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Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Most Important Issue (29th Sunday - Pro Life)

 To listen to this homily, click here.

The struggle you and I are experiencing as we try to be both good citizens and loyal friends of God is nothing new. In fact the enemies of Jesus try to use this situation to get him in hot water with the Roman authorities, religious leaders or both. But Jesus proposes a better way! He teaches them to ‘Learn what you owe worldly power and authority and give earthly powers the appropriate respect and obedience. On the other hand, know what is owed to God and give Him the things that belong to Him alone.” It’s hard to imagine a more relevant teaching right now; “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God.” The faithful Christian must constantly discern whether he or she is giving God and lawful civil authority their proper due. As Catholics, we must never forget that we first and foremost, citizens of heaven, That is where we are meant to spend eternity. Therefore all decisions and loyalties ought to be made with that allegiance to God and His law as our utmost priority. 

There are many serious issues facing us in the upcoming election: matters of human life and dignity, healthcare, immigration, environmental stewardship, economic policy, and education, to name some of the most apparent. There are no shortage of voices claiming to have the truth and proper priorities for us to follow as we prepare to cast our vote. There is an abundance of extreme speech from every direction, warning about the dire consequences should “so-and-so” win the election. Bitter division has festered in our families, between friends, and even in faith communities over the upcoming election. This is sad but it should not be surprising. This election is not just a contest between two political parties or ideologies. There are higher powers working behind the scenes. The devil, the prince of lies, the thief of souls, and spreader of division, never misses an opportunity to sow hatred and misery. He is working in the background of what is going on in our country right now. He cannot defeat God but he will never stop trying. He is like defeated bully lashing out, trying to inflict as much pain as possible in the time that remains before Jesus returns. 

The issues we face as a country are far bigger than political problems. Most of them spring from spiritual roots. This means they cannot be solved by human means alone. Politics can be part of the solution but we need God’s power and grace if we hope to see meaningful, lasting improvement. We need to consult God in addressing the challenges of today and follow his moral code.

It’s not possible for me to cover all the issues facing us as voters in one homily. That’s why Fr. Schneier and I made a couple videos to provide guidance in applying our Catholic principles to the issues at hand. Those can be found on the parish website and if you haven’t had a chance to see them, please set aside a little time to do so.

I have a responsibility as your priest to do everything I can to help you get to heaven and warn you of the spiritual dangers that threaten us as God’s people. Not all of the issues we face are equal. All deserve our prayerful consideration. But some are more pressing than others. Of all the issues we need to confront, the most serious are those dealing with the taking of innocent human life. 

In our country, the most urgent issue is the practice of legalized abortion which denies the most basic and fundamental human right to more than 800,000 unborn children every year. Our bishops, in their document on voting and faithful citizenship, call abortion the “our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed. There is nothing more important because all of our other rights rely on the ability to be born. Abortion is not a political issue. It is a moral issue dealing with human rights that has become political. We need to understand this so we are not tempted to abdicate our responsibility to practice our faith in the process of being good citizens of our country. We cannot be silent about the subject of abortion!

I think it’s also important to remember that behind every issue is a person. Sometimes we forget this as we engage in the political process and hear the various arguments for or against a party’s position. We get so caught up in trying to “win” people to our point of view that we forget real lives are at stake. A number of years ago I was sitting in my office as an associate pastor. The phone rang and it was a distressed young woman. She said, “I am sitting in the parking lot of PP because I am pregnant and cannot afford another baby. I don’t want do this but I don’t know what to do.” “I will help you, just please leave there and come to my office.” I said, as calmly as I could. I had no idea what to do exactly but thankfully the woman came to the parish and I promised to get her the help she needed, from diapers to healthcare to vocational counseling. What amazed me in the months and years after that call, is how God sent so many incredible people to help this woman and her child. I did not have all the answers; in fact, my main role was to connect her with organizations and individuals who knew how to help her. Over time, more than 2 dozen groups and people of good will provided assistance to help ensure that unborn child could be born and also to provide a viable future for her mother. I am happy to say that this young mom is now happily married, has a home, and meaningful employment that helps provide for her growing family. Some of the people that provided assistance to her in her moment of need are still in contact with her to support and encourage her. A few have become friends. I never saw any proof of the argument that Catholics are pro-birth but don’t help once the child is born. I saw exactly the opposite from every person involved and this has been my experience with the entire pro-life movement.

I was privileged to be this child’s godfather. That little baby isn’t so little anymore. She is a feisty, funny, young lady who is doing great in school. I can’t imagine our world without her. What a loss it would be!

Sadly, until the laws of our country change, 800,000 children in similar situations as my goddaughter will be sacrificed in name of freedom and choice. More than 60 million have already paid the price for our moral indifference and cowardice. There is a real price that is paid when we fail to live out our faith in the voting booth and are afraid to call abortion for what it really is: murder, genocide, or as Pope Francis describes it, “like hiring a hitman.” 

 But I don’t stand here preaching to you without hope. Our greatest hope is in the inexhaustible mercy of God. Despite the fact that our country has allowed the destruction of so much innocent life, I am certain that deep down America still values the gift of life.  There is still so much goodness in our country and so many still try to find that balance of giving to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to caesar.. Deep down we still believe that life is truly precious, life is beautiful, life is the fundamental right of every person and the very foundation of our country. But we must do more to protect those who cannot protect themselves. We must work to ensure that every person has the right to live regardless of whether or not their life is convenient, expected, wanted, or productive. And we must allow this mentality to transform the way we think, the way we vote, the way we live out our faith.

 Lastly, and this is important, these offenses against human life in our country make victims of the living as well. If any of you have been involved in an abortion and are hurting please know that you can find healing, peace, and forgiveness from Christ in his Church, especially through the sacrament of reconciliation. It is important for each of us to remember that there is no sin, no offense too great for God’s mercy. There are ministries in our Church like Project Rachael and Project Joseph to help men and women who have been hurt by their decision to choose abortion as a solution to an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy. You are still part of God’s family and we love you!

 As we come here to this Eucharist, let us renew our efforts on behalf of life. We have a responsibility to end the scourge of abortion. All humans deserve the right to be born and we should be the first ones to jump in and help those moms and dads who are struggling to say yes to life. May each of us build up a culture that respects and protects life in every stage, from conception until death by the way we vote, pray, and live out our faith! Hail Mary…

Monday, October 12, 2020

Come to the Feast (28th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah prophesies a heavenly wedding feast with "juicy, rich food and pure, choice wine." To appreciate the allure of this vision we have to remember that they did not have supermarkets with a variety of fresh meat and luxurious foods. Instead, for a special occasion, they would slaughter an animal and everything would have to be consumed or go to waste. There was very little ability to preserve food and most people lived meal to meal and could only eat whatever was in season in their local area. As for wine, it was consumed in limited quantities and usually diluted with water to make it last longer. The ancient world was one big lesson in “you get what you get and don’t throw a fit.” They would have been amazed at the overwhelming variety of food you and I have access to in this country. They would marvel at the fact that we can have summer food during the winter season and freeze cooked meals for months. They would also be scandalized by the fact that Americans waste 30-40% of all food that is sold in our country. For us, rich food and fine wine is an expectation, a birthright, a normal day in the life of a first world country. But this is new development in the history of the world. More than 2 billion people go hungry every day, even now! In order to appreciate the banquet language of our first reading and gospel, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of those who do not have food security, both in the ancient world and in our times. 

  To be invited to a wedding feast meant a break from hunger and the drudgery of daily duties. The wedding of a king's son would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience with several days of delicious food, abundant wine and general merrymaking. The prized invitation would come in two stages: first, a general announcement. Then, when everything was ready, they would tell people to drop everything, put on their best clothes and come. No one in their right mind would think of declining the king’s invitation. Even if you didn’t know the bride and groom, you would want to be at the big event to see and be seen. Even if you didn’t care for the king, you would respect his power and authority and do anything to avoid offending him. Even if you didn’t know the other guests or felt out of place, you would have to be insane to pass up free food and drink. Even more so the food and drink that would be offered to guests of the king. A wise and prudent person would do everything possible to be at the wedding feast.

Shockingly, foolishly some of the invited guests turn down the summons. Why? Well, Jesus says they go "one to his farm and another to his business”. They have other priorities; other responsibilities which seem more important to them. A farm and a business are good things, but these characters made them their ultimate concern, even more important than pleasing their king and joining the community in celebrating this happy moment. What matters most to them are the things of this world. In our time we might identify this way of thinking as secularism or materialism. In this worldview, the most important things to be valued are the things that can be measured, like wealth, productivity, health, and power. In this way of living, I put my desires before my obligations. It is, spiritually speaking, a very dangerous way to exist.

You don’t have to be a theologian to see that both the feast in the vision of Isaiah and the feast in Jesus’ parable are pointing to eternal life in heaven. Both images are using the basic elements of food, drink, and fellowship, things we can all appreciate and relate with, to give us a sense of what God wants to provide forever for those that accept his invitation. But we don’t have to wait until the next life to enjoy the meal God wants to serve us! Where do we find the finest spiritual food, drink and fellowship here on earth? In the Mass, at the Eucharist! The Mass is our link to the wedding feast that has been prepared from the beginning of time. Coming to Mass, worshiping at the Eucharist, joining in community each Sunday here at this altar is how we accept invitation of the King. 

Sadly, many people have rejected the King’s offer to join in his feast. As a nation and as a world, we are becoming more secular and materialistic. Fewer and fewer people practice their faith, go to church, or acknowledge their obligation to know, love and serve God! For many, the most important things are health, wealth, power, pleasure and productivity; all things that can be measured. They are good things, in their proper place, but they are not the best thing and can never become our ultimate goal. The rejection of God’s invitation, the refusal to eat with him at his table, surrounded by his friends, has an effect on us as individuals and as a society. It makes us spiritually starving and dehydrated. 

As we have become more secularized and obsessed with worldly things, we have fallen into more depression, anxiety, and addiction. The most vulnerable are our young people. The Center for Disease Control reported that in the month of June, 25% of young people, age 18-24, considered taking their own life. The study considered that the Covid-19 lockdown increased isolation, stress and substance abuse. The book of Genesis says that it is not good for man to be alone. Even living in a land of abundance does not satisfy the deeper hunger we all experience. We need each other and we need God.

To find God, like the people in today's Gospel, we have to accept his invitation. This is not easy. It is difficult to drop what we are doing and give God his due. Much of what our Church teaches is seen as foolishness in the eyes of the world. But we are in good company!  When Jesus first proclaimed the mystery of the Eucharist, "many disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him" (John 6:66) We have special challenges today. Nearly 70% of Catholics no longer believe the Eucharist the Body and Blood of Jesus. Nearly that same number only come to Mass once or twice a year, if at all! Faith is seen by many in our society as old-fashioned and irrelevant and the Church is nothing more than another imperfect human institution.”

As we hear in today's Gospel, Jesus invites the "bad and good alike". I don't know about you, but I am relieved to know that. I recognize that the Church is composed of sinful human beings. I am a prime example of such imperfection! St. Paul describes us as clay jars that contain an incalculable treasure. The treasure we hold is nothing more and nothing less than Jesus in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is our first taste of the banquet God wants to share with us forever. Everyone is invited but no one is forced to go.

Don't turn down the invitation. I know there are many things that compete for your time, attention, and energy. So many of them are good things. But nothing is better or more important than the opportunity to be fed by God and supported by his community of faith. What ultimately matters is how we respond to Jesus' invitation: "Everything is ready. Come to the feast." 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Grapes of Wrath (27th Sunday of OT)

To listen to this homily, click here.

This weekend is all about vineyards in the Word of God; in fact, the last three weeks have mentioned vineyards in some way, shape or form to teach us about God. Regardless of whether or not you like wine or prefer beer, the Scriptures pack a punch on many 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 established and prepared; not only did he plant the vines in the covenants he made with Israel, he also protected it through many miracles and the kings, judges and leaders he sent to 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 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 the loyalty and praise they owe him, 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 someone else. As things turn out, 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 healthy and remind the tenants to give him his due of sacrifice, glory, and worship throughout the ages. The open question that remains when we consider the parable in this light would be, “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? Most especially 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? 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 most challenging perspective is to look at the parable of the vineyard as 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, he steps back to let the vineyard have a chance to grow and bear fruit. All he asks in return is that our lives be fruitful and some of those blessing be offered 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? This grasping for ownership instead of stewardship is at the heart of every single sin we commit as individuals and society. Do we tend to store up more of earth’s fruit than we could possibly use while others die of starvation, neglect, and need? Do we act with violence against our fellow human beings with anger, gossip, judgement, racism, unforgiveness, moral indifference, or impurity, failing to see each person as a child of God? 

Today’s Scriptures are crystal clear; God is a generous and benevolent Lord; he gives us more than we could ever hope for or deserve. But he expects to receive his portion of the harvest. And when his tenants try to keep his share for themselves, when they ignore his messengers and mistreat his Son, there are real consequences. This truth applies to you and me too. We ought to reflect on what we owe God in every area of our lives; to ignore this question or put it off for another day is to put ourself in danger of God’s righteous wrath. Is God receiving his share from me as a faithful Catholic? Do I support the Church and her works of charity and mercy? Do I practice my faith completely or do I pick and choose what teachings I will follow? Do I conform my life to God’s Truth or do I try to conform God’s Truth to my life? Does God receive his share from me first or do I give whatever is leftover of my time, talent, and treasure? The same principles of giving God his due apply in other areas of our life also. Are we acknowledging and glorifying God as good citizens, diligent professionals, dedicated students, patient parents, respectful spouses, considerate friends and loving family members? If, in any of these areas of our life, we are trying to be our own masters instead of humble stewards, now is the time to make amends and start giving God his due.  

God will not never stop being generous. But we can be cast out of the vineyard and lose everything if we don’t repent of our greed and sinfulness. God will give it to someone more worthy. Think of God first in all things, acknowledge what you owe him, and be extravagant in thanking him. You will not regret it.  


Monday, September 21, 2020

What Does God Owe Us? (25th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

A story is told about a woman waiting for her connecting flight in an airport. She had a “red-eye” flight and had to kill time in the terminal until midnight. She was tired and hungry and the nourishment she settled on was a box of cookies at the Hudson News bookstore. She sat down and opened her carry-on, searching for her book. A man sat down next to her and, almost immediately, opened the box of cookies and ate one of them! This upset the woman but she didn’t want to create a scene. Besides, she thought, “Well, he is only eating one.” But then he took another one. Rather than get into an argument, the woman simply took one herself. Then he took one and she took another. This continued until there was only one cookie left. The man picked up the final cookie and said to the woman, “Would you like to split it with me?” She was so furious that she grabbed it out of his hand, took her bag and stormed away. When she got on the plane, she was still fuming and mumbling insults about the hungry hog that offended her. Before she sat down, she reached into her bag to find her book. What she pulled out was the box of cookies which she had bought!

The man she was angry with turned out to be the generous one. Which is similar to what we see in today’s parable. We can get mad at Jesus about this parable and think how unfair it is to pay everyone working in the vineyard the same amount. Somehow we feel entitled to be compensated for every little bit of work we do for God and His Kingdom, as if God owes us something. It gets even worse when we start comparing ourselves to other people. Why do they get more money, better health, more opportunities, less suffering, and better looks?! Doesn’t God know that they haven’t sacrificed, prayed, or worked as hard as me?!

However, this angry, self-pitying attitude is based on the false belief that God owes us something in the first place. In truth, God owes us nothing at all, not even our existence; much less the comforts, blessings, mercy, and love we enjoy throughout our time here on earth. In relation to God, everything is a gift. It all belongs to him. When we stand before God, we cannot demand any rights or entitlements. For the workers in today’s Gospel it seemed unfair that the ones who worked only an hour got the same pay as the ones who worked the entire day. But that presupposes we have a right to work for God in the first place. If we can humble ourselves and take a step back, we would see that simply being invited to work in the vineyard on behalf of the Lord is an honor and privilege we don’t deserve. That He offers to reward us for this honor is generous beyond our comprehension. This might be the first lesson of the parable: God owes us nothing. It is an honor to work for him. He can share his gifts in any amount or way he desires; whatever we receive from him is a blessing and we will only find unhappiness when we look around, comparing ourselves and what we have received to others. 

We can also learn something from the workers who waited, hoping to be chosen to enter the vineyard. Day laborers, in Jesus’ time as well as ours, didn’t have the security of consistent work and benefits like so many of us enjoy. All they could do is present themselves at the market in the hopes that an opportunity would find them and they could earn something to feed themselves and their families. We can imagine that those who did not get picked early in the morning were extremely disappointed. How many days had they returned home, ashamed, hungry and empty-handed? They had to make a choice: Would they continue to wait or seek more pleasant surroundings? The day was getting hot and it would be easy to give up, call it a day, and feel sorry for themselves. The more desperate might stay until noon. The remarkable thing in today’s Gospel is that some of the laborers waited until five in the afternoon. What sane person would expect someone to hire them for just a few minutes worth of work?! 

In some ways, the waiting and hoping are more difficult than working. When it comes to God, our blessings are not necessarily tied to how long or hard we work. Which is not to make light of the many selfless and dedicated people who serve God day in and day out; God will not be outdone in generosity in blessing their faithfulness. But, what is most important is how faithfully and patiently we wait for God’s invitation to join him in the vineyard. Some of us will be called early in the day, others halfway through, and some right at the end. Don’t worry about when or how God invites others. Just take care of presenting yourself every day for service to him. That is what prayer is all about, patiently, consistently, humbly listening to God and making ourselves available to him! It’s not hard to do but it sure is difficult with the many other voices, distractions, and false masters that call out to us in our society. 

What are some practical ways to help us be waiting and ready to accept the invitation from God?  Don’t spend hours and hours in front of a screen, gorging on mindless entertainment or pointless wandering online. We should learn to be comfortable with some degree of quiet and solitude, which are most often where God chooses to speak to us personally. We should work to get rid of any and all addictions with the help of God and people who love us. Indispensable are things like solid reading that feeds our minds, listening to talks and music which lift our spirits, cultivating healthy friendships, considering what other people (especially our elders and even those who have different world-views) say to us. Any and all of these practices will help us refine the virtue of patient listening with God.

Let’s thank the Lord, today and every day, for his extravagant generosity. When we are called is not as important as how generously we respond. God wants each of us working in his vineyard. He has a job for each one of us to do. It is not important that we are all invited to do different things at different times. It does not matter that we are rewarded in different ways. What really matters is that God is asking each of us to be laborers in the vineyard. Listen patiently, consistently, and prayerfully every day; and respond with your whole heart to God’s offer. He will pay us infinitely more than we deserve. 


Monday, September 14, 2020

Don't Hug the Anger Cactus! (24th Sunday, Year A)

 To listen to this homily, click here.

Fairly often an article is published about the negative effects of holding onto anger. It seems like an obvious fact but science shows that 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. I even saw a funny sign once that said, “road rage gives you wrinkles.” Yet, for all we know about the negative effects of anger, 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, in its earliest stages, 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 experienced anger himself. 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 must not be ignored. In its proper context, anger 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, losing our temper, or hatred. Those are personal flaws that need to be addressed and cannot be justified as good or Godly. Also, anger that leads to violence or revenge is never justifiable and is completely different from any 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 it true we often embrace the very thing that drags us down? Our anger becomes an anchor dragging us down; its like bear-hugging a cactus; that’s definitely going to leave a mark!

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, “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 shown mercy to us by sending us people to help and love us. We will also call to mind ways God has blessed us even when we didn’t deserve the good things we received. 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 make use of it! One of the interesting dynamics of the spiritual life is that we learn how to give something by 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 hug the anger cactus. 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 to others. We can’t just hold onto it for ourselves. One of the truths 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 flowing all around us these days. With a perfect storm of pent-up frustration from COVID-19, racial tensions, a presidential election year, and a non-stop news cycle that promotes constant outrage and division, many of us are walking around with tremendous amounts of anger and tension within us. I am convinced, in many cases, we aren’t even aware how tightly we are embracing this destructive emotion until we take the time to reflect more deeply. Perhaps it would be good to end this homily asking 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.” Am I mindful of the things that lead me into anger and provoke my wrath? I think we, as modern people, are addicted to outrage which is constantly enabled by the 24 hr news and social media. For many of us, this is a near occasion of sin! There is no moral obligation to know every single current event and political story happening around the world! If our efforts to stay informed are leading to anger, despair, and a loss of peace, we need to stop embracing those things.

The readings say very clearly, "Let go. Let go of the battle stories. Stop hugging anger and hatred." Forgive those who hurt you and insult you. No exceptions. This hatred has turned our lives into a prison. It has been the chain that holds us back. We are called 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!

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Does God Want Us to be Happy? (22nd Sunday, Year A)

 To listen to this homily, click here.

Reflecting on the remarkable readings we just heard brings a couple questions to mind: Does God care if we are happy or not? Does God WANT us to be happy?

Poor Jeremiah is hurting in the first reading! He was asked to be a prophet during the reign of King Josiah, who was a righteous, kind, God-fearing man. He supported Jeremiah and embodied the holiness Jeremiah called the people to live. It was like working alongside the best boss you could imagine. Then, not long after Jeremiah agreed to be God’s prophet, Josiah was betrayed and killed on the battlefield and everything changed for the worse. Quickly, the people forgot the ways of God and tried to find worldly solutions for their problems. They grew weary of the prophet’s calls to repentance and his predictions of doom and gloom for their sinful living. Instead of being respected and listened to, Jeremiah was imprisoned, mocked, physically beaten, and publicly scorned. That is the heartbreak behind his words today as he cries out, “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped”. In other words, when you asked me to be your prophet, everything was good and the job was sweet. And then the rug was pulled out from underneath me! Have you ever felt the same as Jeremiah? Do you think God wanted him to be happy? O was he just tricking Jeremiah with an illusion of happiness to get him to do what he wanted?

In the second reading, St. Paul is begging with the Romans to offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God. That doesn’t sound very enjoyable! What is behind his plea? The gentile Romans had been gloating that they had accepted the gospel of Jesus while so many of the Chosen People had rejected it. They weren’t just rejoicing in their salvation, they were thumbing their nose at the many who had not converted to Christianity. It was like they were spiritually taunting those who had rejected Christ. St. Paul is calling them to task and telling them to knock it off. How can they be happy when others are rejecting Jesus’ message of salvation? How can they rejoice in the spiritual downfall of others? St. Paul wants them to rejoice in the salvation they have received but express it by joyfully offering themselves as a sacrifice so that others will join them in professing Jesus Christ. In short, their personal happiness is not the most important thing; what it most important is that everyone know and believe in Jesus.

In the gospel, Peter is on top of the world! He, a lowly fisherman from Galilee, has been appointed prime minister of God’s Church on earth! What an honor! Who could have seen that coming? Immediately after this incredible appointment, Jesus informs him that the way the Messiah will triumph is by suffering the most humiliating and painful death possible for the sins of humanity. Peter can’t believe it and tries to talk some “sense” into Jesus. We can almost hear him say, “Jesus, can’t you let me enjoy this moment?! What is all this talk about suffering, death, and the cross? Don’t you want me to be happy?

In each of these readings, we might wonder what is the harm of letting each of the characters enjoy a little victory lap. Why can’t Jeremiah have some time to enjoy some popularity and the consolation of having the people respond joyfully to his message? Can’t the Romans have a some time to relish the irony that the pagans were among the first to accept the salvation of Jesus instead of the Chosen People who had been preparing for centuries? 

And why can’t Jesus just keep his unsettling news about his passion and death to himself for a little longer? Let Peter soak in the glory of the honor he has received as the rock of the new church. Doesn’t God want them to be happy? Doesn’t he care about them and the joy in their heart? The answer to both questions is YES! God wants us to be happy. But he wants that joy to last forever. God is not interested in placating us with superficial pleasures. The fruit of our joy can never be rejoicing in the downfall of another person. We cannot work for the type of joy that comes at the cost of speaking the truth and continuing to grow in our relationship with God. Otherwise, our quest for happiness becomes a form of idolatry.

God does not promise us unlimited peace, joy, and acceptance during our life on earth; in fact he predicts the exact opposite. Jesus wants us to be happy more than we want it for ourselves but he also has the Divine Knowledge to see what it's going to take to get it. One of the ironies of Christianity is that you save your life by laying it down, you become rich by letting go of what you have, and you find happiness by living not for your own desires but for the good of others. It seems counter intuitive but how true it really is! Imagine an athlete wanting to be a champion without enduring any of the hardship, pain, and discipline of training? Or a student who wants to be top of the class without ever rejecting distractions and embracing the self-denial of study? True greatness, real growth, and lasting joy come at a cost. Most often we have to let go of the immediate good and comfort that lies in front of us and look down the road to a greater goal that can only be reached by sacrifice. 

If these ironies and seeming contradictions are true for worldly ambitions and situations, they are even more relevant when it comes to spiritual matters. God wants you to be completely happy. But he also wants the same for each and every person in the world. Your happiness and mine cannot come at the expense of others. In our sinful selfishness, we often prioritize our happiness regardless of how it hurts others. What is the solution? Strangely, it is what we see in our readings today. Embrace the cross, offer yourself to God as a spiritual sacrifice, be willing to let go of what you want and give away what you have. Don’t seek fame, acceptance, or popularity. Don’t allow your joy to rest on success. Instead, follow Him. Take up your cross daily, invite others to join you in living the way of Jesus, the way of Salvation. And then you will have eternal life, everlasting riches, deep joy, and unending happiness. 

One last nugget for you to chew on. Each of the three folks in our readings today died as martyrs in the service of God. In worldly terms, they had lousy lives filled with pain, difficulty, and failure. They did not see the fulfillment and fruit of their sacrifices during their earthly life. They had to walk in faith that God would make it all mean something. With the gift of thousands of years, we see that all three are in heaven now. All three have been vindicated and will never be forgotten. How much joy they must experience as they sit with God, with the angels and saints, and rejoice in the wisdom of God which involved a relatively short time of suffering and is now replaced with everlasting joy, peace, and happiness. God wants exactly the same for you and me. Believe it. Remember it will only come with sacrifice. But that suffering is short compared to eternity. So tell God you trust him. Tell him you are ready to carry your cross!

Monday, August 24, 2020

God the Builder (21st Sunday, Year A)

 To listen to this homily, click here.

Jesus says to Peter this Sunday: "Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah..., you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church…" This passage has caused countless arguments between Catholics and other Christians as to what exactly Jesus meant by these words. But before saying something about Peter's role and that of his current successor, Pope Francis, it is important to highlight Jesus' primacy as leader of the Church. Five centuries of controversy about the authority of the pope from Protestant reformers have perhaps caused us to forget that Jesus himself is the invisible head of the Catholic Church. He says it clearly, "I will build my church.” For that reason, we believe our Church, as imperfect as her leaders and members often are, is divinely inspired and guided when it comes to the most fundamental matters concerning faith and morals.

One of Jesus’ defining characteristics is that he is a builder. He was alongside the Father in creating the world. In taking on our human nature, it is no coincidence that most of his life he worked as a carpenter; he made stuff out of wood. His public ministry was also one of intense building activity. He was not a "lone ranger" like John the Baptist out in the desert. From the beginning he formed a core of disciples and chose Twelve of them as a sign he was establishing a "New Israel." The former Israel was Yahweh's bride; the new Israel, the Church, is Jesus' bride. Jesus continues to form his bride through the power of the Holy Spirit and the sacraments. As long as new souls are are born, Jesus continues the work of building the Church.

One of the ways Jesus forms his church is by inspiring individual Christians to do their part along with him. That is why tithing, supporting the works of the Church, and helping those in need are so important to our identity as Catholics. Whenever we commit to sharing our time, talent, and treasure in a free and generous way, we are participating in the building up of God’s kingdom. If we allow Jesus to work through us, including through our material possessions, He continues his work of building the kingdom of God. 

Of course Jesus could do everything himself without having to deal with the messiness that comes with getting humanity involved. But in His mysterious wisdom God knows there are more spiritual benefits to having us work alongside him in the process of salvation instead of just sitting back and receiving spiritual entitlements. In the process of giving and building, we are changed by God’s grace and our love of God and love of neighbor is deepened. Think of how much Incarnate Word relies on your willingness to volunteer for our many ministries. We could never afford to hire people to do all those tasks with the same level of care and creativity! Your monetary support through the collection not only represents giving back to God some of what he has given you, it is also a participation in his work of building the Church. 

Many scholars and preachers have commented on how weak Peter could be. At times he was emotional, brash, cowardly and petty. If one was only relying on human wisdom, Peter would not be the first choice to lead a church that was destined to be eternal. Bishop Fulton Sheen speculates that Jesus chose Peter precisely because of his weaknesses. He wanted to make it clear the Church does not ultimately depend on man's strength. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and in a real sense Peter himself is the weakest link in the chain of popes. But once that weakness is submitted to God for healing and transformation, bedrock is found and Jesus takes over the process of building.

Sometimes people ask what I think about the pope. I generally say that it doesn’t really matter what I think or feel about him. What matters most is that I respect him as Christ's Vicar here on earth. I owe that to God. It does not mean every utterance of the pope will be correct. Nor does it mean his every action will be holy. History unfortunately provides many examples to the contrary. But it does mean we can trust that the Holy Spirit will use the magisterium and the office of the Papacy to give us sound doctrine.

This is no small guarantee. When you consider how many different Christian denominations have sprung up, each of them claiming a Scriptural basis, it is nothing short of miraculous that the 267 popes from St. Peter to Francis have held such a consistent course. Some small credit goes to the personal holiness and wisdom of our popes who have cooperated with God’s grace. The majority of praise must go to Christ and his Holy Spirit. He knows how to build things that last. If we are humble and docile enough to play our part in that process of building, we can enjoy being a piece of something that will be here long after we are gone. 

Let’s make sure we pray for the Pope each and every day, that he can cooperate with God’s grace in the many decisions he makes and the many burdens he must carry. Let’s thank God for his wisdom as a builder, that he has not left us alone or abandoned but always gives us a shepherd to help us on the road which leads us back to heaven. Finally, let’s be generous in sharing what we have when Jesus invites us to be part of his building process. God can work around our weaknesses and sins! As long as we follow him humbly, our acts of charity and worship can strengthen the foundations of our Church and make it even more beautiful and effective in saving others who are looking for Christ.