“Rerouting…” Week 3: Fog Area

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – February 5, 2023

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Isaiah 58:7-10; Psalm 112:4-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

Review and Introduction: Maps, Faulty Maps, and Giving Up on the Map

Welcome to week-three of “Rerouting…”! Already on our third week of this great journey—and let me tell you, it’s exciting! I’ve been really encouraged by the things many of you have shared with me in these past weeks. And so I just want to encourage you to keep it up! We’re a few weeks in, and so this is easily the time to start saying, “Well, I missed one week. I’ll just drop it.” Or, “Maybe I’ll start next week.” Nope, hop right on board with us! This is too good to miss.

Because this is a journey we can all relate to. 1) A few weeks ago, we were talking about how it’s very, very easy to feel lost and a little confused about what’s going on at Mass, but even more so, to feel lost and disoriented out there. It’s those big questions (I’ve asked ‘em before, I’ll ask them again): “Why am I here? Where am I going? How do I get there?” And that’s why we’re proposing “Rerouting…”: it’s a roadmap, a GPS. When you get lost nowadays, you just pull out your phone, and you get “rerouted” back to your destination. “Rerouting…” is meant to give us a real, concrete, practical path to follow—so that we can really, concretely, and practically follow Christ, just as he calls us: “Come, follow me.” 2) But that’s why we also talked last week about how for most of us, this isn’t exactly our first day in a Catholic Church. And we can easily feel like we’ve been given this “map” before … and so why should we give it another go? “Yeah, Father. I grew up Catholic, but it’s not really for me anymore.” So common; breaks my heart. I told you, close to 70% of the Catholics in the county (and that’s just Catholics, not to mention the thousands of others who don’t follow Christ at all)—70% do not participate in the life of the parish anymore. And one of the big reasons is that there is a mutated understanding out there of what *this* is. The “maps” that so many of us were given were incomplete, faulty, mutated. Simple but fundamental things like, “What is faith? What is the Church? Why do we exist, what’s our mission?” Again, simple—but the mutated understandings have devastating effects.

But you’re still here. And even though you’re here, I’m willing to bet that you’ve weathered a few storms in your life—and for some of you, I know that that storm is right now. And so that’s what I want to address today. Today I want to address the things that slow us down. Our roadsign this week is “Fog Area.” We’re all here, so we’re all trying to following the “map” given to us by Christ, yeah? Awesome! But, but—what are those things that are going to slow us down? What will cloud our vision? What is the fog we could easily find ourselves trapped in? What will paralyze us on the road? Worse, cause us to give up altogether on the “map” given to us by Christ?

An Illustration of the Fog

I recently heard a story about a man, a Chinese man who lived in the Fujian province of China. Recently, not like a thousand years ago; probably still alive today. In the 1950’s, the Roman Catholic Church was outlawed in China, and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association took over. If you wanted to be a Catholic, you had to be part of this Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association—which isn’t the real Catholic Church. So in essence, it became illegal to belong to the Roman Catholic Church, and so the Church moved “underground.” You have to hide your faith. And they would have these clandestine “home Masses.” So this man and his family were hosting a priest in their home, and their neighbors who were Catholic came to their house to celebrate Mass with the priest. As the priest was finishing Mass, one of the lookouts came in and said, “The authorities are on their way!” So everyone scattered: the people ran, the priest ran. Everyone scattered except this man and his family; it was their house, where were they supposed to go? He was arrested, and taken into custody.

And for three weeks they beat this man, trying to get him to give up the identity and the location of the priest. For three weeks they had stripped him, they had tied him up, they had beaten him, burned his skin, used a cattle prod—the whole time saying, “Just tell us. Tell us the name of this priest. Tell us where he is. Help us find him. And then you can go free.” Here is this guy who not only loved his priest, but loved the Eucharist so much—he knew that if the authorities found this priest, he would be arrested and who knows when the rest of the people would have a priest again. He wouldn’t give him up! After three weeks, the authorities realized they weren’t going to break him, so they sent him home! Again, fairly recent: here is this man, tortured for his faith.

Well, shortly after this, the man and his family escaped communist China and came to the United States—settled somewhere in the northeast part of States. And when he and his family got here, they were overjoyed. Not just because of all the opportunity, but because just down the street from their house was the Catholic Church. They could walk down the street and go to Mass, in public, any day, every day of the week. This family who would have to wait for weeks, sometimes months to receive the Eucharist—they could go to Mass every single day. It was so incredibly joyful for them.

And it was also a great land of opportunity. So here is this man, this family going to Mass—but this guy realized, “I can get a job. I can make money.” He found out that a lot of times (not all the time but a lot of times) if you work more you can make more money. So pretty soon he started sending his family off to daily Mass—while he extended some of his hours at work. And as time passed, he took some extra shifts on weekends; found out you can get time, time and a half. So maybe occasionally he would skip a Sunday Mass. As time wore on, he found himself only going to Mass on Christmas and Easter. And the guy who told me this story knows the priest who is this guy’s pastor, and he said, “This last Easter he didn’t even go to Mass.”

Here is this man who was a hero for the Eucharist, for the faith—tortured endlessly for three weeks, and wouldn’t give up the Eucharist or his faith. And then he comes to this county and he doesn’t even go to Mass. The point is this, the thing we cannot miss is this: what Communist China couldn’t do, what torture couldn’t do, what cattle prods couldn’t do … our culture was able to do—and it didn’t even have to try.

I tell us this story because here at the beginning of “Rerouting…” I want us to begin reflecting on: What are those things that are going to slow us down, the fog that will cloud our vision? What could cause us to give up altogether on the “map” give to us by Christ? Because it might not be what you think it is.

Why does the Church continue to grow in Communist China, while here in the United States, here in rural Kansas it continues to shrink away? Why have 70% of Catholics stopped practicing their faith? Why would a man who was willing to be tortured, to even give up his life to the Eucharist and his faith, just a few years later not even attend Mass on Easter Sunday?

Again, it’s not because people are bad or maliciously opposing God. I think, in large part, it’s because of this “fog” that sets in around us. And just like fog, it’s doesn’t attack us; it creeps in, gradually and gently. It causes us to get disoriented, lost, to lose sight of the goal, to lose sight of the road—it paralyzes us on this path. And when that happens, we not only lose sight of God and His Church … but of those around us … and even ourself. And once again, we end up with the questions: “Why am I here? Where am I going? And how do I get there?”

Each one of us is looking for happiness, fulfillment, freedom, peace, joy. But as the fog creeps in, we can begin to dismiss the proposal that the “map” given to us by Christ and his Church, that following Christ, is going to get us there. And so we go it alone. And so here’s my point: we might not reject God outright, but we can easily drift away, stop following him (why?) because we don’t truly believe that He can fulfill.

So briefly, we want to ask three questions: How can I tell if I’m in the fog? Where does it come from? And how do I get out?

Am I in the fog? The Two Extremes

So what is this “fog”? How can I tell if this fog is around me, if I’m immersed in it? Well, the fog exists on a spectrum. And on one end of the spectrum you have the experience of nihilism. Pope Francis, a few years ago, he said, “Today’s serious threat … is the loss of the meaning of life.” Not socialism, not poverty, not this political party or that, no. The serious threat we face is the loss of the meaning of life: “Why am I here? Where am I going? And how do I get there?” On this end of the spectrum the common experience is a great boredom, a malaise, a despair: nothing in life fulfills me. I have spoken before about that article written by Mitch Albom a few years back: “Why is living shorter [and] dying sooner a new trend?” In the article, Albom talks about all of that sociological data that shows that the reason life expectancy in the United States is dropping isn’t because of cancer or diet related heart problems or car accidents. We’re living shorter and dying younger because of what are called the “deaths of despair”: drug-related fatalities, cirrhosis of the liver (so alcohol), and suicide. People are numbing out: binge-watching TV shows on Netflix, the infinite scroll on social media, the infinite rabbit hole on YouTube, twelve hours of football on Sunday. People are numbing out and giving up. This is the fog that creeps in—at least on one side of the spectrum.

Because right now some of you are thinking, “That’s not me, Faddah! I love my life!” And so on the other end of this spectrum is the experience of self-sufficiency. I’m pretty sure I’ve told you this story before, but I once had a woman come into my office, distraught, holding her young child, and she told me, “Father, my husband has left me.” I was like, “What? What happened? Were you fighting?” And she said, “He fell in love with this other woman. And he left. And when he told me he was leaving, he was crying and upset. He kept saying he knew he shouldn’t leave but that he couldn’t help himself because he was in love. And he kissed out daughter goodbye, and then he left.” Now, when we hear that story, we are probably like, “What a scumbag!” And yet, this is the path of self-sufficiency. This is the path where our fulfillment is found in anything and everything we can provide for ourself—every whim that comes along. We have already decided what will fulfill us, and so we gradually let go of the path of following Christ, and decide to do things ourselves. It’s the passage in the Gospels of the Rich Young Man: this man runs up to Jesus, throws himself at his feet, and asks what he needs to do to gain the fullness of life. And so Jesus invites him to give up his riches and follow him. To follow him. And we’re told this man walks away from Jesus, continues to follow his own path. This man had already chosen what was going to make him happy, fulfill him (money) … and not even Jesus standing right in front of him was going to stop him. This is the man from China: went from willing to die for the Eucharist, all the way to not even willing to go to Mass on Easter.

These are the two extremes—and so yeah, we might not be at the point of suicide or the point of leaving our wife and baby because we’re a scumbag. But the way we typically experience the fog I’m talking about is toward one or the other extreme. Either a nihilism, thinking that everything is meaningless, so I’ll just find ways to self-medicate until it all ends. That, or a self-sufficiency, thinking that my life is great and I just need to keep living it, don’t let anything get in my way.

Where did it come from?

Where it comes from is actually a simple answer. The fog creeps in from the culture around us. And this is not some homily about how bad the culture is, wah wah wah! No, I just mean the culture is what the culture is. And if you want to see the fruits of our culture, you just have to look around. The data speaks for itself. Just look around in your own family, in your school, in the city, in the county—what the culture naturally produces is self-evident.

Our culture is tolerant of our faith … as long as it is private and doesn’t affect the “real world.” “If you want to believe in the Three Headed Lizard God of the Sunflowers on Sunday, go for it. But in the ‘real world’ we don’t allow that.” In other words, you can have “faith,” so long as the “culture” is still what has your true loyalty. It’s what we talked about last week with faith: you are allowed to say you believe whatever you want to believe, just so long as your life, your real life isn’t entrusted to God but to the culture around you—so long as you don’t “get in the wheelbarrow” with God, if you catch my drift.

How do I get out of it?

And so this brings us to our last question: So how do I get out? How do I find my way out of the fog? And the answer is you don’t—not on your own, anyway. In Scripture, in the great story we are going to dive into in just a few weeks—in Scripture, we are shown time and time again that people’s lives are changed not because they made an ethical decision, because they stopped doing bad things or decided not to be a scumbag; people’s live are changed not because they finally got a good idea that solved their problems, or they finally read enough books or studied enough theology to figure it out on their own. Nope. Neither one. Time and time and time again, people were changed because they encountered a person, a person who gave their life a new horizon and a decisive direction (c.f., Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est). John and Andrew, Peter and Paul, Mary Magdalen, Matthew, Zacchaeus, on and on—people were changed because they encountered a person, they encountered Christ. And they dropped everything and followed him.

In fog, like when you’re driving, you can see, but only the road right in front of you. So to get out of the fog, you have to follow the road that you see immediately ahead of you. It’s an act of faith. For us to move out of our fog, it begins by confidently stepping out in faith, following the Way set down before us—answering the call of Christ to follow him. Yeah, we can’t see the end of the road. Yeah, we don’t know all the twists and turns. But we can take one step at a time. 

And that’s why it was so important last week that we discovered that this is what the Church is: it is the continuation of Christ in time. When people come in contact with the Church, they encounter Christ, and things change. This is what Jesus is speaking about in our Gospel today: “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world” (Matthew 6:13-14). This is why it is so vitally important to remember our mission: that when people encounter us, they should be encountering Christ, they should want to follow this Way.

And so this is it. We are entering a “Fog Area”—we’re in one! And if we want out, it means following Christ, following him in and through his Body, the Church. It means entrusting your life, setting your path precisely where the Church leads you. This is the Way.

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