Sunday, February 24, 2019

Fear of the Lord > Revenge

Homily: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Friends, in our first reading today, we’ve been given this tiny little snippet of a much greater story contained in the book of 1 Samuel.  The snippet conveys the message that the Church wants us to receive, but the it doesn’t convey the drama of the moment.  It’s a shame, because it’s a great dramatic moment and I think that we’d benefit from a more detailed telling of the story.  Without going back and reading the whole thing to you, let me try to put some “meat” on the “bones” of the story that we heard today.
          Saul was the first king of the Israelites.  The great judge and prophet, Samuel, was in his final days and his sons were men of very poor character: none of them really worthy to take up Samuel’s mantel.  So the people asked for a king, in spite of the warnings from God about the suffering a worldly king would create.  Samuel gave them their first king when he anointed Saul.  Saul was the king they expected at first: winning military victories and giving the Israelites a prominent name among the kingdoms of the Ancient Near East.  Saul disobeyed the Lord, however, by taking loot from a kingdom that he conquered and thus was doomed to suffer a slow series of defeats before being killed in battle, himself.
          It was during one of these defeats that David came into prominence.  The Philistines (the Israelites’ arch-enemy) were camped against the Israelites, prepared for battle.  They had an “ace”, however, in Goliath and so sent him out to battle the best soldier from the Israelite camp: one-on-one, winner takes all.  No Israelite soldier would step up, except David.  And we know this story: with one rock and a slingshot, David took down Goliath.  From then, David would be a head officer in Saul’s army, winning his own prominence that began to supersede Saul’s.
          Saul, became furiously jealous of David: eventually deciding that he had to kill him.  David went on the run and Saul (with his elite officers) pursued him doggedly.  David, with a small cohort of men who were loyal to him, managed to keep ahead of Saul and his army.  Enter today’s story.
          Here, David and his right-hand-man Abishai discover Saul’s camp one night.  David and Abishai sneak into the camp and somehow get all the way to Saul (the reading tells us that God was working for them, as he had put all of the army and king Saul into a “deep slumber” so that they wouldn’t wake up).  There, David has the opportunity to kill Saul outright... with Saul’s own spear, even!  Abishai, too, recognizes the import of the moment: “God has delivered your enemy into your grasp this day!”, he says.  So excited is Abishai that he offers to do the deed himself.  David, however, thinks twice.
          You see, David was a man whom the Scriptures described as being “after God’s own heart”.  His first loyalty was to the Lord, the God of Israel.  David knew that Samuel, the great prophet of God, had anointed Saul king because God had chosen Saul.  Therefore, David knew that, without a clear message from God ordering him to do so, to kill king Saul would be a grave offense against God.  It’s almost as if David thought, “If God has chosen him, then God must decide his fate”.  And so, instead of taking the opportunity to kill king Saul, he simply stole Saul’s spear and water jug so as to prove that he had the opportunity to kill him and, thus, hopefully, to inspire Saul to end his pursuit of him.  We can acknowledge this as a very noble decision on David’s part, of course, but perhaps we should pause for just one moment to recognize what a truly difficult decision it was that David made.
          Imagine for a moment that you had to abandon your house and your livelihood because someone in power over you has decided that you should die.  You have a small band of friends around you, but day-in and day-out you are in hiding: constantly in fear of being discovered; and, having been discovered, of being killed.  Now imagine that, as you are running, you one day discover that you are in a position of advantage over this person who is pursuing you and you are handed a perfect opportunity to attack and completely neutralize this enemy: could you really resist attacking?  Imagine how angry you’ve been at your pursuer.  Imagine praying to God that this pursuit would end: perhaps even that he would give you a means to bring this pursuit to the end.  Now, there you are!  A perfect opportunity to end this pursuit and even exact revenge on this person who has ruined your life: with his own weapon, nonetheless!  Is it really going to be easy to do the “noble” thing and walk away with only the proof that you could have revenged that wrong?  Are you sure?
          Let me ask it this way: when you are slighted (offended) by a friend, family member, coworker, neighbor, your own spouse, even... by anyone, really... how easy is it to resist cutting that person down when you are “venting” to someone else?  Or do you not almost immediately begin to think about the opportunity you’ll have to destroy that person when talking to others later (or, worse yet, on social media)?  If you’re anything like me, it’s incredibly hard to do the noble thing and to keep my mouth shut, when all I want to do is lash out.  Often, that’s exactly what I do: I enact revenge on the one who hurt me as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
          David, as I said, was a “man after God’s own heart”.  He knew that God’s justice would serve him much better than any “vigilante justice” that he could enact.  He remembered, as our Psalm response reminds us today, that “the Lord is kind and merciful” and so he showed Saul mercy.  He also knew, as Jesus taught his disciples in today’s Gospel reading, that the “measure with which he measured would be measured out to him”; and so he showed Saul mercy, because he believed that one day he may need mercy shown to him.  (Sure enough, he would, one day, need God’s mercy and he would receive it.)
          Friends, our Scriptures are reminding us today to be cautious in our judgments... and especially cautious in our desire to revenge even the slightest wrongs that we suffer.  While we should work to build a just society wherein no one person or group of persons can act to oppress any others, we must also temper our desire for retribution: lest we ourselves one day suffer the same retribution for our sins.  If we have faith that God is the God of justice, and that no offense goes unnoticed by him, then we, too, must leave the ultimate judgement... and the ultimate punishment... up to God.
          Friends, open your bibles this week to the first book of Samuel, chapter 26, and read through this story of David and Saul once again.  Then reflect on where in your life that you could still put more trust in God’s judgment than your own.  Then pray the Lord’s prayer, especially focusing on the phrase, “forgive us today our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  In doing so, you will make yourself more open to living out the grace that we celebrate and receive in this Eucharist: God’s mercy given to us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 24th, 2019

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Things of God = Makarios

Homily: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Doesn't a beach on a Greek island sound amazing right now?  To me, it sounds warm and relaxing, yet full of life; and not so exotic that you are on sensory overload.  Just restful, peaceful... a place where you would love to live if you could find a little work to do to keep your finances up.  I’ve never been to a Greek island, but that’s the impression I have of them.  There's a reason for this: Nestled into the Mediterranean Sea, the Greek Islands are in a great climate and, thus, full of natural resources.  It is said that, at least at one time, the island of Cyprus was so rich in natural resources, that its residents didn't need to go off the island for anything.  They had everything that they needed on the island: they were content in themselves.  This led to the island being nicknamed "makaria"—a name playing off of the Greek word for "divine joy"—makarios.
          Makarios is a word indicating a deep, abiding joy or happiness: one that isn't dependent on external circumstances.  This is why Cyprus was called "island of makarios", because external circumstances didn't affect the ability of its residents to live a comfortable, peaceful life.
          The Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to this as he was trying to determine the "end" (or telos) of human beings: that is, the thing for which we are all striving.  By his observations, all living things have something to which they are striving.  A plant, for example, is always striving for the sun.  Not in a conscious way, of course, but in that natural, automatic way that living things strive after the things they need to survive.  Although a little more complicated, Aristotle nonetheless saw that human beings also have a common end toward which they are striving.  Again, by his observation, he could see that, in every choice that we make, either conscious or unconscious, what we choose is based on whether or not we think that it would move us toward that common end; and the end, or telos, for human beings, according to Aristotle, is happiness.  Not just any happiness, of course, but the deep, abiding happiness described by the word makarios.
          Now, we could be right or wrong about whether or not what we choose will lead us towards the greatest happiness and Aristotle certainly has his opinions on what things will move us toward the greatest happiness.  For Christians, however, we can look to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who took Aristotle’s philosophy and interpreted it using Christian theology.  Saint Thomas agreed with Aristotle that human beings have a telos, and that our telos is makarios: a deep, abiding happiness.  Saint Thomas then pointed to the true ultimate happiness that anyone could have: the Beatific Vision, that is, standing face to face with God in an eternal communion with him.  Therefore, for Saint Thomas, the criterion for “choosing so as to become happy” becomes, “whatever it is that moves us closer to the Beatific Vision”.
          Saint Thomas was not inventing this idea, however.  Rather, this idea of makarios is exactly that to which our scriptures are referring today.  Jeremiah, the prophet from whom we heard in the first reading, is teaching about where true makarios may be found.  It is not in human beings or in human/worldly things, he teaches; rather, it is in God and the things of God.  Jesus, in the first of his sermons recorded in Luke’s Gospel, the "sermon on the plain", speaks of this as well.   "Blessed are they..." he says; or, in other words, "Happy with an abiding joy are they..."  Jesus refers to things that cause suffering in this world, but says that we will be happy for suffering it, because in the end we will receive the good things of God.  In contrast, he then warns those who enjoy comfort in this world.  He warns them that it will be too easy for them to forget the things of God and, thus, lose the makarios that God has planned for them.  Implied in all of these statements is that the things of God are truly everlasting, while the comforts of this world are not.
          The challenging thing for us today, I believe, is that the Scriptures seem to be telling us that this is a "zero sum" game: either choose the things of God and be happy or choose the things of the world and be lost.  In other words, "you can't have your cake and eat it too".  "But," perhaps you'll say, "don't we need the things of this world in order to do the things of God?"  And the answer, of course, is “Yes, we do!”  The trick—that is, the work of our Christian discipleship—is not to let the things of this world become ends, themselves: that is, to let them pull our focus away from the things of God.  Rather, we must remain "detached" from them: seeing them as a means towards a greater end, which is to move ourselves and others towards the Beatific Vision.  This detachment means that we must be ready to let them go if they become obstacles in our journey.  (If you’ve ever tried to “Marie Kondo” your house, you’ll know that this detachment isn’t very easy to come by.)
          This is why we come here, to this place set apart for the things of God, each Sunday.  We come here to remind us that true and lasting joy, that is, happiness... makarios, can only be found in God and, then, to equip us with the grace that we need to live in this understanding throughout the week.  (By the way, this is why it is a sin not to take a day of rest from work each week.  Failure to rest leads us to believe that the things of this world are the most important.  Taking a "forced" day of rest reminds us that, ultimately, it is only the things of God that matter.  And so, yes, a sabbath rest is “wasted” time: wasted in the sense that it is sacrificed, that is, “made holy”, because it has been given over to God.)
          Friends, let us not think that we are somehow poorer because we lack some of the niceties of this world (like a home on Greek island).  Rather, let us rejoice that, in Christ, we have every grace that we need to achieve the end for which we are made: our makarios... our happiness; and let us give thanks in this Eucharist for the blessing of this grace.  Then let us go forth from here to demonstrate our thankfulness by living lives focused on the things of God and, thus, on making his kingdom present among us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 16th & 17th, 2019

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Receive mercy, give mercy.

Homily: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          In March of 2003, I was an engineer who had set himself on a path towards a career in the automotive industry.  I was at a point in my life when I knew that there were some things that would have to change—not so that I could be successful, but rather so that I could be happy—but I never thought that those changes would take me too far from engineering.  Nevertheless, after participating in a parish mission, I realized that my life might soon be radically different.
          You see, during that parish mission I had encountered Jesus in a very personal way; and when I encountered him I was suddenly deeply aware of my sinfulness (and of how broken I was because of my sinfulness).  There I went to confession for the first time in what had been over 12 years and I experienced in a profound way the depths of God’s mercy.  I left from that week knowing that my life had changed forever—that is, that God would be sending me in a different direction—even though I wouldn’t know what that direction would look like until some time later
          One of the things that I did quickly realize, however, was that my life would now have to be focused on others.  In other words, I knew that, because I had received God’s mercy, God wanted me to be an instrument of his mercy to others.  Thus, even while I prayed to discern God’s vocation for my life, I began to involve myself in the various outreach ministries in my parish.  Of course, (as Paul Harvey was wont to say) we all know the rest of the story: that the specific way that God was calling me to be an instrument of his mercy was to be a priest in his Church.
          The prophet Isaiah was a minister in the Temple of Jerusalem.  One day, while performing his liturgical duties in the Temple, Isaiah was given a vision of the glory of heaven and of the presence of God.  In spite of the splendor of this vision, Isaiah turns away from it because, in the presence of God, he is acutely aware of his sinfulness—and, thus, his unworthiness to stand in God’s presence.  Just then an angel carries an ember from the altar and “purifies” him by touching it to his lips so that he no longer has to fear being in the presence of God.  Isaiah was mercifully cleansed from his sinfulness.  In response, when the voice of the Lord calls out for someone to send on a mission, Isaiah promptly replies, “Here I am; send me!”  Although he was already ministering to the Lord in the Temple, his experience of God’s mercy inspired him to volunteer to be sent forth on a mission to be the voice of God’s mercy to others.
          Peter was a fisherman in Galilee.  He must not have been a bad fisherman, either, because the Gospel tells us that Jesus got into the boat “belonging to Simon” and only those who had been successful could afford to own their own boat.  After Jesus had instructed him to put out into deep water and lower his nets for a catch—at a time of day in which no one would catch anything, and after having spent the night (that is, the good time for catching fish) lowering his nets and catching nothing—Peter was astounded at the catch that was made and knew that he was in the presence of someone powerful.  This realization was immediately followed by an acute awareness of his own sinfulness; and so Peter bows down before Jesus and acknowledges as much before him.  Jesus, however, shows him mercy and gives him a commission to draw others to experience his mercy, too, when he says: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”
          And although it wasn’t recounted for us in our reading today, Paul’s career as an Apostle is a direct result of the same pattern.  On the road to Damascus—when he was still persecuting the first Christians—Paul encountered the Risen Jesus.  After that appearance, Paul was acutely aware of his sinfulness.  God showed him his mercy, however, and then sent him out to proclaim the Good News of his mercy to the nations.  Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, does acknowledge this for us when he says “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God [that is, the mercy of God] I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”
          This pattern, I think, can be summed up in a simple phrase: Receive mercy, give mercy.  In each of these examples that I’ve recounted—in spite of the very different circumstances in which each occurred—the person became aware that he was in the presence of God and, thus, became acutely aware of his sinfulness.  Acknowledging his sinfulness before God, however, God showed him his mercy.  Having received God’s mercy, he then turned to become an instrument of God’s mercy in the world.  In other words, first he received mercy and then he gave it.  And although this might seem to be something that only “exalted” figures in the church can experience—figures such as prophets, apostles, or priests—this is not an experience only for the “chosen few”.  Rather, it is something that all of us can experience.
          In order to receive mercy, one must first acknowledge his or her sinfulness before God.  We are all sinners and so to acknowledge this openly before God invites him to show us his mercy.  Then, having received his mercy, our lives our changed and we go forth, not to return to our sinful way of life, but rather to live our lives for him and to be instruments of his mercy in the unique vocation that he has given to each of us.  Pope Francis, in a message for Lent a few years ago, said that “God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn.”  In other words, when we receive God’s mercy we are transformed and, thus, enabled to give mercy to others.
          Lent is still a little less than a month away, however, and for this I am grateful.  I’m grateful because this is a message that we need to receive in the midst of Ordinary Time: the time in which we focus on our discipleship and the day-to-day living out of our Christian vocations.  This simple formula—receive mercy, give mercy—is the story of salvation in a nutshell; and it is the story that must be on our lips and in our actions when we interact with others.
          If you heard my homily last weekend (or if you pre-read my bulletin column this weekend), you’ll know that I exhorted us to reclaim the Church’s rightful title by becoming evangelical again.  To do so, I identified three tasks of evangelization that we must take up: witness, invitation, and service.  Witness: telling others about the mercy we have received.  Invitation: inviting others to receive that same mercy.  Service: mercy shared with others as a sign of the mercy that has been given to us.  People today are starving to know that there is mercy for them and to experience it.  We are in contact with the fountainhead of mercy, itself; and so we must be ready to help everyone find and experience it.
          Nevertheless, we ourselves must regularly return to the fount of mercy to renew our experience of receiving mercy so that we can be renewed in our efforts to give it.  This is where the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes in.  When we regularly return to this sacrament, we renew that original encounter, in which we acknowledge that we are in the presence of God (and our unworthiness to be there) and then receive from him the mercy of his forgiveness.  Having received God’s mercy we are told to “go in peace”: that is, to go and give witness to the mercy we have received in our words and actions.  Without this regular renewal, our efforts at evangelization will fall short and the Church will continue to shrink.
          Strengthened by our confessions—and, as always, by this Eucharist that we celebrate—we can become great instruments of God’s mercy and, thus, renew God’s Church.  Our Mother Mary, received such great mercy when she agreed to give birth to God’s Son.  She then turned and gave (and continues to give) such great mercy to others.  May she intercede for us so that our efforts will be fruitful; and so that God’s kingdom of mercy may flourish among us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 9th & 10th, 2019

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Let's make the Catholic Church Evangelical again

Sports Stadium or Evangelical Megachurch?  You decide!

Homily: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
As you all know, I spent the middle two weeks of January in Central America (El Salvador and Guatemala, to be exact).  I was on a pilgrimage with other priests, deacons, and religious to learn about the Central American martyrs.  If you heard my homily last week, you’ll know that it was a much more sober experience than I expected from the outset, as I learned about the horrible violence that plagued those countries in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  I also learned more about how the Catholic Church has been a fixture in these places throughout those rough times.  One of my most consoling moments was concelebrating Mass in the parish church in Santiago, Atitlan, in Guatemala, which is the oldest parish still operating in Central America.  It dates to 1547!  And it is the place where Blessed Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma priest who worked in Guatemala, stood with the poor who were being oppressed: a stand which, ultimately, cost him his life.
There was a moment of disturbing contrast, however.  On one of the days, when we were traveling by mini-bus from El Salvador to Guatemala, we drove by what we, at first, thought was a sports arena.  Then, we read the sign by the road: “Casa de Dios”... “House of God”... an Evangelical Christian mega-church.  At first, we didn’t believe that we read the right sign, but we had to double back down the same road and, when we did, it was confirmed: this huge building—which looked like it could host Super Bowl 54—was an Evangelical mega-church.
It was no surprise to me that Evangelicals have been in traditionally Catholic Central America.  They’ve been there for some time.  The fact that they are such a large presence as to build such an incredibly large building was a bit of a surprise, however.  That building was a statement that Evangelical Christianity has taken a foothold in Guatemala.  Knowing what I know about religious attitudes of Guatemalans, I safely assumed that the Evangelicals are not winning-over the unaffiliated; rather, they’re winning over Catholics.  After talking with a couple of people, it seems as if it is the same situation that is happening all over Central America: that Evangelicals are going throughout these countries specifically targeting Catholics and seeking to lure them away from the practice of the Roman Catholic religion.  The fact that they are finding success is, to me, a big problem.
But this is just a microcosm of what has been happening around the world and even here in our own community.  How many of us here have watched as our children, grandchildren, godchildren, brothers and sisters have slipped away from the Catholic Church: either to stop practicing the Catholic faith altogether or who have been lured to an “Evangelical” community?  A good number of us, I’m sure.  Oh, and I do mean “lured,” by the way.  In many parts of the world, Evangelicals are on a mission to “convert” Catholics because they believe that what we preach is a false religion.  Let us not be deceived, however, into thinking that this is okay, because they’re still “Christians”.  When Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan, he said to them, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  My brothers and sisters, some Protestants and Evangelicals are striving to do just that: to divide God’s house; and, in many ways, we are letting it happen.
I think that, as the Catholic Church, we’ve allowed ourselves to become complacent.  We’ve allowed ourselves to think, “The world’s been evangelized, so I can sit back, relax and just hang out here in the Church until Christ comes back and everything should be fine.”  We’ve forgotten that the very nature of the Church is to be evangelical.  Thus, one of the things that is luring people away from the Catholic Church is that these other communities are doing what the Catholic Church has been failing to do: they are evangelizing!  So, where are our evangelists?  I’m looking at them!  Yes, I’m looking at all of you (and, if I had a mirror, at myself).  I hope that this does not come as a shock to any of you, but each of us here, because of our baptism, are called to be evangelists.
Our first reading today from the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that we are all called to proclaim God’s words to his people.  Sure, the words we heard were God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah at a specific place and time.  Nonetheless, they have been preserved up to this day because they are inspired by God and helpful in instructing us in following our own calls today.  And so, what does God say?  “Try to be holy and just show up to Mass and you’ll be fine”?  No!  He says, “Gird up your loins; stand up and tell them what I command you”!
What God is saying to us, then, is that it is not enough for us to give a minimal effort at holiness and to fulfill the basic requirements, like showing up on Sundays.  What God is saying to us, rather, is that we must also speak his words to others, especially those closest to us, challenging them in positive ways to seek God more deeply and then to support them as they do.
Perhaps, however, we are worried that we’ll push our loved ones away or that they will turn against us.  To that, the readings for today also have an answer.  God promised Jeremiah (and, therefore, he promised us) that he “would not leave us crushed before them,” but rather that he “would make us a fortified city….”
Jesus himself did not fear the reproaches of his family or his neighbors in Nazareth.  As we heard today in the Gospel reading, Jesus preached the truth to them and they boiled over with rage against him.  God did not leave him to their rage, however.  Rather, when he was about to be thrown over the edge of the cliff, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went away.”
Thus, we need not fear the reproaches of our families or neighbors.  If our words inspire them to rage, then so be it.  God will not leave us to be “crushed before them.”  Hopefully, however, and if we speak the truth to them with love (as Saint Paul admonishes us to do today), our words will inspire in them a fervor to seek Christ where he may most fully be found: here in this church and in the Eucharist.
If we still have fear, however, then it probably means that we ourselves need to be ignited with fervor for the faith.  If so, don’t worry, because that’s where we come in: part of our duty as parish leadership is to provide you with what you need to be ignited with fervor for the faith.  I hope that you will pay close attention to the bulletin and announcements and respond to the opportunities that we are preparing for you.  With that fervor ignited (or stoked, if it was already ignited), our tasks then are the following: fervent celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday, consistent daily prayer and reading of the Scriptures, adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament as often as possible, faith sharing in small groups, and frequent confession.  Close attention to these tasks will stoke our fervor for the faith into a burning fire.  Witness (telling others about this fire burning in us), invitation (inviting them to experience the same), and service (fervor expressed in the works of mercy), then, become the acts that will ignite that same fervor in others.
My brothers and sisters, we’ve procrastinated long enough.  Today is the day to act.  Let us respond to the Holy Father’s call and reclaim for our Church the name which has always been ours: Evangelical.  And let us be that shining light for Christ that leads our brothers and sisters—our families and our neighbors—to that communion with God that their hearts so deeply desire: the communion that we share here at this table.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 3rd, 2019