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Monday, October 16, 2017

Worst Case Survival Guide (28th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

How many of you remember the tv show, Man vs. Wild? It was a unique concept at the time, where a survivalist named Bear Grylls, was dropped off in some remote, difficult terrain and he would try to last for a week on little more than his wits, ingenuity, and advanced survival skills. Amazingly, he was largely successful because of his broad knowledge base, his confident and decisive choices, and his willingness to embrace discipline. Around the same time, there were also these little books called, “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook”. In these entertaining articles, the reader was given tips on how to make it through serious challenges like escaping a mountain lion, wading through quicksand, diffusing a bomb, or even surviving a bad date. As odd as these things were, they appealed to a desire that most of us have, even if we aren’t that good at carrying it out. We like to be prepared for as many situations as possible. We want to be able to hit whatever curveball is thrown at us. We generally don’t like surprises, but if and when they come our way, we want to be able to handle them in a healthy, decisive way.

In the second reading today, St. Paul is talking to the Philippians, a community he loved very dearly. He is writing the letter from prison, where he has been detained for spreading the gospel. In the letter he encourages and praises the believers in Philippi for the ways they have supported him and his missionary work with prayer and material resources. He even brags to other communities about the Philippians’ kindness and generosity. In today’s passage, he is giving them the secret of his success: he is telling them how to survive any scenario that life can throw at them. And Paul should know about this. He has lived through abundance and poverty, being well-fed and hungry, in need and having more than enough. He had survived shipwrecks, stoning, a severe beating and even some time at sea as a castaway. He had made it through numerous dangers from nature and other people and somehow had emerged alive: not just alive but joyful, grateful, and flourishing!

What was his secret?! Was it a special training? Was he some freak of nature, with ripped muscles or a genius IQ? No, this was not the answer! How did St. Paul do all of this, becoming one of the greatest saints of all time? He says quite simply, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” and “My God will fully supply whatever you need.” St.  Paul could survive anything life threw at him because he never made any decision apart from Christ. Over the course of his life, from the moment of his conversion to the time he was martyred, he relied on the Lord to guide his thinking and form his actions.

At this point, I think we need to pause and think about this. Is the approach of St. Paul, doing all things in and through Christ, something possible for us? Is it a viable, relevant worst-case survival guide for modern-day Christians living here in Chesterfield? The short answer is “yes”! Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever! His wisdom has not diminished with the ages and it never will. His power has not decreased as time wears on. His love for each and every one of his followers is just as strong as it was when St. Paul was around. Our Lord is waiting for that invitation from us to strengthen us, to supply for our every need. But he is not going to force that goodness on us; we have to ask and invite him into our lives and our decision-making.

We need to have the courage and honesty to ask ourselves these questions. First, in whose name do we make decisions in our daily life? Is it in the name of convenience or comfort or wealth? Deep down, is greed, unmoderated pleasure or pride, the force that moves us and forms our choices? Do we consider inviting the Lord to be a part of our decision-making? Are we open to his guidance and even the ways he might challenge us and change our course of action? Or do we make up our mind on something and move forward stubbornly, hoping for the best? Who do we rely on to take care of our needs and give us strength? Is it first and foremost, God? Or, do we place that entire burden on ourselves, on our own resources, talents, and cleverness? Perhaps we place our trust in another person, an institution, some other creature? 

St. Paul wanted the Philippians to know that God was incredibly present to them and ready to help in every need, no matter how large or small. That’s how humble Christ is, he lowers himself to be available to us in every circumstance. St. Paul was inseparable from Christ, like thunder and lightning, peanut butter and jelly. It was this intimate connection in everything, that enabled him to survive whatever came his way. We are called to that same resilience and we desire it deep in our hearts. Like St. Paul, we can do all things in him who strengthens us, and God will fully supply whatever we need, if,( and this is important,) if we talk to him and let him guide us. We make this a reality by getting in the habit of talking to him daily as we would a close friend, of holding nothing back from him, even those things we might be struggling with. We can also seek his input and listen for his ideas. This friendship is what made enabled Paul to be fearless and ready for every challenge. This personal relationship with the Lord is what made St. Paul undefeated, even in terrible circumstances. May we follow his lead and share the same blessings he did, able to survive any worst-case scenario that comes our way!

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Vineyard of the Lord (27th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

This weekend is all about vineyards in the Word of God. Each reading, with the exception of St. Paul, uses a vineyard as the backdrop for teaching us about God. Regardless of whether or not you like wine or prefer beer, the Scriptures pack a punch on several different levels.

The first perspective we might consider is historical. When Jesus tells his story about the vineyard, he is speaking directly to the People of God. The vineyard represents the Chosen People and God is the landowner. Jesus stresses all the good things God has done to get the vineyard prepared; not only did he plant the vines in the various covenants he made with Israel, he also protected it through numerous miracles and the different kings, judges and leaders he sent to aid Israel.  All the hard work has been done by God. He asks his people to take care of the relationship he has built with them and harvest the produce which is represented in the fulfillment of his promises, the Incarnation. (Despite his generosity, God can’t seem to get his share of the vintage.) When God sends the prophets to remind his people of what they owe him (namely loyalty and praise), they beat, kill, and chase away his messengers. Anticipating his own death, Jesus says the landowner finally sends his son, hoping it will be enough to set the the vineyard in order. However, the tenants are so hardened they even kill the son, thinking this will allow them to keep the vineyard for themselves. Incredibly, when Jesus asks how the landowner should treat his rebellious tenants, his audience, the same people who will soon call for Jesus to be crucified, reply that the evildoers of the story should be put to a wretched death and their share be given to a new person. As things turn out, the tenants of the vineyard, the Chosen People, lose their exclusive claim to God’s vineyard and he opens it up to new tenants, anyone who believes in his resurrected Son, Jesus Christ.

The second perspective of these parables is spiritual. In this view, God is still the landowner but now the vineyard is the Church, the new Israel. Once again, God has done all the hard work of preparing the Church to bear tremendous fruit. He has founded it through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross, watered it with the grace of the sacraments, protected it throughout the centuries with the Gift of the Holy Spirit and the leadership of the apostles represented in the teaching of the magisterium. Finally, he has constantly provided saintly men and women to keep the vineyard in shape and remind the tenants to give him his due of praise, glory, and worship throughout the ages. The open question that remains when we consider the parable in this way is this: Are we doing our part to make sure the Catholic Church is bearing good fruit for the Lord? As Catholics, are we making a holy impact on society? Are we helping to ensure that God gets what is his from the universe he created? Namely love, respect, and adoration? Do we share freely of our gifts with the Church as a sign of appreciation for what God has done for us? Not to be too harsh on ourselves, but judging by the level of hatred, division, and violence in our world right now, perhaps we in the Church have been thinking too much about our own share rather than God’s!

The third, and frankly, most challenging perspective to look at the parable of the vineyard is personal. Each one of us is God’s vineyard and he has invested tremendously in every person. He created us with his own hands in our mother’s womb, gave us an eternal soul that reflected himself, made sure we are protected by a guardian angel, and bestowed a personality and talents that were unique to each and every person. After doing all this, he gave us free will and let us be born into the world to enjoy his goodness and the gifts he gave so freely. Throughout the life of every person, God sends messengers and caretakers to watch over us: teachers, priests, parents, friends, and neighbors, to make sure our vineyard doesn’t get destroyed. Once again, God is the one who does the hard work and then, instead of being a control freak, like we tend to be, he steps back to let the vineyard have a chance to grow and bear fruit. All he asks in return is that the vineyard be fruitful and a share of its production be given back to him.

What does this mean on a personal level?  Have we in fact produced the good fruit of justice, mercy, and love? Do we at times forget that we are only tenants of our lives, bodies, and souls? Do we instead imagine ourselves as owners and do as we please? Do we tend to store up more of its fruit than we could possibly use while others die of starvation and need? Do we act with violence against our fellow human beings with anger, gossip, judgement, unforgiveness, or impurity, failing to see each person as a son or daughter of God? 

Throughout the ages, both in Scripture and in pious practice, Christians have avoided these dangers with something called the tithe. In tithing, the first fruits of our time, talent, and treasure are given back to God and we live on the rest. This custom has endured over the ages, from the Old testament to now, because it ensures God receives his proper due from the gifts he showers upon us. The concept is simple: look at the blessings in your life and ask if God is receiving a portion of the best of your time, your personal talents and also your material goods. Do we try and return something of everything he has given us or do we try and hoard them for ourselves? Do we give to God first or do we instead take care of our own desires and give God whatever is leftover, if anything is at all? 

The lesson of the vineyard is clear; God has been generous with us and we need to acknowledge that generosity by giving back some of the best of what we have and who we are. The greatness of God rests in the fact that he will use what we give him, not for himself, but to bless others and enrich our lives even further. Let’s make sure we give God his share first; good things will follow!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Which Son Are You? (26th Sunday, Year A)

For all of you in church who are parents, this parable of Jesus probably resonates with your own experience of raising children. His story gives the scenario of two children, asked by their father to do work in his vineyard. The first son is defiant, “no way, Jose” he says, but later changes his mind and does what his dad asks. The second son is a smooth talker and when asked, says, “sure Dad”, but never does the work. If you have raised children, you have likely seen the actions of both sons unfold before your eyes. Even if you are not a parent, growing up, each of us probably played the part of both sons.

This parable has, of course, a historical context. In today’s gospel, the vineyard stands for God’s people and the two sons represent those who are called to care for them. The second son represents the established religion of Jesus’ time, exemplified in the skeptical scribes and pharisees. As often happens in such cases, the religious leaders of that time paid lip-service to God but, when Jesus came in a way they did not expect, they were unable to accept the mysterious ways of God, 

The first son stands for the “outsiders”; including non-Jewish people, who had been accustomed to saying “No” to God but, having been humbled by their experience of sinfulness, were receptive to the challenge of Jesus. They were joined by “tax collectors and prostitutes” who, though despised by the religious types of that time, were humble and open to the message of Jesus. The point is that pride and smugness are far greater obstacles to true conversion than a sinful past ready for repentance. 

And so here is the thing for us to notice. What the NO-saying son says is contrary to God’s will. But what he does is inline with it. It is the other way around with the YES-saying son. The words of the YES-saying son are obedient to God’s will, but his actions are in opposition to it. The words of the YES-saying son are empty. His life, not his words, tell the real truth about his relationship to his father. The truth is that the YES-saying son rejects God’s will, however much acceptance appears to be in his words.

One of the great hallmarks of Jesus’ preaching is that even though it is set in a historical context, it reaches across generations and cultures. The Lord’s challenge to the scribes and pharisees is also directed at us. Today’s parable demands that we consider the question, “which son am I?” One who says “no” to God’s face but then repents and does what he wants? Or have I been the one who says “yes” to God’s face but in my heart I never do what he asks? How can we really know? 

It is best to reflect on these questions trusting that even though we may not be perfect sons and daughters of God, his mercy is always waiting for us. As modern-day Christians we must consider:

Are we ones who can recite the creed - ones who have our children baptized and taught the Faith - maybe we even work in the church and do much that seems holy - and yet do not really see and believe that God is working in and around us, just as the chief priests refused to believe God was working in John the Baptist or in Jesus the Son of Joseph and Mary?

Are we familiar with religion but unacquainted with faith and what it requires of us in our hearts, our heads, our attitudes, and our actions? Do we understand what faith requires of us and what it does for us? Is our faith stagnant, comfortable, and largely confined to an hour each weekend?

Or are we the ones who said at first - no way God - forget it; you don't even exist - and if you do - you aren't what I want in a God - I have better things to do than pray and read that Bible with all its rules and regulations, its wars and woes, its contradictions and craziness.

Are we the ones who led a life that was clearly wrong: ones who cheated, lied, stole, drank, gossiped and tried to experience every pleasure regardless of the consequences? But then changed our minds after listening to our pain and emptiness, and to the voice promising forgiveness and wholeness that comes from Heaven, through people sent by God?

Or, are we somewhere in between? Children of God who try hard some days to be faithful and on other days let our hardness of heart, our selfishness, our unwillingness to see God and listen to God in our daily routines get the better of us?

That is the profit of this passage for us; asking who we are and what needs to be done. The good news is it’s possible to change one's mind; it’s never too late, as long as we are alive, to become a child destined to see and enter the Kingdom of God. Today it’s not too late to get right with God, it’s not too late to say to God - I believe - help my unbelief. It’s not too late to say to God: yes, I will go out in the vineyard after all. I will work to bring the good news of your love to my family, my friends, and the whole world in what I say and do. I will worship you and work with you and obey your will.

The Psalm gives us the right prayer to go with this parable: “Lord, teach us your ways!” Our ways need to be God’s ways. It is good if our words say 'yes' to God. But what is crucial is that our lives say 'yes' to God. Unless they do, our words are worthless. May we become the sons and daughters of God who please him with both our words and our actions, each and every day!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Life isn't Fair but God's Love Makes Up For It (25th Sunday, Year A)

How many of you in church this morning happen to be the oldest child in your family? Go ahead and raise your hand, so I can see how many sympathizers I have! As a matter of fact, those of you who are higher up in the birth order might also agree with me. I believe, as a general rule, and I am being completely biased here, that the oldest child has life a little bit harder than the youngest. Why? Our parents were experiencing parenthood for the first time and they wanted to do everything right. Prior to our arrival, many of them read books and listened to experts explain about how to dialogue with baby, how to prepare him or her for a bright future from the instant of birth, and what procedures to put in place so this bundle of joy could be healthy, wealthy, and wise. The truth is, most of our parents learned on the fly and we essentially served as very talkative and often irritating guinea pigs. By the time, our younger siblings came along, they had things somewhat figured out, important things like “don’t sweat the small stuff” “a little dirt is good for you” and “they will be fine.”  

I still watch in disbelief at the liberties of my younger siblings. Did you know you can get your driving permit before the age of 17? I can’t imagine having Facebook in grade-school? Or my own room! Or cable TV in the house! Only in my dreams would I have asked about staying out with friends past midnight! Having a cell phone to begin high school wasn’t even an option! The things which would have been grounds for capital punishment in my youth are now tolerated and even approved by my parents! One of the first reactions that comes to my mind often as the oldest is: “That’s not fair! I had to work a lot harder and wait longer for those same privileges!”

But you don’t have to be high in the birth order to feel that life isn’t fair. We humans have a pretty good sense of that. We see good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. We see some labor for hours for a morsel of bread, and others make hundreds of thousands of dollars with a simple phone call. We see some who are physically fit and health conscious who die suddenly while others abuse their health and still live to a ripe old age. We could go on and on with examples, but the simple truth is: “Life is often unfair.”

At first glance, the gospel appears to be one more example of this truth. Jesus describes the kingdom of God with a parable, a story where a landowner hires workers to toil in his vineyard. Some he hires early in the morning, others around noon, and even a group at the end of the day. To all of them he promises to pay them what is just. At the end of the day, when all of the workers are lined up to receive compensation, the master starts with the last to arrive. He gives them a full day’s wage for their hour’s work. When the laborers, who toiled the entire day are paid the same amount, they grumble in disappointment. 

I don’t know about you, but I tend to sympathize with the guys who put in a whole day’s work. Something about the whole thing just doesn’t sit right. How can a person who worked an hour receive the same amount as one who worked the whole day? And this is what the kingdom of heaven is supposed to be like?  

But if we take a moment to shed our indignation and outrage, if we humbly reflect on the final words words of the master, we see this parable is not about fairness at all. It’s all about generosity! The same Divine generosity that moved Christ to eat with tax collectors, and hang around with prostitutes and known criminals, and heal people on the Sabbath day, and tell sinners that they were forgiven simply because they had faith, because they repented and trusted him. If we choose to see life only in terms of fair or unfair, if we view God’s generous love and forgiveness as something to be earned, we will quickly be upset at how merciful He is and how freely He shares his life with the sinful and imperfect. It won’t be long before this mindset makes us blind to our own need for God’s grace and how imperfect we truly are. This is the attitude that led the Scribes and Pharisees to reject Christ. This is the attitude that blinded them to their own need for salvation. This is the attitude that prevented them from receiving the many good things Jesus desired to give them.

As we reflect on this parable, this story which teaches us so much about the kingdom of God and how He loves us, we should thank God that he doesn’t deal with us according to what we believe is fair and unfair. No, even though we have a God who is infinitely fair and just, he doesn’t deal with us simply in those terms. If he did, we would not be forgiven, we would not have the sacraments, we would not be capable of eternal life. Thankfully, we have a God who always treats us with overwhelming generosity and mercy. All of us, even the best of us, has received immeasurably more than we earned from God, the master of the vineyard. He pays us far more than we have worked in the vineyard.

So let us thank God, right here and now in this Eucharist, for his extravagant generosity. Let us show him our gratitude for the countless ways he enriches our lives, even though we have done nothing to deserve such kindness. Let us be joyful when we see God pouring his love and blessing on others rather than focusing on whether or not it is fair or deserved. We are all his children and we all need his love; we all need his forgiveness. And praise God, that is what we receive when we turn to God, when we receive Christ into our lives and do the work that he has set before us.

My friends - we don't earn God's love; we respond to it. God loves us.  End of story. God loves us. Beginning of brand new story. May we live that new story.  May we come to God in gratitude for what he has generously done for us, and in thanksgiving for what he does for everyone whether they deserve it or not.  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Anger...Bad for your Health, Bad for your Soul (24th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Every so often, there is an article online or in the newspaper, touting the results from a recent study about the negative effects of holding onto anger. It seems like an obvious conclusion but if you had your doubts, science can show how anger causes your heart rate to speed up almost immediately. From there, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels skyrocket. If the anger is chronic, the stress it causes can be responsible for nearly 90% of the illnesses that afflict us and we feel its presence in stomach aches, headaches, and even heart attacks. And yet, for all we know about this emotion and the negative effects it causes, it seems to be everywhere around us and within us. How many times have we made the promise, “I’m not going to get mad”, “I won’t lose my temper” only to fly off the handle, despite our best intentions? Whether our anger is explosive and directed outward in an angry outburst or is stuffed deep inside of us, brewing beneath the surface like a dangerous volcano, it is bad news! Perhaps it would be helpful to look at the role of anger as part of the human person and then reflect on the remedy given by God in the scriptures.

Anger is an emotion or passion. That means, at first, we don’t have control of when we feel it. It comes and goes depending on temperament and situation. Believe it or not, anger can serve a purpose! God put it there for a reason and, in fact, Jesus himself experienced anger a few times. Anger can be good, holy, and purposeful when it is a reaction to serious injustice or wrongdoing. Righteous anger alerts us that something is hurting us or someone else and it cannot be ignored. Similar to how our pain receptors tell us we are touching something hot and we need to let go or back away. Anger, in its proper context, moves us to do something about an offense against God, ourselves, or others. Once we confront the wrongdoing or threat, we have to let it go immediately. The human person is not meant to hold onto anger. If we do, it ends up eating us alive, corroding our soul, breaking down our body, and stealing our peace. It must be like a booster rocket on a space vehicle, which burns only long enough to help us escape the pull of apathy or laziness but then falls away. Anything more, like holding onto anger, nursing a grudge, or wishing evil on someone who has hurt us are both sinful and unhealthy. Righteous anger should not be confused with impatience, annoyance, or losing our temper. Those are personal flaws that need to addressed and cannot be justified as good or Godly. Related to this, anger that leads to violence or revenge is never justifiable and is completely different from indignation one might feel in a case of self-defense. 

Long before science, the biblical writers knew this. The author of the book of Sirach tells us today that “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” What a great image! Isn’t true that we often hold on tight to the very thing that drags us down? Our anger becomes an anchor dragging us down; shackles making us prisoners of the past.

So what is the remedy to this common, yet serious affliction of anger? I like to remember the cure with three “r’s”: reflect, receive, and re-distribute.

If we hope to be inoculated against anger, we have to reflect constantly on the fact that God is infinitely merciful. Our psalm tells us over and over again, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” As we think back on our lives, we should be able to see many moments where God has had mercy on us by sending us people to help and love us in difficult times. We will also call to mind ways God has blessed us even when we didn’t deserve the good things that came to us. Most importantly, we remember he sent his Son to suffer and die for our sins, not because we deserved it but because he loved us so much. If our image of God is full of fear, if we aren’t convinced he is merciful to his core, then we have to bring that misperception to prayer. We have a God that is literally dying to share mercy with us and with the whole world. Reflecting on this reality helps us believe confidently that he forgives our sins, no matter what.

But it’s not enough just to think about God’s mercy; we also have to receive it! It must drive God crazy that he offers to forgive the sins of humanity, especially through the sacrament of confession, and yet so few people make use of it! One of the interesting dynamics of the spiritual life is that we learn how to give something by first receiving it. In other words, if I am going to be able to give forgiveness to people in my life, I have to first receive it and receive it often. There will be moments, probably every day, where we fall short of the mark, where we lose our temper and fail to be our better selves. We need to cultivate the habit of asking God for mercy and going to confession frequently so we don’t become prisoners of anger or bitterness.

         Lastly, re have to re-distribute God’s mercy we receive to others. We can’t just hold onto it for ourselves. One of the ironies of forgiveness is the more we give it away, the more we receive. Just as we have freely received mercy from God, even though we didn’t deserve it, we must give it away to those who have hurt us. We cannot have the attitude of holding onto anger and grudges until the other person “earns” our forgiveness. We are forgiven by God in the same manner we forgive others. So, best to give freely so as to receive freely!

It’s no secret that anger is front and center, both here in our city, with yesterday’s ruling on Jason Stockley, and throughout the country. Perhaps it would be good to end this homily reflecting on the following questions: Is there someone with whom I am deeply angry or that I hate? Was there a situation from many years ago that had a negative impact on my life? Or maybe it is a recent offense that is gnawing at me? Do I feel entitled to hold onto a grudge or feed hatred in my heart? Or maybe I hate myself. Maybe I did something terrible many years ago and have believed I cannot be forgiven, at least not until I “pay the price.” 

The readings today say, "Let go. Let go of the battle stories. Stop hugging anger and hatred." This hatred has turned our lives into a prison. It has been the rope that held us back. We have suffered enough from the past. We are called today into the joy of the Lord. We need to offer up our anger and move onto mercy. We need to trust in his promise of forgiveness, especially in the sacrament of confession. We need to let go of the list of grudges and wrongs we have suffered. The result of giving and receiving mercy will be the freedom of the daughters and sons of the Lord: freedom from anger which destroys body and soul: freedom to Love!

(Comments at the end of Mass)

If I can ask all of you to be seated for just a few moments. I would like to read a statement from Archbishop Carlson in regards to the recently released verdict concerning Jason Stockley:

“If we want peace and justice, we must come together as a community through prayer, mutual understanding, and forgiveness. While acknowledging the hurt and anger, we must not fuel the fires of hatred and division. We must ask God for peace in our own hearts and share it with those around us. Violence does not lead to peace and justice – they are opposing forces and cannot coexist. I implore each of you to choose peace! Reject the false and empty hope that violence will solve problems. Violence only creates more violence. We must work together for a better, stronger, safer community, one founded upon respect for each other, and one in which we see our neighbor as another self.”

The only thing I would add to the Archbishop’s words would be to encourage you to read Judge Wilson’s explanation of his ruling for yourself. It is easily found online and provides many details that may not have been mentioned in news stories and other coverage. We have a responsibility to be informed about potential injustices in our society. But that comes with an obligation to seek the truth, to be open to other views, and not simply get our facts from sound bytes that are incomplete or politically charged. We should be leaders, as a Church, as this parish, in praying for healing and forgiveness and make sure our own lives are examples of charity towards all.

(To read Judge Wilson’s decision, click here.)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Pray...Then Say Something! (23rd Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

I’m going to tell you one of my pet peeves; its not the only one, trust me, but it’s one that seems to happen far too often. I can’t count the times when I have been at dinner or some other social outing with food. In the course of the event I am talking with people, visiting table to table, and seeing how people are doing. After an hour or two, it happens! Maybe I catch my reflection in a mirror or see a just-taken group picture with me on someone’s phone and I realize I have a big piece of food stuck, front and center, in my teeth! Even though you could see it from outer space, no one said anything, even though they all noticed it! It’s like the ultimate betrayal. The same could be said if you’ve ever inadvertently walked around for hours with your shirt inside out, your zipper down, or something hanging out of your nose, and no one said anything!!! They were probably trying to save you (and them) embarrassment or avoiding an awkward moment but in fact they just made things worse as you walked around looking like a slob. I will say it right here to all of you; if you see me walking around with something in my teeth, clothing inside out, or unbuttoned, please say something. I mean, be nice about it, but say something!

The inspiration for this exhortation comes, not so much from my own fear of looking foolish or unkempt, but actually from the word of God. In the first reading, God says to Ezekiel, “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, "O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” God goes on to tell Ezekiel if he warns the wayward sinner and is ignored, it is no longer the prophet’s problem; he has done his job. The gospel builds on this theme of correction as Jesus lays out a process of loving confrontation to be used by his followers when someone has fallen into sin. 

Both of these readings, with their mandate to correct the sinner, fly in the face of what politically-correct, morally-subjective society tells us to do. Our culture often preaches that we should never rock the boat, that hurting someone’s feelings or offending them is the worst sin we could ever commit. Ahhh, but the Word of God offers another perspective, which is certainly more challenging but also more loving. 

Just as He told the prophet Ezekiel, God tells us, ‘you are a watchman, a watchwoman for my kingdom. If you see someone doing wrong and say nothing; you are in some way responsible too!’ We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers! If we truly love every person, we have to want what is best for them, which is not just happiness but happiness in heaven. Many times that will mean supporting others with encouragement and love. Sometimes that will mean pointing out wrongs, ways a person is wandering away from God and his saving laws. We see this in good parenting; effective loving parents not only encourage their children but also correct them. They always strive to do so with love but true love and concern for the child means confronting wrongdoing directly and not ignoring it or letting the next person deal with it. 

You and I have a responsibility to encourage and support one another on our journey of faith. Think of how often we already do that in our families, in our friendships, and in this parish. We also have the responsibility to love each other enough that if we see someone in a way which compromises their salvation or hurts other people, then we kindly bring it to their attention out of concern for their spiritual well-being. We never correct people because we think we are perfect or self-righteous. That would be prideful and ultimately the other person would sense that. We correct others respectfully, prayerfully, humbly; knowing we would want them to do the same for us. 

There is nothing easy about confronting another person about something as personal as sin. Thankfully, in the gospel, Jesus gives us method for doing so with the best possible chance of a good outcome. We would be wise to follow his approach, which starts small with just two people and only involves others if absolutely necessary. We also can’t hope to give correction if we aren’t first open to receive it. Every one of us is imperfect and sinful in some way. We must be humble enough to accept correction from the prophets God sends into our lives. The experience of receiving correction prepares us to give it compassionately. We know how the first reaction we feel is often shame, pride, anger, or defensiveness. It doesn’t mean the person isn’t right but that is often the first response to correction is pushing back or lashing out. Knowing this helps us to be kind to the person who loves us enough to point out our sins and also allows us to absorb the feelings of those whom we correct without taking it personally.
Ultimately, we aren’t correcting people according to our standards or trying to make life easier for ourselves. We only do it out of love for others and their eternal well-being. We should always pray about the situation and for the person before we offer correction. We are not called to be busybodies who run around pointing out the faults of others! Everything we do should be motivated by Godly love. So, the next time your pastor has broccoli in his teeth, or your teenager does something that needs to be addressed, or a friend or coworker is about to make a decision that will separate them from God, say a prayer and then speak up! You might be the first moment of a conversion that brings a person closer to God for all eternity! 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Hero to Zero (22nd Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

There is a popular show on TV called “Shark Tank” and the idea behind it is that people who have potentially lucrative new products or young businesses try to entice a group of 5 or 6 famous millionaires and billionaires to invest in their company. One of these wealthy investors is Lori Grenier, who is the face of QVC. She started humbly as an inventor and built her fortune piece by piece. On the show, she claims to have a gift of knowing if a product or company is a “hero” or a “zero.” If St. Peter was put in the spiritual shark tank, would he be a hero or a zero? Last week, we would certainly have to say “hero”! Jesus asks the apostles, “who do you say that I am?” Without hesitation, Peter speaks for all of them and says, “you are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus praises him and makes Peter the rock on which he will build his Church. Just a few moments later, Jesus tells the apostles what being the messiah means. Suffering, betrayal, torture, and death in the worst possible way! St. Peter, the hero, interrupts the Lord, St. Matthew includes an interesting detail, he says Peter wraps his arm around Jesus, sort of like you would grab a child who was getting too close to the street, and he scolds Jesus. Peter’s tone is patronizing and proud as he “tells” Jesus he won’t let this happen to the Lord.

Our first pope goes from hero to zero instantly. Jesus’ reaction is visceral; it almost seems vicious, as he calls Peter “Satan”, which literally means “adversary”. Why are Jesus’ words so strong? Did he just need a snickers candy bar? Or maybe some coffee? To understand this gospel, we have to think back in Matthew’s gospel, to chapter 4, where Jesus retreated into the desert after his baptism. After 40 days of prayer and fasting, he was hungry and the devil came to tempt him. He told Jesus to use his power to change rocks into bread, throw himself off the temple so God’s angels will catch him, and worst of all, bow to the devil in exchange for the worldly power Satan holds. Essentially satan was telling Jesus to use his Divine power for his own benefit, to do sensational things to impress and entertain others, and to compromise with worldly powers, to reduce his Divine standards. 

St. Peter unwittingly urges Jesus to do these same things. To use his Divine power to save his life, to defeat and shame his foes, and build up an earthly kingdom. How it must have stung Jesus’ Sacred Heart to hear one of his closest friends echoing the temptations of the Evil One?! No wonder he reacts so strongly! In the desert Jesus commands the devil to leave, to go away. It is different with Peter. Jesus tells him to get behind him, in other words, ‘follow me Peter. It is your place to go where I go. It is not your job to lead me but to follow. How incredible that eventually St. Peter will stretch out his arms on a cross as a martyr. He will embrace the very fate he tried to sway Jesus from!

So what is the lesson for us? Perhaps first and foremost, it is that we should never tell God what he should do. We actually do this more often than we would like to admit. Whenever we decide we know what is best for us or for others, rather than God, we become an adversary to the Lord. As soon as we realize our error, most often manifested in pride, we need to get behind Jesus once again and follow him. This may be a daily experience for many of us.

Secondly, it is not enough to simply recognize Jesus as Lord. Peter and the apostles realized He was the Son of God pretty quickly. What took much longer and what changed their lives was understanding what his Lordship meant and demanded from them. For a long time, they saw Jesus the Lord with worldly eyes. They thought the Messiah would wield worldly power; he would humiliate anyone who opposed him, run the Romans out of Israel, and make God’s people victorious over the whole world. In their minds, he would be exalted and served and rich. As his right-hand men, they were looking forward to sharing the spoils. With this mindset, it’s no wonder Peter said what he did. With this understanding of the messiah, there is no room for the cross or betrayal or suffering. Death would be the ultimate defeat.

To help his apostles (and us) understand what his Lordship means, he gives three conditions for every person who wants a share of his eternal glory. To follow the Savior of heaven and earth we must 1) deny ourselves, 2) take up our cross, and 3) follow him. What does this mean in practical terms? 

To deny ourselves is not just giving up stuff. It is much deeper than that. For the Christian, denying ourselves is learning to say no to our sinful self that always wants more: more money, more food, more pleasure, more power, etc…By saying no to our ravenous self, we open the door to say “yes” to God. With God’s grace we lower ourself and elevate God. We make him the center of our lives rather than our self with its never-ending desires and hungers. 

To take up the cross is to accept willingly, joyfully, the burden of sacrifice. Jesus could have used his power for himself but in his eternal wisdom used it to bear the cross so the world could be healed, redeemed, and restored. The Christian life is defined by sacrificial service in the same way: bearing burdens for the good of all. We may have to let go of personal ambition to serve Christ. It is very possible that the place we will be fully alive in our faith will be somewhere where the pay is less or the recognition is non-existent. Carrying our cross will mean sacrificing time, money, comfort, and leisure so we can serve God and others. If joyful and generous sacrifice is not part of our life on every level, we are still holding onto the earthly kingdom.

Finally, to follow Jesus is to obey him. The Christian life is a constant, faithful following of the Lord in our thoughts, words, and deeds. We don’t make excuses or exceptions, even when that following is difficult or unpopular. This third condition of discipleship is strengthened by daily prayer, where we look to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, with a humble and obedient spirit. 

Lord, please lead us and give us abundant grace to trust and follow you. Help us understand the Divine wisdom of your lordship and live it faithfully. Take away the fear and selfishness that keeps us from denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following you. We believe in you, Jesus, help our unbelief. Amen!