Thursday, August 11, 2005

When It Comes To Your Catholic Faith, Do You Have A ‘Game Face’? And How Often Do You Have It On?

Tom Brady, Curt Schilling, Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong with their "game faces" on.

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 14, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 15: 21-28.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twentieth Sunday 2005]

It’s called “a game face”.

It’s the look that every great athlete has when he’s about to compete for a big prize in his chosen sport. Tom Brady has had it in 3 Super Bowls. Curt Schilling had it in game 6 of last year’s ALCS against the Yankees, and in game 2 of the World Series against the Cardinals. Tiger Woods has it in every major golf tournament. Lance Armstrong has had it in the last 7 Tour de France cycling races—and he’s won them all!

Having a game face is about having a certain appearance, a certain look in your eyes when you’re competing. But even more importantly, it’s about having a certain attitude. In fact, every “game face” begins in the heart. There’s a look of determination and desire on the athlete’s face, because there’s an attitude of fiery determination in his or her heart.

The question I have for myself and for all of you today is this: When it comes to your Catholic faith, do you have a “game face”? And if so, how often do you have it on?

(The second question, incidentally, is just as important as the first.)

In the spiritual dimension, having a “game face” means having a determination to seek Jesus and love Jesus and follow Jesus and obey Jesus and live for Jesus—regardless of the obstacles and the opposition you might encounter along the way.

In other words, it means being a lot like the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel story from Matthew 15.

On the day Jesus came to her town in the region of Tyre and Sidon, this woman put on her game face and absolutely refused to take it off—although she easily could have. Several times!

And Jesus knew it!—which is why he said to her, “O woman, great is your faith!”

There are very few occasions in Scripture where we are told that Jesus was impressed by somebody’s personal faith, but this is one of them. Another was when the Roman centurion came and requested a healing for his dying servant. (He, interestingly enough, was also a Gentile.) About him Jesus said, “I have never found so much faith among the Israelites.”

This Canaanite woman made a faith-filled request to Jesus, asking him to heal her possessed daughter. And she persevered in making that request. But exercising such incredible perseverance wasn’t easy. In order to keep her game face on and resist the temptation to give up the cause, she had to overcome a number of obstacles and difficulties.

For example, she more than likely had to disregard the objections and negative comments of her friends and relatives.

Remember, this woman was a Canaanite by birth, and Jesus was a Jew. Those two groups (the Canaanites and the Jews) had been enemies for centuries. Can you imagine the reaction of her Canaanite relatives and friends, if she told them beforehand that she intended to seek a healing from a Jewish rabbi?

“You’re going to do what? From whom? What are you, crazy? He’s one of ‘them’! What are you thinking, woman? Don’t you understand?—he’ll probably call you ‘unclean’ and spit in your face!”

Our friends can sometimes give us good advice and help us to draw closer to God, but at other times they can give us very bad advice and draw us away from the Lord. They can cause us, in other words, to lose our game face, and become just like the rest of the world in our attitudes and behavior.

When my friends try to exert a negative influence on me, how often do I stay strong like this Canaanite woman did? That’s a question for everyone, but I think it’s especially important for you teenagers to ponder—because your friends play such an important role in your lives.

But this was not the only obstacle she had to overcome. There were other dissenting voices she also had to deal with—and sadly these were voices that should have been encouraging her to persevere! Lest we forget, the Bible says that Jesus’ disciples also wanted this woman out of the picture. They also wanted her to leave. In fact, they went up to our Lord at one point and said to him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”

How many Catholics—young and old—lose their game face (their commitment to Jesus), when they find themselves in a hostile environment? In school, for example, when almost everyone in the class says they’re “pro-choice”; or at work, when others attack the Church or some teaching of the Catholic faith?

This woman didn’t care what her own people thought; she didn’t care what the disciples thought; she had her game face on, and no human being—not even a friend, a relative or a disciple—was going to get her to take it off!

And neither was any negative or difficult circumstance! We’re told at the beginning of the story that when she first called out to Jesus on behalf of her daughter, our Lord said nothing to her—absolutely nothing—although he heard what she was saying.

Have you ever prayed for something important, and felt as if God were giving you the “silent treatment”?

It can happen. Even though God always hears and responds to our prayers in some way, at certain times it can seem like he’s being completely silent and not giving us any answer at all.

And that perceived silence is enough to get some people to take off their game faces for good.

It did not have that effect on this woman! Quite oppositely (and amazingly!), it made her even more determined to follow Jesus!

Or how about when God says No—or at least when he seems to say No? How does that affect your game face? For some, sad to say, it’s devastating.

I mentioned a young man named Jeremy in a homily I gave about a month ago. Jeremy came with us the very first year we took teenagers to the Steubenville Youth Conference out in Ohio. He had a fantastic weekend; he experienced God in a way he never had before; and he began to come to terms with the things in his life that he needed to change. In other words, he made the decision to put on his “game face of faith”! However during the trip back home, he phoned his parents here in Westerly, and he found out that one of his best friends from high school had just died after a long battle with cancer.

I’m sure Jeremy had prayed for his friend very hard during his time in Ohio. He prayed that his friend would be physically healed. God, unfortunately, said No to that intention; and sadly, Jeremy took off his game face—immediately! And I don’t think he’s put in back on since—although I and many other people are praying that he someday will.

There are 3 possible responses to prayers of petition: Yes, No and Wait! Jesus at first didn’t answer the Canaanite woman when she asked to have her daughter healed; and then when he finally did respond he really wasn’t very clear as to whether he was saying No or Wait. But what’s important to note is that Jesus’ unclear response didn’t weaken the woman’s faith at all! Not even a little bit! In fact, in a mysterious way, it actually caused her faith to grow stronger!

And so she eventually obtained the blessing that she was seeking: a blessing she would not have received had she taken off her game face and given up somewhere along the way.

When it comes to your Catholic faith, do you have a “game face”? And if so, how often do you have it on?

The lesson of today’s Gospel story is that if you put it on by following and serving and obeying Jesus—and if you keep it on in spite of what others may say and in spite of difficult circumstances—you will be blessed in many special ways, like this Canaanite woman was.

And in the end, you will receive the ultimate blessing—the ultimate reward of your persevering faith: everlasting life!