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Monday, December 9, 2019

The Message of John the Baptist (2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

In the middle two Sundays of Advent we hear a lot about John the Baptist. He is a central figure in the Bible and in the history of our salvation since he bridges the Old and New Testaments. It makes sense that John the Baptist is seen as the last of the Old Testament Prophets and the picture painted of him in the the Gospel certainly makes him look and sound like one of the prophets of old. John is presented as someone who lives at the very extremes of society but whose message of conversion hits home with people of every demographic. 

Every part of him, such as his garment of camel hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey, highlight John as a most extraordinary person. Although he comes across to us as eccentric, we find that people respect him for his integrity and flock to receive Baptism at his hands. The ordinary people recognize that John's message is authentic and it comes from God. 

Not everyone hears good news from John. His opinion of the Jewish leaders is brutal. He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a 'brood of vipers' because they come to him for Baptism without truly repenting of their sins. Their mindset is similar to that of a wealthy man who told Mark Twain, "Before I die, I will go to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read aloud the Ten Commandments." Mark Twain replied, "I have a better idea. You could stay home and keep them." 

If we read the scriptures with any degree of attention, we see very clearly two truths repeating themselves over and over, from Genesis to Revelation: 1) God cannot resist reaching out to repentant sinners, 2) God cannot stand the self-righteous hypocrite. 

Depending on which character we resemble most, will determine how we respond to the message of John the Baptist in our own lives. How do we receive the call to repent, stop sinning, and prepare the way of the Lord. Truthfully, many people do not want to hear any preaching about sin. Many Catholics no longer believe in the concept of personal sin, which is a tragedy for them, for the Church, and for our world. 

We live in a society which has explained sin away. Perhaps this explains why so few go to Confession? Nowadays we are trained to feel guilty about feeling guilty but not about what we have done. If you send people on a guilt trip, God help you because no one else will. You will be called a killjoy, a hater, or something worse. There is a serious problem with this rush to purge all guilt and shame from people’s lives. Jesus and His main man, John the Baptist, speak more often of sin than even of love and this is true throughout all the New Testament. What does this mean? Before love can take root in our hearts and our lives, sin must first be acknowledged and addressed.

In the 1970’s there was a line in a novel that became famous. It said something like “love means never having to say you're sorry.” John the Baptist would beg to differ! Why else would he have come in from the desert "proclaiming a baptism of repentance that led to forgiveness of sin?" The Gospels tell us people accepted his message wholeheartedly, repented of their sins, and were baptized. In other words, as their love of God increased, they realized they had to say they were sorry.

Today John the Baptist would probably be run out of town. He would certainly be condemned on social media as out-of-touch, dangerous to people’s mental health, or hateful. People would probably be calling for his resignation and maybe even his head. Perhaps the same would be said about Jesus, who never separated his message of love and mercy from the need for repentance and conversion.

To airbrush sin away is to turn Christianity into nothing more than a cult of feelings and sentimentality. To try to dilute it, sugarcoat it, or explain it away is to sell Christ out. If sin isn’t really that bad, why did Jesus choose to die to save us from it? To promote this worldview is not loving others, it is enabling a lifestyle that ultimately leads to pain and suffering, not only for the sinner but also for those affected his or her wayward choices. Sadly, even in many Catholic high schools and colleges, our young people are being told there is no right or wrong, only different points of view. Can you imagine what John the Baptist would have to say to that? And what he would say to those who promote this dangerous nonsense? 

The process of repentance and conversion is a healthy experience on many different levels. Every human person has a basic notion of right and wrong written on their heart by God. Every time we violate his sacred and natural law, we carry that burden of guilt. That feeling of guilt, our conscience, is actually a gift from God to help us move away from the things that cause spiritual harm and it keeps us from becoming unfeeling psychopaths. Repentance and conversion repair the damage of our sins and restore the friendship we have with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God makes it so easy for us by giving us the sacrament of confessions. Once we acknowledge,"I have sinned!”, God immediately says, "I forgive you.”

We have many wonderful examples of repentance in our Church; one in particular is our first Pope. When Peter denied Christ, he did not make excuses. He did not blame his sin on the mistakes of his parents. Peter took responsibility for his betrayal of Christ. He did not say, "Hey, give me a break. It's only my first betrayal.” He acknowledged his sin and repented and Jesus couldn’t wait to forgive him. 

As crazy as it seems, each and every baptized person is called to be another John the Baptist: leading others to Christ and calling the world to conversion. But we have to start with ourselves. If we go straight to calling out the sins and shortcomings of others without addressing our own need for repentance and conversion, we will quickly be exposed as hypocrites and frauds. God knows, we don’t need any more of those in the world or in the Church. John the Baptist is a model for us and his message resonates with the people of every age because he started by examining and purifying his life. You and I must do the same and we make it happen by asking for the grace of conversion, accepting the virtue of humility, reflecting on the good and bad things we have done, maintaining a strong connection to God in prayer, and, most importantly, making use of the sacrament of confession to express our remorse for our sins. These are the ways we “Prepare the way of the Lord” and “make straight his paths.” May we acknowledge the sin we have in our lives so that God can use us to spread his message of mercy and salvation to the people of our time who are waiting for an invitation to conversion!

Monday, December 2, 2019

Fight the Four Spiritual Dangers (1st Sunday of Advent, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

How many of you have had the experience of sleeping through something important? Like a flight, getting up late for work, school, missing a test, etc..

As a priest, there is usually at least one time in every assignment where you slumber through a morning Mass, either because of weariness or because you misread the schedule. Whatever the circumstances are for any of us, when it happens, the moment you wake up and realize, “I messed up”, you have that terrible feeling of embarrassment and disappointment. Ultimately, the bummer about oversleeping is that an opportunity or obligation is missed and we can’t go back and fix it.

I mention this human experience because I think it relates to our spiritual lives and the message of the readings for the first week of Advent. In our world today, in the society we live in, it is truly difficult to stay spiritually alert and awake. If we are not careful, the four dangers of spiritual weariness, the darkness of sin, worldly comforts, and the long wait for Jesus will overpower our efforts to keep our souls awake. 

This is a busy time of the year; there is no doubt about it. Most of us have many things to accomplish before Christmas arrives. But we can get so caught up in the “holiday spirit” that our spiritual lives fall asleep. Our shopping for friends and family, sending out gifts and Christmas cards, baking cookies, and attending parties and pageants make us weary and this tiredness can lure us into a deep spiritual slumber. We get so worn out by the business of our preparations that we cannot quiet ourselves and stay alert for the coming of Christ.

However, Advent is not just a matter of slowing our lives down. For a majority of people, this simply is not realistic or possible. For many of us, it’s hard to stay spiritually awake because of our own sinfulness. St. Paul tells us in the second reading to throw off the deeds of darkness, those sinful things which cast a deadly sleep upon our souls. And what are these deeds of darkness? St. Paul mentions drunkenness, promiscuity, lust, rivalry, and jealously. But there are smaller sins as well, things that you and I struggle with day in and day out, like anger, gossip, lack of patience, greed, and laziness. If we hope to stay awake and alert for the coming of Christ then we must work to eliminate all the deeds of darkness in our lives with the help of God’s grace. 
On top of the busyness and sinfulness that work their way into our lives, we must also be on guard against worldly comfort. Like busyness and sin, worldly comforts can make our souls lethargic and cause us to become dependent upon the things of this earth. If we indulge ourselves in the many creature comforts modern life offers us, we can begin to put our trust in created things rather than our Creator God. Such comforts will slowly steal our focus from Christ’s coming and wrap our souls into spiritual darkness. 
The final temptation is the long wait for the return of Jesus. In C.S. Lewis’ intriguing novel, The Screwtape Letters, he writes a fictional account of how satan goes about training young demons how to lure souls away from God. When quizzed about what strategies they will use, the young recruits offer several different ideas: I will instruct people God does not exist." Or "I will argue Hell does not exist." But Satan was annoyed with these suggestions: "most people will see through these lies.” However, another recruit said: "I will tell them they have plenty of time." With this, the devil smiled, because he knew this was a strategy that would work.

The coming of Christ can seem to be something so far in the future that we stop waiting for it. We can be lulled into a false sense of security and be tempted to think that we can always start cleaning up our lives tomorrow --- because Christ is coming someday, --- but not anytime soon. If we aren’t vigilant, we can grow bored and careless in our spiritual lives. However, Paul advises us to awake from our spiritual sleep because the night of sin and death is coming to an end; the day of Christ’s coming is near. And Jesus himself warns us strongly today in the gospel to be ready and prepared, for he will come at a time no one expects. Jesus mentions the days of Noah in his warning, which refers specifically to the fact that Noah worked on the Ark anywhere from 60-120 years! For decades, his friends and neighbors had the chance to repent and change their lives as they saw this massive structure taking place; God was giving them plenty of time to turn their lives around but they put off their repentance until it was too late.

Spiritual weariness, sinfulness, worldly comfort and the long wait for Christ’s coming are all dangers for us to battle this Advent season. These things threaten our relationship with God and make us oblivious to the Lord’s coming. Without God’s grace, we will be unable to stay spiritually awake and our souls will sleep right through this holy time. In her wisdom, the Church gives us the season of Advent to wake us up and to prepare us for the coming of Jesus, the birth of that little baby who will open the gates of heaven for all those who believe.

Let us resolve this Advent season to prepare ourselves well. Let us cast off the deeds of sin and darkness that are found in our lives. May we embrace daily prayer and make use of the sacrament of reconciliation and receive Holy Communion worthily, knowing they are like spiritual alarm clocks. Let us stay awake and alert so we might be prepared for the quiet coming of Christ in our lives and in our hearts.      

Monday, November 25, 2019

A Healthy Tension (34th Sunday, Christ the King, Year C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

One of the things that fascinated me as a child was watching utility workers climb up the power poles to do their job. Our neighborhood in Hazelwood had lots of large trees in the yards and the utilities ran through the backyards which made them inaccessible to bucket trucks and boom lifts. So when there was a problem with the power or a new service needed to be hooked up, the guy would fasten these special cleats to his boots and up he would go. Watching these guys work in our backyard made me add this experience to the Schroeder bucket list of things I wanted to learn how to do.

Fast forward to my assignment at St. Joe’s-Cottleville about 20 years later. One of the parishioners was a supervisor for Ameren and a former lineman. He knew how to climb up power poles! I was afraid he might think I was crazy but I figured it can’t hurt to ask. Amazingly, he was happy to make it happen and on July 27, 2012 (I only know this exact date because smartphones tell you exactly when the picture was taken), I got to climb up and down a power pole like a boss, which like so many things turned out to be a lot harder than it looks.

But here is the actual point of this story. When I was climbing, I realized very quickly that the power poles move quite a bit. I thought they were solid, immovable, stuck in concrete or something like that. Not at all, my parishioner told me, in fact a standard 40 foot pole is only in the ground 4-6 feet. What really holds them in place, upright and steady, is not how deep they are buried but rather the tension of the wires which hang on them. In fact there is a pretty exact formula for how they hang the wires and how much drop or sag they leave. The proper tension allows the pole to stand tall for many years and also can handle the expansion and contraction of the wires as they heat and cool during use. And once you connect a whole bunch of power poles to each other with power lines, phone lines, and cable wires, they become incredibly stable and strong.

Now how does this relate to the feast we celebrate in the Church this weekend, the feast of Christ the King? This celebration reminds us that Jesus is Lord of the world we experience here on earth. He is also Lord of the life to come when all wrongs will be made right, all wounds of injustice healed, and all suffering and tears will be banished. As Christians, we are dual citizens; we belong to both realms. And we are called to be upright, grounded members of both worlds. We cannot simply live with our eyes on heaven and ignore the problems, challenges, and sufferings of our society. If our faith is authentic and alive, the followers of Jesus will be on the front lines of the struggles that afflict the people of our times. We cannot be a good Catholic and be indifferent to the sufferings of others, especially the poor, the disabled, the inconvenient, the marginalized, and the unborn. We must be engaged and invested in bringing the goodness of God into our society and not just trying to white-knuckle it until Jesus comes back. 

At the same time, we are also members of a world, of a kingdom that hasn’t yet been fully revealed or realized. We are citizens of heaven and that means that this life can never fully satisfy or fulfill us. As good as the things and people of this world truly are, we have to constantly be on guard against making this life the end-all and be-all. We must be careful not to become rich in the things of earthly life and poor in the things that matter in heaven. This world is not all there is; God has something even better planned for the ones who know, love, and serve him in this life. 

Understandably, this living for two worlds, this dual-citizenship produces a very real tension. It’s not always easy to get it right and sometimes we lean too heavily on one side or the other. But the tension itself is a good thing. When we get it right, with the help of the sacraments, daily prayer, and works of charity, it is the very thing that helps us to stay upright, strong, and steady. And when you connect the examples and prayers and good works of Christians to each other, they become incredibly strong, stable, and transformative. This living spiritual network is capable of transmitting serious spiritual power all over the world. It becomes a power grid of mercy through which Jesus’ gospel of love, hope, and salvation can be communicated to anyone and everyone. 

Today’s feast is a gentle reminder to check the tension between our spiritual and worldly lives. Are we properly living out our dual citizenship each and every day? Are we engaged in our society and working to address the suffering in our world? Do we keep our eyes fixed on heaven, always remembering that it is our final goal and ultimate good? It’s worth the struggle to balance our affections for the here and now and also our desire for what will one day be. In the process we become holy and we support each other on our journey to heaven. May we be upright, virtuous, steady people who are ready to welcome Christ the King when he returns!

Monday, November 18, 2019

The End Is Near (But Maybe Not Too Near)!! (33rd Sunday, Cycle C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

If we pay attention to the readings the Church gives us in these final weeks of the liturgical year, we notice they are are more than a little dark in their mood. They tell stories of faithful Jews suffering for their loyalty to the covenant with God. They speak of bad kings, corrupt clergy, oracles of doom and gloom, incredible destruction, injustice, and pain. All of this leads up to the anticipation of a savior who will set things right and usher in a time of peace and eternal life for those who remained faithful to God and witnessed to him in the midst of trial and tribulation. The Church has us reflect on these heavy themes, right before advent begins, to jar us out of any complacency or spiritual laziness we may have developed in the past year. More importantly She asks us think about more than the life we are living right now but also the life we are made to strive for; eternity with God. And one simple question runs through it all. When the King of Heaven and Earth returns (and one day he will), what account will each of us give him? Will he find us faithful, watching, anticipating, and doing the works of his kingdom? Or will we be caught off guard, ashamed at the things we didn’t do for him because we thought there were would always be another tomorrow?

This question about the end of the world has captivated people of every age. Even the apostles wanted Jesus to tell them when it would happen. You could fill a library if you wrote down all the theories, predictions, and prophecies that have been put forth about when life on earth will reach its end. Even certain politicians in our time have offered a specific number, 12 years, as the remaining time before life as we know it, is over. But in fairness, it’s not all crazy talk and bluster. You and me, as Catholics, acknowledge the end of the world every time we celebrate Sunday Mass! In the creed, we profess that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end. This second coming of Christ is the final buzzer, the moment of eternal glory for all who have been faithful in witnessing to his name and serving his people. That moment will also be the beginning of eternal shame and dread for all those who chose to serve other gods or themselves with their lives. 

The natural human response to the end of the world generally takes one of two spiritually-problematic approaches. The first is to obsess over it and try to figure out the day and time by taking Scripture out of context, attempting to connect the dots of prophecies, signs, and predictions and also interpreting the problems of our times as the beginning of the apocalypse. This approach never works but amazingly, we humans do it again and again in every generation and Christians are not immune to it. In fact this is exactly what St. Paul is criticizing in second reading to the Thessalonians. A number of new converts in this town thought they had figured out that Jesus was going to be back any day. So they quit their jobs, and just sat around waiting for Jesus to appear and the world to end. Well, what happens when people don’t have anything to do? They started becoming busybodies, getting in everyone else’s business and causing trouble for the Christians who still had jobs and were trying to live stable, productive, holy lives. Worst of all, because they weren’t working, they couldn’t pay for food and were becoming a hardship to the ones who were still doing their job and living out their faith. So St. Paul takes them to task and says, “get back to work, stop being busybodies, and earn your own food”. If our thinking and preparing for the end of the world and the return of Jesus causes us to withdraw from society and abandon our responsibilities towards God and others, especially the poor and suffering, then it isn’t holy or healthy. 

But I don’t think this is the main problem for Christians today. I think we are in danger of taking the other approach to the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. In our time, it is much more common to procrastinate and avoid thinking about it all together. In general, we priests don’t preach about it; shame on us because someday it WILL happen. I also think the devil has been very clever to persuade most of us that being busy is the truest measure of being a good parent, a good priest, and a normal family. And so we live generally unreflective lives and bounce from one activity to another. Our first reading was from the prophet Malachi and he was the last prophet before Jesus was born. His is also the last book of the Hebrew bible and after he spoke, there is nothing but radio silence from God for 450 years until Jesus is born quietly in Bethlehem. Guess what Malachi was speaking against? The fact that many of the priests had become corrupt. Also that God’s people no longer observed the sabbath and rarely worshipped God. Instead they looked pretty much like their pagan neighbors in how they acted and what they strove for. Couldn’t that apply to our time? Do we Christians look and act any different than those in society who do not believe in Jesus? Do we try not to think about the return of Jesus because we have grown attached to this fallen world and we are happy enough as we are? Aren’t there times for all of us, and I include myself in this, where we put aside the things of God like prayer, coming to Mass, sitting in silence with God, serving others through regular parish ministry or other charitable works and being restored by Sunday rest and time with our family. Instead we run around like crazy people doing things that have very little value in the scope of eternity, perhaps figuring that we will get to that spiritual stuff later.

Whatever our individual temptation is regarding the end of the world and the return of Jesus in glory, we would do well to look it straight in the eye and own up to it. We cannot run from the inevitable, we do not want to live in spiritual denial of the fact that this life does not last forever, the good things this world offers are passing away, and each and every one of us will stand before God to explain what we did with the time and talents he gave to us. It doesn’t have to be a dreadful experience! But we need to take the middle road between obsessing over the end of the world and trying not to think about it. You and I are called to plan as if Christ's return were years away by building spiritual lives and charitable practices that can stand up to the challenges of a lifetime, but also live each day as though it was the one when Jesus returns. Living a spiritually-balanced and vigilant life is not easy. In fact it can only be done with the grace of God, which fortunately, he cannot wait to give us. Therefore, let us all, in these final weeks of the church year, re-affirm our belief that one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe a thousand years from now, Jesus will return and we want him to find us watching and waiting and doing the works that make us his people. If we’ve become busybodies or spiritual freeloaders, let’s not lose hope but recommit ourselves to living a healthy anticipation of the return of our king. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

Go Out On a Limb! (31st Sunday, Cycle C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

As many of you know, I went away to a boarding high school seminary in high school. This school was in another diocese, I didn’t know anyone at first,, and we could only call home once a month. Not surprisingly, I was terribly homesick, wondering if I made the correct choice. Then I had the experience of meeting Bishop Gaydos at the opening Mass for the school year and he somehow knew my name even though I was not one of his seminarians. From the first meeting even til now, he knows my name and that simple gesture made such a powerful impact on me. I hope you’ve had a similar moment in your life. Whatever our own experience is, there is something powerful about being acknowledged by another person, especially when we presume that person is too busy or important to care about little-ol-me!

Hold onto this feeling, this memory in your own experience and go back to the first reading. The author reminds us of the majesty of God. He is all-good, all-knowing, all powerful, any superlative, that is God. The universe is like a grain of sand or a drop of morning dew. Would you or I give a second thought about a piece of sand or a speck of precipitation? Probably not! But, the author of Wisdom tells us, God does! He loves every thing, every person he created and every thing that exists, even pesky mosquitos and annoying cubs fans, do so because God loves them specifically. He knows you and me and every single human individually and completely. He understands us better than we understand ourselves. Even though he is infinitely greater than the entire universe, the Lord is interested in you and me. What a mystery! Sometimes I think, “why do you care”, “am I a waste of your time?” But God cannot hate the work of his hands no matter how far we wander away from him. Which brings the first reading to its very fine and powerful point: God is not indifferent to our sins and the evil of the world. He notices it, it hurts him and he wants us to stop. But he shows us mercy, He gives us opportunities, loads of grace, and so much mercy in the hopes that we will repent and turn back to him. He is patient and thoughtful and corrects us little by little with the intention that his kindness will break through our pride and selfishness. He truly loves us, cares about every detail of our lives, and wants to be at the center of our minds and hearts just as we are for him!

Now hold onto this mysterious desire of God, knowing that it was burning in the heart of Jesus and go back to the gospel with the wonderful story of Zacchaeus. Keep in mind that this vertically-challenged fellow was not just a tax-collector but the chief tax collector. He was the worst of the worst in the eyes of his Jewish countrymen because he coordinated with the Romans, oversaw all the taxes, and made his wealth by charging extra and skimming off the top. So let’s address a few questions that might pop into our head as we heard this unusual story:

1) Why does Zacchaeus climb up a tree? It’s not just because he was short of stature. That is part of the reason, yes. But also, as the chief tax-collector in a large Jewish crowd, if he is recognized by people there is a good chance he will get a severe beating or something even worse. The tree provides a better view of Jesus and also some degree of safety as he separates himself from the crowd and hides in its branches. 

2) How does Jesus respond to this little man in a tree? He acknowledges him, he calls him by name, and he calls him out of the tree. How exhilarating and terrifying it must have been for Zacchaeus to hear Jesus call out to him! The messiah knows who I am! He cares about ME! Not only that, he wants to come to my house for dinner, which in the ancient world signaled friendship, acceptance, and peace. Jesus is living out the truth of the first reading, where almighty God seeks out every human person and makes him or her the center of the universe. 

And yet, Jesus’ invitation comes at cost. Zacchaeus has to leave the safety and isolation of the tree. He has to re-enter the angry and unfriendly crowd. But notice what Jesus does! He absorbs the anger of the crowd towards Zacchaeus and takes it upon himself. Now the crowd is upset with Jesus for eating at the house of a sinner and Zacchaeus is safe from their wrath. Lesson to be learned? Whatever danger comes with following Jesus’ invitation, he will be right there with us to help and protect us. But we have to stay close to him.

3) What is the result of Jesus’ invitation to Zacchaeus? He cannot remain in his sin. Jesus is gently calling him to repentance and holiness but Zacchaeus has to change the parts of his life that are at odds with God’s law. And this he does as he says, Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” The same is true for us. God seeks us out every day and wants us to invite him into our hearts. But that means we have to give up the willful sin in our lives. We cannot hold onto God and sin at the same time. God is gentle with us and willing to be patient with our weakness but we have to move towards him as well, no matter how setbacks we experience.

        Last question: What does this story mean for us? We have so many excuses to let Jesus pass on by us each and every day. We are busy, we don’t know how to pray, we don’t have time to pray, we feel unworthy, what will people think of us, whatever our excuse, we all have one. Like Zacchaeus, we are called to climb that tree, to go out on that limb to get a better look at Jesus and learn more about who he is and what he is all about. The beautiful part of our gospel story today is that Zacchaeus moved past the excuses and fears, many of them legitimate, and put himself out there to meet Jesus. And the lord of the Universe, was waiting for just this little opening in the heart of Zacchaeus. Once that opening was there, Jesus rushed in and, by sharing a meal, set the path of conversion for this once-sinful man. Every day, in some way, Jesus is passing through our life. Will we, like Zacchaeus, make the commitment to go out on a limb to see him? Will we accept the Lord’s invitation to let go of our sins and join him in the most holy of meals, here at Mass?

Monday, October 28, 2019

Are We Truly Humble? (30th Sunday, Year C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Over the last month we’ve been formed by Jesus in a series of lessons about faith and prayer. Using the image of a mustard seed, we were told the smallest amount of true faith can accomplish incredible things. The healing of ten lepers reminded us of the need for gratitude towards God in all he does for us. Last week the parable of the dishonest judge and steadfast widow demonstrated the desire Jesus has for us to pray without getting discouraged, and this week, we have a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector to warn about the danger of pride in our prayer. As Jesus tells the story, the outwardly-righteous Pharisee is not pleasing to God; the humble, sinful tax collector is.

In the parable, what the Pharisee says in his prayer is this: “I thank you, God, that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” Meanwhile, the tax collector simply prays for God to have mercy on him, acknowledges that he is a sinful man and doesn’t even dare raise his eyes to the heavens. He trusts God will hear his prayer but he knows he is not entitled to this Divine Mercy.

Notice the parable doesn’t doubt the Pharisee’s truthfulness: he has real moral goodness. He does things that are pleasing to God and worthy of imitation. Notice also that the Pharisee doesn’t congratulate himself on this moral goodness in his life. He thanks God for it and gives God all the credit. So what exactly is wrong with this Pharisee?

Eleanor Stump, a philosophy professor at St. Louis University, points us to the answer by referencing St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote about four kinds of pride.
(1) There’s foolish pride. in other words, you think you have an excellence which you don’t have, like a child who thinks he’s the best basketball player in the world or knows better than his parents.
(2) There’s the pride of the self-made man. You think you have an excellence you do in fact have, but you believe you got that excellence for yourself, without anybody’s help.
(3) Then there’s the self-congratulatory pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that God gave it to you; but you assume God gave it to you because he knew that only you would make such good use of it.
(4) Lastly, there’s the most self-deceptive kind of pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that you have it because God gave it, and you acknowledge God gave it because he is so good, but you are glad others don’t have it and you hope they never get it because it makes you feel superior to them.

All four types of pride are a problem. That’s why we say it is the root of all sin. And now we see what is wrong with the Pharisee. He acknowledges his excellence is a gift from the Lord. He simply doesn’t want anybody else to have what he has. He likes looking down on that tax collector and everyone else! And he is content to compare himself spiritually to others rather than striving to grow in true holiness. As long as he is better than the tax collector, that is good enough for him! That is the worst kind of pride and a deadly poison for our soul.

So how do we avoid getting tripped up by this spiritual pride? The remedy found in the virtue of humility. True humility is seeing that every goodness we have is a gift from our loving Lord. True humility realizes that the spiritual and material gifts we have are meant to be discovered, developed, deepened and then shared with others as freely as God has shared them with us; they ought not be hoarded with jealousy! Lastly, true humility rejoices in the gifts of others, even when they surpass ours because all goodness is by the grace of God and for his Glory. If we are humble, we are not threatened by the gifts and excellence of others.

We need to be on guard not only against pride but also against false humility which masquerades as virtue. Humility is not denying our talents or putting ourselves down. Humility is not trying to hide the things we are good at or finding every flaw in what we accomplish. Humility is not low self-esteem or self-hatred. Humility, in its most basic definition, is knowing who we are, both the good and the bad, as we stand before God. 

Which leads me to the final point. No matter how how good, how holy, how gifted any one of us is, we are all the tax collector when we stand before God. All of us have ample room to grow in holiness. And that is nothing to be ashamed of! In some way, we are all weak, fallible, and fickle sinners whose hearts constantly wander away from God. It’s no secret! He already knows it! So why pretend in our prayer that the virtue and goodness we do practice is somehow due to our own efforts or accomplishments? It is good to acknowledge our sinfulness and weakness to God. He has a special place in his Divine Heart for the repentant and humble. Our psalm tells us that the Lord hears the cry of the poor. The first reading assures us that the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds and does not rest until the Most High responds. With this in mind, we would be wise to present all of our prayers with a healthy dose of humility.

As we continue with the perfect prayer of the Mass today, let’s us make the words of the tax collector our own, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” If we offer this prayer humbly, we can be sure that God will not only shower us with his mercy but also his limitless grace and countless blessings.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Toilet Paper and Prayer (29th Sunday, Year C)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Before I dive into these wonderful readings, let me ask you ask you, “isn’t it true that some of the simplest things are also the hardest to do?” Think about the roll of toilet paper in your bathroom. How hard is it to change when it's empty? It takes, like 5 seconds to swap out. But how many times have we walked into this sacred space only to see a new roll perched precariously on the old like some sort of outhouse Jenga? Surely it took more effort to get the balance right than just change the roll! This is not an isolated problem. I read an article in the paper that there is now an escalating battle in the TP industry; double, triple, jumbo and mega rolls are no longer enough. They’ve all been wiped out by Charmin who is now offering the forever XL roll, complete with its own stand. It is more than 13” in diameter and is equivalent to 36 rolls of standard toilet paper. I think it's bigger than the tire on Fr. Sullivan’s Prius!! Of course this still does not eliminate the basic problem of who changes the roll; it simply delays it. 

Changing a roll of toilet paper isn’t the only simple thing that we humans have a hard time doing. Prayer is another. What is prayer? In it’s most basic form, it is simply talking to God. We can speak with the Lord anytime, anywhere, about anything. He is always listening and present to us whether we are here in church, in the car, at work, on a run, somewhere without cell service; you name it, he is there. Yet even though it is so simple, we struggle mightily to pray and even more so to keep praying on a regular basis. How often we put it off, over and over again, stacking many other tasks and activities on top of something that is so simple, easy, and essential. Or we start out strong, when prayer feels good and comes easily but then give up when it becomes challenging and dry?

We might wonder why we have to pray at all. If God knows everything and can do anything, why does he need our pitiful little words? Here’s the truth: God doesn’t need anything from us. He is complete. But He, in his wisdom, knows that prayer is what we need; prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us. And that process of articulating what we need, asking favors for ourselves and others, expressing sorrow for our sins, gratitude for blessings, all these things regenerate our spirits, increase our faith, and provide strength, healing, and eventually, holiness. God could do everything for us but, like a good parent and teacher, he knows we have to be part of the journey. Prayer is our participation in the process of becoming saints and returning to heaven. Prayer is something that is not hard to do but we have to do it. God can’t do it for us. He does the heavy lifting and hard work of salvation. He sent his son to fight evil and conquer sin and death. Our part is to stay close to Him and support one another.

Which brings us to another point about prayer. We don’t just pray for ourselves or by ourselves. One of the great lies of modern times is this notion of rugged individualism, that somehow we are strong when we don’t need anyone and do everything on our own. God loves us as unique persons but he saves us as a community, a family. We are not little spiritual islands that make our lonesome way to heaven. We do it together as members of a spiritual body. Our job as Christians is not just to be good people and make holy choices but also to support one another in the ups and downs of life. In the marvelous first reading we see this played out. Moses is praying on behalf of the people who are battling the Amalekites. God is doing the tough work of making them win but he asks Moses to lifts his hands in prayer, protection, and intercession. When he does this the Israelites win. But holding out one’s arms is hard to do, especially when the battle lasts all day. Moses gets tired and when he lowers his arms, he is no longer praying and the Israelites start to lose. God’s people figure this out pretty quick and they send Aaron and Hur to help poor Moses. They support him in prayer, they are truly his prayer partners and together with God they help the Israelites win the day against their enemies.

Jesus is the new Moses who holds out his hands on the cross until the victory is won. We are reminded of Jesus interceding for us in the battles of daily life every time we walk into a church and see his arms extended on the crucifix. But we are not just spectators. We need to be like Aaron and Hur, supporting each other in prayer, holding up the arms of those who have grown weary and discouraged. I cannot tell you how many times, as a priest, I have felt worn out or discouraged and wondered, “is my life and my ministry making any difference at all.” It never fails that someone will respond to my doubt and discouragement with something simple yet meaningful like, “I’m praying for you” or “I appreciate what you are doing”. I am humbled by how many times my arms have been lifted up by you, by your kindness and prayers and genuine encouragement. That’s why the “Our Father” has become one of my favorite parts of the Mass. In that moment, when I extend my hands in prayer with you and for you, I am reminded we are helping each other in the spiritual battle that continues as soon as we leave church. 

Reflecting on these readings also showed me how often I skimp on my prayer. I do fine during the week with a set routine but then when my schedule opens up, when it’s my day off or a morning where I can sleep in or I’m on vacation, how quickly I abandon those moments to talk to God! I suspect we can all relate to that struggle; knowing we ought to pray but putting it off until the day or week has flown by. So how about this? The next time you see that empty toilet paper roll, (change it and) let it remind you to pray. It doesn’t take very long, it’s easy to do and it will not only benefit us but others as well. Who knows how our day and our life can be transformed by maintaining this spirit of prayer?! Who knows who might be relying on our prayer to win some spiritual battle? If you struggle to pray or come to Mass, be encouraged! God will send someone to hold up your weary arms, just as he did with Moses. Lord, please give us perseverance in prayer like the persistent widow of the gospel and may we, like psalmist, always say, “Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!”