Saturday, August 19, 2017

Homily for 20 Aug 2017

20 Aug 2017
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

There are events in human life which repeat themselves.  And one of these we might “exile and return.” 

In 586 B.C. the city of Jerusalem was overtaken and destroyed; the people were sent into exile, spending the next forty-seven years in Babylon.  And then they were free to return home.  But when they got back to Jerusalem they had to rebuild; not only their buildings and such, but also their way of life: their values, their standards, their practices . . . everything.

Or think about World War II.  The Jews were thrown into exile again, only that time in their own country.  And then after the Nazis were defeated, Germany as a whole was in exile.  Both Jews and Germans found themselves in a new world, in a new reality.  And in order for them to “return,” they had to rebuild; not only buildings and infrastructure and the economy, but also their ways of life.  It wasn’t until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down that we might say they finally came back from exile.

And then, lastly, we can take the events of September 11, 2001 as those which changed the world as we know it.  Society was thrown into exile, into a foreign world where we had to figure out how to deal with the new threat of terrorism.  And that’s an exile that we’re still trying to find our way home from.

There are events in human life which repeat themselves.  And one of these we might call “exile and return.”  In the world of philosophy it’s called an “epistomological crisis:” a crisis where everything we thought we knew has been suddenly turned over, and we’re left with a mess that we have to make sense of.

Just this past week a local family lost both a mother and daughter in a drunk driving accident.  In a split second, an entire family was thrown into exile; into a foreign land where everything is turned over and nothing makes sense. 

And on a parish-wide level, of course there was the merger of three communities into one eight years ago.  And that’s very definitely an experience of being in exile.  We’re in a territory that’s unfamiliar; we’re experiencing a way of living in the world which is foreign.  We’re not used to thinking of ourselves as a single parish. 

We might think of how things used to be, when there were men’s groups and ladies’ groups; when everybody had their own parish picnics, when people really got involved in their local communities and there was overabundance of volunteers and energy.  But all of that—all of what we thought we knew about being a Catholic parish—was overturned. 

And while the temptation is try to “go back” to what once was, it can’t be done.  Once the Jews were hauled off to Babylon, there was no going back.  Once World War II happened, there was no turning back.  There’s no way to undo September 11th; there’s no way to undo a tragic accident; there’s no way to go back to the way things were before.  The only way to get out and to “return” is to go forward.

The Lord spoke through the Prophet Isaiah, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  And Isaiah wrote this after the exile; he wrote it when the people had returned and had to rebuild.  “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  And that statement reflected the terms and conditions of their new reality.  They were back in Jerusalem, but life was going to be very different.

Foreigners had never been entirely excluded from the worship of God, but now in their post-exile life, the doors were thrown wide open to people who were not Jewish.  That was part of the new reality.  It didn’t mean that their understanding of things before was wrong; it just means that life was different now, and there was a new set of rules and standards to live by.

But even while the rules had changed, the fundamentals were the same as they always had been.  The people who belong to God (as Isaiah says) are those: who observe what is right, who do what is just, who join themselves to the Lord and minister to him and love him, who become his servants, who keep holy the Sabbath, and who remain firm in keeping God’s covenant.  That’s the core around which the Jews rebuilt themselves.

In effect, the Lord was saying to them: It doesn’t matter what race somebody is, as long as they do these things, they have proven that they belong to me.  When Jesus encountered the Canaanite woman, we see that she was put to the test.  In God’s eyes, the fact that she was a Canaanite was irrelevant; Jesus saw in her someone who was a truly faithful person.  She turned to the Lord for help, to offer her pleas of intercession for her daughter, and she remained firm in the Lord’s covenant in spite of the fact that others would look down on her for doing that.

Jesus says, “I came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And in that Canaanite woman, he found one of his lost sheep.  She was a Canaanite by birth, but she was an Israelite in her soul.  It wasn’t really until Saint Paul started to go out and preach the gospel to the Gentiles that the Jew’s return from Babylon finally reached its fulfillment.  That was almost 570 years later!

It can take a long time to come out of exile, and for life to be ordered rightly again.  It just takes time.  It can even take generations.  Think of the ancient Hebrews wandering in the desert for forty years.  When we think of our own situation in the parish, why should we expect that life will be “normal” again quickly? 

The only ones among us who know St. Clare as St. Clare are those who are 13-14 years old and younger.  I’ve heard that it can take at least two generations for a parish merger to move from “exile” to “return.”  It can take forty years of being “in the desert” before we can say the merger is complete, and we can get on with what we’d call a “normal” parish life.  We only have eight years under our belt; we have a ways to go yet, and that’s to be expected.

In the meantime, we listen to what the Prophet Isaiah says, and we try to implement it: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  It’s a pretty straightforward instruction from God to his people who find themselves in a new reality.

When he says the word, “house,” the Lord means two things.  He means a physical building as well as a family (or “household”).  When Jesus quotes that line from Isaiah in the gospel of Matthew (21:13), he uses the Greek word, “oikos.”  And “oikos” is the same word used for a dwelling or a family. 

In the first Letter of Peter, we hear: “Come to him, a living stone . . . and let yourselves be built up into a spiritual house” (2:4-5); into a spiritual “oikos,” a spiritual family, a dwelling place for the Spirit of God.  When we strip away everything else that happens in the church, in a parish, the core that’s left is what Saint Peter talks about here.  Whether we’re in exile or we’re on the return journey, the core of what we’re about is that, first, we come to the Lord and, second, that we let him build us as a spiritual, holy band of disciples.  That is essential.  Without that core understanding of what we’re about, then we’re not only in exile, but we’re also lost and without hope.

“My house”—my church buildings, my people—“will be a house of prayer.”  If we had a banner with a coat of arms on it, it would show a heart pouring out in prayer, in supplication, in love to the Holy Trinity.  We’re not just a community of people; we’re a community of pray-ers.  Just like that Canaanite woman, God recognizes us as his own by the fact that we turn to him; that we offer him prayers of intercessions for the needs of others; that we meditate on his great love for us individually; that we pray with faith, hope, and charity.

We’re a community of people—a “house”—which is God-oriented.  It’s no mistake that in Catholic churches, the altar, the tabernacle, the ambo, and the crucifix are our focal points.  It’s not a mistake that the seating is arranged such that the people of God are all facing toward those symbols and signs of God’s presence.  The church building itself—God’s “house of prayer”—is a physical reminder that at the core of our identity is the fact that we are God-oriented.

We come here to go to the Lord.  We come here to pray, to intercede, to offer our thanks to God.  What we have here, in effect, is the Church within the church; the “house of God”—the “family of God,” gathered inside the “house of God”—the church building.  “My house will be a house of prayer,” says God.  Whether it’s brick-and-mortar or flesh-and-blood, the house of God is directed toward God. 

As we go from “exile to return,” while we adjust to new realities in life, we also commit ourselves to what is essential and unchanging.  We keep God as our focus, and let ourselves be built up as a spiritual house, as brothers and sisters who worship and pray to the one Lord of all, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Homily for 17 Aug 2017

17 August 2017

The Church is often referred to as the “pilgrim” Church; in other words, we’re going somewhere.  We haven’t arrived yet in the promised land of eternal life.  Just like Jesus (especially in the Gospel of Luke), we are travelers heading toward Jerusalem; or, rather, the “New Jerusalem” of heaven.

We’re on a journey.  But along the way, there are potholes and detours, events in life and the peskiness of sin that sometimes get in the way. 

And that’s similar to the Red Sea and the Jordan River in ancient times.  The Israelites were trying to get to the Promised Land, but those massive bodies of water (not to mention the deserts and such) were like barriers along the way.  But they carried the Ark of the Covenant in front of them, and that’s what kept them safe; that’s what made the journey to the Promised Land possible—the Ark of the Covenant.

As we journey through this life, and we’re navigating all the many challenges we face—especially those that challenge our faith, it’s a good thing to keep the Lord as our guide.  He’s already promised to lead us home safely; if only we let him lead the way. 

When we’re tempted to doubt the Lord’s promise, remember all the good things he has done, not only for “me,” but also for others.  When we’re tempted to lose faith, pray to the Lord: “Lord, I need more faith in you right now.”  When we’re lost, seek the guidance of Scripture, the Church, trusted and faithful friends, and the help of our Blessed Mother and the angels and saints.

We’re a pilgrim Church, travelers toward heaven, and the road has lots of potholes and detours.  But the Lord will see us through safely; if only we trust him to be our navigator.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Homily for 16 Aug 2017

16 Aug 2017

“God is entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”  So the spirit of forgiveness, humility, and peace should be part of our lives.  And it’s such an important part of our Catholic lives that it’s even part of the Mass.  We have the “Sign of Peace.”

“Let us offer one another the sign of peace,” we hear.  And it isn’t just a moment to exchange pleasantries; it’s a moment to do a self-check and to ask, “Can I offer everyone here—and in the Church everywhere—the sincere gift of peace?”  “Do I have that spirit of reconciliation in my heart?”

And that isn’t always an easy spirit to maintain, especially if someone has “trespassed against us.”  But that’s the spirit the Lord gives us, the spirit of a forgiving heart, the spirit of giving a fellow Christian the opportunity to make peace.

Of course, as we hear in the gospel, sometimes a fellow Christian has no interest in being reconciliation.  And, in that case, we don’t write them off; but we do keep them at arm’s length until they express the desire to be reconciled. 

God is entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  The most we can do is to offer that reconciliation and peace to others.  What they do with it is their business.  But let’s be sure to do the “most we can do,” and make our offer of peace truly heartfelt.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Homily for 13 Aug 2017

13 Aug 2017
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Most of us know the prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is offense, let me bring pardon. Where there is discord, let me bring union. Where there is error, let me bring truth. Where there is doubt, let me bring faith. Where there is despair, let me bring hope. Where there is darkness, let me bring your light. Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.”

And in between each of these pairs of opposites is the word “me.”  In between hatred and love is “me.”  In between discord and unity is “me.”  In between darkness and light is “me.”  But that’s the position a prophet stands in.  A prophet puts him- or herself in the middle of the tension, to be an instrument of the good. 

When I was sent to St. Clare it wasn’t only to be a priest and a governor.  I was also sent to fulfill a prophetic role: to stand in the middle of the tension, and to be an instrument of the good.  Not somebody else, but me.

Think of your families and your friends.  You find yourself in a situation where the grandkids don’t go to church anymore, and the kids don’t seem to care.  Or you find yourself standing between one friend who’s practically an atheist, and other who’s a firm believer.  Or maybe you’re a young adult and you’re surrounded at home, or at school—or even at church—by a lukewarm approach to faith.

A prophet is someone who stands in the middle of the tension and tries to be an instrument of the good.  And it’s something that takes practice to get good at.  After all, putting ourselves out there in the middle of the tension isn’t our first instinct.

We hear today how Peter started to walk on water (which is kind of a dangerous idea).  But he was also practicing to be a prophet in Christ’s Church.  Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  And there’s that little word again—“me.”  “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  It’s strange; I mean, if Peter was trying to get proof that it really was Jesus standing there, you’d think he’d say something like, “Lord, if it’s you, then make the storm stop, or come over here yourself so we can see you better.”

But he doesn’t do that.  Instead, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command ‘me’ to come to you.”  Peter put himself out there.  He was practicing what it means to be a prophet; he was practicing how to put himself in the middle of the storm, and to be an instrument of God’s peace in the storm.

In the Church today we hear a lot of talk about evangelization, especially the New Evangelization: the idea that the world—and the Church herself—needs to be revitalized and redirected by the Holy Spirit.  The New Evangelization isn’t only about spreading the gospel; it’s about being a prophet in a time in history when faith, God, Church, religion aren’t taken all that seriously.  The “storm” the Church faces today, it seems, is so often a storm of indifference and apathy.

A couple weeks ago I was teaching a class in the summer Religious Ed program.  And there were some kids who really didn’t seem like they wanted to be there.  So I just said to them, “You know, you don’t have to be here if you don’t want to be.  You’re free to go.  This isn’t a prison.”  And, of course, they didn’t leave. 

But that was an instance where the “storm” we sometimes face as a Church is a situation of indifference and apathy.  And the truth had to be interjected there, in a prophetic and gentle sort of way; the truth that being a disciple of Christ is a voluntary thing.  In fact, that’s the heart of the Church: that spirit of a voluntarily giving “me” to God and his body of believers.

But, as I said, being a prophet takes practice, and it means putting your neck out there when you’d rather not.  It means being like the Prophet Daniel, and letting yourself be put into the “lion’s den.”

A few years ago, when I was in seminary, I had to do a summer internship at a hospital as a chaplain.  And that was one of the most difficult experiences for me in my training.  What I found difficult was just going through the door—not the door of the hospital, but the door of a patient’s room.  It was absolutely nerve-racking for me to do that.  In fact, the first time I couldn’t even do it.

I’d get up the courage to go in, but then I couldn’t do it.  And then I’d wander around some more, thinking, “I gotta go in there.”  So I’d head back to the patient’s room, and as I approached the door—I kept on walking.  I just couldn’t go in the room.  I could not put my neck out there yet.  Luckily, I saw some nurses go into the room, and I knew they’d be there a while.  So I just left. 

I was on my way to the car, saying to myself, “I’m not cut out to do this.  I’m not made to be a ‘priest, prophet, and king’ like Jesus.  I’m outta here.”  I was like Peter, who started to sink and let the storm of fear overtake him.  But over the next twenty minutes or so, Jesus calmed me down and he shifted the focus away from me, and toward that person who was lying in the hospital bed.  God had put me there in that situation to see that person.  And that’s what I had to do.

So I went back.  I had a rosary in my pocket; I said a quick prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;” I took a deep breath, and went through the door.  And since then, I’ve made hundreds of visits to the hospital, to nursing homes, and to people’s homes.  I’ve been put in the middle of many difficult situations I’d never dreamed I’d be asked to deal with.  But that was all part of my training and practice at becoming not only a priest and governor in the parish, but also a prophetic voice.  It takes practice.  It takes practice to be like Peter and say, “Lord, command ‘me’” to do this or that.

People come to me in the confessional.  And I hear things like: “Father, there’s this situation in my family regarding faith, and I’m not sure what to do; I’m not sure how to approach it.”  Or I hear: “Father, my co-workers say uncharitable things or they’re gossiping, and I know I should say something, but I just can’t.”  Or sometimes I hear: “Father, I’m afraid to show my faith in public: when I go out to eat, I just can’t bring myself to say a meal prayer or make the Sign of the Cross; I feel embarrassed.”

Well, those are all situations where the more you put your neck out there, the easier it becomes—and the more natural it becomes.  You know, it so often seems that people who have rejected faith and God are quite vocal about it.  They’re not afraid to shoot down our beliefs.  Catholicism is very much under siege today, as it has been for several decades (and, really, for centuries).  But the ones who keep it going are those who embrace their calling to be a prophet.  And, really, it’s a calling we each have by virtue of having been baptized.

Being a prophet doesn’t necessarily mean shouting from the hilltops and across the fields; it doesn’t necessarily mean standing on a street corner, handing out pamphlets and literature about the Catholic faith.  Being a prophet means learning, first and foremost, how to be someone who takes his or her faith seriously; learning to be someone who lives life with the inner conviction that there is a God, that Jesus is the Lord, that there’s more to life than meets the eye, and that it’s a good and praiseworthy thing to get on our knees and take our direction from God, who is both Lord and Companion.

Being a prophet isn’t about being boastful or confrontational; it’s about learning to be humble before God, and then simply doing what he asks of us.  Sometimes that’s easy; sometimes it isn’t, and ends up taking a lot of practice. 

When Peter was getting ready to walk on the water, he knew he had to have faith that Jesus would see him through it.  Peter knew he couldn’t rely on himself; there was no way he could walk on water without the Lord’s help.  And so when Peter said, “Lord, command me to come to you on the water,” he was also saying, “Lord, test my faith in you; Lord, test my humility.”

And for a few steps, it worked!  Peter had faith, and he was doing the impossible!  But then, just for a moment, doubt entered his heart and he began to sink.  No worries, though!  Jesus caught him, and it was a good practice.  Now, if we find we’re afraid to do what’s right, well, admit that to God.  Just be humble and honest and say, “Lord, there’s no way I can do this—not by myself.  I don’t have it in me.  Lord, you’re gonna have to do all the work, because I just can’t.”

And prayer like that is music to God’s ears.  He loves the prayer of a humble person, the prayer of a person who’s trying to put his or her faith into practice.  Being a prophet in the world today isn’t about being boastful, or harsh, or confrontational; it’s about learning to be humble before God, and then just doing what he asks of us—in the situations we find ourselves.

And we don’t have to do it all ourselves; in fact, we shouldn’t.  For example, if there’s a family situation going on and you’re not sure what to do, well ask someone else.  Asking for help to do the right thing is a great sign of humility.  Prophets always speak from a position of humility.  Or, if the situation calls for it, involve others in doing what’s right.

About a month or so ago, I was driving by a house and I heard a man yelling.  And as I checked it out, I saw that he was yelling at his kids, who were probably grade school age.  He was yelling at them, screaming at them, and I was concerned for the kids.  So I got out my cell phone and contacted Child Protective Services for the county, and they took care of it.  Being a prophet means looking out for your neighbor, and sometimes asking for help when the Kingdom of God needs to be brought into a situation.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love.  Where there is despair, let me bring hope. Where there is darkness, let me bring your light. Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.”  A prophet puts him- or herself in the middle of the tension, to be an instrument of the good.

And the world today needs prophets; it needs humble men and women of living faith who can say, “Lord, you put me here.  Help me to do what you need me to do.  Make me an instrument of your peace.”

Friday, August 11, 2017

Homily for 11 Aug 2017

11 Aug 2017

Patronal Feast Day: St. Clare

When you think of parish mergers, you don’t normally think of blessings; it’s usually the trials that stand out.  But there is at least one blessing of being a merged parish, and that is that we have the help of several patron saints.  Our church buildings remain under the patronage of Saint Paul, Saint Patrick, and Saint Mary.  And we certainly hope that their examples of faith, hope, and charity continue to inspire us.

But eight years ago, we gained another patroness: Saint Clare of Assisi.  She’s our primary patroness because she was chosen to be a companion, guide, and protector of the community specifically.  We don’t have a church building dedicated to her; instead, we have the church community under her patronage.  And that is a very great blessing.

Saint Clare was chosen because of the history of Franciscan sisters having been teachers in our schools.  And a blessing here is that, in addition to the Lord our Master Teacher, we also have Saint Clare herself as a teacher to us.  And she has much to teach us.

Like so many of the saints, our patroness lived a life of conviction; there were no half-measures when it came to her devotion to God.  She ran from the society of the time to find shelter under God’s wings.  She was the first woman to write a common Rule for those women living in religious community.  And, even though others tried to convince her to adopt a different way of life, a life of less stringent discipline, she remained firm.

She maintained prayer as the central activity in her life.  She lived and breathed the commandment to love God above all.  And that spilled over into a life of charity towards her sisters in community.

Even though we here aren’t members of a religious community—we’re not enclosed in a monastery as Saint Clare was—our patroness has a lot to teach us.  Things like: devotion to God, being unafraid to live an authentic Christian life, living “in the world” but not being worldly, taking the Gospel as our Rule of life, keeping prayer as foundational, and being charitable to others as God inspires us to be.

We have a powerful intercessor, companion and teacher in Saint Clare of Assisi.  And the first lesson she teaches us is the importance of going to God: going to the altar, kneeling at the feet of the one Master Teacher, and learning from him what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ.  Being a merged parish, we especially need that wisdom of God to guide us, and the peace of Christ to keep us at peace.

Thanks be to God for our patroness, Saint Clare.  She is a blessing to us because—like all the saints—she points the way to something, someone much bigger than ourselves.  May we be so blessed to follow her guidance and come to know the one God of all.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Homily for 4 Aug 2017

4 Aug 2017

There’s the saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  And that’s what we see in the gospel today.  Jesus is unable to teach people “in his native place.”  They were too familiar with him; they knew him as a child, they knew his parents Mary and Joseph, they knew he was just the son of a carpenter.  They knew Jesus too well (or, they thought they did) for them to respect Jesus as someone they could learn from.  Familiarity breeds contempt.

In our own faith lives there can be a tension between Jesus our Friend, and Jesus the Lord and Son of God.  For example, when we hear a challenging word from Jesus—either in Scripture or through the mouth of a preacher—do we reject it because “that’s not really what Jesus would say; Jesus is too close a friend to challenge me in that way.”  Or do we take his challenging words as coming from Jesus, Lord and God?

Another example is in the idea of “reverence.”  Jesus is the Lord, Second Person of the Trinity, and we bow and genuflect to him, as we should.  But he’s also our most faithful and intimate Friend and Companion.  Is it not also reverent to smile when we think of Jesus, or to even have some “warm fuzzies” come into our heart when we realize again how much we are loved by him.

Familiarity breeds contempt; it closes us off to the whole reality of who Jesus is.  As much as we know Jesus, it’s good to maintain a healthy sense of curiosity about him.  May we not become so familiar with Jesus that we stop listening to him, either as a close Friend, or as the majestic Son of God that he is.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Homily for 3 Aug 2017

3 Aug 2017

The Dwelling of God was a tent, in ancient times. And the Ark of the Covenant inside the tent was meant to be carried from place to place.  And that’s because God’s people were on the move.  And they were on the move not because they were restless, but because God himself was on the move.

We see that in the gospels, too, especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  God is moving; Jesus is moving; he’s going from place to place along a journey.  And those crowds of disciples just follow wherever Jesus goes.  If he stays put for a while, then they stay put.  If he gets up and moves to another place, they go with him.

And that’s what the faithful do: they follow God.  For us, of course, God has come to us in the Holy Spirit, and his dwelling place is the Church.  When the Church moves itself along the journey toward final reunion with God, the faithful go with her.  Sometimes the Church and her leaders stay put for a while, so the faithful can rest.  Other times, the Church moves so the faithful don’t get too settled.

The gospel, the “good news,” today is that God dwells among his people; he’s always lived among his people.  Our God wants us to be near him, and he wants to be near us.  But sometimes God moves and challenges his faithful people to go with him.  And sometimes he stays put for a while so they can rest.  Regardless of what God is doing, can we move with him?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Homily for 2 Aug 2017

2 Aug 2017

The Kingdom of heaven has a price.  But it isn’t the money involved in buying “the pearl of great price,” or “the treasure buried in a field.”  The cost is what happens first: a person “sells all that he has.”  The Kingdom of heaven has a price, and the price is letting go of what we thought was important; it’s about reprioritizing our priorities.

Importantly, however, this shouldn’t be an occasion for sadness.  That person who finds the buried treasure sells everything “out of joy.”  The Kingdom of heaven is something that should give us excitement; it should make us want to hand over everything to get it. 

The Kingdom of heaven has a price, and it’s a price we should be more than happy to pay.  But if we find ourselves unwilling to the pay the price—unwilling to reprioritize our priorities—then either we haven’t uncovered the Kingdom of heaven yet, or we’re simply unwilling to let go. 

God wants us to be happy with him, not miserable.  So whenever we’re ready to pay the price for the Kingdom of heaven, he’s there ready to give it to us—but not until we truly, joyfully want it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Homily for 1 Aug 2017

1 Aug 2017

There’s a danger in what Jesus says today.  Or, rather, the danger is in how we hear him.  When he talks about the “fiery furnace” in contrast to “the righteous shining like the sun,” it’s easy to hear that in black-and-white terms.  You know, like: there’s “heaven or hell;” or there are “the evil doers, and then the righteous ones;” or there are “bad people” and then there are “good people.”  And the danger in hearing it that way is that it doesn’t reflect reality.

The reality is that each of us is a beloved son or daughter of God, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  But the reality, too, is that we’re also sinners; we gossip and murmur, we can be selfish and puffed up with pride, or we can just get lazy and apathetic in our faith and stop trusting God.  We’re fundamentally good in the eyes of God, and yet, we’re also tinged with the stain of sin—more or less.  The reality is that we’re a mix of sin and virtue.

But it’s God mission to free us from sin; it’s his desire to clean us up; to make us not a mix of sin and virtue, but to make us entirely virtuous.  And, in that, “the Lord is kind and merciful.”  He pays more attention to our desires to be good, rather than our tendencies to sin.  But, at the same time, he wants to get rid of whatever causes us to sin.  Happily, though, we want the same thing.

The “fiery furnace” is there to help get rid of our sinfulness.  It’s like God’s version of 20-Muleteam Borax.  It can be a little harsh, but it serves a good purpose, that “fiery furnace.”  And we know it serves a good purpose because God is kind and merciful.  Our God is not a vengeful God; he is Jesus, who is loving toward those who desire to love him. 

And so, that “fiery furnace” is a punishment only for those who want to go there; whose basic desire in life is to sin.  But, for the rest of us—God’s beloveds who desire the good, but still fall and stumble sometimes—for the rest of us, the “fiery furnace” is a tremendous help.  It “burns off” all the crud and stuff we don’t want hanging on our souls.  And that eternal fire is the Holy Spirit of God.    

Come, Holy Spirit, fire of God.  Take from us our tendencies to sin; burn off all that weighs us down.  Make us purer of heart, Lord, in your kindness and mercy.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Homily for 30 July 2017

30 July 2017
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Every now and then we step back and evaluate our life.  Some of us do that when our birthday comes around, or maybe it’s an anniversary.  Maybe it’s when someone we know passes away.  Or sometimes it’s just when we can “feel it in our bones” that something in life has to change.  Whenever it happens, and however it happens, it’s just something that we do: we step back and see if our life is on track.

And that usually involves some sort of reflection on our priorities—you know: What’s important in life?  What are our guiding principles?  What do we believe is ultimately important for eternity and for everyday life?  Here, as a people of faith it seems like a good idea to reflect on this at this particular time of year, with our new council members starting soon, parish planning and discussions happening, with our youth coming back from the Steubenville Conference in St. Louis and all “on fire” with their faith. 

This seems like a good time of the year to step back and see where our priorities are: Is our life of faith on track?  And it just so happens that the idea of “priorities” is also a common thread in all our Scripture readings today. 

We hear that Solomon’s priorities were focused on God: relying on God, asking for wisdom and understanding so that he could be a genuine instrument of God to his people.  And then the parables of Jesus these past three weeks have been trying to steer our priorities toward the “kingdom of heaven.”  He’s interested in helping us to buy into the idea that the kingdom of God is a priority.  Of course, we already do—otherwise we wouldn’t be here. 

The psalm talks about the “commands of God,” and how they bring light and understanding.  People who can really sing that psalm—in their hearts, anyway—see God’s leadership and his being the Good Shepherd as a priority.  And then there’s St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he says that “all things work for the good for those who love God.”  In other words, he’s saying: “Keep God as a priority, and all of life—even the challenges—can be a source for good.”

So I could make this homily really, really short today as just say what we already know: God is important, faith is important, they need to be a priority if we’re interested in living a good life.  And we can always—myself included—we can always be better about keeping God more front and center in life.  

So I could end there.  You know, we already know that God should be a priority.  After all, he’s God.  And that’s why the Church exists: We’re a people who value God as the beginning and fulfillment of our life.  We know that.  We put our faith into practice; we love God.  But the question is: How can we do it more, how can we do it better?  And that’s a question of making our priorities real and not theoretical; letting God actually change us and guide us—always for the better, always into a deeper experience of life.

And this challenge of making our priorities actual is at the heart of all our discussions in the parish about where we’re going.  It’s behind the question of our buildings.  It’s behind the questions about money and finances.  It’s behind our questions about what it means to be “united.”  When it comes to vocations, it’s a question of priorities.  We changed the name of our faith formation program from “Religious Education” to “Discipleship Formation” because it’s a matter of priorities; we’re not just teaching kids facts about God and faith—we’re hopefully leading them to encounter the living God as the priority in their life, and to be his disciples.

Everything we do as a people of faith is a question of priorities: What are they, and are they in a good order?

This past week I got an email from someone who was passing along what she had heard from someone else—that Father listens a lot, but he doesn’t hear.  Let me translate that for you: “Father listens a lot, but he’s doing what we want him to do.”  The only reason I can translate that is because I have that mindset, too, sometimes.  I say to myself: “It’d be so much easier if people would do what I want…And if they don’t do it, then they’re not listening to me.”  Right?  I imagine a good number of us have that thought go through our head sometimes.

It’s a question of priorities.  I’m here to do God’s will, and to help restore right relationship between God and his people.  That’s my priority.  Of course, sometimes—too many times—other things take priorities.  There are lots of things in the parish to distract us from doing God’s work.  It’s kind of ironic, actually.

Or there’s the question of what it means to be “united.”  I’ve heard that: In order for us to be united we all have to be at one altar, not three different ones.  Now, on the one hand, it’s true.  The altar is a symbol of Christ, and there’s only one Christ.  And, really, that’s what we hope for in heaven: the entire community of the angels, saints, and holy ones gathered around (and within) the one God, enjoying an eternal feast of divine love and life.  So there’s something to the idea of the “one altar” being that which unites us.

But, of course, that’s the vision of heaven.  And God hasn’t ushered in that reality yet.  Instead, he’s given us his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is our point of unity—the living Son of God.  And he is present in every place, all around the world, at this very moment.  What makes us “united” is the Spirit of Christ within us, the “living stones” in the Temple of his Body.

And God has inspired Christians for the past two thousand years to built altars here, there, and everywhere, so that Christ can come to his people here, there, and everywhere.  Christ himself is the Unifer, not matter where in the world we are.  Over in Kaukauna they have altars.  Down in Oshkosh they have altars, too.  In California there are altars, in Mexico, in Africa, in Rome there are altars.  Millions of altars all around the world.  But it’s the same Christ who is present at each one.  He is the Unifer; the golden thread that keeps them all together.  Again, it’s a matter of priorities: Is the living Spirit of Christ the priority, or is the physical symbol of Christ, the altar, the priority?

Everything we do as a people of faith is a question of priorities: What are they, and are they in good order?

Take the sports field for example.  Good sportsmanship is a priority.  Athletic ability and determination are priorities.  Being a supportive teammate is a priority.  Respecting the rules of the game is a priority.  And they all reflect, to one degree or another, the greater priority of doing what is right.  Sports are an opportunity to practice those Godly virtues of: justice, patience, charity, goodwill.  They’re an opportunity to keep physically and mentally fit, intentionally respecting God’s gift of the body and mind.

There are several priorities in sports.  But they’re grounded in that deeper priority of being a disciple of what’s right and just.

Or say you’re out in the work force.  Well, commitment to the task is a priority.  Having skills and honing those skills is a priority.  Doing quality work is a priority, and not taking a paycheck for shoddy effort.  Investing your time and energy into the work is a priority.  Again, they’re all a reflection of that deeper priority within us to love God and “love his commands,” as the psalm says today.

If we’re struggling with something at home, in the parish, at school, at work, out in the fields…it’s always an admirable thing to stop and pray: “God, what am I doing?  I have no idea what I’m doing, Lord, so help me.”  Just like Solomon prayed: “Lord, I don’t know how to lead these people.  You have to help me.”  (That’s the basic prayer of any parish priest.)  And then get on with life, and let God do his thing—in his time and in his way.

In our minds, we know that God is a priority for us.  We know that faith and Church are priorities for us.  The challenge is to make it real; to let the Holy Spirit actually change us and guide us.  And that’s not easy.  In fact, it’s the hardest (and most deeply joyful) work we human beings will ever do—to rediscover God as “the one thing necessary” in life, and to let the Spirit and the priorities of God influence our spirit and our priorities.

So I could’ve ended the homily earlier, but not really.  That’s because it’s one thing to know that God is our light and our salvation.  It’s another thing, however, to live our priorities; and to stop every now and then and ask: Are my priorities where they should be?  Do I really “love the commands of the Lord,” as we sang today, or are they just words?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Homily for 27 July 2017

27 July 2017

Conversion of heart and mind is not easy.  And, let’s face it, sometimes it doesn’t sound all that attractive either.  Maybe that’s why Jesus quotes Isaiah: “They will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they...understand with their hearts and be converted and I heal them.”  He knows that what he offers humanity is a hard path—a joyful path, for sure: a path of love, peace, wisdom, mercy, and so on, but nonetheless, a hard path to follow.

Jesus knows that people don’t always want to get that close to him, for fear that he’ll require them (us) to change some of our ways, some of our habits.  Sometimes, conversion is about as attractive as the idea of going on a diet, or starting an exercise program, or realizing that it’s cleaning day at home and you’re not really in the mood.  Conversion to the ways of Jesus takes work; it takes commitment and it requires at least some change in the way we live.  And so, conversion is hard thing to sell, even to the crowds who follow Jesus around.

And so, God puts mentors in our lives to inspire us along the path of personal conversion.  God gave Moses to the ancient Israelites; also Joshua, David, Solomon, the prophets, and so on.  God gives us also the Apostles, saints from around the world, modern-day saints, friends and neighbors.  God puts holy men and women into our lives to help inspire down the path of conversion.

And so, it’s good to consider: What mentors has God put into my own life?  Who has he given me to be a source of inspiration?  Maybe a spiritual writer or a saint, a coworker or a family member.  Conversion of heart and mind is not easy; God knows it’s better not to go it alone.  Who has God put into our lives as companions on the journey?—the journey down the sometimes difficult path of conversion.

Homily for 26 July 2017

26 July 2017

Today we celebrate the memorial of Sts. Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Virgin Mary.  And this seems to be a case of “holiness by association.”  We don’t really know that much about Joachim and Anne—we’re not even entirely sure if those were their names.  We only know for certain that they were the mother and father of Saint Mary.

And so, we have to assume that if the child they raised became the Mother of God, then they themselves must have been extraordinary in holiness.  The only “proof” of that is the holiness of their child, our Blessed Mother.  There’s the expression: “A tree is known by its fruits.”  And, in this case, “the parents are known through their child.”

As we consider that we ourselves are children of God, how we act, what we say, what we do all has a reflection on God.  People can know God through us; sometimes that’s the only way they encounter God—through our actions and words.  That’s why there can’t be any “cranky Christians,” or merciless Christians; because that would give others the wrong idea of who God is.

The parent is known through the child; God is known to others through his children.  May we do God proud in how we live our lives.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Homily for 25 July 2017

25 July 2017
Feast of St. James the Apostle

“Everything is indeed for you,” St. Paul writes.  Everything that he and the Apostles endured was “for you,” for us.  St. James the Apostle learned from the Lord, he experience the Transfiguration firsthand, he was brought deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane by the Lord, he traveled to other countries in his missionary work to spread the Gospel, and he was eventually beheaded.  He’s also said to have appeared in various battles, riding atop a horse to help defeat the enemies of Christ.

“Everything is indeed for you,” St. James could have said, just as much as St. Paul said it.  James took the Lord’s example to heart when he said, “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served.”  The Gospel, the “good news” today, it seems, is that there are still people around who are striving (and even dying) to show us the way of Christ.

Whether those are teachers of the faith like our popes or bishops, or the examples of the modern-day Christian martyrs in the Middle East, or the random person who shows an act of Christian kindness and mercy, the good news is that there are still people around today who can say, “Everything is indeed for you.” 

And, of course, we have the Eucharist, that perpetual reminder from God that everything—everything—is indeed given for us.  In the face of that, what else can we say but, “Thank you.”  What else can we do but offer a sacrifice of praise.  

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Homily for 23 July 2017

23 July 2017
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

“Let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”  We hear that at the start of every Mass.  And it’s basically a reminder that what we’re in search of, what we’re hoping for as Christians, is rather hidden.  We hear a lot about the “kingdom of heaven” in Scripture today.  But that kingdom isn’t going to just jump out at us; we have to be attentive and look for it.

And so, we acknowledge our sins.  We acknowledge that, no, we don’t give as much effort as we should in being attentive to the kingdom of heaven.  We acknowledge that, yes, we substitute other things for the kingdom of heaven; things that are easier to attain, things that are more obvious and pleasurable.  We acknowledge our sins, and admit that the kingdom of heaven takes effort to find, because so much of it is hidden.

Heaven isn’t going to just hit us in the face.  After all, what we celebrate are “sacred mysteries.”  That doesn’t mean that heaven can’t be known; it just means that God has to reveal it to us.  And he does.  But God speaks in a very quiet voice.  And he’s speaking about things which we’re only vaguely aware of, which makes it doubly difficult to understand him.

And that’s why at the start of every Mass we “acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”  We get quiet again, and focused again, so we can go deeper into what God wants to show us: the sacred and hidden kingdom of heaven, here in the Mass, and out in everyday life.

All of our readings today come back to this idea of “hiddenness.”  For instance, the weeds that are sown in with the wheat aren’t just any weeds; they’re zizania (or tares) which are almost identical to wheat.  They grow hidden among the wheat, and vice versa, the wheat grows hidden among the weeds.   

And then there’s the mustard plant seed, the smallest of all seeds.  It’s so small that it’s easily overlooked and underestimated.  It sort of falls into the category of being “hidden.”  Then we have the yeast which is mixed in with the flour.  It becomes “hidden” within the bread dough, and it can’t be removed.

In the Book of Wisdom, we hear about God and his “might” or power.  But we also hear how God uses his power not to be “big,” but to be “small;” to be lenient and merciful, and kind.  Just like Jesus being born in the manger, God could act with boldness, but he chooses to act quietly, subtly, and with “hiddenness.”

And then, finally, in the letter of Paul to the Romans, he speaks of the longings of the human heart; longings for the kingdom of heaven which generally lie hidden within us; longings which can’t be put into words but which we nonetheless feel in moments of quiet restlessness.

All of our readings today come back to this idea of “hiddenness.”  But that’s so often where the kingdom of heaven is.  It’s in the mysterious, the hidden, the overlooked and understated.  We would say the kingdom of heaven is revealed in the ordinariness of life, in the smallness of life, in the day-to-day activities of life.  The trick is to not let the day-to-day become an end in and of itself.  When that happens, we could be on the edge of the kingdom of heaven, and yet completely miss it.

“Let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries;”—emphasis on that word “prepare.”  If we’re going to go digging for buried treasure, we need the right tools.  And the first tool we need is a healthy appreciation of the hiddenness of what we’re looking for.  Again, the kingdom isn’t going to hit us in the face; it’s much more subtle than that.

Take the parables that Jesus speaks today: we see that the kingdom of heaven is characterized by such things as: goodness (the man sowed “good” seeds); it’s characterized by community (the man had helpers), but there’s a hierarchy within the community (after all, the helpers call him “Master” and we are talking about a “king”-dom).  In the kingdom of heaven there’s: truth, clemency, wisdom and patience, trust, justice, security and belonging. 

From the parable of the mustard seed and yeast, we see that the kingdom of heaven is characterized by potential (that’s what the seed symbolizes), but potential which is always coming into being.  In other words, heaven is a place of overabundance.  It’s a hearty way of life, one which is home to the “birds of the sky,” or to put it more poetically, the kingdom is home to “creatures of the heavens.”

And, like yeast, the kingdom of heaven is a powerful agent for change and growth.  And once it’s mixed in with life, it’s there to stay.  The kingdom of heaven is permanent.  And lastly from the parables, we see that the kingdom of heaven is more than is imaginable.  What we experience of the kingdom now is like the size of a mustard seed.  But the size differential between the mustard seed and the mustard plant is a symbol of how much greater heaven is in its fullness, than what we can experience of it now.  In other words, there’s a warning of a sort, not to underestimate the potential of the kingdom of heaven.

When you think about it, all these characteristics of the kingdom of heaven are actually pretty ordinary: goodness, community, hierarchy, truth, wisdom, mercy, security, belonging, and so on.  The kingdom of heaven is “hidden in place sight.”  But that’s where preparedness and faith come in.  “Let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”

With faith and preparedness, we begin to see the ordinariness of life as what it is: little bits of the kingdom of heaven revealing itself to us.  For instance, when we experience kindness, there’s a little bit of heaven.  Now, we can either brush it off, or just be too busy to notice it.  But we’ll have missed an invitation from God to go deeper.  And by “going deeper,” we mean acknowledging that kindness, thanking God for it, and just simply enjoying it for a moment.

Or what about when we realize that a truth has been spoken to us.  Maybe it’s a truth we don’t want to hear.  Again, we can either brush it off, or just ignore it.  But we’ll have overlooked the kindness and mercy of God who wants to help.  And a little bit of the kingdom of heaven will have passed us by.  Again, the kingdom is subtle and understated.  But even if we miss it, or rather, “when” we miss it—because we’re going to miss it from time to time—the kingdom of heaven keeps revealing itself to us.  Like Jesus, heaven will gently, but persistently knock on the door of our hearts and minds.

The other day, I learned that someone had been knocking on the door at the rectory.  But I was in another room, and they knocked very quietly, so I didn’t hear it.  When heaven knocks, let’s hope that we’re attentive enough, that we’re quiet enough, to notice it, and let it in.  All those little moments of experiencing goodness, kindness, mercy, justice, companionship, truth, and so on; all those little, quiet, almost hidden moments are actually very important.  It’s heaven, it’s God asking, “Can I come and stay with you today?”

And that’s what we have here in the Mass.  The signs and symbols of the kingdom of heaven are more obvious than out in daily life.  But they’re still rather ordinary and understated.

Bread and wine?; they’re pretty ordinary.  Even after they’re consecrated, they still look and taste like bread and wine.  The Sign of Peace?; it looks like a bunch of people shaking hands.  The readings from Scripture?: they’re pretty ordinary words printed on ordinary paper, spoken by your neighbor; it’s all pretty usual on the outside.  And so, it’s also pretty easy to overlook those little bits of the kingdom of heaven right in front of us.

The Eucharist, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ given to us as food from the heavenly realm.  The Sign of Peace, an image of the peace among the Communion of Angels and Saints in the kingdom of heaven.  And the Word of God spoken to us, the very same, living Word that from before time began was with God and brought all things into being in heaven and on earth. 

But it takes awareness and faith to see and to appreciate the subtle presence of the kingdom of heaven among us.  Jesus said, “I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.”  He came to open up the gates of heaven to us.  And, truly, heaven does come to us.  But it’s as small as a mustard seed; easy to overlook and underestimate.  It’s hidden among the wheat and the weeds.  It’s powerful and permanent, like yeast; even though it’s in with the mix. 

The kingdom of heaven is subtle, almost hidden.  But it’s here.  If you listen closely, and look with faith, you’ll see it.  It’s here.