Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 22, 2021
St. Thomas the Apostle Parish
Fort Worth, Texas

Joshua  24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Psalm 34: 2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21
Ephesians 5:21-32
John 6:60-69

Things matter only as long as they matter. A priest-friend of mine recently spoke that line and then told me a story that serves as an illustration of the centrality of Christ in the Eucharist and the other sacraments, a point for our reflection in light of the readings the Church offers us this Sunday.

When my friend was a child, he attended the birthday party of a 5-year-old boy; let’s call him “Tom.” This was a lavish outdoor birthday party, with what seemed to be a pile of toys to delight a 5-year-old boy. In the center was a kiddie-sized electric car for Tom to drive around his big backyard. What a dream party for a five-year-old!

The only problem was that there were other five-year-old children at this party. What followed was that each time a child ran towards an attractive toy, Tom would run, yelling, “Let go of it! That’s mine!” He’d yank the toy from the other child and then turn away to comfort the toy for having needed to be rescued from the grubby grasp of the little tyke that needed a lesson in private property. Eventually, Tom was laden with more rescued toys than he could carry. So, he decided to load up all his toys into his electric car and then make his escape from the onslaught of the crowd. He had a plan.

Unfortunately, Tom could not get all the toys into the car quickly enough. Every time he added a toy to his car, a child would take yet another toy that Tom needed to rescue. Then, while he was rescuing the toy, some squatter would try to get into the car! My friend remembered Tom with one foot in the car, one foot out of the car, his arms wrapped tightly around a bunch of toys, surrounded by children walking off with his treasures — and Tom crying angrily from the depths of his soul: “NOOOOOOO!”

What’s the most important aspect of that story for our celebration today? The fact that it took place over 40 years ago. “Little” Tom is now closer to 50 than he is to 40. I doubt he remembers that birthday party at all, let alone the toys. Certainly, all the plastic, battery-powered objects he was given all those years ago are obsolete and have long since been discarded and forgotten. Yet, for a little while, those things caused a lot of drama in his life. Things matter only as long as they matter. 

Once the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land, they had to struggle to take possession of it. Joshua, the successor of Moses, had led them to victory. As they were ready to settle the land, he gathered them to pose a question: whom will you serve? Joshua understood the problems we face in beginning new things. It’s convenient to forget where we have come from, especially if our experiences, like those of the Israelites, have been dramatic and painful. Generations of slavery in Egypt and 40 years of wandering in the wilderness can be easily forgotten.

Joshua knew that his people needed encouragement to be faithful to God. New beginnings need to be marked with renewed decisions, and so he asks them the simple yet pointed question:whom you will serve? The Israelites have good intentions, but after a time began to accept the customs, traditions, and the way of life of their new neighbors. They adopted the religion and the gods of the Canaanites, and drifted away from God and lost awareness of their true identity as God’s chosen people.

St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, speaks about the centrality of Christ required in forming a household through the decision to marry. The decision to marry by a couple requires their primary subordination to Christ as members of His Church; Paul is not attempting to justify an unjustly imbalanced relationship between husband and wife. The centrality of Christ as primary to the covenantal formation of a household by a husband and wife indicates the reciprocal and selfless love of Christian marriage. There exists a throne in every person’s heart, and if Christ is not seated there something else will take His rightful place. Husbands and wives, young men and women hoping to marry someday, each must pray for the discernment to decide rightly about Christ’s place in the formation of a household in the covenant of matrimony.

The same moment of truth faces the disciples in today’s Gospel, which continues John’s account of Jesus as the Bread of Life. When Jesus told His followers that they must eat His Body and drink His Blood to have eternal life, it was not well received by many. This talk sounded barbaric and repulsive even if it was misunderstood to be only a metaphor. Jesus did nothing to defend Himself but made the question even more direct by asking His followers if they were shocked. Many left Him, and Jesus reminds us that their departure was a rejection of the Spirit who gives life.

We imagine Jesus sadly watching many of His disciples return to their former way of life.  He then confronts his Apostles: Do you want to leave me too? Peter, speaking for them all, responds: Lord, to whom shall we go? Their time with the Lord has transformed them, and their former lives seem empty now. How can they leave the One who has opened their hearts with His goodness and beauty? They were blind and now see. Jesus has given them new life, real life. Jesus has given us new life, real life.

Today’s readings reveal the question that determines our lives: whom will you serve? Both Joshua and Jesus, who share the same name, know that we must serve somebody, even if it is ourselves, but that decision is up to us. The same is true for all of us. We too, like the people of Israel given the decision that Joshua offers…and like Simon Peter given the invitation to decision that Jesus presents, we too want to commit and promise wholeheartedly to whom else shall we go, acknowledging that Jesus has the words of eternal life. Things matter only as long as they matter. It is Christ and His centrality as the Bread of Life that faith shows us to be what eternally matters.

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