Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Argument Clinic - Homily for the 23rd Sunday in OT (A)

First, as we enjoy the blessing of fine weather, let us remember in our prayers the people of Florida, Houston, and the Caribbean who are suffering the effects of the hurricanes. Lord, look kindly upon them.

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We've all been in an argument. And sometimes its a big argument. An argument about religion or politics-- or even bigger: about marriage or getting sober or you name it. Jesus knows that we argue. And part of the reason why we argue is because we care. We care about people and we care about the Truth. Jesus knows this and He knows that sometimes in those arguments our pride can get in the way. The pride of having to be right. Or, if we are on the receiving end, the pride of not wanting to be wrong.

Enter today's Gospel.

Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

So Jesus is concerned about sin. And He tells us that we are to talk to people about this. “Son of Man,” he says in the first reading from Ezekiel, “I have appointed you watchman for the house of Israel; … you shall warn them for me. … If you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”

In other words, when Cain killed Abel, God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” And Cain responded by saying, “What, am I my brother's keeper?”

Yes. Yes you are. So, yes, if you are a person of love (are we are all trying to be), then you want more for your neighbor than the wages of sin. You want eternal life for them. That means that we must tell people about the Truth, no matter what. We must live our faith out loud. Jesus died publicly on the Cross-- not privately. Christianity must be lived publicly, not privately.

If there is anything that should be private, it is that we are to “tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Alone. No gossip. (Isn't that interesting? When someone hurts us, we like to tell everyone about it. But when it comes to the Truth of Jesus, it's so easy to tell no one about it). Jesus knows this, so He tells us that, if we have been hurt, tell only the one. No facebook. Don't write anonymous reviews or write anonymous letters.

If it is important to say anything about it, then you must talk with the person, personally and gently, face to face. This is loving. Do it over a cup of coffee or a beer. Be relaxed and courteous, show them somehow that you love them. But be firm. “This is important. And I love you. That's why I'm saying this.”

And maybe they don't listen to you. And that's humbling-- nothing pricks our pride more than someone not caring what we say. (Welcome to the club). But don't get angry. You're just passing on what you are supposed to be passing on. It's not about you. It's about Jesus coming to meet your brother. That's what this is all about.

And so, Jesus promises: “If [your brother] listens to you, you have won over your brother.” Thanks be to God!

* * *

Now, here's the thing: sometimes we're wrong. Sometimes we think we have a good grasp on the truth, but maybe we don't. Maybe we have misjudged. Or maybe we have spent all our capital by being nagging or prideful in our approaches. Sometimes our neighbor doesn't seem to have any reason to listen to us because we've been a stranger or we've been scandalous in the way we have lived.

Jesus knows about that, too. So, He says: “If [your brother] does not listen [to you], take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.'” So, if your neighbor has no reason to believe you, maybe he'll believe the others. Maybe they are more trustworthy.

See, Jesus is trying to give your neighbor every chance to believe. This is the way that you prove to your neighbor that this is not a personal vendetta, that you aren't coming with a personal agenda.

And it's also humbling for us because, when we bring this issue to two others, we are submitting our judgment to theirs-- it's humble to say: “Maybe I am in the wrong. Maybe, before I go any further in calling my brother on to holiness, maybe I need to make sure that I'm not in the wrong here.” So we ask two others about it. And if the say, “yeah, you're right,” ok, now go with them and talk to your brother again.

After all, our Lord promises: “Whenever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” … See? This is all about Jesus coming to your neighbor.

* * *

Now, let's be brutally honest: very few like to hear how they are supposed to become better. Yet, for as much as we don't like to hear that, we all know that we all have room to grow. Pride is dumb like that because even if it admits that it needs to change, it still won't listen to anybody. The result is that the prideful person becomes alienated, bitter, and lonely.

Jesus is saying: “Won't you listen to me?”

In my own life, I have found that when someone comes to me with the courage to say, “Hey, Father Gerber, have you ever thought about doing such and such?” Or, a friend who calls me out for not being joyful enough or faithful enough-- that's gold in my book. I want to become a saint. And I know the courage it has taken them to give me constructive criticism.

So, if two or more people would come to me and talk humbly to me about a problem-- woah!-- I know it is best for me to listen!

* * *

But even then, some people don't. So, Jesus gives a third chance: “If [your brother] refuses to listen to them, then tell the church.”

The heavy artillery. This is the final authority. This goes back to the past two weeks' conversation about Peter. About how he has the keys and how he is the servant that opens and shuts.

So, when Jesus says “Tell the Church,” He's saying: this is the last chance.

That's amazing, isn't it? How many people think that, when the Church speaks, that is the last chance for conversion? So many people simply dismiss what “the Church” says as if she was just another voice in the public square. But that's the thing: she isn't just another voice. All of these points of advice from Jesus-- about coming as a loving individual, about coming as a group and so on-- all of this is about Jesus coming to the person. The Church is not just another voice-- it IS Jesus' voice.

But I know: one of the reasons why people simply dismiss what the Church says is because some bishops and priests have spoken out of turn. What I mean by that is, too many priests and bishops (and I count myself as guilty in this, too) have spoken from ambos just like this one and declared something to be absolutely true and dogmatic when, in reality, it wasn't. And people sense that error and they lose trust in their clergy.

Priests and bishops, therefore, need to be exceedingly aware of this great trust, this great stewardship of actual doctrine and the treasure of souls, and the essential requirement to be measured in their speech and absolutely certain that what they say is true. If the Church is the final voice of Christ, then wow! We priests and deacons and bishops must be very measured indeed. We must present the entire Truth in all its height and breadth and length and depth, in all its rigor and vigor. (Catechesi tradendae 5 and 30, citing Eph 3:18).

Take the situation of immigration. There have been some that have come out with zealous opinions on current decisions regarding immigration. But the issue is multifaceted and quite complex: even the Catechism notes that immigrants have the duty to “obey [the] laws” of the land and to “assist in carrying civic burdens” (#2241) like paying taxes and so on. So, while we are called to “welcome the foreigner” and the “stranger”-- as Jesus and the same Catechism paragraph notes-- the Church also recognizes that countries have rights and immigrants have duties. Have we heard both sides of this coin? Indeed, failure to express this whole message is a failure to express the Truth. And people sense that. And they lose trust. And they don't listen-- and in that case, rightly so.

This is why we must especially pray for bishops and priests and deacons-- those who are entrusted as the final say in the whole line of Jesus' gospel here. Because if they are ignorant or blinded by the pride of a false compassion-- then... God help us-- who are we supposed to listen to?

Humility and wisdom are essential for the clergy; likewise, a sense of self-critique and self-analysis too.

* * *

And lest we become hypocritical: while we expect it of the clergy, do we then also expect it of ourselves? Am I open to critique? Am I offended or get defensive if someone challenges me? Have I learned to see challenge and correction as a blessing from God? In it, can I see Jesus coming to me, loving me so as to purify me and make me stronger than gold seven times refined, a greater instrument of His grace?

Hear Jesus' last words on the matter: “If [they] refuse to listen even to the church, then treat [them] as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

In other words: If the person is so prideful that they will not listen to Jesus in you-- if they are so prideful that they will not listen to Jesus in the group-- if they are so prideful that they will not trust Jesus in the Church … well, what can you do?

Write them off? No.

What did Jesus do for Gentiles and tax collectors? He lived for them; He died for them; He prayed and He sacrificed for them. That is what we are to do-- for our fallen away; for our clergy; for one another.

And, when you realize that people have done the same for you-- as people have done for me-- when someone comes to you with a heart full of love and says, “Hey, I want more for you. Come walk this path instead of that”-- know that it's Jesus. Don't get defensive. Welcome him. And say thank you. He loves you and He is leading you to the holy life.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Greatest Achievement - Homily for the 22nd Sunday in OT (A)

There is an oddity in nature (and I take this from Peter Kreeft). When it comes to rocks or grass or animals, they don't have to achieve or arrive at their nature. What I mean by that is, rocks are just naturally rocky. They don't have to “do” anything-- they just are. Grass is grassy. Cats are cat-like and so on. But here's the oddity: when it comes to humans, we have the dignity of human nature, but we may or may not achieve or arrive at it. By that I mean, a lady may or may not be lady-like. A man may or may not be manly. So, we are in flux-- we are between becoming who we are and becoming who we are not.

CS Lewis puts this very nicely: “Every time you make a decision, you are turning the central part of you... into something a little different than it was before.” So, for example, in the Lord of the Rings, Smeagol becomes-- by small or large choices each day-- Gollum; he devolves. He wasn't supposed to become that. Frodo, on the other hand, becomes more of who he is deep down: a hero. And it all hinges not on whether they give their lives away (for both give their lives away one way or another)-- but it hinges on what or to whom they give their lives away. More on that in a bit.

For now, we can say that, in the Gospel, Simon faces similar choices. And who will he become? Will he be the man he is supposed to be-- that is, Peter-- or even less than Simon?

* * *

In the Incarnation, we arrive at a very stark reality: God is concerned with the choices that we make. He becomes one of us and so enters into the drama of decision-making. In this, Jesus shows us what the achievement looks like (He is The Way). And the achievement-- what human nature is supposed to arrive at-- is the glory of the Resurrection. Paradoxically, that achievement comes by way of the Cross: “No greater love does a man have than this.” The more we embrace the Cross, the more we become who we are.

To this, Peter responds: no. Peter has different thoughts about what man and the Messiah are supposed to be. The Messiah is supposed to be a man of power, not the weakness of the Cross-- “forbid it happen, Lord!” Peter sees the Cross as failure; he doesn't see the paradox: that death will conquer death, that Love will conquer evil. Jesus has been a Messiah of paradoxes when we think about it, really: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” comes to mind. Here, the paradox is: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

In other words, Jesus is showing us that humanity arrives at what it is supposed to be when humanity gives itself away as a loving gift. Until we give ourselves away to God, until we waste our time and our money on Him, until we say as St. Ignatius did: “Take, Lord, receive all my liberty”-- until we join with Jesus-- the ultimate God-man-- on the Cross, then we have not become who we are.

Rocks are rocky, grass is grassy-- but humans are only arrive at the fullness of their reality when they finally pick up and do what God did in the fullness of humanity. God shows us who we are and what we are to do.

* * *

This is why Paul says: “Do not be conformed to this age...” and “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In other words, today's culture is not taking on the ways of Jesus. We must be different. Indeed, oftentimes you can look at the culture and discover what you are to do by simply doing the opposite of the culture. Think about it. Is our culture today very committed? Shoot, what is the biggest commitment of many peoples' lives? Their phone contract. Or children: does our children embrace children? Oh sure, have a couple-- but God forbid you have more than that! Even in parish churches, people give young parents the evil eye if the child is being child-like.

Yes, we must be the opposite! Do not be afraid of commitment! Young men and women, say yes to marriage or to the priesthood or to religious life. Eventually, discernment must end in commitment. Give your life to Jesus. You are not wasting your life!

And have children. Be generous. Yeah, you may say, “gosh, I can't carry this.” Right: that's the weight of the Cross-- and our Lord is going to help you. You need to reach that point where you are totally dependent on Him.

Those who are a little older: give your stuff away. Go ahead and die poor. While all your friends are hoarding and living it up in retirement, you be the one that leaves a legacy to the Church and to your family and charities. Give it all away and don't look back. Enter into heaven with empty hands so as to receive the real riches that await the saints.

And when everyone else is busy and enslaved to Pharoah, waste time with God.

See: that's the paradox: what the world thinks is a waste is actually the greatest treasure. The Cross is the glory. And when Peter denies it, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” That's how important this is. “What does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

See, this is the reality: we become possessed by what we possess. And it's either going to be God or not God. All of us are going to give ourselves away-- but it's either going to be to the world or to God. And only one of those will actually last and bring you eternal joy. (Hint: it's God).

* * *

And, I know: you're afraid. Who isn't? Even Jesus sweat blood before His crucifixion. But remember: how many times Jesus has told us: “Be not afraid.” Be not afraid of entering into the commitment of marriage or priesthood or religious life. Be not afraid of having many kids. Be not afraid of giving your life away to God and to neighbor in charity and generosity. Be not afraid!

Because, as you lose your life for Him, you will find that you will have gained it. You will have arrived at who you are supposed to be: Jesus Christ. This is the greatest achievement-- of God and man. Let us pray now for this grace.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Us and Them - Homily for the 20th Sunday in OT (A)

“My house shall be called a house of prayer...”

When we speak of God’s house, we can speak of His Temple. And when we speak of His Temple, typically we think of the temple of brick and mortar in Jerusalem—the temple originally built by Solomon, destroyed, and rebuilt again throughout the ages. Part of a wall of that ancient Temple still exists today (that is, the Wailing Wall).

Of course, in the beginning, God’s temple was not simply the edifice in Jerusalem. During the time of Moses, God’s house, His temple, was the tent of meeting—a tent surrounded by the cloud and the glory of the Lord.

Before that, creation itself was the temple of God. At the beginning of the Bible, as God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, the ancient Hebrew language of that creation denoted a construction of a temple. (It is worth noting that ancient civilizations, when they built temples, would as the last part of that construction place an image of the deity. When God constructs the temple of creation over the Six Days, the last item He places in the temple is His image—which happens to be the man and the woman, humanity who is created in the image of God).

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The Jewish people, as the chosen people of God, were called to go out to all the nations and to bring those nations into the one temple of God and into the one worship of the one true God.

Of course, throughout the Old Testament centuries, the Israelites slowly became inward-looking and forgetful of their mission. Their worldview started to morph into an us-and-them mentality where they were the chosen people and everyone else—whom they called the Gentiles—were not. Indeed, there started to grow a hatred: the Jewish people would call the Gentiles dogs and so on.

Enter our Gospel for today. Here we have a Gentile woman approaching Jesus, a Jew. The Jewish disciples are watching. They do not like her. She asks for her daughter to be healed. And Jesus says something interesting: He echoes the sentiment of the us-and-them mentality. Why?

There is, on the one hand, a sense that He doesn’t want to scandalize His Jewish disciples. He enters into their mentality for a moment. On the other hand, however, His refusal of the woman gives the woman an opportunity: an opportunity to double-down and proclaim more whole-heartedly her faith in Jesus as the Messiah—which is preciasely what she does.

It is at this moment, then, that Jesus publicly praises her for her faith and gives her daughter healing. In doing so, He is pointing out the wrongheadedness of the Jewish people's mentality towards the Gentiles: “See, my Jewish brothers and sisters, the Gentiles have great faith. How can we not embrace them as our own? Are we really going to reject such faithful people?”

This is to fulfill the prophecy we heard in the first reading from Isaiah: “My house shall be a house of prayer ... for all peoples.”

It is worth noting that this is the motivation behind Jesus’ actions later on when He enters the Temple in Jerusalem and drives out the money changers and animal traders from the Temple. He quotes this very prophecy: “My father’s house shall be a house of prayer” (Mt 21:13). But it wasn’t simply zeal for the temple that consumed Him (it was), but it was also His love for the Gentiles. You see, location is important and the location of the money changers was in the part of the temple called the Court of the Gentiles. This Court of the Gentiles was a part of the temple where the Gentiles were supposed to be gathered and worship the Lord. Of course, the Jewish people, in their insular mentality that had grown over the Old Testament centuries, gave up on the Gentiles and indeed had pushed them out.

Jesus, by flipping over the tables and driving out the money-changers, literally makes room for the Gentile people that He is going to bring in—“My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.”

*          *          *

Ok, so what does this have to do with us? God's temple is not just Jerusalem, a tent, or creation. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (3:16) asks us: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” In other words, do you not know that you are God’s dwelling place—and if God’s temple, then a house of prayer? Hear again that prophecy but in this new light. "My house-- you-- shall be a house of prayer for all peoples."

Here, we could talk much about the life of prayer and what it would be like if there was no prayer in our temple. But a more pressing matter is upon us. You see, one of the temptations of our current day—indeed, one of the devilish tactics in our world—is the desecration and the destruction of God’s temple: not only in the removal of things beautiful in parish churches, but most especially in the forgetfulness that human beings are temples of God.

Let me give an example. When you flip through the newspaper, when you watch the news, when you read an article on the internet about current events—how many times have you heard about the glory of humanity, the beauty of mankind, and the great dignity of the human person? I mean, have you ever heard of a person referred to as a “house of prayer” and the “temple of God”?

I haven’t.

Instead, I have heard all sorts of derogatory, desecrating language used in the past week. This is the great, horrible trick of the devil today: to get us to forget about the dignity of every human person and instead to focus on humans as simply problems.

Case in point: there was a former governor (this will not be political, I promise)—there was a former governor who recently issued a video statement telling our current political leaders how they can craft a more peaceful message and a more effective stance regarding the issue of racism. The former governor said, and I quote: “If you had a tumor, you wouldn’t quietly hope that it slowly disappears, you would zap the *expletive* out of it … and cut it out.”

Now, I understand the sentiment: the governor wants to eradicate racism. Who doesn’t? But in his analogy, he equates human beings to tumors. Again, I understand the analogy: racism is bad and those who hold on to it are not in a good place.

But here’s the fundamental truth: human beings are not tumors. Indeed, every human being—even human beings who hold positions that are diametrical and indeed diabolically opposed to the dignity of every human life—those human beings have the same human dignity as we do. For is not every person—even those whom we dislike—aren’t they created in the same image of God as we are?

Didn’t Jesus see all of their sins from the Garden of Gethsemane and decide to go to His Cross for love of them anyway? Is not each person—even your greatest enemy—are not all people purchased at a price: did not Jesus Christ bleed for them?

Have we really devolved into the old us-and-them worldview of the Israelites and the Gentiles again?

*          *          *

Yes, there is justified anger out there. But I must admit: some of it is not.

As I saw a particular monument to Robert E. Lee fall—and I do not know enough to comment on his life or the appropriateness of removing statuary—but as I saw the monument fall and white college students starting to kick and stomp on the man’s effigy, I couldn’t help but wonder whether, within all of their anger, whether they had forgotten that he too was made in the image of God. In all of that hate, did they forget that Jesus died for Him too? That he was once-- whether he lived up to it or not-- a temple of God?

And did they forget that they too were sinners? And that Jesus came not for the righteous, but for the sinner? And isn’t the worst possible sinner still within the realm of God’s redemptive power? Isn’t that the essence of Christianity? The thief on the Cross with Jesus—a terrible life, yet in one moment, his deathbed moment, he apologizes to God. And what does God do? Canonize him. That thief, St. Dismas, is in heaven. I think we as Catholics need to proclaim these truths anew and this is our opportunity.

You see, I don’t know whether or not these statues should be down or not—but I do know that we must never forget the dignity of every man and woman-- black or white, racist or pacifist, Communist or Facist, etc and etc-- we must never forget everyone's dignity nor must we ever forget the incredible mercy of God for us all.

As an side, and this is my own personal opinion, but... if all of this vitriol out there were truly and only about the offenses committed against the dignity of the human person, then there would also be a mob tearing down the bust of Margaret Sanger—she who was the architect for mass genocide of babies, the vast majority of them being African American. If there is going to be movements that uphold humanity, then they must be genuine, self-reflecting, and logical-- and thus they must also embrace the person in the womb. If we cannot protect the innocent person there, then we are not going to be able to protect any person here.

*          *          *

Brothers and sisters, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Let us remember that we are in the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima, who called us to radical and trusting prayer, fasting, and recourse to the Rosary. There was a great miracle of the sun that happened as proof of her presence and validity of her message—even the atheists got it. She warned that if we did not pray, great wars would be upon us.

Do we not see the echo of that today? The 100th anniversary, a great American celestial event tomorrow in the eclipse, and a country on the brink... Do you not see?

If we do not become people of prayer at this time, what will it take?

“Do you not know that you are a temple of God”—a house of prayer for all peoples? Let us pray. Pray not only for your friends and family, but for all peoples. Prayer for your enemies—not just your buddies (for even pagans love their buddies). Pray for those who you don’t like. Pray to recognize the dignity of those groups and leaders that have been labeled in the media.

We are not an us-and-them church as Jew and Gentile. No, we are one people called to go out to all the nations to bring all peoples in—by our words, actions, and especially our prayers—to worship here this one God and Father of us all. For we are all one family in God-- and don't let anyone convince us otherwise!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Death, Love, Eve, and The Ark - Homily on the Assumption of Mary (2017)

Today is a celebration of the victory of Jesus’ Cross over the powers of sin and death. It is the day when our Blessed Mother enjoys the fruits of that victory by being brought body and soul into heaven.

Of course, many of our good brothers and sisters at other denominations may ask us why we spend a day celebrating Mary. (You’ve probably heard things like that: “why go to Mary when you can go straight to God?” and so on). Let’s answer this today because, admittedly, at certain local rock-band churches, things like today aren’t celebrated—and we need to know why it’s important that we do.

The answer will come in two parts: one subtle, one scriptural….

I love my mom. Mom has always been my biggest support, the one who knew my vocation before I did, the one who always tells me to “be safe”… But mom is starting to near retirement age. She is getting… older. And with getting older may come the usual health problems. And (I don’t like to think of this but) there will come a day when God calls her from this life.

If it were up to me, I would have mom pass from this life to the next without having to go through any illnesses. Illnesses and death were not part of God’s original plan anyway. Death was the result of sin. If I could have mom go straight to heaven without having to taste death and all that comes before it, I would. And I wish that because I love my mom. Of course, I am not God.

But Jesus is. And He loves His mother. He’s the only one who got to choose His mother. And because death was never part of His plan, Jesus brings Mary to heaven without illness or death. Any son who loves mom wants the very best for mom. Jesus wants the very best for His mom—and He is able to give that to her. Not only because He is God, but also because this is the very effect of His victory on the Cross! He mounts the Cross precisely to claim victory over death. It makes sense then, that He would share the celebration of that victory with His mom. Because He loves her.

That’s the subtle part. You see, people often say “Why go to Mary when you can go straight to God?” The reason is that we learn a lot about Jesus precisely by admitting His love for His mother. He loves His mother. This is important because it orients Jesus in a family—He is not foreign to family. He is not an alien to the experience of being a mother’s child.

Indeed, if you want to get the real dirt on me, you can go to my mom. She knows me very well. So too with Mary: is there anyone else on the face of the earth who had a deeper personal relationship with Jesus Christ than Mary—the one who literally carried Him in her womb, who fed Him with her flesh and blood, who felt him kick in the night and coo in her arms? Mothers know something about their children. So it goes with Mary.

The subtlety here is love.

Now we turn to scripture. Some say this isn’t scriptural. Au contraire!

We see in the book of Revelation a vision of the Ark of the Covenant and, in front of it stands The Woman and her child. (That’s Mary and Jesus). The question is: what’s this Ark of the Covenant?

The Ark of the Covenant was the sacred vessel that held the two tables of the Commandments, the Rod of Aaron, and the Manna from the desert—all of which were pre-figurements of the presence of God. This Ark was considered holy and only ordained priests could touch it (see 1 Chronicles). It was powerful and whenever Israel carried it in battle, they were victorious. Eventually, when the Temple was built, it was placed in the holiest place: The Holy of Holies.

But this was just a shadow, a foretaste of things to come. The Ark and what it contained was not God—just an image of His presence.

Eventually, this Ark disappears. And nobody knows where it went. Indiana Jones was looking for it. But nobody knows. Where did it go?

We see it in the Book of Revelation today and, in front of it, Mary. What does this mean? It means that Mary is the New Ark of the New Covenant. Whereas the Old Ark contained the objects of the Old and the foretaste of things to come, the image; the New Ark (that is, Mary) now contains the actual presence. She literally carried God, Jesus Christ, in her womb.

So, if the Old Ark was considered so holy and so powerful while only carrying the image of God, how much more so must the New Ark, Mary, be considered holy and powerful!


But, lest we forget how sin entered into the world: it was through Adam and Eve. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (15:20ff) writes how God in His perfection unties the sin of Adam by the victory of a New Adam, that is, Jesus. But God is perfect in His redeeming plan: so, whereas a man and a woman brought sin into the world, a man and a woman will bring redemption. So, not only must there be a New Adam, there must also be a New Eve. That’s Mary. She’s the woman in Revelation, she is the woman spoken about in Genesis 3:15 where she will crush the head of the serpent—the dragon we see in Revelation. This is why many statues of Mary have her crushing the serpent’s head with her foot. “He subjected everything under his feet.” There is no competition here: Mary and Jesus go together—and all the more so than did Adam and Eve.

This is why, in Scripture, it says that Mary’s “soul magnifies the Lord.” If we see Mary, we see God’s plan of love.

In Scripture, it continues, saying “From this day, all generations will call me [that is, Mary] blessed.” That word, “Blessed” means to be holy. It is the same word used in Matthew 5 to describe those in heaven.

Ok. That’s a lot. But this is very important. Mary is important because she helps us to see the heart of Jesus who loves His mother. And not only that, it helps us to see how the victory of His Cross really does conquer death in the here and now.

A woman cries out to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bore you…” To which Jesus replies, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” What is Jesus saying there? He is saying, “Yes, Mary is blessed—all generations will call her so—and so too are you. That is, you too will be blessed, you too will enjoy the victory of the Cross and the joys of heaven—if only you would receive the Word of God and observe it.”

Which is precisely what Mary did. She received the Word of God—the Word which is Jesus Christ—the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us, beginning in Mary’s womb. She received the Word and observed Him, all that He commanded—just as Mary had told us to do when, in Scripture she says, “Do everything He tells you.”

Yes, Mary is in heaven. She is in heaven because her son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, proved victorious over death by the Cross. She is in heaven because He loved her.

We celebrate that. And it gives us hope and a reminder—a reminder that is subtle and easily overlooked in the middle of August: that we were not made for death, but for heaven—if only we follow Him.

That’s why this random Tuesday is a Holy Day of Obligation. There will come a random day in our future—we know not when—when our Lord will call us from this earth. May today’s celebration give us hope and remind us and prepare us for that moment—that we may be ready, that we may enjoy the victory, that we may be with our Mother in heaven. “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Upper Limits - Homily for the 19th Sunday in OT (A)

Have you ever tried to walk on water? When I was a boy, I went out back to the swimming pool and gave it a try. It didn’t work too well.

Of course, Peter walking on water is a miracle. To walk on water is outside the ordinary, natural course of our abilities. Jesus gives Peter a miraculous grace, something extraordinary, something above nature—supernatural—so that Peter can walk above the water. This is the reality of Jesus: He wants to raise us above what we ourselves consider to be our upper limits to our natural capacities. Jesus wants to take us beyond what we have gotten used to or think is our limits.

I had the pleasure of being able to go to Colorado for a few days with a couple of friends. One of them had never hiked in the rarified air there, where trails are above 12,000 feet. If you have ever had the joy of hiking in elevations that high, you know of the possibility of altitude sickness. That’s where a person starts to get a headache, or dizzy, or disoriented; sometimes even nauseous. It can be pretty miserable. Of course, people endure that possibility because the views at the tops of mountains are pretty phenomenal.

So my friends and I are hiking to a lake above 12,000 feet and my friend starts to get altitude sickness. Now, when this starts to happen, there are voices that start to talk to you in your head—like in the cartoons when you see a little red demon one shoulder and a little white angel on the other shoulder. The white angel whispers “Hey, it’s going to be alright. It’s just a little altitude. You’re gonna make it. You’re not going to die.” The little red demon, however, tries to get you to panic and give up. He says, “Oh my gosh! You’re going to die! Give up! You’re never going to make it!” and so on.

In this moment, my friend sits down on a rock and I can tell she is starting to listen to the discouraging voice. “This rock is fine. There’s a fine view here. You’re too sick, too tired. This is as good as it gets. This is your upper limit.”

I see this and I look at her and say with some seriousness: “My dear, get up. You’re going to make it.” (She would later tell me that she hated me in this moment). But we were only 200 feet from the top. And she was going to make it. She just had to trust—and pray. And believe.

Which is what we did. We started praying the Rosary during those last steps. My brother, an avid hiker in Colorado, once told me that he prays the Rosary when he is facing those hard inclines. Last time we hiked, he said, “Ant, the Rosary is always worth a solid 400 feet of elevation.” It’s true. So, there we are, on the side of the mountain, praying the Rosary. And my friend is thinking about Jesus and about Mary and she is receiving grace. One step at a time, we go beyond what she thought was possible.

And before we knew it, we made it to the top. As my friend saw the beautiful lake and the mountains surrounding it, she put her hands up to her face in astonishment: yes, this view is beautiful; so much better than that rock. And not only that—she began to weep with joy: she had made it. She didn’t think she could make it, but she made it. I got a little weepy, too. No one was ever going to take this away from her. And this memory would always be with her.

I thought about Peter: after he walked on water, no one was ever going to take that away from him. That memory would always be with him. And he would need that for the next time Jesus called him from beyond the comfortable boat of self-contentment—for the next time Jesus stretched him beyond what Peter thought was the upper limit of his capabilities.

Because that’s what’s going on here. I mean, when Peter is called from the boat, there must have been some trepidation: “Jesus, are you sure? I mean, you aren’t really serious, are you? No man has ever walked on water….” Yes, this is beyond Peter’s limits. And with that comes the fear of failure: “Lord, if I do this, I might fail. What then?”

This is where our Lord says to us, “Take courage! Be not afraid. It is I.”

And who is this? This is Jesus, whose name means “God saves.” Yes, when Peter fails, when Peter takes his gaze off of Jesus and Peter sinks, Jesus plunges His hands into the water and pulls Peter up. This is Jesus’ promise: “if you come out of the boat, even if you fail, I will pull you up. You must trust me.”

And yeah: we’re scared: we see the storm, the waves; we hear the wind—all of the things of the world that distract us and grab our attention away from Jesus—we know that our boat is tiny and the storm so big. And the mission to walk on water—it seems so impossible. Yes, it is beyond the upper limits of our abilities. But our Lord calls us anyway: “Take courage! Be not afraid! It is I.” He is going to give us grace to take us to places beyond our wildest imagination—beyond our upper limits.

From heaven, above the waters above us, He is going to plunge His hands into our existence. (You’ll notice the sky is blue; the Old Testament called it the waters above us). God is going to plunge His hand into our lives and pull us up out of “these waters” so that we may walk on “these waters”—that is, if we walk above these waters, we are in heaven.

You see, the red demon on our shoulder wants us to be content just sitting on that rock, thinking “this life—this life is as good as it gets.” And we do that with a lot of things. We look at that difficult relationship with our parents or siblings or co-workers and we say, “Well, that’s as good as it gets.” Or we think we have reached the upper limits of holiness or the upper limits of our ability to forgive—“that’s the best as I will get.” But no! Don’t listen to that voice. Listen to the “little whisper of God” from our first reading who tells us that He is going to raise us up to higher places.

He wants more for you. This is an even greater level of holiness that He will bring to you—a level, yes, that is beyond your natural capacity—but a level that is not beyond the power of His grace.

“Call me out of the boat!” Peter says. That’s our prayer. “Lord, call me out of my self-contentment. Call me out of my funk and my thoughts that this is as good as it gets. Call me out of my doubt and help me to believe. I want to walk on water, Lord! I want to reach those beautiful heights above these waters, Lord!”

When and where will God give this grace? The answer is found in the timing of the miracle. That is, note what happens before and after the walking on water. Before the miracle, Jesus fed the five-thousand with five loaves and two fish. After the miracle, Jesus taught the people that “the bread I will give you is my flesh for the life of the world.” In other words, in the storm, Jesus shows the apostles that the loaves and fishes are not enough to save them, but the Eucharist—the Eucharist is going to be that supernatural grace that will save them from drowning in the stormy waters of death. It is the Eucharist where the supernatural joins with the natural, the extraordinary with the ordinary, where our lives are lifted beyond what we think are the upper limits—and are indeed drawn upward by the divine hand into heaven.

Here, on this “mountain, the Lord of hosts” will provide for His people with the grace to save us and raise us up. Here, at this Holy Mass, Jesus calls us from the boats of fear and anxiety and self-contentment—He calls us to trust Him.

And when He stretches us and we do those things we never thought we could do, we will—like my friend on that mountain—weep tears of joy. And I’ll probably joyfully weep with you. Because it’s beautiful. And nobody will ever be able to take that from you.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Being Distracted - Homily for the 15th Sunday in OT (A)

There are so many things that vie for our attention. Advertising, the child crying “Mom,” the daily worries. At any given time, we can go from being focused to being distracted. An occasional distraction isn’t always bad (we have a nice sign advertising our parish picnic), but when we don’t keep distractions in check, then they can become a serious problem.

An example: have you ever seen a distracted carpenter hammer a nail? Probably not, because it would not end well. Or have you ever sat as a passenger in a car where the driver was distracted? That last one causes me anxiety because I want my driver to be attentive—else we could die. So, distractions, if they are left unchecked, can become a serious problem. Attention and mindfulness, therefore, are important.

Last week, Jesus talked to us about rest and giving Him our worries. This week, Jesus is honest about how we can lose that rest or even have it stolen if we are not careful. He gives many ways that we can lose that peacefulness and I’ve found that, connected to His explanation of the thorns, distraction can easily steal our peace.

So let me pose a question for you. It is not meant to condemn. It’s just a question to get you to think about the soil—that is, the state of your soul. Here’s the question: How long do you usually go before you forget about Jesus dwelling in you from the Eucharist at Holy Mass? Do you make it to the evening, but then forget about Him before bed? Will you remember Him this afternoon at the parish picnic? Will we make it through the parking lot after Mass today?

Some of you are saying: “Father, I’m not going to make it through Mass!” I know. I get distracted at Mass, too.

It's not a fun question. But again, no condemnation here. It's just a check of the soil. And I think all of us battle with distraction, of losing our attentiveness to God’s presence in our lives. I think this is The Battle going on in our modern culture, actually. I think if we remembered God dwelling in my soul and in the souls of others, there would be a lot more civility and a lot more peace. So, what are we to do?

Well, I think that all of us can say that we want more out of Mass and we want more out of life. Is this true? Do you want more out of life? 

There’s a scientific principle [Newton’s First Law] that says: an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by another force. So, imagine a huge freighter on the ocean. It’s chugging right along. And let’s say that the captain wants to turn the ship around because he realizes he’s going the wrong way. So the captain reverses gears, turns the rudder, and what happens? Does the ship make an immediate U-turn? No, it keeps ploughing ahead in the same direction for a while.

The same can be said with our souls. We may come to Holy Mass with every intention on turning things around, on giving God our full attention, but the reality is: if we have been spending the past 167 hours in the week distracted by everything else, then we are likely going to keep that course during this hour. There's a brutal truth here: if we live a distracted life, a life only partially attentive to God, then we will be tempted to have God Himself become a distraction. That's the reality of so many of our family and friends who aren't here, who are pre-occupied with the job or the me-project or whatever, and they are terribly tempted to think that what we do here is a distraction from the other really more important stuff in life.

This temptation makes its way into our lives too. There’s a spiritual principle at play here. And that is that distraction and agitation at Holy Mass is often Jesus waving a yellow, caution flag for you, alerting you to the fact that you have a distracted life. A peaceful person 167 hours of the week is not going to be bothered so much by the crying baby or the immodest dress in this one hour as the distracted, agitated person who wants to be peaceful now but has been distracted and agitated for the previous 167 hours. An object in motion stays in motion. And object at rest stays at rest.

What we are getting at, therefore, is the concept of integrity of life. Jesus doesn’t want to be a distraction; He wants to free you from distraction. When we are distracted by something here at Mass or on the parking lot or later today, we need to turn to Him and admit it: “Jesus, I was distracted by this. I lost sight of you.” Ok, you gave it to Him. Now we can re-focus and move on-- but now we are with Him. Whatever we are doing, we are now going to do it in the presence of God. And that's peace!

You see, Jesus doesn’t simply want to be a part of your life or a distraction to your life. He wants to be your life. A priest once told me, “Even the Mafia baptize their babies.” What he was getting at is: yeah, they get their child baptized, but then they have no other thought about God; they are distracted by that whatever else. Jesus is only a part of their life. And so there is no integrity. And no peace.

Jesus wants to be our life. And that starts by acknowledging the state of our soil, then acknowledging our distractions, and then re-focusing on Him. “Jesus, come into my soul once again,” we pray. “Jesus, I remember that you dwell in my soul. Please help me remember this.” "Jesus, help me to remain in your peace."

And I can guarantee you: if you remember this for even just a handful of hours in the coming week, you will get so much more out of next Sunday’s Holy Mass and from life in general. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Rest - Homily for the 14th Sunday in OT (A)

Reality: we all worry. Some of us wake up worrying. We worry about the bills and whether we’ll make ends meet. Parents and grandparents: you worry about your children, about their safety, about who they will grow up to be. We worry about our health. We worry about our eternal salvation. Shoot, I worry about that left turn onto highway 61. (Always: a good Act of Contrition there!). Yes, all of us at some point or another carry this weight, this burden of worry.

And so our Lord Jesus speaks to us and says, “Come to me” … “Come to me all who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.” Isn’t that wonderful?

I mean, Jesus is our rest. How many of us have gone on vacation and everything is great, but then we get home. And what happens? All our worries are waiting for us again. “Come to me,” says the Lord. “I will give you rest.” The vacation isn’t enough. We can go to so many things to help us stop worrying, but they don’t solve the problem—the weight is still there. “Come to me,” says the Lord. St. Augustine put it so well: "Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you."

You see, Jesus doesn’t want us to be worried (see Matthew 6). He wants to free us from these weights; He wants to carry them for us. I know some of you are farmers and probably know this better than I do, but I hear that when a farmer is training a beast of burden to use a yoke, the farmer will have a more seasoned animal carry the lion’s share of the weight. The yoke will be on the shoulders of that bigger brother. And the animal being trained won’t have to carry much at all. This is what Jesus is getting at when He says, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” Because He’s the bigger brother who will carry the burden. He wants to carry the burden—if only we will let Him.

And yeah, sometimes we wonder whether Jesus will be powerful enough, strong enough to do this. I wondered why we had a first reading that talked about the Messiah coming in on a donkey—what did this have to do with rest? Well, it's a humble image-- a scandalous image (isn't the Messiah supposed to be great and strong? Why is He on a weak donkey?) In much the same way, sometimes we are scandalized by the meekness and humility of Jesus—scandalized just as the Apostles were on Good Friday. Jesus fell three times—surely He is not strong enough for my cross. But, you see: that was your Cross! And each time, He got up. And He was successful: He conquered death. He can carry anything you give Him!

*          *          *

Every morning at 7 o’clock, you can find me there on the bench where our altar server is sitting. There, I have an honest conversation with the Lord. I place all of my worries at His feet, there at the crucifix—Jesus is present at this tabernacle. And do you know what happens? Within five minutes, I start to breathe easier. I breathe deeper and I think more clearly. He’s helping me—and I didn’t even realize that I had woken up that morning worrying. Things are going to be ok.

And I need to know that because, well, sometimes I worry about whether things are going to be ok. You know I’m a first-time pastor. And there are decisions to be made. And some people will be happy. And some will be angry. And if I try to make everyone happy, ain’t nobody gonna be happy. And, and Lord! What am I supposed to do? And He says, “Let me carry this. I will help you. I will give you wisdom.”

Pope John XXIII—the man who carried so much of the weight of the world on his shoulders—do you know what he would say before he would go to bed each night? He prayed and would say to Jesus, “Ok, Lord, its your Church. The Pope is going to bed.” Haha, yeah—because it’s God’s show. It’s His work; He provides the growth.

There are so many anxiety issues and sleep problems—and those are very real—but some are just because we cannot put the day to rest. All of us, at the end of the day, have to look up to the Lord and say, “Ok, Jesus, I gave it my best” or, even “Jesus, I’m sorry, that wasn’t my best today.” And we place that in the hands of Jesus and He says, “Ok, I know. I’m going to take care of you.” And we can rest. Finally rest!

This is the whole logic behind the Sabbath, right? I mean, God knows that we can easily go week after week working ourselves into the ground, a flurry of activity. But God tells us "hey, we need to put an end to this past week. It’s over." The Sabbath is the punctuation mark that signals the end of the week and a new beginning. So many people are burned out because they think they have to do it all themselves and the weeks just blur together. So, ok, put your past week with all of its successes and disappointments, all of its worries—put it right here at this altar. Let Jesus take care of this past week. And as we pray at the Offertory, ask Him for the strength for this upcoming week. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest!”

*          *          *

That’s a good place to end our homily today. But can you indulge me for one more minute. There is something pressing on my heart that I must tell you. I feel that there is someone here who is carrying a weight greater that worry. There is a sin in your heart that you have been carrying for ten, twenty, maybe even thirty years. I know you have been carrying the weight of shame and you maybe have been too embarrassed to confess it in the past. I want you to know that Our Lord is saying this to you especially, “Come to me... and I will give you rest.”

Truly, there is no greater experience in the world than that moment of relief when Jesus frees you of that sin—that it’s over, that you can stop carrying it now. If you have been carrying that sin, I want you to come to confession. Let me free you of this weight. One of the greatest joys of my priesthood is that moment when the heart is finally free. When someone comes to me and says “Father, it’s been twenty years since my last confession…” Do you know my reaction? Behind that screen I am jumping for joy like the Father of the Prodigal Son. My son was lost and is now found! I am saying to myself, “What courage this person has!” And what a great honor it is for me to be an instrument of this grace of God. So, come to Him. Hear Jesus: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest!”