My freshman year of college I signed up for a brand new Bible study at the Newman Center. It was me and an seven or so seniors. They all graduated, so by default, I was the leader my sophomore year. At first we had a few people showing up, but pretty quickly it was just me and this freshman girl who I didn’t know at the time. The whole year it went on like that, the door was always open, it was in the bulletin, Facebook, E-Mails, Mass announcements, and so on but the rest of the year, no one else ever showed up.
From the outside this program looked like a flop, a failure. In the first year there were only eight students, and now it was already down to just two. It wasn’t going anywhere, so you might as well just give up and shut it down. There didn’t seem to be any point in continuing the program.
That would be the same kind of response as that of the Apostles in today’s Gospel. They look out at the starving crowd and only see the negative. Too many people. Not enough food. Not enough money. They are focused on the problem. All they say was problem, problem, problem.
Then the entire story hinges on just one key word. Gave Thanks. After Jesus gave thanks. Everything changed, no longer is there a problem, but now there was an abundance of food and all were satisfied. The entire Gospel story shifted because Jesus gave thanks.
The Campus Minister at Mizzou didn’t take the perspective of the Apostles and only focus on the negative, the problem that the bible study was seemingly fizzing out. Instead she was grateful that we at least had the program at all. So she didn’t shut it down. Like Jesus, she had gratitude, and it changed everything. You see 7 years later, I was ordained a priest and that other freshmen girl made her first vows as a nun. Pretty good percentage. Numbers like that get you in the Hall of Fame. But it gets even better, this year, now 10 years later, there are over 300 students participating in multiple small group bible studies. Think about it. If she had the perspective of the Apostles, maybe she would have shut it down when there was just two of us, and those 300 students wouldn’t even be doing a Bible study this year, growing in their faith.
What are the so-called “problems” or “failures” or where things just aren’t going the way you want in your life? Where are you only able to see the negative? The lack of possibilities for change or growth? Today’s Gospel is a challenge, or rather an invitation for us to examine our attitude. Where is there more room for gratitude?
Yes, change is difficult. Giving thanks is not an instant guarantee of growth and success. But the ability to look at a situation or “problem” in your life a little differently, with a little more gratitude might just be the breakthrough you’ve been waiting for.
Ultimately the challenge is for each of us to examine our lives to figure out what part of our life we need to look at differently, where there is more room for gratitude. Maybe it’s a relationship with a friend or coworker, or maybe even in your own home.
To the kids here, sometimes it seems like Mom and Dad are only here to boss you around with chores. Do this. Do that. Do this. Or tell you no. No tablet, No video games etc. So the challenge is to be grateful to God that you have parents, for all that they do and that they love you.
Likewise to the parents, raising children can present it’s challenges, it’s not easy. Negatively one can be tempted to see that as a burden. Instead be grateful for your children and strive to see them as a sign of God’s love.
But how do we go about cultivating this gratitude? Where or to whom am I supposed to direct this gratitude?
When we’re talking about developing gratitude here, we’re not talking about your garden variety Hallmark card “don’t take things for granted,” kind of gratitude. We all know after some tragedy or traumatic experience we say, “I won’t take things for granted any more,” but two weeks later we’re back to normal. No, this giving thanks has a direction. Like Jesus in the Gospel, it’s about giving thanks to someone, to God. But just how do we go about giving thanks to God?
You might have noticed earlier I mentioned the entire Gospel passage hinges on just one word, but then I said “Gave Thanks.” So you’re probably thinking, “Wow, our new priest can’t even count to two.” Fear not! For while in English it is two words, Gave Thanks. In the original language, Greek, it is just one word. Eucharist.
That’s it, that’s the key. That’s the hinge. Just as in the Gospel, Eucharist was the hinge between problems and blessings, so too it is the same for you and for me.
We come here and we learn to give thanks to God in his house. We give him thanks for the greatest gift we can ever receive, the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, present in the Eucharist. We allow this act of giving thanks to God to transform us, so that when we go back out into the world we can continue to develop gratitude in our lives.
No, this doesn’t make the Eucharist some sort of magic pill that guarantees happiness and success. We still face immense struggles and challenges in our lives. Rather it is here that we cultivate an attitude of gratitude in giving thanks to God so that we can more easily give thanks to him in every other aspect of our lives. This way we can face the challenges that come and even get rid of the negative attitudes, like those of the Apostles, that hold us back from growing and flourishing. That way a failing Bible study of two college students who didn’t know a thing can turn into 300. Who knows what areas of your life can grow and be transformed by just learning to change perspective and giving thanks?
Immaculate Conception Church
July 29, 2018 A.D. – 17 Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year B
*As always these homily texts are representative, as I deliver my homilies without text or notes, and naturally there are variations from Mass to Mass.