Sunday, October 22, 2017

Whose Image Is This? - Homily for the 29th Sunday in OT

"Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

When I hear those words, I hear a moral exhortation: I am supposed to pay my taxes and, also, I am to tithe to God. I am to give to each what is just and due to them.

And that would be a fine homily, I think.

But I'm fascinated by how we got here in the first place. And my fascination isn't about the Pharisees setting traps for Jesus (although their brazenness is amazing). I'm fascinated by the question Jesus asks them.

He says to them: "Whose image is this?"

Now, Jesus knew the answer. He knows it's Caesar. So why is Jesus playing innocent?

Because Jesus is going to do something brilliant with this question. He is going to tie the image to the owner. So, in the case of the coin, Jesus asks: "Whose image is this?" They reply: "Caesar's." And Jesus says, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar."

Since the image of Caesar is on the coin, the coin belongs to Caesar.

Here's why this is brilliant-- and it comes with the second part: "Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God."

The natural question is: "Well, what belongs to God?"

The answer is found in the question: "Whose image is this?" Or, another way of putting it: Is there anything with the image of God on it?

You know the answer. The thing that has the image of God on it is you.

If the coin with Caesar's image belongs to Caesar, then the person with God's image belongs to God. So this isn't simply about money-- that doesn't have God's image. It's about you. You have God's image.

***

So what does Jesus say? "Repay... to God what belongs to God." Notice: Jesus didn't say "Give to God...." He said, "Repay..."

There's a difference.

Giving is like charity-- something we do out of the goodness of our heart. I don't have to do it. But, I'm a nice guy, so ok, I'll give it to you.

But to repay. ... Repay implies that we owe. That we have borrowed. That we are in debt.

And that's the point.

You see, when Jesus holds up the coin and asks "Whose image is this," He is really holding up the Pharisees and asking about them: whose image is this, in whose image my dear Pharisees are you asking such questions?

And, by extension, to whom do you belong? Do you belong to me or do you belong to the world? And if you belong to me, do you not know the price I paid to purchase you?
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet 1:19)

It's hitting your heart, isn't it?-- because you know those questions aren't just about the Pharisees. They're about us. Whose image is this? To whom do you belong?

***

My grandfather had a penny collection and some of those pennies went back to the civil war. Those really old pennies were faded; the image was nearly worn off or covered in years of dirt and wear. I would hold up the coin and squint my eyes and I would ask: Whose image is this?

Let us be honest: such may be the case of our souls. Maybe we don't know whose image is in us. Or maybe we know, but it's been too caked over by sin and wear.

God forbid our Lord ever hold you up and wonder about whose you are!

So let's come to Him in confession. There, Jesus will clean us up and restore that faded image of God's glory-- like a shiny new penny. There will be no doubt about whose image we bear and about whose we are.

Let us turn to Him now in prayer and contrition; with our lives let us "Repay to God what belongs to God."

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



Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Fantastical and The Bored - Extended Homily Notes for the 28th Sunday in OT (A)

[In full disclosure, I have once again borrowed heavily from Peter Kreeft's lecture on Imagination.]


Children really have an amazing imagination. A few weeks ago, I saw some of the kiddos circling up once again by one of the trees at recess. I went over and asked them what they were doing. "We're building a hospital for the bugs. We're going to save them." It was really cute.

Typically, when we think of the imagination, we think of that God-given intellectual faculty which helps us to make-believe; to create fantasy. 

But what is really cool is when our imagination gives rise to reality. Take, for example, the person who imagines making something that was heavy into something light-- so light that it will "fly like a bird." This would typically be the stuff of fantasy, but then the man wields the technology to make it happen and the Wright Brothers fly an airplane.

So, the imagination has to do not only with make-believe, but also with the very real.

***

I mention the imagination because Jesus uses images-- that is, His parables-- in order to explain to us deep realities. So, today, Jesus talks about heaven and He uses the image of the wedding feast.

From the outset, we must admit that this doesn't seem like too exciting an image. And, after all, it often happens that our image of heaven is boring: I often hear how we will be like angels in the clouds with harps and the light of God will be on us and so on. But, really, I'm bored by that; after an hour of playing the harp on my own personal cloud, I would wonder if there is anything else to do with eternity. (Billy Joel encapsulated this boredom with heaven when he said that he would "rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints-- the sinners are much more fun.")

So, what are we to do with Jesus' image of heaven as a wedding feast? Well, let's explore it.

***

When we are at a wedding reception, we eat and drink. That's the first thing about heaven: we're going to be able to eat and drink. Admittedly, not all that exciting. But it does reveal to us that there's some connection with some of the things that we did here on earth. Heaven isn't going to be totally foreign and simply harps on clouds. We will actually eat and drink and it's going to be enjoyable.

But let's go deeper. At a wedding reception, we dance. For those who are older or with arthritis, maybe it has been a while. This tells us that in heaven, our ailments will be healed. We will be able to run and jump and dance again. There will be no more suffering or cancer or arthritis!

What else do we do at wedding receptions? We meet and greet with others. We talk with people. In heaven, this means that we will recognize people: we will see our families and friends and even our lost children. We will know them and get to talk with them-- some of them for the very first time! And the saints--! You're going to be able to talk with St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Theodore-- all of those saints that we have read about, we're going to be able to hang out with them. I can't wait to meet my namesake: St. Anthony and St. Joseph-- and to talk with them too.

By the way: this means, too, that you are going to actually hear their voice. 

(Spoiler alert: you are actually going to be able to hear the voice of Mary. Think about that for a moment.)

You're going to know her embrace. And the voice of Jesus too-- like Aslan the Lion: deep, powerful, yet perfectly pleasing in every way. You're going to see Him, His beautiful face and you're going to hear Him speak His words that until that time you have only heard in your heart and seen on the Sacred Page.

And this isn't just going to be in some stuffy reception hall or baseball stadium. This is going to be in the "new heaven and the new earth"-- which means that there will be some connection to the current earth. This likely means that there will be new mountains and new beaches and new fields in heaven-- so beautiful, so ready for discovery! There will be more of them and more glorious than we have ever known here on this earth. There will be animals and more of them and our relation with them will be like St. Francis: you will be able to cuddle with a lion and speak with the birds.

Everything will be in right relationship. There will be no grudges; all will be friends. You will see how your prayers were answered and the effects they had on the world. You will see how when it seemed that your prayers were left unanswered, how God really did do something great with them. You will see how other people-- even perfect strangers-- sacrificed for you, even when they didn't know they would be helping you. We will all rejoice at this.

Some think that, when all is in its proper order, even the laws of physics (and therefore gravity) will be subject to you-- which means that you could fly. And another philosopher (Peter Kreeft) has suggested that your good creations here on earth-- like JRR Tolkien's hobbits and elves and Middle Earth-- will no longer be merely fantasy, but will be really real: yes, there may actually be a Frodo, a Sam, a Gimli, and a Gandalf awaiting us in heaven.

Isn't that wonderful?

Friends, heaven will be wilder and more beautiful than our wildest and most beautiful dreams. It will be more than enough to last us eternity.

***

Atheists, for their part, believe this is all too fantastical to be true. But, here's the thing: I dare say that such atheists are closer to believing than are The Bored.

When I hear an atheist saying that this is too fantastical to be true-- you see, he has actually grasped the depth of heaven. (This is one of the things that imagination does, remember? It helps us to grasp deep meanings). The Bored, for their part, haven't grasped the meaning of heaven. They are farther from it than that atheist.

The same can be said about Holy Mass. The Bored haven't grasped the depth of what goes on here, partly because what goes on here requires the engagement of one's imagination: to think that we are actually at the Last Supper, that we are standing at the Cross on that first Good Friday, that Jesus Himself is actually present in the little host.... 

***

But there are other reasons for this than simply non-engagement. We could talk about music and preaching and the loss of sacred art and so on. But I want to present to you another major reason, one that isn't based in religion at all.

Over the past couple of years, there have been multiple scientific studies that are showing that our imagination is being destroyed-- particularly in the young. Again, this is not a religious claim-- I am simply relaying what many mainstream scientific schools and journals are pointing out.

They are pointing out that we possess in us an active and a passive imagination. The passive imagination receives images; the active imagination produces images. 

Children typically have a strong active imagination: they gather around trees and build hospitals for insects. That's the active imagination.

But scientists have noted that the more a child uses iPads, computers, TVs, and iPhones, the more the child loses that ability to actively imagine and, subsequently, to be creative.

The reason for this is that all of those iPads, computers, and so on-- those things are the ones that produce the images for the child. The images are given; the child does not have to do the "work" to create them. As a result, the child's passive imagination grows strong (that is, it's dependence on receiving images), but it's active imagination becomes disabled.

We are seeing this play out in they way our youth converse. (And what I am about to say has been confirmed to me by a speech pathologist and special ed teachers that I have presented this to in another class). 

So, for example, in the teenage years, it used to be simple awkwardness, lack of experience, or plain ol' shyness that made conversation difficult. Today, however, the task is doubly difficult because they have gone years where they have never exercised their active imagination. I say it is "doubly difficult" because one of the key components to having a good conversation is creativity: that is, we have to imagine what that other person does, what goes on at their work, and so on-- only then can we come up with questions that will carry the conversation further.

Without an active imagination, questions are not asked and conversations fail. This is one of the reasons why teens are constantly on their phones-- even in social situations. When you see them at a table with their phone, not talking, don't simply shake your head. See that intellectually they are on crutches.

***

This provides us insight into why secularism is so rampant and why they are so bored at Mass.

This makes sense: if a person lacks the active imagination to understand the depth of life's meaning, how heaven and hell depend on it-- and, more, if they can't imagine heaven as we have or hell and its eternity-- they, yeah, it's easy to see how it's just another step to dismiss the importance of God. That's secularism in a nutshell.

Likewise, when a person has only received years of training in the passive imagination, they will expect that Mass is a place only to receive, to consume, and to be entertained. And when it doesn't, they are bored. To challenge them to actively participate by doing the "work" of reflection and prayer and imagining is very, very difficult for them. As a result, they literally do not know what to do at Mass.

It is worth noting that, since the release of the iPhone, among the youth there has been a 50% increase of those who report depression, loneliness, feelings of being lost, and suicide. And at the same time, the majority of our youth do not believe that they can have a personal relationship with God.

***

What are we to do? Well, first, let's start with this present moment: let's take a moment to strengthen our imagination for this Mass.

St. Padre Pio once said that if you want to get more out of Mass, imagine being at the foot of the Cross with Mary. Imagine Jesus, imagine the blood.... But then imagine Mary's reaction. What would she be doing? Is she on her knees? Is she praying? Is she weeping? Can you imagine what she may say to you? This is Mary's Son. What do you hear? What do you see? What do you smell? Reflect on this and I can guarantee you will get more out of Mass.

Another image: Jesus called heaven the "wedding feast." What do we celebrate at wedding feasts? We celebrate that the bride and groom are now one. Ok, so at the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and said "This is my Body." At Mass, the priest gives you communion and says "The Body of Christ." You then take Jesus' body and ... then Jesus' body is now mingling with your body. "And the two become one flesh." That's what we say at weddings! But I tell you it's "a great mystery, I speak of Christ and the Church." This Eucharist is the foretaste of the wedding feast. Which means it is the foretaste of heaven. That's why we say, "with all the angels and saints we acclaim, Holy..." The are angels here. And saints.

For his part, the priest also must engage his imagination. It's one of the reasons why he wears this rope, called a cincture. It goes back to the Old Testament priesthood. In those days, the priest would wear a long rope that was several feet long. He wore this rope as he entered the holiest part of the temple, a room that no one except the priest could enter. There, he would find the Ark of the Covenant and an angel would stand guard over it. If the priest were not holy as he offered sacrifice-- do you know what the angel would do? The angel would strike him dead! Hence the rope: since the people could not go in to retrieve him, they would pull on the rope. For us New Testament priests, this is to be a reminder for us: do you not know where you are? do you not know how holy you are to be?

***

Ok, let's wrap this up with some practical suggestions.

First, when we are coming to Mass or coming down the aisle at communion time, perhaps we should have a couple "helps" to activate and strengthen our imagination: maybe a holy card, or a saint's brief words on what happens at Mass. Have something to remind you and engage your imagination to grasp the actual depth of these real and great mysteries.

Second, I think we need to really consider scaling back our use of the phones and computers-- and especially among our youth. I cannot tell you how many kids I know that are addicted to their phones-- seriously, compulsively addicted. This is the New Drug and we need a new war on drugs. And not just for those under 12, but also for us adults. We know our minds have become a little mushy these past years. We once did without all of these gadgets. We once knew a better life.

Third, we need to start being creative: paint again (why does it just have to be for kindergartners?). Learn music, play an instrument again. I had a discussion with a college student, great pianist, who said had didn't have time for it anymore. "No!" I said, now's exactly the time that you must continue playing, else you will lose that creativity in you!

Fourth and finally: we need to start reading again. I'm in the middle of The Brothers Karamazov. Won't lie, it's tough. But you don't need to read 900 pages. Just read stories again. I mean, have you ever noticed how so many of our stories are a re-telling of the Gospel? "Beauty and the Beast"-- the sinful, cold-hearted Beast is converted by love and is transformed into a better man; Rapunzel in Tangled is enslaved to evil, escapes, discovers she is a daughter of a king and has a loving family in the kingdom; Pinocchio-- he becomes a real boy. Aren't these all the essence of the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ?

***

Our Lord once said, "Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." Part of that is the ability to imagine and create. If we cannot, then we will not aspire to the glory of heaven nor possess the hope to endure life's trials. We should, therefore, be very concerned not only when we lose this, but all the more especially when children themselves lose the ability to create-- it bespeaks a great attack on our very joy and heaven.

Let us pray that Jesus renews and strengthens our intellect at this Mass. That we may be healed of any images that we may have seen that have hurt our souls and have kept us from Him. Let us pray that we may have the strength to push back against our culture and to take the steps necessary to reclaim the depths of our faith, our imagination, and our God.

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


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Instruments of His Peace - Homily for the 27th Sunday in OT

On Wednesday of this past week, we celebrated the memorial of St. Francis of Assisi. Most children love him because of his love for animals. But my love for him is found in something he said-- he said, "We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way."

That's lovely, isn't it?

Throughout this week, that word "healing" has been on my heart. The last time I had this on my heart, I preached about marriage and divorce. And as I started that homily, people thought I was going to preach about how divorce is bad and so on. But, instead, I simply acknowledged that there have been many people who have been hurt. Whoever's fault-- it hurt. And the point was to let everyone know that Jesus is here for them. And He doesn't condemn them; no, He still loves them and His mercy-- His mercy is going to see us through. And so I invited any divorced person who felt like they didn't belong to come and see me because Jesus' healing is for you.

That week, a woman in her 20s took me up on that offer. She was divorced. She had been through hell. She had left and she wondered whether God still loved her. She had pretty much given up. But we talked. And we cried. There was a remedy for her and there was great healing. It was beautiful.

So, I just want to say: if you are divorced and feel lost or that you don't have a place here, come to me and we can talk about it. Jesus is here to bring you healing.

***

Now, this healing, I know, is not only for the divorced.

My thoughts turned to the events in Las Vegas. We need healing here, too. Because we're scandalized at how a person could have done this. For the past week, we have heard and seen the stories, often grotesque, and they hurt us. We lose faith in humanity and sometimes we lose faith in God.

The words of our second reading immediately came to my mind:
Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. ... Then the God of peace will be with you.
It is easy to focus on what is bad in the world, but we need to think about what is true and honorable and pure and lovely-- not because it puts our heads in the sand. No, it's because these things heal us.

Truth heals us. Thinking of what is honorable heals us. They are instruments of God's peace.

So, here's the truth: "where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more." That's the truth. And what that means is, as horrible as those events were last week, there was more grace than there was evil. Indeed, there was one or two men doing horrible things, but there were tens if not hundreds of people who were doing honorable things: people covering others and in effect sacrificing themselves for their friends. Nurses, doctors, officers, numerous Good Samaritans -- yes, dear friends, there were more saints made that day than there were devils.

Think about these things. Then the God of peace will be with you. He will heal us.

***

I think this is so important, because as we are healed, we can then turn and do what St. Francis said: that "We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way." We become instruments of His peace.

And so I think of one more person. And I think this is the reason why the word "healing" has been on my heart this week. It's those who have been hurt by abortion.

Immediately, we may think of the woman. But I think of both parents. Both are affected. And maybe you felt trapped or were pressured or didn't know or were afraid. Jesus is here to bring you healing. Here's the thing: when Jesus was in the Garden at Gethsemane, He saw all of our sins. All of them. He saw all of them and He loved us anyway.

That's the truth. And do you know what is pure and gracious? That if we believe Him and receive His mercy, we will be reunited with our children. And they will forgive us too, because there are no grudges in heaven. Isn't that lovely?

***

Now, I know, as soon as the topic of abortion comes up, there are some who make arguments against the Church, about how we can't legislate morality, or about how our teaching burdens humanity with children born into poverty and is unfeeling to victims, as of rape, for example.

And I thought about addressing each one of these in one homily and perhaps some day in the near future I will. But, for now, I simply wish to offer the words of someone wiser and more loving than me: Mother Theresa. She who knew about healing and burdens and poverty, she who was deep in the trenches of it all. Here's what she says:
"I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child... And if we accept that a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? ... As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even His life to love us. So, the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also [learn]" ... [But in abortion], the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all. ... Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion."
In short: Abortion is not pure. It is not lovely. And this is the truth.

Think about these things and the God of peace will be with you.

***

"We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way."

Therefore, whenever we speak of any of these issues-- divorce, current events, abortion-- let us "have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, ... make your requests known to God." Let us ask for His healing and then, in those words of St. Francis, become "instruments of His peace."

May this Sacrament of Charity so strengthen us. And may His peace be with us.

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


Monday, October 2, 2017

To Say and to Do - Homily for the 26th Sunday in OT (A)

We just heard the parable of the two sons. What does it mean? The key is to see that the Father is God and the two sons represent all of humanity. For His immediate purpose, Jesus specifically connects the two sons to two particular groups of humanity: those who change their ways and those who don't. On the one side you have the prostitutes and tax-collectors; on the other side, you have the Pharisees.

So, the first son, when he was called to do the Father's will in the vineyard-- that is, in the world-- the son refused, but then he changed his mind and did his father's will. This is the group of prostitutes and tax-collectors who, like the first son, were not doing the Father's will. They were sinning. But then they heard the preaching of John the Baptist. (You remember what he said, right? "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" and "One is coming who is greater than I.") At this, the tax-collectors and prostitutes, like that first son, changed their ways and actually started to do the Father's will.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, like the second son, say that they will do the father's will, but do not. They say they love the laws and that they love God, but they do not. Jesus points it out to them that they heard the same words of John the Baptist as the prostitutes did; they have seen the miraculous conversion of sinners; He even points out that these prostitutes are going to heaven before they are ... And still they will not change?

***

All of us are in need of conversion. One of the major conversions is to realize when our actions don't match up with what we say. That's what Jesus is dinging the Pharisees for: what they are doing isn't matching what they are saying.

For example, I know that I say that I trust God. It's a very easy phrase to say: "I trust God." But to do it? To actually trust?-- well, that's much harder. I take my office as parochial administrator quite seriously and I worry about finances and I worry about how what I say up here will affect who is in the pews and who leaves and so on-- I worry about these things. And I start to think that it's all up to me; that I have to do everything and that the success of this parish is entirely up to me.

But Jesus is over there. And He convicted me this past week. He said, "Anthony, you're not trusting me." "Oh, yes I am, Jesus." "No, you're not."

(And it's never good to be arguing against Jesus.)

And so I thought. ... And, as usual, He was right. I was saying that I trusted Him, but my doing-- my actions-- were not reflecting that. There was a disconnect between my words and my actions. I needed to place my worries at His feet; to actually trust Him with my preaching and my financial accounting and my schedule and, well, everything. Like that son in the parable.

***

I think this should be our point of prayer for the next week. Sometime this week, sit with Jesus and ask Him: "Jesus, are there any places in my life where I say something, but do another?" We all have oversights and blindspots. We say we love Jesus or we say we love our spouse or our parents, but maybe our actions don't match that. So, we kneel before Jesus and ask Him: "Jesus, please enlighten me. Help me to see." And He will.

And I know that there are some who are here in the pews who may be thinking: "Well, that's nice, Father Gerber, but it's already too late for me. I'm never going to be able to do this." It is worth noting that, after the Resurrection, in addition to the tax-collectors and prostitutes, many of the Pharisees converted and began to follow the Apostles. So, it doesn't matter how late in the game it was when they turned back to Jesus. The point is that they turned around. Today's a new day. We say that we trust God. So let us trust Him with this. He is God, after all.

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

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.

* * *

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).

*          *          *

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!