Sunday, August 9, 2020

Discerning the voice of Jesus in chaos

 Homily: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Cycle A

In the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is a spoof on the medieval “King Arthur” fables, there is a scene where the “knights of the round table” have to cross a bridge spanning a deep chasm: a bridge that is guarded by a bridge keeper.  The keeper is made out to be a fearsome, intimidating creature and to get by him each person must answer three questions correctly or be cast by an invisible force into the deep chasm.  Sir Lancelot, the brave, is the first to approach.  Encountering the keeper and with much bravado, he awaits the questions: “What is your name?”, the keeper asks.  “Sir Lancelot of Camelot”, the knight responds.  “What is your quest?”, the keeper continues.  “To find the Holy Grail”, Sir Lancelot replies.  “What is your favorite color?”, the keeper asks.  “Blue”, the brave knight replies, not missing a beat.  His questions answered satisfactorily, the keeper steps aside and says, “Okay, on with you then.”  Stunned at the ease of the questions, Lancelot nonetheless proudly passes onto the bridge.  Sir Robin, having seen this, pushes to the front, expecting to pass with similar ease.  As he arrogantly approaches the keeper he too is questioned: “What is your name?”  “Sir Robin of Camelot.”  “What is your quest.”  “To seek the Holy Grail.”  “What is the capital of Assyria?”  “What? I don’t kno… ahhhhh!”  Having answered wrong, Sir Robin is thrown by an invisible force into the chasm.  Now, while the rest of the scene is worth recounting, you’ll have to go to YouTube or Netflix to see it.  The point of my sharing this much with you is that Sir Robin mistakenly assumed that the questions would be the same for each traveler.  Instead of listening for the particular way that the keeper would question him, he answered without discernment and so was lost.

          In today’s first reading, we hear of an analogous encounter.  In this case, it is the prophet Elijah who is on a journey and God whom he is encountering.  For forty days Elijah journeyed through the desert to Mount Horeb, where he then took shelter in a cave.  Perhaps to us, these facts seem simply to be background to the story of God’s encounter with Elijah.  Yet for the Hebrew people, each of these details would have had a powerful impact on their interpretation of the story.  The forty-day journey in the desert would have reminded them of the forty-year journey of the Israelites through the desert and into the Promised Land.  And, while most of us might not make the connection, the ancient Israelites would know that Mount Horeb, where Elijah ended his journey, is also known as Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments and where God formed his covenant with the Israelite people.  There, God called Moses up to him on the mountain and spoke to him.  When he did, the people heard loud peals of thunder and the earth shook beneath them.  Thus, you can imagine that it was quite a shock to the Israelites when they heard that when God called Elijah to come out to meet him that God was not to be found in the strong wind, the earthquake, or the fire.  Elijah, even though he was intimately aware of the way God had spoken to his people on that very mountain, did not presume that God would speak to him in the same way.  Rather he waited with a discerning heart to hear the particular way that God would speak to him and instead found the Lord in a small whispering sound.

          In our Gospel reading today, we hear the continuation of the story we began last week.  After feeding the five thousand with just five loaves and two fish, Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him, dismisses the crowd to their homes and finally gets the retreat he was looking for to mourn the death of his relative and friend, John the Baptist.  As Jesus spends the night in prayer, Peter and the disciples find themselves fighting against a rough sea.  Thus, as Jesus approaches them, the disciples, already stressed out by the storm and exhausted from complete lack of sleep, react as if they are seeing a ghost.  To calm their spirits Jesus calls out to them in what must have seemed to be a “tiny whispering sound” amidst the crashing of the waves in the tumultuous waters.  Even amidst this chaos, however, Peter, like Elijah, immediately discerned the Lord’s voice and asked that the Lord would call him to him.  Peter could do this because, in times of calm, he spent time with Jesus, building a relationship with him and getting to know his voice.  Thus, in times of distress, he could weather the storm and hear the particular way in which God was speaking to him and calling him close.

          Friends, it should surprise no one when I say that the challenge of discerning God’s voice in the midst of our noisy world is greater than ever and won’t get any easier anytime soon.  That is why it is ever more important to build a relationship with God in moments of calm, so that in times of storm and distress we will know the voice to which we should listen.  A child lost in a shopping mall is made deaf by his anxiety until the voice of his mother breaks through, calling him to her.  This is because he heard the assuring voice of his mother repeatedly when everything was calm, thus training his heart that, if he hears her voice, no matter the situation, all will be well.  Friends, God calls us to this kind of relationship, a relationship in which we come to know and trust his voice, so that when we are tossed about by the waves of the world, we will hear him calling to us in order to calm our spirits.

          So why is this important?  Well, quite frankly, because our response to God in times of distress is the measure of how authentically we are living out our faith, and we are certainly in a time of distress!  When the world seems to be crashing down around us, can we, like Elijah, wait to hear the Lord’s voice?  And when we do, can we, like Peter, trust in that voice calling us out into what by all human standards seems to be certain destruction?  Finally, can we rely on the Lord so completely, that we cry out only to him when all seems to be lost?  These are important questions and they may make us uncomfortable.  Nonetheless, we have to answer them.

You know, I have great sympathy for all those in our schools who are anxious about returning to school.  Most of us are convinced that in-person teaching is the best option for our young people, but the threat of the coronavirus triggers fear and anxiety for those who will be working in our schools and for parents who are sending their children into our schools.  The challenge for them and for all of us is to ask ourselves, “Whose voice am I listening to?”  Am I listening to God’s voice in the midst of this storm, which says to me, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid”?  Or am I listening to the waves crashing around me: the temporary tumult that may threaten my earthly life, but cannot separate me from God, my Rock?

As I said, these are questions that may make us uncomfortable, but they are questions that we must answer.  If your answer is “yes”: that is, that you wait to hear the Lord’s voice in time of tumult, that you trust in that voice who calls you out to him in a tumultuous world, and that you turn only to him when that world seems to be overwhelming you... If your answer to all of those questions is “yes”, then great!  You are in a great place and a witness of faith to others, I am sure.

I suspect, however, that many of us have to answer one or more of those questions with either “no” or at least “I’m not sure.”  If so, that’s ok; I assure you that you will not be thrown by an invisible force into a deep chasm!  What is most important today is that you leave here realizing that your relationship with God may not be where it ought to be—that maybe you’ve lost touch with God’s voice—and that you have a commitment to deepen that relationship once again.  Perhaps the shutdown disrupted your prayer routine, or perhaps you’ve fallen into a sinful habit, or perhaps you’ve just let the voices of fear and anxiety in the world around you become the dominant voices in your head and in your heart.  Whatever it is, if this encounter with the Word of God—the Living Word contained in these Scriptures—calls you to turn back to pursue a deeper relationship with God, then it has fulfilled the purpose for which it was sent.  If it hasn’t, I invite you to look again at this Word and to pray for the wisdom to understand the particular way that God is speaking to you through it.

Either way, let us recognize that in this Church, which is our boat amidst the rough, rude sea of the world, Jesus comes to us in the form of the sacrament offered here on this altar and calls us to him.  Trusting in the faith handed down to us from the disciples who were with him on the sea that night, let us come now—unreservedly—to do him homage and to receive him, who is our stable Rock in the midst of a tumultuous world.

Given at Saint Mary Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 8th & 9th, 2020

Sunday, August 2, 2020

We are called to gather, not disperse

Homily: 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

Friends, after three weeks of encountering Jesus as “teacher”, in which we listened anew to his many parables about the kingdom of heaven—its different features and those who will be included in it—we come this week and encounter Jesus as a “wonder worker”, as we read again this very familiar report of what we commonly know as both the “feeding of the five thousand” and the “multiplication of the loaves and the fish”.  Familiar as it is, there is a richness of meaning in it and, thus, many different lessons to be taken from it: particularly lessons about God and his great love for us.  I cannot possibly discuss them all in one homily, so I’m going to focus on just one aspect today to try to help draw a lesson that can speak to us in our current reality.

Perhaps an overarching reminder in today’s reading is this: Jesus always gathers together, while the enemy always disperses.  Let’s take a look at the reading to see how this plays out.  At the beginning of the reading, we are told that, when Jesus hears of the death of John the Baptist—his cousin and friend—he is saddened and so decides to find a place away from everyone so that he can mourn the loss of his relative and friend.  The reading says that he “withdrew... by himself”, meaning, perhaps, that he didn’t take his disciples with him.  Thus, when the crowds came looking for him, they probably pressed his disciples to tell them where he was going.  The disciples, seeing how desperate these people were to see him, to be taught by him, and to seek healing from him, gave in and told them where he was going so that they all ran to that place to meet him when he disembarked.

When he saw the vast crowds there—that is, in the place where he had hoped to go to be alone for a day or two to mourn the loss of a close relative and friend—Jesus would have been justified in saying, “Please go home and leave me here by myself so that I may mourn in peace.”  His heart, however, was “moved with pity for them” and he ministered to them: curing their sick and teaching them.  In other words, he did not disperse them—dividing them out back to their own homes—but rather drew them in, keeping them together.

As evening drew near, Jesus’ disciples—who certainly also pitied the crowd who were so desperate to see Jesus—began to think, “Okay, this is enough.  Jesus still needs to be alone to mourn.  Besides, there’s no food here and the people are surely hungry.  It’s time for everyone to go home.”  So, they try to convince Jesus to disperse the crowd.  This, of course, was a very rational way of thinking that acknowledged our human needs and limitations; but remember that Jesus came not to show us how to be the “most clever humans ever”, but rather to teach us how to think with God again: cooperating with him to bring about a greater human flourishing than could ever be possible for us alone.

Thus, Jesus refuses their urging to disperse the crowd; not because he denied that they would be hungry, but rather because he had one more lesson to teach them (a lesson prophesied by the prophet Isaiah), who said: “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy? Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare.”  The crowd had “heeded him” all day and now, instead of dispersing them to “spend their wages on what would fail to satisfy”, he would keep them gathered so that they could “delight in rich fare”.  Although the disciples did not have the spiritual vision to understand what Jesus was going to do, they were nonetheless obedient: bringing Jesus what they had and remaining ready to do his will.  Because of their obedience (that is, because of their willingness to cooperate with the will of Jesus), Jesus worked a miracle and, in doing so, fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy completely when all who were there “ate and were satisfied”.

Friends, the challenge of the Christian life is to be a unifier, not a separator.  There are many ways for us to live this out, of course, but Jesus shows us that one of the most fundamental ways that we do this is by allowing our hearts to be moved with pity for those less-fortunate than us.  When we allow this to happen, we allow others to draw near to us instead of keeping them separated from us: for allowing our hearts to be moved with pity means that we’ve allowed them into our hearts, which is the closest place that anyone can be to another person.

This work of being a unifier does not end with feeling pity for the less-fortunate, but rather continues with concrete action to relieve the need that the less-fortunate are suffering.  As Saint James wrote in his letter: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?”  Rather, like Jesus, once we allow them into our heart, we must act to relieve their need: minimally by refusing to disperse them by sending them away.  That minimum act of standing with someone in their need is a powerful act of solidarity that can further our work of being unifiers, instead of separators.  The thing is that, from this solidarity comes a greater unity in giving thanks to One who provides for us all.  When Jesus prevented the disciples from dispersing the crowd and then fed them with the miraculous bread, they all remained together and gave thanks and praise to the One through whom this blessing flowed.  If you can’t see in this an allusion to the Mass—that is, the Eucharist—then I’m not sure if you’re really paying attention.

Perhaps, an example: Yesterday afternoon, a call came in through the parish’s emergency line.  Typically, that is used when someone has become seriously ill or is dying and needs a priest to come to provide the sacrament of anointing or last rites.  Sometimes, however, someone who is in financial need will use that looking for help.  Yesterday’s call was one of these.  A young man and his mother were in Chicago ready to board a train to Lafayette and, when they arrived here, they said that would have no place to stay for the night.  They wanted to know if we could help put them up in a motel for the night and, if we couldn’t, if we knew of anyone who could.  Having taken the call, I knew that, at 6:00 pm on a Saturday, I wasn’t going to find much emergency help and I had to decide, in that moment, whether I was going to take concrete action to relieve their need.  With little of my own resources at hand—most especially time—I did not heed that call and prayed that they would find help elsewhere.

I share this example not to denigrate myself or to seek pity from anyone for the difficult situation that I was in, but rather to illustrate that this work of being unifiers and not separators is hard work, requiring us to allow others to intrude into our lives and disrupt our plans for their good.  Like Jesus’ first disciples, our natural understanding of human needs and our limitations will mean that, very often, we will encounter someone with a need and think, “I can’t help you”.  In those moments, the hard work is to hear Jesus saying to us, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”  Like Jesus’ first disciples, perhaps we won’t have the spiritual vision to see what the Lord is going to do; but if we nonetheless obey, Jesus will take whatever we offer him to perform a miracle to satisfy their need.

My friends, if we can only move from “I can’t help you” to “I tried to help and failed miserably”, that’s progress!  Because, as I said, even if the only thing that we can do is stand there with them in their need, well, we’ve grown in solidarity, which is a great unifier in itself.  In doing so, we move from a human way of thinking in the world, to begin “thinking with God” again and, thus, to a greater cooperation with him and his will so that his kingdom might grow among us.

My brothers and sisters, it should be clear to all of us that the “prince of this world” is a separator, not a unifier.  Human beings, who should be standing side by side recognizing both our common humanity and our common end—both in greater society and within the Church—are rather standing opposed to each other: divided by accidental differences instead of unified by what is common.  The enemy—the great divider—works unceasingly in this world to perpetuate this illusion: that the basic situation in this world is that it is “us or them”, when in reality the situation is always that it is “us with them” and, therefore, that our basic attitude towards acting in the world must be that it is “us for them”.  This pandemic is both highlighting and exacerbating this point: “Stay away from me, because you might be toxic to me.”  In this sense, those with a spiritual vision of the world can see that there is a diabolic aspect to this pandemic.

Let us not forget, however, what Saint Paul wrote to the Romans nearly two thousand years ago: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Let us strive, therefore, to do the hard work of being unifiers at every moment of every day—to live as if in this world it is “us with them” and, therefore, “us for them”—so that Jesus’ work to gather all people to himself will continue among us and more and more men and women will be united with us to give thanks to the One who provides for all: the perfect act of thanksgiving that we offer here in this Eucharist.

Given at Saint Mary Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 2nd, 2020

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The kingdom costs everything

Homily: 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

Friends, these last three weeks, we’ve heard different parables that Jesus used to give his disciples a picture of the “kingdom of heaven”.  Jesus came, as we know, to make this kingdom a reality, but it wasn’t to be a kingdom in the world as we know it.  Therefore, Jesus used various parables to help his disciples to get a sense of what this kingdom will look like when it comes in its fullness.  From two weeks ago, we know that Jesus taught in parables in order to sift out those who would be his disciples from those who wouldn’t: for those who would be his disciples would strive to understand the parables and thus follow Jesus in order to increase their understanding, while those who wouldn’t would get frustrated and turn away from him.  Jesus wants intentional disciples, and so he taught in parables to invite that intentionality in those who would follow him.

Last week, Jesus used the parable of the wheat and the weeds to remind us of an important lesson: that the ruler of the kingdom is both wise and rich.  Wise, because even though his enemy sowed a dangerous weed among his wheat, he didn’t overreact and try to tear out the weeds because he knew that he could damage the wheat as well and all would be lost.  Rich because even though it would cost double to harvest the wheat due to having to sort out the weeds, he nonetheless could afford to do it and so was not threatened by the presence of the weeds.  This parable also reminds us that, in this world, the enemies of the kingdom will be allowed to persist, but at the end of time they will be separated out and thrown into the fires of hell.  Thus, while the enemy may seem to have the upper hand at this present time, at the end of time, he will be defeated.

More practically, for us, however, last weekend’s parable reminds us of two things.  First, that often the enemies of the kingdom don’t look much different from its true citizens, much like the plant of the cockle seed (a weed) doesn’t look much different from wheat.  It’s not until these plants grow to maturity that they can be distinguished from each other: the wheat producing whole grains in the ear while the cockle plant’s ear is emaciated and thin.  Thus, as Jesus said elsewhere, you can tell a good tree by its fruit: the weed making itself known by its bad fruit.  The other practical bit that this parable teaches us is that we need discernment in order to know what to do about the presence of the weeds among us.  The farmer in the parable understood that, by the time that it became apparent that there were weeds sown among his wheat it was too late to dig them up: for to do so would tear up the wheat, as well, and thus sacrifice the harvest.  We, too, need wisdom to know whether it is more prudent to let the enemies of the kingdom remain among us than to try to root them out, since we might uproot the “children of the righteous” with them.

Where, then, do we find this wisdom?  Last week I noted that, with 24/7 news stations and social media, we now have a super-abundance of opinions both about who the weeds are and about what we should do about them.  The problem with all of them, I reflected, is that none of them are operating out of a correct and complete understanding of the human person and what is good for his/her flourishing.  Thus, they lack wisdom.  I encouraged us to look, instead, to a body of teaching called Catholic Social Teaching, whose seven main themes provide a framework of understanding about the truth of the human person as someone both unique and unrepeatable and who nonetheless shares a bond and a common end with every other human person.  Unlike the “wisdom” proposed in secular media, which focuses almost exclusively on solutions based on the principle of “us or them”, Catholic Social Teaching reminds us that the true solution lies in us recognizing that the situation is never “us or them”, but rather always “us with them”.  The solution, therefore, and, thus, the appearance of the fullness of the kingdom, lies in us constantly deciding and redeciding to become “us for them”.

This week, Jesus’ parables focus on teaching us how valuable it is to have found the kingdom.  Because these parables are so familiar to us, we might overlook a couple of their fundamental points and so I’d like to highlight them for us.  First, the one who finds the kingdom is someone who is looking for it.  Jesus doesn’t specifically say that the person who found the treasure buried in the field was looking for it, but I think that we can assume that, whoever buried it, tried to bury it in an inconspicuous way so that it would not be found.  Otherwise, why go through the trouble of burying it?  Thus, we can see, that the one who found it was, at a minimum, “keeping an eye out” for signs of a buried treasure and, perhaps, was even actively looking for it.  The merchant, Jesus tells us, was specifically looking for that great find—the “pearl of great price”—which reminds us also that in order to find the kingdom, we have to be looking for it.

This, again, requires wisdom.  The person who found the “treasure” buried in the field... how did she know that it was treasure and not just someone else’s junk that they thought was treasure?  How did the merchant know how to recognize the “pearl of great price” from something that might not be as valuable?  They both spent time studying pearls and valuable artifacts so as grow in wisdom and, thus, discernment of what is truly valuable and what is junk.  One of my favorite shows is American Pickers, where Mike and Frank travel through rural United States looking for collections of discarded items in which they hope to find valuable items that they can buy and sell for a profit.  These guys have spent a lot of years studying these things and so have a wisdom to discern what truly is a buried treasure—a “pearl of great price”—and what is junk.  Therefore, if we are going to be looking for the kingdom, we have to know what it really looks like.  And so, what does it look like?

The kingdom of heaven looks like the fulfillment of the deepest longings of our hearts.  The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle summed up this longing in one word: happiness.  The deepest longing in our hearts is for happiness.  Thus, the kingdom of heaven is the fulfillment of that longing for happiness.  True happiness is found in being fully who we are, without lacking anything.  Being made in the image and likeness of God, we become fully who we are when we become most like God.  God is a perfect communion of persons in one being.  We, as individuals, approach the fullness of who we are the more we are more intimately united in communion with others.  Marriage is an example of how we do this, but it is not the only way.  Any kind of community of self-giving is a way that we, as human persons, grow into the fullness of who we were made to be.  In other words, and somewhat paradoxically, I only fully become “me”, when I more fully become “we”.  The kingdom of heaven, therefore, can be recognized wherever there are opportunities for human persons to grow in self-giving communion with one another.

The second fundamental point of which these parables remind us is that the kingdom of heaven costs something.  In fact, it costs EVERYTHING!  Thus, if we want the kingdom of heaven, we’re going to have to give something—everything—up.  The person who found the buried treasure... she went and sold EVERYTHING in order to buy the field and, thus, own the treasure.  The merchant found what she had been searching for and went and sold EVERYTHING in order to buy it.  And this was a great risk, no?  The one who found the buried treasure had to hope that, while she was off selling everything she owned, no one else would beat her to the punch and buy it before she could.  The merchant, the same.  Because they recognized the value of the treasure/pearl, however, they abandoned themselves to the risk and thus acquired the treasure that satisfied the deepest longing of their hearts.

Friends, it seems very clear to me (and I include myself in this categorization) that most people today are quite content to sit back and say that the problems we are facing today will be fixed when everyone else decides to sacrifice what they hold dear in order make the world better.  The truth of the matter, however, is that the kingdom of heaven will never be made fully manifest until each and every one of us decides to “go and sell everything” in order to make it so.  Principally, this means dying to my own attachments to worldly comfort in order to encounter the “other” in their suffering and striving to relieve it, but even more fundamentally, this means being ready to sacrifice my own personal preferences and points of view for the good of others and for the good of growing in communion with them.  This is hard work, and if you and I don’t choose every day to take it up, we will never see the kingdom of heaven among us.

Brothers and sisters, the last parable in the Gospel reading today reminds us of one other very important point: that the coming of the kingdom of heaven is inevitable and the only question, in the end, is “Who’s going to be in it?”  Those who are engaged in the works of righteousness will be in it, while those who aren’t, won’t.  These parables, therefore, urge us to give ourselves to the works of righteousness: daily prayer, frequent celebration of the sacraments, intentional efforts to do the works of mercy.  These are signs that we have given ourselves to becoming fully who we are: persons united in intimate communion with God and with others.  Not only will this work safeguard us in righteousness, but it will also make the kingdom of heaven manifest among us; and who here doesn’t think that we could use a good dose of the kingdom of heaven right now?  Strengthened by this Eucharist, therefore, through which God gives us wisdom and courage, let us give ourselves to this good work, through which we glorify God in Christ Jesus, our Lord, and take our place in his kingdom.

Given at Saint Mary Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – July 26th, 2020

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Wheat and weeds... Truth and lies...

Homily: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

Friends, today we heard another parable about seeds and plants that produce fruit as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaimed was “at hand”.  Last week the parable that we heard described the different ways that the word of God, spread broadcast like seeds, would be received.  Although it was spread very broadly and abundantly, only a small portion of it will produce fruit.  Nonetheless, the fruit it produces will be abundant.  This week, the parable highlights a different aspect of the kingdom, noting that the kingdom will have its enemies and how the enemies will attack it.  In order to understand this parable more thoroughly, we’ll have to get a little bit technical regarding the plants referred to in the parable.

When Jesus refers to the man who sowed good seed, the “seed” he referred to is wheat: the grain of which is a food staple of people in Palestine even to this day.  The “weed” that Jesus says was sowed by this man’s enemy refers to the cockle-seed: a plant that resembles wheat so closely that it is almost impossible to tell the plants apart until the stalks begin to mature.  By then, of course, it’s too late to separate them out while they are growing.  To sow this seed in your enemy’s wheat field is a sinister thing to do.  You see, the grain of the cockle-seed is toxic to humans and, if mixed with wheat flour, will ruin any bread.  Therefore, the owner of the wheat field has a choice to make: either he cut down the whole field and count it as loss or hire extra workers to spend many extra hours carefully separating out the wheat from the cockle.  Either way, it would certainly result in a net loss of his investment, likely leaving him destitute until the next growing season.

Knowing all of this now, we can see more clearly what Jesus is saying about the kingdom and its enemies.  He highlights himself as the man who sowed good seed in his field, which is the world.  The good seed itself is the children of the kingdom of heaven.  The devil (or Satan) is the enemy who sows the cockle-seed, who are the children of the devil (those “who cause others to sin and all evildoers”, as Jesus describes them).  Looking at both from afar, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference between them.  When you look at the fruit that they produce, however, we begin to see the difference.  This is why the children of the kingdom will not be separated from the children of the evil one until the “harvest”—that is, the final judgement: because “by their fruit” they will be judged.  To uproot them before they are fully mature risks sending the wheat into the fire of punishment with the cockle—that is, the children of the kingdom into fiery hell with the children of the evil one: which would be a great injustice.

Extrapolating this image a little, we can call the “good seed”, “truth”, and the cockle-seed, “lies”.  The Son of Man, therefore, can be said to sow truth into the world and the devil, lies.  This works because a lie is something meant to deceive someone into believing that it is truth.  The best way that it does this is by looking a lot like truth.  For example, the word of God says, “You shall love your neighbor” as well as “You shall not kill”.  The devil, however, says, “it’s okay to kill when it looks like you’re doing something loving for your neighbor.”  This is the argument for euthanasia, right?  “Look,” it’s proponents say, “this person is suffering greatly. It is better to allow him/her to end his/her life (or to do it for him/her) than to allow him/her to continue suffering.”  It’s a lie, disguised as a truth, meant to deceive others into believing it’s true.  I could continue naming other examples, but I assume that you’d like to go home sometime tonight, so I won’t.

So why do I bring this up today?  Well, because we are certainly in a very turbulent time in the Church and in the world.  I’m sure that I don’t need to tell any of you that there is no shortage of opinions out there about what we need to do to fix all of these problems (FoxNews, MSNBC, CNN and the like are built on the idea that people can talk 24/7 about everything that’s wrong and about the various opinions for how to fix it).  Sometimes, the solutions being proposed are attractive.  If so, it’s likely that they have an element of truth in them.  Upon closer inspection, however, there’s often other elements that contradict truth which cannot be accepted by the “children of the kingdom”.  It’s tempting, however, to get on board with them because we desire the element of truth contained within them, right?  Those elements contained within it that contradict the truth, well those are unfortunate consequences of gaining that element of truth, we’d say.  This is wrong, however.  It is, in fact, the ruse of the evil one to deceive us into accepting his lies so that they may continue to grow and destroy the truth around it.

Believe it or not, however, there is a body of teaching, 100% based in the truth that has been revealed to us by God, in Jesus, that can help us to answer in truth the problems facing the Church and the world today.  It is a collection of teachings called “Catholic Social Teaching” and its seven themes provide a framework of understanding about the truth of the human person as someone both unique and unrepeatable who nonetheless shares a bond and a common end with every other human person which can point us towards solutions that are rooted in truth, instead of being rooted in lies, dressed up as truths.  It is my firm opinion that, unless we are pursuing solutions to the problems in the Church and the world based on these teachings, we will never realize true solutions, but rather only false ones that perpetually pit one faction against another: with the one wielding the most power prevailing at any given time.  This only perpetuates a vicious cycle of division, instead of promoting the solidarity that is the more natural end of the human person and which Catholic Social Teaching promotes.

Friends, again, I say all of this because, as children of the kingdom of heaven, we need to be the voice of truth in the world.  Without us, the children of the evil one, that is “all who cause others to sin and all evildoers”, will have free reign to sow the cockle-seed of lies throughout the world: un-truths, deceptively disguised as truths in order to “choke out” the children of the kingdom from producing fruit by accepting them.  This work could be as simple as striving to correct a family member, co-worker, or friend who mistakenly holds to one of these lies as true, or it could be to use social media to promote the truth and contradict the lies, or you could use your position on a school board or a municipal or corporate board of directors to promote true teaching in your community, or you could go so far as to run for public office in an effort to encode this truth in the laws that govern us.  There are many ways that we can do this good work: ours is to choose the ones that are at our disposal.  What is not an option, however, is to choose to leave this work to someone else.

The good news, of course, is that, by living in accord with truth and promoting it, we are guaranteed a place in heaven with God, the Father of Truth.  Because he is all-powerful, he has no worry about the cost of separating out the wheat from the cockle on the day of judgment: it costs him nothing.  Those it will cost, however, are those who stubbornly cling to the lies of the devil, who will be tossed into the “fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth”.  Woe to us if we had the opportunity to convert them from these lies and yet failed to attempt it.  Strengthened, therefore, by this Eucharist that we celebrate, and by the Holy Spirit, who “comes to the aid of our weakness”, let us give ourselves to this good work, so that the kingdom that began as a tiny mustard seed may truly grow into the largest of trees, in which peoples of every time and place may find their true home.

Given at Saint Mary Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – July 19th, 2020

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Salvation is free, but it isn't cheap

Homily: 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

There’s a well-used phrase that we hear a lot around the holidays of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veteran’s Day: “Freedom isn’t free.”  It’s often used in reference to the men and women who have served in our armed forces in order to secure and maintain the liberties that we enjoy as a nation who declared its independence 244 years ago.  What it refers to, of course, is the cost associated with securing and maintaining our “freedom”: for time spent in the armed forces is time spent away from home and personal pursuits and it can lead to even greater sacrifices: sacrifices like one’s livelihood or even one’s life.  Our “freedom” comes at a cost, this phrase emphasizes, and those who enjoy it should not take it for granted.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus draws out a similar point.  As he taught the crowd of would-be disciples, he spoke to them in parables.  Both his teaching and the conclusion of his teaching give us the impression that, underneath it all, what he is saying is that “salvation isn’t cheap”.  I’ll try to explain:

First, before anyone here starts throwing the phrase sola gratia at me, I’ll clarify something.  Sola gratia is Latin for “by grace alone”, and it was one of Martin Luther’s big contentions against the Church in the 1500s: that is, that the Church seemed to be teaching that man could somehow earn or acquire salvation, even if only in part, through his/her own action, while his study of the Scriptures seemed to reveal that it was by “grace alone”, which is the Catholic teaching.  And so, when I say that Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel implies that “salvation isn’t cheap”, I don’t mean that we somehow have to do something to earn salvation.  That would be heresy.  We have been redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus ALONE and this salvation is freely given to all who would receive it.  It is the “receiving it”, however, in which some work must be done.  Therefore, although salvation is free, it isn’t cheap.  Here’s what I mean.

In the Gospel passage, Jesus goes out from teaching in private (that is, “out of the house”) and into teaching in public.  In private, those who were with him were usually disciples.  In public, however, those who gathered often weren’t.  On this day, Jesus decided to teach them in parables and many scholars say that this was to highlight who among them was ready to be a disciple (and, thus, ready to follow him) and who was more of a “gawker”: someone curious about what all the hub-bub was about, but not very ready to respond.  Parables, you see, didn’t always have a straightforward meaning.  Those, therefore, who were ready to be Jesus’ disciples would remain curious about them and they would seek Jesus out to learn more about the parable and what it meant.  Those who were not ready to be Jesus’ disciples, however, would become disinterested if they didn’t understand the parables and, thus, would walk away.  Because he knew what the demands of discipleship would be, Jesus needed this early test to sift out those who were truly ready to become his disciples from those who were not open to it.

In many ways, the parable itself trolls those who were not there seeking to become Jesus’ disciples: for they are like the ground that is trampled because it is the path or too rocky or choked with thorns to bear fruit.  Jesus did this all the time to the Pharisees, right?  Often, they’d be standing there in front of him and Jesus would rattle off a parable that would be a thinly-disguised jab at the poor spiritual leadership that the Pharisees provided.  This jab at those in the crowd who were not ready to follow Jesus was not so pointed, but it was, nonetheless, there.  But the thing that makes me say that Jesus is implying the phrase, “salvation isn’t cheap”, comes at the end of the parable.  There he says, “Whoever has ears ought to hear”.

Up to that point, Jesus’ parable was just a metaphor for the way God’s word would be received by different persons.  There was no moral judgment in it.  When he adds that last line, however, he adds moral weight to the parable.  With that line, what Jesus effectively said was, “you can choose to ignore this, but you shouldn’t.”  Here we find the work imbedded in the gift of salvation.  “To hear” means that you’re ready to take responsibility for what you’ve heard.  If you choose not to, then you could be culpable for the consequences.  Salvation, like the seed sowed, is given freely; but if you are not receptive to it (that is, closed off to it or holding onto obstacles to receiving it) then it cannot be yours.  To be ready to receive it, however, costs something.  Thus, only those who have made themselves ready to receive it, truly have it.  Therefore, once again we see that salvation is truly free, but it is not cheap.

The great reminder for us here is this: Jesus wants intentional disciples.  In other words, he doesn’t want disciples who follow him only when it seems to work out well for them.  Rather, he wants disciples who recognize the costs of discipleship and who, nonetheless, choose to follow him anyway.  Jesus explains this to his disciples when he explains to them why he speaks to the crowds in parables.  In effect, he says: “I teach in parables because many of them have closed their hearts to my word and they won’t even choose to do the work of figuring out the parable.  These cannot be my disciples.  Those who seek to understand them, however (that is, those who have ears and have chosen to hear), have shown that their hearts are open to my word, where it may take root.  These have a chance to be my disciples, because they are intentional about it.”

Friends, a parish registration, a crucifix on your wall, a bible on your coffee table, or a rosary on your rearview mirror does not make you a disciple of Jesus.  They may be signs that you are a disciple of Jesus, but they do not make you one.  You become a disciple of Jesus when you a) recognize that you have ears to hear and b) you choose to hear what Jesus has to say and thus strive to follow it.  More specifically, you are an intentional disciple of Jesus when you engage actively in his teaching, seeking to understand what it means, so that it might take root in you and grow, producing fruit for the building of his kingdom.  This means ALL of his teachings, including the hard ones.  (You know, like that one where he says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’, but I say to you, ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you’...”  We’re pretty quick to forget about that one, aren’t we?)  If we refuse to do so, Jesus teaches, we risk losing access to salvation altogether.

In the first reading from today’s Mass, we heard God proclaim that the fact that the word he sends forth from his mouth will fulfill that for which it was spoken is something as sure as rain and snow not returning to the sky until they have watered the earth and provided for the growth of plants.  This is a bold claim!  Nonetheless, we see that God has sent forth his Word into the world in the person of Jesus Christ and it has fulfilled that for which it was sent, the redemption of mankind.  While plants cannot resist growing once they have received the rain or snow, men can resist the grace of redemption, if they choose to do so: and often we do.  To overcome this, we must be intentional about our discipleship.

Friends, we all need work becoming more intentional disciples of Jesus, and the effort begins with an intentional effort to listen to the teachings of Jesus, seeking to understand them so as to put them into practice.  To this end, I want to challenge you to join me this week in studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is found in chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew’s Gospel.  There are a lot of teachings in that sermon, many which you’ve heard many times before.  Don’t, however, just read through it and say, “Oh yeah, I remember that one”, and then move on.  Rather pause at each one and ask yourself, “Do I really know what that means?”  If you do, ask yourself if you’re living it and how you can live it better.  If you don’t know what it means, talk to Jesus about it and ask him to help you understand.  This kind of work is pleasing to Jesus, for it is the work of a true disciple.

One look at the TV or social media will show us that the world desperately needs those who proclaim the name of Christ to be intentional disciples.  Strengthened, therefore, by our Eucharist—our thanksgiving—may we become fruit-producing disciples for the world.

Given at Saint Mary Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – July 12th, 2020

Monday, July 6, 2020

Remembering who we are on Independence Day

Homily: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A 

Friends, on this Independence Day weekend, in which we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the formation of our nation—but not only our nation, our home—we have a lot for which we are to be thankful as well as a lot for which to pray.  As you’ve often heard me say, I’m sure, each Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, making each Sunday a “mini-Easter”.  For some of you, this may be the first Sunday since way back in Lent that you’ve attended Mass here in the Church.  For many of you, perhaps you’ve been back for some weeks.  For all of you, however (since none of you were here in the Church to celebrate Easter) I don’t think that we’ve yet taken the opportunity to really bring that idea back to the fore—that is, that what we celebrate each Sunday is Easter—and I’d like to do that today, and here’s why: 1) because the celebration of Easter kind of wraps up everything believe about human life (who we are, why we are here, and where we are going) and 2) because our readings today kind of bring all of that to mind.  Perhaps, after looking at these two things, we can refresh our outlook for our nation with this perspective and come to find some ways that we, through our Christian action in the world, can help our nation’s 245th year be a more positive one.  Sound good?  Great!  Let’s take a look at those readings. 

In the first reading, we heard from the prophet Zechariah, who proclaims a prophesy hearkening both to Advent and to Lent.  On the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday, we are reminded to REJOICE because our Savior is coming and, in this prophesy, Zechariah also calls for rejoicing because the just king, the savior, is coming and he will banish the implements of war and usher in peace.  Through this prophesy, God’s chosen people, the ancient Israelites, found hope once again that God would faithfully fulfill through them his promise to build a kingdom in which all peoples could live in harmony and peace.  In Advent, we anticipate the celebration that God has provided that savior in sending his Son, Jesus, to us. 

In this reading, we also see the prophesy that hearkens to Lent, as Zechariah declares that this just king and savior will come not in the showy, powerful ways that worldly kings come, but rather humbly: riding on a beast of burden—a donkey—and even lower than a donkey, a young donkey.  This, of course, is exactly how our Lord Jesus made his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem to the accolades of the people just five days before the great Paschal Mystery was fulfilled in his Passion, Death, and Resurrection.  This reading, therefore, is a great reminder of why we are here each and every Sunday: those days from the triumphal entrance to Jerusalem to his emergence from the grave are the pivotal events in history.  Events which must be remembered and celebrated whenever we gather.  (P.S. if anyone wants to re-enact the Palm Sunday procession, we have plenty of palm-leaves left over from our defunct Palm Sunday giveaway and we’d be happy to share them with you!) 

Then, in the second reading, we heard from Saint Paul who speaks of the Holy Spirit as the one who gives true life to believers.  For those of us who have been reborn through water and the Spirit, this is a reminder and an encouragement for what must follow our celebration of the resurrection.  For it is not just any spirit that lives in us after baptism, but rather the Spirit of “the one who raised Jesus from the dead”.  Thus, if the Spirit who raised Jesus’ mortal body from the dead dwells in us, then our mortal bodies, too, will be raised, through this same Spirit.  This amazing gift comes with a responsibility.  “Because of this”, Saint Paul says, “we are not debtors to the flesh to live according to the flesh”.  Our responsibility now is to live according to the Spirit.  This, of course, is a great reminder of the feast of Pentecost, when the Gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the Church and they were sent forth into the world to proclaim the Good News: that is, to live not for this world, but for the world to come, when the fullness of the kingdom of God will appear.   

Finally, in the Gospel reading, Jesus calls us to the sacraments when he calls us to come to him.  Each of us who have already received baptism recognize that life outside of the grace of God is full of labor and heavy burdens.  Jesus has called us to yoke ourselves to him and his yoke: a yoke that he claims is “easy” and which is harnessed to a burden that he calls “light”.  The implication in this passage, though it isn’t even directly hinted to, is that in life we will always be yoked to a burden, and the question is not, “Will you or will you not allow yourself to be yoked to a burden”, but rather, “Which one will you be yoked to?”  Jesus invites us to choose his yoke and promises that his yoke is “easy”.  “No yoke”, of course, sounds much easier, but as I’ve already said, “no yoke” is not an option.  So, what does Jesus mean by “easy”?  If we look at the word originally used in the Greek text, it provides a clue.  In the original Greek, the word that we translate as “easy” is crestos”: a word that means more like “well-fitting” or “tailor made”.  Thus, what Jesus implies is this: that the world offers you a yoke that doesn’t fit and, therefore, weighs you down, while he offers you one that’s tailor-made to you; thus, making it easy for you to perform at your best and achieve that for which you were made: eternal life in God’s kingdom.  For us Christians, each Sunday is a reminder of the day that we chose to unburden ourselves from the world’s yoke of sin and thus took on the perfectly-fitted yoke that Jesus had prepared for us so as to make our work in this world (the work of building God’s kingdom) bearable. 

Let us not lose, however, that beautiful first part of the reading.  There, Jesus gives thanks that the Father has chosen to reveal the great mysteries of salvation to those who are not considered very important in the world.  In other words, he gives thanks that this knowledge of him has been made accessible to all.  I think that we see this truth when we just look around in church and see all to whom the Gospel has been given and those who have received it.  The Gospel is truly for everyone!  It is important to say, therefore, that Jesus has called each of you in order to give you access to the Father.  Thus, you are each highly favored in his eyes!  Because of this, we give thanks by offering the Eucharist—literally giving back to God what he has given to us, because we are so grateful for the gift.  In doing so, we embrace him and he embraces us as we receive him in Holy Communion; and we are strengthened for the work for which we are sent forth to accomplish.  This, in a real way, is the summary of why we come here each and every Sunday. 

Friends, one of the great features of this great experiment in self-governance that is the United States of America, is that it allows for us to be wrong about something (and, in some cases, really wrong about something), yet it gives us the freedom and the opportunity to fix it.  It’s a system that has been working—not flawlessly, but nonetheless working—for 244 years.  Unless we make major changes to it, I imagine that it will continue to serve us for many years to come, which is good because it helps remind us that the likelihood that we will ever get it completely right is pretty slim. 

As Christians, we know all about this: although after baptism we were completely clean of sin, we have nonetheless fallen back into sin many times throughout our lives.  But our Savior has made it so that we can continue to work at it: striving and re-striving for the good, even after many setbacks.  Our weekly reminder that Jesus has fulfilled all that God had planned for us and, thus, that every grace we need is available to us to accomplish his plan is a message that can bring hope and peace to our nation—our home—in the midst of our current turmoil. 

No, United States of America, you aren’t perfect, because your people aren’t perfect; but with God’s grace and determination we, your people, can choose to do the hard things that we need to do to move always towards perfection—day by day, month by month, year by year—being meek and humble of heart so as to recognize our own flaws before pointing out someone else’s and then walking side by side with them as we strive to overcome our flaws together.  Friends, this is the work of the Christian life and it is the work that will serve to make this nation, our home, better over the next year. 

Therefore, as we celebrate these great mysteries of God that have been shared with us, let us give ourselves to this good work; so that, through us, God might truly bless America. 

Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – July 5th, 2020