Saturday, July 14, 2018

Homily for 15 July 2018

15 July 2018
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Catholic worship is known for its “smells and bells.”  We surround ourselves here with all sorts of things that affect our senses. 

We see the beautiful stained glass windows, with a rainbow of colors, scenes and images that remind us of the communion of saints, expertly handcrafted.  We dip our fingers in the holy water as a reminder of our baptism.  It’s cool and wet.  We step into the place and smell incense or, more often, we smell the scent of many decades’ worth of burning candles.  It smells like prayer.  

We hear the bells in the tower, bells during the Mass; we hear the music; we hear the human voice speaking words of Scripture and prayer.  Our taste buds even get a chance at communion time, when we eat and drink.  We sit and stand, we kneel, we bow our heads, we process in and out.  We make the Sign of the Cross over ourselves. 

Catholic worship is a very bodily thing; it affects all our senses.  Even in the simplest, most austere churches there are a lot of “smells and bells” in how we worship God.  And that’s very fine; after all, God created the world and everything in it, and he reveals himself to us through it all.  So the “smells and bells” are okay.  They help us to lift our minds and hearts to God—at least, they’re supposed to.

We all know the story of the golden calf—how Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, but while he was gone, the people made a golden calf and worshiped it as their god.  Well, the smells and bells of our worship can inadvertently become a golden calf.  But, you know, that doesn’t happen because we don’t believe in God.  The Hebrews didn’t make a golden calf because they stopped believing in God.  They did it because the calf (or the bull) was associated with God—similar to how, for us, holy water, holy oil, bread and wine, incense, music, and so on are all associated with God.

It’s easy to experience the physical, tangible reminders of God’s presence while, at the same time, to miss the experience of worshiping God himself.

And this is where the Prophet Amos comes in, who we hear from today.  He lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is.  But he was sent by God to go to the northern kingdom of Israel.  Now, in the northern kingdom, King Jeroboam had set up two temples, one in a city called Bethel, and the other in a city called Dan.  And King Jeroboam put up a golden calf in each temple.

And the problem wasn’t so much that there were golden calves there.  In the Book of Numbers (23:22), God is described as being “like the horns of a wild ox.”  In Psalm 18(:3), God is described as being “the horn of my salvation;” meaning, the horn of a bull.  Even the Cherubim which the throne of God sits on are sometimes described as having the body of a bull or a lion.  The bull was a symbol of strength and fertility for the Hebrews (and for many other cultures at the time). 

The bull was a symbol of God’s strength and fertility, and even represented the presence of God himself.  So the golden calves in those temples weren’t so much the issue for the Prophet Amos.  The issue was that the people were worshipping the symbols and signs of God rather than God himself.  They were worshipping the “smells and bells,” rather than God himself.  And, as we heard, Amos got the door slammed in his face for saying that.

We like all those tangible aspects of our worship.  We like to see and hear; we like to taste and smell; we like to touch.  It makes God more “real.”  And while that’s true, the kind of worship we’re ultimately going for is worship “in spirit and in truth.”  Jesus says that in the Gospel of John (4:21-24).  Spoken prayer is good, but it’s better when our prayers are true.  Kneeling is good, but it’s better when we kneel out of reverence and love for God.  Eating and drinking at communion time is good, but it’s better when we digest and savor the Spirit of God we’re taking in.

We like all those tangible aspects of our worship—and we should.  But, at the same time, Jesus says to worship “in spirit and in truth.”  And when we look at the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians we can understand why.

Saint Paul puts out there essentially a list of all the good things God gives his people.  God has blessed us, made us holy, destined us for adoption; giving us redemption, forgiveness, wisdom and insight.  It’s basically a laundry list of reasons why we worship God.  But all these gifts God has for us are...spiritual.  Blessedness, holiness, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, wisdom, insight—those are things we experience “in spirit.”  Our bodily senses aren’t really part of it.

And so, worshipping God includes the “smells and bells,” but it goes beyond them too.  Worshipping God necessarily involves the spirit, because that’s where God’s blessings are mostly encountered.  For instance, it’s one thing to go into the confessional and to hear the priest say, “I absolve you from your sins.”  But it’s another to be humble before God and to feel that forgiveness “in spirit and in truth.”

It’s one thing to say the words of the Our Father.  But it’s another to really hear and take to heart what it is we’re praying for.  It’s one thing to give someone the Sign of Peace.  But it’s another to truly wish the peace of Christ upon someone. 

All the physical aspects of our worship are meant to be like a springboard, a jumping off point for worship “in spirit and in truth.”  And that really takes a lifetime of trial and error to experience what it means to worship in spirit.  But that’s where the Lord is guiding us. 

Catholic worship is known for its “smells and bells.”  We surround ourselves here with all sorts of things that affect our senses.  May those tangible, physical things help us to offer not only our voices, our gestures, our bread and wine, but also our spirit.  In the end, God is spirit.  What better and truer way to worship him than to lay open our spirit before him, in this place, and at this altar.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Homily for 12 July 2018

12 July 2018

Our readings highlight the idea of judgment and mercy—God’s judgment and mercy.  When others are hostile to us Christians, Jesus says in so many words: Don’t retaliate—just leave them for God’s judgment.  And that’s pretty much a threat, based on the fiery end Sodom and Gomorrah experienced.  So God’s judgment sounds pretty harsh.

But the Prophet Hosea describes God’s judgment in a very different way.  He talks about the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, and even God’s tenderness.  It’s almost like our readings today are talking about two different Gods; one who’s wrathful and the other who’s gentle and quick to forgive.  But, of course, there’s only one God. 

So either God is unstable or there’s something else at play here.  And what’s at play is the differences in the human characters in these stories.  As we know, there are people who are believers—more or less; who have accepted faith in God to some degree.  To these people (which is most people) God is slow to anger and quick to forgive.  They (we) are like children who are learning; and we don’t get overly angry with kids who are trying to learn.

But there are others who outright reject God and everything God is about: truth, goodness, beauty, harmony, relationship, etc.  They flat out reject it.  To those people God’s judgment would be harsh.  After all, if someone rejects the very Spirit of love, what else would they experience but the absence of love.  If someone rejects the very Spirit of truth and beauty, what else would they experience but the opposite of those things.

God responds to us according to how we respond to him.  If we let ourselves be his children, let he will treat us as children: with love, tenderness, and an abundance of forgiveness.  May we today renew ourselves as children of God, sons and daughters of God who wants nothing more than to love and be loved in return.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Homily for 11 July 2018

11 July 2018

“Seek always the face of the Lord,” our psalm says today.  And immediately we think of images of Jesus’ face, which is fine and good.  But the gospel reminds us that the “face of Jesus” can also be seen in other people.

Jesus called together his twelve Apostles and sent them out to do his work: proclaiming the Kingdom, curing disease and illness, raising up the lowly, and so on.  They were sent out to “be” Jesus to others. God sends many people our way, to help us and to raise us up.  And that all started with the Apostles. 

And so, as we “seek always the face of the Lord,” we also look to leaders in the Church: popes, bishops, priests, spiritual writers, the Saints.  Of course, we can also see the face of God in neighbors and in cherished friends.  And, if we look in a mirror, we might even see the face of God there.

“Seek always the face of the Lord,” our psalm says today.  Happily, the face of God is all over the place.  May the Lord help us to see him, and to be thankful. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Homily for 10 July 2018

10 July 2018

Saint Clare is known for saying: “We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become.”  And that sounds familiar because we just heard the same idea in the psalm: “Their makers shall be like them, everyone that trusts in them.”  And, of course, we all know the familiar proverb: “You are what you eat.”

Whatever we love or enjoy; whatever we give all our time and attention to, that’s what shapes who we are and what we become.  And this is actually a practical bit of wisdom—especially if, for example, we’re trying to change our habits or our ways of thinking. 

For instance, if we find we’re being too negative or self-critical, maybe it’s time to hang around with more positive people; maybe it’s time to give old habits a break and, instead, indulge in something constructive.  Wherever we give our time and attention, that’s what shapes who we are.

And this bit of wisdom has obvious importance when it comes to our lives as disciples of Christ.  After all, our God is a living God, who is passionate and devoted, forgiving and just, wise and patient.  If we want to more like our God (in whose image we’re made), then we need to give him more of our attention.  If we want to be truly alive, passionate about living, a devoted Catholic, a person of kindness, wisdom, and patience…then we want to hang around with the One who is all those things: God.

“We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become.”         

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Homily for 8 July 2018

8 July 2018
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Our friends here in the gospel do something we do all the time: We make assumptions, and then we let those assumptions direct us.  And that’s not a bad thing—especially when those assumptions are based on our experiences of life.

For instance, if I take my shoes off and think about running across the grass, I assume that if I do that I’m going to step on some stones, some thistles, and maybe something else that’s going to hurt.  And I assume that because that’s just what always seems to happen.  So my assumption is based on a pattern of personal experiences.  So the next time I think about walking on the grass barefooted, I might not do it.

Our assumptions, based on our experiences, guide us; they help make our decisions for us.  And, again, that can be a very good thing.  It keeps us safe and it’s how we learn.  But, on the other hand, the assumptions we have can also limit us.

For instance, it would be incorrect to assume that every time I walk barefoot in the grass, I’m going to step on something.  And so, it would be (not necessarily wrong, but…) unfortunate if I said: I’m never going to walk barefoot on the grass ever again.  I would be limiting my experiences of life if I let my assumptions dominate.

And so, our assumptions, even though they’re absolutely good and necessary, can become an obstacle if we’re not aware of them, or if we give them too much “weight.”  And that’s where our friends are today in the Gospel of Mark.

There’s Jesus standing in front of them in the synagogue.  He’s about average height: 5’9”—6’.  They hear his voice, they see his teeth when he opens his mouth; they see his beard and his hair.  He has brown eyes, and he’s dressed in the same type of clothes as everybody else.  There’s nothing particularly different about him.  And everybody knows who he is: He’s the son of Joe and Mary at the next farm over the way.

And so, what reason would they have to think they’re staring God himself in the face, or that they’re hearing the words of a prophet?  Other than what he was saying—which “astonished” people—they had no reason to think of Jesus as being different from any other preacher in the synagogue.  They didn’t see him as a prophet or as God himself, because…Jesus didn’t match their assumptions about prophets or God.

They assumed (from what they knew of their history) that prophets come from some distant land.  Prophets were supposed to be something of a curiosity, certainly not what we’d call “normal” people.  And prophets were supposed to be larger-than-life, like Moses or Jeremiah or Elijah.  Jesus was anything but that.  And so, the people “took offense” at him.  They were “scandalized” by him because he was a “nobody” (just like everybody else), trying to be “somebody;” namely, a prophet. 

But he didn’t match their assumptions about prophets, so the people just discounted Jesus.  They said, “Whatever.”  And “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there.”  This is a case where an assumption was very limiting.  The people had cut themselves off from an encounter with God.  And, of course, that’s something we want to avoid.

It’s sometimes said of God that we should “expect the unexpected.”  We should “imagine the unimaginable.”  We should “anticipate being surprised.”  In other words, when it comes to God, we have to be careful about our assumptions.  We can have them—and we should, but we can’t let them take the place of God.  Our faith has to be in God, and not in our assumptions about him.

This really is where the whole question about “the problem of evil” comes from.  The argument goes: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and if God is all good and all loving, then how can there continue to be evil in the world?  Why is there sickness and suffering?  Why is there natural disaster?  Why do “bad things happen to good people”?

All those questions boil down to the assumptions we have about God.  The assumption is that: God is all-powerful and loving, therefore, it only makes sense that he would use his power to rid the world of anything that is evil.  The assumption is that all God needs to do is snap his fingers and all will be right in the world.  And, yet he doesn’t do it; he won’t do it, or he can’t do it.  So, the assumption is that he is not all-powerful; or if he is, then he is certainly not loving or compassionate.

This question, the “problem of evil,” is all rooted in our assumptions about God.  And a good chunk of people leave the faith, or discount Christianity all together because of it.  Their faith is in their assumptions, not in God. 

If we want to know who God is—who the Christian God is—then we look to Jesus.  As much as the Old Testament is useful to us, and as much as the study of ancient religions is helpful, if we want to make good assumptions about God, we have to look at Jesus.  He is, after all, the “visible image of the invisible God.” 

And Jesus shows us that God’s brand of “power” looks a lot like “weakness.”  Saint Paul came to that conclusion when he wrote, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Jesus showed us “power” when he let himself be crucified.  He showed us “power” when he associated with the needy rather than people of influence.  He showed us “power” when he was incarnated in the form of a defenseless baby born in a manger.  God’s brand of “power” looks a lot like “weakness.”

And so, we can (and should) assume that God is all-powerful; but it’s a vastly different form of “power” than we usually expect.  That’s the value of having a big crucifix in our churches.  It’s why, when we come to Mass, it’s less important what I get from God, and more important what I give to God—my attention, my reverence, my love and adoration.  It would be great if God would just snap his fingers and wipe evil from the face of the earth, but we don't have reason to hold onto that assumption—based on what God himself (Jesus) has shown to us.

When we let go of our false assumptions (especially about God), then life becomes better.  And we actually become more of a partner with God—in his power and love.  Instead of waiting for God to do something, maybe he’s doing what he always does: maybe he’s calling on us to get up and do something for him—weak and limited creatures that we are.  God always does that: he always calls up people who are least likely to make a difference (in other people’s eyes).  That we can assume about God—that he uses the humble and the lowly to bring down the “powerful.”

And for that reason, we want to be careful with our assumptions, not only about God, but also about other people.  The Letter to the Hebrews (13:2) gives us the famous line: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have unknowingly entertained angels.”  And, really, what is hospitality but welcoming someone, accepting someone for who they are—without letting our assumptions about them get in the way. 

Hospitality is openness; it’s “expecting the unexpected;” letting ourselves be surprised by the person who’s standing in front of us.  Hospitality is about not letting our assumptions cut us off from encountering the other person.  Everybody has something to share; every life is precious to God.  Even people who’ve known each other for decades can’t say: “I know that person perfectly.”  That’s a pretty big assumption; to think I know somebody else perfectly, that’s there nothing else for me to learn.

Our assumptions are absolutely good and necessary.  But they can also limit us.  If we wish to encounter God, then we have to watch our assumptions about him: expect the unexpected, imagine the unimaginable, anticipate being surprised by God.  After all, our faith isn’t in our assumptions about God; our faith is in God—as he is.