Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Four nuns and a priest pile into a car. (This is not a joke, but a true story!) It was December, six or seven years ago, while the Grey Nuns were still working here in the parish. I was going with them to a celebration outside of Montréal in honor of St. Marguerite d’Youville, the foundress of their order. Besides the five of us, I seem to recall there also being in the car two GPSs and a printed sheet with directions. As you can imagine, they never all agreed with one another at the most crucial junctures…
We found ourselves moving right along on a divided highway when the GPS in which we had the most confidence told us to take the exit on the right in 100 feet. There was no exit in 100 ft. In fact, a sign had just told us the next exit was some 20 miles away. (We later found out that they had rebuilt and rerouted the highway, but forgot to notify both us and the satellite.) So we pulled into the “No U-Turn” spot to make a u-turn. But it had snowed, and the lane hadn’t been plowed, and we got stuck. My memory is fuzzy, but I like to think it was Sr. Rita Francis laying on the gas as I pushed on the bumper. Somehow we not only got out of the snow and found our way to the basilica, but we even made it there with time to spare.
But getting taken for a little joy ride isn’t the only trouble with a GPS.
Remember how we used to plan a trip before a GPS? You’d look at the map ahead of time to get the lay of the land and consider the best route. You’d actually read the traffic signs and learn the names of the street. You’d watch for landmark and take note of the terrain. If you came upon an accident or a detour, you could often find your own way around it because you’d already taken in the big picture. And if you did get lost, you’d actually stop to talk to a real live human being in order to find your way again—maybe meeting someone you know, maybe making a new friend.
Sometimes it was by our mistakes, but we learned how to navigate—how to find our way wherever we were going.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as rather independent—free thinkers, rugged individualists. But the fact of the matter is that more and more often, we let somebody or something else do most of the thinking for us. We might consider ourselves rather self-reliant, but our actions say that we actually prefer to be told what to do and where to go. It just makes things easier, doesn’t it?
But this is a rather dangerous approach to making our way through life.
In this technological age, we can get the idea that God is like a super GPS in the sky, beaming down clear directions—as long as we maintain the signal—whenever we need them: “Do this! Don’t go that way!” I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally find God working that way! And because he doesn’t, we could get the idea that God has failed us. The truth is, we have failed to recognize who God really is. You see, God is less like a GPS and a more like compass. God gave us a mind and reason, a will and freedom, and he fully intends for us to make good use of these gifts. The Lord won’t think for us or make our decisions, but he always stands ready to point us in the right direction.
Consider this Sunday’s and last Sunday’s gospel readings side-by-side. Last Sunday, Jesus asked his Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter moves to the head of the class: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” Jesus praises him saying, “Blessed are you, Simon! For this was not revealed to you by human flesh and blood, but by my heavenly Father!” He didn’t figure this out with his wits alone, but by following the guidance of grace from on high. He read the compass, and took his direction from God.
But this Sunday, Jesus makes the first prediction of his coming passion, death, and resurrection. At the first mention of this suffering and shame, Peter says, “God forbid it! We’ll never let such a thing happen!” Peter goes straight from being on the way to being in the way. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus answers. “You’re not thinking as God does, but as men do!” (You can almost hear the GPS: “Recalculating!”) Peter struck out on his own, taking advice from other than heaven, and he loses his way.
Jesus quickly puts us all back on track: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.“ The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. I don’t think it’s an accident that the four point of the compass mirror the four points of the cross! It’s the cross that ought to give us Christians direction.
For one thing, the cross tells us that we ought not look for detours around suffering. Our age attempts to avoid the least suffering at all costs. But I know that, in my life, it’s in times of trial that I usually learn and grow the most. Suffering is of little value if we simply endure it, but if we accept it, it can become a means by which God grants us new life.
Likewise, the cross reminds us of the incredible depths of God’s love. He would stop at nothing to save us! The truth of God’s boundless love for each one of us should be the basis on which we get out bearings for every single step we take.
Wouldn’t it just be so much easier for God to download into our brains the most efficient route to heaven? Of course! But we’re not computers, and neither is God. God’s a person. What he wants isn’t so much to communicate information to us; what he wants is draw us ever closer into a relationship with him. That’s why Jesus doesn’t simply say, “Go this way!” but instead says, “Follow me!” It’s his plan that we walk along this path together.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul warns us about being conformed to present age. We mustn’t let the world—whether it’s Washington or Hollywood, Wall Street or Facebook—do our thinking for us. Instead, we must allow God to transform our minds—to reset our inner compass by the cross of Jesus—so that we can discern what is truly good and pleasing and perfect in all things.
Four nuns and a priest piled into a car…and somehow they got to the church on time! Yet we’re all still on the way to our true destination. The only way there is the way of the cross. Take it as your compass. Travel along with Jesus.