Last weekend I had the chance to go visit my family up in Pittsburgh for a little family reunion.
And given our gospel passage this weekend, which involves Jesus coming back home for a little family reunion of his own, I figured I’d share an experience I had at the restaurant we were having dinner, which I think reveals something about where we are at in our culture today.
There we were — waiting for our food to arrive, chit-chatting, catching up, remembering old times… like families do… when all of a sudden, the table across the room from us struck up the “Happy Birthday” song.
And as it usually happens, the entire restaurant became sort of hushed — a kind of reverent acknowledgement of the solemn and familiar event taking place. Everyone’s heads turned. Several people from the other tables even started singing along — they didn’t even KNOW who this kid was whose birthday we were all suddenly celebrating! And yet there we were — all clapping as he blew out the candles — and afterward, the restaurant resumed its normal hustle and bustle.
Now… I’m glad we helped celebrate this kid’s birthday, whoever he was. That’s all fine and good — but then came the time for the meal blessing!
And suffice to say, the contrast was amazing.
Of course, being the priest in the family and the designated religious guy — I rose from the table, politely announced that we’d be saying grace — and began by making the sign of the cross.
But the restaurant remained loud and boisterous.
The waiters and waitresses continued loudly bringing plates to the table.
Nobody turned their heads. The kids kept crying. People seemed distracted and even confused at why we’d be doing such a thing.
To be honest, the prayer felt rushed.
Perhaps even to some extent… unwelcome.
In some ways — it almost felt like I COULDN’T pray there.
Something seemed to be preventing me! There was a strange and subtle paralysis that set in.
It was almost like what we just heard in our gospel today: Jesus “was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.”
Now how is that possible? Jesus is God! And God can do ANYTHING… and yet here He is, seemingly paralyzed. Paralyzed by what?
By the people’s lack of faith!
In fact, the text tells us that Jesus is utterly “amazed” by their unbelief! They “took offense at him,” and so he wasn’t able to perform very many miracles in his own hometown!
Have you ever felt this paralysis?
Think for a moment of your own families!
It is more than likely the case that MOST of you in the pews right now — people who are honestly trying to take your relationship with the Lord seriously — probably feel VERY awkward and unwelcome to share your love for God and for your faith with the people you care about the most.
Your extended relatives.
I just want to say very clearly: THIS IS NOT NORMAL!
And yet, in today’s world, religion is almost automatically an awkward topic, isn’t it? The word “God” feels sort of off-limits. Atheism seems to rule our day-to-day operations and habits. Prayer feels like an unwelcome intrusion into the normal course of events…
Of course, this experience extends well beyond our family dinner tables.
I hear over and over again from good Catholic kids at our schools, kids who are coming from families who pray together and take their faith seriously on a daily basis — that they feel stupid if they let their friends know that they believe in God or that they are Catholic.
They feel the stares. They feel the pressure to turn away from the Church. They feel the judgment and the rejection.
They feel the offense!
It’s like what the prophet Ezekiel said in our first reading: “Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you.”
How can faith survive in such a hostile environment?
What’s the answer? What can we actually do?
Might I suggest listening again to what Jesus told Saint Paul in our second reading today:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
This was the Lord’s response to Paul after he had asked that a great thorn in his flesh be removed from him. He wanted this thorn to be taken away immediately! It felt like a nuisance to him and to his work. Three times he begged the Lord to remove it. But over and over, God’s answer was:
“No, this is for your own good. It’s meant to prevent you from being too too pleased, too proud, too self-confident. This thorn will keep you humble. You want it to just go away, but I answer your prayer by refusing your prayer! My grace is enough. Do you believe that? Is My grace enough for you? Or do you just want things your way? Do you just want things to be easier? More convenient? Less painful? That’s not my Way. My Grace must be enough for you. It’s all you actually need. Let it be enough.”
I propose that this paralyzing unbelief — this CULTURE of atheism — that we all likely encounter within our families, at our schools, on facebook, in our workplaces — is just this:
A thorn in our side.
And we’d rather just get rid of it, right?
If it was up to us, we would just snap our fingers and everyone would suddenly agree with us! No more awkwardness. No more eye-rolls. No more groans. Everyone would immediately be converted and become happy, sold-out, all-in Catholics!
Then things would be great! It would be so much easier to believe! It’d be easier to send our kids off to school without being afraid of what they’re being taught. It’d be easier to pray at family dinners without feeling embarrassed or self-conscious. It would be so much easier to do the right thing if everyone else was doing it along with us!
But to quote Treebeard: “Now don’t be hasty!”
Because I am convinced: this thorn of unbelief is — somehow — part of God’s Providential plan! Don’t be too eager to get rid of it! It’s probably there to teach you something. To be humble. To be patient. To love people better. Above all, it’s there to teach you that God’s grace is sufficient.
And so, Paul’s response must become ours:
“I am content with weaknesses” he says. “With insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Are we willing to be truly weak? Are we willing to undergo that paralysis in the face of all the world’s harsh and judgmental unbelief? Are we ok with being refused and rejected?
Because here comes the great temptation:
We REALLY want to be accepted.
We want to feel like we’re on the winning team, and right now if you listen to the world — Religion is losing. God is losing. The Church is losing. And if we let our guard down, and listen to those voices — if we stop praying! — then we will start to believe a lie:
That our faith… isn’t all that great.
That the Gospel is sort of weird and awkward. Or that certain hard Church teachings need to be swept under the rug. Or that our relationship with Jesus is best kept in the privacy of our own homes.
We have to resist this lie with every fiber in our being.
We can’t lose sight of the fact that we have been given the most precious News, the dynamite of joy and peace, the pearl of greatest price! Even in the face of indifference and rejection, we need to bravely raise the flag of the Gospel of God’s freely given grace!
So I encourage you — to keep awkwardly insisting on praying before meals. Keep standing up for the Truth. Keep asking questions and disrupting the culture of atheism. Keep bringing God into the conversation — He’s there already, trust me!
Keep inviting your fallen away family and friends back to Mass. Keep on encouraging your children to get married in the Church, to bring their kids to be baptized, to raise them in the Faith!
Keep on struggling with that thorn of unbelief! Yes, it’s a nuisance! Yes it’s annoying — but God’s grace is sufficient! Get on your knees and pray for the strength and trust to bear with all the insults, hardships, and constraints for the sake of Christ!
So when they do ignore you, or take offense at you — WHO CARES?
That’s part of the adventure! Either way, they will have heard the Truth.
Let me ask you this:
Did Jesus give up?
Did he give in to defeatism and despair when his own neighbors, his own family took offense at him?
And neither should we! That’s how God reaches souls.
When we are weak — then we are strong.