Sunday, August 25, 2013

Depends on what your definition of...

...communion is.  That's the question that I hoped to raise today and it is the question that I believe that Jesus is offering us an answer to today.  Who can receive salvation?  Well, everyone; but you have to strive for it.  There's absolutely no reason to hold back, however, so let's reach out to the One who saves us!


Homily: 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Evangelical Catholicism is the name that Catholic author George Weigel gives to the “mode of being” that he proposes the Church must take on in order to remain a relevant voice proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.  Among other things, Mr. Weigel proposes that, in contrast to the inwardly-focused Church of the Counter Reformation (which is the Church that we all know as the “pre-Vatican II Church”)—in which communion with the Church had clearly defined boundaries (you are either “in” or “out”) and was guarded closely by the Church hierarchy—an evangelical Catholic Church would be one that admits of various “degrees of communion”: that is, that having received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and communion would be the basis of communion, but that one could be more or less “in communion” with God and the Church based on how deeply one engaged the faith.
          To be sure, this isn’t the first time that God’s people have grappled with this notion.  In our Gospel today, Jesus encounters someone who is asking that very question.  He or she says, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”  Really, what he or she is asking is “Lord, is salvation only for the select few (that is, the affiliated), or is it truly for everybody?”  You see, in the ancient Jewish understanding of it, God selected the descendents of Abraham—Israel’s twelve sons (otherwise known as the Israelites)—to be his specially chosen people on whom his favor would rest.  Yet in prophesies—much like the one we heard today from the prophet Isaiah—God revealed that his favor (that is, salvation) would extend to peoples of every race and nation throughout the world.  And so this person, it seems, was trying to see if this “salvation” that Jesus was talking about would be just for a select few—meaning God’s “chosen” people—or if it would be available to anyone, thus ushering in the final age that gathers all of the nations into one in Jerusalem.
          Jesus, for his part, answers the question by saying something somewhat controversial: Affiliation in a particular group won’t be enough on its own to be saved.  In other words, just being a part of the Israelite heritage won’t be enough for you to enter the Kingdom of God.  This would have been a “slap in the face” to many who saw themselves as “guaranteed a spot” in God’s coming Kingdom because of their ancestral lineage.
          I suspect that I might find a few folks that, perhaps unwittingly, believe the same thing even today.  The culture of the Counter Reformation Church was one that focused heavily on the notion that there would be “no salvation outside of the Church” and thus that salvation was all but guaranteed as long as you maintained a valid membership card in the Catholic Church.  For these individuals, Mr. Weigel’s proposal that an evangelical Church is one that admits of varying “degrees of communion”—degrees that are affected by the level in which one engages in the faith, instead of being defined solely by the sacraments one has received—would be a similar “slap in the face”; because in this kind of thinking, for example, a non-Catholic Christian who adheres closely to biblical moral teaching could be considered more deeply in communion with the Church (and thus closer to salvation) than a fully-initiated Catholic who publically advocates for abortion rights or for the rights of same-sex couples to be married.
          In answer to his interlocutor, Jesus offers encouragement.  He says, “Strive to enter the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”  Really, what he’s saying to him is: “Yes, salvation is available to everyone; but it isn’t easy to obtain.  Salvation requires more than just affiliation; it requires effort and strength to live a life in communion with God and with others.”  For many (and, perhaps, for this person) this was Good News, for it meant that there was hope for everyone, not just for the religious elite or those with Israelite heritage.
          For us today Jesus’ message of encouragement is the same: “Strive to enter the narrow gate.”  In other words, don’t just rest on your laurels of having received all of the sacraments of initiation and of having “punched your timecard” every Sunday.  Rather, be a striving Catholic, an evangelical Catholic: someone who engages faith deeply, seeking a profound friendship with the master who is our communion so that at the final judgment you won’t be found outside of the door, pleading to get in and hearing those desperate words: “I do not know where you are from.  Depart from me…” 
          This morning, we celebrated the Sacrament of Baptism for two children, Kate and David, which for them is the firm foundation for communion with Christ in the Church.  Among their parents and godparents were Cradle Catholics, a convert to Catholicism, Catholics from the other side of the world (Burma) and one who witnessed it all as he awaits his own baptism at the Easter Vigil next spring.  The message for them all, however, was the same: Salvation is yours, but you must strive for it.
          My brothers and sisters, our Lord wants more from us than just membership in the Catholic Church, he wants communion.  Our baptism is the entrance to that communion and what we receive from this altar effects that communion in its deepest sense, but only if we are striving for it.  Therefore, do not be idle there in your pew, but choose today to seek what you receive and I promise you will find so much more: profound friendship with Jesus now and eternal joy with him in heaven.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – August 25th, 2013

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How to start a fire...

          Well, it's been a crazy weekend so far (and it isn't over yet!).  Confessions, wedding, baptisms, and catechism... I continually find it amazing that I'm constantly moving in and out of peoples' lives.  What a blessing for me!  I don't know if any one felt that way, but I hoped this week's homily would be a little challenging to people.  If you have any feedback, I'll take it!

Homily: 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          A few weeks ago, I spent some time with my niece and nephew and we watched the animated film, The Lorax.  It is based on the Dr. Seuss children’s book of the same name and chronicles the story of a young boy who visits a strange isolated man at the edge of town who purportedly can explain why the area is in such a run-down state.  The man, named the Once-ler, explains by way of flashback how he came to this once pristine land full of blissful animals and beautiful trees and began to use the “tufts” of the trees to make a product—Thneeds—through which he would make his fortune.
          As the first tree was cut down, he remembers, a mythical figure appeared: the Lorax, the protector of the forest.  Instead of being some great, powerful being that will destroy by force any threat to the forest, the Lorax appears as a prophet (now, before you think “bor-ing” remember, this is a Dr. Seuss book).  Thus, he confronts the Once-ler about his actions and then warns him of the dire consequences that will result if he continues to march forward with his plan unabated.  The Once-ler, surprised that this strange, mythical creature hasn’t invoked any supernatural powers to stop him, ignores him completely and presses forward with his plan: eventually destroying the forest (and, thus, the habitat for all of the blissful animals who lived there) and leaving the land desolate.
          In many ways, the Lorax is not unlike many of the ancient prophets of Israel, including Jeremiah.  These prophets were men chosen by God to speak the truth about current events and to announce the consequences of continuing to pursue particular courses of action.  In the case of Jeremiah, he was called by God at the time when the people of Judah had fallen away from following the Mosaic Law.  At first, he called for repentance and predicted that if the king and the people did not change their ways that God’s protection would leave them and that they would thus be subject to being conquered by neighboring nations.
          In the reading we heard from the Book of Jeremiah today, we see those consequences being played out.  Jeremiah’s prophecies went unheeded by King Zedekiah and Jerusalem, thus, was under siege and losing the battle.  Jeremiah continued to prophesy, however, saying that the city would be overthrown unless the king and all the people would repent and turn back to the Lord.  The princes of Judah refused to hear him any longer and so they came to the king asking to be allowed to dispatch him.  The king succumbed to their wishes and left him in their hands.  It was only through the hands of a foreigner, Ebed-melech, that Jeremiah was saved from death in the cistern.  Thus we see that prophets, and their prophesies, are meant to make us uncomfortable.
          In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is claiming his role as a prophet.  He states in no uncertain terms that he has come to make us uncomfortable.  In fact, he’s come to “set the world on fire”!  Here we see that Jesus is more than a prophet: that is, a passive voice that speaks God’s truths and then leaves the consequences to the choices of those to whom he speaks.  His is an active voice that will challenge his hearers and force them to choose: either to repent and to follow him or to turn defiantly and definitively against him.
          His message, that he has come to establish division, instead of peace, makes us uncomfortable, because we want to believe that Jesus just wants us to be nice and to get along with each other.  Yet, his prophesy that households will become divided—that father will be divided against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother—is still very relevant for us today as we see it being played out in our own families.  The challenge of Jesus is so strong that one has to choose either to follow or to turn away and, sadly, we see many families that have become divided and separated because of this.
          Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a great abbot of the 12th century, wrote to one of his monks who had just been elected to be the pope in order to warn him not to become so accustomed to the hectic schedule demanded of him as the Bishop of Rome that he should become callous and unreflective.  In it he said: I am afraid that you will despair of an end to the many demands that are made upon you and become calloused and gradually suppress your sense of just and useful pain.  It would be much wiser to remove yourself from these demands even for a while, than to allow yourself to be distracted by them and led, little by little, where you certainly do not want to go.  Where?  To a hard heart.  Do not go on to ask what that is; if you have not been terrified by it, it is yours already.  A hard heart is precisely one which does not shudder at itself because it is insensitive…
          My brothers and sisters, if Jesus’ words today do not cause us some discomfort then perhaps we, too, have allowed our hearts to become hardened.  Maybe it is through our negligence as we allow the daily demands of our hectic schedules—the demands that world places on us—to gradually desensitize us from being stung by Jesus’ challenge to radical discipleship.  Or maybe our sin, like the greed of the Once-ler and the pride of King Zedekiah, hardened our hearts long ago so that we now despair of ever feeling true contrition once again.  Whatever the case may be, our call today is to acknowledge the state of our hearts, and, thus, our discipleship, and to recognize the call of the prophets to turn back to the Lord who, as the Psalmist says, “will draw us out of the pit of destruction to set our feet on secure ground.”
          Friends, I believe that Pope Benedict called for this Year of Faith and for a renewed focus on the New Evangelization because he saw Jesus calling out to us today using these same words that we heard in the Gospel reading: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  This Year of Faith has been a call to us to shatter our hardened hearts and to return to the faith of the Church; and then to turn out and to set that flame of faith loose on the world so that the fire of Christ’s love will consume it entirely.
          Saint Catherine of Siena once said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!”  My brothers and sisters, God has called us to be prophets and evangelists who will set the world on fire for Christ.  But we cannot do this if we are clinging to our comfortable lives or to maintaining a “false peace” with our family members, friends, and neighbors who obstinately refuse to follow the truth.  We can only do it if we ourselves become living flames of faith by “ridding ourselves of every burden of sin and persevering in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes on Jesus,” as the author to the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to do today.
          Therefore, let us take courage.  For that same author also reminds us that “for the sake of the joy that lay before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.”  With his witness and with the witness of all the saints that have gone before us (the great “cloud of witnesses” spoken of in the second reading), we too can endure in our struggle against sin, even to the point of shedding our own blood.  For the promise of glory—the promise that is renewed for us every day on this altar—is already ours.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – August 17th & 18th, 2013

Monday, August 12, 2013

I'll believe it when I see it...

          Thanks to Fr. Hugo of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart I had the previous weekend free and, thus, had no homily to post.  I got right back to it this last weekend, so here's what I preached.

          Let us not take for granted our God-given ability to know the truth about our faith!  May your week be blessed!


Homily: 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          I for one am continually impressed by the incredible technological advancements that human beings have made, especially through the last 200 years or so of history.  Say what you will about the French Revolution and the Enlightenment period of history, but one undeniable result from those events was the flourishing of the sciences.  One of the unfortunate consequences of those events, however, was that we, as human beings, began to be focused on ourselves and on the material world and we began to lose focus on God.
          One of the many downsides in this change of focus is what I would call the “modern affliction of doubt.”  The natural sciences have all but convinced us that if you can’t see it, measure it, or test it, then it’s just a theory and you shouldn’t “put any stock into it”, so to speak.  In other words, if what is being proposed cannot be backed up with empirical data then you should question whether or not you should rely on it.  It’s this mentality that makes us say “Yeah, right.  I’ll believe it when I see it.”
          Under this model, faith is something of a problem.  The core tenets of Christian faith (otherwise known as the Creed) are undetectable by empirical methods and so, for anyone suffering from this modern affliction of doubt, they seem “fuzzy” and “unreliable” and so subject to questioning and deep skepticism.
          The problem for these modern skeptics, however, is that they have limited themselves to only five senses from which to build their “empirical world”.  The senses of sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell are all that the modern sciences rely on when compiling empirical data that helps them understand the world.  What they fail to acknowledge is that human beings have a sixth sense—a sense of a spiritual reality that is beyond our material one—that is very real and can be relied upon.  It is this “sixth sense” that the author to the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of today in our second reading.
          In it, the author states that “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”  Faith is evidence, he says!  According to this, faith is not fuzzy at all, but rather it is evidence that there can be (and, in fact, there is) something beyond our ability to detect it with empirical methods.  Given this, it seems like the doubt that we are afflicted with these days is not so much a doubt of the objects of faith—that is, those things that we believe in—but rather a doubt of our own human ability to know that there is something true and real beyond our material ability to detect it.
          The truth that ancient peoples weren’t as afflicted with this condition is seen in our readings today.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews uses Abraham as an example of someone who relied on faith as if it was evidence of a concrete truth.  Certainly even modern science could not have predicted that all that God had promised Abraham would come true; but his faith in God—that is, his spiritual sense that God was, indeed, trustworthy—provided the assurance he needed to move from his home to an unknown land in which God had promised him he would provide numerous descendents.  And, because of his faith, Abraham realized its reward: a son through whom he would have many descendents, even though he and his wife Sarah were long past the age for having children.
          In our first reading, we are told of how the Israelites relied on faith to realize their promised deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  Even though they had already seen the nine previous “signs” that God had produced in Egypt (what are commonly known as the plagues), they had no assurance that God would fulfill his promise to deliver them on the night of the Passover, except for their spiritual sense that God was, indeed, trustworthy.  Thus, the author of the Book of Wisdom could say that “with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith, they might have courage.”  In other words, faith—which for them was truly evidence of God, that is, of what was unseen—gave them courage to fulfill the precepts of God—that is, to slaughter a lamb and to set out in the middle of the night—with the assurance that he would, indeed, deliver them from their enslavement in Egypt.
          It is faith that Jesus is calling us to in the Gospel today.  In it he said “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.”  In other words, he’s saying “Take courage in your faith!  Do not let the world around you lull you into complacency so that you let your guard down, or into doubt so that you question the assurance that faith has given you: that your master will, indeed, return, and, in finding you ready, will give you the great reward of faith, a place at the eternal banquet and rest from all your labors in heaven.
          My brothers and sisters, science, indeed, has been a great benefit for us. Through it we now know that the laws of physics are reliable.  Therefore, when we are driving in our cars and we press on the brake pedal we do so with assurances that the car will, indeed, stop: the laws of physics, which were used to design the brake system, demand that it be that way.  And if it doesn’t, we don’t question the laws of physics, do we?  No!  We assume that there was some problem in the system itself, because the laws of physics are reliable.
          Religion, my brothers and sisters, is the science through which we know that faith in God is reliable.  Because for thousands and thousands of years God has continually proven himself trustworthy to those who remain faithful, we too can feel assured that if we place our cares and needs into God’s hands that they, indeed, will be taken care of.  And just as we wouldn’t question the laws of physics when our car fails to brake when we press the pedal, so too we shouldn’t question the reliability of God—and our spiritual sense that he is trustworthy—simply because our prayers weren’t answered in the way that we expected; rather, we should question whether or not we, or those through whom God chose to respond, were faithful enough to realize his response.
          For example: Mary is elderly and stuck in her home because of chronic mobility problems and she begins to feel lonely and so she prays that God would send someone to visit her.  God, in response to her prayer, inspires in her next door neighbor, Frank, the thought that he should stop by and say hello.  Frank acknowledges the thought and realizes that it has been a while since he visited her, but he was just going out to run some errands and so he puts it off until later.  Of course later he forgets that he had that thought and Mary never gets her visit.  Is God, therefore, unreliable because Frank didn’t respond to God’s inspiration?  No!  Frank is unreliable, not God!  In other words, it was the system that failed, not the underlying laws that governed it.
          My brothers and sisters, in this Year of Faith, let us take courage—like Abraham and the ancient Israelites—and face this world with faith in Jesus’ assurance that he will, indeed, return; and that he will reward those whom he finds faithful—both in prayer and in works—by seating them at the great, eternal banquet prepared for them in heaven: a foretaste of which we enjoy here, at this Eucharistic table.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – August 11th, 2013