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!”

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Communal Life (Part II) - Homily for Corpus Christi and Father's Day (A)

A very blessed Father’s day to all of you dads out there. Thank you for your sacrifices and inspiration that you give to your family and to all of us. Be assured of my prayers for you in a particular way at today’s Mass. We also pray for our dads who have passed on from this life. May they be received by our heavenly Father into the joy of His kingdom. For those who did not know their dad or had a tumultuous relationship, may our Lord bring healing to all hearts. And, finally, to those dads who feel as they haven’t been good dads, may our Lord show you His graces in your life and give you a renewed strength in the life to which He has called you.

*          *          *

In addition to Father’s Day, today is Corpus Christi, a great solemnity in the universal Church and it is about this which I will speak today—and I’ll circle back around to Father’s Day.

This great celebration of Corpus Christi is a celebration of the Holy Eucharist: Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity given to us here at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. After three years with me, you have heard this message several times.

There is a teaching of the Church, however, that is often misunderstood and which, I think, we should spend some time exploring today—and that is the teaching about how some people cannot receive the Eucharist. It seems like it is a harsh and exclusive teaching, so let’s explore that. In order to do that, let’s look at an equally harsh-looking and exclusive-seeming scripture passage.

It’s the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (see Mt 15:21-28). The woman, who is not Jewish, has a daughter who is in need of healing. The woman comes to Jesus and begs Him to heal her. Jesus responds by saying “It is not good to take the bread of the children and feed it to the dogs.”

Ok, at face value, it seems like Jesus is being very harsh, cruel even. But I also know that Jesus is God and God is love. So, I’m conflicted: what is going on here?

I prayed hard about this and here is the light I received: the emphasis is not firstly on the dogs, but on the bread of the children. Our first reaction is to say, “Hey, Jesus, you called her a dog.” But, the first emphasis is on the bread of the children: when Jesus says this is “the bread of the children,” He is saying that this is bread that He’s worked for, bread that is for His family, bread that has value and for a family who is valuable to Him. In other words, the emphasis is on the value of the bread—it is not common bread; it is valuable.

Therefore, He says the dogs part. And by that, He means: “I don’t just give this bread to anyone, even less do I just throw it away—like to dogs. Because dogs consume without thinking. They don’t know the value of this bread. I want someone who will think and love me in return; someone who will become part of my family.” In other words, when Jesus says the dogs part, He is giving the woman a chance to respond to a very important question, namely: “Do you understand the value of this bread? Do you wish to become part of my family?” After all, she is not Jewish.

Thus, Jesus’ words are not harsh, but a loving teaching—a teaching about the value of the bread and an invitation to enter into a deeper communion with Him and His family.

Hence, when she cries out with understanding—that is, when she says “Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table” (yes, Lord, I understand that this is very valuable bread; I understand that I am not part of your family, but I long to be part of it)—when she responds with understanding and love, Jesus heals her daughter.

*          *          *

The Catholic Church follows the lead of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, when she too teaches her children the value of the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is not just the “bread of the children,” but the “bread of angels.” Heavenly bread greater than that miraculous manna bread. It is bread given on the night before Jesus dies, bread (as we hear in John’s Gospel) without which we have no eternal life. Truly, if this bread is from heaven and is connected to eternal life, this is no ordinary bread! Indeed, Jesus says it is His flesh for the life of the world.

Even the crumbs, as the Syrophoenian woman acknowledges, have great value. You will notice, therefore, that Catholic Churches have linens on the altar which are folded at the end of Holy Communion—these linens, called corporals, are to catch those crumbs. You’ll notice, too, that the priests and holy deacons take all of the chalices to the back credence table after Holy Communion and pour water in them and then consume that water. We don’t simply pour the water down the drain—even less do we pour the Blood of Christ down the drain. No, every drop is consumed, because it is Jesus! We have sacred vessels of gold to alert us that this is not an ordinary meal. We even have a special sink in the back of church called a Sacrarium that is used when we wash the chalices and ciboria. And the leftovers—we place all of the hosts (which are Jesus)—we place Him in the tabernacle. “This is my Body, given up for you” Jesus said as He held the bread at the Last Supper. No ordinary meal, no ordinary bread.

If it was ordinary bread, we wouldn’t care. We would do like many of our Protestant brothers and sisters—good people, very good people—we would do like they would do: we wouldn’t always have communion every Sunday. We would focus on the music and the preaching—both of which are very important, but a mere moon in comparison to the sun of glory which is the Eucharist. If this was ordinary bread, we would just gather the leftovers and put them back into plastic bags and store them in some drawer somewhere as non-denominational churches do. We wouldn’t have priests and lay faithful dying to protect the Eucharist from desecration. We wouldn’t have any care about who receives and in what manner they receive and so on. Yes, we could do whatever we wanted. 

*          *          *

But Jesus says, it is not good to take this bread of the children and to “feed it to the dogs.” In other words, “I don’t want you to consume without thought or without love. I love you. Do you love me? Do you hunger for me?”

Hence, the Church, for all of her 2,000+ year history now, has reminded us that if we receive without thinking or without desire, we profit little. We find this in Sacred Scripture, too, when Paul admonished the Corinthians in his first letter to them (chapter 11). So, we must spiritually hunger for this.

We must also desire to be in Jesus’ family—for it is the bread of the children. Jesus is saying to us: “I want you to be in communion with me, with my children, with my family.”

Following the Good Shepherd, the Church reminds us that two basic requirements for communion in the family of God are that we are not in a state of mortal sin and that we haven’t left His Body, the Church (cf. 1 Cor 11). Those who are in a state of mortal sin or those who have protested against her by being part of a denomination that protested against her, are not in communion with this family, the Church. If we are not one in this Body, we cannot receive The Body.

So, when the Church says that some people cannot receive, she is not doing so to be exclusive, but to do what Jesus did: 1) to alert us to the tremendous (indeed, divine) value of this unordinary bread and 2) to invite us into a deeper communion with His family, the one Body, the fullness of which is the Catholic Church (precisely because she has the Eucharist).

The Church, therefore, is not a social club, nor is the Eucharist the token of acceptance. No, the Eucharist is Jesus and the Church exists precisely to bring this uncommon bread to the world.

Those in mortal sin, therefore, need to come to their senses as the Prodigal Son did and return to the Father’s house—the confessional—and so be brought back into communion with the family. Our world is trying to convince us that we aren’t hungry for God. But, yeah, when kids eat junk food before dinner, kids feel that they don’t need dinner. A comfortable world doesn’t think it needs God. Intentionally skipping Mass (not for illness, but while on vacay) is mortal because we’re saying that we don’t hunger for God and that the world is enough. And that hurts. We need to repent. And our Father who loves us takes us back in an instant! He threw an uncommon feast for the Son!

On the other side of the coin, if a Protestant recognizes the value of this uncommon bread, the Eucharist, to them we say: Welcome Home! Come, enter into this family. Become Catholic. We have been praying for you and we cannot wait to be one with you at this great celebration!

*          *          *

Let me conclude, then, by returning to fathers on this Father’s Day. One of the principle duties of fathers is to show and teach their children by word and action the true value of things. I hope that, as a priest, I have done this for you in the way that I offer the Holy Mass and in the way that I live during the other days of the week. But, as good as I hope my example is, it is not enough.

St. Therese of Lisieux once commented that “I learned more about the Eucharist from my dad than I did from the priest.” She wasn’t talking bad about the priest—she was talking about how important her dad, her hero was to her faith. Her dad, St. Louis Martin, revealed the true value of the Eucharist to his daughter, Therese, by the way he kneeled, by the way he dressed for Mass, by the way He talked about the Mass, by the way he prayed and then lived the other days after Mass. He was a man of piety—that is, someone who loved and revered holy things—and a man of devotion.

Our Church as a whole needs to reclaim that word, “Devotion.” It means not simply to attend to or to occasionally think or love, but to be devoted—to be consumed by this, to be committed, thinking and loving God and neighbor day in and day out. It’s what separates us from the dogs.

We must not be afraid, therefore, to speak about these hard teachings or to kneel as we receive and so on. It helps us. And it helps the world and our children to see that Someone important is here. And that I need Him. We all need Him. We hunger for Him.

And, really, that’s all our heavenly Father asks of us—just like any father asks of his child—that we be devoted and love him. After all, our heavenly Father loves us. Loves us so much that He gives us His everything, day in and day out; He gives us our daily bread; He gives us Jesus, His very life. Like any father, all he wants are those simple words: “Thank you, dad. I love you.”

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Communal Life - Homily for Holy Trinity Sunday (A)

When we were in grade school, we probably heard the phrase: “God is love.” For those of us who have heard this throughout our lives, it may be easy to gloss over—but for someone who wonders about the goodness of God, this is quite the statement. “God is love”—He is good, goodness straight through.

But let us peel this back a little. When we say that God is love, we mean more than just God loves you. We are also talking about who God is. Love, by definition, is relational; it requires at least two persons (else it is not truly the self-sacrificial love that Jesus reveals love to be on the Cross). So, already, we know something about God: there must be at least two Persons. And this is true: there is the Father and the Son. And they love each other. The Son, for example, when He is dying on the Cross, dies not only for love of us, but also for love of His Father. And the Father, who is the inspiration for the father in the Prodigal Son story, receives His Son, Jesus, with great love.

And, together, their love is so perfect, so good, so eternal, and so divine that their love is God and a third person: the Holy Spirit. Together, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God: three persons, and yet one—the Holy Trinity. In common language, we would say that God is, in His very essence, family; community. And not “He is like a family”—no, God is the inspiration and the source for every family. We are the image—He is the source.

Everything about our faith redounds to this, that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son. And for what purpose? So that we may be in communion with Him. Yes, not only can we say that “God is love” and that “God loves me,” but also that God wants to be in communion with us—He wants us to be brought into one with Him. This is what Jesus prays on the night before He dies: “Father… may they all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us…” (Jn 17:21) Or, easlier, when Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, He said: “In that day [that is, Pentecost] you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14:20). That’s pretty awesome. Indeed, we are made for this.

*          *          *

When God created us, going all the way back to Genesis, He said: “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26). Notice the pronouns there. They are plural. (A nod to the Trinity). But notice, too, how we are made: we are made in the image of God. And who is God again? Love—a communion of persons whose life is love. In other words, at the heart of every one of us is the image of the Trinity—indeed, we are made for love and community. Hence, God immediately thereafter says: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18).

This isn’t just a statement about how a man needs a women else the man will starve (haha!). It’s not simply a statement about marriage. No, it’s a statement about who we are: that is, it is not good for us to be isolated; we are made for communion and when we isolate ourselves, it is not good. And why is it not good? Because our hearts are most alive and are truly discovering the goodness of God when we love and experience love. Selfishness breeds a sadness in our heart—an isolation that doesn’t allow itself to be loved or believe that it can be loved.

In our world, the enemy is working overtime to isolate and divide us. There is the stereotypical scene at the restaurant as the people in the booth aren’t talking to each other, but texting on their phones. Choosing to be on our phones is a choice to be alone. In some ways, it’s easier. We don’t have to be creative and come up with conversation or use our imagination to discover the person next to us. Yes, it’s so easy to just be alone.

Our social structures are not helping much, either. So many of us live in subdivisions and the houses are close by and it gives the illusion that we live in a community. But, honestly, so many people do not actually know their neighbors. Have you had them over for dinner? Or they you? I give communion to the sick and I can tell you they are all throughout our subdivisions and yet very few people know that the sick and elderly are there and that they are suffering. Alone.

And we don’t mean to be—it’s just that, either from our youthful days or in college, we got caught up in the me-project: “I’ve got a paper to write… I have to study for my test…” And then it is about me getting into a good school; and then me getting a good job; and then me getting a good place to live—I don’t have time to get married. People are actually saying this. I don’t have time for a family. And that’s true when life is isolated in the confines of self. Phone calls to parents—much less letter-writing-- is all but dead.

These trends translate into religion as well. It’s all about “me and Jesus” or “I am spiritual but not religious.” Neither of these statements embraces community (community which is a hallmark of religion); it simply embraces the self. And that’s a shame, because I know of so many young couples that are overwhelmed by having a kid or two and they feel as though they are going it alone and re-inventing the wheel, when in reality all they need to do is seek the wisdom of some of the couples here in this community. But few do that. And for whatever reason. Sometimes, people don’t want to inconvenience others. Maybe it’s easier to go it alone…

And let’s be frank: the enemy tries to drive a wedge in communities. Must I mention politics? Yes, politics are important. But I had a funeral some time ago where the parent had died and a couple of the kids were alienated from their parent because of their differing ideas in the political realm. Thankfully, just days before the parent passed, they reconciled. But the kids expressed deep regret—regret that something so passing and oftentimes so juvenile as politics got in the way of one of the most meaningful of relationships: that of a parent and a child. Yes, dear friends, we often get divided by who’s on the left and who’s on the right and we forget that there is an up and a down—up is where there is communion and heaven and the saints and love; down is isolation and regret and hell.

You see: community is really hard. It takes work. And the fact of the matter is: people can be annoying. Priests can be annoying. I can be annoying. It takes practice and messing up and struggle and love to bite one’s own tongue and to listen and to not react, but to love. This is why we need community, else we live in echo chambers where, if our positions are threatened in any way, we don’t have the patience to be charitable and courteous. And to grow.

*          *          *

God is love. And it is not enough to simply note and fight against the isolating trends in our culture. We must also teach how to care for our community. This requires teaching our children not only about rights but also responsibilities.

I hear of so many people who talk about how their grown child lives in their basement, focuses on the electronics, and is a bear to get them to make a contribution to the family and the home. Something must be done to help curb this epidemic. I offer this humble solution—which is not mine, but which I have gleaned from my conversations with all of you. Here’s how it goes:

Say you have a little son, Johnny, and he’s eight. At eight, he adores his dad and loves whatever he loves.

Ok, so, “Johnny, do you see mom there making dinner?”     
            “Yeah, dad.”
“Mom’s great isn’t she?”       
            “Yeah dad!”
“You love her, right?”
             “Of course, dad.”
“Ok, if you love her, then go help her. Because if you love, you help.”

And suddenly little Johnny is connecting the dots: that if we love, we must respond. We cannot sit idly by and let mom do everything. Love requires a response. Great lesson. And eight year olds understand this.

Later, when Johnny is twelve, a new conversation is had:

            “Johnny, you’re becoming a young man, so I’m sure you’ve noticed something.”
                        “What’s that, dad?”
“Well, every week, mom and me do the same things over and over: take out the trash, fold the laundry, set the table, and so on. You’ve notice that, right?”
                        “Well, now that you point it out, yeah.”
“And know you love us, but you’re smart and you’re becoming a young man, so I don’t have to tell you what to do—I mean, I have to tell your sister to always help mom, but you: you’re becoming a young man, right?”

At twelve, young boys don’t want to be treated like babies (sometimes they do if they are hurting), but most of the time, they want to be seen as one of the big boys.
“Ok, so I don’t have to always point out what has to be done. You can see it and do it without me even having to tell you, right?”
                        “Absolutely, dad.”
            “Ok, I’m relying on you. So, from that list that you know of, what will you do?”

Johnny is starting to learn initiative. He wants to be a young man, a contributor, a leader. So, ok, let’s give him the reigns and tell him that he has them: “I’m relying on you.”

Finally, when Johnny is fifteen or so and he’s going by “John,” another conversation can be had—something from The Lion King:
“John, you’re becoming a man and I want to have an adult conversation with you. I’m getting old and some day this will all be yours—you’ll have a house of your own and family to take care of. And I won’t be around to tell you to love mom or to remember your list, but you are going to have to look around you and see what needs to be done and to do it. So, I want you to look around our home. You’ll notice that I’ve done work on it and made some improvements. Tell me: what do you think? What needs to be done around here?—something I may not have thought of.

And he starts to think about it. And you walk him through. And help him as he struggles to begin to contribute to the home and to the family—as he struggles to love. In other words, we are teaching him ownership, how to own and feel responsible for his community.

And this is precisely where he should be learning this. Too often, our kids are sent off to college and they have no idea not only how to take care of themselves (mom always took care of everything!), but they have no idea how to contribute to the community. Thus begins the me-project.    

*          *          *

Of course, I’m not talking about some fictional dad and his son. I’m talking about me and you. I’m that dad and you are my spiritual children. And I want us to grow in response, in initiative, and in ownership.

Response: I know you love the parish. And we have things to do around here. There is a parish picnic coming up. If you love, then help out. And, I know, some of you are saying, “I’m old, I’ve put in my time.” Ok, first: thank you for helping out so much. But we don’t retire from the community, we don’t retire from love. Teenagers in the basement say “I’m too old to be helping mom with dinner tonight.”

Initiative: I know you know the many things that go on at this parish beyond Sunday. Which ones are you going to do? Monsignor doesn’t have to personally invite you every time in order to do something, right? I mean, we are adults here, right? And we aren’t focused solely on the me-project—so we do have time, right? Take initiative.

Ownership: look out over the parish, and not only the parish, but the Cottleville area. What needs to be done? Again, I know there are many sick and elderly people in our subdivisions. We have to own that. When we own something, we feel responsible for it. We need to feel responsible that there are people out there who are alone and isolated and going to die alone and isolated. We have to own that. What else needs to be done? What can we do better?

Because it is not good for man to be alone. Because we are made in the image of God. God who is love. God who is Holy Trinity, community, family, unity. This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Whatever - Homily for St. Justin, Martyr

This morning, we celebrate and ask for the intercession of St. Justin Martyr. He lived in the 2nd century and was killed when he refused to worship the pagan gods of the times.  Justin was a philosopher, thus well-equipped to logically defend the faith, which he did—publically—in one of the still-recorded written works of the early-Church: his Apology (or defense) of Catholicism. In that defense, we have one of the earliest accounts of Catholic life and also, wonderfully enough, about the Holy Mass.

When I hear about the martyrs, I am tempted to think that such things belong to ancient days and don’t happen anymore. But, the reality is, is that in the past 100 years, there have been more people martyred for believing in Jesus than in all of the past 1900 years of the Church combined. Yes, more martyrs in the past 100 years than all of the past years combined.

What has been the cause of this?

Justin, a philosopher, would be able to point it out very clearly: the way that we think about the world—that is, our worldview—determines how we act in that world. Our “philosophy of life” will translate how we act in life. And in our world today, there is an insidious and violent worldview out there—and it isn’t simply radical Islam. It’s post-modernism.

Fancy word—but here’s the gist of it: post-modernism is a worldview that thinks and believes that nothing really matters. It is ultimately dismissive—of anything it wants to dismiss, really. It can be described by one little word: “Whatever.”

Whatever. It is such a dismissive word. “Do whatever you want”; “Do whatever makes you happy”; “Yeah… whatever.”

I say it is insidious because it can emerge out of good intentions: I don’t want to come off as a bigot or uncharitable or unfeeling, so can’t we just let people do whatever they want? Sounds good—but, then, what becomes of words? Do words really mean Some Definable Thing? … marriage… murder… heaven… Jesus…?

You see, words do matter. And Jesus is zealous about this. He says in the Gospel today: the Commandments matter. And if we act as though they don’t—and, worse, if we teach others by our words and our life that they don’t—then, yeah, we're not gonna make it into the kingdom of heaven. Contrary to popular belief, all dogs don’t go to heaven—because this matters and the world acts as though it doesn’t.

Now, I say that post-modernism is violent because, if we Christians stand up for the fact that Marriage means something and the Cross means something and that these things don’t just mean “whatever”—well, the Whatever-people out there aren’t going to like it. It is true: the post-modern worldview is diabolically opposed to Christianity (and, by the same token, Christianity is opposed to the post-modern worldview). As you are living out what Jesus says—that is to be “salt of the earth” and to be the “light of the world”—then, yeah, that’s going to buck up against those who say that you are bigoted, you who hold God’s Commandments or reality-objectively-defined-by-God.

But that’s the thing. Things matter. Words matter. The Gospels matter. Jesus' love matters. Justin died for this. He knew the worldview and he knew that you can’t simply acquiesce into the great Whatever and still hold on to heaven. We have to choose.

And that's the Truth: if we aren't different than the blasé Whatever of the world, then we are salt without flavor. We are already just as good as dead.

This is why I get more than a little upset when people, without emergency or without good reason such as to get to a job that puts food on the table, leave the weekend Masses early. I don’t judge them, but I do get upset that somehow, someway, the Reality of what is going on here at this altar has either been lost or dismissed. I hope it is the first and not the latter. Because there is nothing worse than realizing what is going on here—this great sacrifice of Love at the Mass—and then to dismiss it with the great early-exodus of Whatever. For us who come here every day, we have to have a little jolt in our lives so that we don't make this routine.

Like I said at the beginning , there have been more martyrs over the past 100 years than all of the years combined. Indeed, just last week, dozens of Catholics were killed while they worshiped at this very same Mass! Tens more were killed as they were driving to there. What would they say to us?

Jesus matters! This Mass matters! Our blood matters! You matter!

May we never take it for granted.

St. Justin, martyr. Pray for us.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Is This Goodbye? - Homily for the Ascension (A)

+ As many of you know, yesterday we celebrated the ordination of two of our own young men: Deacon Clark Philipp and Deacon John Schneier. And it is a great joy for me to announce that Father John Schneier is going to be our new associate.       < Everyone applauds >

… Hey! Thanks a lot! < Everyone laughs >

I think this is wonderful for the parish and I am very happy for you. As you all already know: Father Schneier is gonna be great.

As I transition to become the pastor at St. Theodore in Flint Hill, I must admit that I’m really not good at goodbyes. It’s just awkward for me and, you know, there’s the whole emotions thing…. That’s actually one of the reasons why I never like the last day of school: too many goodbyes, too many tears.

This was all on my mind as I was thinking and praying about today’s celebration: the Ascension. And something hit me: where’s the crying? I mean, Jesus is leaving! Where are the tears?!

In fact, we hear the exact opposite:

            God mounts His throne with shouts of joy.

Joy?! What’s going on? Isn’t this a goodbye?

*          *          *

I think the key can be found in the second reading, where Paul says that Jesus is the “head” of the Church—the Church which is His “body.” What Paul is getting at there is that Jesus and the Church are one. Just like the head and the body of a person are one (else the person is dead!), so too Jesus and the Church are one.

            Jesus is head of the body, the Church

Paul says in his letter to the Colossians (1:18). Or, in his great tome on the topic (1 Corinthians 12), Paul writes

For just as the body is one and has many members… so it is with Christ. (v 12)

What this means is that, if Jesus is ascending into heaven, our hope is that we are too!—for where the head goes, goes the body. This is what we prayed in the opening Collect of the Mass:

Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God… for the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation, and, where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.

There’s a fine analogy I like to give to my kiddos that helps us understand the Ascension. Imagine I jump into a pool. (That’s a pretty funny thought—especially if I’m wearing my cassock!) But it’s summertime, so imagine I jump into the pool. Of course, when we jump in, the water goes over our heads and so on. Eventually, we come up out of the water. But, how do we come up? Is it feet-first? No. It’s always the head. And then out of the water comes the body.

By analogy, then, the pool is our earthly existence, the air above is heaven. Jesus jumped into the pool of our earthly existence and, becoming one with Him in baptism, as He emerges from the water—that is, as He enters into heaven, so too will we.

Provided that we remain united to Him.

*          *          *

In our modern culture, some people divorce Jesus from His Church. So, when the Church teaches something difficult, they say “Well, that’s what the Church teaches, but that’s not what Jesus would have taught.” They are separating Jesus from the Church—decapitating the head from the body. The same thing happens when people say that I can love Jesus without the Church. They don’t realize that Jesus and the Church are one and the same.

This is actually the scandal that Paul points out in Ephesians, chapter 5, when he talks about the marriage between Jesus and the Church and that Jesus is now “joined” to us and, indeed, has become “one flesh” with us. Jesus Himself foretells this when He says to the Apostles:

            Whoever hears you, hears me; whoever rejects you, rejects me (Luke 10:16)

And just to prove further that the Ascension is not a goodbye and that Jesus is not separated from the Church, when Paul himself was persecuting Christians, Jesus says

            Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? (Acts 9:4)

*          *          *

What does this mean for us? Well, in the second reading, Paul gives three very brief points for prayer. He prays:

May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may [1] know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
[2] what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and [3] what is the surpassing greatness of his power

Let’s unpack that very, very briefly.

First: hope. Jesus our Head is in heaven; if we are united to Him, we shall also be with Him. He shows us that our pilgrimage, this Exodus, is finally over. So, never lose hope. Indeed,

We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into  [heaven]… where Jesus has gone as a forerunner (Hebrews 6:19-20)

The anchor on this ship goes up! The anchor keeps us calm in the storm. He will bring us to port.

Second: riches of glory. You have a father in heaven; we are the Prodigal Sons. If we repent, then when we return to the Father, we shall be clothed in His glory, a ring on our finger, and the sandals of freedom on our feet. And then the feast!

Third: His power. Jesus’ power is so great that everything is subject to Him. Jesus reigns as King of Heaven and Earth—

death has no power over him (Romans 6:9).

Indeed, every kingdom on earth is now subject to Him. And He will conquer every evil. For everything is placed under His feet (Ephesians 1:22)

Notice: it says “under His feet.” The feet are part of the body—that is, the Church! Do you understand what this means?

It means that if you are in His body, if you are even the lowest part—the feet—that evil no longer has power over you. With the power of God’s grace, right now, the devil no longer has power over you. Indeed, Jesus promised this for His Body, the Church, when He said:

            And the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18)

So, yes. This is cause for celebration!

*          *          *

Let us turn to God in prayer; for, at the very beginning of Mass we prayed:

            You are seated at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us. Lord, have mercy.

What we are professing there is that, if Jesus is truly ascended into heaven and if we are truly united to Him as we are in His Body, the Church, then when we pray in union with Him, our prayers are literally at the right hand of the Father. That is, when you pray, your prayers are literally going up through the Body, to the Head—Jesus Christ—and your prayers are literally there at the Father’s ear. And He hears you. The Father hears you!

So ask. Ask! And rejoice. Our Lord and Head is in heaven. May we, the Body, be with Him!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

To Believe Thomas - Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday (The Easter Octave) (A)

A very blessed Divine Mercy Sunday to you! This is the Octave Day of Easter—a day, just as in musical octave, where the dissonance of sin is resolved by the harmony of mercy . In ancient times, too, the octave day would be a special day after a boy’s birth. On the eighth day after his birth, the boy would be circumcised. It’s a gruesome image, but the ancient Christian Fathers saw the Resurrection as the definitive new birth—and the eighth day that followed would be the definitive cutting away of the old life and the beginning of the new.

These themes play out in any Christian’s life and, as we see today, Thomas is no stranger to this. We see that he is not there when Jesus appears on Resurrection Sunday. For some reason, he must have slept in on Easter. Or, maybe after the crucifixion, he was one of those that ran away, scandalized, afraid—maybe bitter. Whatever the reason, Thomas is isolated and not with the community on Easter.

Thankfully, Thomas rejoins the community on the eighth day, the Octave Day (Divine Mercy Sunday) and Jesus appears again. This time, Thomas sees. And not only does he see, but he also gets to touch. Thomas places his finger into the side of Christ—the side that was pierced by the lance. And Thomas exclaims: “My Lord and my God!” He believes. And not only because he touched Jesus’ side. Remember what the soldier’s lance pierced—not only the side of the Christ but also the very heart of Jesus. It was from this heart that blood and water flowed down onto the head of that soldier and, in that very moment, that soldier’s doubt was converted. He too exclaims: “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

Thomas’ finger, therefore, doesn’t simply touch the outer skin of Jesus. He brings his finger to the very heart of Jesus—the very font of mercy—and maybe Thomas realizes that it is beating and alive. And that may sound gross, but Jesus rose not simply spiritually, but in the flesh—and He is really alive. And He is alive to give us this mercy and to convert us from the old doubts to the new faith, the new life—actual, heart-pounding life.

*          *          *

Here is where the great irony—or, comedy—comes in. You see, Thomas believes precisely because he has seen and touched. But, really, he was supposed to believe his brothers. Peter and Andrew and John and all the rest actually saw Jesus risen on Easter night. Thomas, therefore, was guilty not only of not-believing that Jesus was risen from the dead, but Thomas also guilty because he did not believe them. That’s pretty amazing, given all that they had been through together. There was no reason to doubt his brothers, his friends. But he did.

As a result, Thomas’ doubt not only separated him from the risen Jesus, but also from the very people that he had known and loved. The spiritual translated into the geographical: Thomas was not there on Easter.

But Jesus has mercy on him and visits him when Thomas comes back to the community on the Octave day. Here’s where the irony/comedy comes in: After Thomas touches, Jesus says. “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” In other words: “Thomas, you were supposed to believe your brothers, but you didn’t. Nevertheless, I am granting you this mercy (to touch), because I want you to believe. When you go out into the doubting world, the only way that they will come to believe is if they believe you—that is: I am calling them to do the very thing that you wouldn’t do for your brothers, namely, to trust. And this is going to frustrate you, and you will know the frustration and hurt your brothers had when you refused to believe them, because why should the world believe you Will you have mercy on those that doubt when they say to you the same thing you said to your brothers? Will you have mercy on them? What will be your reason for them to trust you? Will you give them my heart to touch by giving them my mercy, my new life?"

Thomas—indeed all of the Apostles—are entrusted with a great task: not only to evangelize and to announce the risen Christ to all nations, but to be trusted. And in order for them to be trusted, the Apostles must prove themselves through a radical charity heretofore never seen on the face of the earth. The world will only believe these teachers if they are first witnesses. They will need to bring the very heart of Jesus for the world to touch. On this octave day, the dissonance of the world must be far from the harmony of Christ; the old way of life must be cut from our hearts so the new heart of Christ may urge us onwards.

*          *          *

A final note: where does this Octave take place? In the same Upper Room as the Last Supper. There, the Lord had instituted the Holy Eucharist—the very Sacrament of Charity—and in turn ordained His Apostles to be the very priests that would confect it.

One may ask: when does Jesus give them the power to forgive sins? It happens on Easter night in the same Upper Room as the Last Supper and the Octave Day. On that Easter night, Jesus appears to them and says “Peace be with you.” Remember: they had all abandoned Him, crucified Him. And here Jesus comes, not rubbing their nose in it, but saying “Peace. It’s all over. I forgive you.”

In this moment, He breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit—the very power to forgive sins. You see, the Upper Room is all one Ordination Rite: Jesus waits to give them the power to forgive until the moment when they finally know mercy. Now that they know mercy, they are now ordained and commissioned to give it.

Why do I mention this? Because Thomas was not there on Easter night. So, on the Octave, Jesus comes and does the same thing—but this time for Thomas. And not only for Thomas, but to give the other Apostles the chance, too, to forgive. You see, after Thomas puts his finger into Jesus and believes, Thomas will say to Jesus: “I’m sorry I left you.” But then Thomas will have to turn to his brothers, too, and say, “Brothers, I’m sorry I doubted you.” And in that moment, they will be able to lavish upon their brother the very mercy which they themselves had received.

This is why the best confessors are the ones who have known well the mercy of God. Indeed, the best Christians are the ones who know this mercy, too. Indeed, this is the very heart of Jesus that the world longs to touch—“will not believe until.” That is, until we have received and then give.

In only this way will the world trust and come to believe.

Will they trust you, Thomas? Have you so trusted?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

New. Life. - Homily for Easter Sunday (2017)

A very blessed Easter to you and your families.

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

A couple of years ago, I had the blessing to visit the catacombs in Rome. The catacombs, as you likely know, are the underground tombs where, during ancient days of persecution, Christians would not only bury their dead, but also celebrate the Holy Mass. I vividly remember the stairway as it plunged me underground. The brown darkness. The stale air and the smell of soil. The muffled sound. The tightness of the confines. Death…. It was there that I offered the Holy Mass.

After an hour or two, I came out of the catacombs and I remember the first taste of fresh air—there was a delightful hint of flowers—which I had taken for granted before I had gone underground. The sunlight was annoyingly bright (and how quickly I had become used to the darkness)! There was a sense of freedom, of openness, …

This was the memory that came to my mind as I prepared the words for today. It is, as I look back, a memory that provides a kind of microcosm of my life. There was a time when I was in a dark place, where the faith was stale and confining—and then there was a time when I began to “seek what is above”; I emerged from the world of death and began to breathe the fresh air of beauty and goodness and truth.

This is the question that all of us are faced with today: that is, at this very moment, in which place are you? Are you in the stale, dreary, lifeless kind of faith? or are you in the world above—where things are new and full of hope? How would you describe your faith right now?

And what is your expectation of Christianity in general? What is your expectation for today? Oftentimes, we expect things to continue as they are. So, if we’ve found little, we oftentimes expect little.

*          *          *

I’m sorry if I’m rambling a little bit today, but I’m really, really tired. We had the Easter Vigil last night and it was totally awesome—30 people came home to the Catholic Church! It was so beautiful. But it is also a really late night and here I am at the Mass at Dawn with you all. If you think this morning’s Mass is long, last night’s Mass lasted over two and a half hours! (And Monsignor was going at a really snappy clip, too!)

It was actually pretty funny: there was a young boy in the front pew—he was one of three to be baptized. And this young boy of about 10 has little idea that this Easter Vigil is going to clock in under three hours. And so we start Mass and it’s dark in here and we get through one reading. And then another. And two readings becomes five. And by the time we reach the homily, we’re nearing one hour!

And maybe I was imagining things, but I think I started to see him slowly—so slowly with each reading—slowly…  start… to…. lean forward….

And before he was able to get any sleep, his godparents brought him and the others to the baptismal font. And Monsignor asked them about whether they renounced Satan and believed in God and they said I do in that “hey, it’s past my bedtime” kind of voice. And then this young boy climbed into the baptismal pool—

And his eyes became wide: “Ooh!” This water's cold!

And Monsignor takes a big bucket of water and says “… I baptize you in the Name of the Father”—and pours the cold water on the boy. And he goes: “Oh—Brrrrhhrrrhrhrh!”

And before he can catch his breath, Monsignor pours more water: “… and of the Son…”—And now the young boy is laughing! Laughing not in the “this is silly” kind of way, but in the “this is totally awesome, invigorating, I don’t know else to respond” kind of way.

And by the time the third pour with the words “And of the Holy Spirit” were said, I knew what was happening. This young boy was being woken up. He was being filled with the Holy Spirit. This was a new day—a day that would never be forgotten. Shoot, I’ll never forget it. (I nearly laughed myself silly and cried at the same time. It was beautiful).

*          *          *

I say all this because at the very heart of Christianity is the belief in tremendous—miraculous!—transformation. Jesus died. He was as dead as a doornail. And then three days later, He is raised from the dead. This isn’t reincarnation. This isn’t re-animation. This is the Father filling His Son with a whole new and glorious life.

And it is totally reasonable to believe this. I mean, not only do the guys-in-power see it, but the women do too. Their voices matter-- or, at least, I think so. Of course, we may have learned something silly in college that filled us with doubt and plunged our faith into darkness. And we would have dismissed the ridiculousness of our misguided professors if but for one thing: some of us had already started to doubt the truth of Christianity. For those of us, we had begun to doubt because we didn’t see the tremendous, miraculous change in the very lives of those around us who claimed to be Christian. I mean, so what if this Jesus died and rose—what difference does that make in my life?

Let's admit it: for many of us, the life of faith, like that Easter Vigil, had grown long and tiresome. We have lost some of the eager expectation that was the hallmark of our beginnings in that faith. 

*          *          *

At the heart of Christianity is the scandalous assertion that this crucifixion-resurrection drama can play out not only in the life of Christ, but in every person who welcomes it. How many lives of the saints—men and women just like you and me—how many of their lives start in less than heroic (ok, let’s just say it: sinful!) ways? I mean, you think you and I are horrible sinners? Tell that to St. Paul or Augustine or Ignatius!

The Father of the Prodigal Son, on seeing his return, cries out: “My son was lost and is now found! He was dead and is now alive!”

Those words—we’re always using those words about ourselves and about forgiveness and so on. You see? The Resurrection not only shows us the victory of Christ; but it also reveals to us the very miraculous change of anyone who truly receives this same Jesus. You—you, dear brothers and sisters!—you were dead and are now alive!

This was the whole point of Lent. What was the reason for the season? The reason for Lent is to prepare us for New Life—to transform us from stale, dead ways to the new, fresh breath of new life.

So, for example, when we went to confession, there our Father forgave us of our sins—He freed us from all of that weight of all of that baggage we had been carrying for so long. We were given a new beginning of goodness. When we fasted, we learned about how much we take for granted and how attached we have become to things. That peanut butter and jelly sandwich after a long day’s fast—man, that never tasted so good! That fasting suddenly infused so much beauty and appreciation in something so simple as a PBJ for me. 

… And yeah, maybe your Lent was horrible—maybe you were a total failure. But do you know what? God was doing something in you there. He was making you humble. You see: we often think that holiness and salvation are totally up to us. They’re not. They are firstly up to God. After all, He says, “Without me, you can do nothing.” We don’t really believe that some times. We come up with a stellar plan for Lent and we beat ourselves up when we don’t follow through. Perhaps God is saying: “Ok, did you ask me for help? Do you really believe that you are really actually and totally dependent on me for everything?”

*          *          *

 At the end of the Lenten Season, I look up at the Cross and not only do I see Jesus, my Savior whom I love and owe everything. But at the end of the day, I also see myself. I see everything that was dark and evil and stale and dead in me—I see everything Jesus has taken and crucified. Crucified because He wants me to have a new life, a free life, a beautiful life!

*Looking at the Cross* That’s me before I emerged from the catacombs. That’s me when I was in a dark place: depressed, anxious, searching for meaning, angry, impatient, and resentful …

Amazing Grace: “I was blind, but now I see.”

I was lost but am found. I was dead, but am alive.

I am walking around right now in gold-- you in your Easter dresses and nice, crisp suits. We are all saying: "Hey, we're not in the tomb anymore!" We just have to live that-- which means that the dark parts of our lives need to go up on that Cross and truly die. Only then will we truly experience the beauty of this awesome, transforming Christianity.

The Resurrection is real, my dear friends. And not only because a couple saw it on that Easter morning. But because I have experienced it in my own life, too.

*          *          *

This is my prayer for you today: that our Father can say about us—indeed, that we can say it about ourselves: “I was lost and am now found. I was dead but am now alive!”

I want us to expect this kind of transformation from Christianity again.

I want the world to expect to see this kind of transformation from Christians again.

I pray our Lord may bring this resurrection into our life through the crucifixion of our old, stale lives of sin—I pray that our Lord may do this so that we can attest to the world the reality of our faith. I pray that we can speak this in word and in deed to all—I was dead, but am now alive!—and to proclaim this humbly yet confidently.

I want people to say not only of Jesus Christ, but of each one of us: “Wow, he is risen. He is risen indeed!”

May this be our expectation this Easter. May God grant us this New Life! Amen.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Of Trees and Temptations - Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent (A)

One of the great joys of my priesthood is to be the director of the RCIA program here at St. Joe’s. The RCIA program is for those who wish to learn more about the Catholic faith and discern whether they wish to enter the Church. And we praise God that over 30 of our brothers and sisters will join us in the Eucharist for the first time at the Easter Vigil. (May we have 60 next year!)

During our months together, the RCIA participants ask a whole host of questions. And I’ve found that many questions are asked about today’s first reading from the book of Genesis. One of the popular questions I’ve heard is: “Why did God make the tree and then tell Adam and Eve not to eat from it?” As parents and grandparents, we know that if we have cookie jar and tell our children not to eat from it, what will they do five minutes later? They will be eating from the cookie jar! So, why this tree?

First, we must note that the tree is not evil. God does not make bad things. Even the serpent—he was once a good angel, Lucifer, who chose evil and who subsequently “devolved” (that’s what sin does). God makes everything good—this tree is good. But what God has done is used it as a means to teach Adam and Eve about the nature of Love. Love, if it is really love, must choose; it must choose between self-centeredness and self-sacrifice. God, when He makes the tree, is giving Adam and Eve the space to choose what kind of Love they will have: an obedient, self-sacrificial love or a disobedient, self-serving love.

Notice: do Adam and Eve have to eat from the tree to know the difference between good and evil? No. God has already told them: eat from all of those trees over there (obedience)—that is good; do not eat from this tree here (disobedience)—that is bad. He has already given them the wisdom. They don’t need to grasp for the fruit to have wisdom—they already have been given the gift!

But that’s the trick of the devil: he convinces Adam and Eve that God is holding something back.  That’s how the devil often gets us, isn’t it? Convinces us that God is not a good God, that He’s keeping something good or better from us. And so, we do our own thing and grasp for something—often at the expense of love.

So, why did God create the Tree? For love. To give us a chance to love. And, here’s the kicker: not only to love Him, but also each other; because, if we can’t trust God, then the love and the trust between spouses will quickly fail—which is precisely what happens to Adam and Eve. They cover themselves because they are now afraid—of what? Of each other. Of being used. Of not being loved.

*          *          *

This brings us to a second, often-asked question: Whose fault was it—Adam or Eve’s?

(With a smile) It was all Eve’s fault. *Closes Gospel book*

No. There’s more to it than that. Remember: who was with Eve? Adam was. And what mission did God give Adam? To care for everything in the Garden. This included Eve. Yes, Adam and Eve are equals, but God gave Adam the strength to care for Eve—knowing that there would be danger lurking about.

That danger came when the devil went after Eve—as the devil often does: attacking the woman. Adam was supposed to fight for his love, the one that was “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” But what did Adam do? Nothing. He was quiet. And when the husband, the man with the strength, is quiet and doesn’t use his strength to fight for the family, the wife gets anxious, she grasps for what she things will make her secure. “I’ve gotta have this,” she says. And the devil’s got her.

You see, when we love something, we have to fight for it. In our culture, we have divorced loving and fighting—people think love happens without a fight. That’s naïve. We’re going to have to fight if we are truly going to love.

That’s the point of the second reading. Through the disobedience of one man, Adam, sin entered the world (notice where Paul puts the blame: on Adam!). But through the obedience of the other man, Jesus, life entered the world and forgiveness (“acquittal”). In other words: whereas Adam did not fight the devil, Jesus did. Jesus fought for us. He fought for His bride. Jesus stood up to the temptation. And why? Because of love. Jesus loves His Father and He loves us. So Jesus fought for us. Forty days in the desert: fighting the pain of hunger, fighting the urge to give in, fighting against the devil himself. “The Lord is a warrior. The Lord is His name!” (Ex 15:3).

*          *          *

What does this mean for us? In Lent, we are invited to enter into the battle for love. We have opportunities for fasting, for sacrifice, for giving, for praying—and in all of that there is the choice, the battle, to fight for what and for whom we love. Just like Adam and Eve, God has given us this blessed time of Lent—just like that tree—so that we may choose between self-centeredness and self-sacrifice. To love or not to love.

There will be temptations in this, just like there are throughout the year. In these, perhaps it may be good to become like Mary, too—Mary who is the New Eve—who also does battle. Have you ever noticed how many statues of Mary have her stomping on the head of the serpent? That’s taking from Genesis 3:15, where the Scriptures prophesy how the Mother of God will crush the head of the serpent.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never tried to crush the head of a snake. I’d probably use a shovel. Mary is depicted using her bare feet. Which means that she is doing this quickly—you can’t crush the head of a snake daintily. Otherwise, you get bitten. Mary crushes the tempter quickly, with force! *bam!* That’s Jesus’ mother. That’s the one who taught Him from her lap. If the Lord is a warrior, I have a hunch that to some degree, His mother is, too. Kind, gentle, mild—yes. But when it comes to the devil, Mary’s not gonna have any of it.

That’s what we need to be this Lent and, really, whenever we face temptation.

Because, when the devil comes bartering for our soul, we must remember that there are only two outcomes: life or death, heaven or hell, good or evil. We can’t mess around with the devil. Think of it this way, if someone came to you saying, “Hey, do this for me—do this and I will pick a nice spot for you in hell. You know—with the fires and the grinding of teeth and the wailing and the anger and loneliness and stench.” Who among us would say, “Yeah, let me think about that for a moment… that kinda sounds like a good idea….” No! We would say, “You’re crazy! Get away from me!”

But, let’s be honest: when we entertain temptation, we are seriously pondering that this hell is a good idea. This is why sin is stupid. (That’s my definition—that’s not Magisterial…) Sin is stupid.

This is why the devil coats the evil with some kind of good. The devil, for the most part, doesn’t just simply come out and say “Deny Jesus. Deny Jesus and make me king.” No, the devil is more subtle. The devil will say something about how God understands, and that it isn’t so bad. Just a little bit of doubt.

We have to fight against this.

If we are not actively fighting against temptation, we will start buying the devil’s lies. If we are not crushing his head, then we will start to doubt. We will start to think that God is holding something back. And we’ll grow resentful and bitter—especially when we are told that we can’t do something. And we’ll grasp—we’ll make our own way—and we’ll rationalize it by saying that God doesn’t see, because God doesn’t love us. And then that becomes God doesn’t matter. And, then: God doesn’t exist. So, we’ll establish our own way. And we’ll make our own gods. And when those don’t fill us, we’ll make ourselves god.

Which is what the devil promised: “if you eat… you will become like gods.”

And therein is the greatest lie of all. Because we already were. We were already like gods. Adam and Eve were made so as to never die; they were eternal; they could love like the angels and share the mind and heart of God. A share of divinity had already been given them. But they doubted it. And so they lost it.

*          *          *

We have been given that share—we just have to receive! Which means we have to battle the urge to grasp. That urge to doubt and cry out: “Lord, why are you keeping this from me?” “Why can’t I have just this one thing? Just this once?” We sometimes make it a holy crusade: “Lord, all this time I served you and never did you give me this one thing…” (that’s the older brother of the Prodigal Son, by the way).

But we must believe that God is good. That He’s not holding anything back. If there would have been a greater gift that Jesus, God would have given it. But this is the greatest gift.

In fact, do you remember how many named trees there were in the Garden? There were two: The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. We’ve talked about the first one; what about the second? Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden before they could eat from the Tree of Life.

We, however, get to eat from this tree. The Tree is the Cross and the Fruit of this Tree of Life is Jesus. On the night before Jesus died, He gave us this fruit in the Eucharist—His body and blood, the Bread of Life (“whoever eats will live forever”). And that’s perfect when we think about it: Jesus undoes the first, the Original, Sin (which was accomplished by eating) by giving us something to eat: namely, Himself. His body and blood, soul and divinity, to be united to our body, blood, soul, and humanity—to elevate our humanity, by grace, to His divinity. In this way, we really do become “like gods.”

Do you see? Jesus has loved us to the end! He has held nothing back. He loves you! Come, let us love Him in return!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Two Transformations - Homily for the 6th Sunday in OT (A)

Ok. Can we take a moment and pray about what we have just heard? I mean, I know that for many of us, Jesus’ words hit us right in the heart—and some of those words may have been hard to listen to or understand. And I think we just need to take a moment and pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us here…

*          *          *

In my life, I have come to realize that God is not simply in the business of getting people to “fall into line.” God is firstly in the business of transforming us. Let us never forget this: God is in the business of transforming us.

And I’ve found that there are two major kinds of transformation.

The first transformation that God wants for us is that transformation from being adrift in the world to being chosen— from being pagan to being religious—from being just like everyone else in the world to being His. This is why God gave the Commandments: He gave these to choose and to transform a people that would be His own. “This people,” He says through the Commandments, “This people will not be stealing and killing like the others out there. This people will not be marrying many wives or worshipping many gods like the pagans. This people will be different.” That’s what the Commandments do. This is the first transformation.

And I liken it to a kind of fence. I know many of you have seen the movie The Sandlot. It’s a story about kids that play baseball in this field—the sandlot—and there is an old wooden fence that separates this lot from the house next door—a house that has a mean dog called The Beast (very apropos!). So there is the Sandlot on one side of the fence and on the other side of the fence there’s the beast. The fence separates the play and fun and children from what is dangerous and menacing. In much the same way, the Law of God acted as the fence separating and thus initially transforming an otherwise ordinary people into the People of God.

Hence, Jesus upholds commandments like “you shall not kill” and “you shall not commit adultery.” Because that fence is still needed! Cultures—even historically Christian cultures like our own—forget these very basic truths. This is why Jesus doubles down saying, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

So, keeping the law is important. That’s the first part of this Sermon on the Mountain.

*          *          *

The second part reveals the second transformation: where our “righteousness [must surpass]… that of the Pharisees.” This second transformation is about being not simply a follower but a lover—specifically, a lover who loves as Christ loves.

What this means is that Jesus doesn’t simply want us to “not kill,” but He wants to have our hearts transformed in such a way that we avoid the beginnings of that—that anger and resentment and disdain for others. The new transformation—that of charity—is so important that Jesus says that “If you… recall [at the altar] that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there… and be reconciled with your brother and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, in this second transformation we see that we cannot approach the God of love at the altar when we refuse to love another. This why Catholics have the Sign of Peace. At the Sign of Peace, we are really supposed to reconcile with others such that, if there is someone that we are at odds with, we must first be reconciled with them before we can receive communion. Reconciliation before Communion. That’s how much God wants this transformation for us.

Notice, then, the next lesson in the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus continues: “You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Notice the need for transformation: Jesus doesn’t simply want us to “not commit adultery”—that is important—but He even wants our eyes and hearts transformed in such a way that when we see a beautiful person, we don’t lust over that person as though they were an object—because treating a person as an object is not love. Fifty Shades of Gray is not love. Pornography is not love.

And notice how much Jesus wants this second transformation for us: “If your eye causes you to sin… if your hand causes you to sin…” He says, get rid of it! It’s hyperbole, of course, but it is to prove a point: the transformation to charity is so important that it is worth losing even your limbs over.

*          *          *

Now comes the sensitive part of Jesus’ Sermon. He says: "[In the past] It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife—unless the marriage is unlawful—causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What is going on here? Ironically, the Pharisees were allowing divorce because, as Jesus points out, “the hardness of their hearts.” I say this is ironic because our culture, when it sees a person upholding laws, the culture calls that person a Pharisee. So, for example, I’ve seen article after article calling Cardinal Burke a Pharisee for upholding the law of marriage. But such articles forget that Pharisees didn’t uphold marriage at all! This is the oddity of the Pharisees: they uphold certain laws, but not the divine ones—and even less do they live them out (as Jesus points out later). The Pharisees allowed divorce for pretty much whatever reason.

To call Cardinal Burke a Pharisee is therefore really rather ignorant. Our world is like the Pharisees. Many Christian ministers, for example, have become like our secular (read: oftentimes pagan) courts and allow divorce for whatever reason (Pharisaical), not remembering that “what God has joined, men must not divide.” They even go so far as to marry previously divorced people.

The papers write about how the Catholic Church is “opposed to divorce.” The reality is, we simply don’t have the power to undo what God has joined.

Clearly, we are dealing with the first transformation here: from the pagan to the People of God.

The question may be asked: then what about annulments? Obviously, this is a question that requires more than a homily to answer, but the principle for them is found in the Gospel when Jesus notes “unless the marriage is unlawful”—implied: an unlawful marriage is not joined by God; it is null. (Hence “annulment”).

When Jesus talks about a marriage being unlawful, it is understood that He is speaking about those who are going through the first transformation: that is, about pagans who have entered the Jewish faith but have three, four, or possibly even more wives. Anything beyond the first is unlawful. That’s what Jesus is talking about. Or when someone was forced to marry—that’s unlawful. The Catholic Church simply applies the principle Jesus gave. So, if someone enters into marriage with no intention of being faithful—then, yes, that could be a problem. But that’s different than someone “falling” out of love. The marriage is lawful—meaning, God has joined it—and man cannot divide that. Here, the second transformation is imperative: “love one another as I have loved you.”

*          *          *

Here we arrive, then, at the primo problem of our culture. The problem is not only that our culture does not embrace the first transformation (law), but precisely because it no longer embraces law, it no longer understands love. Love, in our culture, is erroneously reconciled with killing an infant or an elderly person. But that’s not love!—we cannot both love and kill a person. Love, in our culture, is erroneously reconciled with disregarding the Sabbath (“I don’t need religion to love God”); and so on. The “love” that our culture passes off is a contradictory house built on sand.

This is why our Lord has come. This is why our culture needs a Cardinal Burke out there. For both law and love are united in Jesus. This Jesus who comes to transform us in both. Hence: “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill” and “unless your righteousness exceeds that the of the Pharisees”—in sum “love one another as I have loved you” and “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”

So, we who struggle with sins against the law and against charity—it is for us that the Lord has come: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” He wants to transform us. That’s His business. That’s His saving grace. And He is making that offer to you today.