Let the Children Come to Me—RCIA Retreat 2017

Mark 10:13–16

Gina and I have five grandchildren, and with most of them, I have gone through the stage in which it is very popular for them to come and cling to me and hang on me, and just otherwise want to be around me. I’m good with that for a while, but it also happens that often the times that they can come to visit are the very times when I have limited free time to get various things done. So at a certain point, I’m not as accessible or generous as I’d like to be. I feel badly for admitting that, but it’s simply the truth. Perhaps when I retire, I’ll be less stingy with my time. I hope that is the case.

But I’m always charmed to see young fathers with their toddlers in public, particularly at parks where there is so much to explore and so many new things to encounter. I do remember those times when my daughter was just beginning to verbalize, and she’d toddle up holding something in her hand and hand it to me and say something unintelligible but with obvious inflection: “What is this?” or “This is such and such” or even “Wow, this is amazing.” If you have children, I know you know what I mean. This is one of those great moments in parenting.

That’s how I envision God in the Garden of Eden with Adam after He formed him from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him. After placing Him, His new offspring, into the garden, He realizes that man needs helpers, so He creates animals, and brings each one of them to man to name. I can see the Father presenting to his human son each animal, and the man looking each in the face and uttering something that would be as incomprehensible to us as those babblings of our own children. And I think of how God delights in it and gets such a kick out of man at his important task of naming the animals.

God the Father is a much better papa than I am. Thank goodness I have His example to follow.

I see the same dynamic in the reading this morning. The apostles and I have a lot in common. We see the children not through the eyes of the Father or our loving savior, but through our own concerns—the daily anxieties and cares that prevent us from seeing what truly matters. Jesus will have none of it. “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

The Kingdom of God belongs to those who flock to Jesus, who reach for Him and wish to be held by Him. And He picks them up and blesses each of them. That’s the generosity of spirit that I wish I had. I guess I’m happy that I wish I had it. That’s a start.

Anyway, look at what Jesus tells his disciples: “Whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter into it.” Elsewhere it says, “Unless you turn and become like children, you’ll not enter the kingdom.” Now notice that the acceptance is a two-way street. Jesus is receptive to the children, and the children are eager to be with Jesus. It begins with Jesus’ openness to the children, but the children are likewise completely open to Jesus.

That is our goal. I would like to be as generous as Jesus with my grandchildren, but maybe the way that I begin is by being completely open to Jesus to start. After all, all of the gifts we have come from God. To have the gift to give, we must first receive it from the giver of all gifts. So for me to be able to give that gift of generous, gratuitous love to my grandchildren, I have to be completely open to God’s love for me. I have to become a child in His presence. Or perhaps more accurately, I have to recognize that I am a child in His eyes and respond accordingly.

Beyond that, we need to understand what this passage does and does not say. It is not telling us to believe as children believe. That would be completely inappropriate for adults. We should believe with an adult faith and understanding of God—not a faith of mindless, blind obedience, but faith seeking understanding. But what the children have and what we often luck is complete trust. While we may not always understand, we must always remember that God is a God of love who does not aim to deceive us but desires to embrace us. Let us reach out to Him with that same child-like trust in His love.

 

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The Choice You Make—Sixth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Sirach 15:15–20; 1 Cor. 2:6–10; Matt. 5:17–37

I’m going to be bold and propose something to you that I believe is true and consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, even though many of us don’t realize it. Actually, I know it to be true, but it’s one of those truths that isn’t spoken often enough.

God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him. God will not forsake those, flawed as they may be, who sincerely and earnestly desire to be with Him.

By proposing this, I am not saying that sin doesn’t matter or that God will not act justly and condemn some—perhaps many—of those who call themselves Christians, and some—perhaps many—who are not. But God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him.

What do I mean by that? How is it that Christians might not be saved or that non-Christians might be saved? I would point to our first reading from Sirach as a clue.

He has set  before you fire and water: to whichever you choose, stretch out your hand. Before a man are life and death, good and evil; whichever he chooses shall be given to him.

This passage is an allusion to one from Deuteronomy, Moses’ final exhortation to the People of Israel as they prepare to pass into the Promised Land

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him.

Notice that the Promised Land is already theirs. All they have to do is grasp it. They just need to make the right choice. There’s no more searching and waiting. The choice is right there before them. They just have to choose the blessing, and that blessing resides in the words of the Law and the prophets.

Now you would think that you could look at two such clear choices—life or death—and know exactly which you would choose, but human history demonstrates that we’re really bad at this game. It goes back to the very beginning. Adam is plopped down in a garden where all these beautiful fruit trees and edible plants are, including the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God tells him, “You can eat from anything in the garden except that tree right there— the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”

It’s right there next to the Tree of Life! Yet even then, which one does mankind choose?

Such is the nature of mankind. Part of the problem is with our vision—our perspective. We simply don’t see with clarity. Our vision is obscured, so how could we choose correctly? As St. Paul points out, “What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love Him” or elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, “we see indistinctly as through a mirror.” If we can’t choose wisely from the obvious goods in front of us, how can we forestall those choices and choose what God has prepared for us—the greatest good that is so far beyond our understanding?

We live in a world that does its best to muddy the moral waters and culture that encourages relativistic moral thinking. Nothings is black and white, just shades of gray. Never mind that you can’t have gray without blending black and white. Now I’m not suggesting that all moral distinctions are easy to make, but some most certainly are, so long as we are willing to see.

That’s really Jesus’ point here in the Sermon on the Mount. He’s telling us that sometimes those gray areas we think exist between one choice and another, morally speaking, are not gray at all. The law says that those who commit murder are liable to the Law, but Jesus says anger at your brother, calling him Raqa or fool makes you liable.

The law says not to commit adultery, but Jesus says even looking at someone with lust is equal to adultery. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand, cut it off.

I don’t think Jesus is buying this stuff about shades of gray either. In fact, he intensifies every law: not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter of the Law will pass away, He says. If anyone sets the bar high for righteousness, it’s the King of Righteousness right here in this gospel.

But how can anyone hold up to such a standard? To never condemn someone in thought? To never think a lustful thought, or to see and not covet? How can we hold to that expectation always?

Well, fortunately, we get a bit of a break, because Jesus is using hyperbole in this passage. He’s exaggerating in order to drive home His point. He knows that we have difficulty seeing clearly, so He blows up the examples to the point that no one can miss the message.

Jesus doesn’t mean that we should be cutting off our errant hands and blinding ourselves for the least temptation. He is telling us to be aware of the source of all sin: the mind and heart, because they drive the human will. The will is the immediate source of an act. Any wrong act that is not motivated by will is simply an accident. But only a wrong act motivated by will can be sinful. Sin is always a matter of the will and of choice. And our will is informed and motivated first and foremost by what resides in our hearts and thoughts. To the Jewish mind of Jesus’ time, heart and mind would be one and the same.

So Jesus isn’t saying that your eye in itself is sinful, or that your hand is sinful. He’s saying that when you hold something in your mind and heart that can motivate your eye or your hand to sin, you are already on the pathway. If you dwell on evil thoughts, you are giving them a chance to grow into evil action. Jesus is telling the crowds and his disciples to go beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. You can murder someone literally, which most of us would never do, but we can also murder them in our thoughts, in our hearts, or in our words. We might not commit adultery, but if we’re harboring lustful thoughts toward someone, we’re already building the doorway that lets us into that room.

So at every moment, we need to be ready to resist, and resistance is a choice, which brings us back to what I said at the beginning of this homily.

God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him. God will not forsake those, flawed as they may be, who sincerely and earnestly desire to be with Him. Then how do we choose Him? Is it simply a matter of an altar call? Do we just believe in the Lord Jesus and recite the sinner’s prayer, as some of our Evangelical brethren believe? I’ll make another bold move now and propose, no. It is not enough to say the sinner’s prayer or simply “believe in the Lord Jesus” or to simply “believe in God.” St. James says that the “demons believe—and tremble.” If belief were enough for salvation, then demons would have no need to tremble.

So belief alone is not enough. We must act on belief. We must choose, because only in our choosing God do we demonstrate faith. Faith and belief are not equal. I can believe that our government has the ability to make dramatic societal change in our time but have no faith in them at all. Belief and faith aren’t the same thing.

If I have belief in God but don’t trust His will for me, then I have no faith. If I believe in an all-powerful benevolent being who wills what is best for me but constantly choose what is worst for me, then I have no faith. If I consistently choose myself over my neighbor, myself over God’s revelation, myself and temporal things over my own greatest good, I might have belief, but I don’t have true faith.

Faith is what allows me to choose the thing that draws me closer to God. Through faith, I can understand that I do not see all matters clearly. I can grasp that my notion of what is good for me is distorted. I can accept that my will might not lead me to the greatest good, but God’s will always does. So if I choose to align my will with God’s, I will be saved. If I choose to seek Him in everything I do, I will be saved. If I choose always to have my own way, then it will be, and it won’t be the will of God.

In the end, there are two outcomes. Either I say to God, “Thy will be done,” or God says to me, “Thy will be done.”

 

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The Epiphany of Our Lord

Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians:2–3a, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, an ancient celebration of the Church in both the East and the West.

In the common use of the word, an epiphany is a sudden perception of absolute clarity, a moment at which some mystery becomes startlingly obvious. Whenever the Epiphany comes around, I always remember a scene from Hook, a great movie with Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams. Captain Hook’s somewhat dimwitted first mate Smee, played by Bob Hoskins, is staring out the window of the captain’s quarters, and he gets this wide-eyed look on his face and says, “I’ve just had… an apostrophe.”

Apostrophe, epiphany… close enough. Smee describes it as like lightening striking his brain. Suddenly he sees something in a flash that he didn’t grasp before. His mind takes ownership of something he perhaps had been told many times but never quite understood himself. In that way an apostrophe is like an epiphany. In our written language, an apostrophe represents ownership.

That’s what the Epiphany is about—suddenly seeing what was not apparent before; suddenly grasping a mystery that was beyond reach just moments ago. We come to own a truth of the faith that was previously beyond us.

As I mentioned, this feast day is an ancient observance in the Church. It first began in the 3rd century as a commemoration of the baptism of the Lord, which we now celebrate one week or an octave after the Epiphany. (My bad here, looks at the wrong dates in the planner. It’s Monday 1/9.) In the 4th century, it also came to be associated with the changing of water to wine at Cana, as well as the visit of the Magi. For the Western Church, it has been more closely associated with the visit of the Magi since that time. So we have these three events that are separated in time and seem at first glance to be completely unrelated. We have to delve a bit deeper to understand the ancient thinking on these three events.

By the way, I would recommend to all of you who want to understand better the roots of our Catholic faith to study the early Church Fathers. We have our traditions and our understanding through their thought and reflection on such events as this one. To be steeped in the thought of the Fathers of the Church is to have a true foundation in the Catholic faith.

That’s my little plug for the Patristic Tradition of the Church.

So how are these three events related? How do we tie them all to this notion of epiphany, of revelation? The word itself means “manifestation,” and Pope St. Leo I, one of the Fathers of the Church I just mentioned,  clarified it a bit more and referred to the Theophany—the manifestation of God. In the Baptism of Jesus, God the Father Himself claims Jesus as His begotten son. In the Wedding at Cana, Jesus reveals Himself through the changing of water to wine. And in the visit of the Magi, God made flesh is revealed to the Gentiles.

Each of these events depicts the further manifestation of God, not in the veiled forms and words of the prophets and nature, but in His physical presence on earth, here with us. That is what His name Emmanuel means: God with us.

The earliest is the visit of the Magi. The wise men of the other nations—the pagan nations—recognize the arrival of the newborn king of the Jews. These wise men from the east are often associated with Persian astrologers, but some scholars now think that there was perhaps a bit more influence from the Jewish faith on the Persians. Recall that Israel was exiled to Babylon and dispersed for many years prior to the coming of Christ. They weren’t among ignorant people but civilized, advanced societies. It was a Persian king, Cyrus the Great, who sent the dispersed Jews back to Jerusalem and who funded the rebuilding of the temple. No doubt the leaders of the Jewish people exchanged ideas with the learned of Persia. So it’s not hard to imagine that the scriptures of the Jews were known to some of them, and perhaps they developed their own understanding of God and His Messiah, His anointed one.

So following whatever sign they witnessed—a comet, an alignment of planets, or some other mysterious sign in the heavens—the Magi came bearing gifts and inquiring about the newborn king.

Let’s think about what this manifestation means to the Magi, to Herod, and then to us. The Magi travel most likely from Persia, a journey of more than 1000 miles on the routes of the time. They travel trusting the words of prophets from scripture, trusting that this sign will confirm a revelation. What is it they expect? Are they simply coming to pay their respects to royalty? Notice that the reading doesn’t say, “They bowed down and did obeisance to him,” which would be the expected behavior of visitors to a king. No, as Matthew says, “They fell down and worshipped Him.” Bowing down in obeisance is something someone does as an act of the will. But falling down in worship? That’s an intuitive, emotional response. They recognized something here greater than any earthly king. Something Divine, God’s anointed, was manifest, and they responded as anyone should who gets a mere glimpse of the Christ, the Anointed One of God.

Compare this to Herod’s response. While the non-Jewish Magi travel over a thousand miles, instigated by the appearance of a star, Herod—an Idumean and nominal convert to Judaism at best, lives a short walk from Bethlehem, less than six miles. He’s completely oblivious to the prophesies about the newborn king. And when he does learn of Him, he responds with little alacrity. He doesn’t get up and rush on to Bethlehem but sends the Magi on ahead. “You go on and then let me know where He is so I can see him later.”

That doesn’t sound like someone looking forward to the consolation of Israel. It sounds like someone who couldn’t care less. Or worse.

And it is worse, as we learn before the chapter is out. Herod sends his troops to slaughter all the newborn boys up to two years of age. So Herod’s seeming indifference is really much more malignant. He can’t even look on the newborn king himself. He sends others to destroy Him.

So there are the responses to the Epiphany: go searching far and wide for the anointed king, wave him off as something to be sought later, or seek to kill him and never look him in the face. Those are our choices.

What are we going to choose? The Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed has been revealed to us. How will we respond?

Some of us act as if there is no urgency, no immediate need to seek God, to seek repentance. We wave it off as if it’s something we can take care of later. Or perhaps we are unaware of our own need for salvation because we no longer have any sense of sin.

How many times have you heard people say, “Hey, I’m a good person. I haven’t killed anyone”?

That is not exactly setting the bar very high.

But that is exactly what most of us do. We look around at the obvious presence of God around us in the world and say, “Meh, it looks better in high definition.” We are so unimpressed with the beauty around us, so accustomed to comfort that we don’t see the miracle of natural design, of Divine intervention as the very fabric of our lives. That is why we need an Epiphany. We need to be slapped upside the head with the manifestation of God in the flesh.

So some of us wave off the Epiphany out of ignorance and apathy. But some of us resist it violently. The last thing we want is an Epiphany. We not only don’t feel the need to pursue truth, we want to ignore it, to deny it… to kill it.

That is Herod’s response. He sees the manifestation of God only in terms of his station, only in its temporal effects, only as a threat. So he doesn’t seek to face it or comprehend it. He wants to extinguish it.

But to those who are open to the mystery, the Epiphany is a wonder. It draws us in. We seek it, not out of duty, but out of love and awe. The pope, in his Epiphany homily on Friday, says that Magi represent all of those who long for God, those who have grown restless and are, in his words, rebelling against those forces of secularism that try to reduce and impoverish our lives.

It took courage to set out on a journey of a thousand miles. The Magi were willing to risk it for a glimpse of the new king. It took courage to follow Him during the early years when the Church faced intense persecution. What does it cost us today? What risks are we willing to face to look into the face of God?

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The Hope We Await—Third Sunday of Advent(Cycle A)

Isaiah 35:1–6a, 10; James 5:7–10; Matthew 11:2–11

This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin Introit for today’s Mass from Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” The light of Jesus’ coming is dawning on us, and so we light a rose colored candle and wear rose colored vestments to celebrate and rejoice in the coming dawn. Some ministers will rejoice a bit less if you tease them about wearing pink today, so for the record, I will remind you that we are wearing rose colored garments.

So my question to you today is for what are we waiting?

Advent is about anticipation. We are in waiting for the coming of Jesus, not once but twice. First, we await His coming in human history, in the Incarnation. Second, we await His final coming at the final judgment. And for both of these events we rejoice. But I think we see these as two separate events. We have the Incarnation of the Son of God in the world, and few millennia later we have the Son of God coming on the clouds to judge the nations.

I’d like to suggest we look at these events as not two separate and disconnected events but as a single continuous reality. Not as individual events in history but as two instances connected by a single thread.

This is not an unusual way to look at events in the Church. The Passover that the Jews celebrated has always been seen as a single event entered into annually by the people of Israel. The Eucharist is our own celebration, an evolution from the Passover and the Todah (thanksgiving) offerings in the temple, but now an eternal offering: one that took place at the Last Supper, but also one that takes place simultaneously here on this altar and in eternity as the wedding feast of the Lamb.

And in a way, Advent is the same. We have two events separated by time, but the first is the precursor to the last. Christ’s incarnation is necessarily joined to His coming again, and His coming into the world instigated a process that will be complete when He comes again.

So for what are we waiting?

The second reading perhaps captures this sense of anticipation best. James writes to believers in what he calls the “twelve tribes in the dispersion.” This language is usually used to speak of the People of Israel, but James is specifically addressing Christians in the diaspora. And he is telling them to be patient. They are experiencing a time of trial, but the judge is waiting and will soon come to set things right. That’s really what the prophets say consistently throughout the Old Testament.

A few weeks ago on Christ the King Sunday, I mentioned that Christ is the God of reversals. And our readings this week bear this out. Our first reading from Isaiah proclaims,

Here is your God; he comes with vindication; with Divine recompense he comes to save you. Then the eyes of the blind will  be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.

Isaiah anticipates that the just judge will reverse the injustice and misery of the people. Recall that our first parents in Eden lived in original innocence and suffered from none of the maladies from which the rest of us now do. Their disobedience introduced suffering into the world. But even before they exit the garden, God the Father has already pointed the way forward to a remedy, to His vindication:

Then the LORD God said to the snake: Because you have done this, cursed are you among all the animals, tame or wild; On your belly you shall crawl, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.

Even as God explains the consequences of their actions to Adam and Ishahwoman, which is her original name—she doesn’t get the name Eve until after the incident—even as He explains the consequences to them, he announces that there is a plan: the seed of the woman. “They will strike at your head.” Mother and son will both strike at the head of the serpent. That is one interpretation, at least. Either way, God has a plan, and the Son is its fulfillment.

And Isaiah picks up on it. He predicts that the just judge will vindicate and save the people. And then he gives all the signs of that vindication: the blind see; the deaf hear; the lame walk; and the mute speak.

Remember, all of these ill effects are consequences of the disobedience of Adam and the Woman. So everything that Isaiah proposes is an undoing of the effects of our first parents’ disobedience.

We get a lot of these kinds of reversals in scripture—the undoing of evil by the redeemer who flips history on its head. It begins with the small reversals, like when Sarah’s son Isaac precedes the first-born Ishmael, or when Joseph’s slavery becomes the redemption of his family. In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, sings of the reversals that God brings to the righteous: those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. This song has a parallel in the liturgy of this season, in the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1: ” The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.”

John the Baptist reflects the same hope, the same desire, when he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the one. And Jesus responds by pointing to the reversals taking place in their midst: “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” All of the reversals proclaimed by Isaiah and then some. He goes beyond all our hopes.

All of these signs reiterate James’ message to the dispersion: Be patient. Our vindication is coming. They are all signs of the hope of Israel, and signs that point forward to our hope.

For what are we waiting? For what are we hoping?

Jesus is the God of reversals. He undoes the disobedience of Adam, he unties the knot of original sin that bound us. What more does He need to unbind in our lives?

All of us have those wounds, those weaknesses, those bad habits and attachments that weigh us down and bind us to this world. What in your life does Jesus need to unbind?

That is our hope this season, to be released from our own failings, from our anxieties, from our sorrow. Sometimes we can successfully paper over our brokenness, hide it, and forget that it’s there. We can fill our lives with noise, wealth, parties, and busyness—but all of that ends. All of that leaves us in a short time, and the emptiness is still there.

Unless…

Unless He comes and unbinds us. Unless He comes and removes our brokenness. Until He undoes our failings and refills that emptiness, that God-shaped hole in all of us that was left from our loss of grace.

Until He comes again to fulfill all that He promised.

God has no intention of letting us go, of letting us fail, of letting us remain in our brokenness. He continues to carve out paths where we build walls. And with every wall we throw up, He provides a gate. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

He is the fulfillment of our hope in this season.

Posted in Advent, Homilies, mercy

The King of Your Life—Christ the King Sunday (Cycle C)

Samuel 5:1–3; Colossians 1:12–20; Luke 23:35–43

Today is the last Sunday of Ordinary time—Christ the King Sunday. I think it couldn’t have come at a better time—a little reminder for us that, regardless of who sits in the White House, regardless of how bleak the world may look at one time or another, Christ is still Lord and King. I rest better knowing that.

Our Liturgy of the Word is a study in contrasts this week—from the cosmological grandeur of Christ the King in Colossians, to the temporal kingship of David in ancient Israel, to the utter worldly defeat of Jesus on the cross. What strikingly dissimilar images the first two present compared to the last. It underscores one point. When it comes to understanding God’s plan, we always seem to get it wrong.

Why is that? Just a few weeks ago on All Saints Day, we read from Matthew 5, the Beatitudes, where Jesus tell us that we are blessed when we are persecuted, when we mourn, when we are poor in spirit. He tells us repeatedly to pick up our cross, a sign of condemnation and humiliation, and to follow Him. Jesus sets our expectations for worldly failure, yet we constantly expect the opposite.

Now, I can see why we misunderstand. We’ve been doing so throughout human history. Think of how pagan cultures had this concept of assuaging the wrath of the gods through more and more sacrifice: sacrifice of animals but even of their own offspring—as if somehow this pleased whatever god they thought ruled their land. Their collective thought was that they would be happy so long as they kept the gods happy. When they saw good results, the gods were smiling on them. When things went wrong, the gods were angry with them.

Sometimes we think of our God the same way. Wealth is a sign of someone’s favor with God, while poverty is simply a sign that someone is reprobate. Our nation’s Puritan forebears really wove that notion deeply into the fabric of our nation.

But that is not the gospel message. That isn’t what Christ offered to us in the here and now. Our victory only comes after what J.R.R. Tolkien called the long defeat. Tolkien was deeply Catholic and a professor of Anglo-Saxon studies at Oxford. And like all pagan mythologies, Anglo-Saxon mythology ultimately always ends in defeat, which is death. In a culture without a redeemer, there can be nothing else. In a culture where our actions supposedly bring about our material redemption, such redemption is always simply another delay… another postponement of the long defeat.

Does this approach seem pessimistic or self-defeating to you? It’s certainly counterintuitive. It goes against the way our culture thinks. We as Americans expect that our hard work leads to reward in our earthly lives. But salvation is not about temporal fulfillment. It’s not about the prosperity gospel—which, by the way, is not a Christian gospel.

As Tolkien intimated, we have no victory until after the long defeat. We can’t get to Easter Sunday without first enduring Good Friday. The gospel passage exemplifies this today.

Now all four gospels make reference to Psalm 21—Psalm 22 many other translations—the one that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Two of the four gospels mention the first line of the Psalm, but all four note the mockery that the Sanhedrin and the people heap upon Jesus: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” Compare that to the verse from the psalm: “He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let him save him, seeing he delighteth in him.”

To them, Jesus’ dilemma confirms His failure. Jesus is crucified! That is as final as it gets in the pagan world. That’s the most humiliating, shameful way to die in the Jewish world. That is the ultimate sign of power and control in the Roman world. And this is the heir, the Son of David? Preposterous!

But even in the darkest moment we see a glimmer of light. The second thief, the one we call Dismas in Sacred Tradition, says “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He is at his very end, yet still he hopes. He recognizes his need for mercy, and Jesus grants it to him.

God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus knew all along that the path of suffering was also the path to redemption. His ministry, His mission, was one of reversal, of turning things on their head. Look at the Magnificat, with its dramatic reversals: He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Or the Song of Hannah from 1 Samuel 2: “The bow of the mighty is overcome, and the weak are girt with strength.” Or again in Jesus’ own words in Luke 6: “Blessed are you who hunger; for you shall be filled…. Woe to you who are filled: for you shall hunger.”

Jesus’ defeat of death is the most dramatic reversal. He is Lord of both life and death. All things were created through Him and for Him. That is what we celebrate today.

We’re in a contentious moment in our nation’s history, and unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve gotten the message yet. We keep putting our trust in worldly things, in worldly rulers, even though they fail us time and again. Our own choices, made with the best intentions, often perpetuate the problem. We truly want a solution to what ails us, what ails our country and our world, but we are still too full of the things of this world to let them go and let God be the king of our lives. We won’t find a solution until we recognize the brokenness and weakness in our lives and our culture. We can pretend to be strong and self sufficient. We can be proud in the imagination of our hearts, as the Blessed Mother says in the Magnificat. But Christ the King turns all of those illusions on their heads.

In the Eucharist we will share here in a few minutes, we will hear how Christ blesses the bread, breaks it, and offers His broken body for our redemption. And through that Eucharist, that offering of our thanksgiving, our brokenness is healed. Christ the King, who turned back and reversed the effects of sin in our broken human nature, can heal us and our culture, if we will make Him king of our lives.

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Wise Stewards, Watchful Servants: 29th Wednesday of Ordinary Time

Ephesians 3:2–12; Luke 12: 39–48

The readings today concern stewardship: the guarding of treasures put into our possession for their safekeeping, or the authority entrusted to us for the benefit of others. And this is a message we so badly need to hear.

In the opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul refers to his own special authority as Apostle to the Gentiles: “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit.”

Paul is speaking to the Ephesians primarily of the authority he has been given as the messenger of the Gospel to the Gentiles, but don’t take that to mean that he doesn’t understand its grave obligations. In 1 Corinthians, he says, “Woe to me if I do not preach it!” He knows that he must exercise it with love and care and with an adherence to the truth. He understands the grave responsibility he has.

Jesus underscores the same point in the gospel reading. He begins by talking about the servants being prepared to receive the master, and how the master will serve the servants if they keep watch and do their jobs well.

Peter pipes in and asks whether this message is meant for all of the multitude—that is, everyone who is listening–the disciples and the multitudes who follow Jesus–or does it include them? Peter is really asking, “Does this refer to the Twelve?” You see, Peter—God love him—is still thinking that Jesus is the earthly messiah expected by the Jews. He, and the others, are still thinking that this is going to mean greatness for them when Jesus comes into His glory.

And then Jesus drops the other shoe. If you are a steward—if more has been entrusted to you, more will be expected. The one who is ignorant of their obligations will be treated less harshly than the one who knows of their obligation. And if you have been given much, more will be expected. That’s a sobering thought, if you’re looking for an earthly reward.

Jesus has a few parables where he mentions the bad steward.      When I think of bad stewards, the first person I think of is Denethor from the Return of the King.

Yes, I’m a big Tolkein fan. I think the word “geek” would be more accurate.

Denethor has grown so distant from the king—the source of his stewardship—that he colludes with the one who will bring down his kingdom. He dines sumptuously while the armies of Mordor gather outside of his capital city. He even goes so far as to try to immolate his last surviving son.

And we have to admit that the Church has its share of such stewards as well. The name Borgia doesn’t really ring with the air of integrity to us, though several of our popes comes from that family. Leo X, one of the infamous d’Medici popes, is reported to have said after he was elevated to the papacy, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” Now, was this truly a quote or was it an apocryphal claim? I can’t say, but we have certainly had poor stewards at the helm of the Barque of Peter.

And our political landscape is rife with those who would be steward for their own gains—the two major party candidates being exhibits A and B. Our state and federal governments reel with such drunken, abusive stewards.

Many of our elected officials are conscientious people, but the exceptions tend to make the headlines. And they will eventually have to answer. Anyone who holds power honestly knows that they carry a grave responsibility.

But I want to turn your attention back to the first group Jesus addresses. “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning.” Be ready to receive the Master. What does that mean to us? Because that’s who Jesus is addressing, right? If we’re not the stewards, we’re the other servants in the household. Were we keeping watch? Were we prepared? How did this steward get into office who is willing to abuse the household? Weren’t we paying attention when the Master was considering who would be best?

Can’t we say the same in our current predicament? How did our political discourse devolve into what it is today? Why do we let it persist as it has? We might not be the drunken and abusive stewards, but we’re also not the well-girded and watchful servants. If we want to be found righteous when the Master  arrives, we need to be witnesses to the truth, even when it’s not convenient or popular. Thomas Jefferson once said that, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Like so many ideas he claimed from scriptures, he was simply cribbing off of Jesus. If we want to be free, we must be watchful and faithful to the Master. And if we are, the Master will welcome us to His table.

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Reconciliation and Civic Obligations—28th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

2 Kings 5:14–17; 2 Timothy 2:8–13; Luke 17:11–19

My dentist is one of our parishioners here: Dr. Scott Morrell. He takes very good care of me and hires top-notch hygienists. I’m one of those lucky few who have excellent dental health, so I only have to go in once a year for a cleaning. What that means is that even though my teeth are in great shape, I always have that tartar that has to be chipped away, and that’s rarely any fun. And then when the cleaning is finished, the last thing I want to do is to eat anything because my teeth feel so great.

It feels good to be clean. It feels good after we’ve worked hard and we can go get a shower. It feels good when we can take off our work clothes and change into something clean. Cleanliness feels good. Gina tells me that my stepson Caleb actually used to cry when he got messy, and we saw that son was like father when our grandson ate his first birthday cake in the normal toddler fashion. Then, looking at his hands completely covered with chocolate frosting, he burst into tears. Like father, like son.

In our readings today, we get a sense of cleansing that goes deeper—beyond the superficial removal of dirt from a surface. In the section from 2 Kings, Na’aman is suffering from leprosy—a horrible and contagious affliction that made people outcastes in their communities and often resulted in disfiguring lesions and infections.

He hears of a prophet in Samaria. He goes to this prophet Elisha, who tells him to go dip himself in the Jordan seven times. Na’aman is not happy. He’s thinking, “I came all this way for you to tell me to take a bath in the Jordan?” But with some prompting from his servant, he does it, and his leprosy is gone. His skin is restored. Note that he is not merely healed—not with rough patches and scars as someone who has been treated by a physician. His skin is restored like that of an infant. This is proof to him that this God of Israel is worthy of his gratitude and his worship. Now, back then, gods were thought to be regional—tied to their land. So Na’aman wants to take some of Israel’s soil back with him to Syria so he can build an altar on it and continue to make thanksgiving sacrifices to the God of Israel.

In the reading from the Gospel of Luke, ten lepers approach Jesus as He enters a village. They cannot enter the village because of their affliction, but they call to Jesus from a distance and beg for His mercy. Jesus freely gives it and sends them to fulfill the requirements of the Jewish law so that they will be readmitted into the community. Notice that Jesus tells them simply to do what the law requires, and they trust Him and go, being cleansed on the way. That much is simple enough.

But one of the lepers realizes he has been healed. One grasps that he is healed not just because Jesus sends them to the priests, but because he experiences that he has been cleansed. And experiencing that renewal, like Na’aman, he runs back, and in gratitude, falls at Jesus’ feet. This man is a Samaritan. Well, we have two parables now that take a figure from Samaria: one is the good Samaritan who exemplifies what it means to be a neighbor, and this other is one who exemplifies the grateful penitent. Both passages of the good Samaritan and the leper Samaritan come from the Gospel of Luke. I find this interesting as a student of scripture because the tones in both of these parables would have been discordant to Jewish ears—presenting their hated enemies as righteous.

Notice here sort of a reversal between the two readings. At first, Na’aman is appalled at Elisha’s command. How can dipping himself in the Jordan seven times cure him? Yet it does. The mere action heals him, and he comes to belief. In the gospel, the ten accept that if they follow the prescripts of the Law, the priests will find them clean. The only one who returns to thank Jesus is one who is not subject to the Law of Moses, a Samaritan. The Jews know what the Law requires, but the Samaritan recognizes the Divine intervention in his healing. In the reading from 2 Kings, Na’aman is reluctant to trust because the offer seems too good to be true. In the Gospel, the ten lepers, minus the Samaritan, just seem to think it’s a simple matter of adherence to the form.

Both of these extremes seem to be how many of us approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation—that is, the Sacrament of Confession. On one side, some believe that the action of confessing to a priest couldn’t possibly actually cleanse us of sin. Why do I have to confess to a priest? That’s just a law of men. I should be able to confess directly to God.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who think that adherence to the law does all the work. Some people seek the sacrament of reconciliation regularly, but they make little attempt to remedy the source of their sinfulness—their sinful attitudes and habits. They use the sacrament as a get-out-of-jail-free card rather than as a sacrament of true reconciliation and healing—one that can draw us truly closer to God.

Both of these approaches to the Sacrament of Reconciliation are wrongheaded because neither of them acknowledges the gratuitousness of God’s gift to us—like Na’aman and like the repentant leper. Forgiveness is pure gift! We can’t deserve it or earn it. That’s why we use the term grace to describe God’s action in our lives. The word Gratia in Latin—which we translate as grace—is God’s favor to us, and He gives it freely.

Now I want to talk about the Sacrament of Reconciliation in more practical terms. I see the lines in a number of churches locally on Saturday, and I’m happy to see that they are busy. We often have enough people here at St. John’s to keep two priests busy from 3:00 to 4:30, which is our allotted time for the sacrament on Saturdays. But frankly, not enough of us take advantage of this beautiful sacrament. I have to admit that I was not encouraged to go to confession when I was a child, and I perhaps went two or three times prior to slipping away from the Church in my late teens. When I did make my first confession after more than 19 years, I felt free. I felt cleansed. That is how I feel now when I go to confession, and I try to do so at least once a month. It helps me to stay in contact with my bad attitudes, habits, and motivations, and when I have messed up, it helps me to get back on track and reconcile with God. That is what the sacrament is about—forgiveness of sins, yes, but also reconciliation with God and with each other in the Church. You may not realize this, but spiritually, when you or I sin, we harm the Body of Christ. All sin is communal. There is no private sin. So our reconciliation is both with God and with each other.

If you haven’t sought the Sacrament of Reconciliation recently, I encourage you to do so soon. All of our parishes in the valley offer it on Saturdays. St. John’s is one of the most generous with time and also offers the sacrament on Tuesdays after Mass. And if you haven’t confessed in years, you can always make an appointment. If you have a smart phone, you can download an app like Laudate which can help you make a good examination of conscience.

Remember, one of the precepts of the Church is that we as Catholics will confess our sins at least once a year if we have any serious sins on our conscience. If we have a serious sin on our conscience, we should also not receive the Eucharist until we have confessed. These are the teachings of the Church, and they’re not meant as punishment but are intended to bring us to healing and reconciliation, so that when we come to this altar and offer ourselves with Christ, we will make a worthy offering.

I’d like to add one last comment about the current election season, and I fully recognize that some of you will not be happy with me for doing so. You have no doubt heard that you must oppose presidential candidate X or Y because their positions are out of accord with Catholic teaching. You might also hear attached to that dogmatism that voting for a third party or not voting for one of these two candidates is actually somehow a vote for the opposite candidate. I want to tell you with no reserve whatsoever that these claims are lies. As a Catholic citizen, you are obligated to inform your conscience according to the doctrines of the Church. And you are expected to exercise your civic duty in accord with your well-formed conscience. Do not ignore the issues of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, immigration reform, fair wages, and just war in your decision, but make sure you are informed in what the Church teaches on these issues. You might not have to explain your vote to your neighbor, but you will have to explain it to God.

We are the hands and feet of Christ in this world, and when we make our decisions in the voting booth, we need to be in communion with the Church in our thinking.

 

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