How long is a good Sunday homily? In the book of Nehemiah, Ezra read the Book of the Law to the people "from morning until midday" (Neh. 8:3). In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul preached a sermon that went on until midnight (Acts 20:7). On the other hand, the Sermon on the Mount can’t be much more than two or three minutes long.
When people ask Protestant pastor David Padfield how long he preaches for, he answers “Until I get done.”
Today, I am going to preach both a short homily, and a long one. The short homily’s only three words long: “Don’t give up.” I could make it even shorter, by saying “don’t quit,” because that’s our second reading in a nutshell.
When things got tough, Abraham—our father in faith—didn’t give up on God. When hope seemed futile, Sarah did not quit hoping.
The Letter to the Hebrews presents Abraham and Sarah as models of faith, but we must try to understand what that means. Their lives weren’t smooth and untroubled just because they put their trust in God; they weren’t like little children whose trust in their parents takes away all anxiety.
Most of all, they didn’t get exactly what they expected. As the epistle today says, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. Or as William Barclay writes, “To Abraham God’s promise never came fully true; and yet he never abandoned his faith.”
How could Abraham accept this? One word sums it up: perseverance. The catechism says that Abraham's prayer was a battle of faith marked by trust in God's faithfulness and by certitude in the victory promised to those who persevere (2592).
The catechism also says that we need humility, trust, and perseverance in order to battle what we experience as failure in prayer: “discouragement during periods of dryness; sadness that, because we have ‘great possessions,’ we have not given all to the Lord; disappointment over not being heard according to our own will; … and so forth” (2728).
Ralph Martin offers ten keys to perseverance. The first, not surprisingly, is to know how important it is! And that, of course, is the message of our first reading.
The second key is to ask God for it. If enduring all that we must endure was a purely personal effort, it would be too terrifying to think about. So we ask God for help; we not only ask for the strength not to quit, we even ask him for the grace to want to persevere.
Ralph writes that the strength to persevere isn’t something we naturally possess. “Strength to persevere is a gift that’s given, that we need to ask for and receive.”
The third thing is to break with sin. We need to know that perseverance means following Jesus without compromise. We can't pick and choose the areas where we want to persevere.
The fourth key is to learn from the saints. That’s what we’re doing today when we recall the example of Abraham and Sarah, but there’s a whole litany of saints who can inspire us by their patient endurance of every kind of trial, who can teach us by their lives and help us by their prayers.
Not that many Catholic homes have a copy of the Lives of the Saints on the bookshelf, which is too bad, but there are many Catholic websites that provide access to the inspiring stories of the heroes of our faith,
Fifth is endurance. Sometimes we just need to put our heads down and push ahead. Sometimes we just need to bear the yoke, knowing, as St. James has written, that “when your faith is tested this makes for endurance” (see Jas 1:2-4).
Key number six is to trust that we will never be tested or tempted beyond our strength. This is a promise straight from Scripture and we need to hold on to it like someone grabbing a life preserver in a stormy sea. Let me read the exact words from St. Paul: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength…” (NRSV)
“Along with the test he will give you a way out of it so that you may be able to endure it” (NAB).
If that promise could sink deep in our hearts it would bring about a trust greater than Abraham’s.
The seventh key follows from the last point: Look to the Scriptures as a source of strength. They are filled with encouragement for every sort of trial, warn us against turning back, and—of course—tell the story of Jesus’ own perseverance and the victory it won for us.
Key number eight is pretty obvious: pray. Don’t just pray for things to change—pray for strength to face what doesn’t change. And pray to persevere. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples to pray always and not lose heart. That’s fundamental. As St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, said: “All saints began their conversion by prayer, and through prayer they persevered.”
Ralph’s ninth point is particularly marvelous: “Participating in the perseverance of Jesus is key.” St. Paul says “By the might of his glory you will be endowed with the strength needed to stand fast, even to endure joyfully whatever may come..” (Col 1:11).
“To persevere we need to draw on the strength and energy that comes to us as a gift from God.” This help is very specially available in the Eucharist, where “Christ himself is given to us as a source of encouragement and strength… The Eucharist is the fullest way of being united to and participating in the constancy and perseverance of Jesus himself.”
The tenth and final key to perseverance is to remember that the reward is heaven! St. Paul says that he considers “the sufferings of the present to be as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). “The joy of heaven,” Ralph Martin concludes, “is worth any price that must be paid. And any price that must be paid is as nothing compared to the glory and joy of heaven.”
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews ties this all together in the chapter that follows the one we’ve read from this morning, so we’ll close with those words:
“For the sake of the joy which lay before him, [Jesus] endured the cross, heedless of its shame. He has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Remember how he endured the opposition of sinners… (NAB) so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (NRSV).
- Heb 12:2