Monday, March 25, 2019

Outrunning the bear

Homily: 3rd Sunday in Lent – Cycle C
To be clear from the start, I am not an “outdoorsman”.  I like being outdoors—in the woods, even—but real “off the grid” living is probably not for me.  Nevertheless, I do know a thing or two about being in the wilderness.  Like the adage about bears.  You know, the one when someone asks, “Do you think you could outrun a bear if you encountered one?” and the outdoorsman says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you!”  This is how we can think, oftentimes, isn’t it?  “I don’t have to overcome everything; I just have to outdo the next guy!”  We can apply this to our spiritual lives, too, right?  We think, “Well, I could be better; but I’m already so much better than a lot of people, so I’m okay.”  Our Scripture readings today, however, remind us that perhaps we shouldn’t feel so secure.
In our second reading, we heard one of Saint Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians.  The backstory to today’s reading is that the Corinthians had been thinking that, since they were now on the “right team” (that is, Team Jesus), that they were secure and that it didn’t matter what they did.  In a sense, they thought: “Well, we’re ‘running faster’ than those pagans, so the bear is going to eat them, and we’ll be fine.”  Saint Paul, however, goes back to the story of the Exodus and reminds them of how the Israelites were on the “right team” (that is, Team Yahweh) when they left Egypt, but because of their constant grumbling against God and their repeated expressions of lack of trust in him, God did not permit them to enter the Promised Land; rather, that generation died in the desert.  Then he admonishes them: “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall”.  In other words, “Take care, because you could find yourself on the wrong side of judgment.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is confronted by some folks who want his opinion about the “judgment” declared on some Galileans who had been killed by the Romans and whose blood was then mixed in with the blood of their pagan sacrifices (which, if it isn’t clear to you, is about the most ignominious death a Jew could have ever endured).  “Where these guys really bad sinners?” is the question behind their question.  Jesus doesn’t respond directly to their question, but rather admonishes them, saying: “Let this be a warning to you!  Regardless of what you’re doing, you, too, could suffer this same fate!  Therefore, don’t be complacent!  Rather, strive for purity and greatness!”  In other words, “The same judgment that fell on them, may fall on sinners of any magnitude.  Therefore, don’t try only to be ‘better than the next worse sinner’, but rather to be pure and holy so that the judgment will not come upon you.”
This, it seems, is our Lenten message.  As I said, too often in the spiritual life we compare ourselves with others, saying: “I’m not perfect, but I’m not like those guys, so God will be lenient with me.”  In other words, “I don’t have to be faster than the bear, just a little faster than someone else.”  Lent, however, calls us to compare ourselves to the ideal, not just to one another.  In other words, it reminds us that, in the race against the bear, it’s just you and the bear!  And so, the question that Lent asks us isn’t “Are you living a better Christian life than most?”, but rather, “Are you living the best Christian life that you can live?”  Our work during Lent is first to answer that question (pro-tip: the answer is probably “no”) and then to put ourselves to the work that moves us towards living the best Christian life that we can live.
To help you, perhaps, to come at this another way, I’ll share this story.  In my ministry I often spend time with elderly folks: many of whom are either confined to their homes or to assisted living facilities because of health problems.  These folks can be particularly prone to bouts with depression.  Most have had rather full lives: they’ve worked and raised a family.  But now they are feeling a little useless and so start to question things.  They’ll often say to me, “Father, I just don’t know why I’m still here” and, sometimes, “Well, I guess God must not be ready for me yet.”  When they say that, I’ll usually smile and, as gently as I can, say to them: “You know, it’s more likely that you’re not yet ready for God.”
This, of course, is the point of the parable that Jesus adds to his admonition in the Gospel.  The fig tree (which, in the Scriptures, always refers to the Jewish people) was specially planted by the orchard owner (which refers to God) in his orchard (which refers to the Promised Land).  There, he expected the tree to produce fruit.  When he came looking for it, however, he found none.  The tree, in other words, wasn’t yet ready for God.  Thanks to the intervention of the gardener (who, in this parable, refers to Jesus), the tree is given more time to be cultivated and, perhaps, to produce fruit.  Thus, to our homebound brothers and sisters I can say: “If you’re still here, it’s because God is giving you time to produce more fruit.”  And to all of us here today I can say, “Lent is our reminder that we, too, are not yet ready for God; and so, must allow ourselves to be pruned, cultivated, and fertilized so that we, too, can produce more fruit for God’s kingdom.”
Friends, we’ve already begun our Lenten journey; but if we’re not sure that we’ve begun in the right place, then how should we begin again?  For the answer, let’s look at the example of Moses.  In our first reading today, we heard how God called Moses to himself.  Moses, however, could only come part way to God by himself.  At one point, he had to completely submit himself to be under God’s power.  This is represented by God commanding him to remove his shoes: his shoes being both a sign of his worldly impurity (all of the muck we walk through sticks to our shoes, right?) and also of his own powers to accomplish things (since shoes make it possible to do a lot of things!).  And so, in order to become all that God was calling him to be, Moses had to make himself vulnerable before God.  This is what we are called to do during Lent.
My brothers and sisters, God doesn’t need, nor does he want our Lenten sacrifices; rather, he wants us!  Lent, therefore, is the time to separate ourselves from worldly things and our reliance on ourselves (that is, from our shoes!), and it is a time to expose ourselves to the bewildering power of the Lord (represented by the bewildering bush that was burning, but not consumed).  When we do this, the Lord will then equip us with his grace to go out and bear fruit in the world.  Therefore, let us not rest on our laurels, thinking that “as long as I can outrun you, I’m okay”; but rather let’s turn away from the things of the world and towards God once again, who desires to cultivate us and make us fruitful trees in his garden: bearing fruit that will be his saving nourishment in the world.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – March 24th, 2019

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Let's make a deal...

          This weekend we made our "in-pew" commitments to our stewardship of treasure at St. Mary's Cathedral.  This homily led up to the collecting of the commitment pledge cards and presenting them at the altar.

Homily: 2nd Sunday of Lent – Cycle C
          Many of you, I’m sure, will remember the game show “Let’s Make a Deal” with Monty Hall.  It was a show that defined the genre, in many ways, and whose popularity extends into its reincarnation today, hosted now by Wayne Brady.  You’ll recall that the premise of the show was pretty simple: regular folk were gathered into the studio audience where Monte Hall passed through and chose persons randomly to offer them prizes and then the chance to trade those prizes for the possibility of winning prizes that were more valuable.
          For example: Monty would ask if anyone had a pair of eyelash tweezers and would give the first person he saw who had a pair $100.  Then he would proceed to deal with them, offering them something bigger of unknown value (something, perhaps, behind one of the big doors).  The big doors could hide prizes as valuable as cars or as worthless as a ride on a donkey around the parking lot after the show.  Thus, the crux of the show: will the person—who had nothing but a pair of eyelash tweezers to start with—give up the $100 for a chance to win something much more valuable, knowing that it could actually be something worthless; thus leaving them to go home having lost even the eyelash tweezers?
          Of course, there was never any way to know for sure what would be beyond those big doors.  Thus, the contestants would have to take a blind leap of faith that there was something valuable behind the door if they wanted the chance to take home a more valuable prize.  The fact that, more often than not, people did end up taking home more valuable prizes meant that the show remained wildly popular for a long time.
          The contestants on the show had to use blind faith if they wanted to win a big prize.  On the surface, that doesn’t seem too different from the deal that God was offering Abram in today’s first reading.
          The beginning of our reading lands us right in the middle of the conversation, it seems, where God invites Abram outside of his tent and says: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.  Just so … shall your descendents be.”  Perhaps our natural reaction is to think, “Abram would have seen thousands of stars… that would be a pretty impressive promise.”  When we keep reading, however, we realize that it wasn’t at night that God proposed this promise, but it was the middle of the day, because later in the reading it describes the day approaching sunset, indicating that the earlier part of the conversation must have been in the daytime.  Abram, therefore, couldn’t see the stars that God was asking him to count: rather, they were “hidden” behind the “big door” of the sky.
          So, when the reading says that “Abram put his faith in the Lord”, was it blind faith?  I don’t think so.  You see, on “Let’s Make a Deal” the contestants couldn’t know what was behind the door and, thus, were “blind” to whether or not it hid a valuable prize.  Abram, on the other hand, knew the vast quantity of stars that were out there: he had seen them.  And so, when God promised him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, even though at that moment he couldn’t begin to count them (because he couldn’t see them), he knew that they were there and so his faith was not blind.  It’s as if God had said to him: “Just as you know that there is a vast quantity of stars out there, even though now you cannot see them, so, too, there is a vast quantity of descendants that will follow you, even though now you cannot see them.  And just as sure as you are that the stars will appear after the sun sets, so will these numerous descendants of yours appear after the sun has set on your life.”
          This, my brothers and sisters, is the essence of what faith is.  In the Letter to the Hebrews it says that “faith is the realization of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.”  Faith is “evidence”, it says.  Therefore, when “Abram put his faith in the Lord” it wasn’t just a good feeling that he had, but rather a conviction that supplied to him the evidence that his eyes could not give him.  “I cannot see my descendants,” he might have thought to himself, “but Faith convicts me that what the Lord says is true; thus, I will place my trust in him.”
          Faith, like Abram’s faith, has built and sustained this parish for 152-plus years.  Our ancestors… I use that term loosely here, meaning “those who have come before us”, since not all of us are direct descendants of those who founded this parish… our ancestors couldn’t see what would become of the parish they founded in 1866, but they put their faith in God that his promise to “multiply their descendants” would be fulfilled.  As their “spiritual offspring”, we maintain that legacy by continuing to put our faith in God: that what we have today can continue to grow and expand into future generations.
          Last weekend, we heard testimonials of how the presence of this parish and the dedication of its members have made a powerful and positive impact on the lives of others.  We heard from the Starr family, who moved away from their roots but found acceptance here; and, thus, fertile ground to plant themselves and establish their own roots.  We heard from Dianna Ping, who discovered in this community the saving grace that comes to us through Jesus Christ: a grace she just couldn’t find on her own.  And we heard from Rachel Witt, whose faith has been shaped and deepened as she engaged her work as a catechist: one of the many opportunities to exercise one’s discipleship here at Saint Mary’s.
          Friends, there are literally hundreds more stories like these among the members of this parish: perhaps you even have your own.  Every story is evidence of some instance in which members of Saint Mary’s put their faith in God and trusted in his promise to bring forth “descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky” from the trust that they have put in him.
          Every day, our school and religious education programs for young people impact families: inviting them to consider their faith more deeply and challenging them to live it out more fully.  Financial support to the school and tuition assistance to families is crucial to maintaining these ministries.  Our RCIA program and adult faith formation programs are invaluable for helping individuals to come into the Church and to solidify their place here.  Our subscription to and flocknote helps to add flexibility in faith formation and communication: meeting people according to their schedule, not ours.  Our support of outreach ministries like the Matrix Pregnancy Center, Lafayette Urban Ministries, and, of course, our sister parish in Haiti are just a few of the ways that our resources reach beyond our parish to impact those most in need.  Amidst all of this, we still maintain our sacred spaces and supply our liturgical ministries so that we, too, can continue to be fed by God in Word and Sacrament.
          To top it all off, 75 years ago our ancestors agreed that Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception would become the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception when the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana was newly formed: receiving in that the honor of housing the Bishop’s Chair (or cathedra), as well as the responsibility to be a beacon of Catholic Faith to everyone in north-central Indiana.  Your pride in having received this honor, as well as your commitment to fulfill this responsibility, is evident in the way that you support this church’s maintenance and regular renewal, as well as making it available to others.
          None of this would be possible on our expression of faith alone.  Rather, it is all made possible when we put our faith into action to support these and many other ministries with our time, talent, and treasure.  For this, I—who am, in many ways, still one of the newest members of Saint Mary’s and its legacy—am deeply grateful. ///
          In a few weeks Holy Week will be upon us.  One of the many highlights of Holy Week is the Chrism Mass that we host here.  Although the blessing of the Sacred Oils is often highlighted as the purpose of the Mass, one other equally important thing occurs: the priests of the diocese re-new their commitment to the priesthood and to serving the people of this diocese.  Yes, that means that every year I stand in this sanctuary with my brother priests and before our bishop to renew my commitment to the priesthood and, thus, to you, the people of the diocese.  It is a re-commitment that I take very seriously—I see it as the renewal of a sacred covenant between myself and God/His Church—and it is done out of my love for Christ and my love for all of you.  In that same spirit, I am asking you to join me this weekend in this yearly renewal of our covenant with God and his Church by renewing our commitments to support our parish.
          This past week you received your commitment cards in the mail.  I hope that you took the opportunity to prayerfully consider your commitment and that you remembered to bring your completed commitment card with you today.  If not, I will give you a few moments to fill out one of the blank cards in the pew.  Then, the ushers will come forward to collect the cards.  After they have been collected, we will bring them forward to be placed at the foot of the altar, signifying that we are uniting these sacrifices with the one, perfect sacrifice that Christ made for us when he died for us on the Cross: the sacrifice that is our proof that God has fulfilled every promise that he made to us.  I realize that some of you may not be able to increase your commitment this year—and that some of you may even need to decrease your commitment.  Please do not worry.  Placing my faith in God I trust that, through our prayerful consideration and commitment to sacrifice, God will, nonetheless, provide for all that we need.
          Once again, thank you for your faith: the faith that has made Christ’s presence among us real and tangible here at Saint Mary’s parish—now Saint Mary’s Cathedral—for more than 152 years.
          May Abraham, our father in faith, pray for us that God will make abundantly fruitful the faith that we put into action through our commitments today.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – March 16th & 17th, 2019

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Remembering and Detachment

Homily: 1st Sunday of Lent – Cycle C
          Back almost sixteen years ago now, when I was in the throes of my “reversion” (or “adult awakening”) to the Catholic faith, I remember feeling very guilty.  For the first time in my life, I recognized that religion wasn’t just something that you ‘do’, but that it was about a relationship… that it was about the relationship between God and his creation: most especially, with us.  I felt guilty because I recognized that I had been ignoring that relationship.
          As a result, during those first months I threw myself into prayer, fervently asking God what it was that he wanted me to do with my life.  When those prayers eventually led to the consideration of a vocation to the priesthood, I found myself at an impasse.  I had never considered the priesthood and so I didn’t know what to think about it.  “But,” I thought, “this is so radically different from anything that I’ve considered before; so, if I did it, I’m sure that I would be doing what God wanted and not what I wanted.”  I clearly remember making this prayer: “God, I’ve been living my life my own way for twenty-five years, why shouldn’t I do this for you?”
          Soon, however, I learned that feeling like you owe God something is a poor reason to enter the seminary.  Thus, I put the discernment away for a while.  A few years later, when I was blindsided by the notion that I wasn’t yet doing what God wanted me to do with my life, I once again threw myself into prayer.  This time, however, I felt more fearful of damaging the relationship that I had built than guilty for having ignored it.  And so I turned to fasting in an attempt to disinterest myself from anything that could distract me from knowing God’s will.  Eventually, I heard again the call to the priesthood and this time I was sure that it was love, not guilt that motivated me, so I responded and entered the seminary.
          I continued many of my habits of fasting after entering the seminary.  What I found there, however, was that my fasting was becoming a barrier: first to my relationships with my fellow seminarians, and eventually to my relationship with God.  Right fasting is the kind that turns our focus away from ourselves and back towards God and others.  I had become focused on myself and my need to maintain these fasts; and so to turn my focus back towards God and others, I actually had to learn how to “fast from fasting.”  I needed to remember the relationship, and not just the relation.  In order to do so, I needed to detach myself from trying to control it through fasting.
          Remembrance and detachment are two themes that we find in our Scripture readings today.  In our first reading from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is instructing the people about making the annual offering of the first fruits of the harvest to God.  What we hear is not the details about the offering itself (for example, how much is to be offered and when), but rather we hear what the Israelites are instructed to say after they’ve made their offering.  It is a statement meant to remind them of why they have brought their offering to the altar.
          First, it’s a remembrance of the place from which they came.  Jacob was a small tribe of only seventy-odd persons when they went down to Egypt.  Yet God made them grow and prosper during that time.  Second, it is a remembrance of how God heard their calls for help when Pharaoh oppressed them with slavery, delivering them from Egypt with mighty signs and wonders.  Third, it is a remembrance of how God led them through the desert and into the fruitful land in which they live, the first fruits from which they have come to offer him.  In other words, it’s a remembrance that it was God who was in control the whole time and that he took care of them, and so their offering is one of thanksgiving for his grace and mercy that continued to care for them up to that day.
          In the Gospel, Jesus’ forty days in the desert produces in him a deep sense of detachment.  In the greatest understatement of all time, the Gospel tells us that, after forty days of not eating, Jesus emerged from the desert and that “he was hungry.”  Duh!  Actually, what the author might have been emphasizing was that he was “weak with hunger.”  The devil seeing this probably thought to himself, “Now is my chance!” and so he tempts him.  Jesus, having detached himself not only from his desires for food and drink, but also from his instincts for survival, and having placed all his trust for survival in his Father, was not fazed by the devil’s temptations.  Jesus knew that his Father was in control, because he had just experienced it for forty days; thus, he could not be moved to betray him now, even though he was physically weak from lack of nourishment.  His fasting produced detachment and thus solidified his relationship with his Father, who cared for him. ///
          “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This, my brothers and sisters, is our task during Lent: to remember our right relationship with God and with others.  We do this primarily through the three Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.  Fasting, I would argue, is primary: for when we fast, we remind ourselves of the punishment due to us because of our sins and thus acknowledge that God is God and we are not.  Fasting also has the effect of detaching ourselves from our disordered desires for the things of this world: desires that place a barrier between us and God, as well as those around us.  A natural result of this detachment is that we are more available for prayer and have more resources to share with others who are in need, thus facilitating our prayer and almsgiving.  Finally, fasting helps us to remember to place our trust in the fact that God is in control and that he cares for us and so will provide to us whatever it is that we truly need.
          And so, my brothers and sisters, on this first Sunday of Lent, let’s take a look at what we are doing this Lent in order to see where our disciplines are pointing us and let’s ask ourselves these questions: Are our disciplines motivated by guilt and the hope that God will pleased with them and so not ask too much of us?  Or are our disciplines about conversion: that is, about letting go of our control and turning back to God, remembering that his care alone is enough for us?
          If you find yourself (as I often do) more in the first group than in the second group, don’t worry.  We still have about 36 days left to work it all out (which is plenty of time!).  And what a good work that it is.  I promise you that if you do it well, on Easter Sunday you will have forgotten that you are hungry, because you will have remembered God’s love and mercy as you celebrate his resurrected glory.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – March 9th & 10th, 2019

Monday, March 4, 2019

The hard work of seeing

Homily: 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Friends, I am so grateful for the opportunity to be with you here today.  About a month ago, I received as special sample of a product that has changed my life in a positive way.  Over the past month, I’ve felt better, had more energy, my mind has become laser-focused, I’m sleeping better, my skin has cleared up, and I’m accomplishing much more than I ever did.  This product is about to be made available to the general public, but I have been given the opportunity to offer it to you first.  The product?  ...You tell me.  What I’ve just described could be the first two minutes of any “special paid advertisement” program that you might see on TV.
          If I hooked you with that presentation—and if you’re feeling a little na├»ve for it—I wouldn’t be surprised.  And the reason for this is pretty simple.  You shouldn’t have to spend too much time thinking to realize a couple of things about our human nature: 1) We all want to feel good; and 2) We all want to do good in our lives (whether that means, being productive, helpful, or otherwise making something positive come out of whatever it is we are doing in our lives).  The problem for us, however, is that we’re all pretty lazy.  You see, back here, in the core of our brain stem—that is, the part of our brains that formed first and in which all of our core instincts are stored—is embedded the knowledge that we weren’t made for work.  Remember, when we were created, we were placed in a garden in which everything was handed to us.  We didn’t have to work for food; rather, we had to “tend” the garden: which, it seems, pretty much took care of itself, anyway.  Because of this, we are naturally resistant to anything that smells like “hard work”.
          This, plus the fact that we want to feel good and do good, means that we’re pretty susceptible to be attracted to a product or program that promises to improve our lives with minimal to no work from us.  This promise, of course, is a lie.  And not necessarily a malicious lie, either, as advertisers often hide just below the surface that, while their product or program will improve your life, it will only be successful if you work hard while using/following it.  This underlying truth—that improvement comes from work—is one of the things our Scriptures are pointing us towards today.
          In the first reading, from the book of Sirach, a wisdom book, we heard the author warning us not to allow someone to be our guide until the person reveals the quality of their substance beneath the surface.  If someone has done the hard work to strengthen their core, it will be revealed in how they acted in trying times and in how they speak about themselves and others.  In other words, if you’re going to put your trust in someone to guide you towards a better life, you ought to be sure that he/she has done the necessary hard work first.  Has their mettle been sifted?  Has their clay been proven solid by enduring the heat of the furnace?  Has their tree produced good fruit?  Do they manifest these things through good speech?  If not, beware: they may lead you astray.
          In the Gospel reading, Jesus echoes this teaching.  In this extremely short, but descriptive parable, he reminds us that a blind person cannot lead a blind person (any person, really) anywhere.  (Sorry, Subaru, but your commercial about a blind man leading a seeing couple around an Alaskan peninsula is flatly false.)  One needs to have done the hard work of learning how to see in order to lead others to do the same.  Jesus then directs the parable back at his disciples: “Do not, therefore, try to be the guide for someone else, if you yourself have not done the hard work of clearing the obstacles out of your life so that you can see clearly enough to guide others”.  This, we know, is the meaning of the “splinter and the beam” parable: do not be too quick to fix someone else’s problems if you haven’t spent any time addressing your own.
          And this is a lesson of which we must often be reminded.  But the form of this lesson can seem unhelpful for people; and here’s why.  The fact of the matter is that we all have our own problems.  We all have issues with anger, jealousy, impatience, intemperance in what we consume, and a host of other things.  My guess is that we all look at those issues in our lives and think, “I’m not happy with these issues and I want to get them out of my life”.  The best of us will then try to get those issues out of their lives; and those who do quickly run into the biggest obstacle to removing them: work.  Yes, work.  That’s because the only way to get these issues out of our lives is to take up the hard work necessary to overcome them.  Thus, when Jesus says, “Fix your own issues first”, our reaction (perhaps only subconsciously) is to say, “Easy for you to say, Jesus! Don’t you know how hard it is to do that?”  It’s the same reaction that friends have to us when they share with us that they struggle with anger and we say, “Well, you just need to be more patient”.  “Duh, I know that!  But it’s so hard!”
          One of the things that I’ve found very helpful in my own life, and so often share it with others, is to accompany that very simple and direct advice of Jesus with a frank acknowledgement that what Jesus asks of us isn’t easy; and I promise to support them in any way that I can as they take up that work.  I say, “Yes, you need to be more patient... and that’s hard work!  But it’s work you have to do if you want to get this misery out of your life.  It won’t be fixed tomorrow, but if you commit to working at it, you will overcome it.”  People respond to this because they recognize that others struggle to overcome the same issues and, thus, have a sense of solidarity that encourages them to try.
          Friends, Lent begins this week and it is a great opportunity for us to put our Lord’s teaching into action.  If you haven’t yet decided how you are going to spend your Lent (or even if you have), spend some time with this passage from the 6th chapter of Luke’s Gospel these next few days.  Ask yourselves, “What beams are stuck in my eye and obscuring my vision of the world?”  Then ask, “How can I work over these days of Lent (through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) to remove these beams so that I can see clearly and, thus, be someone who can help others do the same?”  Finally, make a commitment to try.  There are no easy fixes in the Christian life; but when we put ourselves into a good work that God’s Spirit has inspired in us, God’s grace is always there to help bring it to fruition.  This is why Saint Paul exhorts us today: “be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”  This is God’s promise to us.  May we show our faith—and, thus, our thankfulness—by taking up this good work.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – March 2nd & 3rd, 2019