One time while taking a rosary walk, I saw a big ol’ snapping turtle trying to cross a busy street. As I watched him slowly struggling, I decided I’d help make his dangerous crossing a little easier by picking him up and carrying him safely to the edge of the water on the other side of the road.
But when I bent down and grabbed hold of him, that snapping turtle let out THE most awful, THE angriest, THE most bloodcurdling HISS that I’ve ever heard in my entire life. It was so shocking that I almost threw the thing away from me… but somehow I managed to hold onto him and I then proceeded to save his life.
Unfortunately, that turtle thought I was an enemy. He did not realize I was there to help make his life a WHOLE LOT better. I wanted to prevent him from being smashed to smithereens along the road — But despite my best intentions, he still thought I was trying to HURT him.
This is the sort of misunderstanding that the prophet Jeremiah is dealing with in our first reading this weekend, isn’t it?
“In those days,” we heard, “the princes said to the King: “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”
In a sense, the people HISSED at the prophet Jeremiah, because he dared to deliver the authentic Word of God to them.
Granted, he DID have some very hard words for them to hear. He had been preaching doom and gloom. Israel would be taken into captivity, he warned. They would all go into exile. And, worst of all, the best path forward involved SURRENDERING to the Babylonians…to willingly GIVE UP! What an unthinkable option! How dare he! It seemed to all the leaders of Israel that Jeremiah was NOT trying to HELP, but rather, he seemed to be HURTING them… So they became very hostile to him.
Does this reaction surprise us? Because let’s be real… Prophets and preachers of the Word are almost always rejected. Always mocked and resisted! Always HISSED at, even when they’re just trying to help.
Think about it:
Today we heard that Jeremiah got thrown down into a muddy cistern.
Isaiah got cut in two by a wooden saw.
Elijah was run out of town and had to lay low in a cave.
John the Baptist was imprisoned and later… beheaded.
For daring to say what needed to be said! For being bold, truthful mouthpieces of the Living God! For sharing some unpleasant truths that (at first) seem to sting… but ultimately are meant to HELP people turn away from the unhappiness of sin and turn toward the Will of God which brings perfect freedom.
This reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in CS Lewis’ fantastic book, ‘The Great Divorce.’
To set the scene, an angel comes to meet a human soul (a ghost) who is faced with the decision of whether or not to stay in Heaven… The only problem is, there is an evil lizard living on this person’s shoulder, which is constantly whispering into the ghost’s ear, telling him lies, encouraging him to give in to earthly, lustful things.
The angel tells the Ghost that this lizard is a serious problem, and asks point blank whether or not he can go ahead and kill it. When the angel steps forward, the Ghost shrieks in pain — He HISSES at the angel!
“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did!”
“It is not so,” the angel assures him.
“But you’re hurting me now!” the ghost responds.
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you, I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
Doesn’t this sound familiar? How often have we prayed: “God, please help me!!!” But when the Lord actually DOES come to help us… we let out a horrific HISS like my friend the turtle did!
“No! Don’t help me THAT way God! That’s not the way I wanted You to help me! What’s the big idea? You’re hurting me!!!”
Ultimately, the Ghost does give the angel permission to go through with it, to kill the lizard, despite the burning pain… and the Ghost is then set free! He’s liberated, and is able to become a real, solid man —and he gallops off into the depths of Heaven!
That’s the goal! That’s what Jesus wants to do for each of us! He said it himself in that beautiful and intense gospel passage we just heard:
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
That Scripture happens to be inscribed on the sidewalk right in front of our church, along with a depiction of the Burning Bush. Have you noticed it?
What a great message to see as we come to Mass every Sunday!
Because — Jesus wants His whole Church to be set on fire with real desire, real hope, real love, real Truth! He wants us to be set free from all the lies and all the sins that weigh us down and prevent us from being SAINTS!!!
Therefore, as our Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews says so well: “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”
In order for that to happen — to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and to relentlessly rid ourselves of every burden of sin — then we will need to hear what we don’t really want to hear. We will need to be confronted and convicted by the Truth!
In my time here at St. Bede, I will have to share some difficult words with you at various times. It comes with the territory of being a preacher — and I promise to share only the Truths of our Catholic Faith — That’s what you deserve to hear! But it may be hard for some to hear.
When I share those words, please know that I don’t want to hurt you or offend you… QUITE THE OPPOSITE IN FACT!
I want you to be free! I want you to be SET ON FIRE!
God sends you priests in order that you and your family can get to Heaven one day. Nothing is more important to me than that.
“Avoiding being offensive” is not a good enough reason to passively lead any one down the wrong path — a path away from the Lord…
So I guess in this homily, all I’m saying is:
Please know that I will always be on your side!
Whenever I need to address a tough topic from the pulpit or in the confessional — when I have to challenge the prevailing narrative of our current culture — please understand that I’m attempting to help carry you across the road to safety!
Maybe some will hiss. I don’t know. It’s not my intention or my desire to make that happen… No priest should ever ENJOY stirring the pot…
After all, Jeremiah took no pleasure in delivering his difficult prophecies. When Jesus says he “came not to establish peace but division,” he obviously didn’t ENJOY creating turmoil and unrest. Why would he intend for a father to be divided from his son, or a mother from her daughter…?
No, He’d much rather his teachings NOT upset and offend people. And when that happens, His Sacred Heart is broken.
And yet — and this is the hard part of today’s teaching — Jesus is still willing to spark division if it means staying true to His Father. He’s willing to courageously take all of that rejection, head on, because he knows that it’ll be well worth it in the end.
…Just look at the Cross!
As we heard in our second reading: “For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.”
Jesus allowed everyone to reject, mock, ridicule, and HISS at him — because He knew that the JOY of the Resurrection lay before him.
And what’s more — he knew that in being crucified, in laying down his life freely — those same people who rejected Him would ALSO then have the chance to be healed and converted!!!!
Jesus endured such opposition from sinners — such opposition from ME… from YOU! …not to shame us or discourage us — but in order to light a FIRE in our souls. To melt our icy hearts, and fill us with that same courage to live the Truth, even if it costs us our family, our friends — even our very LIVES…
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
Jesus, we ask that you please set fire to our hearts. Set fire to this parish! Let us not shrink back or hiss angrily at Your helping hand!
We know You don’t ever want to hurt us.
We trust You, and we love You.