Fr. Richard's Sunday Homily, February 5, 2017
Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

Growing in Faith Bit by Bit

Epistle: 2nd Timothy 3:10-15  
Gospel: Luke 18:10-14  

Of course the parable in today’s Gospel is a story meant to teach some kind of truth, or to serve as an opportunity to get people to think. So here is what I was thinking: Why was the Publican in the temple praying? Maybe he was there on a regular basis but it seems to me, even if that was the truth that this time something was different for him, something was moving him to make his plea, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Perhaps it was because he had sinned in some big way and he is especially repentant for the wrong he has done. Maybe he cheated a bunch of senior citizens at the Bethel Nursing Home in Jerusalem. Or it may be that he had some type of conversion experience and he saw the reality of the sins in his life, and he came to the temple to seek the Lord’s forgiveness.

The history of the Church is full of such conversion stories. For example, St. Paul went from being the biggest persecutor of Christians to become one of the greatest teachers and pastors of the Church. St. Francis led the life of an idle, rich young man when suddenly he decided to give it all up and live a life of great poverty in order to serve the Lord, and His people, and his friend St. Clare gave up her easy life to follow in his footsteps. Then there is St. Ignatius of Loyola who joined the army at age 17 and full of pride led a rather selfish and sinful life, until a cannonball hit him in the legs at age 21. He spent a lot of time recovering in the hospital. During that time he began to read books about the lives of the saints and Christ, and when he could walk again he visited the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat where he had vision a of Jesus and Mary. From bawdy soldier to founder of the Jesuit order—that is quite a conversion. And there are plenty of dramatic stories of men and women who led bad lives, or simply normal lives and then, because of some experience became great and formidable Christian heroes. We love to read these stories, but probably our stories will not be like their stories.

For most of us, and maybe all of us, we have not had some kind of dramatic conversion event that changed our entire lives (although I came very close some years ago when I was on a plane flying into a huge thunderstorm outside of Denver). And for most of us, or maybe all of us, it’s not likely we will have a dramatic conversion-type event in the future, although we can never say it’s impossible because God works how He works. So then how do we progress in our life in faith?

Well, I think as in so many other areas in life, we grow in faith bit by bit, little by little, grace by grace, prayer by prayer, Holy Communion by Holy Communion—we advance in faith and grow up in Christ not in great dramatic conversions but by the daily, monthly and yearly living out of that faith wherein little by little we grow and advance. No child in first grade learns the alphabet and then immediately starts reading “War and Peace”. Nobody takes piano lessons for a month and starts playing Chopin. No mother or father is an expert parent at the birth of their child (although if they wait long enough their child will tell them what an expert parent should do). So much of the growth we see in our lives comes to us a little at a time, day by day, through practice, repetition, thoughtfulness and effort.

That is true for our souls as well. I think it’s easy to become distracted from our faith, or discouraged because we do not get any feedback most of the time. Unlike a report card telling us how well we are doing in reading, God doesn’t issue us a progress report for our soul. We don’t get that kind of feedback. And in a world where we can constantly get a response or a reaction to all sorts of situations in our lives, I think it’s easy to pay less attention to faith and our spiritual lives, and we may even be a bit discouraged if we don’t see God clicking the “LIKE” button on our Facebook homepage.

You may remember when I was complaining about people’s behavior on planes and in airports a few months ago. One of you emailed me and said that I was just crabby because traveling is difficult. And I thought, “He’s right.” So I started to pray for the people on the plane every flight. That has led me, last trip, to now praying for the people on the L train as I go from the airport to the chancery. But please, Teresa, don’t start painting my icon just yet. Still, a simple thing, a small thing, leads to something else, and bit by bit we can grow day by day. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be praying next for people who can’t see that the traffic light is green.

Big and life-changing conversions are great to experience but they don’t happen that often to that many people. And that’s okay. Our faith and our souls can grow through the regular, ordinary day by day prayer, effort and attention that we give to our life in Christ. I think it’s a very good thing to stop every so often and think about how much we have grown in our faith in the last 5, or 10, or 20 years, to see how far we have come, and to thank God for His blessed grace. It may be if we do stop to think about it, that are not where we would like to be, and we see that we could do more and become more than we are right now. Shall we break out the hair shirts and plan our bread and water diets? But maybe, maybe, we can choose to pay more attention to our life in the Spirit to focus and work a little more for the good or our souls. So that bit by bit we may continue to put on Christ, not in large gestures, but by smaller and consistent devotion. Maybe it was that steady and regular attention to faith that brought the Publican to the temple that day. And—lucky for us! —we have a time period coming to help us along with our desire to push for some growth in our Christian lives, to do a little more and become a little more, for the glory of God.