Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Homily for 19 Sep 2017

19 Sep 2017

Jesus did a great thing: he brought the widow’s son back to life.  But he didn’t do that for the man’s sake; actually, he did it out of pity for the widow.  He did it for her sake.

And we know the Lord blesses each of us in many ways.  But maybe the blessings aren’t always intended to make our own life better.  Maybe he blesses us...so somebody else can benefit.

It’s good to remember the good things God has done for us.  And it’s just as good (and maybe even necessary) to share those blessings with others—not just because it’s the “nice thing to do,” but because maybe God is trying to use us as merely an instrument of his peace and blessings.

It’s a great thing to be blessed by the Lord.  May we pass those blessings on, especially to those who need a little help from their neighbor, and from God.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Homily for 17 Sep 2017

17 Sep 2017
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

When does nighttime end and the day begin?  Or when daylight end and the night begin?  It’s hard to tell.  If you go outside early in the morning and wait for the sun to rise, it’s just a gradual thing.  The darkness of night slowly transforms into the light of day.  And at sunset, just the opposite happens.  The light of days slowly slips away into the dark of night.

We tend to see day and night as distinct—and they certainly are.  But exactly where one ends and the other begins...that’s hard to tell.  And this very blurry line between the two is similar to how we view the life of heaven and the life of earth.  Heaven and earth are distinct, for sure.  And, yet, where one ends and where the other begins isn’t always easy to tell.

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is death.  Death is a pretty easy way to tell where the boundary is.  There isn’t much of a blurred line there between earth and heaven.  And we can certainly grant that.  But, of course, there’s more to life on earth than life in the body.  And there’s more to life in heaven than simply life in the spirit.  Death is certainly a sign of something, but it isn’t necessarily the dividing line between earth and heaven.

The rising sun isn’t suddenly “risen.”  And the setting sun isn’t here one second and gone the next.  In the same way, life on earth doesn’t suddenly end.  And the life of heaven doesn’t suddenly begin.  The line between the two—if there even is a line—is pretty blurred; they flow into and out of each other pretty freely. 

And this can be a real challenge for us to accept in the 21st Century; even for us who profess faith in God, the Maker of “all things visible and invisible.”  When we hear about wars and terrorism; when we experience mercilessness from other people; when God seems to be deaf to our prayers, it can be a challenge to believe that the life of heaven is somehow part of our life on earth.  There’re enough “unheavenly” things around us to make us doubt that.

Our Scripture passages today focus on one particular area of heavenly life: the area of forgiveness.  The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is similar to when your debts are forgiven...simply because the king himself is kind and merciful.  Forgiveness is part and parcel of heavenly life.  So, too, are mercy and kindness.  If I forgive, the life of heaven is already, at least partially, within me.  And if I am forgiven (and I let myself be forgiven), the life of heaven has touched and enriched me.

And the idea here is that the “kingdom of heaven” doesn’t begin when we die; the pearly gates aren’t opened when we breathe our last.  The gates are open now.  One aspect of heavenly life—forgiveness—is something we can live right now.  The “rising sun” of heaven is already beginning to shine; we don’t have to wait to be a forgiving person, we can do that now, today.  We don’t have to wait to experience that part of heaven.

Now, in the Book of Sirach, we don’t hear anything about heaven.  We hear about the importance of forgiveness, but he doesn’t mention heaven.  Instead, he says: “Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin.”  And what he’s saying is simply: Know where you’re going, and live your life accordingly.  For Sirach (and many others at the time), the notion of a life after death was not widely believed; Sirach himself didn’t believe in any sort of general resurrection. 

When he saw death, he saw only “death and decay,” not heaven or life.  And so, we can only take his wisdom so far.  But he does get at something important when he says, in so many words: Know where you’re going, and live your life accordingly.  If we desire heaven, if we want to live that life, then begin living it today.  And we know we can because, again, the gates of heaven are open now; the grace of God, the life of God, the love of God is given for us to share in now, today.

“Know where you’re going, and live your life accordingly,” Sirach says, as do many of the saints of our Tradition.  If you google “heaven,” you’ll probably see tons of images of clouds; blue sky and clouds, with sunlight; maybe a brilliant staircase and a few people around gazing toward the holy city sparkling in gold.”  It’s presented as a place, and as a place which has little resemblance to our life on earth.  In short, heaven is presented as a foreign land; a place we have no connection to.

And so, even if we know we should want to “go to heaven,” it can be hard to get all that excited about it.  It’s like living in your home for decades; you’re comfortable, life is good, the weather is great; there’s no reason to live.  And then somebody comes and says, “Ok, it’s time to move.  Don’t worry, you’re going to a fantastic place; it’ll be great.”  My response would be like, “Why?  I’m doing fine here.  ‘There’s no place like home,’ as Dorothy would say.”  And I’ve heard more than a few teenagers say, “You know, heaven doesn’t look all that exciting to me.  I mean, what’s so thrilling about sitting on a cloud forever?  Maybe that would be heaven for a meteorologist, but not me.”

For some people, maybe for a lot of people, the idea of “knowing where you’re going, and living your life accordingly” isn’t very motivational—because heaven itself doesn’t appear to be all that compelling.  The vision of what God has in mind for his sons and daughters looks kind of...flat.  Of course, it isn’t true, but that’s the popular conception.

If we want to have a clue of what heaven is like, a good person to start with is God himself—Jesus.  He is “the visible image of the invisible God;” the God whose life is at the heart of what we call “heaven.”  Jesus gives us a view into heaven; he opens its gates to us.

Jesus is...endlessly forgiving.  That’s what his remark about “seventy-seven times” means.  In heaven there are no grudges, no resentments, no ill will, no hard feelings.  There are no wounds to be nursed, or self-pity to indulge in.  Instead, there’s forgiveness; forgiveness and mercy.  When I think of the confessional rooms, it sometimes strikes me how the door to the confessional is like a “door to heaven.”  On the other side is God’s complete forgiveness, and his unfailing friendship.

Jesus is also...an instrument of truth and wisdom.  A biblical scholar once remarked that “whenever you uncover a bit of truth, you uncover a bit of God.”  We could also say “you uncover a bit of heaven.”  In heaven there are no secrets, there is no ignorance; nothing is hidden away, no one is deprived of the knowledge of things.  And we know that truth only comes to those who are humble and curious, so we can also say that in heaven there isn’t any pride; there is no competition—but just the thrill of “soaking it all in.”  

In Scripture, Jesus is revealed as the Bridegroom.  And from the first pages of Genesis to the last pages of Revelation, a recurring theme is that of marriage: the beauty of union, the beauty of fidelity and companionship.  We hear it so often in Scripture: heaven is the “wedding supper of the Lamb.”  Heaven is a feast, a gathering, a celebration of belonging and, again, reconciliation and wholeness.  In heaven there are no outsiders, there are no cliques.  There isn’t any “them and us;” instead it’s “us and God.”

Heaven is goodness, truth, and beauty.  It’s the experience of harmony, where each person plays off the other in a divine music directed by God.

Heaven isn’t so much a place, as it is an experience of life.  Heaven is a way of living life.  And whenever we live that life, we are living the life of heaven—even if we do it imperfectly.  When we forgive and are forgiven, we are experiencing heaven.  When we’re thrilled with love and friendship; when we’re vulnerable with another person we trust; when we accept and love someone else unconditionally, we are experiencing heavenly life.

When we’re struck by the beauty of the day, or we’re captivated in awe at a thunderstorm, we are experiencing heaven.  When we learn in school; when we’re honing our skills and figuring out how the world works; when we’re wondering about God and sharing our life with him in the quiet of prayer, we are experiencing heavenly life.

The life of heaven doesn’t begin when we die.  It happens today, every time we “let God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  And God’s will is: forgiveness, mercy, beauty, truth, goodness, friendship, kindness, knowledge, charity, and so much more.  It might sound a lot like our life on earth.  But, then again, there’s a blurry line between heaven and earth, just like the dark of night and the light of day.   

Heaven isn’t just a future life; it’s also our present life.  We don’t have to wait to experience it.  We don’t have to wait to live it.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Homily for 15 Sep 2017

15 Sep 2017
Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows

We know that Saint Paul had a difficult life as an Apostle.  And, yet, he writes, “I am grateful [for having been] appointed to the ministry.”  What comes to mind here are the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness...Rejoice and be glad” (Mt 5:10,12).  Even though being a disciple of the Lord could be difficult for him, Saint Paul was still “grateful;” he was able to see himself as “blessed.”

Another Scripture passage comes to mind as well: the Canticle of Mary (Lk 1:46-55).  “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his handmaid.  All generations will call me blessed.”  But, as we know, “a sword pierced her heart,” as the Prophet Simeon said it would.  However, even in her sorrow, our Blessed Mother still considered herself “blessed.”

The question that arises from the Scriptures today seems to be this: Even when the Christian life is difficult, can I still be “grateful” for having been chosen to share Christ’s life with him?      

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Homily for 14 Sep 2017

14 Sep 2017
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
(School Mass)

Chicken soup—sometimes chicken noodle soup—that works when you have a stomach ache.  It makes you feel better.  Sometimes, though, you have to have something really simple like toast and milk.  Or even warm milk.  That works sometimes.  Of course, if you’re really sick, you might have to take some medicine, like Pepto-Bismol or Nyquil or something.

Anyway...there are lots of different things we can do to make us feel better if we’re sick.  But what about if we’re not sick, but we’re...sad, or lonely, or maybe we feel bad because we were mean to somebody.  Then what do we do?

Well, we can always look at the Cross of Jesus.  Remember what he said in the gospel...”I have to be lifted up [on the Cross] so that everybody who believes in me may have eternal life,” and be healed and made well again.  If you’re sad, just look at the Cross.  And Jesus will be sad with you.  If you’re lonely, just look at the Cross.  And Jesus will be there with you; we’re never alone with Jesus.  Or if we’re feeling bad because we were mean to somebody, just look at the Cross.  And Jesus will say, “I forgive you.  And I love you always.”

The Cross of Jesus is like chicken soup for our spirit.  And that’s because when we see the Cross, we see God’s powerful love.  And love is the best medicine he has for us—even better than soup, or toast and milk, or Pepto-Bismol.  God’s love makes us better.  Thanks be to God for such a sweet-tasting medicine to heal our spirits, the medicine of his love poured out for us; for you and me.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Homily for 13 Sep 2017

13 Sep 2017

Jesus “raised his eyes toward his disciples,” and he simply spoke about what he saw in them.  So often, that’s how the Lord is compassionate toward us: he serves as a mirror so we can see ourselves as God sees us.

It’s similar, maybe, to how we adults can sit and watch children play.  They just do their thing, totally unaware that we’re watching them.  But every now and then you have to speak up, especially if the kids are about to do something dangerous.  You have to speak the truth to them. 

God sees us.  He watches us “play” and go about our daily lives.  But every now and then he pokes at our conscience and says, “Hey, you might want to rethink what you’re doing.”  He doesn’t do it to meddle, or to be accusatory.  He does it because it’s the compassionate thing to do.

Jesus “raises his eyes toward his disciples,” toward us and all his followers.  He sees us; he looks into our souls and minds and hearts.  And he sees a lot of good.  He also sees those areas of life where we can be better—not to point a finger, but in order that we might love ourselves more.  God is compassionate to us in that sort of way.

Thank goodness we have a God who cares enough to try to keep us on the right path, the path of being “blessed” and happy.

Homily for 12 Sep 2017

12 Sep 2017

Judas Iscariot was a good guy.  He was drawn to the personal charisma of Jesus, and Jesus saw in him someone who could be an effective instrument of the Kingdom.  Judas Iscariot was a genuinely good guy. 

But, as St. Luke reminds us, Judas “became a traitor.”  Jesus didn’t choose a traitor; he chose a man who showed promise.  Only later did Judas “become” a traitor.  Leaders of people, even if they’re chosen by God, don’t always live up to their calling.  Sometimes, leaders—even leaders in the Church—go bad.  Judas is just one example.

And when that happens, it’s a test of our faith, and it’s a test to see in whom we’ve placed our faith.  Do we put it in other people?  Or is our faith, ultimately, in the wisdom of God?  The psalms say, “It is better to trust in the Lord, than to trust in men; it is better to take refuge in the Lord, than to trust in princes.”

And we know that it’s better because God does not disappoint; God does not fail.  Even if the all-too-human leaders God has chosen fail, God himself is always steady and faithful.  God is never in danger of “becoming” a traitor.  God is forever faithful.  When can never go wrong by placing all our faith in him, our leader, Shepherd, and Guide.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Homily for 10 Sep 2017

10 Sep 2017
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

As I drive around and see the animals out in the fields, it makes me think of the Church.  And it isn’t so much because of the animals, but because of the fence around the fields, and how the animals stay inside that boundary.  They’re free to roam anywhere they want—as long as it’s within that field, within that fence.

And it makes me think of the Church because that’s how it is with us, too.  We’re free to roam and live however we want—as long as it’s within the parameters God lays out for us.  If we stay within those parameters, we’re part of the Church.  But if we step outside those limits, we take ourselves out of the Church; we separate ourselves from the flock.

I’m sure the farmers probably see something else when look at their herds and their flocks, but for me, the image of the Church comes to mind.  And this is what Scripture brings to mind today as well.

The Prophet Ezekiel talks about those who are appointed “watchman over the house of Israel.”  A watchman was somebody stationed atop the walls of the city.  And his job was to make sure the city was kept safe, and to sound the alarm if there was any threat to the citizens.  God speaks of his people as a city, a “holy city,” with walls built of “living stones”—where the faithful themselves are the defensive wall of the city, the “fence around the field.”

And then in the Gospel, Jesus describes the process of making things right within that holy city.  But if someone refuses to live by the law of God (that is, the law of love), then, Jesus says, “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”  In other words, treat that person as an outsider—with love, of course, but keeping him at a distance.  And we know what Jesus is getting at here. 

When somebody has the flu or they have a cold, we tend to keep a distance.  We love them, but we don’t want to get too close.  And that’s only the wise thing to do; after all, we could get sick, and we don’t want that.  When a child is sick, we don’t send him or her off to school.  Instead, we keep them home, not only so they can get better, but also to keep the other kids at school from getting sick. 

Again, it’s just the wise and prudent thing to do.  And that’s why Jesus says what he says with regard to those around us who refuse to live according to the law of God, the law of love.  “Love them,” Jesus says, “but keep them at a distance so you aren’t affected in a bad way.”

The underlying idea in all this is that the Church has a protective wall around it, and those who live within that “holy city” are expected to live within certain standards; standards of belief, standards of worship, standards of conduct with each other (that’s what Saint Paul gets at today in his letter to the Romans when he writes: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”).

The Church has a protective wall, it has a “code of conduct,” it has expectations of those who are its citizens.  And people are free to live and roam anywhere they want, as long as it’s within those parameters—within that fence of Christ the Good Shepherd.  And this can be a challenge for some people.

You know, it’s a great privilege to be an American; to have individual liberties, to have the freedom to pursue happiness and to fulfill our wishes and desires.  And, really, the philosophy of American freedom fits very nicely with the idea of the Church and her “fences and expectations.”  Just because I’m a free American doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want.  It means I’m free to do what I want...as long as it does no harm to me or my neighbor, as long as it respects the freedom of others, as long as it contributes to the good of the society, as long as it’s respectful of legitimate authority, and so on.

In the Church there’s the often heard phrase, “all are welcome.”  And it’s true: all are welcome in the Catholic Church.  No one is turned away...except those who don’t believe what we believe, or those who have no desire to be a disciple of Christ, or those who have no interest in contributing to the life of the Church.  Those are all non-negotiable aspects of what it means to be the Church.  They’re part of the definition of the Church.

And so that phrase, “all are welcome,” really needs to be expanded.  It should be something like: “All are welcome to be a disciple of Christ, and to have their lives changed by committing themselves to live as a citizen of his holy city, the Church.”  All are welcome to do that.  But, of course, not everyone accepts the invitation.  Some would even find that invitation distasteful because...it includes expectations and limits.

One of the blessings of the Second Vatican Council is that it reinstituted the “Rites of Christian Initiation.”  They’ve always been there—Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist—but the Council made their context more obvious again; the context being “initiation.”  We’re baptized into the Church, then the faith of the Church is confirmed, and finally we receive the Eucharist as persons who’ve been fully initiated into the life of Christ and the Church.  They’re not only sacraments; they’re also major milestones toward initiation into the Church.

And this idea of initiation goes back to biblical times.  Jesus walked around and preached.  And crowds of people were drawn to him and followed him, including his many disciples and the twelve Apostles.  But as time went on, the numbers got smaller and smaller.  There’s the one scene (John 6:22-29) where Jesus is trying to tell people that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”  And we read that “many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’  As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Jesus was trying to initiate them with the truth, but they couldn’t accept it.  So their initiation ended there.  Jesus was trying to bring them inside the “fence” of his pasture, inside the “walls” of the holy city, the early Church.  But they chose not to go with him.  They remained outside.  And so, even if some find the idea of expectations and limits to be distasteful, they are nonetheless, essential to the reality of the Church.

Pope Francis is known for saying many things, one of which is the phrase, “Who am I to judge?”  “If someone seeks Christ with a sincere heart, who am I to judge?”  And he’s absolutely correct.  God alone is our judge, our merciful and endlessly forgiving judge.  And yet, at the same time, Christ put into the hands of the Church the ability to bind and to loose: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  We don’t judge people, but the Church does have expectations of its members, and those expectations are binding.

But, really, the expectations aren’t anything we can’t handle.  God lays them out in the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God; have no other gods before me; worship no graven images; do not take the Lord’s name in vain; remember the Sabbath; honor your father and mother; do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not lie about your neighbor; do not covet what others have.” 

Of course, Jesus sums that all up in the Two Great Commandments: “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus gives the model for right worship; namely, the gift of self for the good of the other.  He teaches a great deal about how to live with one another, in the home, in the Church.  He emphasizes the importance of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for members of the Church.  And so and so on.  The Church has some clearly defined “walls” around itself.  And we’re each one of the “living stones” in that wall, which means we each have a responsibility not only to God, but to one another in upholding those expectations.

When I was growing up—and even today—whenever we’d play Monopoly (the board game), the rule was that if you landed on “Free Parking” you got all the money that was in the middle of the board.  Of course, it doesn’t actually say that in the rules.  And every now and then there’d be a disagreement about what the rule was for the “Free Parking” space.  And that’s just an example of how the game isn’t so much about the board and the pieces and such—it’s about the rules.  The game is the rules and how to play within them.

The Church isn’t so much about this style of worship or that style of worship, or what “I think” and what “you think”—it’s about the “rules.”  The Church is our set of beliefs, and our commitment to Christ, and our adherence to God’s law of self-sacrificing love.  Those are the “rules” we play by.  And if someone doesn’t want to play by those rules, then we’d have to question if they really want to be part of the Church.

Our role as “living stones” in the defending wall of the Church is to play by the “rules” God has given us—to live and to roam freely within the “fence” the Good Shepherd has set up for us.  But our role is also to question when we or others seem to be playing by a different set of rules, or trampling down the fence.

For example, gossip has no place in the Church.  It doesn’t serve any good purpose.  And so we should call it out when we hear it.  If that other person refuses to stop, then they put themselves outside the Church; they “excommunicate” themselves, because in the Church we have a rule that we don’t gossip.  In the meantime, it’s wise to distance ourselves from that person, so his or her “sickness” doesn’t infect us in a bad way.

Or we can take unforgiveness which, again, has no place in the Church.  Forgiveness is part and parcel of neighborly love; it’s one of the “rules” we commit ourselves to.  It doesn’t mean we have to be best friends with everybody; but it does mean that we shouldn’t harbor a grudge and refuse God’s mercy to someone.

And, in all this of course, we know very well that none of us lives these “rules” perfectly.  None of us is a saint…yet.  And that’s okay.  The important thing is that we aspire to be a saint, to live by the standards and expectations God has given us.  That’s what makes us each a part of the Church.  The intent in our hearts is most important.

It’s part of our common role as members of the Church, and as “watchmen” of the holy city: to adhere to God’s law of love ourselves, and to guard against anything that threatens the well-being of the flock.  All are welcome into the life of the Church, and the pastures of the Good Shepherd are wide and green with plenty of room to live and roam.  But we enter the gates of the Church—and remain in her walls—only by choice.  May God give us the grace to live well as members of his Body, the Church.