Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The conditions for prayer

Homily: 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C

          When I was still a student studying for my engineering degree, I worked at a small manufacturing plant that makes bumpers for semi-trucks.  Whenever I needed to get some maintenance work done, I had to submit a “work order” that described what needed to be done and when it needed to be done by.  What I quickly found out, however, was that the maintenance crew was overloaded and that my work orders often sat on a pile of other work orders that weren’t getting completed and that the crew worked on whatever the shop-floor supervisor told them was most important for the day.  Frustrated by this, I would often forego the whole process completely.  If I could just do it myself, I would.  If I couldn’t then I would document it and move on to the next thing.

          I think, sometimes, we can see prayer kind of like a “maintenance work order” system.  We fill out our form and submit it to God and he is supposed to put his crew to work to take care of it for us.  When it works, we feel satisfied.  God is there for us and we can rely on him.  When it doesn’t seem to work, we feel frustrated.  God is unreliable and so if we want this to be taken care of we either need to do it ourselves or just accept that we’ve been dealt a bad hand and that there’s nothing we can do about it.  Of course there’s more to prayer than just making requests of God, but I think you’d be surprised to find out how many people turn away from God on account of feeling like God had let them down when they felt like they most needed him to respond.  In today’s readings, we are given a model of this type prayer that can help us understand it more deeply, which is good; because when we understand it more deeply, we are less likely to become frustrated by its results.

          In our Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples observe him in prayer and, probably quite innocently, ask him, their teacher, to teach them how to pray.  As Jesus often does, however, when he’s given an inch, he takes a mile and he not only teaches them how to pray (i.e. the correct words and manner in which to pray), but he teaches them the pre-conditions for prayer as well.

          As presented to us today, prayer in which we ask something from God has three basic characteristics: 1) be humble; 2) ask for a just thing; and 3) be persistent.  First: be humble.  As Jesus taught his disciples and as Abraham shows us today, our first task is always to recognize who it is we are addressing and what our relationship to him is.  Abraham was bold, but before he pushed God on the issue he first acknowledged that God knew better than he and so would submit to his judgments.  When we pray as Jesus taught us and say “Father…” we too acknowledge our relationship to God: that is, that he has wisdom and authority that is far greater than ours and so deserves our deference to his judgments.

          Second: ask for a just thing.  Abraham was a righteous man and so he could see the inherent conflict in the notion that God—who purports to be the just judge—would destroy innocent people for the sake of punishing those who are guilty and so he pleads, in a sense, for the lives of the innocent who live there by testing the limits of God’s justice.  In the example that Jesus gives, the man, though he comes at midnight, asks for a just thing: some bread to feed his friend that had just arrived from a journey, which, on account of the customs surrounding hospitality in the ancient Jewish culture, was something that he was expected to provide and so was a just think to request.

          Third: be persistent.  Abraham rightly saw that if God would withhold his wrath for the lives of fifty innocent men that justice would demand that he do the same if the number were as low as ten; and so he asked again and again, not presuming he knew better than God, but so as to see if God’s idea of justice lined up with his.  His persistence produced a commitment from God to spare the city (of, presumably, thousands of people) if even ten innocent persons were found there.  In Jesus’ example, the man, because he asks for a just thing, and because his friend is, also (presumably) a righteous person, receives what he asks for even in spite of the inconvenience he has caused his friend.  Notice that there was no conflict with what was asked for; because what was asked for was a just thing.  Part of being humble, however, means acknowledging that what we are asking for may not necessarily be the just thing.  Therefore, we must always be open to being shown that what we’ve asked for is not what is truly needed and so be open to receiving a different response in its place.

          Be humble, ask for a just thing, and be persistent.  These are the three characteristics of prayers of petition.  What is not often acknowledged in this lesson on prayer, however, is the necessary pre-condition for making this type of prayer.  Simply stated, this type of prayer requires a pre-existing relationship.

           I have a very good friend, named Joe, who I used to work with when I worked as an engineer.  We used to car-pool to work together and through that and our work our relationship grew.  To this day I am very close with his family and am godfather to his oldest son.  Over my years in the seminary and now as a priest, I have called on him multiple times, usually when he was not expecting it, to ask for some sort of help.  I never had any fear calling on him because I knew that whatever it was that I needed from him was a good thing and that, because of our friendship, he’d be very willing to offer his help.  Even if he was resistant, at first, I knew that I could push on him for it because he could be relied upon to respond if he was able; even if it would be inconvenient for him or his family.  I could only do that, however, because I had built a relationship with him first.

          The same applies to our prayers of petition.  When we’ve spent time with God, building our relationship with him, we become much more apt to turn to him with our needs and also to trust that, even if his response seems to be long-delayed, he will respond and give us what it is that we need (even if it isn’t exactly what we asked for).
There’s a saying that states that God responds to prayers of petition in one of three ways: “Ok”, “Ok, but not now”, and “Ok, but I have a better idea”.  When we build a relationship with God through spending time with him in the sacraments, in private prayer, and in reading the Bible, we become both bold in bringing to God all of our needs and also open to hearing which of these three responses he offers to us when we turn to him.

          My brothers and sisters, our Good God wants us to turn to him with all of our needs, big and small, because he truly is our Father who loves us dearly.  Like any good father, however, he wants even more to be in a close, intimate relationship with us, so that we may learn to trust that, even if he does not appear to respond immediately or in the way we desire, he will nonetheless respond: in the way and at the time that we truly need it.  Let us, then, renew our commitment to draw close to him today and to turn to him for all of our needs; for his promise to remain near to us—the sacrifice of his Son—is already here at hand.

Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – July 28th, 2019

Monday, July 22, 2019

Not "us or them", but "us for them"

          This weekend we hosted Fr. Babuku Luis, a Missionary of the Scared Heart, for our annual Missionary Co-op appeal.  He had a little trouble on Sunday morning and so missed the homily opportunity at the early Mass, giving me the opportunity to pull out one of my "greatest hits".  After having preached it, I thought much of the message was still apropos for us today.  I've made a couple of edits from the original to adapt it to the events of 2019 (which is why I feel it is still apropos).  Have a great week!

Homily: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Writer, editor and social reformer Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, in New York City. She was the third of five children born to her parents, Grace and John.  Her father worked as a journalist.  Because of this, the family moved to California when Dorothy was six years old.  Later, however, they would live in Chicago.
          A bright student, Day was accepted to the University of Illinois. She was enrolled there from 1914 to 1916, but she abandoned her studies to move to New York City. There, she became involved with a literary and liberal crowd in the city's Greenwich Village neighborhood. She worked as a journalist, writing for several socialist and progressive publications in the 1910s and '20s.  Socially and politically active, Day was arrested several times for her involvement in protests.  In 1917 she went on a hunger strike after being jailed for protesting in front of the White House as part of an effort to secure the right to vote for women.
          In her personal life, Day experienced turmoil. After a couple of failed relationships, one of which led to her procuring an abortion, she entered a common-law marriage with Forster Batterham, a biologist and an anarchist.  They gave birth to a daughter named Tamar Teresa, but Day’s choice to have the child baptized at a Catholic church caused her anarchist husband to leave her.  It was this decision, however, that started her on the path to her spiritual awakening; and, in late 1927, she converted to Catholicism.
          In 1932, Day met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant and former Christian Brother. The following year, they founded The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that promoted Catholic teachings and examined societal issues. The publication became very successful and spawned the Catholic Worker Movement, which followed its religious principles to tackle issues of social justice. As part of the movement’s belief in radical hospitality, Day helped establish special homes to help those in need. Peter Maurin’s influence is evident here as he often quoted Hebrews chapter thirteen, verse two, which says: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”
          Day would go on to do many more things in her life, but through it all her insistence on radical conformity to the Gospel, not just in words, but in concrete action, was a constant.  Thus, her cause for canonization has been accepted by the Vatican and she has received the title “Servant of God”.
          Hospitality was an important value among the people of the Ancient Near East and in our Scripture readings today we see the truth of what the author to the Letter to the Hebrews was talking about.  In the reading from the book of Genesis it describes how the Lord appeared to Abraham as three men on a journey.  They appeared at the hot part of the day, when the day’s journey would be most difficult.  Upon seeing them, Abraham jumps to action: not just offering them some relief from the heat of the day, but rather insisting with them that they allow him to show them this act of hospitality.  He did not know them, and his first reaction wasn’t suspicion, but rather generous hospitality.  As it turns out, he was entertaining angels: true messengers of the Lord who then gave him good news: that his wife, Sarah, whom all thought was barren due to her old age, would give birth to a son within a year.
          In our Gospel reading, we read that Jesus, upon entering a village, was welcomed by Martha.  It doesn’t say that Martha was the first to offer him hospitality, but I suppose that we might assume as much since the rules of etiquette require that we accept the first offer we are given.  There, much like Abraham did for the Lord’s messengers, Martha busied herself with preparing food and refreshments for Jesus and his disciples.  Thinking it rude that her sister Mary was not as occupied with trying to serve their guests, she asks Jesus to reproach her so that she might be embarrassed and begin to help with the serving.  Jesus, however, reminds Martha that, while serving is a good thing, it is not as important as recognizing who it is that is in your midst: for when you do, you may just find that you’ve been entertaining angels (or, in this case, the Son of God) and that those angels may be ready to bring you good news.
          My brothers and sisters, as I reflect on the immigration crisis at our southern border, I am convinced that one of the root causes of this crisis is a loss of this value of hospitality.  This is because to be radically hospitable one has to acknowledge the inherent dignity and value of every person, regardless of from where they come or whether they are known to you.  When we look at others with suspicion, instead of rushing to serve them, like Abraham and Martha did, and like Dorothy Day did, that sets us up to believe that it’s “us versus them”; and if it’s “us versus them” then their lives automatically become less valuable to us, which then makes it possible to harm them for our advantage, instead of to serve them for theirs.
          Friends, if we want to see a real change in this world, then we must start right here in our own families and in our community, changing the prevailing mentality from “us versus them” to “us for them”.  We must begin, however, where Martha’s sister Mary did—sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him speak—because he will be our solid rock supporting us as we serve and the angel whose face we will see in the faces of those whom we serve.  Therefore, let us make it our task this week to open our hearts a little more to Jesus by giving him more time in prayer, and our lives to him by practicing greater hospitality to all whom we meet.  Because in doing so, we may find that we, too, “unknowingly entertained angels”.
Originally given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – July 17th, 2016
Given at St. Mary's Cathedral: Lafayette, IN - July 21st, 2019

Monday, July 15, 2019

Who is my neighbor? The one who needs mercy.

Homily: 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
As human beings, we love a good argument, don’t we?  Now, I don’t mean that we go out looking to pick a fight, or anything, but simply that, given the chance to make a point and defend it, we almost readily jump in.  Perhaps we’re on the side of a conversation and we only hear the topic being discussed.  Sometimes, if it’s a topic we think we know something about, that’s all the spark that we need to get our motors running!  Soon, we’re inserting ourselves into that conversation to show our knowledge and make our point.  It doesn’t take much to “bait” us into an argument, either.  A provocative question asked of us can launch us right into an argument: whether that be about something noble and important, like politics, faith, or family life, or something mundane, like sports, fashion, or home maintenance.
Why?  Well, because it’s so easy!  We human beings are so full of pride that we almost can’t resist an opportunity to boost our pride by jumping into an argument to prove our point.  Sometimes, it’s the vice of pride, outright.  Most of the time, it’s our own need to bolster our sense of self-worth: that is, our need to feel like we had something important to say and that what we said was valuable to others (which is a different sort of pride).  Either way, these natural impulses make it so easy to “bait” us into arguments.
Thus, the scene in our Gospel reading today should feel very familiar to us.  This “scholar of the law” approaches Jesus—the “upstart” rabbi—to see whether he really knows his stuff, and he tries to bait him into an argument.  On the surface, the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” seems innocent enough.  We must remember, however, that this was THE question that rabbis constantly debated.  For a “scholar of the law” to ask it of a rabbi was to say “I’m ready to spar.  How about you?”
Jesus’ response, however, demonstrates that he “practiced what he preached”.  At one point he taught his disciples: “Be shrewd as serpents, yet simple as doves”.  Here he’s being shrewd.  The scholar wants to invite him into a debate on the finer points of Mosaic Law, but Jesus doesn’t want to go down that rabbit hole.  Thus, shrewdly, he turns the bait back on the scholar: “You know the law, don’t you?  What does it say?”  The scholar takes the bait, hook, line, and sinker, and rattles off the highest of all the Mosaic laws: Love God and love your neighbor.  Jesus, with the simplicity of a dove, affirms him and says, “Yep, that’s it!  Do this and you will have eternal life”.
The scholar, however, was not satisfied that he hadn’t gotten the better of Jesus (see how our pride can get the best of us!) and he makes another salvo: “Who is my neighbor?”  Again, he’s asking “Who does the Law say is my neighbor?”  The scholar knew the answer, of course, and Jesus knew that he already knew the answer.  Therefore, again, shrewdly, Jesus responds not by giving the scholar the knowledge that he challenged Jesus to produce, but by giving him a “case study” in which his answer can be found: the parable of the “Good Samaritan”.  For Jesus, there wasn’t a black-and-white legal definition to the question of “who is my neighbor?”, rather, there was only the definition of compassion.  “Your neighbor” is the one whom you encounter who is in need of mercy.
In the question “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robber’s victim?”, the scholar recognizes that Jesus’ shrewdness has defeated him and so concedes his argument about the finer points of the law to acknowledge what the law looks like in application.  Realizing that Jesus is a legitimate rabbi and, thus, with his pride deflated, the scholar no longer challenges Jesus with these “debate” questions.  Being an optimist, I like to believe that eventually he accepted Jesus as the Messiah and put into practice what Jesus had taught him. ///
“Who is my neighbor?”  What a question for our time!  And Jesus’ response is the message that we need to hear today.  Look no further than the news and you’ll see that this question is at the center of a debate that, literally, is raging around the world right now.  Nations all over the world are arguing over the question of what to do with immigrants, especially those seeking refuge from oppressive living conditions in their native lands.  I don’t presume to know an answer; but I think that if we could find the compassion to call these persons “neighbor” instead of “immigrant”, we’d be more apt to find a common answer.  Perhaps closer to home, still: in cities all over the U.S. (and even here in Lafayette), the question about what to do with the homeless in our cities is a difficult one.  I am certain, however, that if we could find the compassion to call them “neighbor” instead of “homeless”, we’d be more apt to find a common answer.
This parable of Jesus challenges us to leave our comfort zones and to encounter those around us in need of mercy.  If you’ve been paying attention at all, this has been the constant message of Pope Francis since the beginning of his pontificate, which is a particular form of the message of the Second Vatican Council: that is, to take the Gospel and go out into the world.  Out from our churches, schools, and offices.  Out to encounter those who need not only to hear this message of salvation, but to experience it through our merciful love of them.
We know this, of course, but Jesus’ challenge to the scholar confronts us again today: “Go and do likewise”.  As Moses told the Israelites before crossing into the Promised Land, “You know what God expects of you; you have only to do it”, so Jesus challenges the scholar (and, through him, all of us): “You know now what is expected.  Only if you do it, however, will you live”.  Friends, knowledge of this is not enough.  Necessary, of course, but not enough!  Rather, we must put this knowledge into action: showing that God is merciful by loving those whom he loves, those in need of merciful help around us.
This all starts somewhere deeper, however, and our Gospel reading reveals this to us.  The story begins with the scholar of the Mosaic Law looking to bait Jesus into an argument.  Jesus, however, looked at him and treated him with mercy.  He saw the scholar’s pride and shrewdly countered it.  He did not rub it in the scholar’s face, however.  Rather, with the simplicity of a dove, he challenged him to go beyond his knowledge and put it into practice.  My friends, we must do the same.  We must stop our polarized bickering whose only conclusion is “my side must win or all has been lost”.  Rather, we must call each other “neighbor”—even and especially when we disagree with each other—and, thus, treat each other with mercy.  Like Jesus, we must be “shrewd as serpents”, for he is not asking us to roll over to every person with wicked intent, but we must also be “simple as doves”, treating each other as Jesus treated the scholar: with a humble and compassionate hand.
My friends, this is the mercy that we encounter here in the Mass.  We come here, convicted of our sinfulness and of our unworthiness to receive God’s grace.  Yet, we are invited to this feast of God’s grace.  God does not ignore our sinfulness; but, because we demonstrate our desire to turn away from it, he offers us his merciful love in spite of it.  In other words: yes, we are sinful, but here our sins are not rubbed in our face.  Instead, God has compassion on us, cares for us, and then gently challenges us to go beyond our sins to bring his compassion and mercy to others.  May the mercy that we receive today here in this Mass fill us with every strength to be ministers of God’s mercy in our world today.
Given at St. Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – July 13th & 14th, 2019

Monday, July 1, 2019

Stop eating your brother!

Homily: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
“Hey! Stop eating your brother!”  If you’re a parent of young children (or ever have been a parent of young children), perhaps you’ve said this phrase before.  If not, it probably isn’t much of a stretch for you to think it possible to have need of this phrase at some point.  Children, especially young children, are inherently selfish.  When spending time with their brothers and sisters, as long as everyone seems to be mutually satisfied with who’s playing with what or with how the game is going, everything is just fine.  As soon as one of them becomes dissatisfied or whose desires turn to a toy with which another is playing, there’s no telling what kind of havoc, pain, and suffering might ensue.  Boys, who by nature are more apt to turn to destructive behavior when they become bored or dissatisfied, are especially prone to this.  Thus, the scene almost writes itself: “Mom, Tommy keeps trying to eat me!”  “Tommy, this is the last time I’m going to tell you: Stop eating your brother!”
Saint Paul, whose martyrdom (along with Saint Peter’s) the Church celebrated yesterday, often spoke of himself as a “parent who had given birth” and of the Christians in the Churches he established through his missionary activity as “his children”.  Thus, it should be no surprise that, as we read his letters to these Churches that he established, we find him speaking as a parent to his toddler children.  In his Letter to the Church in Galatia (that is, to the Galatians), Paul is reminding them that Jesus didn’t save us so that we could then do anything and have it be okay.  Rather, he says, Jesus saved us so that we could become who we were meant to be.  Christian philosophers would later define this as the difference between two freedoms: the “freedom of indifference”, in which one is without any external or internal influence and so is free to choose whatever and for whatever reason, and the “freedom for excellence”, in which one is free from outside influence so as to become or achieve whatever it is that he/she was meant to be/achieve.
Paul is reminding his children in Galatia that the freedom for which Christ died and rose is the freedom for excellence and so he says, “For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.”  Christ made us free, in other words, not so that we could indulge our carnal desires, but so that we could make of ourselves a gift for others!  Paul knows that the Galatian Christians have been fighting with each other—particularly between those who have been giving-in to particular sins and have been claiming a “freedom in Christ” to do so and those who are trying to correct them—and so he sends this letter of fatherly correction and guidance: first correcting those who are in sin, but then urging them to put away this bickering and infighting, because he knows that it will destroy them.  “If you go on biting and devouring one another,” he wrote, “beware that you are not consumed by one another.”  “Stop eating your brother!”, then, is the message of this reading.
My friends, this week we celebrate the anniversary of when our nation declared its independence from England.  We declared our independence, because we believed that we, being a virtuous people, could govern ourselves.  We desired freedom from the monarchy so that we could determine our own fate.  Our founding fathers knew, however, that this freedom could never be a freedom of indifference, in which every person could do whatever he/she wanted; but rather, that this freedom must be a freedom for excellence, in which we, as a people, would acknowledge each other’s dignity and inherent freedom as human persons, and, thus, work to build a system in which each person has the opportunity to seek a good life for him/herself and his/her family.  This “American Experiment” (as many modern intellectuals have called it), has worked rather well over the past 240-plus years.  It has flourished because, for most of those years, it operated under a broad and generic concept of what virtuous human flourishing looked like: that is, the “excellence” for which we were granted our freedom.
Unfortunately, today, the culture of “hyper-political-correctness" has tried to narrow that concept significantly: both by embracing ideas that were otherwise excluded previously, as well as trying to push out long-accepted and sought-after ideals.  This has caused disillusionment and angst for almost everyone; and so, today we find ourselves “biting and devouring one another” as if there is no longer space amidst our vast tracks of land for those who disagree with us.  “Beware that you are not consumed by one another”, Saint Paul warns.
My guess is that most all of us here would agree that, although we might get upset whenever we hear news of one side pushing unfairly against the other, we would rather see our nation turn back to civil discourse about these issues and strive to work together to find solutions that respect the freedom of everyone involved.  If so, then our Lord Jesus shows us a solution in our Gospel reading today.  There, in the turning point of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus realizes that it’s time for him to “fulfill his destiny” to become a sacrifice for all mankind in Jerusalem and so “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”  Along the way, he found a town that refused to receive him: fist century “identity politics” closed the door to that Samaritan village.  Instead of giving in to the anger and frustration that his disciples wanted from him, Jesus never lost focus on the goal: to get to Jerusalem and fulfill God’s plan for his life.  In other words, he kept his mind and his heart set on establishing his kingdom—which would be lasting and world-changing—rather than seeking revenge against those who wronged him—which would be temporary and wouldn’t change a thing.
So it should be for us.  While it is quite necessary for us to work in the political sphere and be part of the public discourse that can lead to meaningful change for our nation, we must do so in a way that seeks to use our freedom for service and not for personal gain, revenge, or exclusion.  In other words, if we want to see our nation truly become great again, then we, as Christians, need to heed the message of our scriptures today: “Stop eating your brother!”  To do so, we must “live by the Spirit”, as Saint Paul instructed the Galatian Christians, and we must be “resolutely determined” to build up God’s kingdom here on earth: a kingdom in which every person seeks not to “gratify the desire of the flesh”, but rather to “serve one another through love”.  Doing so will not look like popular political victories or exacting revenge on the “Samaritans” of our day, but rather as fundamental changes in how we live as families and communities.  For when we focus on bringing forth this kingdom in our families and in our communities, God’s kingdom will appear; and God’s kingdom, when it appears, cannot be resisted.
My brothers and sisters, God has called us to be about his business of bringing forth his kingdom and Jesus has shown us that we must resolutely dedicate ourselves to this work; for it is our only path to true freedom.  Let us, then, stop “eating” our brothers and sisters and stand strong in the strength that we receive from this Eucharist, so that we may be true followers of Christ—men and women who are truly free—and, thus, make ourselves ready to inherit the kingdom that God has promised us.
Given at St. Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – June 30th, 2019