Thursday, October 27, 2011

Take a look at this...

...and try to tell me that there is no God!

(Taken from the window of my room in the seminary, October 27th, 2011, about 4:20 p.m.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Can I love you and still be me?

Crazy week this past week! I preached for the first time in our seminary chapel. I was much more intimidated than I expected to be! I think that it went well, though. Please find the homily below.

(By the way: Dr. LaMothe is our professor for Pastoral Care and Counseling.)

~ Given at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology (Saint Thomas Aquinas Chapel), Saint Meinrad, IN – October 23rd, 2011.

I don’t know, perhaps I’m missing something, or perhaps I’ve taken one too many classes with Dr. LaMothe, but it just seems to me like so many of our problems—particularly our relationship problems—boil down to a struggle with differentiation. Differentiation, as many scholars define it, is one’s ability to be his or herself in relation to others. In other words, it is knowing who I am as a distinct person in relation to another person. I like this notion because it touches on something very human: that is, that we come to know ourselves more fully—in a sense, that we become more human—when we recognize our distinctiveness in relation to another person, which gets right to the core of our theological understanding of the human person: that we are all members of one body, distinct but related.

A struggle with differentiation, then, is when our sense of self becomes dependent on others. In other words, when we find that we need others to act in a certain way in order to feel good about ourselves and to function within a group of others then we are probably struggling to be (or, rather, to know) who we are in relation to others. Perhaps an example will help illustrate this. First, for those of you who aren’t from Indiana you should know that in Indiana you are either for Purdue University and against Indiana University or vice versa (unless of course you aren’t from Indiana originally, in which case you don’t care because you realize that it’s just not important). Imagine what it would be like if on any given day a small group of people (let’s say ten or so) decided to walk through the campus of IU completely decked out in black and gold Purdue paraphernalia. For students at IU this demonstration would be tantamount to a hostile invasion. Perhaps, then, you could imagine the tension that would build as this group walked through campus. My guess is that it wouldn’t be but a few minutes before this group began to receive hostile and threatening comments from IU students passing them by. In their anxiety at this apparent threat to their identity as Hoosiers, these students would react by attempting to shame the members of this group for their non-conformity.

We see further examples of this in the readings from the Gospel of Matthew that we’ve heard over the past few weeks. In these passages, we see the Pharisees react to Jesus’ non-conformity in his teaching and his apparent attacks on their authority by sending wave after wave of experts to try and catch Jesus in saying something either heretical that they could use to discredit his teachings or blasphemous that they could use to condemn him. They were anxious about his teaching and reacted in an attempt to shame him for his non-conformity.

Now, in some sense, the Pharisees had good reason to be anxious. As the established protectors of Jewish orthodoxy it was their duty to ensure that all rabbis were espousing right teaching. This was further exacerbated, however, by the Roman occupation, which, while allowing them to continue to practice their religion, was quick to react to anything that smelled of a revolution. Therefore, Jesus’ talk about a “Kingdom at hand” and of the “anointed of God” having arrived would have increased the Pharisees’ anxiety tenfold. Nevertheless, instead of engaging Jesus’ teaching and either embracing it for what it was or ignoring it and thus “teaching around it,” they become reactive, rejecting Jesus’ teaching and seeking to force him to change and to conform to their image. Because they couldn’t be themselves—the established leaders of the Jewish faith—in relation to Jesus, Jesus either had to change or be annihilated.

It’s no stretch to see that this kind of reactive, undifferentiated response is a significant source of conflict in our own lives today. Our culture is given over to polarizations and, thus, in many ways our congregations are divided. How often do we find ourselves launching into criticisms about what others in the church are saying or doing? I suspect that there are few of us in this chapel whose anxiety wouldn’t shoot through the roof when he or she encountered someone who was convinced that women would soon be ordained priests or be able to sit calmly while a fellow Catholic went around teaching that same-sex marriages are valid. Immediately our defenses would shoot up and our responses would move towards an attempt to force them to change and to conform to our image of a “good Catholic.” My brothers and sisters, no matter what the situation is, when our anxiety levels start to rise and we begin to become reactive, it’s a sign that we are struggling with differentiation, that is, we are struggling to be who we are in relation to others.

Even though the Pharisees had confronted Jesus in their struggle with differentiation, we see that Jesus nonetheless puts forth a well-differentiated response. Knowing that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, we can imagine that he felt some anxiety when the scribe approached him. Nonetheless, he was able to check his anxiety and respond their question instead of reacting to their malicious intentions. He reminded them that an authentic love of God is inextricably intertwined with a genuine love of neighbor. More important, however, is that Jesus models this teaching for them in the very way he responds to them. Although the Pharisees were reacting to their anxiety about Jesus’ teaching, Jesus refuses to react to them. Rather, he responds to them in love, showing his ability to be who he is in relation to them, even when they relate to him in hostility.

For us, the same certainly holds true. When we approach God out of our anxiety—whether it be anger, frustration, fear, or doubt—he is always able to receive us and to respond to us in a way that is in no way reactive to how we approached him. Always capable of being who he is in relation to us, God stands always ready to respond to us in love, a response which then becomes for us like a mirror, showing us who we really are in relation to him—his sons and daughters—and thus enabling us to be who we are in relation to others, which frees us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

My brothers and sisters, Jesus’ ultimate act of differentiation is what we see on that cross and in what we will eat from this altar. In submitting to the indescribable torture and death on the cross and to being made present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the form of bread and wine, Jesus acknowledges who he is in relation both to God and to us: the Son of God and the Son of man, the King of All Ages and the child of a peasant girl, the Beloved of the Father and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world… My brothers and sisters, let us remember today who we are—sons and daughters and brothers and sisters—and let us not forget the commandment Jesus has given us to love God and to love our neighbor, a love that intermingles most perfectly when we approach this altar in unity and peace. My brothers and sisters, let us be.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Who really is in control?

            I know that it has been a long time since my last post, but the semester has really gotten a hold of me.  I preached my first Sunday homily of the semester this past weekend at my ministry parishes in Jeffersonville, IN.  So, I post the homily here and hope to post an update sometime soon.  Thanks for your patience!

~ Homily given at Saint Augustine and Sacred Heart parishes in Jeffersonville, IN - October 15-16, 2011: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

            Not long after the earthquake that hit Virginia and shook much of the central east coast, including Washington, D.C., I came across a reflection that highlighted something simple and yet profound.  Now, I don’t remember who wrote it or, for that matter, how I even came across it, but nonetheless the point that the author made stuck with me.  In it, the author focused on the earthquake’s effect on the operations of our nation’s capital, causing government offices and federal courts to close for the day.  What the author found to be so profound about this is that the government of what is arguably the most powerful nation in the world was forced to close shop and go home by a power over which it has no control… a natural phenomenon or, what we might call, an act of God.  In other words, for a brief time on an August afternoon, the men and women who govern our nation were faced with the fact that, in reality, a greater power was in control of what would happen that day.  The author concludes without making any judgments about the earthquake being a manifestation of God’s wrath (which I remember being somewhat popular at the time), but rather expresses his humble satisfaction in this reminder that, in spite of the powers of principalities that surround us, God still truly is in control.

            In today’s Gospel, Jesus finds himself in a “double-bind.”  The Pharisees, feeling unjustly indicted after hearing the parables Jesus was teaching—the parables we’ve heard over the past three weeks—go off to plot their revenge against him.  After all, they believe themselves to be the acknowledged religious authority and so they refuse to be undermined by Jesus.  Soon, they send their “cronies” to test Jesus and to see if they can catch him making a comment that they can use to turn people against him.  The double trouble comes in the form of the Herodians, King Herod’s cronies who many commentators suspect were the ones responsible for collecting taxes.  The test that the disciples of the Pharisees propose is essentially a “catch 22” in which a key phrase has a double meaning and, thus, can trap the respondent into making an answer he or she wouldn’t otherwise make.  In this context, the phrase “is it lawful” would have conveyed two meanings.  For the Pharisees, the law that they are concerned with is the Law of Moses, which states that allegiance is to be paid to God alone (thus, the first commandment: “I am the Lord, your God.  You shall not have strange gods before me.”).  And so, paying the census tax—at least to them—was akin to “splitting” your allegiance between Yahweh and someone else.  For the Herodians, the law they were concerned with is the civil law, in which it is a crime on the level of treason to refuse to pay the tax.  Thus, to not pay the tax is akin to an act of a revolutionary, which is something the Romans were quite sensitive about.  And so we see Jesus’ double bind.  If he says that it is lawful to pay the census tax, then he is contradicting the Mosaic Law and splitting his allegiance between God and Caesar.  On the other hand, if he says that it is not lawful, the Herodians will likely report him as “inciting acts against Caesar,” which will probably get him arrested.

            As Jesus is wont to do, however, he sees the trap for what it is and steps right around it.  He sees the limited perspective with which they both viewed the problem and then expands it to show them yet a third solution, the “both/and.”  Jesus’ answer—“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God”—demonstrates that he sees no conflict in paying the tax on one hand and maintaining allegiance to God alone on the other.  In other words, Jesus is saying that what Caesar demands is of little accord, so pay it if you must, but do not let it distract you from giving to God his just due, which is of much greater importance.

            For us, this calls us to consider how we live our lives as Christians subject to a government that is at times hostile to our religious convictions.  Are we going to cower, sulking frustratedly because our government doesn’t rule the way we’d like it to (which is the model put forth by the Pharisees)?  Or will we acknowledge that our God is in control, in spite of our government’s limitations, and realize that what we owe God is of much greater importance than whatever it is our government exacts of us?  The thing that we tend to overlook, it seems, is not what we owe to the government (I suspect that no one here is unaware of what they owe to them), but rather what we owe to God.  Now, perhaps at this point you are looking at me and asking, “What exactly do we owe to God?”

            Well, in a word, everything.  There’s nothing that we have in this world that hasn’t come from God and so to “repay … to God what belongs to God” means that in some way we owe him everything we have.  However, let’s take a look at the Psalm that we sang today to see if we can get a little more specific.  The psalmist states, “Give the Lord, you family of nations, give the Lord glory and praise; give the Lord the glory due his name!  Bring gifts and enter his courts.”  Therefore, it seems that our worship is what we owe God, first and foremost.  You know, as Americans, we have a certain cultural attitude in which we feel obliged at times to “keep the score even.”  In other words, when we receive a gift or kindness from others, we feel like we are then in debt to the other person and thus look for some way to repay their kindness.  When we are faced with the graciousness of God, however, we are forced to acknowledge that we are unable to repay God for what he has given to us.  Yet, we tend to discount the simple acts that God desires from us.  We fail to recognize that, in truth, there is absolutely nothing that can take the place of our coming together as a faith community to worship God in thanksgiving for his gifts that sustain us each and every day.  From this standpoint, then, it makes sense that giving glory to God is our first priority.  Of course, that’s not all we are called to do.  Our giving back to God from the gifts he’s given us cannot be limited simply to a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning; rather it must spill forth into our daily lives.  “Tell his glory among the nations,” the psalmist proclaims, “among all peoples [tell] his wondrous deeds.”  At the end of each Mass, we are sent forth into the world to bring the Good News we celebrate here into our homes, our communities, and our workplaces, completing “works of faith” and “labors of love,” all the while “enduring in hope”—true hope—that God indeed is in control and that one day we will see him face to face.

            My brothers and sisters, when earthquakes shake our lives—whether they be physical acts of nature or, more commonly, events that shake up the status quo of our lives—we are forced to face the ominous question: “Who really is in control here?”  For some, the answer is frightening: a cold, malicious God who exacts suffering on both good and bad, seemingly without discretion, or worse yet no God at all, leaving them with no way to ascribe meaning to the suffering which they endure.  For us, however, it is God, our Father and Mother, who protects us and nourishes us and most importantly never abandons us, even if we try to abandon him.

            Perhaps we can remember this today as we do what the psalmist charges us to do, “bringing our gifts into his courts” so as to repay to the Lord what truly belongs to him, “the glory due his name.”  The glory that is our lives of service, gratuitously given and united to the one who paid the price for us all, Jesus our Lord.