Monday, August 19, 2019

The effects and consequences of being God's prophet

Homily: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Friends, this week our scriptures give us a glimpse of both the effects and the consequences of being God’s prophet.  In the first reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, we enter the scene after Jeremiah has been making his prophecy.  The Babylonians had laid siege to Jerusalem (meaning, they had surrounded the city and had cut off all supplies from outside, like food, from coming in).  Jeremiah had been called by God to proclaim that the Babylonians had been sent by God as a punishment against them for having grossly sinned against his commandments.  This message had demoralized the soldiers and so none of them wanted to go and fight the Babylonians.  Then, to top it off, God prompted Jeremiah to declare to the king that it was his will that they surrender to the Babylonians without a fight: saying that, while the city would be lost, the people would be mostly saved.
          Well, neither of these things sat well with the king and his closest advisors.  The Babylonians were absolutely despised by everyone and so the thought of surrendering to them was unconscionable.  Further, they were convinced that God was still with them and so could defeat the Babylonians if they engaged them in battle.  They knew that Jeremiah was a true prophet of God.  Thus, his prophecies unnerved them, leading them to seek to silence his voice.  And so, we see that the effects of his prophecy were to disturb his hearers, creating division among them, and the consequences were that he suffered severe punishment at their hands (being thrown in a cistern and left for dead).
          In the gospel reading, we hear Jesus declare both the effects and the consequences that his own prophecies will have.  He declares that his teaching will both disturb and cause division, and that this division will not be into broad, loosely connected groups, but rather that it will cut to the very core of every family (a father against his son and a son against his father...).  And the consequences of his teaching will be that he will be baptized in a “baptism with which he must be baptized”, which we know to be an allusion to the Crucifixion.  As we know well, his teaching did disturb and cause division, leading the prominent persons of the day to seek to silence his voice.  Thus, the consequence of his teaching was the severe punishment of the cross.
          So, why is it important for us to hear these readings and, thus, to understand the effects and consequences of being a prophet?  Well, simply stated, it’s because the world is in desperate need of prophets: that is, men and women who will listen to the word of God, observe the world around them, and then be bold enough to speak God’s truth into the world, calling out those who are living contrary to God’s commandments, announcing to them the consequences if they continue, and then calling them to repentance, that is, to turn back to God so that the announced consequences might not be realized.  They are desperately needed because so many people today are turning away from God because they think that the pursuit of him will lead to a dreary and sullen life and so turn to a life of pursuing personal satisfaction, often to destructive ends.  In hearing this message today, each of us is being reminded of our call to be prophets to those around us.
          This “glimpse” of the effects and consequences of being a prophet can be used as an examination of conscience of sorts as to how well we are fulfilling our role of being prophets in the world.  Believe it or not, the first question of this examination has nothing to do with whether I’ve disturbed and caused division, but rather with whether I’ve spent time listening to the word of God.  Are we spending time praying with and studying the scriptures and the teachings of the Church (which are derived from the scriptures and the Tradition of the Apostles), or are we spending more time watching Fox News or CNN (or, worse yet, endless mindless shows on television or Netflix)?  If we are not spending time every day listening to God’s word in this way, then how can we know the message that God is calling us to announce to others?  The answer, of course, is that we can’t; and so, when we (inevitably) observe the world around us (because we’re watching too much Fox News or CNN, remember?), although we may recognize that things are off-kilter, we do not know how to respond.  At first, we may feel frustrated since we sense that we should do something.  After some time, however, that sense of frustration without action hardens our hearts until we no longer feel even the frustration.  Friends, let me tell you: This is a bad place to be.
          The hearts of those to whom God is calling us to share his prophetic message have hardened themselves against him (like King Zedekiah and his advisors and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day).  When we fail to listen to the word of God in our daily lives, we, too, allow our hearts to harden against him, thus rendering us useless as prophets of God and, quite frankly, putting us in danger of losing heaven for having failed to love him.  Letting your heart become hard is the easier way to go, however, since we all know (at least instinctually) that the effects of being a prophet are to disturb and cause division (which nobody likes) and that the consequences of being a prophet are to suffer severe punishment.  Having a hardened heart may lead to a more dispassionate and unfulfilling life, but at least it’s a quieter one.
          Friends, I’ve struggled a lot with heart hardness over these last few years.  I’ve allowed the busyness of the world to over-occupy my mind and my heart and I’ve allowed my fear of the effects and consequences of being a prophet to lead me, at times, to stop listening to God’s word.  Thus, I realize that, if I’ve been a lousy prophet for God, it’s because I’ve stopped loving him; because if I really loved him, nothing would ever stop me from speaking his truth into the world.  The prophet Jeremiah never stopped listening to God’s word and so never stopped loving him, in spite of all that he suffered because of it.  Thus, in a lament after much suffering, he could write: “I say to myself, ‘I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.’ But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it” (Jer. 20:9).  One who has a hard heart, who has stopped loving God, does not have this experience.
          Brothers and sisters, the question that faces us today is this: am I willing to open myself to being God’s prophet in this world that so desperately needs it?  Am I willing to open myself to speaking God’s truth to the people closest to me, knowing that it will disrupt them and cause division as well as cause great suffering for me (itself the purifying fire that Jesus came to set ablaze!)?  If your answer is not “yes”, then it’s time to check your heart; perhaps you’ve allowed it to become hardened and, thus, your love for God to grow cold.  If so, don’t worry.  God’s love for you is still a burning fire and the evidence of this is soon to be made present to us on this altar: the Body and Blood of Jesus, his Son, whom he sacrificed for us.  As you approach this altar, ask him to take from you your hardened heart and to give you a heart of flesh that will burn with love for him again: the love that has the power to overcome every trial and suffering on earth and so prepare us for the eternal life of peace which Christ, himself, has won for us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 18th, 2019

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Mary's Assumption and the dignity of our bodies

Homily: Solemnity of the Assumption (Day) – Cycle C
          Recently, I read an article by Dr. John Grondelski in which he speaks about how the reality of Mary’s Assumption, body and soul, into heaven has much to teach us today, particularly when it comes to the attitude with which we treat our bodies.  I thought that he was spot on and so I want to try to summarize this here for you today as we celebrate this great mystery of our faith.
          As with the Ascension of our Lord, in his glorified human body, into heaven, the Assumption of Mary presents us with a bit of a faith dilemma: How can our human bodies, which are profoundly affected by time and finitude, exist in eternity? and what does it mean that, ultimately, we will exist bodily (not just spiritually) in eternity?  This is not an easy question to answer in our modern culture, as we seem to be in a period where, in regards to the body, les extremes se touchent (“the extremes meet”).
          On the one hand, we have a culture that seems to idolize the body and physical appearances.  Instagram alone has both caused a need for and given rise to a “positive body image” movement: the result of a culture that makes physical appearance and bodily satisfaction of paramount value.
          At the same time, our culture promotes the idolization of the “I”, and that the “I”, that is the wholeness of the person, is reduced to consciousness and thought.  In this extreme, a person’s body is nothing but a tool that he/she uses to interact with the world, but which has no direct impact on who he/she is as a person.  Biological sex is meaningless.  How one identifies in one’s consciousness is paramount.  The body, therefore, is useful, at best, and expendable, at worst.
          So the body is everything and the body is nothing, says a profoundly conflicted modern culture.  How blessed are we, then, to have a faith that can help resolve this conflict by stepping back from the extremes to show us the true value of the human body.  Most recently, it was Pope Saint John Paul II who strove to show the genuine value of the human body as related to the person in his catechesis, the Theology of the Body.
          As did many theologians before him, he recognized that, in becoming incarnate, God invincibly assured us that the bodies he created for us are good and essential to who we are as persons.  In taking that human body, in glorified form, into heaven in his Ascension, he further demonstrated the value of the body as the means through which we will enter into communion with him.  In Mary’s Assumption, body and soul, into heaven, Saint John Paul II saw the fulfillment of God’s promise to return and to bring his holy ones home to himself.  Thus, he could teach that the body—in the form that it is given to us, male and female—is both good and essential to who we are as creatures, created in the imago Dei, the image of God.
          Today, as we honor Mary as the first of Christ’s disciples to experience the full restoration promised to us when our first parents were expelled from Eden, let us not hesitate to speak of the dignity of the human body as the means by which we will experience communion with God in eternity.  And let us give thanks, here in this Eucharist, that we can experience that communion even now: offered to us through Christ’s Body and Blood that is made present to us—really and truly present—here on this altar.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 15th, 2019

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Trusting that God fulfills his promises

Homily: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
Friends, a dominant theme in today’s readings is that God fulfills his promises and that those who, therefore, place their trust in God are greatly rewarded.  In the first reading from the book of Wisdom, we are reminded that God promised the Israelites that he would lead them out of slavery in Egypt into a land that would be their own, where they would enjoy freedom and prosperity.  The sign would be the Passover, when God would send his destroying angels to eliminate the first-born throughout the land of Egypt but would spare the Israelites if their homes were marked with the blood of the sacrifice.  This command was not without risk.  The Israelites were not allowed to offer sacrifice to God in Egypt and so, if God did not fulfill his promise, the morning after the proposed “Passover” the Egyptians would see that they did, indeed, sacrifice to their God and so would punish them severely for it.  The Israelites, having seen the other signs that God had performed (the other 9 “plagues”), trusted that God would fulfill his promise and so made the sacrifice.  They were rewarded with their liberty.
In the second reading we go back further in salvation history to Abraham and recall that he, too, trusted that God fulfills his promises and so was rewarded.  Abraham was one of a certain people who lived in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans (modern-day Iraq).  God called him out of that land, however, so as to make of him the first of a new people, set apart for God alone.  Abraham set out, already advanced in years, yet without any children, trusting that God would fulfill his promises if he remained faithful.  Even after his wife Sarah conceived and bore him a son (through which this promise of “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky” might be fulfilled), Abraham trusted when God asked that he offer his son as a sacrifice.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that Abraham “received Isaac back as a symbol”: a symbol that God, indeed, fulfills his promises.
Then, in the Gospel reading, we hear Jesus give stern warnings to his disciples.  “Be vigilant!  As my disciples, don’t waste time with worldly pursuits, but always be about the work that I am giving you!  You will not know when I return; and if I return and find you lounging around (or worse!) you will be severely punished.  But if you are found to be about the work that I have given you, you will receive a blessed reward.”  It’s the kind of warning that can make you sleep with one eye open, right?  It’s the kind of warning that gives rise to bumper-stickers that say, “Jesus is coming, look busy!”  The warning is not so much a threat, however, but a promise: for at the beginning of the reading, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, (how tender!) for the Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”  In other words, you don’t have to prove yourselves in worldly pursuits and conquests—the source of much fear and anxiety for us—but be about the work I am giving you, for the Father is ready to give you far more than the world can ever give: the fullness of the kingdom.  If I come and find you doing this work, great will be your reward!  The rest of the New Testament (Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles) demonstrate to us that Jesus’ disciples did exactly that: trusted that God fulfills his promises and so did as they were called to do.  Each that did has now found his/her reward in heaven.
Bishop Doherty’s pastoral plan for the diocese, Uniting In Heart 2030, is a challenge to each of us to exercise this kind of trust.  Paying attention to the reality that is before us, Bishop Doherty is courageously putting forth a plan that will take us out of our comfort zones, yet which contains a promise for future strength and prosperity for the Catholic Church in North-Central Indiana.  The question for us is whether we will trust in the Holy Spirit, who has inspired this plan—that he will fulfill his promises—and so set out on this journey of transformation.  Hopefully, we will see this challenge in the light of Jesus’ warnings: that this is part of the work that he has given to us and so should be found busy about it when he comes and so set ourselves to the work.  I am committing myself to it, including the personal work of transformation that it will require of me: trusting not only that our diocese and parishes will be stronger, but that I, too, will be stronger—that is, holier... more ready for the kingdom—when this work of transformation is finished.  I hope that each of you will join me in this work.
Saint Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, from whom we will hear at the end of Mass today, also trusted that God fulfills his promises and so set out to serve the elderly poor, in spite of all of the obstacles that she would encounter.  This order stands as a testament to the blessings that come from placing our trust in God and the power that our witness of trust has to move other hearts to do the same.  May the faithfulness of God, who never ceases to hand over his Son, Jesus, to us here in this Eucharist, inspire in us greater trust, so that we, too, may step out into the unknown: where the reward of God’s kingdom—the kingdom of reconciliation... harmony... PEACE among all people—will be found.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 10th & 11th, 2019

Monday, August 5, 2019

Experiences over things? All things are vanity!

Homily: 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
“I prefer experiences over things.”  If you’re of the millennial generation, you’ve probably said this phrase before.  If you are of an older generation, you might be looking with a bit of puzzlement trying to understand what I just said.  “Experiences over things” is a trend among the younger generation in which individuals focus less on acquiring things than on acquiring experiences.  In more practical terms, this means that folks of the younger generation are more likely to save up to purchase an “igloo building experience in northern Alaska” than to put a down payment on a bungalow in the suburbs.
For those of older generations, this trend flies in the face of what they grew to know and value.  For them, life following two World Wars and the Great Depression was a life of seeking normalcy and stability; and nothing says “normalcy and stability” than a 9-5 job, a decent house on a plot of land, 2.35 kids, and a dog.  For them, “experiences” involved going to the lake house to break out of the “normalcy” a bit: exchanging one set of things for another set of things... except that this set of things had a lake next to it in which you could enjoy some recreation.
On the surface, our readings today seem like they favor the younger generation.  The wisdom writer, Qoheleth, decries “All things are vanity!” because all of the things that one can acquire through his/her wisdom and hard work ultimately gets left to someone who did not work for it.  “What’s the point of acquiring all of these things,” Qoheleth seems to say, “if ultimately they will all pass through to someone else’s hands?”  You can almost hear him say, “Why not spend the fruits of your labor on experiences, which you will always keep with you?”  And then Jesus, with his parable recounted for us in our Gospel reading, is even more blunt.  “You fool,” he says of the one who stored up his bountiful harvest for him to enjoy over many years, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”  Again, you can almost hear him saying, “Why didn’t you spend the fruits of your labor on experiences, which you will always keep with you, instead of on storing up things, which you will lose in the blink of an eye?”  I think, however, that this would be a misreading of these texts.  In fact, I think that these texts have something to say to all of us, in spite of that which we prefer: experiences or things.
If we think just a little more, we can see that even the pursuit of experiences over things is also “vanity”.  These, too, will one day fade into nothing; and the only thing that can be handed onto anyone else are fleeting Instagram photos, providing a filtered documentary of the experience.  No, it seems that, because none of us truly knows when our lives will be “demanded” of us, a life spent solely on seeking to acquire things or experiences “is vanity and a great misfortune”.
Does this mean, however, that we should never seek to acquire things or experiences?  The answer, of course, is “no”.  It, quite obviously, is incredibly difficult to do something like raise a family without a stable roof over your head.  Thus, pursuit of a house that you can call your own is a necessary (if not noble) thing.  Similarly, it is quite difficult to grow as a person if you remain isolated in your own culture and experience.  Thus, seeking experiences of different cultures which can help you to become more “well-rounded” as a person is, too, a necessary (if not noble) thing.  The problem arises, however, when we begin to pursue these as ends in themselves.
Having just begun a family, it is a noble and necessary thing to save up for a down payment on a bungalow in the suburbs.  Having acquired it, however, it becomes vanity then to seek a bigger house than is necessary: solely for the purpose of acquiring it.  Similarly, it is one thing to take a vacation with friends to learn about Eskimo culture—its customs and values—and another thing take a vacation for the sole purpose of building an igloo.  In the former form of both cases, the thing/experiences were a means to an end (providing for one’s family/growing as human beings), while in the latter form of both cases, the things/experience became ends in themselves (the house for the sake of having it and the experience for the sake of experiencing it).
Our Lord’s cautionary tale today is a reminder to us to remain focused on the things for which we will one day have to answer when our lives are demanded of us.  Clearly, we will not be judged more positively for the quantity of things or experiences that we acquired in this world.  Rather, we will be judged for how we used those things/experiences to further the building of God’s kingdom.  Remember that, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying, “When you did these things for the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”  And Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, says “faith, hope, and love remain, these three.”  Therefore, when we live our lives as if only faith, hope, and love remain and so use the things and experiences we acquire to serve the least of these and grow as persons and in communion with God and one another, then our acquisition of things and experiences become means towards the end for which we will answer and, thus, noble and worthy of our pursuit.  If we live otherwise, however, our pursuit of things/experiences risks becoming an end in itself and, thus, “vanity and a great misfortune”.
Our parish’s Haiti ministry is a great example of pursuing things/experiences as means to an end: the end of solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering and efforts to relieve it; as well as experiencing the joy and freedom that their simplicity of life affords us.  In other words, we are not in this so as to take for our own benefit, but rather to give of ourselves and to receive what they offer.  This is NOT vanity, but a noble and worthy endeavor.  How good it is, therefore, that we celebrate this with Fr. Silvio this weekend.
Friends, as we begin to wrap up our summer vacations—themselves often opportunities for acquiring things/experiences as ends in themselves—let us allow these readings to interpret them for us: Were they, in fact, opportunities to grow as persons, to build God’s kingdom, or to enter more deeply into communion with God and with others? Or were they, in fact, vanity: ends that we pursued for their own sakes?  If the former: good!  Give thanks to God for the grace of this growth.  If the latter: well, humbly acknowledge that you missed the mark and seek to turn your pursuit of things/experiences into means towards the ends for which you will one day answer: the building of God’s kingdom of love in truth here on earth.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 4th, 2019

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The conditions for prayer

Homily: 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C

          When I was still a student studying for my engineering degree, I worked at a small manufacturing plant that makes bumpers for semi-trucks.  Whenever I needed to get some maintenance work done, I had to submit a “work order” that described what needed to be done and when it needed to be done by.  What I quickly found out, however, was that the maintenance crew was overloaded and that my work orders often sat on a pile of other work orders that weren’t getting completed and that the crew worked on whatever the shop-floor supervisor told them was most important for the day.  Frustrated by this, I would often forego the whole process completely.  If I could just do it myself, I would.  If I couldn’t then I would document it and move on to the next thing.

          I think, sometimes, we can see prayer kind of like a “maintenance work order” system.  We fill out our form and submit it to God and he is supposed to put his crew to work to take care of it for us.  When it works, we feel satisfied.  God is there for us and we can rely on him.  When it doesn’t seem to work, we feel frustrated.  God is unreliable and so if we want this to be taken care of we either need to do it ourselves or just accept that we’ve been dealt a bad hand and that there’s nothing we can do about it.  Of course there’s more to prayer than just making requests of God, but I think you’d be surprised to find out how many people turn away from God on account of feeling like God had let them down when they felt like they most needed him to respond.  In today’s readings, we are given a model of this type prayer that can help us understand it more deeply, which is good; because when we understand it more deeply, we are less likely to become frustrated by its results.

          In our Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples observe him in prayer and, probably quite innocently, ask him, their teacher, to teach them how to pray.  As Jesus often does, however, when he’s given an inch, he takes a mile and he not only teaches them how to pray (i.e. the correct words and manner in which to pray), but he teaches them the pre-conditions for prayer as well.

          As presented to us today, prayer in which we ask something from God has three basic characteristics: 1) be humble; 2) ask for a just thing; and 3) be persistent.  First: be humble.  As Jesus taught his disciples and as Abraham shows us today, our first task is always to recognize who it is we are addressing and what our relationship to him is.  Abraham was bold, but before he pushed God on the issue he first acknowledged that God knew better than he and so would submit to his judgments.  When we pray as Jesus taught us and say “Father…” we too acknowledge our relationship to God: that is, that he has wisdom and authority that is far greater than ours and so deserves our deference to his judgments.

          Second: ask for a just thing.  Abraham was a righteous man and so he could see the inherent conflict in the notion that God—who purports to be the just judge—would destroy innocent people for the sake of punishing those who are guilty and so he pleads, in a sense, for the lives of the innocent who live there by testing the limits of God’s justice.  In the example that Jesus gives, the man, though he comes at midnight, asks for a just thing: some bread to feed his friend that had just arrived from a journey, which, on account of the customs surrounding hospitality in the ancient Jewish culture, was something that he was expected to provide and so was a just think to request.

          Third: be persistent.  Abraham rightly saw that if God would withhold his wrath for the lives of fifty innocent men that justice would demand that he do the same if the number were as low as ten; and so he asked again and again, not presuming he knew better than God, but so as to see if God’s idea of justice lined up with his.  His persistence produced a commitment from God to spare the city (of, presumably, thousands of people) if even ten innocent persons were found there.  In Jesus’ example, the man, because he asks for a just thing, and because his friend is, also (presumably) a righteous person, receives what he asks for even in spite of the inconvenience he has caused his friend.  Notice that there was no conflict with what was asked for; because what was asked for was a just thing.  Part of being humble, however, means acknowledging that what we are asking for may not necessarily be the just thing.  Therefore, we must always be open to being shown that what we’ve asked for is not what is truly needed and so be open to receiving a different response in its place.

          Be humble, ask for a just thing, and be persistent.  These are the three characteristics of prayers of petition.  What is not often acknowledged in this lesson on prayer, however, is the necessary pre-condition for making this type of prayer.  Simply stated, this type of prayer requires a pre-existing relationship.

           I have a very good friend, named Joe, who I used to work with when I worked as an engineer.  We used to car-pool to work together and through that and our work our relationship grew.  To this day I am very close with his family and am godfather to his oldest son.  Over my years in the seminary and now as a priest, I have called on him multiple times, usually when he was not expecting it, to ask for some sort of help.  I never had any fear calling on him because I knew that whatever it was that I needed from him was a good thing and that, because of our friendship, he’d be very willing to offer his help.  Even if he was resistant, at first, I knew that I could push on him for it because he could be relied upon to respond if he was able; even if it would be inconvenient for him or his family.  I could only do that, however, because I had built a relationship with him first.

          The same applies to our prayers of petition.  When we’ve spent time with God, building our relationship with him, we become much more apt to turn to him with our needs and also to trust that, even if his response seems to be long-delayed, he will respond and give us what it is that we need (even if it isn’t exactly what we asked for).
There’s a saying that states that God responds to prayers of petition in one of three ways: “Ok”, “Ok, but not now”, and “Ok, but I have a better idea”.  When we build a relationship with God through spending time with him in the sacraments, in private prayer, and in reading the Bible, we become both bold in bringing to God all of our needs and also open to hearing which of these three responses he offers to us when we turn to him.

          My brothers and sisters, our Good God wants us to turn to him with all of our needs, big and small, because he truly is our Father who loves us dearly.  Like any good father, however, he wants even more to be in a close, intimate relationship with us, so that we may learn to trust that, even if he does not appear to respond immediately or in the way we desire, he will nonetheless respond: in the way and at the time that we truly need it.  Let us, then, renew our commitment to draw close to him today and to turn to him for all of our needs; for his promise to remain near to us—the sacrifice of his Son—is already here at hand.

Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – July 28th, 2019

Monday, July 22, 2019

Not "us or them", but "us for them"

          This weekend we hosted Fr. Babuku Luis, a Missionary of the Scared Heart, for our annual Missionary Co-op appeal.  He had a little trouble on Sunday morning and so missed the homily opportunity at the early Mass, giving me the opportunity to pull out one of my "greatest hits".  After having preached it, I thought much of the message was still apropos for us today.  I've made a couple of edits from the original to adapt it to the events of 2019 (which is why I feel it is still apropos).  Have a great week!

Homily: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Writer, editor and social reformer Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, in New York City. She was the third of five children born to her parents, Grace and John.  Her father worked as a journalist.  Because of this, the family moved to California when Dorothy was six years old.  Later, however, they would live in Chicago.
          A bright student, Day was accepted to the University of Illinois. She was enrolled there from 1914 to 1916, but she abandoned her studies to move to New York City. There, she became involved with a literary and liberal crowd in the city's Greenwich Village neighborhood. She worked as a journalist, writing for several socialist and progressive publications in the 1910s and '20s.  Socially and politically active, Day was arrested several times for her involvement in protests.  In 1917 she went on a hunger strike after being jailed for protesting in front of the White House as part of an effort to secure the right to vote for women.
          In her personal life, Day experienced turmoil. After a couple of failed relationships, one of which led to her procuring an abortion, she entered a common-law marriage with Forster Batterham, a biologist and an anarchist.  They gave birth to a daughter named Tamar Teresa, but Day’s choice to have the child baptized at a Catholic church caused her anarchist husband to leave her.  It was this decision, however, that started her on the path to her spiritual awakening; and, in late 1927, she converted to Catholicism.
          In 1932, Day met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant and former Christian Brother. The following year, they founded The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that promoted Catholic teachings and examined societal issues. The publication became very successful and spawned the Catholic Worker Movement, which followed its religious principles to tackle issues of social justice. As part of the movement’s belief in radical hospitality, Day helped establish special homes to help those in need. Peter Maurin’s influence is evident here as he often quoted Hebrews chapter thirteen, verse two, which says: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”
          Day would go on to do many more things in her life, but through it all her insistence on radical conformity to the Gospel, not just in words, but in concrete action, was a constant.  Thus, her cause for canonization has been accepted by the Vatican and she has received the title “Servant of God”.
          Hospitality was an important value among the people of the Ancient Near East and in our Scripture readings today we see the truth of what the author to the Letter to the Hebrews was talking about.  In the reading from the book of Genesis it describes how the Lord appeared to Abraham as three men on a journey.  They appeared at the hot part of the day, when the day’s journey would be most difficult.  Upon seeing them, Abraham jumps to action: not just offering them some relief from the heat of the day, but rather insisting with them that they allow him to show them this act of hospitality.  He did not know them, and his first reaction wasn’t suspicion, but rather generous hospitality.  As it turns out, he was entertaining angels: true messengers of the Lord who then gave him good news: that his wife, Sarah, whom all thought was barren due to her old age, would give birth to a son within a year.
          In our Gospel reading, we read that Jesus, upon entering a village, was welcomed by Martha.  It doesn’t say that Martha was the first to offer him hospitality, but I suppose that we might assume as much since the rules of etiquette require that we accept the first offer we are given.  There, much like Abraham did for the Lord’s messengers, Martha busied herself with preparing food and refreshments for Jesus and his disciples.  Thinking it rude that her sister Mary was not as occupied with trying to serve their guests, she asks Jesus to reproach her so that she might be embarrassed and begin to help with the serving.  Jesus, however, reminds Martha that, while serving is a good thing, it is not as important as recognizing who it is that is in your midst: for when you do, you may just find that you’ve been entertaining angels (or, in this case, the Son of God) and that those angels may be ready to bring you good news.
          My brothers and sisters, as I reflect on the immigration crisis at our southern border, I am convinced that one of the root causes of this crisis is a loss of this value of hospitality.  This is because to be radically hospitable one has to acknowledge the inherent dignity and value of every person, regardless of from where they come or whether they are known to you.  When we look at others with suspicion, instead of rushing to serve them, like Abraham and Martha did, and like Dorothy Day did, that sets us up to believe that it’s “us versus them”; and if it’s “us versus them” then their lives automatically become less valuable to us, which then makes it possible to harm them for our advantage, instead of to serve them for theirs.
          Friends, if we want to see a real change in this world, then we must start right here in our own families and in our community, changing the prevailing mentality from “us versus them” to “us for them”.  We must begin, however, where Martha’s sister Mary did—sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him speak—because he will be our solid rock supporting us as we serve and the angel whose face we will see in the faces of those whom we serve.  Therefore, let us make it our task this week to open our hearts a little more to Jesus by giving him more time in prayer, and our lives to him by practicing greater hospitality to all whom we meet.  Because in doing so, we may find that we, too, “unknowingly entertained angels”.
Originally given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – July 17th, 2016
Given at St. Mary's Cathedral: Lafayette, IN - July 21st, 2019

Monday, July 15, 2019

Who is my neighbor? The one who needs mercy.

Homily: 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
As human beings, we love a good argument, don’t we?  Now, I don’t mean that we go out looking to pick a fight, or anything, but simply that, given the chance to make a point and defend it, we almost readily jump in.  Perhaps we’re on the side of a conversation and we only hear the topic being discussed.  Sometimes, if it’s a topic we think we know something about, that’s all the spark that we need to get our motors running!  Soon, we’re inserting ourselves into that conversation to show our knowledge and make our point.  It doesn’t take much to “bait” us into an argument, either.  A provocative question asked of us can launch us right into an argument: whether that be about something noble and important, like politics, faith, or family life, or something mundane, like sports, fashion, or home maintenance.
Why?  Well, because it’s so easy!  We human beings are so full of pride that we almost can’t resist an opportunity to boost our pride by jumping into an argument to prove our point.  Sometimes, it’s the vice of pride, outright.  Most of the time, it’s our own need to bolster our sense of self-worth: that is, our need to feel like we had something important to say and that what we said was valuable to others (which is a different sort of pride).  Either way, these natural impulses make it so easy to “bait” us into arguments.
Thus, the scene in our Gospel reading today should feel very familiar to us.  This “scholar of the law” approaches Jesus—the “upstart” rabbi—to see whether he really knows his stuff, and he tries to bait him into an argument.  On the surface, the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” seems innocent enough.  We must remember, however, that this was THE question that rabbis constantly debated.  For a “scholar of the law” to ask it of a rabbi was to say “I’m ready to spar.  How about you?”
Jesus’ response, however, demonstrates that he “practiced what he preached”.  At one point he taught his disciples: “Be shrewd as serpents, yet simple as doves”.  Here he’s being shrewd.  The scholar wants to invite him into a debate on the finer points of Mosaic Law, but Jesus doesn’t want to go down that rabbit hole.  Thus, shrewdly, he turns the bait back on the scholar: “You know the law, don’t you?  What does it say?”  The scholar takes the bait, hook, line, and sinker, and rattles off the highest of all the Mosaic laws: Love God and love your neighbor.  Jesus, with the simplicity of a dove, affirms him and says, “Yep, that’s it!  Do this and you will have eternal life”.
The scholar, however, was not satisfied that he hadn’t gotten the better of Jesus (see how our pride can get the best of us!) and he makes another salvo: “Who is my neighbor?”  Again, he’s asking “Who does the Law say is my neighbor?”  The scholar knew the answer, of course, and Jesus knew that he already knew the answer.  Therefore, again, shrewdly, Jesus responds not by giving the scholar the knowledge that he challenged Jesus to produce, but by giving him a “case study” in which his answer can be found: the parable of the “Good Samaritan”.  For Jesus, there wasn’t a black-and-white legal definition to the question of “who is my neighbor?”, rather, there was only the definition of compassion.  “Your neighbor” is the one whom you encounter who is in need of mercy.
In the question “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robber’s victim?”, the scholar recognizes that Jesus’ shrewdness has defeated him and so concedes his argument about the finer points of the law to acknowledge what the law looks like in application.  Realizing that Jesus is a legitimate rabbi and, thus, with his pride deflated, the scholar no longer challenges Jesus with these “debate” questions.  Being an optimist, I like to believe that eventually he accepted Jesus as the Messiah and put into practice what Jesus had taught him. ///
“Who is my neighbor?”  What a question for our time!  And Jesus’ response is the message that we need to hear today.  Look no further than the news and you’ll see that this question is at the center of a debate that, literally, is raging around the world right now.  Nations all over the world are arguing over the question of what to do with immigrants, especially those seeking refuge from oppressive living conditions in their native lands.  I don’t presume to know an answer; but I think that if we could find the compassion to call these persons “neighbor” instead of “immigrant”, we’d be more apt to find a common answer.  Perhaps closer to home, still: in cities all over the U.S. (and even here in Lafayette), the question about what to do with the homeless in our cities is a difficult one.  I am certain, however, that if we could find the compassion to call them “neighbor” instead of “homeless”, we’d be more apt to find a common answer.
This parable of Jesus challenges us to leave our comfort zones and to encounter those around us in need of mercy.  If you’ve been paying attention at all, this has been the constant message of Pope Francis since the beginning of his pontificate, which is a particular form of the message of the Second Vatican Council: that is, to take the Gospel and go out into the world.  Out from our churches, schools, and offices.  Out to encounter those who need not only to hear this message of salvation, but to experience it through our merciful love of them.
We know this, of course, but Jesus’ challenge to the scholar confronts us again today: “Go and do likewise”.  As Moses told the Israelites before crossing into the Promised Land, “You know what God expects of you; you have only to do it”, so Jesus challenges the scholar (and, through him, all of us): “You know now what is expected.  Only if you do it, however, will you live”.  Friends, knowledge of this is not enough.  Necessary, of course, but not enough!  Rather, we must put this knowledge into action: showing that God is merciful by loving those whom he loves, those in need of merciful help around us.
This all starts somewhere deeper, however, and our Gospel reading reveals this to us.  The story begins with the scholar of the Mosaic Law looking to bait Jesus into an argument.  Jesus, however, looked at him and treated him with mercy.  He saw the scholar’s pride and shrewdly countered it.  He did not rub it in the scholar’s face, however.  Rather, with the simplicity of a dove, he challenged him to go beyond his knowledge and put it into practice.  My friends, we must do the same.  We must stop our polarized bickering whose only conclusion is “my side must win or all has been lost”.  Rather, we must call each other “neighbor”—even and especially when we disagree with each other—and, thus, treat each other with mercy.  Like Jesus, we must be “shrewd as serpents”, for he is not asking us to roll over to every person with wicked intent, but we must also be “simple as doves”, treating each other as Jesus treated the scholar: with a humble and compassionate hand.
My friends, this is the mercy that we encounter here in the Mass.  We come here, convicted of our sinfulness and of our unworthiness to receive God’s grace.  Yet, we are invited to this feast of God’s grace.  God does not ignore our sinfulness; but, because we demonstrate our desire to turn away from it, he offers us his merciful love in spite of it.  In other words: yes, we are sinful, but here our sins are not rubbed in our face.  Instead, God has compassion on us, cares for us, and then gently challenges us to go beyond our sins to bring his compassion and mercy to others.  May the mercy that we receive today here in this Mass fill us with every strength to be ministers of God’s mercy in our world today.
Given at St. Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – July 13th & 14th, 2019