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Monday, August 19, 2019

Setting the World on Fire (20th Sunday, Year C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

I am always fascinated by the different images used to portray God. Some famous paintings show a mighty and majestic God. Others show his creative power or fearsome fury. Still others illustrate a God of great love who suffers and dies for us. Oftentimes, contemporary images show God as our friend. You can find pictures of Jesus playing sports with children. There are figurines of Jesus running around with a basketball, football, and soccer ball. Of course he is very friendly and smiling and pretty much looks like an overgrown member of the team-the ultimate ringer! Some folks even take it a step further. I remember attending a youth conference and seeing a t-shirt that said: “Jesus is my home boy.” We like the idea of being able to call God our friend and for good reason. In the gospel of John Jesus says, “I no longer call you slaves but friends.”

Nevertheless, it can be easy to end up with a narrow image of God. Maybe he is someone so far away that he is not part of our everyday lives. Or, if we are not careful, we can confine him to simply being one of the guys, someone we can decide whether or not we want to hang out with. But Jesus, in addition to being our friend, is also our Lord and Savior. He did not become Incarnate simply to be nice, cool, or another inspiring historical person. He came to save humanity from sin and death. In these roles of Lord and Savior, he sometimes demands things that are difficult. Jesus does not simply want to play baseball or football. As Lord, he will also ask us to do things that are difficult, unpleasant, and hard to understand. As a most wise and caring friend, he  challenges us, rebukes us when we break the rules, and teaches us important lessons in life, even when it means a little suffering.

This image of Jesus is a little less popular. So far, I have not seen pictures of Jesus showing a red card or ejecting a child from a baseball game. Nor have I seen a figurine of Christ taking the car keys away from a careless teenager or telling a disobedient child to go to the time-out chair. The fact is, the notion of Jesus as disciplinarian doesn’t sell real well and it doesn’t necessarily sit very well with us either.
The Jesus of today’s gospel is a far cry from the caricature of a smiling, laughing Jesus that many people are comfortable with. He is also a far cry from the nice-guy, “family values” Jesus that dominates the discourse of so much modern Christianity. If “setting the world on fire” means “dividing families,” then do we really want to preach on this gospel? Isn’t there enough tearing our families apart? Today’s readings are not encouraging division and mayhem but are reminding us that the gospel is not simply about “being nice.” In fact, God’s prophetic call disrupts the status quo and can even put us at odds with those closest to us if they are not committed to the truth of the Gospel. In the first reading we hear about the saga of Jeremiah, who had been an advisor to King Zedekiah. Yet after just a little lobbying, the king gives him over to his tormentors, mainly because of Jeremiah’s unpopular predictions of Jerusalem’s impending fall to Babylon. Like Jeremiah, the Psalmist finds himself in the “pit of destruction” and the “mud of the swamp,” crying out to God in classic lament form: “Lord, come to my aid! O my God, hold not back!” In a similar context of collective suffering, the writer of Hebrews exhorts his community to persevere in running the race of faith, even to the point of shedding blood. In Luke, the refining fire of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God is burning a path right through the most intimate of relationships, the human family.

So what is the point here? Are we supposed to leave church and start arguments and divisions within our families and friendships? No, certainly not! But can we ignore these challenging words of Jesus and just write them off as him having a bad day or exaggerating his teaching? Definitely not! Jesus doesn’t utter words that are useless or meaningless. Every phrase is meant to help us get to heaven and if we try to pick and choose, we do so at our own peril!

Jesus says that he has come to set the world on fire for the gospel. This fire won’t necessarily bring peace and harmony. It can produce divisions even within a family if God and holiness are not the number one priority. So how does this truth reconcile with another truth that Christians are supposed to live in peace with everybody? How can Jesus say he came on purpose to set things on fire?

We have to understand what true peace is first. Peace is a kind of order and unity. We have true peace with other people when we share the same fundamental values and priorities and this “oneness” unites us around goodness. That last condition matters. A mother who is one with her toddler because she does everything her baby wants does not have peace. She is actually his prisoner, and her giving in to his every wish could end up being the worst possible thing for the baby and her on so many levels. Peace results only when she and her baby are one with each other in what is good for both of them, for her as mother and for him as the child.

Of course, the same point applies to adults. It’s impossible to have true peace in the world and true peace in the Church by just wanting to get along, be nice to each other, and avoid any arguments. That is a good place to start but there has to be something much more profound and noble that unites us. That thing, that person is Jesus and the gospel way of life he teaches. Nothing, not even beautiful family relationships can come before that. If it does, the resulting peace will be uneasy and temporary. Worst case, our desire to avoid spiritual conflict can result in the loss of heaven for ourselves and others. 

Today’ readings should make us a little uncomfortable. They challenge the notion that we are simply called to be nice people and get along with others no matter what. Jesus’ mission and desire is this: be on fire for goodness. Our God is a consuming fire of love, and there is peace for us only if we are one with him in that fire. One last point: the thing about fire is that it is always either growing or going out. It never simply stays the same. So where is our fire right now? Is it growing hotter and stronger or going out little by little?

May Jesus find within our hearts a fire that is raging for goodness, holiness, justice, and peace, not simply for ourselves but for others as well! 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Don't Trust the Wrong Things!! (18th Sunday, Year C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

The first reading for today is not exactly uplifting. The author of this book is a total spiritual Debbie-downer. Some think that this book of Ecclesiastics was  either written by King Solomon in his last days or about him from someone who knew his thoughts and feelings at the end of his life. 

If we recall Solomon, we remember he was one of the most blessed men that ever lived. His father, king David, left him a prosperous and powerful kingdom. Before he ever ascended to the throne, he had wealth, peace, and a powerful army. As a young man, God came to him and said what do you want from me? Solomon said just give me wisdom, which pleased God greatly at the time. 

However, as the years went by, Solomon, even though he was continually blessed with every good thing this world can offer, continued to store up these things apart from God. He stopped developing his relationship with the Lord and eventually the wealth, the power, the hundreds of wives, and the massive armies could not fulfill this once wise man. The more he tried to find happiness and fulfillment in these things, the emptier he became. If you read the complete book of Ecclesiastes, you will detect a deep sense of bitterness and cynicism. The conclusions of the author? Nothing in life lasts. Good people and bad people both die in the end. Wisdom won’t save you. Just have a good time. Eat drink and be merry.

How depressing if this is all there is to life! Why in the world would the church use this at mass, much less keep this in the bible?!

I think for two reasons: One, many people struggle with this dilemma. In our time, we are in the position of Solomon. We have so many good material things. We are wealthy in comparison to 90% of the planet. We have more food than we can eat. We have easy access to knowledge and education. We take for granted so much that the rest of the world only dreams of. And yet, so many are profoundly unhappy and feel empty. Our riches and abundance, apart from God, do not fulfill us. The dissatisfaction of Solomon resonates deeply with modern culture. Our wise Church knows that this book can speak to us and offers it to us as a sort of spiritual warning not to rely only on human wisdom or resources to get through our time on earth. 

The second and more important reason is that there is an answer for the sadness and despair of Solomon just as there is an answer for the despair and depression of modern society. That answer can only be Jesus. He is the true wisdom that Solomon lost. He is the bridge to a relationship with the living God. He is the victor over death who brings meaning and strength to every triumph and tragedy, to good times and bad. The first reading doesn’t make sense in the bible or at Mass unless we read it with Jesus as the answer. If we just stay at the level of the author, it simply expresses the limits of human wisdom and understanding which isn’t enough to get through the mysteries of this life.
The parable of Jesus in the gospel builds on this theme of trying to find fulfillment in the things of this world. The Lord’s remark that, “...though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions”  is particularly appropriate for our society: In our society having is equated with being and having more is interpreted as being more. The reverse side of this coin is that having less is interpreted as being less and the glaring inequality in having is echoed in the terrible inequality of respect offered to those who have less.

We want to remember that every parable of Jesus is meant to be applied on three levels: first, as it applies to our world, second as it applies to the Church, and lastly, as it applies to us as individuals. Jesus’ stories and wisdom found the parables can’t reach their fullest power and relevance unless we reflect on them in this three-fold way. When we do, it’s amazing how relevant and powerful they still are!

With this in mind, the story of the rich man offers two points worthy of consideration. The first point is the rich man’s self-centeredness. The wealth resulting from his abundant harvest will be enjoyed by him alone. An abundant harvest would most likely require a larger work force, but the idea of sharing with the laborers the benefits of the bumper crop never crossed the rich man’s mind. We may not be rich farmers ourselves, but we have all been blessed with a variety of gifts, an abundant crop. We need to be willing to share with others the benefits of that crop or risk becoming the man who is completely unprepared to meet God when his life is over.

The other point in the parable is the trust and energy he puts in the harvest. He is banking on this abundance to be his refuge and happiness. It’s his safety net. And yet, once he dies, it is absolutely meaningless. The things he spent so much time and energy building up can do nothing for him in death and just crumble away.

These are sobering lessons to reflect on. But better to think about them now and make the necessary adjustments and changes than to realize it when it is too late! And so today we ask ourselves, “Are there worldly things in which I put my trust, trust that is only meant for God?” Do I hope to find fulfillment and happiness in the things of this world, things which can be very good, but which ultimately will crumble away. Lastly, how much of my time and energy am I putting into developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? The one thing that will last and bring perspective to the good and bad times of life? This is the most important thing that death cannot take away!

If there are changes we need to make to our thinking and acting, that’s ok. But let’s not put it off until tomorrow. Most importantly, let's never forget that our peace, happiness, and security can never come from what what material things we have stored up for ourselves but only through a living relationship with Jesus Christ!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Lessons in Prayer (17th Sunday, Year C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

A long time ago, probably when I was in 4th or 5th grade, I came across this gospel passage and it inspired me. The simplicity of Jesus’ command to pray with confidence and his promise that every prayer would be answered seemed, to my child’s mind, an untapped treasure. At the time I was consumed in my desire for a bulldozer.  Actually, I think you call them backhoes, where they have the big scooper on the front and a smaller bucket on the back. My siblings and I loved to dig holes, build forts and were even hoping to work on a mini pond. So this type of machinery was extremely practical and, dare I say, necessary for an 11-year old. Taking Jesus at his word, I would pray each night before bed for a backhoe, preferably a John Deere but other brands were acceptable. This was a heartfelt prayer like you see on a holy card: hands clasped, eyes closed, kneeling down, next to my bed. Every morning for a few weeks, I would utter my prayer, go to sleep, wake up, and look expectantly out in the back yard. To channel Yogi Berra, all I ever saw was nothing! 

To be honest I got pretty discouraged for a while. I was mad at Jesus and wondered about his teaching on prayer. Of course, in time, things made a bit more sense and I understood the teaching behind the words. That God is not some sort of spiritual pez dispenser who kicks out what we want when we say the magic words. I see now that it would have been a disaster to me and half my neighborhood if God had plopped a big piece of machinery down in the yard just so he could get my thumbs-up for answering my prayer. God sees the big picture and gives us what we need for salvation. He always gives us something when we ask but it might not be what we have in mind.

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray; and when he does, he gives them (and all of us) the wonderful prayer we call ‘the Our Father’. 

The first thing we notice about the Lord’s prayer is that it is full of petitions. The first one is that God’s name would be hallowed. The second is that God’s kingdom would come. The third is that God would give us our daily bread. And so on. The Lord’s prayer isn’t just a litany of praise to God. It isn’t just an expression of a pious wish that God’s will be done. It isn’t only a surrender of one’s own will to God. Just look at the request for daily bread. It presents to God what we would want God to give us. Having desires and expressing them to God are required by the Lord’s prayer. The Lord’s prayer requires us to trust God enough to tell him what we want—over and over and over.

The second thing we notice about the Lord’s prayer is that people don’t generally get what they ask for. Ask and you will receive, the Lord says. But how many people around the world pray the Lord’s prayer and go without food that day? And food is only the beginning. In every mass, we ask God for healing: “Only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Then we lug our sinful, sick, and sorrowful souls around another day or another week. Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us and that process is a long, tedious one because of our sinful tendencies.

So here is the third thing to notice. Jesus doesn’t promise we will get the thing we ask for. He says that if we ask, we will receive; but he doesn’t happen to mention what we will receive.

As much as that might disappoint, annoy, or even disillusion us at times, perhaps that is the most important point of all. If a sick person could heal himself, he would be the doctor, not the patient. The patient’s job is to want to get well. It’s the doctor’s job to figure out how to get him well. In the same way, the Lord’s prayer requires us to trust God enough to tell him what we want—over and over and over. Our job is to ask continually but never to cross the line into trying to be God or telling him how things should be done. God’s job is to figure out what to give us that will really fill us and heal us not just for a day, a year, or even a human lifetime; God always has his eyes set on eternity!

So we might not get what we ask for. And oftentimes that ends up being a very good things. As Garth Brooks once sang, “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” But as long as we keep asking, the Lord promises that we will receive—grace, strength, peace, joy, and life in measures we can only imagine!

Related to these lessons on the need for daily prayer, many of you probably saw that Archbishop Carlson released the names of clergy from the Archdiocese of St. Louis who have had substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors made against them. I know there is a whole range of emotions and feelings about this news. Some of you may be growing weary of the topic. Some of you may be reeling from seeing names on the list that you would never have expected. You may be wrestling with feelings including grief, betrayal, or disgust. And some of you may be experiencing relief that at last, the name of someone whom you knew to have committed a crime has been made public.

  The Archdiocese has many steps and resources available through the Promise to Protect initiative. You can go to the archdiocesan website to find details about the investigatory processes and the make-up of our review board. For parents, there are also resources on how to discuss the topic with your family. Additionally, a special edition of the St. Louis Review with more information about the list, as well as related articles relevant to this topic, will been delivered to Catholic households in the archdiocese. But at this particular moment, I want to speak to you from a pastoral perspective.

Archbishop Carlson also asked that we make sure our parishioners know that we, your priests, will make ourselves available to you if you would find it helpful to have a personal conversation about this topic. All you have to do is call the office or send us an email and we’ll find a time that works for both of us.

As a member of the clergy, I want to say I’m very sorry for the scandalous behavior of any and all who have injured the young, vulnerable, and innocent by their actions. I am sorry that these ministers, who were supposed to represent the face of Christ, have done so much harm. I am sorry their selfish decisions have perhaps made you ashamed of your faith, made it difficult to trust, or even driven you away from God and the Church. I don’t blame you if you feel this way; it’s certainly understandable. Please know there are still many good priests who love God and love serving his people. I am humbled, honored, and blessed to serve you in this parish. I want to help restore the dignity, beauty, grace, and truth our Catholic Church is capable of proclaiming. Please keep deepening your relationship with Jesus. Please keep praying for healing for the victims of abuse in our diocese and around the world. And please, pray for us, your parish priests, that we can always exemplify Christ the Good Shepherd. Like Abraham, we trust that God hears the prayers of the righteous, even in the midst of terrible evil. There are many righteous men and women here at Incarnate Word and in the Catholic Church. So, with that confidence, we pray as Jesus taught us: “Our Father…”

Monday, July 22, 2019

Choose the Better Part...First! (16th Sunday, Cycle C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Today’s short gospel is the famous story of Martha and Mary, a story most of us are quite familiar with. This account of two sisters, one active, one contemplative is somewhat controversial. Most of us can’t help but take sides, more than likely, being Americans, we sympathize more with Martha than with Mary.  Our country was founded by and large by Puritans with a solid protestant work ethic. In other words, being a productive member of society, providing for yourself and your family was a sign of your personal salvation and a fulfillment of your personal calling. Unconsciously, this work ethic has influenced every aspect of American life and commerce. The upside is that in a relatively short time we have become the most prosperous nation on earth. The downside is that Americans tend to be workaholics and focused on results, dividends, and the bottom line at the expense of enjoying life and quality time with family. 

Believe it or not, this little sociological fact influences the way that we pray, interpret the gospel, and relate to God!  

Let’s take another look at the gospel. Jesus and his disciples are traveling and preaching and they are welcomed into the house of Martha and Mary to find some rest and food. These sisters are practicing the impeccable hospitality that is expected in Middle-Eastern cultures, an openness to visitors that was exemplified by Abraham and Sarah’s example some 2000 years earlier. Now there were no phones in those days, so Jesus was unable to call ahead and say, “hey, I should be there around 5 or 6 in the evening.” And there were certainly no Schnucks or Dierbergs or Jimmie Johns to run to and get a quick meal! When a guest like Jesus arrived, it was often a frantic race to get everything prepared. There were a variety of tasks to be accomplished from drawing water for washing and cooking to preparing the meal from scratch. 

With this chaotic picture in mind, we can proceed to the scene of the gospel.  Poor Martha is running around making sure everyone is being adequately cared for. Food had to be prepared, an animal had to be slaughtered and processed, everything had to be cooked and the guests had to be checked on. I suspect that most of the moms here know exactly how Martha was feeling that day! Overwhelmed, Martha sees her sister Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus instead of helping her get dinner ready. This is too much and Martha snaps. She goes up to Jesus and says like any frustrated, hard-working sister would, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." 

This seems reasonable enough to our human sensibilities. Certainly Jesus was aware of the tremendous burden experienced by Martha and would want her sister to lend her a hand. It seems to most of us, that Mary needs to get with the program and do her fair share. She can sit and listen during dinner or after everything is ready. However, Jesus does not answer as we might expect. He tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part and it shall not be taken from her!

But what does this mean? Why is Mary’s choice the better one? What does it say about Martha’s diligent efforts to preserve customs of hospitality? Does Jesus take the side of loafers and listeners over the efforts of hard-working souls?

It is important for us to understand the nature of Jesus’ response to Martha’s request. It is not so much a rebuke or scolding as it is an invitation for her to enjoy what her sister Mary has already discovered. Martha focused so much on feeding Christ she failed to realize that Christ first desired to feed her with his saving message. Jesus does not condemn the good things Martha is trying to accomplish. He does not say that hospitality or hard work are bad things. Rather, he makes it clear that spending time in contemplation of the saving truths of the gospel is even more important. I have to believe if Martha would have said, “Lord, I want to listen too!” that Jesus, who fed 5000, would have responded by saying “sit down, don’t worry about dinner, I can handle that.” Finally, Jesus is not advocating some sort of escapism from reality or responsibility. I imagine our story today would have ended much differently if Mary was sitting at the Lord’s feet simply to get out of work.

The story of Martha and Mary is not a story about right or wrong, good or evil. It is more accurately a story about two good things, one better than the other and the importance of priorities. I can’t think of a more relevant lesson for you and me, living as Americans in the 21st century. Most of us spend our time doing a great deal of work and making most of our choices between two or more good things. So many of us have no trouble filling up a day with all of the different responsibilities we are expected to fulfill, from cultural customs, caring for family, to meeting our goals, and the expectations of others. It’s easy to become like modern Martha’s, decent people, busy doing lots of good things, and we ignore the example of Mary. How many of us take time each and every day to sit in silence before God for an hour, for 30 minutes, for even 15 minutes? How often do we pray in a spirit of silence and openness, not asking for favors but simply listening for what God has to say?  How willing are we to turn off the TV, silence the cell phone, shut down the computer, and give God some quality time to speak to our minds, hearts, and souls?

The beautiful story of Mary and Martha and the reaction it provokes, shows us something about ourselves. As Americans, we are pre-disposed to give our work and our responsibilities the highest priority. And there is good in that. But this is not what is most important. The better part is to take time daily to sit at the feet of Jesus in quiet prayer, to waste time with the Lord as many of the great saints have described it. No one is too busy for this, it is not the exclusive privilege of priests or religious, and there is no excuse for any of us to neglect this quiet time which gives life and grace to all that we do. We will always have work that is unfinished, things to check off our lists, and more practical things to do but we will only have so much time on this earth to come to know Christ and love him as Lord.  

So embrace the example of Martha, who so graciously sought to serve and feed the body of Christ, when he came. But first, and always first, imitate her sister Mary in placing yourself quietly at the feet of the Lord, so that you may be fed with the words of everlasting Life and experience the peace and grace that comes from choosing the better part. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

"What's the Least I Can Do...?" 15th Sunday (Year C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Looking over past homilies, I realized I’ve preached on the Good Samaritan many times. While there are nuances to what I’ve focussed on, the main message of the homilies were to be aware of the needs of your neighbor and not limit who you define your neighbor to be. Pretty good stuff and more than enough to challenge most of us in the way we live our lives and interact with others. We all have blind spots and types of people we tend to avoid as we scurry along our busy lives.

But there is another lesson in the gospel we heard today, one that is more subtle and easy to miss. The scholar of the law who asked the question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” wasn’t confused about the commandments. In fact, he answered his own inquiry when Jesus asked what he thought he had to do to make it into heaven. What this scholar was actually asking, which is made clear by his second question, “who is my neighbor?” is “what is the least I must do to gain eternal life?” 

The more you think about his question, the more strange, yet familiar it seems. He doesn’t ask: what is the best way to fall deeply in love with God and bring joy to his Divine Heart by fulfilling all the commandments. He asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He is looking for the bare minimum to get into heaven! We certainly can’t be too hard on this biblical minimalist. How many Catholics, perhaps even ourselves, have asked, “how late can I come to Mass and still have it count?” Or we go to a wedding on Saturday and figure that it is a two-for-one deal. Do I have to go to mass again that weekend?! How spiritually cheap! I’m ashamed to say that some of the most precise and punctual moments of my life have been when I am wrapping up prayer. If God was budgeted 30 minutes or an hour for that day, that is pretty much exactly what he got. But binge-watching on Netflix or researching some random interest online? What’s another few minutes? Or hours?! This attitude doesn’t stay simply with time but also bleeds over into how we allocate our other resources of talent and treasure. How generous we can be to ourselves and at the same time, so stingy, so technical and legalistic with God!

Eternal life and our spiritual lives are meant to be a union, a relationship with God. Who would want to get married to someone who said, “what’s the least I can do for you and with you and not have you divorce me?” How many of you parents would be heartbroken if your children came to you and asked, “what is the minimum love, respect, and attention I need to show you so that you won’t disown me or stop caring about me?” No person, serious about a meaningful, healthy, nurturing relationship would ever ask that sort of question. And yet, how often do we, if not with our words, then with our actions and attitudes, do the very thing when it comes to the Lord?
Jesus, wonderful teacher that he is, gets the lawyer to answer his own question, and the lawyer gives the right answer. This is not a matter of knowing the right thing but rather of wanting the right thing. What you have to do, the minimum necessary, is everything. Love God wholly, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is an unsettling answer, of course, because in this life none of us is ever going to do everything. So if everything is the minimum necessary, then none of us is getting in. At least not on our own power and effort. This is why we need God’s help, I.e. the sacraments, especially the eucharist and confession. It’s no longer enough to say, “I didn’t hurt that person.” We are now accountable if someone needed our help and we didn’t provide it.

The lawyer realizes what he is getting himself into and expresses his anxiety with the question of “Who is my neighbor?” He wants a definition of neighbor which gives him the minimum number of people to count as the people he has to love. But Jesus continues to frustrate the lawyer’s desire for the minimum by giving him another maximum: everyone you can love is your neighbor. If you can do good to a person, he or she counts as your neighbor. 

I imagine the lawyer kicking himself after Jesus walks away. In his heart, in our hearts, we know Jesus is right. We are called to do the maximum, to shoot for the stars when it comes to charity. But we are much more comfortable with trying to find the bare minimum. There is probably part of the lawyer that wishes he would have just kept his mouth shut and continued to make his own rules about who deserved his love and concern. Don’t we sometimes wish for moral ignorance instead of the burden of knowing the truth and the responsibility that comes with it? 

But that is the price of eternal life! It is gained only by entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ. And that relationship must be defined by generosity, respect, care, and concern for all those we can help. We must be influenced by the heart of Jesus that constantly expands to reach out to all those in need; not simply the people we like or who are like us. Heaven will not appeal to those who only want to do the bare minimum and so we need to use our time on earth practicing that holiness which is defined by offering ourselves generously.

Giving everything out of love for God is a holiness we can find only through grace. We cannot do it on our own! We receive that Divine Help in the sacraments, in daily prayer, and in holy, healthy relationships with others and with the Church. May you and I cultivate hearts that seek to do the maximum for God and for anyone the Lord sends our way! May we be Good Samaritans defined by generous love, kindness, and concern!

Monday, July 8, 2019

Don't Be Too Prepared! (14th Sunday, Year C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Right off the bat, I will tell you that this is one of the gospel passages that drives me bonkers. The whole sending out the disciples on mission with nothing other than the most basic of supplies. During my time in seminary, it was uncanny how many of the students were in boy scouts during their youth. 10% of the seminarians for St. Louis were full-fledged Eagle Scouts. As you know, the motto for the Boy Scouts is“Be Prepared.” Even though I was never in the scouts, I certainly live by that credo. To this day, I am a belt-and-suspenders sort of guy. I like to have every scenario covered. I keep flashlights in my car and in the rectory. I have water filters in multiple locations in case of a natural disaster or alien attack. My car is a moving triage vehicle with a first-aid kit, jumper cables, air compressor, blanket, and fire-starter and tool set.  Even when I travel, I have to choose which natural disasters I can be prepared for with the luggage I am allowed to bring. I admit, it's strange but we all have our issues! 

            But it's not only boy scouts or paranoid pastors that like to be prepared. It is a basic human tendency to try to plan ahead. Many people store food and water in case of disaster or disruption of service. Others make sure to carry their cell phones with them at all times, even in the bathroom in case they need to phone a friend for help. Most, if not all of us, have rehearsed safety drills for fires, tornados, earthquakes in case any of these ever happened to us. We like to feel prepared and have things set aside in case a situation arises.

            We are not so different from people from every age. Humans have always tried to prepare before going out and doing something and usually preparation is essential for the success of any mission. 

But in our Gospel, Jesus ignores this basic human tendency. For this reason, his command to the disciples seems a little reckless. Put yourself in the shoes of the disciples that we read about today (or maybe that is the wrong image to use because they are sent out with nothing; not even sandals, money bag, sack of belongings or supplies. They are not to greet anyone on the way and they are to eat whatever is placed before them. Jesus is sending them out into the world with little preparation and few resources. It sounds a lot like the biblical version of the TV show “Man vs. Wild.” Why in the world is he doing this?

            I believe that our Lord wants to teach his disciples two things by sending them out in this manner. Firstof all he wants the disciples to rely on himand not simply on their own resources, abilities, or cleverness. Because they take nothingwith them, the disciples must put their faith to the test. They have been following Jesus, but now they must spread that faith to others. Before they preach the faith, they must first live it. So each day they have to trust in God and in those he will send to help them; there is nothing more basic than relying on God for your next meal and a place to sleep. To carry out Jesus' command, they will have to trust in God for everything because they have been sent out with nothing.

            The second thing Jesus is teaching his disciples is a sense of urgency. We tend to over-prepare. We try to think of everything we need and end up missing the opportunity we were preparing for. Jesus knows his time here on earth is quickly passing away and there are still many who need to hear the gospel. As he says in the Gospel, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.” He knows there is no time to waste. So he sends the disciples out right away. He tells them to take nothing with them so that they will not be slowed down by packing and planning or distracted by gathering supplies. By sending them in this way he makes it clear that they are to commit themselves totally to the proclamation of the gospel, so much so that their very lives depend on it.

            The Lord’s plan certainly worked. As we hear in the end of the gospel, the disciples return rejoicing because of the success of their mission. It's almost like they can't quite believe it worked themselves. But they cast out demons and healed the sick, all in Jesus’ name. 

            It's easy for us to look at this gospel and keep our distance. We can admire the courage and faith of the seventy disciples that went out so apparently unprepared and came back so wonderfully successful. But we often feel that that was then and we are in a different time and place. Most of us are pretty good at coming up with excuses as to why we cannot imitate their example. 

            ButJesus is sending us out, even today, to spread the gospel. We may not literally walk from town to town, without sandals, money, or belongings. But each of us is sent out each day to the world; some as students, some as professionals, some as children to summer camps and sports, others as parents, to their families. Each of us here today is sent by Christ to proclaim the gospel to the people that we meet in our everyday lives, if not by our words then always by example. Jesus wants us to learn the lessons of the gospel today, even if we do not literally imitate the disciples. We are still called to rely totally on the Lord in our lives and not simply on our own resources, abilities, and possessions. If we are going to spread this faith that we profess, then we must also live it as well. If we just rely on ourselves, on who we know, or the resources and abilities we've stored up, we will almost certainly miss the message that God is trying to communicate through us. God's power is most effective when we act respond immediately to his call rather than hemming and hawing and covering every contingency.

We are called to go WHERE the Lord leads us, WHEN he calls us. The harvest is still abundant and the laborers are still few. Let us pray every day for the faith and generosity of the disciples so that the Lord can send us wherever the saving gospel is needed.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Don't Surrender Your True Freedom (13th Sunday, Year C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

At some point in our lives, we all have the thought that there will be a time when we are finally free from the authority that keeps us from doing what we want to do. When I was little, ultimate freedom looked like a life without chores or school. Perhaps many of us thought when we got our driver’s license, we would be able to come and go as we want. Then we were introduced to the concept of paying for gas, insurance, and a car; which of course required a job. So much for freedom and a life of leisure!  Similar things happened when we got to college or moved out of the parents’ house. Those who are married took on a deep responsibility towards their spouses, a responsibility that limited their actions in favor of caring for another. And then children came, and real responsibility hit.  Some may have hoped that life and liberty would begin after the kids moved out but usually new responsibilities to parents or grandchildren take over. There is always some force, something over us that limits our freedom. 

            There’s a part of us that believes that freedom means doing what we want, when we want, with no restrictions. That's OK to a certain extent. None of us should unnecessarily impose on each other. On the contrary, we should respect people and give them room to live their lives. But that's not the deepest meaning of freedom. St. Paul talks about real freedom in the second reading when he says, "You were called for freedom, brothers and sisters." But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh."

For the Christian, freedom is the ability to be the unique person that God created us to be by developing our talents and living a life of virtue. True freedom is having the ability to do the things God wants us to do. Hopefully we have experienced this to some degree. We are at our happiest when we are at our best. Yes, we still have responsibilities, and, yes, there will always be someone in authority over us in some way, but this does not keep us from being free. Freedom, in the fullest sense, comes from being our best selves and resisting our lower impulses.

Holy freedom is seen in the lives of the saints. It’s what Maximilian Kolbe had as he sat in a starvation cell of Auschwitz.  You may know his story, but if not, he was a Catholic priest in Poland who helped shelter thousands of Jews during the second World War.  The Nazi’s caught up to him and sent him to a concentration camp. When a prisoner escaped, ten others were chosen to die as a deterrent. As one man was being dragged to his doom, he cried out, “My wife, my children.” Fr. Kolbe said, “Take me instead.” He was imprisoned, he suffered, and ultimately died, yet he was free, perhaps more than you and I, because sin, death, fear and selfishness had absolutely no hold on him.
            There are so many others, be they canonized saints, members of our own families, and perhaps, some of you sitting in here in church who are continually at your best because you are giving to others.  If at any time in our lives others can see Christ in us, even if it is only a glimpse, then we are free, free to be who God meant us to be.

The main threat to true freedom is licentiousness, which we might define as being ruled by impulses and worldly desires.  This is what St. Paul speaks about in the second reading.  We cannot allow anything to keep us from being our best. When we confuse freedom with licentiousness, we bind ourselves to our sins.  How many people are imprisoned by their sins but think they are actually free?!  They embrace a sinful life to spite others, to exercise what they thought would be freedom, or simply to live “their” way. So often, they end up incapable of being the best version of themselves and live lives defined by restlessness, discontent, selfishness, and a lack of commitment to God and others. 

            Jesus Christ sets us free from sin and death. We need to cherish this freedom. But it takes courage. It takes determination. We cannot just say we are Christians. We have to be willing to live the Christian life. Think of Elisha in the first reading. He was so determined to heed God’s call and follow Elijah that he slaughtered his oxen and burned their yokes. There would be no turning back for him. Total commitment can be scary, but strangely liberating!  

In today's Gospel Jesus talks about the freedom involved in becoming a disciple. He says that once we have put our hand to the plow, once we have decided to follow him, we must never look back. That tendency to “look back” can apply to any form of addiction or enslavement. Maybe we do not have an addiction to things as obvious as alcohol, gambling or impurity. But we all have areas where we are not free. Bursts of anger, laziness, gluttony, envy, self-importance, desire for revenge, craving for control, and so many others are just as dangerous and make us slaves. Sure, when we gives in to these tendencies, they might offer momentary relief. But they are a mirage. In the end, sin can only bring isolation, rage, helplessness, misery, and spiritual slavery. 

There is, thanks be to God, a way to freedom: Accept God's Holy Spirit. Allow Him to direct your soul. By submitting to God and giving him everything, you will, ironically, experience freedom and self-control. You will have a self to offer to God and to those you love. Do not turn back; do not romanticize the fake freedom that sin offers. The way ahead will bring fulfillment, satisfaction, inner peace, self-possession, joy, and love. Keep your hand to the plow. That is the path to true freedom.

Today let us pray for the grace, the wisdom, and the courage to be whom God calls us to be. Lord, make us free!