Homily: Healing and Thanksgiving


The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
2 Kings 5:14-17
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
2 Timothy 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19

Today our readings teach us about two things: God healing us, and our thanksgiving to God for healing us.

In our first reading, we have the end of the story of the healing of Naaman. Namaan was a Syrian, the army commander of the king of Aram, and he was highly esteemed and respected. But he had contracted leprosy. Naaman’s wife had an Israelite slave girl who spoke of a prophet in Israel that could cure Naaman. So the king sent Naaman to the king of Israel, along with a letter and gifts for Naaman’s safe passage. One of the interesting things about this story is the Israelite king’s response. It says, “When he read the letter, the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed: ‘Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy?” The king tells us that the deadly affliction of leprosy is so horrific that it only a god could cure it.

So, the prophet Elisha hears about this, and sends a message to the king: “Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.” So, when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s dwelling, Elisha sends word to Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan River, and he will be healed. And the valiant military leader is a bit insulted. First, Elisha doesn’t even greet him himself, he just sends a messenger out to tell him. And second, the Jordan river is a muddy little creek compared to the great rivers of Syria, and third, just bathe in a muddy river? That’s it? So in anger, he storms away. But his servants plead with him, saying, “if the prophet told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more since he told you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?

Image result for naamanAnd then this is where our reading picks up. Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times at the word of Elisha. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean of his leprosy.” It wasn’t just that his skin was healed of leprosy and became the normal skin of a grown man. He was made new. His flesh was like that of an infant.

And then we have the second part: Naaman is thankful for God’s healing. He tells Elisha, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel… please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth, for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the LORD.” This is a strange request to us, but it shows the belief that gods were territorial, and Naaman wanted to take ground from Israel to worship the God of Israel back in Syria.

So now let’s see how all this relates to the Gospel. Jesus is traveling through Israelite and Samaritan lands and is approached at a distance by ten lepers asking to be healed. “And when he saw them, he said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ As they were going, they were cleansed.” So leprosy referred to a number of different skin diseases, some of them were temporary, some were not, and included in that was what we know as leprosy, that killed off the nerve endings, leading to infections, until the person died. Image result for israelite lepersIn the book of Leviticus, Moses had established procedures for the priests, who were responsible for protecting the physical and spiritual health of the people, and declaring people clean or unclean, part of, or separated from, the community. So if someone had a skin disease, they would be declared unclean, and they had to stay away from others and shout “unclean” to protect the healthy community. But if it seemed that someone had recovered from their disease, they would present themselves to the priests, who would declare them to be clean, and the person would take a ritual bath, wait seven days (the number of the covenant), then there would be a sacrifice with blood and water being sprinkled seven times, and the person would be restored to the community.

So, these ten lepers don’t shout, “Unclean.” They shout, “Jesus, heal us!” And Jesus responds by fulfilling the Law: “Go show yourselves to the priest.” And as we know, they discovered along the way that they were healed. But one of the ten, not one of the Israelites, but the one that was one of those foreigner, no-good, Samaritans, “realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” And at the end it says, Jesus said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith (your trust) has saved you.

Ok. So. Let’s put this all together. The Samaritan and Naaman the Syrian had three things in common. First, obviously they were lepers! Second, they were both healed by their faith and trust in God, after obeying in faith what they were told to do. So that ties us back to last week: faith and trust. And thirdly, they were both foreigners, gentiles. What was our responsorial psalm? “The Lord has revealed to the nations (the gentiles) his saving power.” So part of what is happening here, is not just healing of lepers, but healing of spiritual wounds and division, and the converting of gentiles. Jesus is expanding the covenant, so the New Covenant won’t be just with the children of Abraham, but open to all the children of Adam.

Next thing: Remember what the king of Israel said? “Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy?” Who cured Naaman? God. Who cured the ten lepers? Jesus…who is really God.

Naaman tried to thank Elisha with gifts, but Elisha refused, because it was God who healed Naaman. The Samaritan returned glorifying God, and fell at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him. Did Jesus correct the Samaritan? Did he say, “Stand up, I’m just a man, like you”? No. Because he is God, who has the power to heal, and wants to heal, the world—not just Israel, but all humanity.

As a closing reflection… There was a particular kind of ritual sacrifice in Israel that was described by Moses, but it became popular much later. The Todah sacrifice was not offered in atonement for sin or in reparation, but in thanks and praise to God for a specific act of deliverance.  The Todah was a festive sacrifice offered as part of a seven-step sequence of experiences, in which you (1) began in a situation of distress, (2) you cried out to God, (3) made a vow to offer the Todah sacrifice if God would save you, (4) God saved you, (5) you paid your vow by offering the Todah sacrifice in the temple, (6) you had a festive party as you and your family and friends ate the meat of the sacrifice and all the bread that was involved, and (7) you gave public testimony to all assembled in the Temple concerning how God saved you.

So you would bring the animal to God in thanksgiving, and then the priest would ritually sacrifice it, and then rather than burning it up or keeping it, he gave you back to you for a thanksgiving feast. The Passover is a kind of Todah feast… and so is the celebration of the Eucharist. Eucharist means, “thanksgiving.” From the Psalms, we learn that it was common to offer a wine-libation (offering) as part of the ritual.  This cup of wine, poured out in offering to God, is described: “The cup of salvation I will take up.”  Related imageOver this “cup of salvation” Jesus will later speak: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we bring bread and wine to the priest. The priest offers it to God. God accepts the sacrifice, and changes it into the even greater sacrifice of the meat/substance/reality of the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice. God then accepts that sacrifice, and then the priest gives it back to us for our thanksgiving feast with our family and friends, as we share with each other our stories of how God has saved us from our distress.

Those who were at any of the Forty Hours Eucharistic Devotions evening liturgies last week prayed Psalm 116, which is a Todah psalm. It says, “How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving… I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, In the courts of the house of the Lord...”

In Every Mass, we’re called to grow in this spirit of thanksgiving, because the Eucharist is Jesus’ own prayer of Thanksgiving to the Father. During the Mass, the priest says, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God.” It is our duty and our salvation, to thank God always and everywhere. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave thanks as he offered the bread that would be his broken body, and he gave thanks as he offered the wine that would be his spilled blood. Related imageJesus gave thanks, because Jesus always thanked the Father, because it is right and just. As much as he would suffer in Gethsemane and in his Passion, he was giving thanks, here in the Last Supper, for the victory he knew (through faith and trust) he would have. The Mass is the school in which we participate in Jesus’ own thanksgiving, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving the Church makes to the Father; the offering made through Jesus, with Jesus, of Jesus. The Church’s perpetual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Father through him, with him, and in him, from the rising of the sun to its setting.

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Homily: Having Faith

mustard seed

The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
Luke 17:5-10

God does not always respond “yes” to our prayers. Sometimes, he has to tell us, “no.” But very often, he tells us, “Wait. Not yet.” So, “Yes, No, or Wait.” A few years ago some atheist came out with a YouTube video that pointed out that, well, there are only these three logical possibilities. If you pray for something, it will happen immediately, or it will happen later, or it won’t happen. He said, if you pray to a milk carton, what you ask for will happen immediately, or happen later, or not happen. So praying to God is no more reliable than praying to a milk carton. And that seemed to sound very convincing, and probably affirmed a whole lot of people who already didn’t believe in praying to God. 

But it misses something very important. And that is trust. Faith and trust are parts of a relationship. I don’t trust a milk carton to have my best interest, my salvation, as the underlying reality behind whether or when my prayer is answered. Because it’s just a milk carton. But when I offer my prayer to God, I trust that the answer to my prayer, whether it’s yes, or no, or wait, is determined, not randomly or by coincidence, but by His divine wisdom, and his divine love for me. 

In our first reading, the prophet Habakkuk is wrestling with the two biggest obstacles to faith: suffering and unanswered prayer. Habakkuk was writing as the Babylonians were destroying Jerusalem, torching the Temple, and marching the Israelites into exile. Yet Habakkuk, as God’s prophet, is trying to encourage the people to remain faithful (and you think you have a hard job!). So in our reading, he is complaining to God—where are you? How can you let this happen? He says, “I cry for help, but you do not listen!  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.

And then God responds: “Write down the vision clearly… so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time… and will not disappoint; … wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.” God says, I know about the suffering. But suffering isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Suffering has a purpose, even though it’s painful. I am not only guiding the unfolding of events, but I am with you as you suffer these events. What was the result of the Exile? The Israelites examined themselves, repented of their spiritual and social corruption, and rededicated themselves to their trust in God. Then almost immediately, the king who held them captive was inspired to release the Israelites to return to their land. Huh. Maybe God had it all planned out.

Saint Augustine, in the 5th century, wrote that God sometimes delays answering our prayers because our heart is not yet ready to receive how he intends to super-abundantly answer our prayer. If you’ve really had prayer answered, you know, he’s not going to answer your prayer on the same little scale that you expect. He’s going to blow you away with how it all comes together, nothing like you’d expect. And so he inspires us to remain faithful, while he expands our hearts with longing, until we are truly ready for his gift. God will not settle for giving us less than his best for us. It’s all or nothing. Either we follow his way of preparing us to receive his answer to our prayer, or we impetuously decide that he just doesn’t answer prayers.

Maybe you saw the movie, “Evan Almighty,” where God, played by Morgan Freeman, appears to Evan’s wife and explains to her, “Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them circumstances that will bring them closer to each other?” He opens her eyes to the fact that He has been responding to her prayers all along; that God doesn’t normally perform big flashy miracles. He works quietly in the situations of life, often in ways that could be missed, because he doesn’t overpower the working of nature, he just lovingly nudges it in the right direction.

We need to maintain our faith, our trust, that God is truly who he says that he is, and that he is doing what is best for us. That might mean he doesn’t answer our prayer. If we pray for something that seems good to us, it might be something that in reality is bad for us, and no matter how much we plead, beg, and desire, God will not give us what we want. And as I’ve said before, all Christian prayer ends (either explicitly or implicitly) with Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thy will be done.” Christian prayer is, at its heart, a matter of relationship, a matter of faith, and trust, that God truly has our back, that he is protecting us and providing for us.

So we have faith as an essential aspect of our relationship with God. Here in our psalm we have a second aspect of faith: of responding in faith to God. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” We need to respond in faith to what God instructs us to do: to give more generously; to stop for someone who needs help; to fight some habit of sin in your life, or begin building a new good habit; in short, to trust that God is guiding you to do what you need to do, and in faith to obey that guidance.

Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert; Where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works.” Meribah and Massah was a point along the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, when the Israelites had just recently received the beginning of the manna, the miraculous bread from heaven, in response to their complaint of hunger. And now they were quarreling with Moses about being thirsty. And they said, “Is God in our midst or not?” What a bunch of ungrateful jerks! So in this place, God guided Moses to tap the rock with his staff, and water came out to quench the thirst of the Israelites. Moses named the place Meribah and Massah, meaning the place of “tempting” and “testing.” Although God conceded to their whining, he also said that because of their unfaithfulness—their hardness of their hearts—none of them would enter the Promised Land. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

In the verses immediately before our Gospel reading, Jesus implored his disciples to forgive their repentant offenders. Something we know is often difficult to do. And their response is the beginning of our reading: they asked Jesus for more Faith so that they could meet this demand. In addition, the Apostles were asking for greater confidence and trust, so that they might work the miracles which they had seen Jesus perform. Jesus responds by telling them of the power of faith, even a little faith.

Related imageA handful of mustard seeds looks like a handful of ground black pepper. A mustard seed, like faith, is easy to lose if we’re not careful. It not necessarily the smallest of all seeds, but it was an expression for something very, very small. And yet, when planted, it grows into a large strong bush. It doesn’t always look pretty, but it doesn’t take much to make it grow, like a weed. Like faith.

The mulberry tree’s famous feature was its very strong and expansive root system. There were rules in Israelite city planning, so-to-speak, that trees couldn’t be planted within 30 feet of a well, so that the tree roots wouldn’t damage the well. Image result for mulberry tree rootsBut for mulberry trees, the distance was doubled to 60 feet, because of how notoriously spread out their roots would grow.

And yet, Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” God needs us to leave the door open for him to work through us and in our lives. If we’re cynical, pessimistic, and unbelieving, about God’s desire to heal us and give us abundant life, we’re tempted to close the door on him… to rashly decide he just doesn’t answer prayers.

So the first two aspects of faith were subjective—aspects of faith within us (our faith in God, and our response of faith). This third aspect is objective: the doctrine of The Faith, what we believe as the Church, and who we believe in as God. It is the content of the Christian Faith, contained in Sacred Tradition, which includes Sacred Scripture. So when we profess the creed, the first two words are subjective: “I believe,” and the rest is objective: the core beliefs of Christianity that I believe.

So also in this objective faith is the moral teaching of the Church that has developed to guide people in living out the faith. Jesus gives us clear moral teaching, built on the law and the prophets of the faith of Israel. And the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, interprets and applies the moral truth to the new situations and controversies as they have occurred, from the first century to the twenty-first century, since Christ. The understanding of faith and morals develops, it grows, in more detail and precision over time, but it doesn’t evolve and deform into something it wasn’t before. The truth is unchanging, but our understanding of it develops.

And finally, at the end of our gospel reading, Jesus gives us a very humbling instruction. He teaches us that if we are doing great works of generosity and kindness, and if we are faithfully living the teaching of the Church, and we’re fighting against sin… we shouldn’t be bragging about our greatness, and expecting a gold star sticker. Living out the truth God gave us is simply the expectation. And our response should be, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

That can be a bit deflating if we’re feeling high on God’s consolations and blessings. But it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to help us along with what St. Therese called “The Little Way.” To embrace our smallness, and marvel at God’s greatness, and what He can do with us if we offer him our humble mustard-seed, childlike faith. It’s the joy we receive from experiencing the great works being done through us as certainly greater than we could do ourselves, and how wonderful God is to bless us as his instruments of his great works… like commanding a mulberry tree to plant itself in the sea.

If we are obedient to the life of Faith, if we are faithful to the moral and spiritual teaching of the Church, if we learn to trust, even (or especially) when it seems almost impossible, if we allow God to grow our hearts and souls in humility, that we might in acknowledging our littleness, make room in us for his greatness, then we are truly doing what we are obliged to do: to faithfully live the cross and the glory of the Christian life.

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Homily: The Clever Steward

Image result for dishonest unjust steward

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113:1-2, 4-6, 7-8
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:1-13

There are a million stories, in fiction and reality, of people coming up with clever schemes to get rich, or to guard their possessions, or to provide for themselves when the stuff hits the fan.

Our Gospel reading today is our third weekend in a row that Jesus gives us a difficult parable. This time, not just difficult to apply, but even difficult to understand. The great scripture scholars of past and present have struggled with the parable in today’s Gospel. Often in the parables of Jesus, God is symbolized by the Father, or by the Master. And here, the Master commends, (compliments) his dishonest steward for his clever scheme. Are we supposed to steal and cheat, like worldly people? Is that what Jesus is teaching us in this reading?

Well…No. But if not, then what’s the lesson God has given us today? It is actually pretty clever. And we can put it together when we consider the other readings. The lesson is, God takes particular care of the poor, and we must take particular care of the poor, on God’s behalf. Christ is the head, and if we are members of the body, we have to commit to what the head instructs us to do.

Let’s put off the gospel for a moment. First, we’ll look at the first reading. “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating…” And the ending is very important: “The LORD has sworn…: Never will I forget a thing they have done!” Amos was the earliest of the biblical prophets to write his own message. At the time, the northern kingdom was enjoying great prosperity, but there were sharp contrasts between rich and poor, and many instances of injustice: the spirit of true religious devotion was difficult to find. Amos condemns the social injustice and the insincerity of religious worship.

It’s a good thing those times are past, right? When was the last call you received to renew your car warranty? How many calls were received from people pretending to be from the IRS? How many hackers are there, and new online scams? Oh, those evil people out there, right? When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain; and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?When will the Mass be over, so we can get ahead of the others, out of the parking lot? How many people sit in the church while Mass is going on, but they’re on their phone, or reading the bulletin, or daydreaming of something else, and not really present to the Mass? Or how many should be here and aren’t, because they don’t honor their holy obligation to attend Mass? “The LORD has sworn…: Never will I forget a thing they have done!” First, we have to be his people, then we have to be filled with him in mind and heart, then we have to live that way …especially when it comes to being generous and being holy.

Our Psalm echoes God’s care for the poor… Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor!” “He raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor to seat them with princes…” How does he do that? Through us; by our listening to the prophets, by focusing our lives on God and his instructions to care for the poor, by having integrity and not sinning, especially against the poor and vulnerable.

St. Paul says in our second reading, “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” We pray for, and we help, not just our own people, but the whole world, from our leaders, to our homeless. We follow God’s will by our prayers for them, and our actions to help them, teach them, encourage them, provide for them. This is what our intercessions (the “Prayers of the Faithful”) are directed toward. We pray for civil leaders to protect the natural rights of religion, and of the faithful, and to seek the common good, which is both the collective good of the many, and the individual good of each person.

So now we’re back to the gospel reading. So the master commends the dishonest steward for his prudence. He’s impressed with the plan the steward carried out to make use of his resources to accomplish his goal. That’s what the master is commending. Not the dishonesty, or the theft. The steward was using the master’s money to pay off his clients, and making friends, who are now in debt to himself. It was all done with the master’s money. And that’s the key to the parable.

The gospel isn’t telling us to become friends of dishonest wealth. It says to use dishonest wealth to make friends. And dishonest wealth, or untrue wealth, is the resources of this world, stuff that isn’t eternal and really important, in order to serve the higher, eternal purposes.

There is an interesting concept in our tradition, that goes back to our Jewish roots, that the poor that we serve with love and generosity are our heavenly treasure. And they in turn will intercede for us at our judgment. We don’t do this with an attitude of exploiting the poor with selfish intent, to buy our salvation. It is out of love for them. And they then, in love and gratitude, help us.

Now connect that with the idea of stewardship, rather than ownership. We don’t own our money or possessions. They all belong to God. It’s all his wealth, and we are merely entrusted with using it for God’s purposes. The material things, the wealth of this world, which are technically from God, are what is being called “dishonest wealth,” wealth that is not the true wealth of heaven. And the moral of the parable is to spread that everywhere. One might say, to be prodigal with it—spending it with wild carelessness—on the poor—on those who most need help. And thus the dishonest wealth at our disposal is converted from dishonest wealth (wealth that doesn’t last), into true wealth. And thus we benefit by then having our friends who can help us later, when we’re at judgment, and the poor we have helped say to the master, “this is a good person, my friend, who was generous and loving toward me when I was poor and needed help. And now I intercede on their behalf, when they need help.” That’s what our stewardship of the master’s wealth is for. To use our master’s temporal wealth as he would—with generosity. So by our trustworthiness in the small matters of temporal wealth, which is God’s, we show ourselves to be trustworthy with the true wealth, which is our salvation.

The things of this world, dishonest wealth, are meant to be tools, instruments for us. The same is true of our time: we can use it on things that don’t matter as much (hobbies, extra money, sports), over the things that truly matter, like our life in God. The Mass is how God continually purifies us to be his people. We also have daily mass, for those who are able to do so (and if you are able, you are encouraged to do so!) But without the Mass, we allow the sins and errors of this world to attack our minds and hearts unchallenged. They grow in us like an infection. Mass is the life-saving antivirus to the sinful influence of the world. You cannot be the servant of both God and the world. Only one gives eternal life.

And so Paul ends our second reading, “It is my wish, then, that in every place people should pray, lifting up holy hands…

Let us put first things first: the worship of God, and the care of our neighbor, especially those in need. That we might not have hands that are made unholy by sin, greed, and disorder; but hands that are employed in holy works of mercy, that we may be good stewards of all that is entrusted to our care, as God’s holy people.

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Homily: Lost and Found

Image result for prodigal son older brother

The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-32

Our Gospel reading we just heard is a parable in three images, tied together with the theme of “Lost and Found.”

The first image is the shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 sheep in the wilderness to go after one stray sheep. Jesus tells his listeners, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” And the answer is, no one would do that! The parables of Jesus share two universal features: the twist, and the upshot. Almost all his parables have a twist, or maybe even more than one, where he says something striking to catch people’s attention, and gets them to listen and remember his parable. Then he ends with the upshot, in Hebrew, the nimshal, which is the teaching-point of the parable. There’s the twist: no shepherd would leave 99 sheep vulnerable in the wilderness to find one single sheep. So, Jesus grabs their attention with something unexpected. Then he continues, “And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’” Ok, a second twist. Sheep and cows get lost all the time. Fences break, animals wander, it happens. And when they’re found, the farmer doesn’t call all his farmer friends and have a party. Then finally, Jesus finishes this first image: “I tell you, in just the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” There’s the nimshal, the upshot, the teaching point. Jesus reveals that he is using this image to teach us that heaven rejoices over the lost being found, more than over the righteous who were never lost.

Of course, it’s obvious Jesus isn’t talking about sheep. Remember the beginning of the reading, the occasion for Jesus to give this parable. “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So to them he addressed this parable.” These sinners gathered around Jesus are people breaking the law of Moses in a public and grave way. Prostitutes and harlots openly broke the sixth commandment against adultery and fornication. Tax collectors openly broke the seventh commandment about stealing, getting rich on collecting more than what the Romans taxed. That’s the situation Jesus is in. The Pharisees are scandalized. This might be like a bishop being criticized for having dinner with a “Catholic” politician whose political actions consistently violate Catholic teaching, causing scandal to the upright and holy people of the Church.

One of the things I love about this is how Jesus gets in a dig at the Pharisees. They are of course sinners, too, because we’re all sinners. But they see themselves as righteous, having no need of forgiveness. But Jesus ends the parable saying, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” Why? Because the Pharisees are too self-righteous to recognize their sinfulness. The self-righteous don’t cause any joy in heaven, because their pride will keep them from heaven. So Jesus is also chastising them to recognize that they also need repentance.

And it’s a beautiful image Jesus gives us, of the joy the truly Good Shepherd has at finding his lost lamb, setting it on his shoulders with great joy, and carrying it home. And I love the quote I saw online that said…
Image result for jesus leaves the 99

The second image Jesus gives is similar. This coin was about the worth of a day’s wages. So not a winning lottery ticket, but not something you’d want to lose, either. It might have been one of the ten coins that made up the nuptial headdress, like a wedding ring. Houses were not well lit, so it would be difficult to find. And when she finds it, she’s filled with joy—this coin that has much more sentimental value than its cash value. And Jesus ends this image like he did the first. The lost coin is like the lost sinner who is now found, worth more to God than most people would reasonably value. And there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Again, Jesus is also making an invitation to the Pharisees, not just the other people. God wills that all people would seek His mercy and be saved.

And finally, after the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, we have the Lost Son, which we often call the Prodigal Son. Jesus packs a lot into this story, and we’re not going to unpack it, because the Gospel reading was so long. We’re just going to touch on one thing: the older brother. The older brother can symbolize a lot of things. In our specific gospel reading, he represents the Pharisees. He was resentful of the younger brother, who foolishly and sinfully chose to get himself lost. So when the older brother finds out the younger brother has decided to return, and that The Father has forgiven and restored him with joy and mercy, the older brother has a choice. He can hold on to his resentment, or he can share in the joy and mercy of the Father.

The Father came outside to find the older brother, too, so that he would not be lost. But the hard-hearted resentment of the older brother is a warning from Jesus. If we take the attitude of the older brother (or the Pharisees) that those who got themselves lost deserve to stay lost, then we risk turning ourselves away from the joyful heavenly banquet feast over the lost one who was found.

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Homily: “…But God’s First”

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The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Wisdom 9:13-18b
Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Luke 14:25-33

Our gospel reading we just heard today, is another one of Jesus’ “difficult sayings,” like we heard last week, when he said, “When you hold a dinner, do not invite your friends or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors. Rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” There’s often the temptation when preaching on difficult passages like these to explain how Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, and so we don’t really need to make any big changes from what we’re already doing, because we’re already basically good people.

St. Thomas More was the Lord Chancellor of England, when Henry VIII was the King. More was a successful lawyer and a renowned spiritual and political writer. Image result for saint thomas moreHaving failed to have a son with his wife Catherine, and frustrated that the pope would not grant him an annulment so he could marry Lady Anne Boleyn instead, Henry passed into law the “Act of Succession,” and required his public officials to swear an oath which a) recognized the child of Henry and his second wife Anne Boleyn as the heir to the throne; b) declared Henry’s first marriage with Catherine as null and void, and c) repudiated the authority of the Pope, and declared the king the head of the Church in England. Thomas More refused to take the oath. He spent fifteen lonely months imprisoned in the Tower of London. His family implored him, for his sake and theirs, to take the oath, but Thomas refused. He was convicted of treason and was beheaded. On mounting the scaffold, Thomas More proclaimed that he died as his majesty’s good servant… but God’s first.St. Thomas More put his discipleship of Christ above his employment, king, security, reputation; above his wife, children, and even his own life. (I highly recommend the movie called “A Man for All Seasons,” which is based on St. Thomas More.)

So we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. It’s true that most of us won’t have to choose between life and death for our faith. Maybe. It’s also true that the secular culture is falling farther and farther away from the true Teaching of the Church, the Scriptures, and God, and we might indeed have to make the choice between the demands of our Faith and the demands of secular society.

In our gospel reading we might get hung up on the actual words Jesus gives us, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus didn’t mean “hate” in this context the way we normally mean, “hate.” Certainly, we shouldn’t hate anyone. Obviously. To understand any verse of scripture, we need to look at its context and meaning in relation to all of scripture. Just a little while ago, Jesus taught we must love our enemies, we must love our neighbor as ourselves. As the Ten commandments require, we must “Honor thy father and mother.” What’s even better, is that this same scene in our gospel from Luke also appears in a very similar form in Matthew, where Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” So if we take all this together, we have a much better understanding of what Jesus is teaching us.

However, as we can tell from the martyrdom of St. Thomas More, “better understanding” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.” “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Criminals condemned to death had to carry their own cross to their execution. They knew they were going to die, and that the suffering was going to be humiliating and painful. It’s potentially true physically, that we may fulfill these words as so many other martyrs have. And it’s definitely true spiritually, that we must die to our disordered appetites, our pride, our apathy, and all of our other favorite sins. And we must forgive and love, especially when we least want to.

As Christ tells us, we had better take stock of what we’re willing to let go of to be a disciple of Christ, because nothing in this world is worth losing heaven. Jesus ends our gospel reading with two images. First, the man who started building a tower without knowing that he would have the resources to finish the project. That of course doesn’t mean that we have to fully understand God’s plan, fully have everything cash in hand, and fully rely on ourselves and not on trust and faith. It means to take stock of what it means to be Christian, and what it could cost, and whether you have the resolve to follow Christ wherever he might lead you, and do whatever he might ask of you. Do you have the trust that, where he leads you and what he asks of you, is for your salvation, even if you don’t understand it at the time? And perhaps a more difficult question, do you believe that the Catholic Church has the divine authority to teach the truth necessary for your salvation, worthy of your sacrifice, as Saint Thomas More did?

The second image Jesus gives is the king with the wisdom to determine whether his army can successfully oppose an attacking enemy who has a greater army. The fool who is proud and impulsive is going to rush in, without considering the losses that would be endured, or the wisdom of planning a successful strategy. The Christian life is not something to be taken lightly. The cost could be everything. We must have the detachment to let go of it. “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” That doesn’t mean that we have to give everything away; but it does mean that we have to be willing to do that, if that’s what the Lord asks us to do.

As Jesus, and the entire Word of God, reiterates over and over, the most important thing is the discipline and detachment to seek (to love) the heavenly long-term that we cannot see over the earthly short-term which is always grabbing our attention. We need the assistance of divine wisdom. That wisdom tells us, in our first reading, “The deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. …  And scarce do we guess the things on earth. And what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?” Even the limited earthly things we don’t really understand; how could we possibly hope to reach heavenly things, without trusting God? Our psalm reaffirms that the things of this world, and life in this world, are so short and fragile (trivial), yet the things of heaven are true and eternal.

The ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates said, “Before you heal someone, ask him if he’s willing to give up the things that made him sick.” Our Lord loves us. He wants to heal us, to show us his mercy. We must be willing to give up everything for Him.

It’s not a question of what you say you believe, it’s not what devotionals you read, it’s not what sermons you hear. It’s not what goes into a person, but what comes out. It’s a question of, do you completely give yourself to believing and trusting and following Jesus, as his disciple, in his Church, over all else… or do you not?

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Homily: Banquet Etiquette

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The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
Psalm 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24A
Luke 14:1, 7-14

When I put together this homily, I approached it a different way than I usually do, which is that, I knew how I wanted to end it, so I wrote that first, and then waited to see what space I had left for the rest. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the ending took up about 80% of the homily. So, before I get to that, here’s the 20%, which I guess is basically just an introduction to the ending.

In our Gospel, Jesus makes two statements. In his first statement, to the guests, his message is about humility. Don’t be narcissistic, thinking you’re the most interesting person in the room, always promoting yourself. As the comedian Brian Regan says, don’t be a “MeMonster”, the one who’s conversation is, “Me, myself, and I, and me, me and mine, my story, about me…”. Jesus said, be humble. Take a low, unimportant position, and maybe you’ll be invited to a better seat. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled, but if you humble yourself, you will be exalted. That’s the thrust of the first reading, too. “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.  Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”

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The second part of Jesus’ message, he directs to the host of the banquet, and Jesus shifts his focus from the virtue of humility, to the virtue of charity. When you give a banquet, don’t just invite your friends and family and those you want to honor; invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, those who cannot return your hospitality and generosity. Why? Because we shouldn’t think of them as strangers, but as our brothers and sisters, like ourselves. Spiritually, we are poor (we foolishly amass useless trinkets, but are not rich in the things of God), we’re crippled (we fail to go and do what we ought to), we’re blind (we don’t see things and others as we ought to), we’re lame (broken with the sins we’ve committed against our own human dignity).  

Jesus frequently uses the metaphor of a banquet to refer to the joy of heaven, the Supper of the Lamb, which we share in, even now, as the celebration of the Eucharist. Our participation is meant to inspire us to go invite others, the “poor, crippled, blind, and lame” to this communion banquet that is healing us, so they may be healed also. And as you may know, those who have suffered humiliation and poverty, often become the most humble and generous people toward others.

So now the super-deluxe ending. As some of you may know, I went to Saint Vincent Seminary, which is run by the Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe. Image result for saint vincent seminarySaint Benedict, who lived in Italy in the 6th century, is widely regarded as the father of Western Monasticism. In his Rule of Life that he wrote for his Benedictine monks, one of the most famous chapters in the book is on humility. Benedict anchors his teaching on humility in today’s gospel reading. In the beginning of the chapter, he says [paraphrasing for brevity], “Brothers, the sacred Scriptures cry out to us and say: ‘Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Brothers, if we wish to reach that heavenly exaltation which is attained through humility we must set up that ladder which appeared in Jacob’s dream and by which angels were shown to be both descending and ascending; as descending by exaltation and ascending by humility. For that ladder set up is our life in this world which, when the heart has been humbled by the Lord, is set up to heaven. And we say that the rungs [are those] of humility and discipline by which we may ascend.” St. Benedict goes on to give 12 steps. You thought the twelve step program was invented in the 20th Century for people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, but St Benedict invented the first 12 step program, and it’s for those of us who are addicted to ourselves. Here are the steps that St. Benedict gave, in brief:

Step 1: Obeying all of God’s commandments. He says: “To set the proper fear of God always before our eyes, to keep from sins and faults of thought, of the tongue, of the eye, of the hand, of the foot, or of self-will.” In other words, act like God is God and you’re not.

Step 2: Don’t bother to please yourself. In other words, don’t take the best seat (at church, at dinner, anywhere). Don’t take the biggest slice of pie. Look for opportunities to grow in self-denial. (Of course, in church, it seems a bit reversed… the most coveted seats are in the back… so to grow in humility, everyone should move toward the front… and to have the humility to leave only when mass is finished, not to decide on their own to leave when they want to leave…)

Step 3: Obedience to your superior. Obeying parents, teachers, supervisors; obeying the laws, etc. If we always agreed with what they say, it wouldn’t be humility and discipline. But to bend our will to their proper authority over us can teach us humility.

Step 4: Patient and quiet perseverance in suffering. In other words, no complaining. If you meet somebody who complains all the time, you can basically rest assured that they’re not humble. The reason people complain is they think they don’t deserve it. “Why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve this.” The wages of sin are death. We have all sinned, what we deserve is death, and then separation from God. We don’t want what we deserve! Enduring suffering without complaining, and even showing gratitude for God’s mercy that we deserve much worse than what we’re suffering, is to grow in humility and holiness. The fallacy of liberation theology is that those suffering unjustly have the right to rise up with violence against their oppressors. But the Church says that we may not sin as a response to sin. Yes, we should resist injustice, but we can also grow in humility while we suffer it.

Step 5: Humble and thorough confession of your sins and faults. The more you go to confession, the more your conscience is attentive to sin. I know it’s humbling to go to Confession. And what a blessing comes from that trust and humility!

Step 6: The acceptance of crude and harsh tasks. No grumbling. Grumbling is also a sign of pride. Related imageYou have to do something you don’t want to do, that’s beneath your dignity? Watch Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs.” There’s a saying, “If serving is beneath you, leadership is beyond you.” Get down in the muck and do what has to be done.

Step 7: Don’t only confess that you are inferior to others but believe it in your heart. Look for ways that others are better than you, and praise them, especially to others. Start to see everyone else’s virtues as greater than yours. Pray the Litany of Humility. Instead of judging others as less than you, exalt them above you. That’s the cultivation of real humility. Don’t just seek the lowest place at the banquet, seek the lowest place in your own eyes.

Step 8: Strict observance of a Rule of Life. The monks have this code of rules to follow. It’s obedience. The same thing could be true in our lives: certain rules for the household, or workplace. Or even a personal code of rules. No internet after 9, lights out at 10. No meat on Fridays. Exercise 3 times a week, pray 30 minutes every day. Follow a rule of life as a way of conquering your will and improving yourself. I love the quote that “Discipline is choosing what you want most over what you want now.”

Step 9: The practice of silence. People who never stop talking are usually not very humble, because they think what they have to say is so important that everyone needs or wants to hear it. The Me-Monster. Also, being in silence. Turn off the TV and music, have some silence in your life. Wrestle with the big questions, the big problems in your life. Learn to listen for the gentle voice of God.

Step 10: Restraint from laughter and frivolity. This one might be more fitting to a monk in religious life, and maybe not even then; I’ve met a lot of very jolly and laughter-prone monks. Certainly though in the matter frivolity, which the dictionary describes as being self-indulgently carefree and unconcerned about any serious purpose, we don’t want that. We don’t want to waste the gifts and opportunities we are given, or not take into account that we will answer to God for how we live and make our choices. Laughter is healthy and good. We’re called to celebrate the Mass. We honor the mysteries and saints of our faith as Feast days! We’re called in this life to participate in the joy of the heavenly wedding banquet! It’s good to be joyful. Just don’t be stupid. 

Step 11: Speaking few words, simply and seriously. Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Or as the 80’s song goes, “why don’t they do what they say, say what they mean, one thing leads to another.” Or as the bishop says in the Mass of Ordination, “Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” So being a person of few words, being simple and direct, is also an act of humility. Not just talking to talk. And finally…

Step 12: Showing humility in your heart and in your appearance and actions. In other words, being a visible reminder to others of humility and simplicity. Living below your means, paying off your debts, dressing simply and inexpensively, etc. It’s not only humble, it’s also very freeing, and we are made to be free. But first we have to humbly submit to God’s wisdom and mercy in getting free from our earthly captivity, both morally and materially.

So that’s Saint Benedict’s 12-step program for humility. I just thought it was fascinating, because here’s a simple saying of Jesus: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And the Church Fathers, our Sacred Tradition, draws out the deep meaning of just this very short saying, to teach us how we as disciples of Jesus, can live this out so that we can grow in the virtue of humility. And if just this short saying can yield all this wisdom, what a feast the entire word of God can be for us. And if we do those things (hopefully), we’ll get a good seat at the banquet table of Heaven.

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Homily: A Narrow Gate (& Eucharist)

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The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Isaiah 66:18-21
Psalm 117
Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
Luke 13:22-30


Have you ever been among a great crowd moving toward the entrance to a big attraction, like Disneyworld or a sports stadium? At first the entrance seems wide and open to all, but as you get closer, you discover that the gate is not the wide open entrance you thought. The broad gate narrows down to a turnstile where you enter one by one, and those with authority to reject people from entry say, “Hold your own ticket, please.” So, Jesus describes the door to the Kingdom. Our impression is that it is wide and open to all – but then comes the struggle to go through the narrow door: one at a time and you hold your own ticket.

Today in our gospel we encounter one in a series of hard sayings of Jesus. Not that they’re hard to understand, but they’re hard for us, in our fallen human nature, and in our fallen human society, to accept. They go against our modern sensibilities, which is to say, the secular culture. How can we say that the Catholic Church claims the sole authority to teach the faith and morals of God? How can we claim that many people don’t go to heaven when they die? How can we say that bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Jesus, the divine Son of the One True God? These claims don’t fit with what secular culture teaches as true, good, and reasonable. So even within the Church, there are many who reject, or at least struggle to accept, these truths.

really wanted to talk about “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” at this point, because it’s the religious sense by which our secular culture judges religions (or religious teachings) as good or bad. But it’s just too much to add. You can follow the link to see where I unpacked that idea in an earlier homily.

Someone asks Jesus the question, “Will only a few people be saved?” His response is our entire Gospel reading, which has three parts. The first part of his response is, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” When he says, “strong enough,” he doesn’t mean physical strength. He means spiritual strength: the virtues and character, developed over a lifetime of discipline, to deny ourselves and our earthly desires, to carry our crosses with grace, to serve and give to others with selfless love and generosity, to share the gospel by words and deeds, to love and worship God with all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. His emphasis is not on answering the question, but on teaching his questioner that whether the answer is few or many, to make sure he is one of the ones who makes it.

In the second part of his answer, Jesus uses the image of a homeowner hosting a joyful banquet. You are outside knocking to be let in, but the homeowner says, “‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’” You will be outside the gates of the banquet of heaven, the wedding supper of the Lamb, knocking to be let in, and instead, you will be rejected as a stranger. And you will say, but I’m an acquaintance, I’ve read some of your things, I did some of your things, I went to your church sometimes. And he will say, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” That doesn’t just mean “literally Hitler.” It means everyone who hasn’t made their spiritual relationship with God their first priority, those who don’t have the wedding garment of holy works, those who haven’t invested their lives in laying up their heavenly treasures, those who have not been good soil for the Word of God, and did not bear the fruit of holy life, but rather invested everything in this passing world. 

The only one worthy of entering heaven is Jesus. The “homeowner” (God) accepts “his own,” and “his own” is Jesus. If we want heaven, then we must bear the image of Jesus, in our human nature, which is body and spirit: in our spiritual reality (sacramental grace, by which we are forgiven our sins and enter into the familial covenant, by which we bear the image of Jesus as his adopted brothers and sisters), and in our physical reality (our virtuous character, and our works of mercy, service, and love). We have a familial relationship with God because we are adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus, and so we are adopted sons and daughters of God (and we strive to live the way our Father has taught us). If we’re not part of the family, then we will be rejected as a stranger, because only those from God (bearing Jesus’ image) may enter into the presence of God, which is heaven. 

A parishioner asked me after Mass what Jesus meant by, I don’t know where you are from. I answered him, that Jews were very big on genealogy (who are his parents, who are his family?). And we’re often the same way. “Who are you? Where did you come from? Why should I trust you? What’s your connection to me? I don’t know you. No, I’m not going to let you in. Depart from me.” 

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And finally, in the third part, Jesus teaches his listeners, “And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” There was a question being commonly asked at the time of Jesus about who was going to be part of the glorious coming age of the New Creation, if it was all Jews, or only some Jews, the faithful remnant. And Jesus says, well yes and no, from the way you’ve asked the question. It will be a faithful few of Israel, yes… but also a faithful few from all the parts of the world, even those who are not Jews. In the temporal and political minds of Israel of the time, non-Jews (gentiles, the goyim) being part of the Messianic New Creation was preposterous. But of course this was what the scriptures had always said. And our first reading, from the very end of the book of the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah, is one of those scriptures.

Thus says the LORD… I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory… from them I will send fugitives [messengers] to the nations… they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations… to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD…” One of the expectations of the Messiah was the reunification of the twelve tribes of Israel. But the northern 10 tribes had been dispersed among the nations by the Assyrians in the 7th century BC. So for the Messiah to rejoin all 12 tribes into the new covenant, the new covenant would have to include the other nations. And God says, then from those nations, I will send messengers to still further nations, and all will be invited into the new covenant. INVITED… Of course, the tragedy is, to be part of the covenant of God, first, to enter into it, and then, to live as part of it, is up to the free will of each person. And many, even most, will elect to exclude themselves… perhaps not explicitly, by an outright “no” to God, but rather participating outwardly, seeking the benefits of the covenant, but failing to live the interior commitment to God’s love and truth in their will.

Like last week, I want to stop there, to talk about something else. Many of you have probably heard about the recent Pew Research survey that reported that, of the Catholics who took part in their study, about 70% did not believe in the real presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, but believed the Eucharist is only a symbol of Jesus. And about 40% believed that the Church teaches that it’s only a symbol of Jesus.

I (want to/have to) believe that Holy Trinity is way above the bell curve, and that you firmly believe that the Eucharist is truly the real presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus. Because this is right there at the heart of our faith. Maybe in other churches the homilies are shallow and poorly prepared, and the Mass is offered without concern for dignity or beauty, perhaps in a modern uninspiring church, with trite, feel-good music, in which “the contemporary worshiping community” narcissistically sings about itself. I don’t believe that Holy Trinity matches that picture.

I try to be as intentional and clear as I can, that in this beautiful, reverent liturgy of the Church (yes, the Novus Ordo), we are worshiping the God of Israel, who became flesh, and that we are giving thanks to God for the gift of his life-giving flesh and his blood of the new covenant, which we eat and drink to nourish his life in us through our sacramental communion with him. It may be weird to say we believe that bread that looks like bread is supernatural human flesh, but this is the truth we believe and teach.

I’ll end by asking you to be always more intentional about actively participating, being totally present to the Mass, not reading the bulletin, not looking at your phone, not day-dreaming. And I ask that in receiving the Sacrament, you do so with as close to infinite reverence as you can muster. When the minister says to you, “The Body of Christ,” you are receiving the real body of Christ, like the beautiful statue of the Pieta, in which the body of Christ, God made flesh, is taken off the cross and given to his Mother Mary. Except this isn’t the dead body of Christ, He is risen from the dead and ascended to the Father, and He gives us his transfigured flesh by the grace of His sacraments.

And when the minister gives you communion, don’t say “Amen” like you would say “thanks” when a cashier hand you your unwanted receipt at the store. This isn’t a piece of paper you’re going to put in the trash. This is God giving you his being; this is as if someone just gave you their newborn infant; this is as if someone could place their still-beating heart in your hands in perfect trust; this is as if someone placed in your hands a priceless, intricately carved gold figure so fine that the gold was almost transparent and the slightest pressure might crush it; this is truly the most valuable substance on earth, being entrusted to you. Say “Amen” with the awe and reverence that that moment rightly deserves.

May the heart of Jesus, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, adored, and loved with grateful affection, at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world, even to the end of time. Amen.

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Homily: Teach Us How to Pray

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The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
Colossians 2:12-14
Luke 11:1-13

Our gospel reading today begins, “Jesus was praying in a certain place. And when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’” We often don’t think of John the Baptist as a man of prayer. He was a man of calling people to repentance, and preparing them to receive and follow the Lord. But John also had disciples, and taught them to pray according to his own mystical relationship with God.

And that’s what this disciple is asking Jesus. The first thing we should contemplate is that the disciples saw Jesus at prayer. They see the way Jesus prays, and it’s profound, it’s deep communion between Jesus the divine Son and God the Father, in a relationship unprecedented in human history. The disciples see Him at prayer, and want to Him to teach them to pray like Him. Our Gospel reading is the answer Jesus gives to this request. It’s not about adopting a technique or style of prayer. It’s about entering into the relationship of prayer between each of us and our heavenly Father, the relationship Jesus the Son invites us into. Jesus has three parts to His lesson on prayer.

In the first part, Jesus teaches them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, this version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Luke is different than the longer one we usually pray, which is from the Gospel of Matthew. This shorter version has 5 petitions, as opposed to the 7 in Matthew’s Gospel. In Jewish Tradition, and in Christian Tradition, there are often longer and shorter versions of the same basic prayers. We should reflect on this prayer that Jesus gives us as the example for praying to the Father.

The first two petitions focus on God. First, “Father, hallowed be your name” (or, “may your name be hallowed”). God’s name, which is different variations of “I AM,” “God is with us,” “God Saves,” “God Most High,” should be held as holy, as set apart from our everyday vocabulary, like we put the special dishes in the special cabinet so they don’t suffer the wear and tear of how our everyday stuff gets treated. That doesn’t mean we don’t call on God’s name every day! It means that we treat it special every day! And we pray that His name would be hallowed and worshiped by all on earth, the one true God, Whose glory fills heaven and earth.

The second petition, “your kingdom come.” God’s kingdom is where God reigns, and all give Him glory, and follow His law. In one sense, His kingdom is heaven, the kingdom of the angels and saints. In another sense, His kingdom is here on earth. When Jesus was before Pontius Pilate, Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not here.” Because it’s the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that fills the earth and transfigures it after the pattern of Jesus. By appearance, he looked like everyone else. But in the truth of the Spirit, He is the power and wisdom of God. We participate in the life in Christ: we appear to live earthly lives like everyone else; but in the Spirit, we are united with God, we make our choices and shape our character and our lives by the truth and laws of His kingdom, and so in living by the Holy Spirit, we make God’s kingdom manifest. We pray that His kingdom come and unite all on earth into the blessings of heaven; we pray that the day of our Lord Jesus Christ—judgment day—come, and that we be found worthy to enter into the fullness of His kingdom for eternity. That’s a bold prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray it. But he also teaches us to always be ready for that day, lest we find ourselves rejected.

Those are the first two petitions, which put our attention on God. The other three petitions ask God to put His attention on us.

Give us each day our daily bread.” Give us what we need to live, to be saints. The Greek word translated “daily” is a play on words: it could be epi-ousios, which means “supernatural,” or epi-iousios, which can mean “every day”. The word play is that it’s both. It refers to the daily care of God; the fulfillment of our spiritual and physical needs, and of course, the Eucharist, the supernatural and daily bread that strengthens us in our holy communion with God and the communion of the saints.

Then he teaches us to pray, “and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” It’s an interesting thought, that it equates sin in the first part, with debt in the second part. When someone sins against someone else, they incur a debt (of justice, and more so, of love) because they have not acted toward them as the divine law requires. When someone sins against us and incurs such a debt, our response is (or ought to be) to forgive that debt. God is generous with his forgiveness toward us, and that inspires us to be generous with our forgiveness toward others. 

And the final part of the prayer, “and do not subject us to the final test.” Or Matthew’s version, “And do not lead us into temptation.” Of course, God does not tempt us to sin. But God does test us, our patience, our character, our faithfulness—not to discourage us or get us to fall, but to strengthen us and help us to grow. We can be tempted to get bitter, to get frustrated, to give up our faith, to try to go around God to get what we want. That’s the ever-present temptation to sin, especially in suffering. But this is our prayer that whatever we endure, we are asking God to give us the grace to respond by growing in faith and love and holiness. So the Lord’s Prayer is the first part of Jesus’ answer. 

The second part is this story about the man who must go bother his neighbor during the night. The lesson Jesus is giving us isn’t that God is going to be slow to respond. The lesson is that we must be persistent in our prayer. The Greek word being translated “persistence” is like “shameless.” The person knocking knows that he’s bothering his neighbor, but he’s in such dire need that he’s going to persist, he’s going to continue past the point of being annoying, until he gets what he needs; he tosses the rules of proper respect aside and just keep begging of God shamelessly, persistently, until God responds.

And the third part of Jesus’ instruction: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?” No one, of course! But the moral of the story is that if we sinful human beings, who love our children, give them what they need as generously as we can, and don’t give them the things that would hurt them, how much more so does God, the perfect Father in heaven, do better even than that? The most important thing we could ask God for is Himself, the gift of the Holy Spirit. And He gives Himself to us generously, even when we’re not smart enough to ask for it! So if God is not answering our prayer, either He is testing us, wanting us to grow, or what we’re asking for is not good for us, and God is not going to give it to us, or He’s given us an even greater gift, and we’re too focused elsewhere to have noticed the better gift. So that’s the Gospel. A lot going on in a few short lines, as you would expect when you ask Jesus to talk about prayer!

And just a moment on our First Reading before we end. Abraham’s haggling with God to save Sodom demonstrates the life of prayer that Jesus teaches us: Abraham’s relationship with God, built on a solid prayer life; his humble knowledge of himself in light of God’s glory; and Abraham’s patient persistence in prayer to intercede on behalf of the people in Sodom, particularly his loved ones.

As we know, God still destroyed Sodom. Ultimately our prayer isn’t, “God, I want you to do this.” Ultimately, our prayer is “God, I want you to do this… but… not my will, but thy will be done.” The more we learn to have our heart in tune with God’s heart, we will have more of our prayers answered, because we will want what he already wants to give us. The further along our spiritual journey of being who he made us to be, the more often it will be our experience that we ask and we will receive; that we seek and we will find; that we knock and the door will be opened to us. For everyone who loves God and asks, receives; and the one who loves God and seeks, finds; and to the one who loves God and knocks, the door will be opened.

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Homily: Martha and Mary

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The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
Colossians 1:24-28
Luke 10:38-42

Some men in a Bible study group were discussing who would make the better wife: Martha or Mary. One said, “I think Martha would make the better wife. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It sounds like Martha knew how to cook. I’d love to be married to a woman like that!” Another man said, “I think Mary would make the better wife. She was thoughtful, sweet and loving. I could be very happy, married to a woman like Mary!” Finally, another fellow settled the argument when he said, “Well, I would like to be married to both of them. I would like Martha before supper and Mary after supper.” Today’s Gospel invites us to integrate the listening spirit of Mary with the dynamic spirit of Martha in our Christian lives.

Many times, this story in our Gospel is explained by saying that Martha was wrong to be so busy and active, and Jesus wants us to be like Mary, contemplative and peaceful. Or that we need to balance the activity of Martha with the contemplation of Mary. That’s closer to the mark. If we read the story carefully (maybe prayerful Lectio Divina on this reading), we might notice that Jesus doesn’t criticize Martha for being busy or active. He corrects her for being anxious and distracted. Not her physical activity, but her spiritual activity. She’s worried about a great many things. Jesus isn’t telling her to stop being active. And he doesn’t necessarily praise Mary for being a better person; just that she’s made the better choice in that moment.

In the Old Testament, there are many words that get translated into English as sin. But in the New Testament, there’s pretty much only one word: hamartía (ἁμαρτία). It means “missing the mark,” like shooting at a target and missing. God gives us principles and circumstances to guide us in virtue and truth, and we can go wrong on either side of the target. The virtue is like Goldilocks: not too much, not too little, but just right.

Martha and Mary are a wonderful illustration of the extremes (missing the target to one side or the other). Mary is contemplative and inactive; Martha is active and anxious. We’re called to be contemplative and active. Jesus says we must be hearers and doers of the Word. He says it in that order, and not the other way around.

In this scene in our Gospel reading, Jesus, the Word of God, Wisdom Incarnate, is there in Martha’s house. Now hospitality was very important. And Jesus didn’t usually travel alone, so maybe there’s a small crowd in the house. But some things take priority over other things. It says Martha was burdened with much serving. Perhaps she had planned to serve a great feast to her visitors. Jesus is calming her down. Martha didn’t have to go all out, when her attention should be on what’s really important… the better portion, the one thing necessary.

Sometimes, many times, we get all worked up about what’s not that important, and then we’re too anxious and worked up to pay attention to the most important thing. If we’re not planning things out and being organized in our thinking and priorities, we’re just going to be putting out fires, taking care of the urgent problems, and not letting some of the less important fires just burn out so that we can be attentive to what’s getting neglected. Children’s sports and activities and jobs are important, sure. But on Sunday mornings, they’re not as important as Church. Teaching responsibility is good. Teaching holiness is better.

We don’t want to be so worried and anxious about what we’re doing that we’ve forgotten why we’re doing it. Martha was so fixated on hospitality that she was missing out on who she was showing hospitality to. She could have fixed a tray of bologna, cheese, and crackers (and maybe some olives or pickles), and then joined her sister at Jesus’ feet.

On the other end, Mary might have provided some support to Martha before Jesus got there, made sure that they had everything ready (of course, we don’t know that she didn’t). The other end of the problem is more like Mary’s end of the spectrum: to be so interior, academic, theoretical, and wrapped up in your thoughts, that you don’t do much of anything. Sometimes it’s called “analysis paralysis”: Getting so locked up in the theoretical that it gets in the way of the practical. Sometimes it’s good to be quiet and still, sometimes it’s good to be active and busy, but only when those are the correct responses to the situation. In this situation, Mary had the right response.

Also, of course, as I kind of hinted at a moment ago, we don’t just want to balance out our action and our contemplation. We want to make sure that our action flows from our contemplation. Our external activity should be the outward fruit of the internal activity of our relationship with God (how sacramental!). We can be doing a lot of things. But if we’re just doing and not praying, then how sure are we that we’re doing the right things? Is what we’re worried about really worth the anguish, or is it really unimportant? Are we focused on the storm we’re going through instead of the Lord who can calm the storm? Are we putting first things first, and everything in its proper priority? Or are we just choosing as we want, or worse, letting circumstances (the urgent fires to be put out) choose for us? 

In our first reading, Abraham understood that his guests were more than just three men. Rublev TrinityIt’s a strange little section of the Old Testament. It says that the Lord visited Abraham, then it presents three men. It keeps shifting between singular pronouns and plural pronouns for the three. Many Christian commentators have said that this could be one of the earliest revelations of the mystery of the Holy Trinity: the Lord as one and three at the same time. But Abraham understood this because of his relationship with the Lord. His prayer life, his relationship with God, gave him the insight into the situation, and allowed him to perceive the truth he needed to respond to. Because he was spiritually attuned, his hospitality was rewarded with a great blessing from God.  (This icon is popularly known as “Rublev’s Trinity”, by the 13th c. Russian Andrei Rublev. It is also called “The Hospitality of Abraham.” You can read more about it here). It’s interesting that our readings both have themes of hospitality to the Lord. Moreover, in our gospel reading, St. Luke, who usually calls Jesus by his name, here calls him, “the Lord,” as he’s often referred to in our first reading. Perhaps Luke is deliberately making a connection to our first reading.

Unless we’re dedicated to our prayer life, we’re often missing the big picture, and so we react the wrong way. Martha was distracted about many things, and was so caught up in her momentary concerns that she was missing the big picture. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were big into the Temple Sacrifices, but they weren’t reading the situation right when the Messiah they had been waiting for actually stood in front of them.

We often want the benefit that Saint Paul had: a brilliant white light, the booming voice of the Lord… what I call “the divine 2×4” (or as a friend has said, “the divine Gibbs slap”).Image result for gibbs slap God does sometimes do this, when we’re in a position of really not paying attention to Him, and he really wants to get something through to us. This is a good technique for communicating, but it’s not good for formation, which is what he really wants. He wants to form us into saints by our free will, by our decision to direct our faith, hope, and love to him. He wants us teach us to be His dance partner, to live gracefully, and to be so attuned to His will, that He need only give us the slightest gesture of how to move, how to serve Him, and we respond with grace and joy.

Sometimes, as we see in our second reading, from Saint Paul, we serve Him by our suffering. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up
what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.This verse from Paul’s letter to the Colossians was a major turning point in Dr. Scott Hahn’s conversion story. He was assigned in a class to research this, particularly Paul’s words of filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. Of course, Christ’s suffering on the Cross was more than sufficient to wipe away all sin. So Paul is not saying that Christ’s crucifixion was not sufficient, not enough. But this verse (and those like it) establish the principle of “redemptive suffering.” What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is our participation in the mystery. When we suffer, we can “offer it up,” as the Catholic saying goes, uniting ourselves in our suffering to Christ’s suffering on the cross, and so experience meaning to our suffering. Suffering purifies us, if we use it to unite ourselves more deeply into the paschal mystery of Christ’s suffering that takes a way the sin of the world. It’s not that we’re earning our salvation by our suffering, but that we’re disposing ourselves more perfectly to the mystery of Christ’s suffering, and the glory of his triumph. It’s part of the mystery of the life of grace we enter into through baptism: living out the life of Christ, including the death and resurrection, in our own lives. 

Also, a bit more of a theological stretch for some, but right there in Saint Paul, is the idea that we can enter into (offer up) redemptive suffering for others. Of course, this is what Christ did, since his suffering wasn’t for himself but for everyone else. Again, it’s not that we offer up suffering that others may have their sins absolved, but rather we offer up suffering (and prayers, fasting, and almsgiving) for others to receive an increase of grace and mercy for them, dedicating whatever good might have been directed toward us to be directed toward them, that they may have that favor. Paul says, “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” Dr. Hahn said that when he examined the tradition of interpretation for this verse, he divided his findings into three piles: those that were Protestant, but largely unconvincing; those that just skipped over it, and those that sounded the most reasonable, which were Catholic, despite his dislike of Catholicism at the time. It was for him a compelling invitation to consider the Catholic faith with more interest, which of course resulted in his conversion to Catholicism, and his reputation as a popular teacher, writer, and speaker on the Catholic Faith, especially fueled by his great knowledge and love of Scripture from his Protestant upbringing and education. 

A true story is told about an advertising executive at Reader’s Digest. In spite of her successful career, she had felt emptiness in her life. One morning, during a breakfast with a co-worker, she mentioned that emptiness. “Do you want to fill it?” her colleague asked. “Of course, I do,” she said. He replied, “Then start each day with an hour of prayer.” She looked at him and said, “Don, you’ve got to be kidding. If I tried that, I’d go bonkers.” Don smiled and said, “That’s exactly what I said 20 years ago.” The woman left the restaurant in turmoil. Begin each morning with an hour of prayer? Out of the question! Yet, the next morning she found herself doing exactly that. And she’s been doing it ever since. Now, she’s the first to admit that it hasn’t always been easy. There have been mornings when she was filled with great peace. But there have been mornings when she was filled with nothing but weariness. And it was on these weary mornings that she remembered something else that her co-worker had said. “There will be times when your mind just won’t go into God’s sanctuary. That’s when you spend your hour in God’s waiting room. Still, you’re there, and God appreciates your effort to be there.” To put God first in our lives, we must be able to trust God with our lives. And to do that, we have to have created a relationship of trust with Him. Relationships only grow by investing time and attention; in this case, to the most important relationship of our life; with Him, whose relationship we hope to enjoy in our heavenly eternal life. That’s the one thing necessary.

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Homily: Who Is My Neighbor?

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The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)

Deuteronomy 30:10-14
Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37
Colossians 1:15-20
Luke 10:25-37

Who are the people in your neighborhood? Who is your neighbor? This is the question of our gospel reading. It was a legitimate question to Jesus from the Jewish scholar, but it wasn’t asked with a legitimate intention.

There were over 600 statutes of the Jewish Law, stemming from the Ten Commandments, and other precepts, especially in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. So it was not unusual for the scribes (the trained biblical scholars) to ask a new teacher about his interpretation. One of the common ways to do this was to ask him to summarize his interpretation by identifying what he saw as the most important of the laws, his key for interpreting all the other laws. So this scholar asks Jesus what his opinion is of the key to salvation. And Jesus (who, unknown to them, is the very Law of God incarnate) responds by reversing the question back to the scholar, as if to say, I think it’s self-evident, what interpretation could there be? So the scholar then answers his own question to Jesus, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus respond to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” In Matthew’s Gospel, it’s Jesus who says these words. Here in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus inspires these words in his examiner.

The scholar then asks, “So who is my neighbor?” As I said at the beginning, it was a legitimate question to Jesus from the Jewish scholar, but it wasn’t asked with a legitimate intention. These two parts of the scholar’s answer come from two different places. The part about loving God with all your heart and strength comes from Deuteronomy 6. And the part about loving one’s neighbor as yourself comes from Leviticus 19. But if we look at that whole verse, it says, “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” So the scholar’s question is, “Who is ‘my own people’? Is it my family? My tribe? All Jewish people? Just those striving to be pure and holy? How far is this love of neighbor like myself supposed to reasonably extend?” Jesus then responds to his question with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

What’s Jesus’ point about this parable? That it wasn’t the Temple Priest, and it wasn’t the Temple Levite (who spent their lives offering the Sacrifices of the Temple, and were experts in the Law) who gave the example of living out the law, but the no-good Samaritan, the despised outsider. Jesus was saying, your neighbor is not just fellow Israelites, fellow believers, fellow people who look and act and believe the same as you… which is not what the scholar wanted to hear, who wanted to constrict the command of love.

Image result for fight with neighborYour neighbor, whom you are obligated to love as you love yourself, is also the people you dislike, the people you’ve been having fights with, the people you ignore, the people who are strangers. And especially, your neighbor is anyone you see who is in need: the vulnerable, the outcast, the poor, and frightened. Your neighbor is every person who is made by God in His image, which is every person. What does it mean to love your neighbor? To do as the Samaritan did: to show mercy, to personally sacrifice, to put yourself out and become vulnerable, to invest yourself (in love) in their well-being and flourishing.

This comes into even clearer focus in light of the first reading. This is the basic law written into our nature of being a human person, natural law. That’s what Moses means when he tells the Israelites, “For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.

Carry what out? The basic human principle that is distorted by sin: that we are to love God, and to love every other person with the same love God has shown us, especially in Christ. Christ is humanity without sin. As the Church said in Vatican II, Christ not only reveals God to man, but reveals man to himself. That’s why we’re supposed to imitate Christ: not just because he’s God, which is very true and important, but because he’s man without the effects caused by sin. He’s man reset to factory settings, before the Fall, in intimate communion with God. In Christ’s example, and his teaching, he gives us images and example of what the Old Testament points us toward: what it means to truly be human.

To recap an earlier conversation we had, we often hear the question, “Do you need to be Christian to be a good person?” And the answer is, “YES.” Why? Because of sin. St Theresa of Avila says, if the “soul were always attached to God’s will, it is clear that it would not go astray. But the devil comes along with some skilled deception and… confuses it… Then little by little he darkens the intellect, cools the will’s ardor, and makes self-love grow until in one way or another he withdraws the soul from the will of God and brings it to his own.

Almost everyone wants to consider themselves a good person. Which is good. We have the love and need for the good, the true, and the beautiful (which is God) written in our hearts. And much of what humanity does is good. But without the light of the true faith, people promote abortion, thinking it’s morally good. People promote false imitations of marriage (including cohabitation) thinking it’s morally good. People promote all sorts of bad things that offend love of God, love of our neighbor, and even our love of ourselves, because sin darkens the intellect. And then disordered sentiment (desire) pulls the intellect and the will to justify what it wants to be true, but isn’t. We can allow that darkness to control us, or we can cooperate with God who wants to heal us and free us, and then send us out in love to heal and free others by our testimony. Love and Truth go together, and cannot thrive if separated… because they can’t be separated, they have the same source, which is God. There are things that seem good, and seem just, and seem loving, but in truth, are not. To truly be good, to be holy (which is to be like God), we need the light of faith, and the grace of God given to us in the sacraments, to heal us from sin and error.

Image result for edith steinI’ll end with this quote from another Theresa, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (the religious name of St. Edith Stein), who was a Jewish-convert to the Catholic faith, and martyred by the Nazis in Auschwitz. St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote this, which beautifully summarizes our reflection on the Good Samaritan: “Our love for our fellow humans is the measure of our love for God. But it is different from a natural love of our neighbor. Natural love goes out to this one or that one, who may be close to us through the bond of blood or through a kinship of character or common interests. The rest then are ‘strangers’ who ‘do not concern’ us, who, it may be, eventually come to be repulsive, so that one keeps them as far away as possible from contact with us. For the Christian, there are no such ‘strangers.’ Rather, he is the ‘neighbor,’ this one who stands before us and who is in the greatest need of our help; it doesn’t matter whether he is related to us or not; whether we ‘like’ him or not; whether he is ‘morally worthy’ of help or not. The love of Christ knows no bounds, it never stops, it does not shrink back from ugliness and dirt. He came for the sake of sinners and not for the sake of the just. If the love of Christ lives in us then we will, like Him, go out after the lost sheep.

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