Thursday, April 30, 2015

Homily for 1 May 2015

1 May 2015
[Scripture Readings:  Acts 13:26-33; John 14:1-6]

Jesus just doesn’t fit.  He’s out of place.  The Apostles proclaimed the gospel of Christ in the context of prophecy.  Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies that a Messiah would come.  And even Jesus proclaims himself in the context of something; the context of faith.  He says, “You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”  In the contexts of prophecy and faith, Jesus makes sense.  That’s where he fits.  But today . . . Jesus just doesn’t fit.  He’s out of place.

For us who grew up hearing the stories of the Old Testament, Jesus fits.  For us who have a living faith in God, Jesus fits.  He makes sense to us.  Even if we don’t understand and grasp fully what it is he’s trying to teach us, at least he fits into our lives somehow. 

The proclamation of the gospel is an answer.  That’s what Jesus is: he’s an answer.  He’s the definitive answer to the questions of prophecy and faith.  But what about all our neighbors, our friends and family members who’ve fallen away, who really couldn’t care less about the big questions of life: the question of prophecy and where humanity is going, and the question of faith and what’s it all about.  What about them?  Well, Jesus isn’t an answer to anything for them.  He doesn’t fit in their lives. 

And that’s something significant to consider when we try to evangelize others.  If people aren’t asking the big life questions to which Jesus is the answer, Jesus is meaningless to them.  The gospel has no weight, no importance.  He doesn’t fit.  He’s out of place.  The gospel is not a free-floating proposition, like a leaf in the wind just happening to fall where it falls.  No, the gospel makes sense only in the context of those big questions of life: the question of prophecy (that is, the question of what it means to be human) and the question of faith.

And so, before we speak the name of Jesus to others, it’s important to hear what questions in life they are asking.  The proclamation of the gospel begins with listening.  And when we listen to the lives and stories of others, then maybe we can introduce Jesus to them in a way that fits those questions in life they’re asking. 

But, until then—until we know what questions people are asking, Jesus won’t be an answer to anything.  He won’t fit.  He won't mean anything to them.    

Homily for 30 Apr 2015

30 Apr 2015 
[Scripture Readings:  Acts 13:13-25; John 13:16-20]

“Don’t get settled.  And don’t get unsettled, either,” Jesus seems to say.  Don’t get settled.  And don’t get unsettled.  If we get a little too accustomed to one particular way of doing things, we’ll be unsettled by what God is trying to do.  Instead, it seems best to remain fluid in spirit and mind—not like a tumbleweed, but more like a kite: free to move with the wind, and yet grounded by its guide, its shepherd.

When St. Paul spoke in the synagogue and showed how Jesus was the next “step” in salvation history, the fulfillment of the prophecies, he showed that his faith was truly alive.  He was not settled in mind and spirit.  He was passionate about his Jewish faith: its rituals, practices, and beliefs.  He was passionate about it, but he was not a slave to it; although, he had started to get settled. 

When St. Stephen was stoned to death, Paul had been settled in his faith just enough to not recognize Christ as the fulfillment of the prophecies.  But he wasn’t settled so much that God couldn’t work in him and open his eyes.  Paul was reawakened to the living God, and he ended up with a renewed sense of life, purpose, and living faith.  And so, Jesus says, “Don’t get settled, even in the practices of our faith.”

If we get too accustomed to our ways of thinking, to our usual ways of doing things as individuals, as a parish, as a church, how can we expect to be real followers of Jesus, the Way?  The first disciples were, perhaps, too accustomed, too settled in their ways.  Jesus gives them plenty of opportunities to get it in their heads that God is alive and at work . . . and so don’t get unsettled when certain things happen.  In effect, he was saying to them: “Don’t be followers of your own expectations; be followers of me.”

And that sounds good, but it’s a hard thing to do.  We like the parish the way it is.  We like our committees and our discussions about this detail or that detail.  We like our traditions.  We like our devotional practices.  We like to sit in the same spot in the same pew.  And that’s okay.  But Jesus says: “Don’t get settled.”  Don’t get settled to the point of being unable to move when God moves.

Life is always changing.  Our God is a living God.  And our faith is a living faith.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Homily for 29 Apr 2015

29 Apr 2015
Memorial of St. Catherine of Siena
[Scripture Readings: Acts 12:24-13:5a; Ps 67:2-3,5-6,8; John 12:44-50]

Everybody has an opinion on how the Church should be run.  “The Church needs to loosen up.”  “The Church needs to be clearer and straight-forward, like it used to be.”  “Our worship needs to be more exciting.”  “Our worship needs to be more reverent.”  Everybody has an opinion on how the Church should be run.

On this memorial of St. Catherine of Siena, it’s helpful to remember that there were many who thought she should’ve kept her opinions to herself.  She’s known as a “reformer of popes,” “reformer of the clergy,” and in her day as an out-of-turn schismatic, causing more trouble in an already troubled Church. 

As in the 14th Century, we also suffer from an overabundance of opinions: little gods overrunning the internet and every other form of communication with their own “gospels” of “how it ought to be.”  Even within the Church it happens.

And then we have Jesus.  He simply speaks to us what the Father has spoken.  They’re united by the bond of the Holy Spirit; the same Holy Spirit which bound St. Catherine of Siena to the Word of God.  Through a life of sincere prayer and fasting, St. Catherine became a clear and passionate voice of God in the world of her time.  Her words weren’t mere opinion. 

When she chewed out those popes and bishops who needed it, they didn’t hear the opinion of St. Catherine—they heard the voice of God, the voice of truth.  And they heard it because St. Catherine spoke from a heart and mind disciplined by a life of prayer and fasting, just like those prophets and teachers in the Church at Antioch.  They worshipped the Lord with prayer and fasting.  And so, the Holy Spirit spoke through them.  God’s wisdom was more important than their own.   

And if we really want to know the truth of things and to serve that truth, then something’s gotta give.  And that something is the weight we give to our own opinions.  That’s what we need to fast from.  Then we’ll be able to speak the truth from a place of humility and prayer.  Then we’ll speak in harmony with the Word of God. 

Homily for 28 Apr 2015

28 Apr 2015
[Scripture Readings: Acts 11:19-26; Ps 87:1b-7; John 10:22-30]

Jesus says: “The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”  In other words, “Actions speak louder than words.”  When the scattered disciples of Jesus spread the gospel to the Gentiles and all those thousands of people were converted, the disciples’ actions spoke volumes about who they were.  They were disciples filled with the true Spirit of the One God.  The actions of their lives were proof enough that they were, indeed, Christians.

On Sunday we heard about the value of commitment; commitment to God and our faith.  Yesterday, we heard about the catholic, universal, non-discriminating love of God.  And today, we hear about the value of our deeds.  Just like the Jews who, in effect, said to Jesus: “Prove that you’re the Messiah,” some people will say to us: “Prove you’re a Christian.”  And we do that by our deeds, by how we live our life.

The most important “work” of the Christian is to love God and be loved by God in return.  That’s the commitment we heard about on Sunday.  The second most important “work” of the Christian is to love our neighbors in a truly catholic, non-discriminating spirit.  It isn’t about how much we do; it’s about the quality and depth of real love that we put into all we do.

At work, in the office, in the home, in the parish, we prove our Catholic Christian spirit by how we love others.  And it’s not necessarily in big, grandiose ways.  In fact, it’s hardly ever that.  More usually, it’s in little ways: patience, listening, a word of encouragement, taking an extra minute or two to talk with someone and see how they’re doing.  That’s how the Church grows in the day-to-day world: by showing to others the concrete love of the risen Jesus, one person and a time.   And that’s how we show we are Catholic Christians.   

Jesus says: “The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”  And, hopefully, we can say: “The works I do in Jesus’ name testify that I am, indeed, a Catholic Christian.”

Homily for 27 Apr 2015

27 Apr 2015
[Scripture Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Ps 42:2-3 and 43:3-4; John 10:1-10]

The Catholic Church can have a reputation for being exclusive.  And that’s the case for any number of reasons, too many to mention here.  But for us who are in the Church, who are in the care of the One Shepherd, the idea that the Church is exclusive sounds foreign. 

Just consider all the varieties of people who make up this global body of the faithful: men, women, and children, of most races, nationalities and languages; saintly people, sinful people, and more sinful people.  White- and blue-collar workers; the very old and the very young, and everybody in-between; married people, divorced people; heterosexuals and homosexuals; people who’ve had abortions; conservatives and liberals; Republicans and Democrats; wise people and not-so-wise people; and on and on and on.

The Holy Spirit of God does not discriminate in his work; just like the sun in the sky which shines down on everybody, just like the rain which pours down on everybody, regardless of who they are.  Of course, God does that so that all “may have life and have it more abundantly.”  But, as we know, not everybody wants that life.  It’s offered to all, but not everybody accepts it.

And this reality is reflected in Scripture and in our Eucharistic Prayer.  In the Gospel of Mark [14:24], we hear that the Blood of Christ is poured out “hupér pollón,” [ὑπὲρ πολλῶν]: “for many.”  And we hear that every time we come for Mass: the Blood of Christ is poured out “for you and for many,” from the Latin “pro vobis et pro multis.”

The Holy Spirit is offered to all, indiscriminately.  God is truly “catholic,” that is, “universal,” in his offering of love, acceptance, and forgiveness.  But our Lord knows that it’s only “many” and not “all” who will accept the offer.  And our Lord knows that even some of his own flock will be hesitant to extend his offer to others—like the faithful who rebuked Peter for sitting and eating with the Gentiles.

The Catholic Church can have a reputation for being exclusive.  Some of our Catholic brothers and sisters do, indeed, exclude others.  And some people exclude themselves voluntarily from the flock of the Good Shepherd.  But at the heart of our Catholic faith is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, broken open and poured out indiscriminately as an invitation to all people, everywhere, to be loved and accepted by him.

Many will accept the invitation.  Many will extend the invitation to others.  But, in the end, hopefully all will come to know the catholic, universal love of God. 

Homily for 26 Apr 2015

26 Apr 2015
4th Sunday of Easter, Year B
[Scripture Readings:  Acts 4:8-12; Ps 118:1,8-9,21-23,26,28,29; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18]

Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?  I know: That’s a rather Evangelical Protestant question to be asking.  But it’s a legitimate question.  It’s pretty much the same question Peter asked the Jewish leaders.  They had rejected Jesus.  But that saw all the things the Apostles were doing, and so Peter threw the question to them: So, my Jewish brethren, are you going to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?

About ten years ago when I was in college for music, someone came up to me on campus.  He gave me a flyer and asked if I knew Jesus.  And I just said to him, “Yes, thank you,” and went about my business.  I’m pretty sure I threw the flyer away in the next available trash can (I admit it).  But the question stayed with me.  And even today when I hear that question, I remember that guy on campus who’d asked me if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.

Now, at the time I was already busy working in a parish as a musician and choir director, and going to school so I could get better at it.  I’d already committed myself and my life to God and the Church—how much more could I prove that I’d accepted Jesus?  But that question—or some variation of the question—was still on my mind.  And, similarly, the assertion of Peter that there is no salvation through anyone but Christ is still on the mind of humanity today.  It’s a legitimate, relevant question.

Really, Peter seems to be getting at the basic question of commitment.  He was saying to the Jews: “If you want to be true to God, then commit yourselves to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  And he says the same to us and to all people today—and he does so without mincing words: “There is no salvation through anyone else,” but Jesus Christ alone.  And so, Peter asks: Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?

It’s actually a pretty startling question; it doesn’t matter who’s asking it—whether it’s an Evangelical Christian on the streets or St. Peter in the pages of Scripture.  And all the readings from Scripture today hit again and again on this idea of “commitment.”

The psalm proclaims that “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.”  It’s better to commit yourself to God than to other people.  And it’s good to give thanks because the Lord has “been my savior.”  In the first letter of St. John, he writes that we are “children of God,” we belong to God; God has committed himself to us.  And in the Gospel of John we hear about the good shepherd who commits himself to his flock to the point of laying down his life for them.  We also hear about the sheep who commit themselves to the good shepherd, who know the shepherd’s voice and who follow him.

Scripture brings out very clearly today the idea of “commitment,” and especially our commitment to the Lord and—by extension—his Church.  But this notion of “commitment” isn’t talked about a lot.  Nor do we see it or experience it as often as we should.

Consider the divorce rate among US Catholics.  It’s about 28%, which is pretty high considering the weight our faith gives to the idea of “commitment.”  And the rate among Americans overall is about 45%.  And the very idea of getting married in church or anywhere else has been falling off for decades now.  Even the numbers of couples getting married in our local Church here in Appleton is just a handful.  We don’t see that commitment of marriage as often as we should—especially within the Church.

Consider the falling numbers of vocations to the priesthood.  It’s good that we’ve been averaging two ordinations a year for a while now.  But when we have a dozen or so priests who retire or die each year, we have a problem.  Anybody who knows to how to balance a checkbook knows that when there’s more going out than coming in, there’s eventually going to be a problem.  And with more priests going out than coming in, we’re going to have a problem. 

Bishop Ricken is known to remark that there isn’t a shortage of vocations to the priesthood—rather, there’s a shortage of “yeses” to God.  In other words, there’s a shortage of the value of commitment: commitment to prayer, commitment to the idea of considering priesthood, commitment to something bigger than ourselves. 

Consider also some of the other ways we might expect to see the value of commitment at work, but don’t always; for example, liturgical ministries.  Here at Sacred Heart, the number of altar servers we have is low—it’s beyond low.  The same can be said for Readers, Hospitality Ministers, and musicians.  It’s a beautiful thing to commit yourself to serve at the altar of God, to serve as a proclaimer of the Word of God, to serve the people of God by being the face of God when they come to worship.  And yet, we struggle with our liturgical ministries. 

Now, it might be a long-shot to try and connect, say, the need for more altar servers with that question: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”  But they are connected: It’s a question of personal commitment to God, a commitment which plays itself out in the life of the community.  Being an altar server is a way to express one’s commitment to God.  Being a Reader, being a hospitality minister, being a deacon, being a priest, being a musician, being a faith formation catechist . . . they’re all ways we concretely live out our personal commitment to God.

Of course, there are literally countless ways that we show our commitment to God.  But all that we do comes—firstly—from who we are.  And who we are is a community of people who commit themselves intentionally to the one Lord Jesus Christ.  The Good Shepherd “lays down his life” for his sheep.  And we here at Sacred Heart—in this little corner of the Lord’s pasture—we would, ideally, lay down our life for our Shepherd.  Not as a matter of Catholic guilt, but as a matter of committed love and adoration for God.  We do it out of passion for God and our faith.

We serve at the altar of God out of love for God.  We proclaim the Scriptures out of love for the Word.  We get ordained, we get married, we practice the virtues of faith, hope, and charity out of love for God and others.  Ideally, we do these things because we are fully committed to the Lord as our Lord and Savior.  Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. 

If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes we’re not as committed to God as much as we can be.  And that’s not just a Catholic problem; that’s a more broadly cultural problem.  The prevailing culture today isn’t a Catholic culture—it’s not even necessarily a Christian culture.  The prevailing culture that we live in today—and in which our children and youth are immersed daily—is a largely non-Christian, and even anti-Catholic culture. 

When we come here for an hour a week, we get just a pinch of Catholic spice in our life.  And the other 167 hours of the week we’re immersed in a broader culture which often doesn’t nurture or even support our Catholic values—the value of “commitment” being one of them.  How can this not affect the shrinking number of new priests we have?  How can this not affect our views on all the big questions of life: birth, death, marriage, family, human dignity?  How can this not affect the numbers of people who truly want to be altar servers, or readers, or hospitality ministers, or catechists, or whatever?

Our one-hour-a-week commitment to come to Mass on the weekend just doesn’t do it.  Maybe in years past it worked . . . when Christian values were all over the place in society—on tv, in the stores, at school, in the home.  But that’s all changed.  We step out the doors of this church and into what?  Into a culture which isn’t too interested in what Catholics have to say.  And so, today’s Catholics are going to be those who are intentionally Catholic.  Today’s Catholics are those who’ll take personal responsibility for committing themselves to God. 

Nobody “out there” is going to push you to do that—except for, maybe, the Evangelical Christians and the megachurches.  They’re the ones who’ll get in your face and say: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”  They’re the ones who’ll test your sense of commitment.  But not too many people are going to hold you accountable for your specifically Catholic faith.  And so, we have to hold ourselves accountable. 

Every weekend we stand here before the altar of God and we profess our faith.  “I believe in God, the Father almighty.  I believe in Jesus Christ his Only Begotten Son.  I believe in the Holy Spirit.  I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”  I believe.  Not your neighbor, not your spouse, not your friends, and not even God.  It’s “I” believe.  It’s your personal commitment to God—and by extension—your personal commitment to the faith he’s given to the Church throughout the ages.

Just after Christmastime, there was a little note put into one of the offertory baskets.  And on this note there was a question.  It went something like this: “How can you (the Parish) say that all are welcome to the Eucharistic celebration, but that only Catholics are able to receive Communion?  It doesn’t sound very Christian or loving to me.”  That’s an excellent question.  And the answer gets down to the basic Christian value of “commitment.”

When we say “All are welcome,” we mean that “all are welcome to commit themselves to God through the Catholic way of life.”  That’s what we mean.  Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist—those are the steps in the process of being initiated into this community we know as the Catholic Church.  And all are welcome to be initiated into the community of faith—into a global community that values the idea of personal commitment to something bigger than ourselves.  And the Eucharist is for those who have made that commitment . . . a commitment, above all, to God, but also to their brothers and sisters who have made the same personal commitment.

At the heart of our worship, at the heart of our lives as Catholics is the Eucharist—a Flesh and Blood reminder that the Good Shepherd lays down his life because he is committed to us.  He doesn’t ask us to give ourselves in exactly the same way.  But he does ask that we give . . . something.  And that something is the most basic act of love we can give—it’s our sincere commitment to the other.  And that requires a spirit of selflessness, a spirit of generosity and humility, a spirit of goodwill and patience.

The broader culture isn’t going to push you to commit yourself to God or Christian values, certainly not Catholic values.  But you can push yourself.  I’m sure God will give you a nudge if you ask for help.  The staff here will give you some help, and so will your neighbors here who are intentional about their Catholic faith.  The commitment to God and faith and Church is something we each have to make on our own.  But we make it with the help of others. 

And then, there, in an atmosphere of real, selfless commitment to God and one another, a truly Catholic culture might emerge—or at least, the beginnings of a renewed Catholic culture.  It might be small to start out but, then again, so was that little group of Twelve Apostles who transformed the world with their concrete witness to faith and the value of commitment.

And so, the question of the Evangelical Christians still lingers.   St. Peter’s question still lingers: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”  It’s a question of trust and love.  It’s a question of personal commitment.  And the life of the Church depends on our answer to that question.