Saturday, September 29, 2018

Homily for 30 Sep 2018

30 Sep 2018
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off,” Jesus says.  “If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” says Jesus.  But he’s not telling us to maim and mutilate our bodies—the bodies he himself made.  Instead, he’s telling his followers to get rid of anything that causes them to sin.  That’s the message behind those rather shocking words of Jesus: Get rid of anything that causes you to stray from the path of life.  And it’s a very relevant passage for today, in many respects.

Our world is broken.  Not that it’s ever been perfect, but it seems to be especially broken today.  The national political scene is looking like a brawl.  The Church is in a questionable state.  The practice of the Catholic faith is waning, at least in this part of the world.  Youth are lost and in want of meaning, connection.  The world, the Church, society has strayed from the path of life and gotten lost.

And we should ask: How did we get here?  What caused us to “sin;” what caused us to stray into our present world?...where goodness, truth, and beauty are sometimes hard to see.  Well, as we might expect it’s all the usual suspects: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and apathy (sloth).  We could add fear to the list, too.

When you watch the national news (or, at least, when I watch it), you can’t help but shake your head.  One side tends to be too fearful or slow (or slothful).  The other side tends to be too prideful, greedy, and wrathful.  And it only seems to get worse, as parts of our national politics sink into near, literal insanity.  Politically, these are dangerous times.

Or when you look at the Church amid the continuing revelation of past abuse (or, at least, when I take it in the situation), you can’t help but feel that very Spirit of the Church has been betrayed.  Lust, gluttony, fear and anger, greed, pride…they all got the Church to where it is today.  As a people of faith these feel like very uncertain times.

Or we look at our youth and so many are doing wonderful things.  But so many are also lost, or struggling to be loved, to have real mentors in their lives, to have questions answered they wonder about—all in the midst of going from this practice to that game, from this after-school event to the next, spending the rest of their “free time” doing homework, and not being given the time to know they’re worth something to somebody.  Gluttony for activity, envy, pride, competition…what else has gotten them to where they might be today?

Jesus says in so many words, “Get rid of anything that causes you to stray from the right path, from the path of life.”  But, you know, doing that means taking some bold steps—not only with other people, but especially with ourselves.  Jesus didn’t say, “Cut somebody else’s hand off;” he said, “Cut your (own) hand off”—figuratively speaking.  “Before pointing out the splinter in somebody else’s eye, take out the log that’s in your own eye.”  In order for us—as a Church, as a society, as individuals—to find our way back to the path of life, we have to be willing to take some bold actions with….ourselves.

You know, maybe you’re addicted to food.  Food has become your comfort instead of God or friends.  Well, maybe a bold move would be to start writing down everything you eat so you become self-aware.  And, you know, practicing honesty with ourselves is really a bold thing.  It can be scary.  But it’s a tool we can give ourselves in order to “cut off” that tendency toward gluttony.

Or maybe you find yourself so busy with life that just forget to stay connected with friends, with family, with hobbies, with God.  Well, maybe a bold move would be to cut out some activities, to slow down.  It might hurt, but it’s like rushing to gobble down a plate of food—you can’t really enjoy it.  So slow down, and enjoy what’s in front of you.  Even it means cutting out some activities.

Now, as you would expect, these would be significant changes to our life.  And so, while we’re “cutting things off” in order to get on a better path, we should expect some pain and some discomfort.  Again, Jesus is speaking figuratively, but I can’t imagine that cutting your own hand off would be a pleasant experience; that plucking your own eye out would be happy occasion.  Again, Jesus is speaking figuratively here, but he’s driving home the point that to make some bold changes in our lives is probably going to hurt.

For example, if anger is something that controls us, it’s hard to just “cut if off.”  You can’t just flip a switch and then the anger is gone.  Instead, the anger has to be worked through.  It’s more like a gradual cutting away.  And, you know, that can be painful; like pulling out a splinter really slowly.  It hurts.  But it’s a good thing to do.

When I look at our national politics, I sometimes wonder if the chaos is because some foundational changes are trying to be made in “the way things have always been done.”  We hear that in the Church, too, don’t we: “We can’t change that…we’ve always done it this way!”  Whenever we’re trying to rout out: sloth, pride, anger, or whatever it is…whenever we try to “cut them out” of our lives, we better expect a fight.  But, as St. Paul says, it’s a “good fight.”  So even though politics is kind of a battlefield right now, perhaps it needs to be in order to “cut off” whatever needs to be “cut off.”

And the same goes for the Church.  Perhaps this is the time in the Church’s long history that some serious changes need to be made—both in its internal structures, and in the minds and hearts of all those (especially the clergy) who profess to be followers of Christ.  When you watch a little chick hatch, the egg itself gets all broken up and messy.  But from it comes a new life.  Granted, that new baby chick is a little ugly and wet, but in short time it’s a cute little fuzzball. 

The Church’s shell has been broken—necessarily so—so that new life can come from it.  As a Church, it’s good and necessary to ask what needs to be “cut off” so we can get back on the right path again.  Bishops and priests talk about that on the wider Church level, and we can talk about it on the local, parish level.

This past week, we had our Finance Council meeting and it was brought up (again) how our finances are unsustainable—as they are.  Either the parish will have to make some significant cuts in spending, or parishioners will have to sacrifice more for the good of the parish.  More than likely, both have to happen.  No matter what, though, it’s going to hurt. 

We need more liturgical ministers.  We need more people to volunteer when opportunities come up.  We need more people to be mentors and catechists for our young people.  We need people to sacrifice their time and efforts in order have a parish picnic next year. 

On the parish level, some things need to be “cut off” in order for us to be a vital community of faith.  What needs to be cut off?  Things like: apathy, anger, pride, and even fear perhaps.  It’s so very easy to stray off the path, and it’s so hard to get back on it.  But we have to do the difficult thing and get back on that path—the “path” being outstanding Christian living.

When Jesus says to “cut it off”—whatever “it” happens to be, he’s asking us to do something difficult.  And he knows it—because he’s asking us to do it to ourselves.  But he also knows the good that comes from “cutting off” whatever gets in between us and the path of God.  Let’s face it: Sometimes we have to prune ourselves.

We have to prune ourselves, like a growing plant.  But, you know, pruning only causes more growth, more good fruit.  And so, pruning is a good thing—even if we feel the “pinch” of the snippers.  And so, it’s good for us today—as individuals, as a community, as a country—What might God be asking us to prune?...not in somebody else, but in ourselves.  Whatever it is, can we—can “I”—take the snippers (figuratively speaking) and do we need to do, to get back on the path of life?

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Homily for 23 Sept 2018

23 Sept 2018
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

It was a place of great intercultural mixing, a place where differing religions touched each other.  And it was a place of testing for a people of faith.  Now, we could be talking about our 21st Century world, or we could be talking about ancient Alexandria, Egypt, where the Book of Wisdom was written. 

The Jews there were constantly being pulled in this direction or that direction: ‘Think this;’ ‘Believe that.’  But the Book of Wisdom was written as a reminder for them to be true to their faith and to their God—even as they lived within a mix of cultures.  And this situation is exactly what we deal with today.

We’re followers of Jesus Christ, members of his Catholic Church, and every day we’re influenced by ideas and beliefs which may or may not be Catholic or even Christian.  Every day we have choices to make.  Every time you listen to the news, every time you go to a blog, every time you read the newspaper someone is trying to sell a certain point-of-view.  And the question is: What I am going to do with all that?  Who am I going to listen to, who should I question?  And, as we know, it’s very easy to get caught up in all that, and lose our way. 

Now, in the letter of James, he suggests that what’s behind all the cultural divisions and arguments in (and in the Church) are our “passions.”  He’s saying that sometimes we humans can feel so strongly about something—to the point that it affects our physical being and happiness—our passion can be strong that we actually stop listening to others; that we stop interacting with other people. 

For example, we can look at the immigration issue today.  We know both sides of the argument.  But, as we also know, people can be very passionate about their view to the point that communication breaks down.  And then you just have people shouting at each other.  And that’s not helpful.  It some respects, passion has to be dialed down a little bit because, in reality, immigration is a complex issue.

There are undeniable problems with families being separated.  But there are also real problems with drug dealers and human traffickers coming into the country.  There are also those people in the mix trying to seek legitimate refuge.  And our own government does have a right and a responsibility to oversee its borders and to do what it feels is best for its people.

On this issue, the Church stands on both sides.  Drug dealers and human traffickers should be dealt with and kept out; men, women, and children seeking to come in should be treated humanely and compassionately; and the country (per the social justice teaching of the Church) has that right and responsibility to protect and exercise its sovereignty.  The Church has a pretty “dispassionate” approach to this, and so it can see both sides.  But this approach to the question of immigration gets lost because passions run high, and people are divided.

Even right here in Mass, our passions—our beliefs and philosophies—can divide us.  You know, whenever there’s a parishioner survey, there are generally a lot of critiques about the music at Mass.  We hear that: People love the organ; people hate the organ.  People want exciting, vibrant music; people want calm, inspiring music.  People want new, modern music; people want traditional hymns.  No matter what you do, you can’t win. 

And these divisions are rooted in our passions (which aren’t necessarily bad)...our passions, our beliefs and convictions about: who God is, what Mass is about, what the Church is, and what kind of relationship faith and culture should have.  And all these beliefs and convictions are shaped not only by what our faith tells us, but also by a whole society of competing philosophies about life and faith; competing ideas about happiness and fulfillment.

But the fact that we have all these ideas and beliefs floating around is not the problem.  You know, part of being “Catholic” is that we’re interested in the wider “whole”—the entire Tradition of the Church would collapse if we weren’t open to other ideas in the pursuit of the truth of things. 

The problem isn’t that there are a lot of ideas out there.  The problem is in taking on ideas and beliefs without first asking: “Is this really Christian?  Is this really Catholic?”  It’s very easy to become so passionate and convinced about an idea we have that we block out the bigger picture.  It’s easy to be carried away from the anchor of faith and to go worshipping other gods, particularly the god which is our own sense of rightness.

And—no surprise—we see this among the early disciples.  Jesus tried to tell them about his passion and death; but they wouldn’t listen.  They knew how the Messiah was supposed to be—and his being put to death wasn’t part of the Messianic vision of things.  And so, they didn’t ask Jesus anymore questions.  There was a breakdown in their communion with Jesus because of their own sense of rightness—they knew what was right (they thought). 

And so, we’re not all that different from those Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, way back when.  We’re not that different from those first disciples who honestly tried to listen to Jesus.  We’re in pretty much the same boat.

And while we sit and ponder how to be a Catholic Christian in the world today, Jesus plops himself down right in front of us and says, “I Am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  I Am.”

And that’s nice, but, you know, in our society today Jesus isn’t all that relevant.  Even among people of faith, Jesus can so easily become “what I want him to be.”  As a priest, it happens that I ask (or tell) Jesus to help me do what “I’m doing.”

Jesus is easily overlooked.  And, in that, he’s like that child he put in front of the disciples—a child who had no legal standing, who didn’t have much value in the eyes of the world at that time.  Jesus puts himself in front of us and says, “Here.  Do you want a compass to find your way through life?  Here, take me—‘worthless’ that I am.”

And where does Jesus take us but to himself and…to his Church that he’s been building since forever.  Ah, the Church—another “worthless and irrelevant” thing today.  Jesus asks us to commit ourselves to a raggedy child, impoverished, unimportant, weak, and outcast.  He asks us to commit him—and to somehow find truth and happiness in that.

That’s a pretty screwed up idea—according to many people we might hear today.  I mean, why “throw life away” for him (or for anybody else)?  Of course, that’s not what Jesus asks.  We don’t have to stop listening to others.  We don’t have to stop experiencing the wealth of cultures in our world.  Jesus simply asks that we not let his voice get choked off in the midst of life around us; that we not let his light get shoved under a bushel basket. 

The world is a wonderful place with wonderful cultures, even in the midst of terrible problems.  But above it all is Jesus, our Guiding Light, our “star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.”  Above it all is our God, who asks us to passionate about him, to look up to see where we’re going; to know what’s good, beautiful, and true in our world.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Homily for 9 Sept 2018

9 Sept 2018
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

You see the dark clouds in the West; dark, purple, heavy clouds and we get nervous—or excited.  A storm is coming.  “Will the old tree hold up through one more storm,” we wonder.  “Is the roof going to stay on...or, at least, is it going to keep the rain out, or is it going to leak again,” we say to ourselves.  When the clouds are heavy in the West, we get a little nervous—a storm is coming.

Of course, then the storm hits and you really start praying.  And that’s kind of where we are as a Church.  And the storm’s been brewing for decades.  I could be talking about the abuse scandal which just seems to get worse as new allegations surface about abuse from years ago.  I could be talking about the steady decline in people receiving the Eucharist at Mass.  The storm could be the wave of de-Christianization of society and culture.  It could the crippled sense of the other-worldly, the spiritual within humanity today.  The storm could be a lot of things.  And, really, it’s all of these things...and more.

And sometimes people ask me if the Church has ever been in this position before.  Has the Church been hit hard in the past...and survived?  Of course, the question behind the question is: Is there hope?  Is there hope that the faith will not be wiped out by the storm we’re in?  And the short answer is: Yes.  Yes, there’s hope—as long we have hope and faith in the right things.  The faithful have been hit by storms in the past, but they’ve always survived—by hope and faith.

For the first 260 years of the Church, Christianity was illegal.  It depended on who the Roman Emperor was at any given time, but Christians were either barely tolerated or persecuted and killed.  And at the time, Christians numbered just in the thousands—not the billions like there are today. 

And, even today, Christianity is illegal in some parts of the world.  In Saudi Arabia, for example, it is illegal to practice the Christian faith.  And so the Christians over there practice their faith secretly—not all that differently from the early Church.  If they’re discovered, they either have to renounce faith in Jesus or be put to death.  In such hostile environments that existed in the early Church and in some part of the world even today, the faith survives and is strong. 

And that’s because those Christians’ faith and hope are in the right thing; namely, God.  They take the words of Scripture very seriously, as we heard in the psalm: “Praise the Lord, my soul!  The God of Jacob keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry.”  Persecuted Christians past and present are a reason to have hope; the Church, the faith, survives those storms very well.

And then just after Christianity was made legal in the year 313, there was a major heresy that took hold in Church leadership.  It’s called the Arian Heresy, and it taught that Jesus was not the Word of God; Jesus was not the Son of God; he was not divine.  The Arians taught that Jesus was created—like you and me.  He was the most perfect creation, yes, but he was not God.

And for about thirty years, the major of bishops in the world at the time were Arians; they didn’t believe that Jesus was God.  And that was a major crisis for the faith.  By the grace of God, however, there were some bishops (and most of the lay faithful) who were very solid in believing what St. Peter said when he said to Jesus: “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

And after those thirty years or so, the winds changed, and the Church got back on track.  The faith—the truth— the grace of God.

And then there was the Protestant Reformation, started in the year 1517.  Only that was a little different.  What Martin Luther said back then wasn’t entirely off the beam; the Church had some significant problems.  Luther wasn’t entirely right, but the Church wasn’t entirely right either.  And, as we know, all of Europe was thrown into a storm.  Almost all of northern Europe left the Catholic faith and became Protestant. 

And, as a result, the Church did make some much-needed changes.  It was a terrible storm, and one that could have been avoided.  But, in the end, the faith survived—even if the community itself had ruptured.  And that’s because at the heart of the faith—whether Protestant or Catholic—was and is Jesus Christ.  As long as he’s at the core of what we’re about, there’s hope.

But that’s also why the storm we find ourselves in today is especially troublesome to many.  Ever since around the mid-1500s, the idea of faith, the notion of the spiritual and the divine has been slowly but steadily worn down.  It’s like how over time water wears down a stone until that stone doesn’t have any sharp edges anymore.  The stone isn’t gone, but it’s not as sharp as it was before.

And that’s what the storm of rationalism and radical individualism has done to the faith over the course of 500 years.  This age we live in now where I am the master of my destiny, where “my truth” is the only truth, where the history of the world started the day “I” was didn’t just come from nowhere.  The “me” generation didn’t come from nothing.  It’s a result of a very long, steady rain that’s worn down the “religious sense” in the human race.

And that’s only bred other storms we’re dealing with today.  Among other reasons, the abuse scandal is a result of the sin of selfishness, where some clergy have said—at least in their hearts—“what I want is more important than this child’s human dignity.”  And when that abuse was discovered, instead of being reported, it was covered up when some in Church leadership said—at least in their hearts—“the public image of the Church is more important than the truth.” 

But that’s also a storm which—like the Protestant Reformation—has had some positive results.  First off, the truth has been revealed...and that’s always a good thing, even if it’s painful.  And, finally, victims of abuse are given some measure of dignity.  And second, the formation of priests in the past twenty years or so is radically different than it was before.  Priests still learn their theology and philosophy, they learn how to pray and say Mass.  But they’re also made to be honest with themselves; to learn what their weaknesses are as individual men and how to be honest about those with themselves and others.  They’re made to address sexuality and how to be healthy in that respect.  And all of that makes them to be better priests, better humans who exist not for the gratification of “me,” but for the fulfillment of “me” and “you,” and for the sharing of the Gospel.

It’s maybe like a volcano that’s spewed globs of lava all over a once beautiful scene.  Maybe that’s what the abuse scandal is like.  But, at the same time, some little flowers and plants do grow out of the muck.  And that new growth is happening already within the priesthood, and has been for about twenty years now.  Still, though, we’re in a storm.  But there’s hope.  As long as Jesus is the heart of what we’re about, there’s hope.

Of course, as I said, we’re in an age now when Jesus isn’t necessarily the center.  Even faith in the spiritual or the divine is worn away.  And that helps breed the other big storm we face as a Church today—a shortage of priests.

Priesthood is a life commitment.  It’s just like marriage when somebody commits him- or herself to their beloved for life.  But what happens when people are less inclined to believe that Jesus—the Beloved—even exists at all?  Well, then, priesthood seems kind of...silly.  The shortage of priests isn’t necessarily a shortage of people saying “yes” to Jesus.  Maybe it’s a shortage of people believing that Jesus actually exists?  It’s a crisis of faith—simple, basic faith in the divine, in the spiritual.

When the clouds are dark over in the West, we get a little nervous.  And when the storm is on top of us, we pray a lot and hope to God that we make it through.  We’re in some pretty big storms right now.  But, if the history of God and his people show us anything, it’s that we can have a “sure and certain hope.”  And if our personal history with storms shows us anything, it’s that behind the storm is clear skies.  Always. 

With God, the skies are always clear after the storm.  We just have to get through the storm.  And our faith and hope will us do that.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Homily for 2 Sept 2018

2 Sept 2018
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

The Lord is always trying to tell us something.  He’s always trying to give us words of encouragement, or wisdom, or correction.  He’s always trying to get through to us—kind of like a radio signal that’s going from the transmitter to the receiver, or from the cell tower to the cell phone.  There’s a connection that’s trying to be made, and we want to get rid of anything that gets in the way of that transmission.

And that’s what “tradition” is.  It’s a transmission, and also the stuff being transmitted.  For us Catholics our Tradition is the transmission of a set of values and beliefs from one generation to the next.  And they’re transmitted through the everyday lives of believers.  But sometimes that Tradition—that transmission—gets muddled up with a bunch of static or, like with cell phones, you find yourself saying, “Hold on, I’m only getting every other word.”

Now with cell phones we know what causes a bad transmission: maybe the wind is blowing the wrong way, or maybe I turned my head the wrong way and lost the signal, or maybe it’s just bad service.  And with our faith what can get in the way of the transmission is oftentimes our usual ways of doing things, and our usual ways of thing.  In other words, what we do and think can get in the way of what God is thinking and doing.  And this is what the Lord’s parable today is trying to get us to see.

If we find that life doesn’t seem to be going well, or it’s not going like we envision, well maybe our transmission has too much static in it.  Maybe we’re standing in the middle of a “dead zone” and we’re not getting a good signal.  The signal is there; we’re just not picking up on it.  In reality, life could be just fine.  But if we’re standing too comfortably in our usual approach to life and faith, God may not be able to get through to us, and we might not be able to hear his message and enter into the mysteries he puts in front of us.

Now, we’ve had a lot of rain and clouds recently.  And our usual response is probably: Oh, what a dreary day!  Rain, rain, go away; come again some other day!  But if we could see the rain and the clouds as they are—as fantastic creations of God—we might sing a different song.  There’s nothing inherently bad about the rain and thunderstorms.  But the value we give them...where does that come from?

God looks at all creation and calls it good.  So why do we sometimes look at the rain and the clouds and call them bad?  Well, among other reasons, it’s a matter of what’s been passed on to us and what we pass on to others.  It’s a matter of values and beliefs.  And the Lord is always trying to tell us something to help us form those values and beliefs.

But it’s not only the Lord who does the transmitting—it’s also his Church.  The Church, the community of the faithful throughout the ages, is like a big cell tower, or a big radio tower.  It exists to transmit the saving message and the saving grace of God.  It’s why the Church is, by its very nature, a “traditional” thing; it’s a big transmitter. 
And so, Tradition is good, and it’s even necessary—how else is the Gospel message going to spread?  It has to be transmitted and shared from one generation to the next.  And the community of believers—the Church—is the Lord’s chosen instrument for that.

This is why it doesn’t make sense when you hear someone say they’re “spiritual but not religious.”  Now, we know what they mean: they mean they more interested in communion with God than in the bureaucracy of the Church.  And I imagine most of us would agree with that.  But to ignore the Church—to throw out its centuries of wisdom and teachings, to ignore its centuries of spirituality, to abandon the sacraments and Scripture—is like trying to make a phone call in an area where there’s no service.

You need the transmitter to get the transmission.  Now, certainly, we can (and we should) talk with the Lord directly.  That ability isn’t just given to the ordained; it’s given to everybody at their baptism.  Each of us can (and should) call on the Lord directly.  We don’t have to go through the Church to do that.  But the “signal,” the transmission of all that God has to offer is stronger and clearer when we’re also attuned to the Church and its Tradition.

Its tradition of teachings is meant to connect people with God.  Its tradition of sacraments is meant to make God’s grace available in more tangible forms.  Its tradition of social and political involvement is meant to bring the Gospel to those who need it, and to transform societies and cultures for the better.  Its tradition of community is meant to build each other up in faith, hope, and love.

I suppose you can be “spiritual but not religious,” and you certainly can (and should) pray to God on your own, but the Tradition of the Church makes it a much richer, stronger, and clearer encounter with God.

The Lord is always trying to tell us something.  He’s always trying to get through to us.  And he chooses to do that through transmission, through “tradition,” through the passing on values and beliefs through time, through the gift of faith, and especially through the living, changing Tradition of his Church.  Are you getting a clear signal?  Is he coming through?  If not, it could be the transmitter.  But it could also be where we’re standing.  Maybe take a step this way or that way to see if Jesus comes through more clearly.