing you notice, if you look at the dialogue, is that they sound like people who are introducing themselves. That’s not where you want to be when you die. “Oh, hello, I’m Steven. I, er, um, I’ve heard a lot about you. We have many mutual acquaintances. I actually worked for your organization! Can I come in?” No way! I don’t want to be introducing myself. I want to run up to my Friend, with a great big bear hug, and say “I’m home! It’s so good to see you!”

Luke 13:26 reminds us very starkly that being found in the vicinity of Jesus and his teaching, and even sharing his table, is not the same thing as knowing Him and having a relationship with Him. Now I want to be especially clear that it is no one’s place to look around this room and judge who the “real disciples” are. I pray there will be no misunderstanding on this point. Nobody has the right to judge who counts as “real disciples”… God forbid! (no, really — God literally forbids that).

Rather, what this is about… and I think you’ll be on board with this… is making sure that in our little corner of the Catholic Church, in St. Kateri Parish, and in every household of our parish, Jesus won’t be a background assumption that we hope somehow shines around the edges. That no one will spend time with us, in childhood or in adulthood, without being invited to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ and live as His disciple. That if people leave us without that relationship, they will at least realize it was a possibility. They will at least know it’s missing.

This absolutely can’t be just about what happens at Mass and Sunday School. It has to happen in Catholic homes. Parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and anyone who has an opportunity to influence the next generation of disciples: how much have you really shared with your kids about your relationship with Jesus? Do they know how important He is to you?

Let me rephrase: How would they know?

If your answer is “because we go to church most weeks if we aren’t doing something else,” I’m begging you to question whether that’s really enough. But if your answer is “because we go to church every week even when it’s really super inconvenient, and because they know I pray about important decisions, because we’ve talked about Scriptures we love and Scriptures that we find challenging, because in their happy times we remember to thank Him and in their tough times I always remind them to seek comfort and strength in the Lord”…. I think that’s more like it.

Just so you know, I’m taking this personally too. It’s easy as a preacher to make that wrong assumption and to take the basics for granted. “Father, what did you say about Jesus last Sunday?” “Well I talked about love, and that always means Jesus.” “I talked about forgiving, and Jesus is part of that.” Yeah, He is, but we priests sometimes forget that you’ve got to say so clearly and often. If we’ve ever assumed that the need for a personal relationship with Jesus goes without saying, it’s time to learn that it doesn’t, not always.

Maybe somebody right now is sitting here today and thinking, “I’m not sure about this ‘relationship-with-Jesus’ stuff.” Maybe you’re new to our church and just sort of checking it out for the first time, curious and wondering if this is for you and if you could be at home here. Or maybe someone here is a life-long Catholic and all this “relationship-with-Jesus” talk makes you raise a suspicious eyebrow and think… ‘sounds Protestant!’  Or maybe someone here, maybe you’ve been around for years and years and you love the Catholic traditions and you love being part of this community — but when it comes to an actual relationship with Jesus, all you could honestly say is “I ate and drank in His company, He taught in my presence,” but not so much “He’s my Lord and Savior, best friend, captain and king, hero, daily companion, friend at my side.” Somebody here, maybe you’ve had that kind of relationship with Him in the past, but it’s… drifted, the way relationships sometimes do.

This isn’t calling you out. This isn’t putting you down. In fact, of everybody in this room you’re the one I’m most glad is here today! And whether you know it or not, I’m 100% convinced that God has led you right here by whatever path brought you to this moment. Let today be the day you start, or re-start, to know the Lord as a friend and constant companion. Tonight, don’t close your eyes in sleep without thanking Him for the incredible gift of the day. Don’t open them tomorrow morning without saying “good morning Jesus, come walk the world with me.”

And when one day you close your eyes in death, and then you open them one last time, you will be looking at Him. Don’t let that be the time you introduce yourself! “Oh hello there, I went to your church, I’ve heard so much about you!” Let it be the meeting of old friends, of teacher and disciple, of companions who have shared everything.

Catholicism is not a set of rituals and customs that replace an actual personal relationship with Jesus. It is entirely about that relationship, and expresses it, as we know Him in prayer and worship and Sacrament, and as we know Him in loving and serving our neighbor. The greatest possible example is the Eucharist we are about to share. If you receive the Eucharist today, don’t let it be an empty going-through-the-motions; let it be the most intimate union of the closest of friends. Jesus didn’t give us the Eucharist because He thought we’d enjoy a weekly wafer parade. He gave us the Eucharist because He wants to give us Himself, intimately and absolutely. Think about this gift and what we are doing and Who we are receiving. It just doesn’t get more personal than this.


Comments

  1. This sermon spoke to me on so many levels. It was as if God Himself pointed it out and said "read this".

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