Perseverance, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), November 14, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Thirty-Third Sunday in OT, Year C
November 14, 2004
Mal 3:19-20; 2Thes3:7-12; Lk 21:5-19

1) “Can it get any worse, Father?” That was the exasperated question posed to me by a frustrated former parishioner from Fall River earlier this week. “I’m embarrassed to be a Catholic. First, it was the clergy sex abuse scandal. Then it was the scandal of bishops covering things up. Then it was the priest in Woods Hole stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from his parishioners and having a relationship with a convicted sex-offender and murderer. Then it was so many priests’ not speaking out against gay marriage. Then it was the church closings because of too few priests and too few Mass-goers. And now we have the allegations against Fr. Fernandes. I ask you: can it get any worse?” He then went on to describe how, over the past few years, he has tried to defend his faith — in the face of snide remarks from colleagues mocking the Church, persistent questions from non-Catholic in-laws about priestly celibacy and holiness in the face of scandals, confused queries from his young kids about why other children are saying bad things about priests in the schoolyard, and even his own doubts about his capacity to trust church leaders to steer Peter’s barque safely in the midst of the perfect storm that seems to be buffeting it. But he frankly admitted that it was getting harder for him to continue to do so. The “relentless stream of bad news,” he said, has been hurting his capacity to hear, believe and spread the Good News, and that has made him feel even worse. “Worst of all,” he concluded, “I’m not alone!”

2) He’s right. He’s not alone. Many of us here can relate to his deep anguish over the recent scandals. A survey published last week by the Catholic University of America and Purdue University said that four out of five Catholics nationally admit to being “ashamed and embarrassed” about their Church. Many of the dozens of parishioners who have phoned, emailed, or come by to see me in person over the past two weeks have said that seeing their admired former pastor on the television news and the front page have brought them to a level of shame and embarrassment they didn’t think possible five years ago. Many were seeking a life-line, a way to make sense of it all. Jesus, I believe, provides that life-line and that sense in today’s Gospel.

3) Before the Church was even born, Jesus wanted his disciples to know what they were in for. In today’s Gospel, he gave it to them straight: “You will be HATED BY ALL because of my name.” Hated by all. If they were faithful to him, none of them would be winning popularity contests. Rather, he described a future of persecutions, betrayals, trials, imprisonments, and even death for their fidelity. To follow Jesus would be to pick up their crosses every day and follow Him who is the Way all-the-way up the bloody Way of the Cross. By doing so they would become like their Master and his all-encompassing self-giving love. Jesus told us this truth directly during the first Mass on Holy Thursday. After describing that no one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends — as he would finish doing on the following afternoon — he told them to “love others AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.” He was calling them to love others to the point of crucifixion. Then he informed them that they would have the opportunity to do just that, because the world would treat them just like they treated Him: “If the world hates you,” he said, “ be aware that it hated me before it hated you. … Remember the word that I said to you, ‘The servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (John 15:18-22). But Jesus was not telling them by these words they were accursed. On the contrary, he was telling them they were blessed: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12).

4) Jesus tells us within today’s Gospel, first, WHY he would permit his disciples to SUFFER as he himself would and, secondly, how they would eventually TRIUMPH as he would. This teaching isn’t obvious and it isn’t easy, but it is at the core of the truth that will set us free. It is at the center of our discipleship.

5) The reason why Jesus will allow his followers to be persecuted, arrested, thrown into prison and brought before civil rulers he tells us with great candor: “This will give you an opportunity to TESTIFY.” And the greatest testimony of all is FIDELITY in the face of suffering and death. As Blaise Pascal, the famous mathematician and Christian apologist, once said, “I readily believe those who are willing to get their throats cut.” We see in the history of the Church how persuasive this type of witness has been. The courage, faith and serenity of the early martyrs in the face of harrowing tortures and executions were the proximate cause of the conversion of hundreds of thousands. No amount of persecution could break their faith. Spectators beholding their serenity in the midst of torture would start to ask themselves if what they believe in really could be true. So many conversions would ensue from their deaths that the early Christians coined a saying, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of [new] Christians.” Their blood would fertilize the soil so that the seed of the Gospel would sprout abundantly.

6) That their union to Christ’s suffering and death would be so fruitful shouldn’t surprise us, because it was the same methodology God the Father chose for his own beloved son’s greatest witness. Christ’s passion, death and resurrection comprised the greatest homily He ever gave, the supreme opportunity for him to testify to the depth of His love for the Father and His and His Father’s love for us. This constitutes the “words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict,” that Jesus promises he’ll give to his faithful disciples under trial. St. Paul points to the force of this wisdom in his letter to the Corinthians: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Cor 1:24). We proclaim that power and wisdom of God to the extent that we preach Christ crucified by our words and particularly by our body language. Persecution gives us the pulpit and the occasion.

7) None of us here may have to suffer for Christ to the point of shedding our blood, but all of us have indeed been suffering to the shedding of tears. We may not have suffered in courtrooms or jails, but we have suffered at kitchen tables reading newspapers, in living rooms in front of television sets, in our work places, in our schools, in gyms, on the streets, even outside of some of our churches. We may not have sensed ourselves “hated by all” on account of our fidelity to Jesus and the Church He founded, but most of us now know what being hated, derided and despised on account of the faith feels like. We may not have been betrayed unto death by family members and friends, but we have felt the sting of verbal lacerations from those closest to us — and the deep sense of betrayal by some whom we have affectionately called “father.” What’s the purpose of all of this suffering? What good does the Lord want to bring out of it?

8 ) The Lord Jesus answers these questions in the same way he spoke to his disciples 2000 years ago: “This will give YOU an opportunity to testify!” Many people who would not bring up the faith and the Church in ordinary circumstances are bringing it up with us now. Many of them are doing so out of kindness, but many of them are doing so in order to see our reaction and possibly to rile us. Just like the early martyrs’ fidelity was what brought many non-believers to the faith, so our fidelity to Christ in the face of these scandals and hardships can show others that Jesus is worth suffering for. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say that he loved living in a time of difficulty, because that was the time real Christians had a chance to shine. “It’s easy to float downstream,” he’d preach. “After all, even dead bodies can float downstream. But it takes a real man, a real woman, to swim against the current.” This is one of those times. And when we swim upstream others will notice. They will start to ask themselves WHY and FOR WHOM we’re willing to go through such an effort. The cynics in our culture often say “It’s easy to love Jesus when everything seems to be going so well.” But when they see us remain faithful in hardship, even they will start to wonder WHY — and we’ll have the chance to give them the reason, the reason Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel.

9) Jesus tells us today that, practically speaking, everyone will betray us — our family, our friends, the government — except one. One will never betray us, and this is why we can remain faithful even when, like Jesus experienced on Holy Thursday, everyone else seems to abandon us. The one who will never betray us is God himself. He will be there with us no matter what, giving us “words and wisdom,” courage and grace to remain as faithful to Him to the end, as He has been and will be faithful to us to the end. When we base our lives on fidelity to Him who is faithful, we can weather any storm with confidence. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “No trial has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor 10:13).

10) Jesus also tells us in today’s Gospel that, paradoxically, scandals can sometimes make our faith stronger, by forcing us almost to base our faith on God and God alone. Sometimes we can base our faith on “holy idols,” rather than on God. That’s what many Jews did with the Temple in Jerusalem. They thought it would last forever. Many based the foundation of their faith on its supposed stability. Jesus told them, however, that it would be destroyed and not one stone would be left upon another. Sometimes we put our faith in such temples and make them ends rather than means — thereby taking our eyes and real foundation off of God, who is our one, true End. We may base our faith too much on a particular parish building — like some have sadly done in the Archdiocese of Boston — or may base it too much on a person we put on a pedestal. Just like God allowed the temple to be destroyed, so sometimes he can allow the holy places or persons we know to fall, so that they don’t end up becoming ends keeping us from God rather than means bringing us to God.

11) Jesus finishes his instruction with words of great hope, which really are, in my opinion, the most important part of the whole Gospel passage: “By your perseverance, you will save your lives.” He calls us to STAY WITH IT, “to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith,” telling us that if we do, a “crown of righteousness will await” us (2 Tim 4:7). He recognizes that the great temptation that faces any of us whenever we’re suffering, whenever we’re doing anything hard and challenging, is to GIVE UP. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel the same message that Winston Churchill gave his countrymen during the height of World War II, when so many Brits were wondering if the fight against Nazist tyranny was worth it. He got up to the microphone and gave what many scholars say was the greatest speech of this famous orator’s whole life, eighteen words in all: “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.” That’s the message Jesus gives us at the end of the Gospel: “by your perseverance, you will save your lives.” When we feel like throwing in the towel, Jesus tells us to use it to wash and wipe the feet of those who are beating us down. In doing this, Jesus isn’t saying, merely, “Do what I say,” but rather “Follow me!” Despite all he suffered — from betrayals to brutal scourgings to the burden of the weight of the Cross — he kept getting up and heading toward the finish line, giving witness to the love that made even that much suffering bearable. By his perseverance, he opened the gates of heaven. By our perseverance, we will enter those gates. Not a hair on our head will perish, because we will gain every strand back, gloriously, at the general resurrection.

12) We began this month of November by invoking the memory and intercession of all those who through their faithful perseverance have saved their lives. They have shown us that perseverance is possible and that the eternal reward is sure. They now inspire us along the journey to keep our chins up and and keep our hearts lifted up toward God, and to never, never give up. We make our own the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, which refers to all the saints as a cloud of witnesses cheering us on at every step, to help us to persevere: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with PERSEVERANCE the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (Heb 12:1-4). The same Jesus who helped that cloud of witnesses will help us. All the saints and angels are cheering us on. There’s nothing to be afraid of! We have so much to be proud of! We are the disciples of the One who by love has conquered the world! Amen.