Monday, December 11, 2017

The Victory Path (through Mountains and Valleys) - Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (B)

Did you notice how that started? It said,
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...

That doesn't seem like much-- like it's just an introduction or something akin to "Once upon a time." But this line is important. In fact, it's the key to all of our readings today.
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...

Mark starts his gospel book in a way that echoes how the Bible starts: "In the beginning." And what happens "In the beginning"? God creates. Here, Mark starts his book hearkening to that beginning-- to point out to us that something new is about to begin. And what is about to begin?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ...

Again, we've heard that word-- Gospel-- before. But what does it mean? It comes from the Greek: evangelion. That word means "message" or "good news." From this word, evangelion, we get English words such as Evangelist and Evangelize and even the word "angel". So, at Christmas, Gabriel the archangel is a messenger of good news. And what is the good news-- the Gospel, the evangelion?

Of course, it's that Jesus is born.

But there's more to it than that. This word hearkens back to ancient times when a king would be off at battle. If the king and his armies were victorious, they would send back to the cities an evangelion-- a messenger with good news: and the good news was that the king was victorious.

Hold on to that thought for a moment, then, because we need to take a detour back in time.

***

In our first reading, we hear Isaiah speaking to God's people, Israel. They are in exile in Babylon-- enslaved in a foreign country and far away from home. God says to Isaiah: bring my people comfort, tell them that I will send them a Messiah, one who will deliver them from Babylon, who will win the victory for them and bring them home.

So, the good news, the evangelion, that Isaiah brings is that there will be a king, a messiah, whose victory will set them free.

Do you know what the Greek word for Messiah is? It's Christ. (Christos).

So, when Mark starts off his book with the line
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...

Mark is saying: "Look! Something new! I come bearing a message: good news: our king, Jesus, is victorious!"

Indeed, the rest of the Gospel of Mark will revolve around this theme.

And it points out something very important: whereas in Isaiah's time the Messiah was promised to come some time in the future, Mark is saying, "Look, the Messiah is here now!" That's why Mark begins with the prophet Isaiah-- to say, "Hey, this is being fulfilled right now! The victory is here! We're going home!" And Mark's gospel then continues with John the Baptist pointing this out: there's a new beginning here! The kingdom of God is at hand!

***

But Isaiah and John say something very interesting. They say: "Prepare the way of the Lord." And, later, "Every valley shall be raised and every mountain made low." What does this mean?

Well, practically speaking, when the victorious king was coming home from battle, he would be bringing with him the spoils of war. But to go up and down mountains and valleys would be difficult and time consuming. So, on the practical side of things, both Isaiah and John are saying, "Hey, make the returning king's path easy! Help him bring back these spoils of war quickly!"

Prepare the way of the Lord: if you make His way easy, He will all the more quickly bring His victory to you.

And what is His victory? It is over sin and death and the devil Himself. It is a spiritual victory.

The mountains and valleys, therefore, are not just geographical places but the quality of our souls.

The valleys are those souls that are weighted down by their sins and maybe even wonder "can I be forgiven?" And God is saying, "Yes! Let me fill you with my grace." The valley is the soul that needs to receive.

The mountains are those souls that have grown large by their pride, and in their heights may think that God is too far beneath them, too dull or unintelligent and so on. And God is saying, "You are not beyond me. Come down from your height for I have great treasures for you, too."

Both kinds of souls-- valleys and mountains-- are being told that they will participate in the King's victory. There is but one thing necessary, and John tells us what it is: repent.

***

Often, we think of repentance as simply saying "I'm sorry." But in the context of our readings today, we see that repentance is actually the condition for receiving the King's victory. His victory is over sin-- repentance is the door that opens to the spoils, the treasures.

We see this beautifully in the confessional. This past week, the second graders went to First Confession and some of them were a little nervous. They go in with their heads down, but they come out with such joy! Something has happened in this moment when they are the valley that is filled with grace and the mountain that acknowledges their sin-- they receive the joy of a new beginning; their hearts become light. This is the Gospel, the evangelion, the good news.

***

Our Catholic Church highlights these opportunities in particular when she obliges us to go to confession once per year or when she says that a particular Mass is a Holy Day of Obligation. Take this past Friday, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, for example. The Church knows that all of us during this busy season are becoming like those valleys, low by the lack of sunlight and burdened by our to-do lists. So the Church says, "hey, there is a great opportunity for grace that can fill you up-- that will slow you down for a night and refocus your Advent and set you free on a course of peace. And that is Immaculate Conception Mass. And we've been at this for a few years and we know how much you need this great grace, so we're going to make it obligatory." And those of you who went, I know, were lifted up, filled like those valleys.

But then there were some who did not go. Not because of sickness or mandatory work, but because we let other things get the best of us or we were lazy or maybe selfish. And the Church highlights that we, the mountains, need to be lowered a bit-- that we didn't "Prepare the way of the Lord" and didn't make it easy for Him to come to us. And the Church does this by saying that if we missed-- again, not because of sickness or mandatory work, but because of our own free will-- that if we skipped the Holy Day, we can't receive Holy Communion today until we go to confession. We need to lower ourselves and acknowledge our disobedience to the king-- we need to be filled by the grace of repentance before we can be filled by the grace of holy communion.

And, I know, we may not like to hear that or we may think it's going to be embarrassing to come up in the communion line with our arms crossed. But I want to tell you that I've been there before. And I don't judge you. Neither will my deacon. In fact, none of my amazing parishioners here-- none will judge you. In fact, I will admire your courage and your honesty and your faithfulness to God and His Church. Because I will see that you take this seriously and you are letting God lower the mountains.

Indeed, the treasures of our victorious king are yours-- precisely because you are repenting.

Of course, it would be unfair of me to give such a homily without hearing confessions right after Mass. So, that's what I'm going to do. After Mass today, I'm going to go straight to the confessional and hear confessions of the mountains and the valleys. Those valleys who say, "I don't know-- could God really forgive this really big sin in my life?" Jesus is going to forgive you today. Those mountains who say, "I don't know-- does God really care about what goes on up here in my life?" Jesus is going to forgive you today.

This is what it means to "make straight his paths," to have "every valley... raised" and "every mountain... made low." This is "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" our victorious king who brings the treasures of mercy. Let us now "prepare the way of the Lord!"

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

Monday, December 4, 2017

Into the Small - Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent (B)

It's not too often that we hear a one-word Gospel, but that's exactly what we have this morning: "Watch!"

Once again this Thanksgiving, I found myself at my aunt's house with my nieces and nephews. And they are growing up and we're playing ball outside now. But the warning is still there: "Be careful! Watch out!" -- especially for the little ones. Don't clobber them with the soccer ball.

That word, "watch," implies that there is danger. So what is the danger that Jesus is warning us about? Well, we could say that it's the usual suspects: sin, pride, selfishness. But, really, it's even more basic than that. The danger is that we might stop being on the lookout.

On the lookout for what?

For Jesus.

You see, during these next few weeks, we're going to have a lot do to. And we're all going to be tempted to forget what is most important: Jesus.

It's not as though we intend to forget Jesus-- it's not like we're trying to be malicious or bad. It's just that life, somehow, seems to happen.

I meet with many couples getting married or having kids baptized. And I ask them how their faith is doing and they many times say that it's been a while since they have been at Mass. And I'm like, "Ok, tell me about that. What happened?" And many times they don't know-- life just... happened. Things got busy.

At that point I tell them, "ok, yeah, it happens to the best of us. But it's good to have you back. Now we're gonna take steps so that we don't get swept away by the busy-ness of life."

I remember Ferris Bueller, that wise sage. He said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

It's true. Especially during busy seasons like this one when there is so much to get done. Don't overlook what is most important. As Jesus says, "Watch!"

***

Now, let us be painfully clear. I'm not just giving you good advice. The reality is, when we don't watch, we really do get ourselves into big trouble.

Exhibit A: have you seen the headlines recently? I'm not going to use the actual words because we have little ears here present, but we have all heard of "misconduct" and "inappropriate behavior." For the kids: just know that some men did some bad things.

Matt Lauer of the Today Show, one of those men, wrote an apology. In it, he says that he now must "take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws. It's been humbling." You see, at heart, he lost sight of what was important. And more, he forgot that small decisions, every day, build up and become big issues. Small decisions for virtue, each day, build up and become great saints. Small decisions for vice, each day build up and become, well, what we have seen on the news.

You see, we don't become great sinners or saints overnight. It happens with small decisions, each day.

You've probably heard it said, "Well, at least I didn't kill anyone." Ok, that's great. But is that what we are to be aspiring to? "At least I'm not Matt Lauer."

This is the danger, brothers and sisters. The danger not only that we might not "watch," but the danger is also that, in not-watching, we start to watch others. We start to compare ourselves and think ourselves alright. And, worse, start to condemn our fellow man-- for didn't Jesus see all of our sins, including Matt's? And didn't Jesus die for those sins anyway? Is there a sin worse than crucifying Christ? The Father forgave that. And He sends His Son to forgive-- even this.

We need to pray for Matt. And the victims. And we need to keep watch-- for we need to watch Christ. That's who we should compare ourselves to.

***

I think, then, of the beautiful church in Bethlehem which is built over the site of Jesus' birth. I've never been to that church in Bethlehem, but everyone who has been there remembers it. "Father Gerber," they say, "you've gotta see it!" And they tell me how big it is and gold and candles everywhere and how impressive it is. "And then," they say, "there's the door to the church." "The door?" I ask. "Yeah, the door."

What about the door? I'm thinking it's going to be impressive like the rest of the church: big, oak, gold leaf, ... "No, it's small. Maybe four feet tall. You literally have to bow to get in."

That strikes me as fantastically wonderful: in order to enter the place where Jesus was born, the place where we first saw the almighty God become small, we too must become small.



I think that is a crucial part to Advent. Part of us watching is to become like Jesus-- and, in the case of Christmas, He became small. Humble.

That means that as we prepare for Christmas, we must ask ourselves: are my preparations marked by a humble simplicity, a "smallness" if you will? Or am I in search for the big?-- the huge list of presents from Santa, the big party, the belief that if I get enough things, then they will love me.

The reality is: smaller is better. Just writing a small couple words in a letter, small words of love-- that is so huge in a world that doubts love. Even if it is as small as a tweet, big dividends. Or those small words: "I'm sorry." Big.

***

I mentioned Ferris Bueller at the beginning of this homily. Here's another 80's movie for you: Back to the Future. Have you ever noticed that Marty (the main character, lost in the 1950s, trying to return home to 1985)-- have you ever noticed that his friend, the comedic-relief scientist Doc Brown-- have you ever noticed that Doc warns Marty not to change a thing-- not one. small. thing. "Don't meet up with your parents, Marty! You'll alter the space-time contiuum!"

All sci-fi flicks that have a hero going back in time-- they all have that great caveat: don't change one small thing.

Why?

Because it's dangerous.

Why?

Because it could change your entire future.

Hmm. I wonder what would happen if we ascribed that thought to the present moment: what if you changed one small thing today? That small door in Bethlehem, that small babe in the crib-- can one small decision, one small person make a big difference?

Just you watch, says our Lord.

***

So, that's what I want you to do. Pick one thing. Just one thing. What is that one thing-- no matter how small-- that our Lord is calling you to do this Advent? Ask Him at this Mass. "Lord, what is the one thing you want me to do?"

And do it. Decide and do it. Believe that we don't become saints over night, but saints are made in this moment-- this moment of deciding to believe that one change for the good, one small act towards virtue will build up and grow and become holiness.

That one small thing might be to remember that we all need a Savior and that's why we have Christmas. Maybe it's to remember, when you are standing in that long checkout line, that the important center of Christmas is that Jesus has come to save us. That's what it means to watch.

There's a song that reminds me of that small, essential center of Christmas. I'll end with it this morning.

God rest ye merry gentlemen,
let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior
was born on Christmas Day.
To save us all from Satan's power
when we had gone astray....
O, o tidings of comfort and joy....!


Monday, November 20, 2017

To Leave a Legacy - Homily for the 33rd Sunday in OT (A)

This morning, Jesus talks to us about the talents He gives and the legacy we leave behind. The Talents in the story include a whole host of things: it's His grace, His heart that He entrusts to us (cf. the first reading), this faith, this life. But the question is whether the soul that receives these gifts puts them to use for His legacy: that is, do we grow, do we love, do we bring more people to the faith?-- that's the five talents making five more.

So the problem with the last servant is that he did not leave a legacy. Indeed, he buried his talents. This is the irony: when he buries the talents, he isn't just burying the talents, he is burying himself. His life was meant to glorify God. But instead, he lived as though dead.

***

Today, we conclude our three-part series on death and dying. And today's gospel gives us the theme: what kind of legacy am I leaving behind?

Before we go there, I know that there are a couple of questions that people have regarding cremation and the funeral Mass. Let's answer those first.

When we consider cremation, we must first remember that the human person not only has dignity, but is also imbued with glory: the Christian was a temple of the Holy Spirit. Each one of our bodies was the place of God's glory. We pray that in our short lives, this glory shined forth.

At a funeral Mass, we are reminded of this glory when the body is brought forward and the priest blesses it with holy water, recalling that the person had received the light of Christ in baptism and had become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Great talents, those! Death, however, has now claimed the mortal body. Nevertheless, we still honor the body because it was once the temple.

When it comes to cremation, it was once prohibited because there existed widespread pagan beliefs that the body was bad or that the resurrection didn't exist-- and so those that did cremation did so badly, from a position of doubt or from disdain of the body. Today, the Church allows cremation so long as the person did not hold such doubtful or disdainful positions. When cremation is done, it is preferred that it be done after the funeral Mass (for the reasons mentioned above: ie, to revere the sanctity of the body).

We must also note, however, that while cremation is allowed, it is not necessarily preferred. The reason for this is because there have arisen some abuses regarding it. For example, there is a growing trend of people keeping the remains of their loved ones-- on their mantle, in amulets, I've even seen in potted plants. Unfortunately, in many of those cases, the remains are lost or even thrown away-- not out of malice, but simple neglect or forgetfulness. Our loved ones deserve better than that. This is why the Church points out that, if a person is cremated, they must be buried in a cemetery or columbarium-- some place stable that connects also to the tomb of Christ and which, in turn, gives us and our future generations the reminder to pray. Too many souls are forgotten and not prayed for when they just become another piece of furniture.

For much the same reason, remains are not to be scattered.

If you do have the remains of a loved one, please let me or your priest know and we can perform the rite of committal (burial).

***

Let us turn to the funeral Mass.

When it comes to the funeral Mass, we must remember that it is a Mass. And at the center of the Mass is Jesus. The center is not the dead person, but what Jesus has done and is doing for the person.

A funeral Mass, therefore, is supposed to be a time not simply to remember but to pray. We reflect: what Talents did Jesus give this person in life-- Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, vocation? Did they make five Talents more?

This is where the funeral Mass is supposed to draw us in: we are to be reminded that death comes for us, too, and that we will be judged; did I make five talents more?

I don't know about you, but when I die, I don't want people to say how awesome I was (I'm not, and I won't care). I will want people asking Jesus to be merciful. That's what we are doing at the funeral.

Readings, Homilies, Music, and eulogies (if there absolutely must be one) should highlight this and not avoid it. One of the best homilies/eulogies in this regard is the homily that Father Scalia gave at the funeral for his father, Justice Scalia. Go to the Youtube video-- it's worth your time.

A final word about the funeral Mass: plan ahead. When my dad died unexpectedly, it was difficult for me and my brothers and sister and their spouses to both grieve and plan a funeral. Save your family that difficulty and meet with a priest to discuss your funeral. I know, it sounds morbid, but it will help your family and it will help you to focus anew on Jesus whom you will meet at the end.

***

After the burial, we pray for the dead. You notice that at every single Catholic Mass, we pray for the dead. And oftentimes there is a particular person that we mention by name. That is because the family has asked the parish to pray for their beloved in a particular way-- the Mass is offered for him or her. Have Masses offered for your beloved dead. Simply ask me to do so or visit the parish office and ask Julia there. There is no cost (we don't sell Sacraments). If you want to give a donation, that will be just fine.

Know too that at every Mass you can offer your holy communion for your beloved dead and for all the souls in purgatory. A very good prayer is the prayer of St. Gertrude, a prayer given to her by Jesus Himself, promising her that if she said it with her heart, souls would be brought to heaven. The holy communion that you receive is so very powerful-- it is Jesus! Unite your love to His and say at communion, "Jesus, bring me and those I offer you in my heart now-- bring us to heaven!"

Many saints have pointed out that when you pray for a soul in purgatory and it is then brought to heaven, that soul in heaven prays for you. So, pray for the dead! When you think of it: it's a great investment! Some people here have brought many souls to heaven and now have many souls in heaven praying for them. That's awesome. That's five talents making five more!

***

Finally, do have a will. I say this because I have seen too many families ripped apart because of bickering and fighting over the parents' estate. Be generous, but also be clear.

And continue to show where your priorities are: leave a gift to the parish church and school. If you are able, let's start an endowment.

And, I know, some may say: "Sure, the priest is asking for money now." No, I'm not good at that or "The Ask." I just know that there is an opportunity to do good and I'm inviting people to participate in that. After all, if we are bringing souls to heaven here, I think that warrants not a token donation but true investment. Right?

Our goal is to leave a legacy of faith. When I meet with couples to have their children baptized or engaged couples who want to get married, the Number One Thing they say is that they have received the faith and want to pass it on to their children. Of course, what often passes us by is that, generally speaking, each new generation is doing less than the previous generation. Kids are doing less than their parents who did less than their parents. In such cases, we aren't making five talents more, but less.

A good examination of conscience here is to ask yourself this question: when I die, will I have left my children a faith strong enough to get them through my death-- and not only to get through it, but to turn to Jesus in it? Have I left my children a relationship with Jesus that they can grow in and know how to grow in? Have I left my children not only a knowledge of prayer but a practice of prayer such that, when I die, they will be offering Masses for me, praying for me, visiting my grave and then turning to their family to encourage a higher way of living?

I look at my young people here with us. I want you to do more than I am doing. Do more than me and your parents. Don't just follow me, I want you to learn how to lead with me and make more talents than what God gave you initially.

***

I know these have been heavy topics over the past three weeks and your patience has been wonderful. Let us pray for our beloved dead now. And let us also turn to Jesus and ask Him for the wisdom and strength that we may do His will. Let us use the Talents He gives us so that, when we die, not only will we be brought to heaven, but we will bring a litany of saints behind us: we will have used our talent and made many, many more. An eternal legacy.

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

To Grieve - Homily for the 32nd Sunday in OT (A)

During this month of prayer for the dead, we continue our three-part series of homilies on the topics surrounding the end of life. Last week, we discussed end of life care. This week, let us turn our hearts and minds to those who grieve and the best ways to take care of them.

We begin today with a very basic principle: death is real. And so is grieving. Grieving is real.

I remember when my dad died. It's been almost ten years. I can tell you pretty much everything about that day-- where I was, what the weather was like, ... Dad had been sick for a while, so there was always the proximate possibility-- but his death was still sudden and unexpected. Dad and I didn't have the greatest relationship, but deep down I loved him. So his death was hard.

Some of you have lost a spouse or a brother or a close friend or a child. I personally have not experienced these. But death is a very similar experience for us all: it's like we were on a boat and suddenly there is a ship-wreck. While the boat goes down, some parts of the boat remain on top of the water, reminding us there was once a boat, and in the meantime, we are just treading water, trying not to drown as the waves of grief wash against us.

One of the things I often hear asked is "Father, when will I stop grieving?" I'd like to say that those waves of grieving stop, but the reality is that they don't. We come across a keepsake or we visit a place or a smell reminds us-- and suddenly there is the wave. We're never really "done" grieving because, well, grieving is the sign that we loved. And love is stronger than death. So, the waves of grief may diminish in frequency and intensity over time-- time brings healing-- but we will always love. I do not grieve my father like I did that night when I wept over his death-- but I still miss him.

C.S. Lewis, when his wife had died, kept a diary. Later, this would become a thin, little book called "A Grief Observed." It's a book that I recommend for everyone-- even if you're not grieving. Everyone should read it-- "A Grief Observed." In his diary, C.S. Lewis struggled to find the meaning of his wife's passing and the meaning of life after that. And he realized that, as he mourned his wife's death, a part of him really did die.

He wasn't speaking in figures. What he was saying was: our hearts are not just simply emotions. Our hearts are not just simply feelings. Our hearts are who we give our love to. And so when that person dies, that person to whom we gave our heart, so too does that part of our heart that we gave. Lewis found some consolation in this. You see, he felt that death had separated him from his wife. But now he realized that he wasn't all that separated from her as he once thought: as she died, so too did he share in it. They weren't totally separated-- they did go to death together. This reassured him that, should they rise, they would also rise together.

Death is real. Grieving is real. Love is real.

When we grieve, we have to be real about the death. The death happened. We feel the loss. This is important to acknowledge-- it's actually how we start to heal.

One area where I think our culture can do better here is for our mothers who grieve a miscarriage. The reality about the miscarriage is that there really was a baby there and a real death and also real grieving because there really was love. We must never overlook this; a mother's love for her child-- even the smallest child-- is still a mother's forever love. So, we must treat the miscarriage as a real death, for it really is-- and help mothers who grieve, for they really are. The Catholic Church, Our Mother, embraces mothers here-- know that we are with you. One of the ways to heal is to name your child if you haven't done so already. Even if you don't know if it was a boy or a girl, go ahead and name your child. After Mass, write your child's name in our Book of Remembrance and we will pray for your children. There is also a very beautiful blessing that the Church can provide you here-- even if its been many many years ago.

For all of us who have lost a loved one, Lewis points out that a sure path to healing is to do something counter-intuitive: that is, to praise God. What Lewis meant by that was: to think about the person and the gift that they were to us and all the gifts God gave us through them-- and to turn to God and thank Him for that. Lewis found that as he praised God, the joy of his wife would remain with him and he found comfort.

Another help that C.S. Lewis gives us as we grieve is a word of advice: Avoid the un-real.

What he means by this is, we like to create falsehoods about death-- false realities that really don't help us.

For example: we hear people say, "She is going to live on in my memory." The stark reality is that no, no she won't. This sounds cruel, so let me explain. Fifteen years ago, I was in college and I hung out with a group of friends. I hadn't seen one of them in over ten years. Of course, I had a certain memory of them, but then they came through town and visited me. And my image of them-- what I remembered of them-- it was completely shattered. Sure, some things were the same; but they had changed and I didn't remember things as well as I had thought.

Same goes with our beloved dead. The passage of time and the failing of memory acts like a kind of snow covering a statue. We do lose a sense of who they really were.

So, what do we do? Lewis says that we must be real about our memory of them: hold on to not only the good, but the bad. Be real about them-- don't turn them into a precious moments doll. Be real. This also means admitting that there were things we didn't know about them. And that's a good thing: a really bad person may have, in their last breaths, made a last confession to God. There is still hope for some that we may have thought had no hope. Remember that they have met Jesus and we will be surprised by when we meet them again-- if we are real about this, so too will our image of them be closer to reality.

This means we also have to be real about death. It comes for us all. Even for innocent children. We sometimes hear parents say: "A parent should never have to bury their child." And I get the sentiment of it-- but where in the rule book does it say that this is how things are? Our ancestors knew very well that the young would often die. Sure, they didn't have some of the safety-nets that we now have. But as many safety-nets as we may have, death still comes for the child.

Which puts us into touch to another reality: we all needed a savior. We need Jesus. Without Him, yeah, there would be no hope. Death would be the end.

So when death comes, we must always keep our faith. Indeed, I worry about those who lose their faith when there is a death close to them. You see, we don't know how much we believe something until it becomes a matter of life or death. If anything should topple our faith-- even something like death-- we learn something about ourselves: our faith needed a greater foundation on Jesus and His promise of eternal life.

Our faith, therefore, must never be based in the sentimental. Our faith is not a feeling. That's just a house of cards that collapses when the reality of death strikes. We need something that will stand up to the winds that blow. And that foundation is Jesus. Our need for Him is real.

***

One of the best ways to help someone who is grieving is to be real.

So, for example, when someone is grieving, don't tell them something sentimental like "Oh, they're in a better place now." That's not real. Because, the reality is, we don't know that. I'm not God and you're not God-- and only God knows where a person is when they die. Contrary to popular belief, not all dogs go to heaven. Jesus Himself said so. So we can't say "Oh, they're in a better place."

Lewis adds that, when he was grieving, he hated this line. Not only because it wasn't real, but also because he didn't care. He didn't care where his wife was. I mean, he did, but all he really cared about was that she wasn't here. Don't tell me she's in a better place-- help me to answer why she isn't here.

Don't tell grieving parents that their children are now "angels in heaven." They don't want angels in heaven; they want their children. And when we die, we don't become angels anyway-- no more than when dogs die they become human (they don't).

And on a personal note, after the twentieth time of hearing "I'm sorry for your loss" at the funeral home, I was pretty tired of the pity. I didn't want pity. Do you know what I wanted? Do you know what anyone who is grieving wanted? ... not sentimental words; not imaginary worlds....

What they wanted is this *pointing to Jesus on the Cross* ... What would you say to Jesus as He was dying on the Cross to make Him feel better?-- because that's where the grieving are in their moments of grief.

I'll tell you what Jesus and all the grieving want to hear: "I'm with you." ... "I love you."

Just to hear my friends say, "We're with you"-- that was real. And that was the best consolation. A close second to that were the stories that I heard about my father-- stories that I never knew about my dad and what he meant to people. That's what we can say to those who are grieving. Those things are real.

Another thing that is real is that the grieving need food and they need sleep. And sometimes they needed to be reminded about that: "Have you eaten anything today?" "When was the last time that you slept"?

And please, enough with the lasagna.

I'm serious. Comfort food is nice for a day or two. But after two weeks of comfort food, you really start to gain weight and that puts your further into a bad place mentally and not wanting to get out of bed. Bring healthy food to those who are grieving.

Don't say, "Hey, can I do anything for you?" Because, really, when a person is grieving, sometimes they don't know. And, even when they do, they usually aren't in an emotional place to ask. We have to take the initiative for them.

Eventually, the wake is over and the funeral is over and the family and friends all go home. And do you know what happens then? The grieving person is often forgotten.

So, after three-to-six months, we need to call the person and say, "Hey, we're going out." Don't ask them; don't say, "Hey, want to do something?" Probably not. Because they may be depressed. Say, hey, I'm coming by in half an hour whether you like it or not. And go for a walk or the Botanical Garden or something. But get them out of the house.

And be real: visit a cemetery. Pray together for the dead at the Mass.

Being sentimental about all of this isn't helping our culture. Death is real. And our love for the dead person was real. Our love for the grieving should be real-- not simply about good wishes and happy thoughts.

Jesus came not to make us feel good, but to make us aware of the reality of death-- and more, to save us from it. That's what's real.

So, let us give to Him all of our loved ones who have died. Receive them, Jesus, bring them home. Bring comfort to our hearts. Help us to comfort others with goodness and truth. For we trust in you. We trust that you will wipe away every tear. For you are our Savior and our Love. Be with us Jesus. Remind us that there is hope. Be our foundation and our strength. Fill us with your love.

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

To Heal - Homily for the 31st Sunday in OT (A)

In the month of November, we pray in a particular way for the dead. It is also the perfect time for us to reflect on the end of life and some questions that many may have-- questions such as: when should we have a person anointed? does the Church allow the use of nursing homes? what are the best ways to help someone grieve? is cremation allowed? and so on.

During the next three weeks, I am going to offer a three-part series of homilies that will touch on these very topics.

As we and the people we love grow older, we find that we are faced with many difficult decisions. About hospitals, about nursing homes, about how we are to best care for our loved ones.

So, for example, it is often the case that want our parents at home-- whether with us or independently on their own. Sometimes, however, this seems like it just isn't possible. So, first, know that the Church is with you as you make this very difficult decision. You're not alone in this.

The principles that guide us here are two-fold: first, is my loved safe at their/my home? Are they falling more often? Are things going into the microwave that shouldn't be? If safety is an issue, then it is ok to pursue the nursing home option. Do not feel guilty about this-- there are some circumstances where we ourselves cannot provide the safety our loved ones need. Another principle is that of medical care: is my loved one able to receive adequate medical care at my/their home? Sometimes this medical care is impossible to give at your or their house. In such a case, it is ok to pursue the nursing home option-- and maybe even advisable.

If we must bring our loved one to such a home, yes, there will need to be a change in the relationship: we will need to make more of an effort to visit. We want to honor our father and mother as the commandment requires.

Sometimes, as our loved ones grow older, they may be quicker to anger, impatience, childish ways and so on. Some of us can sympathize: when our bodies break down, it's painful. And when we are in pain, it's harder to be joyful and patient. So, too, when we get older, our brains-- which are an organ just like the heart-- starts to break down and we do things that we didn't use to do. If we see any of these in our parents, it is very tough to see. It is tough especially to be patient with someone who is angry. To all of this, we come to our Lord and ask for a greater generosity-- for our parents once took care of us when we were childish, impatient, and a struggle.

So, to repeat: we must lovingly care for others even and especially when it seems inconvenient. But if it is a safety issue or a matter of being able to get adequate medical treatment, our care must be assisted by others and this may include the nursing home.

***

Along those lines, I hear many people-- old and young alike-- say something like: "I don't want to be an inconvenience on anybody." Ok, I get that. You love them and so you don't want to burden others.

But here's the thing: sometimes you need to be an inconvenience. What mean by that is: our culture needs to be inconvenienced. It's how God breaks others free from selfishness and it's how he trains them to love. I know we don't want to be an inconvenience, but sometimes God turns us into an inconvenience-- when we were younger, we were told to carry the Cross; when we are older, sometimes God turns us into the Cross that other people are being called to carry. So, it's ok to be an inconvenience-- so in it that God is using you to train others how to love.

I mention all of that because our culture often uses that line as a reason to euthanize the elderly and vulnerable.

So, for example, I spend a lot of time at hospitals visiting patients. I've spoken with a lot of doctors and nurses. (My siblings are in the medical field and I have a great love for doctors and nurses). Some docs will play on that "I don't want to be a burden" line when an illness is particularly difficult. The doctor will say: "Your [relative/friend] will not have a good quality of life."

Beware of that line. The doctor may be good intentioned here, trying to save your relative or friend from pain-- and the doctor may be trying to save you from "being inconvenienced" at having to care for a person that needs caring. But here's the thing: the line "your friend will not have a good quality of life" is not actually an ethical reason to withhold medical treatment.

If you hear that line, a red flag should immediately go up in your brain. And you should ask to see a priest immediately before any more medical decisions are made.

Whether or not medical treatment is withheld is not based on whether something becomes a "burden." (Christians carry Crosses for love all the time, after all). The ethical question is whether a medical treatment is "ordinary medical care" or "extraordinary medical care." That's what you need to be listening for: such and such is ordinary medical care or extraordinary medical care. If you don't hear that, ask for a priest.

As an aside: it is important to know the difference between ordinary and extraordinary care. That's what's going to determine whether or not, for example, a ventilator can be removed. Such a discussion would require more time than this homily allows. So, for now, I point you to our bulletin. There, you will see that there is a very important seminar coming up on this very topic. The seminar will be held close by and I highly, highly encourage all here to attend.

***

When death is much closer-- and whether we are at the hospital or at home with hospice-- we will probably here the line: "We're doing everything we can to make [her] comfortable." When you hear this line, ask what it means: how are you making her comfortable?

I say this because, yes, I want people to be comfortable, but we have to be very careful: it is becoming more prevalent in end-of-life care that people are using morphine to make patients comfortable-- and I've seen it happen where too much morphine is given. If morphine is the cause of death (and it is happening that such is the case), then the patient has been euthanized! We can't do that.

And I also want to see a patient before morphine is administered-- because, often, the morphine renders the patient nearly comatose and I need to speak with the patient. You see, as a priest, I am keenly aware that there are two kinds of comfort: physical and spiritual. And I can tell you, from seeing hundreds of people at the hour of their death, that spiritual pain can be much more agonizing. It has many times happened where a patient is very agitated about something and everyone thinks it's bodily pain. But I come in and I talk with them and we do reconciliation and suddenly they are much calmer. You see: the soul knows when it is dying, when it's near the end of life-- and he knows, too, when he is not right with God.

If a doc or nurse says "we're doing everything to make them comfortable," you should immediately ask: "So you have called the priest, then?"

Call me! This is why we exist: to bring peace to the soul before they die.

***

This brings us to Anointing of the Sick. Anointing is a Sacrament and sacraments are for the living. I can't anoint someone when they are dead. At that point, I can only pray for them as we do in this month of the dead.

So, if you can, call me-- do not wait until something is "very grave" before you call the priest. Call him before that. And if you can't reach him at the rectory, there are always priests on call through the Catholic hospital-- the information desk or the chaplain there will be able to track one down.

People often ask when they can be anointed. Simply: it is when you are dying or in danger of death. So, it is not for when you have a cold or if you have been moody for a month. The illness must be graver than that. However, it is true that if you are going in for surgery and "going under," then, yes, you can be anointed.

This sacrament will strengthen you and bring you healing. It really does help. More can be said here, but I wish to spend my last minutes telling you a story.

***

I was once called into a hospital room for an emergency anointing-- the person was going to die. She was an older woman with children and grandchildren. When she checked into the hospital, she was lucid enough to respond to the question about what religion and said "Catholic." When the nurses knew she wasn't going to make it, the hospital called me. It was very late at night.

I entered the hospital room where she was and there were her children and grandchildren. I received a cold reception. I had a hunch that no one was Catholic here (a shepered can tell his sheep). The woman had slipped into a coma, so I asked the family if she was Catholic. They thought so.

I walked over to her and spoke to her (oftentimes, hearing is the last sense to go). I told her I was a Catholic priest and I took her hand. I asked her if she was sorry for her sins and, if she was, to squeeze my hand if she could. I felt a little-- very, very little-- but nevertheless a little squeeze.

I anointed her and gave her the last rites of the Church, giving her all of the graces that Jesus wants for the soul before she meets him. It was very beautiful. Some of the children and grandchildren perceived this and were weepy.

I turned to them and asked if any of them were Catholic. None were. I told them that what I just did was an incredible grace that not every person receives. To have a priest at one's bedside-- and therefore to have Jesus and Mary-- it's a great gift.

One of the children interrupted me: "Her mom was Catholic. She used to pray the Rosary all the time for her children."

"Ah. There it is" I said to myself. What the children and grandchildren didn't realize was that their dying mom/grandma was receiving this grace because her mom had prayed for her.

This has happened so many times that I am totally convinced: if you pray the Rosary for your children, even if they are away from the Church, God and Mary will give them every chance at the hour of their death to receive everything needed to get to heaven. After all, what do we say in the Hail Mary?

"Pray for us sinners now ... and at the hour of our death."

Yes, it is so important to pray the Rosary for our children!

***

We've covered a lot this morning. The Church knows we face difficult decisions in these times. But she is with us. It is really beautiful and it really makes me proud to be a Catholic to see our Mother Church bring great comfort and wisdom in these times and to stand up for the dignity of the elderly and infirm.

If you are facing any of these difficult decisions, know that we are with you and are praying for you.

For ourselves and our families, let us pray for a happy death-- that is, that when we die, we may be right with God and enter into His heavenly kingdom. To that end, I point you to St. Joseph, the patron of a happy death-- he is the patron because he died in the arms of Jesus and Mary.

What more could any of us want? That is the greatest comfort, isn't it?

Ok, then. St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, pray for us! Mary Our Mother, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

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


Friday, November 3, 2017

Small Steps to Heaven - Homily for the Solemnity of All Saints (2017)

A few days ago, we had the "Trunk or Treat" and a few kids dressed up as saints. There were also two boys who dressed up as... me. One dressed in black clerics and walked with a bike. The other one wore a kind of Mass vestment and toted a soccer ball. He wore a name tag and it said: "Hello, I'm Father Gerber, future patron saint of soccer players."

I'll take that! Haha! They have so easily pegged me!

Today is a joyful day, a day to celebrate the graces of God and the victory of these men and women we call saints.

***

I've read a lot about them and, in all of the books I've read, I've noticed that there is something that unites them, a common theme among them all. And that is, for each and every last one of them, all they had to do to become a saint was to respond to the good that God was calling them to do. Just respond to the good.

That's it.

No matter how far off the reservation in sin they had been, whether it was a life of it as in the case of the good thief, or Mary Magdalene, or Augustine-- the one thing that turned everything around and helped them to grow was that response to God's invitation to do good. And yeah, it wasn't easy: it started with repentance, with saying sorry. It meant suffering: Monica cried a lot for her family who had fallen away. But each day in them there was a call to do good. And what made them all saints was that they kept on responding to it-- even after a fall, they kept getting up. One stair, on step at a time, all the way to heaven.

***

Here's where I've also realized something about saints-- something that I've read from the book of everyday experience: no matter who you are, it's very easy to think that the saints are distant, that they aren't real. When I talk about the saints at the school, for example, the kids think they aren't real. I mean, they know they are real-- but not REALLY real... I mean, we're talking about people from the Middle Ages ... across the Ocean... a long time ago, in a land far away-- it's so easy for the kids (and for all of us) to think it's make believe.

Or that the saints are museum pieces, fuzzy art on holy cards, caricatures of grace that no "normal" human being can ever actually attain. Anomalies...

They don't see that right here, people are growing in holiness and becoming saints. I mean, what would we expect a saint to look like? I think the children would be surprised that there are people in these pews who are close to sainthood-- that there are even some children in our school who are walking in this grace. The saints aren't distant at all. They were just like you, listening to sermons just like this, breathing the same air you breathe, living and working in the same world in which we live and work.

***

If I may, let me give you an example. Her name is Blessed Chiara Luce Badano.

Chiara was a beautiful and joyful Italian woman who lived in our own times-- she was a teenager in the 1980s. And for those of you who didn't live in the 1980s, you totally missed out.

Chiara was beautiful, but she wasn't a saint from birth-- none of us are! She was strong-willed and argued a bit with her parents. On one occasion, she stole from her neighbor's apple tree. Her parents caught her and taught her that stealing was bad.

(Notice, this saint's path to holiness began with her parents teaching her the difference between right and wrong).

Chiara remembered this lesson and a change began in her: if stealing was wrong, then giving is right: I must give.

So, when Chiara would go to school, her mom would pack her a snack-- haha, just like parents do today! Chiara would take her snack to school and she would see someone without a lunch. Something in Chiara would well up in her heart, something that told her what was good: and Chiara responded by giving the poor student her own snack.

Of course, teachers noticed this and that Chiara wasn't eating lunch, so they told Mrs. Badano-- just like today: in parent-teacher conferences! Mrs. Badano told Chiara that it was nice of her to share; so Mrs. Badano (also a saint in the making) started to pack Chiara two snacks and told her: "Ok, Chiara, this one is for the poor, this one is for you." Chiara went to school with two snacks, but there was a pull in her heart-- so Chiara gave them both away!

See? This is all it takes.

***

Now, lest we think that Chiara was some porcelain doll at age 9, let me be clear that she was just like any girl: she loved pop music and singing and dancing. She lived in the 1980s, so she likely knew Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and The Bangles' "Walk Like An Egyptian." Chiara loved tennis and likely knew Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras. Chiara loved to hike and to swim, but she wasn't a great student-- even failing freshman year of high school.

(Don't do that, by the way).

So, needless to say, she was very much like a teenage girl.

When she was 16, she went on a retreat (as many high school girls do) and was drawn to an image-- an image of Jesus Foresaken. Chiara was moved that Jesus was being forgotten.

(So, you see-- there's that movement again... Something is welling up in her...)

She responds to that and promises Jesus that if others forget Him, she will remember Him. And so she makes that resolution at that retreat: Jesus, I will remember you.

A little thereafter, Chiara becomes sick. It's bone cancer. And it's not looking good. So she prays: "Ok, Jesus, if you want it, I want it too." Small prayer-- but that's the stuff of saints.

Chiara enters the hospital and there meets some patients who are depressed. (It's easy to become depressed or to throw pity parties when we are sick). Chiara decides that she is instead going to remember Jesus and bring joy. So she goes on walks with other patients. With bone cancer, these walks would be very painful-- but it would be all for them and for Jesus. Chiara's parents often encouraged her to rest, but she would simply reply, "I'll be able to sleep later on."

When her chemotherapy started to cause her beautiful hair to fall out, with each strand of hair Chiara would say, "For you, Jesus."

Later, when it was revealed that she wouldn't recover, she said "If I had to choose between walking again and going to heaven, I wouldn't hesitate, I would choose heaven." #Priorities.

***

Knowing that she was going to die, Chiara started making preparations-- for others. What I mean by that is, she started to prepare her parents for life after her death. By that I mean-- her parents refused to leave her bedside, so she bought them dinner reservations to a restaurant for St. Valentine's Day-- and she ordered them not to return until after midnight.

She gave all of her savings to a friend who was doing mission work in Africa.

After that, she said: "At this point, I have nothing left, but I still have my heart and with that I can always love."

... I still have my heart and with that I can always love!

With her friends gathered, she said to them and to all young people: "I can't run anymore, but how I would like to pass on to you the torch, like the Olympics! ... You have only one life and it's worthwhile to spend it well."

Spend it on love!

Finally, when the time was near for her passing, Chiara made a request: she wanted to be buried in a white dress, kind of like a wedding. She wanted to wear a white dress for when she met Jesus-- because she wasn't able to get married in this life, and Jesus was her forever love.

***

That's it.

Chiara's feast day was just a few days ago: October 29th.

By the end of her life, she is doing incredible things. But notice how it started: responding to the good: to avoid stealing, to start giving... These are steps to heaven .... small steps to heaven...  to start giving sacrificially ... to remember Jesus ... to remember Jesus when in pain ... to see others in pain and see Jesus.... each step greater than the next... all the way to heaven.

***

We ask for the Saints' help. They have given us great example and great hope-- let us ask them to help us.

And someday, if we respond to this grace, we will be able to meet them. You will be able to talk with Chiara and all your favorite saints.

And you will do something amazing from heaven: in the words of St. Thesese, you will even spend your heaven doing good on earth. From heaven, you will be able to help your children and your grandchildren and great-grandchildren who, we pray, after you are still in these pews. And maybe they will have known you to be a saint-- or maybe they never saw that you were-- but whether they saw it or not, there are future saints who are sitting here right now in these pews.

Shoot, you're probably sitting in a pew where, years before, another saint was sitting. Something to think about. Because if they are in heaven, maybe a grandma or great-grandpa-- they are likely praying for you right now. We can ask Chiara and all the saints to pray for us now. Blessed Chiara, pray for us! All you holy men and women, pray for us!

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


Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Look and The Gaze - Homily for the 30th Sunday in OT (A)

Do you know about "The Look"? If you have glasses, you can peer over them and easily give... "The Look." Usually, The Look is part of our body language that speaks anger or disappointment or questioning, like "Really, you're really going to do that?" Yeah, The Look.

I mention The Look because many people think that God is constantly giving them The Look: the look that He's always angry with me or disappointment with me or questioning every little decision that I make. And the devil would have us in that fearful relationship just like he did in the Garden when Adam and Eve were afraid of God and so hid themselves.

But, this week, I noticed there is another side of The Look.

I was outside of the church after Wednesday's Mass-- that's the "little kids'" Mass-- and the 1st graders were coming out from the church. I give them high fives and so on, but one of the girls was really eager to get my attention: "Father Gerber! What do you think of my bow?" She had a bight bow in her hair. It was kind of a mess, but it was also kind of cute.

"Oh, my dear, your bow looks marvelous!"

She was thrilled. And immediately she started skipping. She skipped all the way back to school.

I started to wonder: how was this that I, by a look of approval and a few simple words, could cause someone to skip happily from here to there?

The answer came very quickly: I'm a priest. First graders equate me with Jesus. So, my words weren't simply my, Father Gerber's, words. They were Jesus' words. Jesus had approved of that little girl's bow. And of course that meant everything to her.

(Can you imagine had I said, "Honey, that bow looks awful. How dumb." Oy!)

Ok, so there is "The Look"-- that of anger, disappointment, disapproval-- but there's also "The Gaze." The Gaze is the loving eyes of the Father that notices us, that finds us important, and-- even when we are a mess-- says to us, "I still choose you."

***

In a recent Pew Study, it was noted that roughly 50% of Catholics do not believe they can have a personal relationship with God. I think a big part of this has to do with our thoughts of who we think God is. I am convinced that more people think that God is giving them The Look than showering them with The Gaze of love.

I've been wondering about this. Recently, I came across a book (Devin Schadt, "Show Us The Father") that points out that, when a man converts to the faith, his children are 93% more likely to enter the church whereas, when a mom converts to the faith, her children are only 17% more likely to enter the church. This is not a sleight against women and mothers-- for nothing can replace the affection and love of mom! Rather, it shows us that there is something peculiar about the man.

What is peculiar about the man? Well, just like the priest can reflect Jesus, dad can reflect God the Father. See, God has given to us men the ability to image Him, to bring to our children His voice, to bring to them His touch, His mercy, His generosity, His heart. Where dad is, there is the image of The Father.

50% of Catholics do not believe they can have a personal relationship with God. Could that be because Catholics, just like the rest of the culture, suffer from a 50% divorce rate-- where 50% of our children do not know their fathers?

***

For us fathers, how we view God the Father is so important. Our image of God the Father inspires our fatherhood and our fatherhood inspires what our children believe of God the Father. 

Yeah, I know: in the Old Testament, God is destroying things. Ok, I get it. But look again at the first reading through the lens of a Father who loves. Do you see it? God the Father is protecting His vulnerable children-- that is, the poor, the foreigner, the orphan, the widow-- these are His children and He is protecting them. I mean, what Father here would not protect their children if they were in danger?

Do you believe that about God in your life-- that He would stand up for you and protect you? And if not, where has that false image of God come from?

Hear Jesus' words: "If you who are wicked know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God the Father give you who ask Him?"

Or again: "You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased."

How would things change if, when you walked out of this church, you saw God the Father showering with love upon you, saying to you "You're important to me. I choose you, I want you."

***

When a person does not believe this, they will search for other things and people to affirm them. 

How many seek the Father's gaze from the boyfriend or from the wife or from the boss or the job or the bank account? None of these things can replace your heavenly Father's gaze.

So too, if our children do not receive the father's gaze, to know that they are cherished and important and good in their Father's sight-- if they do not receive this from you (and I am speaking to myself, the priest, and to all dads and grand-dads), then they will seek others-- another boy, another girl, another group or gang or drink or addiction-- they will seek another of whom we often won't approve to give it to them. And what will happen when they are hurt that this "other" fails to satisfy the longing for the gaze?

Yes: true Fatherhood is like oxygen for your children. They need it to survive.

Indeed, we all need it.

***

This morning, we heard Jesus tell us, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, ... soul... strength..."

If we think that God is absent, or if we think that God is mean, this commandment is nearly impossible. But if God loves us with all His heart, with all His mind, with all His soul, and with all His strength-- it's easier.

I am more moved to love God if I think that my love matters to Him. I am more moved to love Him if I know that my coldness would hurt him. I am more moved to come humbly to Him, saying that I am sorry if I know that I won't get yelled at.

And that's the thing: sometimes I doubt that: I doubt my love matters, or that I hurt Him, or that I won't be yelled at for doing wrong.

But then, I think: what if my parishioners thought that I was cold; what if they thought that I would yell at them if they did wrong; what if they thought that their love didn't matter to me? It would hurt.

Parents, I'm sure you would feel the same way about your children: you would be hurt if they thought you didn't love them.

Because, after all, that's at the heart of us being parents: we love our children.

How much more is the case, then, for God the heavenly Father! You're His child. And He loves you.

***

And here's the really cool thing: our heavenly Father loves you so much that He will actually give you the very power to Gaze, to love, in the way that we are seeking to do.

St. Therese of Lisieux would make this prayer: "Jesus, please give me your love so that I may love with your love." Therese recognized that her human love wasn't enough-- she needed a more powerful love. And she believed that God the Father, who is a good Father, would give precisely that higher, divine love if only she would ask: "Jesus, give me your love so that I can love God and neighbor as I ought." Please, help me to live under your gaze.

St. Augustine put it this way: "Amemus Deum de Deo": let us love God from God-- let us love Him from the very love with which He loves us, which He will give us in order to love Him. In other words, ask for the Gaze. Ask to know it, to walk in it-- and then you'll be able to give it.

Let's pray: Heal us, heavenly Father, of any ideas of you that aren't you. Strengthen us by your love. Help us to live under your gaze. Pour your love into our hearts, that we may in turn say to our children with your very gaze of love: "I choose you. You are important to me. I love you."

And I like your bow.

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.