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Monday, December 11, 2017

Prepare the Way of the Lord (2nd Sunday of Advent)

To listen to this homily, click here.

During my 6 months here at Incarnate Word, many of you have politely asked where I grew. In answering that question it has made me think of the cozy house where I was raised. It was a little 1800 sq. ft. ranch in Hazelwood, built like a fort in the post-war era. I used to think that our house was a wreck, but considering the fact that it housed 12 kids, 2 parents, a rabbit and a large dog, it was remarkably clean and intact. This was largely due to my mom’s system of chores and daily tasks that we were convinced she must have inherited from some Siberian Gulag.

But as orderly as my mom managed to keep this house, there was a whole new level of stress that took place when my parents decided to put it on the market. Any of you who have sold a home or lived in one while it’s for sale, know exactly what I mean. As kids, we were amazed at the amount of work that had to go into preparing our house to be sold. To us it seemed just fine. But the entire house had to be repainted inside and out, the tennis balls and baseballs removed from the gutters, knicks and scratches needed to be repaired, plumbing and light fixtures replaced, and new carpet had to be installed. Even after these large tasks were completed, a million little jobs had to be accomplished, like dusting, wiping down cabinets, staging furniture, sprucing up the yard, and so on.

But even this wasn’t the end. Perhaps the most difficult part of living in a listed house is that you must be prepared for a visit by the realtor and potential buyer at any time. This is the whole point for all of these preparations; when someone comes to look at your house, they will find a place that is displayed in the best possible light and up to its full potential. This was by far the most difficult part. It was pretty easy to do the big stuff: the major repairs and improvements in the weeks before the house was listed. But how much harder it was to keep the house clean, to avoid moving the chair or table that never used to be there, or to never make the mistake of denting a wall or scuffing some paint on a door!

Even though all these steps were stressful and difficult, they were worth it because of the final goal of selling the house. Because our family wanted to impress, some might say trick, a potential buyer, we were willing to endure some significant hardships and inconvenience. Can you imagine how much more preparation or work we would have done around the house if we had been expecting a visit from a king? How much more we would have been willing to endure? That very concept, the visit of a king, is what we reflect on today. A king is coming: not just any king, but the King of Kings!

Long before Jesus was born, about seven centuries in fact, the prophet Isaiah foretold that there would be a prophet to prepare the way of the Lord. This person’s name was John the Baptist and his role in preparing the world for the Savior was crucial. Scripture tells us that John was indeed a prophetic voice, crying in the wilderness, telling people that Jesus was coming and they needed to prepare for his arrival.
When John told people they needed to prepare for the coming of Jesus,
he clearly wasn't talking about a clean house. He was talking about something much more important, a clean heart. He told the people that they needed to confess their sins, repent, and be baptized so that they would be ready to meet the coming King.

Every year, the Church gives us this Advent season to remind us to prepare for the arrival of Christ. Every Advent, the Church holds up the person of John the Baptist for us to consider as we go about the business of preparing ourselves for the coming king. Like the preparations needed to get a house ready for listing, we must first attend to the big-ticket items, the glaring weaknesses in our spiritual lives. For example: Has it been months or years since my last good confession? Am I in the state of grace or am I stuck in a cycle of serious sin? Are there people who need my forgiveness? Unhealthy relationships I need to let go of?

But just as important is the need for attention to the finer details. Even after I have addressed the larger items that need cleaning and fixing in my soul, we must then focus on the smaller details that make our soul a hospitable place for Christ the king. Do I take time each day for quiet prayer? Am I focusing on the blessings God has given me or do I simply dwell on what I don’t have? Do I treat other people kindly, without selfishness, especially those I might take for granted like family, friends, and co-workers? Am I only trying to avoid sin, or am I also looking for opportunities to serve God and others, especially the poor, the lonely, and those everyone else ignores? 

As we journey towards Bethlehem this Advent season, we do so with determination and joy because we are preparing to celebrate the birth of the King of heaven and earth. He will bring comfort to God’s people and offer the possibility of salvation for all who believe in him. But in order to receive the benefits his birth offers us, we must be prepared to greet him with open arms and clean hearts. So where are you now? What part of John the Baptist’s message needs to be incorporated into your soul? Are you ready to meet the King? Will he find a heart that is hospitable and developed to its full potential? In asking God to change the world, have we first given Him permission to change our lives? What still needs to be done so that at Christmas, our King will feel welcome and at home in us? 

As we celebrate this second Sunday of Advent, may we heed those words of the prophet: “prepare the way of the LORD!”

Monday, December 4, 2017

Lord, Make Us Turn to You! (1st Sunday of Advent)

To listen to this homily, click here.

It is hard to believe we have just wrapped up another Church year and find ourselves once again beginning Advent. And while I am tempted to preach on the common Advent themes of waiting and watching, perhaps it is even more important to reflect on the spirit of Isaiah’s question to God in the first reading. He writes from the heart and his inspired words shed insight not only into the human heart and its yearnings but also the Divine Heart of God. Today’s reading starts with a question that many of us have asked before. “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” In other words, Lord, why do you allow so much evil in the world? Can’t you just make it stop? Fix us so we cannot do the terrible things that happen every day around the world! Just make us do what you want. 

The prophet is longing for the love of God. But what he finds instead is what he cannot bear: God seems angry; God appears gone. The experience the prophet gives voice to might be familiar to us who hear about so much evil in the news each day. God is angry and has hidden his face; he is somewhere above the heavens, and we cannot find him. How can this be? Doesn’t God love us? Where is he? Why does he feel so far away? Why isn’t he here?

The prophet answers these questions, and in the saddest possible way. The reason for God’s apparent distance lies in our sinfulness. God is not gone from us nor has he forsaken us. Our sins—our weaknesses, our willfulness, our pride, our failure to love, our failure even to accept the love of others—all these things have made us wither and dry up. Hollow and unclean, we have been blown away from God by the winds of worldliness. God is here, where he has always been. We are the ones who have been swept away by sin and selfishness. We are the ones who have run away from Him; not he from us.

There are two types of sin in our world: original sin, passed down to us from Adam and Eve at the dawn of creation. This fundamental fault disposes us towards the things we ought not like or want and makes it hard to chose the things which are best for us and for others. Original sin which has put our world out of sync with God and his loving plan. But there is also actual sin, sin that I choose to commit. Deliberate thoughts, words and actions that drive me away from God and from other people and bring about hurt, selfishness, and destruction. If you boil down any bad thing in our world, any of the reasons for why they take place, you will eventually trace it back to both personal and original sin, which is nothing more than our wandering away from God.
And that is where the season of Advent and today’s readings tie in. We are reminded that God is near us at every moment of our lives. Our Faith reminds us that Christ wants to draw us back to him and put an end to our destructive wandering. He wants our freedom to be used for peace, service, worship, healing, and loving. That is the message for us on this first Sunday of Advent. Our gospel tells us to be watchful, to look for the Lord’s coming and return to him. Jesus makes it clear that we must be prepared if we are going to be ready to receive him when he comes. This is a test we do not want to fail as people that bear his name; when he returns, we want to be waiting and ready. 

But because of our sinful tendencies, because of our inclination towards chaos, we need this season of Advent. We need this time each year to examine our lives and ask ourselves if we are living in a way that puts Christ in the center of our hearts; have we wandered away?

The amazing thing about our faith is the trust that God puts in us. Especially when you consider how so many behave. Despite the risks, God entrusts us with his gifts, with building up a piece of his kingdom and all he asks is "do your best, behave well, and be alert for my return."

Christ is coming again, and we need him to come again; too many in the world have become unruly. But, while we long for his return, as Isaiah longed for his coming, while we long for the time when the world will be a place of harmony and peace, for the time when all things will be finally straightened out, the time when the wicked will get their just desserts and the faithful their reward,  --while we long for this time, we need not be overly concerned about when it will come, we need not worry because we have our work cut out for us and we can trust God to honor that work, and to keep his promise to be merciful and kind to those who have lived by faith in him.

The Lord will come, and the faithful and the unfaithful alike will see him coming. They will see him coming with his angels in the clouds with great power and glory, and the angels will be sent out to gather his elect from the four corners of the earth, and there will be justice, there will be peace. A peace greater than that which any earthly court can render, a justice more just than that which any law can guarantee.

This is our hope, this is our Christian faith, and this is the time in which we show our Lord that we indeed can be trusted and that we want to stay close to him.

During this advent, let us allow the words of Isaiah in the first reading to resonate in our hearts and in our lives: “You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. Return for the sake of your servants. Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!”

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Will You Be With the Sheep or the Goats? (34th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Every year, right before Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on the so-called last things. This term describes what happens when we die, what our options are, and, most importantly, how do we prepare for the best possible outcome. We’ve been preparing for this reflection over the past few weeks as we’ve listened to readings of judgment and parables of masters leaving and returning and holding their servants accountable. 

Today, St. Matthew gives us a glimpse of what is called the general judgment. The general judgment is the final judgment, where everyone who has ever lived will be brought together before Christ the King. Every thought, every word, every action ever committed by each person will be brought forward for all to see. After this is finished, each person will be reunited with their body and live forever the result of their life choices; those who loved God and kept his commandments and the teachings of his Church will enjoy eternal happiness and peace in heaven. Those who spent a lifetime living for themselves, thinking mainly of what they wanted and what made them comfortable and happy will spend eternity living that way with people of the same selfish mindset; that is the place we call hell.

But while the general judgement is the final judgment, it is isn’t the first. At the moment of our death, we will enter into something called the particular judgment, which is just between God and ourselves. Here, we will see our life and our choices in the light of Christ. We will be judged by the same standards as the final judgment but there are three possible outcomes: 

Possibility one: Jesus will look at our life and see we tried our best to live as he did. In other words, we made God the number one priority and we died in the state of grace. Also, he would see that we thought of others before ourself, we made sacrifices to feed the hungry, care for the sick and dying, clothe the naked, and so on. In this case he will see that we were faithful in prayer, kept the commandments, and stayed obedient to the Church’s teaching on faith and morals. After seeing all of this, God will recognize the life of his son within us and we will hear those saving words: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Possibility #2: Jesus will look at our life and see that we spent most of our time and energy on ourselves and our own interests. In other words, we gave God time only when it was convenient or we felt like it, and we did not die in the state of grace. As a result, he would see that we thought of ourselves first, that we were stingy in making sacrifices to feed the hungry, care for the sick and dying, clothe the naked, and so on. In this scenario, Jesus will see and know this soul but this person will ultimately have failed to recognize and care for Christ, especially in others, throughout his or her life. Christ will see someone who was disobedient or defiant of him, of his Church, and ultimately most concerned with themselves. To these, Jesus will say:Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Possibility #3: Jesus will look at our life and see that we did pretty well in living as he taught us. He will see that we died in the state of grace and we kept all of the major commandments and laws of the Church, or at least if we broke them, we confessed them in the sacrament of reconciliation. He will notice we have some vices and attachment to sin and things of this world but he will also notice that we consistently opened our hearts to his grace and mercy. As a result we often recognized him in others and tried to ease the sufferings of those around us. To be honest, most of will probably fit in this group. And since we aren’t completely free from sin and unholy attachments to people and things, we can’t enter into heaven. Only those who are perfect in their love of God can be in the presence of God and live. But on the other hand, we died in the state of grace and therefore won’t be sent to hell. This is where purgatory comes in. We still believe in Purgatory and we should be happy about it because it is another expression of God’s mercy. Here, we are purified from our sins, the temporal punishment due to them, and any unholy attachments we might have died with. When the person is completely purified, they go to heaven for an eternity of rest and happiness. 

Its not easy for us to think about this topic of the last things. It can be frightening to consider our meeting with Christ and the fact that nothing will be hidden from him or from humanity at the end of time. But the Church understands that we must be aware of what happens at the end of life, so we can know how to live right now. The choices we have made and will make, determine where we will end up for eternity. Getting to heaven is difficult. The good news is God gives us everything we need to avoid hell and make it to heaven. He promises to be with us every step of the way. He gives us saints and angels to strengthen and encourage us. Even purgatory will not last forever and everyone there will eventually reach heaven. The bad news is that there is a hell and people go there. They are there because they decided to reject God and put themselves first. And because God respects our free will, he allows us to live for eternity what we chose to live during our life. 

So what can we do now to make sure that we are on the side of the sheep rather than the goats? Which steps do we take to ensure that our judgment will be more of a vindication rather than a condemnation? Consider the following short list:
Make sure that you have a daily habit of prayer. This means more than asking God for what you need but also, and more importantly, listening to what he has to say to you and how he wants to transform your life. Reading the bible, going to Mass regularly, praying the rosary, and going to adoration are all tried and true practices that make saints out of sinners.

Immerse yourself in charitable works. Ask yourself what you can do for other people rather than simply wondering what you can get out of them. Remembering that each and every person is loved and created by God, helps us to recognize Jesus’ presence within them. Fostering an attitude of charity will help you to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and welcome the stranger.

Stay close to the Church and seek to be obedient to her. Realize that the Church is part of Christ promising to be with us always until the end of time. See her teachings as the very things that will help you get to heaven, not something oppressive, to be avoided. Stay close to the Church and the sacraments and you will stay close to Christ.

If we do these things, we will have nothing to fear from death and judgment. The last things will be the beginning of our new life in Christ ad we will hear those wonderful words: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

What Have you Done With God's Talent? (33rd Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

I don’t know if you’ve been to Kenrick-Glennon Seminary since it was remodeled a few years ago. If you have, you may have noticed how clean, bright, and updated everything feels. Back in the old days, when I was a seminarian, the building had all of the characteristics of a structure dating back to 1930. It was unevenly heated by a massive boiler and an army of clanging radiators. Some doorways and stairwells led to classrooms and student rooms while others stopped abruptly, walled off to satisfy the fire marshal. The thing I picked up on right away as a new student was the chiaroscuro lighting. Because you were living in a building with 7 decades of different light fixtures and technologies, there were areas of light and darkness everywhere. Especially at night! As a prankster, one of my favorite activities as a new arrival was to hide in a dark hallway, behind a pillar or next to a life-size statue of Jesus and jump out as someone walked by. Endless laughs for me and near-cardiac arrest for my fellow seminarians. I quickly stopped this practice for two reasons: 1) My frightened comrades were saying things that would make a sailor blush, much less a future parishioner and I was directly responsible. 2) Fellow seminarians didn’t want to walk down the hallway if they thought I was anywhere nearby. I was the feared jerk who would keep people from relaxing on their way back to their room. Not exactly the reputation I wanted to earn!

  I thought of this memory listening to these parables and warnings from Jesus about the end of time and his return. Too often we’ve interpreted the Lord’s words as if he were the Divine Jerk, lurking in the shadows, just waiting to jump out and scare us at the worst possible time. For many, the end of the world and the return of Jesus are a nightmare, something to be dreaded and put out of our mind if possible. With this mindset, it would be easy to view today’s parable as unfair and awful. A poor servant, entrusted with one of the master’s talents, decides to play it safe and buries it in the ground. While it doesn’t gain anything, nothing is lost either. From this perspective, the master’s response of taking away the talent and throwing out the servant is harsh. But is there something we are missing in this picture? Is God really this vindictive and ruthless?

Let’s start by understanding what exactly a talent is in the sense Jesus uses. Today we hear that word and we think of a capacity or skill like playing a musical instrument, being able to paint, or some other gifted ability. The people of Jesus’ time would have heard something different. A talent was a unit of measurement of about 80 pounds of silver or gold. In today’s terms, one talent was worth about $1.25 million, far more than the lifetime earnings of a standard worker in Palestine. The master generously entrusts his treasures to his servants, not equally, but as Scripture tells us, according to their abilities. But even the servant who has one, has more than he could ever earn on his own throughout his lifetime. This is an important detail to keep in mind.

The first two servants get right to work with the master’s treasure. They are not afraid of losing anything and all they can think about is making him proud, making his riches grow even more. They are motivated by love. We don’t know how they accomplish the growth but that’s not the point. The important thing is that they take the gift they were given and they use it in loving service to produce even more riches for the generous and trusting master. There is no hesitating in their decision, nor are they nervously looking over their shoulders for the Lord’s return. They simply fulfill the obligations of an honorable servant and the rest falls into place.

Contrast this with the behavior of the third servant. He is terrified of the master. Even though he has been entrusted with a lifetime of wealth, which he could never earn himself, he wants nothing to do with it because of fear. Instead of thinking how he can make this fortune grow, even in the smallest of ways, he buries it. What an insult to the master’s trust and generosity! To take a lifetime of earnings and do nothing with it! This is what offends and enrages the master more than anything else. That his servant does not love him and squanders his generous opportunity is worse than any loss from a bad investment.

So what is Jesus saying to you and me in this story that is directed at us just as much as it was to his audience 2000 years ago? First and fundamental is the fact that we have all been entrusted with the talents, the treasures of God. Not in what we are able to do like speak many languages, play the piano, or design a perfect house. No, we hold the treasure of God in who we are, in his image and likeness which we could never earn for ourselves, even after a lifetime of the most clever, productive work. And the moment each and every one of us was baptized, God shared a piece of himself, his life, which we call sanctifying grace, to our care. That is the talent given to every Christian and it comes with a simple order to make it grow. God’s love is not meant to be used only for our benefit or buried out of fear. It is intended to be invested in the world around us to grow, to spread, to multiply many times over through works of service, sorrow for our sins, and genuine prayer. 

If we are terrified of God, if we are constantly looking over our shoulder for him to jump out and zap us, we will bury his gift of love. Fear will cause the treasure within us to become stale and lifeless. It will not grow or help anyone nor will it please the Lord. Today’s parable tells us, in no uncertain terms, how God feels about those who waste his gift of grace. 

On the other hand, those who love God, serve Him with everything at their disposal. They are his servants 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, Quite frankly, they don’t care when he comes back because they are always looking for ways to grow his love in their heart and in his world. 

So where are we? Has the gift of God’s love and life grown in us since our baptism? Are we actively seeking ways to grow that love in our life each and every day. If Jesus were to return tomorrow, would we be panicking and trying to hurry up and make it look like we were living for him? Or would we be ready, excited to share with him the growth we helped happen with the gifts given to us. Be that person! Be that servant who loves the Master every day so you can hear those beautiful words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master's joy”!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Be Wise; Get Your Own Oil! (32nd Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Have you ever received one of those fraudulent emails, telling you that some prince or widow halfway around the world wants to put 13 million dollars into your bank account letting you keep most of it? I got this incredible news last week and all I had to do was send my bank account number, my social security number, date of birth, and a few other highly personal bits of info and I would be rich! Of course it was a scam and I would never think about responding. But imagine for a moment that something like this was real and you were the main beneficiary of a distant relative's will. This relative was quite eccentric as well as wealthy. A great deal of money was left for you to spend, but there were certain rules. Every day for a year, your bank account would be credited with $86,400 at 9am in the morning. If you wanted to spend any of this money, you had to produce bills showing why money was being withdrawn. You could not save the money and at the end of the banking day, whatever you did not spend would be removed from your account. The next day you would start with a fresh $86,400. I am sure you and I would find really creative things to do with the money. 

Now, let's return to reality. Every day we are given 86,400 seconds to make the best possible use of. Every night, God writes off as lost whatever portion of this time we have wasted or not used well. In the bank of time, there are no balances and no overdrafts. Each day a new account is opened for us. Each night, what remains is written off, closed, gone forever. 

Every day's 86,400 seconds has to be invested wisely in things that will hold their value from day to day, quarter to quarter, year to year and for eternity. Lasting values need to be found, values like justice, compassion, forgiveness, and love. There were five wise virgins and five foolish ones. The five foolish virgins squandered their time. The five wise virgins made the best use of every moment. The wise virgins entered into the banquet of the Master's love. The foolish virgins were too busy wasting time to be ready for their Master's return. How much time do you and I have left? We really don't know.

The proper Christian attitude is not to deny death, but to prepare for it. This is the wisdom behind the five bridesmaids who were prepared to enter the wedding reception. They didn't know when the bridegroom was coming, but they were ready. So how do we prepare? We don't prepare for the end by doing lots of stuff. We prepare by nurturing the proper disposition, a Christ-like attitude. Over and over again, Jesus emphasizes the need for inner transformation. His complaint against the Pharisees, as we heard last week, was that they were hypocrites. They appeared righteous when people were watching but it was only for show. On the outside, they looked nice and clean. On the inside they were rotten. The tax collectors and prostitutes who turned to Jesus transformed their lives and hearts. They were genuine and their devotion to the Lord was authentic in every part of their life, whether people were watching or not.
So, how do we form and nourish the Christian attitude of life? You and I have to fight against the forces both inside and outside of us that tempt us to only worry about the things of this world, the things that can be measured, saved, and collected. To be authentic and wise Christians, we have to be in constant communication with the Lord. We need to pray daily. Each of us gets the same amount of time each day. No one is too busy to carve out some time when we are with the Lord and freed of the distractions of life. If we have a family, then we have the additional responsibility to pray as a family every day. We should focus our prayer lives on our Sundays. On Sunday we celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord and receive the Eucharist. We should work to make that the main focus of our week. The presence of Christ within us in this sacrament gives us the strength to be who we claim to be, followers of Christ. Today's first reading speaks about wisdom. Wisdom is a way of life. The wise are always ready for the Lord because they are always watching for him. The gospel lesson is simple for this Sunday. Be like the wise virgins. Be ready to celebrate the banquet of the Lord’s love. Don’t waste a single second he has given you!

One of the questions people often ask when they hear this parable of Jesus is something like: “why didn’t those selfish virgins, who had extra oil, share it with the others? Weren’t they just watching out for themselves? Well, that depends. What does the oil represent? It stands for character and virtue and we cannot take someone else’s virtue or character. They couldn’t give it to us if they wanted to! No one, no matter how rich, can purchase character or virtue from an ATM or with a credit card, it can’t be downloaded; we must develop our own. We cannot live like freeloaders on someone else's friendship with God; we must develop our own. That is what the end of the parable teaches us. We must be ready for Christ when He comes knocking at the door at the end of our life. We have to put in the time and effort and live our faith, day in and day out. Jesus warns us today, "You know not the day nor the hour." So let us live each day to the fullest, not taking a single second for granted. May we be authentic in our Christianity so the lamps of our souls may be filled with the oil of virtue and goodness and shining brightly for the coming of the Lord!

Monday, November 6, 2017

You Have Only One Father (31st Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Every three years when this gospel rolls around, I usually get a nervous phone call or email from a parishioner, asking if they are offending Jesus by calling us “Father”. Another priest told the story about a delivery man who made the rounds every day at his parish. He wasn’t Catholic but he enjoyed spending time talking with the pastor and staff when he dropped off packages. There was one problem though. He would not call the priest “Father” because the leaders in his Church had instructed him to follow Matthew 23 literally and “call no man father.” He didn’t know how to address the priest so he settled on “Hey You”. These sort of stories always amuse me because people tend to pick and choose what they interpret literally, like today’s gospel, but then understand Jesus differently when he says things like, “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” I have yet to see eyeless, hands-free Christians running around anywhere I’ve been assigned! 

So what is Jesus really saying? In dramatic fashion He teaches that our value comes from God alone. He is our goal, the purpose of our existence. Jesus says to call no man "Rabbi" or "Teacher" or "Father." We have only one Master, one Teacher, one Father - God himself. Jesus is speaking against idolatry, which is behind every sin. Idolatry happens when we place a creature above the Creator. Idolatry can involve objects such as cars, homes, money, and power. Jesus also indicates we can make idols out of human beings: rabbis, teachers, fathers (not to mention sports stars, actors, politicians & scientists).

St. Augustine, a brilliant and relatable saint who lived during the 4th and early 5th centuries in Northern Africa, offers a simple scenario to explain idolatry. He uses the example of a girl whose fiancĂ© gives her an engagement ring. The ring is gorgeous and the boy is happy his lady likes it so much. She of course can’t wait to show it to her friends. The problem is, she starts to love the ring so much that it becomes more important to her than the one who gave it! When the boy discovers his girl loves the ring more than him, he is not so happy. And if he finds out she is using the ring to make her girl friends envious and show her superiority over them, he might be more than unhappy. He might even take it back. "I gave you the ring as a sign of our love - not to look down on others.”

St. Augustine says something similar applies to our relationship with God. He has given us gifts, blessings, all tokens of his love. He wants us to love his gifts and be grateful for them. He does not give the gifts, however, for their own sake - or to make us think we are better than others. Like an engagement ring, he wants the gifts to signify a relationship and lead us to him. Anything less involves some degree of idolatry.

Idolatry includes not just things but also persons. If I make some person more important than God, I am treating him/her as an idol. To use Jesus' example, someone might be a very good teacher. You feel like you could listen to her all day. But the question is: Does the teacher lead you to herself or beyond? A good teacher does not make a student dependent on herself. Rather, she teaches the student habits of study, a hunger for knowledge, and a sense of wonder. Those things lead a student to a love of learning which points a person to God.

You could say something similar about a doctor. Doctor is a Latin word for "teacher." A competent doctor is able to diagnose illnesses and to offer remedies. That is good, but even better if a doctor can lead a patient to the source of well-being and health - which is ultimately God himself. If we start thinking that medicine itself can save us, it has become an idol. And idols always lead to some degree of enslavement. Jesus tells us, when all is said and done, there is only one Doctor, one Teacher, one Father.

So, if Jesus warns us not to make any thing or person into an idol, what do we believe about titles of respect? Should we teach our children to call everyone - including their parents - by their first name? NO!. Jesus himself used titles of respect. For example, he refers to "father Abraham." Moreover, his great apostle, Saint Paul, told the Corinthians, "I am your father." And he referred to Timothy as his "son." 

Titles of respect are good. I call my physician "doctor." When I see Archbishop Carlson, I say, “hello Archbishop” not “what’s up Bob?” Bishop means overseer and I know ultimately we have only one Overseer… God. Nevertheless, I am glad God has given us a human being to represent him in that role. Each one of us has a human father. Even the best dad is only a shadow of the one Father. But we have a commandment that says, "Honor your father - and your mother." A really good father is one who leads his children to our common Father in heaven.

What is true about biological and adoptive fathers also applies to spiritual fathers. From earliest times Christians designated certain men as, "father." Bishops, priests and other celibate men with no earthly children became spiritual fathers. They read Matthew's Gospel, including today’s passage of "call no man father." But they got Jesus' point which was not to do away with titles of respect, but to make sure never to turn another person into an idol. Those with roles of spiritual responsibility have the special burden to make sure they never lead people to themselves but always to the one heavenly Father. How humbling that God shares a portion of his healing power, infinite knowledge, and spiritual authority with his creatures, not for our own glory but to lead each other back into relationship with him. 

So let us make sure we pray often for those who have been given a share in God’s healing, teaching, and authority. If they cooperate with his grace, they will help connect us with God himself through the gifts he has shared with them. Let’s also pray for the wisdom and strength to avoid settling for something less than God and the relationship he wants with each and every one of us. This idolatry may be easier but it cannot and will not fulfill us. May God use our lives to lead others closer to him. Amen.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Loving God is Simple...and Difficult (30th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

There are a lot of things out there that promise to simplify our lives. Many of these items also claim to make us happier, more efficient, more productive members of society. Electronics are common offenders in this area. For example, the computer, supposed to add hours to the day often drains us as we try to keep up with a tsunami of social media, waves of emails, and web-surfing. Something intended to help us often needs our help with frequent updates, software subscriptions, and spyware maintenance. The same might be said of the smartphone. Touted as a mobile office, it rarely gives us more free time as we are beholden to every text, new email, and incoming phone call. But the strangest claims of efficiency and simplicity can be found on tv, especially the shopping channel, and tend to deal with exercise and personal fitness. Perhaps you remember the treacherous thighmaster or the bizarre, indescribable shakeweight?! My favorite is the ab-belt, a modern marvel of laziness and strange science. According to the commercial, this gizmo punishes the user’s abdominal muscles better than sit-ups by sending intense electrical signals throughout the stomach region. According to the commercials, you just strap this baby on and then do whatever you like, even watch a movie, as it sculpts your midsection into perfect abs that would shame a bodybuilder. 

We humans desire simplicity; we crave it. We are constantly searching for that magical thing to make our lives easier, happier, and more efficient. That’s why we fall for these products which so often promise to simplify but rarely deliver on their pledge. That’s why we so often have garages and basements stuffed with junk, ..... yet we are still searching. 

Today, in the gospel, Jesus does the very thing we are looking for. He simplifies the 613 laws of the Jewish faith into two basic commandments. “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.

You and I have heard these commandments since we were very little, so we might not think they are a big deal. But think again to what Jesus just did. He gives the key to living the good life, a happy, wholesome, fulfilling life in terms of our relationship with God and with other people, and does so in two commandments that are so simple that any young child can remember them. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. In fact, it can’t get any more simple than that. These two things are the very least we must do to be truly joyful in this life and forever happy with God in the life to come. And these two commandments are all you have to do in order to reach heaven.

It seems too good to be true, too simple to work. Why would this be any different than the million other things that claim to simplify but then end up disappointing? The answer, of course, is found in who it is that gives us these two great commandments. Jesus is completely trustworthy; he is God, he cannot lie. And he has nothing to gain from his wise words; there is no gimmick involved, simply his desire to unite us with each other and our heavenly Father. 

I think it is important to make one clarification. Just because Christ simplifies the whole moral code doesn’t mean that it suddenly becomes easy. In fact, its simplicity makes it more demanding! The more complicated something is, the greater the chance for some leeway or loophole. Just think of our nation’s tax laws. The simpler something becomes, the less wiggle room. What you see is what you get; no nuances, qualifications, or conditions. The same is true of the two great commandments that Jesus gives to you and me. He really means that we are to love God above all things with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. And he is dead serious when he says we must love our neighbor as ourself.”

So how do we apply this to ourselves? How do these simple commandments make demands on us? Consider some of the following examples which are not in any way, an exhaustive list:

When it comes to loving God above all things, do I love him enough to get my family to Mass every weekend? Even when we have 7 games or a late night or am out of town? Or is it always God who gets the short end of the stick? Do I give generously of my income to God or do I mostly give him what I have left over after I have taken care of what I want? Do I give freely of my time and talent to God? Do I take some quality time each and every day to spend in prayer or does he simply get some time here or there when I am distracted, tired, and complaining? Do I respect the Church and seek to be obedient to her teaching? Even difficult teachings about marriage, birth control, and sexuality? Or do I think I always know best? Do I do as God has commanded me and pray for my government leaders? Do I seek his wisdom in trying to decide who to vote for - or do I vote for those who encourage me to live as if my concerns are the only ones that matter?

How about loving our neighbor as ourself? Do I have true respect for others without exception? Am I kind in the way I talk about others, including those that are different than me or who drive me crazy? Am I patient with those I interact with, even when they are annoying, needy, or downright rude? Christ’s command to love did not include any exceptions, even for these types of people! Do I allow others to have their dignity, even when I don’t feel like they deserve it? Do I in fact give myself to others out of love - or offer them only a show of courtesy concealing some other agenda? Do I further the social work of the Church by caring for the poor, the neglected, the sick and the unborn? Do I pay my taxes and accept my responsibilities towards my fellow citizen or do I lie and cheat to get ahead? Do I truly love my neighbor as myself, always and everywhere, or do only do so when it is pleasant, beneficial to me, or fits into my schedule?  

The way we get to heaven is utterly simple: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” But it is not easy. We need God’s help every step of the way, through prayer, the sacraments, and the teaching and support of His Church. May we recommit ourselves to the two great commandments and then trust that in keeping them, we will find eternal love, peace, and happiness.