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Monday, June 29, 2020

Understanding the Mysteries of God (13th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Something that bothers many people when they read the Scriptures is the number of apparent contradictions they encounter. Humans in general and modern minds for certain like things to be logically clean and straightforward. If you expect that line of reasoning in God’s Word, you will be disappointed. For example,
• the last shall be first; 
• lose your life to find it; 
• take the lowest seat if you want the highest;
• the Son of Man came to serve, not to be served; 
• a virgin will conceive; 
• if you are an old childless woman with an old husband, and either of you are nice to a mysterious visitor, you will have a child in about a year!

Worldly wisdom tells us if we want something, we need to take charge and make it happen. if we want to be first, we must get to the front of the line, not the end of it. And, if we want to be alive, it's up to us to preserve our lives. These seem to be common sense statements but do they hold true according to the wisdom of Almighty God? 

If we want to gain understanding of the mystery of God’s plan for us and for the world, we have to first be willing to empty ourselves, our pre-conceived notions, and expectations of how God should be and what we want him to do. We have to humble ourselves and recognize that so many of the contradictions we see in the bible are not problems God needs to solve before we believe in him. Rather they are mysteries we have to live with until God’s wisdom shines forth for us to see. Sunday’s readings are introducing us, gently and partially, to ways in which our common sense opinions are not necessarily wrong but do not go deep enough into the mystery of God’s plan.

In the First Reading a distinguished lady in the little village of Schunem shows great hospitality to the prophet Elisha, even to the point of building and furnishing a little room on the roof of her house with a bed, table, chair, and lamp for him for whenever he visits. She is childless, yet Elisha promises that in one year she will be holding a baby son. She is shocked. But the promise comes true. Then, when the boy becomes a young man, he suddenly dies. Elisha comes from twenty miles away and brings him back to life. Life is given twice where there was no hope of life; death triumphing but life restored. Talk about mixed messages! Is this the way of the Lord?

In the Second Reading, St. Paul writes to the Church in Rome that they are baptized into Christ’s death and are buried with him!  It doesn’t seem like a teaching that would attract many followers or take over the world. But he goes even further when he writes, “if we die with Christ, we shall also live with him” We must die in order to live? Incredibly, yes! And Jesus goes first to show us the way.

In the Gospel Jesus makes the most enigmatic statement: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” No matter how we try to explain that statement away and sanitize its meaning, it still means what it says. Losing your life is the only way to possess it. Letting go is the only way to hold on. How can such contrary claims simultaneously be true?

A wise priest offered the metaphor of a drinking glass to make sense of these contradictions. A cup has to start out empty in order to succeed as a cup. If it is sealed up, solid, or already full, nothing can be poured in. A container has to be empty if it is to be filled. The same goes for us. We have to be empty and receptive to Divine Wisdom so God can pour life and love into us. This is the source of all the “contradictions” in the Gospels and in the readings this Sunday. If our hearts are already full of our plans, our wisdom, and our human power, there is no room for God’s. If we try to figure everything out ourselves, to fix both personal and public problems with worldly wisdom, we don’t allow God to share his solutions. We have to be emptied out if we are to be filled with God’s gifts. And that is most often what  life’s contradictions do to us; they expose the limits of our wisdom, plans, and power. They provide opportunities to accept what the Word of God offers: Life in the midst of death, power  in weakness, joy in sorrow. 

Our world, our community, our church, and many of our families have some pretty big problems these days. Let’s not be fooled into dismissing the wisdom of God simply because it contradicts what we have in mind. Time and time again, God has proven he can and will bring life and goodness out of the most unlikely situations. Let God’s love and life fill you! Don’t be afraid to empty yourself of whatever might be keeping you from accepting the will of God in your life. He will not and cannot let us down! But we have to learn to be comfortable with his apparent contradictions, knowing that he will make sense of things in his time. God is good! He can be trusted! Let’s make the words of the psalm our own, “For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Fear in the Scriptures (Fathers' Day- 6/21/20)

Happy fathers day to all our dads with us today: gift of fathers is to provide safety and formation while leaving enough room for each child to become who they were meant to be.

Fear is featured prominently in our readings.

Fear is real- it is foolish to try and create a world where we don’t feel it or ignore it

Fear is given to us by God but for a very narrow purpose.

Good fear: we dread the things that will harm us physically, psychologically and spiritually. 
This good fear keeps us safe; 

About three years ago I was preparing to visit Glacier National park, which required lots of planning and thinking ahead. One of the things I read over and over again was to have a healthy fear of the large wildlife you might encounter. A moose, grizzly bear, or elk doesn’t care about your feelings regarding nature and conservation. If you get in their way or strike them as threatening, they will make short work of you. Most of the accidents and tragedies that happen in our beautiful National Parks take place because someone didn’t have a healthy fear of a wild animal, the power of water, or the universal authority of gravity. 

Bad fear is an inordinate dread of things that may indeed be dangerous but we allow that fear to rule us.

Bad fear might keep us safe from one danger but it doesn’t allow us to grow into the person we are called to be. That limited safety comes at a terrible price.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen and experienced so much fear the last 4 or so months and I am challenged to know what’s good and what’s bad.

I know for a fact that the Coronavirus is dangerous, especially to certain portions of the population. But I’ve also talked to and ministered to many who have isolated themselves from the world and from the parish winning themselves safety from the pandemic, but they are so afraid that their mind and soul is being consumed. Is the health of the body more important than the health of the soul? If protecting our physical health is destroying our spiritual vibrancy, then maybe we’ve gone too far. Which one does Jesus tell us to guard against losing?

Before all of this happened, I wanted to believe I had a healthy faith in God. But recognizing the reaction within as lockdown took over, the economy fell, and chaos entered makes me think I have placed far too much trust in social structures and routines that I have built. No wonder I experience such fear!

How about the social unrest going on right now? I feel like I could handle a pandemic, economic meltdown, or social unrest but not all at once!

How fragile is the human society in which we live! It feels more and more like a tower of babel we have constructed pridefully, thinking we know better than God how to live and love. And we don’t even know it is collapsing until it falls on our heads.

What alarms me most is the shrinking personal freedom in our country. God, as perfect father, gives us a set of laws, the commandments to live by. But then he gives us tremendous personal freedom to live them and grow into the saints the world and church need to thrive. That’s why we have such a rich variety in the communion of saints. There aren’t just one or two for us to imitate but men and women from every age, demographic, and background. Holiness brings freedom, diversity and variety of expression. 

What seems to be more and more true in our time is that personal freedom is not allowed. In terms of addressing the racial wounds facing our country, are we leaving any room, as God does, for people to use their gifts and experiences to address the problem and bring healing? Are  we even consulting God for a solution?  Since these problems involve sin, only God can provide the way to healing. 

We are told silence is violence, you must say something but if it is the wrong thing you must be punished, fired, and destroyed with no mercy. On the other hand, if you come from a privileged place, you must be quiet, unless you utter perfect contrition and personal recriminations, and you have nothing to add to the dialogue. There is no doubt our country has a problem with racism but the approach that seems to be favored is a total destruction of the structure our laws and country. It’s like seeing a spider in your house and burning your house down to get rid of it.

Whether it is using fear to get people to stay home during a pandemic or address racism and inequality, we as a country need to step back and see how God addresses terror, sin, hurt, and tragedy. He knows us better than we know ourselves!

Jesus shows us the only response to heal the wounds of the world and address both the moral and physical evils which afflict us must be rooted in prayer, humility, openness, mercy, and love. 

Worldly power can’t do it. Brute force won’t work. Shame will backfire. Legislation will fall short.  There is no political messiah waiting in the wings to fix our world. Weaponizing fear will breed resentment, obscure truth, produce discouragement, foster hopelessness, and multiply sin.

It is easy to shake our fist at the world and be outraged. But perhaps we are here because good people have lived in fear of the wrong things? Instead of fearing sin and separation from God, haven’t we sometimes been more concerned about our social standing, of being different than mainstream culture, or rocking the boat? Isn’t it true that many times Christians have put more truth in the power of politics or economics rather than the power of God to show us the way.

I know I have. And now I see how limited the power of the world and my own ability to control things really are. These can be good for sure but only if it is obedient to God and his plan for us. 

It seems like an odd prayer, but in this time of uncertainty and upheaval we can ask God increase the healthy fear in us, the fear of moving away from Him and losing his grace. The beautiful and ironic thing about that prayer is that it will also take away the unhealthy fear that seems to be taking over more and more of our lives. Jesus wants us to live in peace, joy, and charity. As a perfect father he wants us to grow and flourish and live in harmony despite our imperfections and differences. May God bless our lives and remove all fear that keeps us from loving him and each other!

Monday, March 16, 2020

Fighting Fear (Coronavirus) with Faith (3rd Sunday of Lent)

To listen to this homily, click here.
To read the homily I was going to give about the woman at the well BEFORE COVID-19 struck, click here.

The 1866, St. Louis Cholera Epidemic killed one-in-ten city residents.  Parishes often had as many as a dozen funerals a day.  So the pastor of St. Joseph Parish at 11th and Biddle (today St. Joseph Shrine) asked his parishioners to invoke their patron saint’s intercession to end the epidemic.  They signed a pledge promising to "erect a monument” to St. Joseph in return for his help.  Miraculously, not a single person who signed the pledge died of the illness and soon the epidemic in St. Louis ended.  The parishioners erected a beautiful altar, known as the “Altar of Answered Prayers.” 

The people of St. Louis and certainly the Catholic Church, having been around for 2000 years, in every part of the world, has been through some pretty terrible epidemics throughout the centuries. 

Which isn’t to make light of the current situation. But we can thank God for so many blessings and advantages we have. We know what we are dealing with, we know how it spreads, we know how to slow it down, and we have the technology to develop a vaccine. We are blessed. 

It’s normal to feel fear about the unknown and our lack of control. But fear cannot have the final word. We have to respond by learning the facts and leaning on our faith. God is and will be with us throughout this whole situation. We might run from Him but He never abandons us. Because of His care for us, we must be the first ones, as followers of Jesus, who move beyond just taking care of ourselves to thinking of others in whatever way we minister to them. 

With every challenge, God offers an opportunity. These moments jar us out of our routine and make us think about what we put our trust in and how we use our time. With so many familiar pastimes cancelled or suspended like sports, travel and other entertainments, we need to fill that void with something. This can become a spiritual opportunity to realize how many things BESIDES God we lean on or go to for comfort and distraction. Oftentimes the penances and sacrifices we don’t choose are the best ones for our souls. What unexpected blessing and holy insight might social distancing provide for us if we give some of this time to prayer and reflection?

Personally, I’m amazed at much I miss sports. I walk into my room at the end of the day and just turn on the tv out of habit, even though there is really nothing currently on that interests me! I have to keep telling myself to turn off the tv and not just go right to my playlist on Netflix. Deep in my heart, this disruption is providing an invitation to talk more with the Lord in prayer. It’s forcing me to see how often I choose distractions over a quality conversation with Christ. Perhaps some of you can relate to that?

We need prayers right now. We need to be praying right now. What a wasted opportunity it would be if we look back and see that we  rarely prayed during this time and only sat on the couch watching the tv, shopped online or whatever else to desperately avoid feeling any boredom and anxiety. Even if we do that prayer at home, God can still hear us and we can talk to God not only for ourselves but for all who are affected by this mess. Maybe we can pray for and reach out to those whose small business is struggling because of the closures. Perhaps we could ask a doctor or nurse we know who might be working overtime if we can help in some way with a run to the store or some other errand that they have had time to do. Is their an elderly neighbor or family member who needs a phone call to see how they are doing and ask if there is anything we can bring so they don’t have to go out? Can we assure a friend or family member who is worried about their job that we will be there to help them if they cannot work?

These are just a few ideas but I’m sure you have many more. There are going to be many many ways to introduce grace and charity into an otherwise nasty situation. God is not going to run away from us; he never has. Just like the readings of this weekend, God, will always provide what we need and more. So let’s lead the way for others for however long this corona-lent lasts. Let’s respond to the fear and selfishness we hear about with hope, empathy,  encourage each other not to simply fill the extra long spring break or the working from home or the extended time at home into one long Netflix binge watching session. Don’t waste the opportunity for grace and holiness! These crisis are crisis for saints. Pray a little more, live charity, and remember we are not competing with each other but supporting each other so we can emerge from this pandemic a little healthier, holier, and kinder. 

The Woman at the Well (3rd Sunday of Lent)

This Sunday we have the wonderful story of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. Jesus had sent his disciples off for food, and he is sitting at a well when she comes to draw water. This story might lose some of its impact for us 2000 years later but by all Jewish cultural standards she was considered completely worthless and unworthy of even the simple gesture of a greeting. The fact that Jesus had an extended conversation with her and asked for a drink of water was completely scandalous, even to his most loyal followers. 

Why? First, she is a woman and she is at the well at the hottest point of the day. Many interpret this as John’s gentle way of saying that she was a woman who made her living at night by selling her body to others. It is only the disciples’ awe of Jesus that keeps them from asking him why he is talking to her without a chaperone to keep watch and protect his reputation.

Secondly, she is a Samaritan. As she herself points out, Jews don’t talk to Samaritans. Samaritans are self-made outcasts from the Jewish point of view, because of their intermarriage to five different tribes after the invasion of the Assyrians some 700 years before Jesus was born. Because of this, any self-respecting Jew would stay away from them because of their racial impurity. Talk about a long-lasting grudge!

I don’t think it's fair for us to hear this story without also remembering that it could not have been easy for the woman to accept Jesus. She likely had become cynical about men and as a Samaritan she would have also been raised with a hostility to Jews. Think of the disgust some Democrats feel about Republicans - and vice versa - and you will have a tiny idea of the bad blood between Samaritans and Jews. What a remarkable heart this woman must have had to move beyond her personal and cultural cynicism and remain open to Christ.

Thirdly, this woman has the sort of history that makes her a pariah even in her community. Jesus knows her status, and he lets her know he does. She admits she has had five husbands. Even by the lax standards of our time, this personal history would make people raise their eyebrows and take note. In her village she is undoubtedly a shamed person. Bishop Barron offers us a way to understand the deeper meaning behind these failed relationships that can also apply to ourselves. He says: "Think of the five husbands as five errant paths the woman has taken. She has 'married' herself to wealth, pleasure, honor, power, material things, etc.""Or think of them as five ideologies or gurus she has followed hoping to find joy.” If that is the case, if Jesus were to sit with you and me, how many failed marriages would he see within our hearts? Maybe not to another person, but to the things of this world or a certain way of life? How many times have we given ourselves wholeheartedly to someone or something, hoping they could offer us something that only God can provide? If that is the case, maybe the number of our “marriages” is even higher than 5! 

All of these factors combine to make this woman, in the eyes of the Jewish people and the ancient world, a worthless person. So what turns things around so that she not only accepts the living water Jesus offers her but then becomes the one who evangelizes her whole town and brings them to believe in Christ? What is the miracle that Jesus performs here and could it ever be repeated?

The first miracle Jesus does for the Samaritan woman is that he listens to her. In general, as modern people, we are terrible listeners to each other and to God. For example, how many could tell me, without looking, whose gospel I just read from? How many times do we meet someone new and immediately forget their name.? If you have any doubts about the state of modern man’s listening abilities, look at our nation’s politics and you will see how poorly we practice this skill and the division that results.

If we want to welcome back the outcasts, the ones who are deemed unclean or worthless by our society, we will start by becoming good listeners. What does it mean to be a good listener, not only with loved ones but also with God? Matthew Kelly gives 5 concrete ways to become a better listener. They are: maintain eye contact, be focused on understanding instead of responding, show your attention through body language, interact with the speaker, and listen without fixing. Today we see the skill of Jesus as his listening skills turns a potentially hostile person into a powerful ally and evangelizer! Of course, Jesus is God, but in his humanity he models focused listening - so much so that the Samaritan woman exclaims, "He told me everything I have done.”

The second miracle Jesus works is showing without shaming that only his love can fulfill her deepest desire. By leading her to acknowledge her sinful past he helps her to heal so she can open her heart and hold nothing back. Jesus doesn’t deny her sinful past or her previous bad decisions but he offers her a future free from regret and failed love. 

The world needs the example of caring Christians who are caring, compassionate listeners, following the example of Jesus. We can only learn that skill by first practicing it with God in daily prayer. The more we listen to God the better we will be able to listen to each other. Secondly, You and I should come clean about our past. We have to own up to our sin, to be truthful about who we are and tell him how many gods we have chased and things we’ve wed ourselves to. Only God can satisfy us, only his love can bring us peace, joy, and fulfillment. Everything else, everyone else might do the job for a while but ultimately they will let us down.  Thank God for the miracle of his willingness to always listen to us and to help us understand the desires of our own hearts. May we receive these gifts from God and then lead others to them like the Samaritan woman.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Keep the Spiritual Six-Pack!! (1st Sunday of Lent, 2020)

To listen to this homily, click here.

It’s hard for me to believe but May marks 20 years since I graduated high school. Talk about feeling old!! My high school experience, certainly a St. Louis oddity, was a year of homeschool and then the remaining three years at a high school seminary which was a boarding school in Hannibal, Missouri. Living with your schoolmates had its ups and downs, but overall we got along great and certainly knew each other well. I recently saw one of the guys I went to school with. He was a year behind me and he was the strongest of all the students. He could lift the most in the weight room and he was the person everyone went to get advice about getting in better shape. When I saw him this past year, I almost didn’t recognize him because of how much weight he had put on! And believe me, it was not muscle gain! This is not to put him down; he is happily married and loves being a dad. We all change as we get older in every area of our lives. But it reminded me that our past accomplishments, even our previous good health, is no guarantee that we will have those same things as we grow older. We’ve all rolled our eyes at the guy who gets out on the field believing he is still the same high school or college phenom of years past. We’ve probably all had the experience of helping a friend move or joining a pickup game in the backyard and waking up the next day so sore we could barely get out of bed. What we could do in the past is no guarantee of our future abilities; we have to work mindfully and diligently if we want to preserve and refine them.

If this is true with our physical condition, it is even more so in the spiritual realm. Our relationship with God, our progress in the ways of holiness, and our stewardship of the blessings we receive are all living, dynamic things. They never stand still. We are either growing or regressing in each of them, depending on how we use our gifts, talents, and time. They are not something we can put in the bank and draw from later, anymore than we could go to the gym 30 days in a row and then take the next 30 off, expecting to stay in shape. It simply doesn’t work that way in any aspect of human existence and I think most of us begrudgingly acknowledge this, at least in certain areas of our life.

Why do I bring this up? Our parish has a legacy of being an incredibly generous, vibrant, compassionate, and spiritually-strong community that doesn’t just take care of itself but actively tries to help others. Having been here three years, I can tell you this reputation is well-earned and true. This parish is not like many others in the best possible sense. There is a spirit of giving and “stepping up” not found in other places. Praise God for that. But the past generosity and service of Incarnate Word is no guarantee of its future. It will not continue to be that way just because it always has.

We’ve had many funerals over the past year and a surprising number of them have been either founding members of our parish or parishioners who were the first to volunteer when there was a ministry or person in need. These persons were not the ones to sit on the sideline, waiting for someone else to step up. They were the first to come forward and many of them saw what needed to be done, even before the priests or staff asked for help. They shared the best of themselves and that generosity and joy became part of Incarnate Word’s identity. They have been partners in our mission of bringing the love and mercy of Jesus to our community.

Many of these wonderful parishioners are gone now and others can no longer carry out their generous service in the ways they once did because of age and illness. It’s time for the next generation of visionaries and partners in our mission to step up and help carry the torch.

What concerns me is that it is getting harder and harder to engage people in the life of our parish. To have Incarnate Word continue to be vibrant, alive, and spiritually-strong, we need the generous, joyful, and willing participation of all who pray here. It cannot just be the job of the clergy, staff, and a few people who have extra time on their hands. Sure, the clergy and staff might have a more visible role in the daily work of Incarnate Word, but I assure you we cannot do the work that needs to be done without your help. We simply don’t have the all the talents, energy, or cleverness needed to be the hands and feet of Christ in our area. Also, Catholicism is not a product we engage with as a consumer, taking what we like and moving on to the next thing. Ministers are not just sacrament machines or functionaries that wait on us for what we want, and then disappear until we need them. What makes this place a community is that we are united in our love and worship of God and support each other with the unique gifts and blessings we have to offer.

Our parish will continue to be alive with grace and compassion, if and only if, each of us is willing not just to receive the goodness Incarnate Word offers but also give something back from the best we have of our time, talent, and treasure. The least of my concerns in these three areas is money! If our government can print money in hard times to ease a recession, God will have no problems finding the funds for what is truly important in the life of this community. We are most in need of a renewed generosity in terms of the gifts of time and talent. For example, we have a perpetual adoration chapel, which many of us take for granted. People from other parishes come to pray here because their own churches are not open for them. However, we are having more and more trouble finding people to commit to one hour a week so we can keep our chapel open. Many of our adorers are in their 70’s and 80’s and are covering 2 and 3 hours at a time. There are over 6000 people registered in this parish; certainly there are enough of us to keep this spiritual treasure available by looking over our schedules to find an hour to give back? Besides adoration, there are many other opportunities for charity, service, and leadership that are being vacated by our members who are entering a new stage in their life. They were there to protect and grow the spiritual gifts that have nourished us. Now it is time for us to lead the way so the next generation can be formed and fed.

I want to gently propose we use this lent to look in the mirror in terms of our generosity with God in the areas of time, talent, and treasure. Are we willing to give something back in all three to thank Him and help this particular parish continue to be in the best shape possible? Have we been a little complacent and hesitant to step up and help; more inclined to receive the spiritual offerings from this community than to give something of ourselves. Maybe we are tempted to think Incarnate Word doesn’t need us or we have nothing to add. I assure you this is not true! Each of us has a role to play in this parish and God will make our gifts a blessing to many others. But he can’t do it until we place them at his service. Take another look at the many ministries offered here, consider calling one of the priests or staff to discern how your gifts might be exactly what we are needing right now, tell us about a blind spot we are missing and be willing to be part of addressing it, sign up for an hour of adoration (partner with a friend or another family to give some flexibility), or whatever the Holy Spirit places on your heart. The key is that we are all doing something, all trying to grow in some way in our relationship with God and in our practice of charity towards each other. Otherwise we are regressing and our souls and our parish are in danger of becoming spiritually weak. Help Incarnate Word keep it’s spiritual six-pack and continue to be alive and healthy in Christ for the many who need what is offered here!   

Monday, February 24, 2020

Be Perfect, Not a Perfectionist (7th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

One of my favorite toys growing up was a simple piece of plastic, or more accurately, a whole bunch of plastic pieces that millions of kids enjoy around the world. They are Legos, those awesome building blocks that provide creative license to construct whatever your mind can come up with. I was not exceptionally gifted in lego-building but I would spend hours making all sorts of things, whether following instructions for a specific kit or turning a pile of plastic into something fun and occasionally dangerous. The only people I know who dont like Legos are usually parents who are either digging them out of the mouths of toddlers and pets or accidentally stepping on them with bare feet and unintentionally educating their children in the nuances of the English language. 

Its not surprising then that I was pretty excited to see the new lego movie which came out 5 or 6 years ago. Like many animated family movies, there is something for the little ones to enjoy and another level of humor and teaching for the adults in the audience. Without giving too much away, the movie opens around the boss of the lego worlds. His name is Lord Business and he is a type-A control freak who wants perfect lego worlds. He believes everyone should always follow the directions and he tries to engineer the population to act and think the same; creativity is discouraged. He goes nuts whenever someone veers from his vision of perfection, which is really just uniformity. In order to put an end to people’s creative actions, he comes up with an evil plan to freeze everyone in place so that people can stop messing with his stuff!I wont tell you what happens after that but one thing is certain: the vision of perfection that Lord Business has is not very healthy, happy, or fun.

There is another vision of perfection we have been listening to over the past few weeks from an infinitely more benevolent Lord. It is the Sermon on the Mount, which has served as our gospel during this month of February. In this teaching, Jesus is educating his listeners, including you and me, about what it means to be a perfect Christian. He has been showing us it is no longer simply about avoiding sin and trying to keep the commandments. That’s a good first step. But Jesus is telling us we have to go even further than just staying away from evil; we must actively pursue what is good. We must not only eliminate sinful actions from our lives but also the evil feelings, desires and attachments that make them possible in the first place. He tells us we are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. We are meant to be the leaven that builds up everyone around us. In fact, todays gospel commands us to be perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect. 

Is this a typo? Is Jesus exaggerating? Is he crazy? Is Jesus just another Lord Business who wants the world to look his boring way so he can be happy? The answer to each of these is no, no, no, and no! Our Lord is not exaggerating when he lays down this incredible standard. He knows how weak we are, he knows we often settle for far less than perfection. But he also knows our potential when we cooperate with his grace, especially in the seven sacraments. Because he is willing to work with us every step of the way towards spiritual perfection, he makes it a command. 

Gods perfection does not look like that of the Lego tyrant. Our Lord does not want us all to be the same, like Christian clones or spiritual robots! He gives us certain universal commandments and principles to follow which enhance our freedom and the freedom of others. Even better, Jesus wants every person to leave their unique mark on the world by living these commandments and beatitudes according to the unique gifts and talents they have received. Each of us will make our own contribution to history and to our Catholic faith. Those who follow Christ and his command to be perfect should be among the greatest, most talented, most interesting, most important people in history. God wants you to be creative in your journey to perfection and he wants to have a relationship with you that is unlike the one he has with anyone else. It might seem hard to believe but it’s true!

If we are striving for Gods perfection, we should not be looking around, trying to gain the praise of other people. This Godly goodness will make itself visible in ways like loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, we will forgive those who hurt our feelings or talk about us behind our backs. It will enable us to go the extra mile with those who demand something of us and keep us from turning our back on those in need. 

Gods vision of perfection for us is not easy; in fact it is humanely impossible. We cannot accomplish it on our own. It will be messy, we are going to make mistakes, we are going to miss the mark, and sometimes we will fail. Following this command to perfection will be uncomfortable, it has to be. It will require sacrifice and it will mean standing up to people who are doing wrong to us and to others. It will mean defending the truth, which is often unpopular, it will mean that we are sometimes mocked and rejected, even by people who should be supporting and loving us, maybe even family and friends. Growing towards Gods perfection means never settling for being better than most or comparing ourselves to other people. 

In the end, being perfect as our heavenly Father, is not about never making a mistake. It is about loving as He does, seeing others and ourselves with the eyes of God, which are always full of compassion, mercy, and self-sacrifice. This is what we are capable of and this is what we are destined for. So let us commit ourselves completely to this command of Christ, using our gifts and talents to pursue Godly perfection, knowing this is what will bring us to our heart’s desire. And let us thank God for being with us every step of the way to guide and encourage us towards that perfect love of heaven.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Keep the Commandments and You Shall Live (6th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

  My parents are incredibly frugal, fiscally responsible, thrifty, cautious, and prudent. I’m sure providing for 14 hungry children will do that. I continue to be amazed that they raised 14 children on my father’s middle class salary. Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch and that rule certainly rang true in our home. My mom had a whole list of house jobs listed on a series of float charts, grids, and venn diagrams. This outline of domestic duties was displayed on the side of the fridge and occupied a major chunk of real estate. These charts, which would have driven Cinderella to despair, were sub-divided according to weekly and daily tasks, many of which were only slightly less-difficult than what you might find in the labor camps of the Siberian Gulag. Each of us had our rotating jobs which were completed only after Mom had inspected our work and given her seal of approval. I was always amazed at her x-ray vision; she knew every time we took a shortcut, cramming stuff under furniture, in drawers, or in closets. Until her approval, all merrymaking, playing outside and other frivolities were on hold. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel, a reward to the hard labor that reduced my tender, young hands to little more than stubs of worn and weary flesh and bone. After the weekly gauntlet of manual labor, my parents would take us to the corner drugstore in Bridgeton and we would receive our allowance of an entire $.50 to spend on a candy bar. Talk about the working poor!  

As you can imagine, this weekly visit to the candy store was quite exciting. For those of us who were steel-willed, we could choose to save several weeks worth of allowance and purchase something more substantial and glorious. I decided to go down this road because I wanted to purchase a box of Cheez-its for myself. Imagine the luxuries of having 16ounces of mature cheddar crackers all to yourself! After a number of weeks, I saved enough for my box of Cheez-its and I had two very difficult choices: 1) I could do the reasonable thing and enjoy a serving of cheese-its several times a day until the box ran out (allowing, of course for the occasional thievery of my marauding siblings) or 2) I could eat the entire box in one sitting and truly enjoy every single one of the cheese-its for myself. Despite the warnings and advice of my parents, I choose the second route and paid dearly for my choice.

The lesson I learned from those cheese-its was very simple and clear: choose the right thing and you will have happiness and more cheese-its for later. Make the wrong choice and you will loose everything you had and more, if you know what I mean.

A similar, more profound lesson is being taught in today’s readings. Listen again to the straightforward message from the Book of Sirach: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Jesus confirms this wisdom of Sirach and takes it one step further when he says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

You can’t get more simple than this: keep the commandments and you will be saved. Follow the laws of God and the words of Christ and you will be eternal life and happiness. At the heart of our faith, things really are this simple. Obey God and you will enter heaven, disobey God and you will suffer eternal punishment. The choice is completely up to you; God will not force you either way. 

But if heaven and hell are really this simple, who in their right mind would ever choose to go anywhere but heaven? Why do we see so many people, including ourselves, choosing to disobey God’s law and break the commandments? Why do we endanger our immortal souls and our eternal happiness if this is so cut and dry?

The answer can be found in the words of Christ, as he explains the ways he has come to fulfill the law. For Jesus and those who follow him, keeping the law is no longer simply avoiding the big sins like murder, adultery, blasphemy, and frivolous divorce. It is no longer good enough to avoid serious sin while constantly giving in to the desires and motives of the heart which lead us to reject the love of God and our fellow man. What Jesus reveals to us is that truly keeping the law is only done when we get to the root of our sins. And if we want to choose to keep the commandments and gain eternal life, we have to be willing to root out all of those things that lead to sin; no matter how small or insignificant they seem.  

In other words, it is not enough to want heaven; we have to work towards it minute by minute, day by day, year by year, bit by bit. We can’t be ok with simply avoiding the big sins while falling in lesser ways with indifference. If this is our approach, sooner or later we will fall into those bigger sins anyway. Jesus isn’t satisfied with us being good people when we could be saints. That’s why he tells us in the gospel the shocking news that if a hand leads us to sin, cut it off, if an eye tempts us, pluck it out. Does Jesus mean this literally? No, but he does want us to understand we are engaged in a life or death struggle with sin. Keep the commandments and we live; disobey them and spend eternity in misery, separated from all love and friendship.

The truth is, no one starts out saying “I want to go to hell or I want to be a murderer, an adulterer, or a blasphemer.” We get there by fostering anger against others, by holding grudges, gossiping freely, indulging our desires, telling lies and allowing ourselves to become jealous of other people. These inclinations of the heart are the first seeds of violence against others and if we don’t work on them, they will explode into much more serious sins. The same is true about purity, We have to be willing to give up anything that makes it easier to lust after others. That means we might have to cut off the premium cable which offers impure entertainment around the clock. We may need to change the way we joke with our friends or browse the internet. It means we might have to eliminate certain shows from Netflix or Hulu, even though they entertaining. The same is true for the sin of blasphemy. We have to be willing to protect the name of God, using it only in prayer, not in surprise, anger, carelessness, or exasperation. It may make us feel old fashioned or silly, substituting other words, but it keeps us from becoming comfortable sinning in much more serious ways.  

The message of today’s reading is both radically simple and difficult; keep the commandments and you will be given eternal life. But the only way we can do this is to root out those things, those inclinations which lead us to sin. Jesus commands us to get to the bottom of our sinfulness, to the heart of what leads us away from him and to eliminate it completely. Anything less is unacceptable. The good news is that we don’t do this alone. Christ gives us the Church and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation to assist us in this slow and gradual work. So thank God for the many ways He calls us above our sinfulness and weakness and let’s chose to keep the commandments so we might enjoy life and love forever in Heaven!