Yearly Archives: 2015

Homily for December 27 2015

HOMILY – DECEMBER 27

Several years ago, a pair or mourning doves built a nest in, of all places, the space behind the address sign on top of the front door of the rectory across the street.  I would be greeted by the cooing of papa and mama dove whenever I entered or left my house.  But then the day came when eggs were laid.  They became much more protective.  And finally, when I heard peeping up there above the door, I knew that a blessed event had taken place, and papa and mama had indeed made a good choice of a secure place to build their little home.  One day, I must have startled them when I came out of the house.  There was a great flutter, and I looked up to see only one adult dove in the nest with the baby birds.  As I started down the front steps, there I saw what the flutter had been.  Sensing danger, the mother dove had flown out to the sidewalk, right in plain sight.  There she staggered around in circles like a little inebriate.  One wing hung rather helplessly at her side, as if it were broken.  I instantly felt bad for her, but then realized what was going on.  I calmly walked past her, and when I got over to the church, I looked back.  She was flying back to the nest, obviously without a broken wing.

Different animals, birds, and even fish have vastly different ways they nurture, rear, and defend their young.  Some even consume their own offspring, for a variety of reasons.  We often make comparisons, noting with great interest the display of what we might call “human” qualities.  The mother dove puts herself at great risk for her young, pretending to be wounded, making herself vulnerable, as bait to lure away any predator that would threaten her little family.  She puts on a great act, but none of this is a matter of her exercising a free will.  It is an instinct, planted within her by her Creator, which governs her behavior for the survival of her own species without her having to think about it or choose.

How different are genuine human qualities!  We have reason and free will to assist us in making the proper choices.  Those gifts are, indeed, what differentiate us from the animals.  Ideally, they should help us in carrying out God’s plan as instinct does for animals.  But God gives us the capacity to choose to do the right thing; and, of course to do the wrong thing, or nothing at all.  Why did God make us so, if he could foresee that such reason and free will also enable us to do our very best to torpedo the family, abandon our spouses, and abort our young, if indeed we even choose to conceive any?  Because it is precisely that capacity which gives us the power to LOVE, not just to respond to instinct; and it is love that images the God who made us in his own likeness.  We must be FREE to love, even if it means we can freely choose to do the opposite.

The implications for family life are staggering.  The family is no accident.  We are structured in imitation of the divine Family which is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The very best nurturing behaviors of the animals cannot compare with the love and warmth and security of a loving human family.  But even our response to the conditions savored or endured in our own families is not a matter of instinct.  It really IS a choice.  There are very few who cannot at least describe what one might expect from a loving family.  Even those who ultimately reject family values or who seem constitutionally incapable of putting them into practice would likely be able to describe the qualities they would objectively expect to find in a good mother or a good father.  After all, we can all think of plenty of examples of BAD ones!  How hard can it be to do, or at least to describe the opposite?

That, however, is a minimalist approach.  We know we all ought to joyfully strive to be the very best family members we can be.  The family is the basic school of humanity, hence the reason for God surrounding it with commandments about how to properly enter it, how to sustain it, and how to continue it.  None of us is an island, and we have to put our free wills to work, either to enhance family life with our loving and joyful service, or to choose the self-absorption and secession from the family which we find rampant in the world around us.  For the believer, it is an abomination to simply imitate the ways of the world.  We are sent by Christ himself to invade and convert it with grace and love, and how is that transformation to take place if we do not act convincingly?  And if we cannot act convincingly within our own families, however shall we do it in the world at large?

We don’t have to spend a lot of money on counseling and therapy in order to arrive at some answers.  All we have to do first is choose to ask the right questions.  What kind of a spouse am I?  How would my spouse describe me?  Do I even consider her feelings, his feelings, when I am making family decisions or am engaged in my own pursuits?  Is he or she still No. 1 in my life, even before myself, as I promised on our wedding day?  Do I take my time to teach my children about the world around them and within them, or do I let them find out about life from friends, or TV, or the Internet?  What kind of image of marriage do we present to our children?  If their parents’ marriage is a school for their own marriage and family life, what kind of school are WE?

As my parents’ child, do I take seriously the teaching and direction they have provided me?  Do I write them off as hopelessly clueless?  Do I ever stop to consider their strengths and talents, or do I choose to see them only as ineffective?  Do I follow God’s command to honor them, whether they deserve it or not?  What kind of a family member am I?  Am I always seeking only my own advantage?  Do I try to drive wedges between other members of the family for my own benefit?  Am I thoughtful of the needs and feelings of other family members?  Do I respond to others’ needs without being asked?  Am I pro-active when it comes to helping out in the family, looking for opportunities to be of service without always having to be told or asked?

We could go on and on, but you get the picture.  Don’t examine the consciences of others.  Examining your own, and choosing to act upon what you find, will give you a life’s work — and will help you allow your own family to breathe the atmosphere of God’s love, mercy, and grace as involuntarily as they inhale oxygen.  And with even

better results!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homily for December 13, 2015

HOMILY – DECEMBER 13

Well, judging from the first two Scriptures we just heard proclaimed, there’s no doubt about the message Christ and his Church want to get across to us today.  This third Sunday of Advent has for centuries been called “Gaudete Sunday.”  In Latin, the ancient liturgical language, the word “Gaudete” is a command:  “Shout for joy, sing joyfully!” as the prophet Zephaniah bids us.  “Be glad and exult!”  And why?  Why, on this gloomy, dreary December day when we’ve heard thunder instead of sleigh bells?  Because “the Lord has removed your judgment, turned away your enemies, and he is in your midst.”  In spite of the global warming emanating from the speeches at the Paris climate change conference, “You have nothing to fear.”  At least from God.

St. Paul has the same theme in writing to the Philippians:  “Rejoice!  Have no anxiety!  The Lord is near!”  With encouragement like that, why is the world so wrapped up in its fears?  We’re afraid of terrorism, of a market collapse, of illness and disease, of higher gas prices, of not being politically correct, of public opinion, of losing people or things near and dear to us.  Local emergency personnel respond to an ever-increasing number of calls of suicide or attempted self-harm, and the numbers of mentally ill and anxiety-ridden people seem to be rising.  Why all these fears and terrors, this hopelessness and despair?  The words of the Scripture must ring hollow in the hearts and minds of many people, if they’ve ever even heard them at all.  I submit it’s because they have missed the point of WHY we are encouraged by God himself to be joyful.  It’s because he’s in our midst, and many of the people around us either have never heard that or have seen no proof to substantiate it.  And THAT part just might be our fault.

The message of Christ is not just for a chosen few.  He chooses the few in order to spread the word to the many.  Each of us received that call and privilege from Christ when we were chosen in baptism.  How convincingly do you live your discipleship of Christ?  “Well, that’s not my responsibility,” you might say.  “After all, I’m not the Pope, or a bishop, or a priest, or a Sister.”  Ah, we need to hear the words of John the Baptist in the Gospel today.  There’s no getting away from it — there’s something for EVERYBODY to do in preparing the way for the Savior.

Notice how deftly John the Baptist answers the question from three very distinct classes or groups of people.  They really represent all of humanity.  First, the CROWDS ask what they should do.  The crowds:  that’s everybody, good and bad, eager and indifferent, rich and poor.  John’s answer is that they need to start looking out for each other and not just for Good Old Number One.  Get the concentration off self.  Whatever you’ve got, a lot or a little, give part of it away to those who don’t.

Then the tax collectors speak up.  What should THEY do?  Remember who these guys were.  They were Jews who were employed by the Roman Empire, the conquering power, to extract from the Jewish nation their assigned share of taxes to support the occupying government that they hated.  That would have been unpopular enough, but the tax collectors made THEIR living by imposing a surcharge.  To put it in current terms, if the job of the tax collector in an assigned area was to collect and turn in $50,000 from his neighborhood, it didn’t matter to the Romans how he did it.  If he could squeeze $75,000 out of his neighbors, the Romans didn’t care as long as they got their 50.  So, most of the tax collectors were scorned on two counts:  they were traitors to the nation AND they were rip-off artists, pocketing as much as they could squeeze out of their hapless countrymen.  That’s no doubt why Luke says, “EVEN tax collectors came to be baptized.”  You can imagine the murmurs in the crowd:  “THAT crook??!!  He’s got a lot of gall showing up and pretending to repent!!”  And John’s answer can’t be an easy one for a truly repentant tax collector to swallow:  “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”  Jeez!  How’s a guy supposed to make a dishonest living following a command like that??  But there again, John nails it.  What do you have to do that might radically change your patterns of living if you’re going to be faithful to Christ’s call?

John’s response to the soldiers is just as radical.  Here were PAGANS, the tough guys, the occupying army, asking this wild-looking Jewish preacher from the desert what THEY had to do!  Were they sincere, or were they just kind of poking fun, seeing how John would handle it if they put him on the spot?  It didn’t matter, he answered their question with a real challenge:  no extortion, no false accusations, and no grumbling about wages and hours.  Hey, can’t a soldier have any FUN?  “Sure,” John (and Jesus) might each reply, “just not at someone else’s expense.”

See, whether we’re among the crowd, the tax collectors, or the soldiers, we ALL have SOME changes to make in our lives to announce the Kingdom of God in a more convincing way.  Start living in that new way, Jesus’ way, and you’ll find those old fears and anxieties dropping off like winter clothes when we’re heading into summer again.  Choose the freedom of life with Christ and you will find the joy that the world finds so elusive.  People in the world know by human instinct that they should and shouldn’t do certain things.  Our task as witnesses to Christ is to show them that they already have the recipe for eternal happiness.  They might just be too stubborn to go into the kitchen of the Kingdom and put it all together.  Show them some of God’s mercy in word and deed, and welcome them to the way of life of Christ’s Kingdom.  We’re all sinners, and we’ve each got our own story about how we’ve gotten this far–over and over again!  Did you fail at it last week?  Well, that’s why the Lord in his mercy gives you — THIS WEEK!  So slap a smile on your face and on your heart, and have a great week as an instrument of the Gospel.

Homily for December 6, 2015

HOMILY – DECEMBER 6

Back when John Logie was mayor . . .  Back in Queen Victoria’s day . . .  Remember when Sparky Anderson was the Tigers’ skipper?  You and I are quite used to referring to moments in time by using the names of those who were in charge.  I can remember that Joe Russo was the manager of our grade school baseball team, even though I can’t quite remember the exact summers I played for him–did I start in ’58 or ’59?  Well, I know it was in the 1900’s, and I DID play baseball, that’s the main thing.

But you get my point.  So don’t roll your eyes when you hear this list in today’s Gospel of the political leaders of the Empire and the eastern Mediterranean area.  This is not only a way of reckoning history.  The important thing is that the evangelist is locating things IN TIME.  These events were not just made up.  John the Baptist was not a literary device in a great novel about someone who claimed to be the Savior of the world.  God had been preparing that world and its fallen human nature for salvation, and he gave every indication and guide so that his people would know when it was coming about.  Much information was readily at hand — but you had to care enough, you had to have FAITH enough, to read it, study it, ponder it, meditate on it.  Like Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is the one . . . who meditates on God’s law day and night.”  You can’t expect to know God’s revelation if you aren’t meditating.  Maybe that’s why, in all our frenzied activity, in all our hustle and bustle, we ask questions like, “Where is God in all this?”

The New York Daily News headlines screamed at us the other day after the California massacre, “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS,” which was not as much a statement blaming God as it was mocking their least favorite politicians for asking for and offering prayers for the victims and their families.  “They should forget about prayer and get busy and end violence by passing laws,” the Daily News apparently thinks — which would be about as effective as passing gas.  I’ve made the point earlier this week, that the people who carry out these atrocities have not been putting in an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament every week.  They pay no attention to the beatitudes.  They clearly do not heed Christ’s words, “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice,” and “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Now, THOSE are CONQUERING words, even if living them out might well mean that we will appear, in the eyes of the world, to be defeated.  We might lose skirmishes, at least in the world’s way of thinking; but Christ has already won the battle.  All we have to do is attend to his wonderful, life-changing, earth-shattering message and act accordingly.  That’s not a popular message when at the moment it seems a lot easier to settle accounts with weapons and war.  But what have those things ever really settled?

Most of our trouble in living out Christ’s message will come from within, not from without.  I don’t need any terrorists sneaking around my house to distract me from my duties as a Christian and as a pastor.  If I lack courage in living the gospel, it’ll manifest itself in all the little decisions of my daily life–my laziness, my thoughtlessness, my snarkiness, my cynicism, my lack of forgiveness, my refusal to pass on the very mercy that God has so abundantly shown to me.

The same thing had happened to God’s people at that moment in history.  They needed the forerunner, the precursor, John the Baptist, to stir up their hearts, to shock them out of their spiritual lethargy.  He WAS a rather shocking figure, not at all like the well-groomed and finely-robed elders and Pharisees.  But his preaching rang so true that even a pompous potentate like Herod could be fascinated by his words, even the ones that condemned him for his sins!  John pulled no punches, but his message gave people reason to rejoice.  As his cousin, Jesus, would later say, “The TRUTH will set you free!”  Anyone who has finally come to terms with their sins and made a good confession will know THAT feeling.  Like the Old Testament prophets, John’s was a clarion call for confidence in God and joy in what was coming about:  “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery!  Up, Jerusalem, stand upon the heights and rejoice that your children are remembered by God.”

Yes, the children who have been slaughtered in the streets of Chicago, they are remembered by God.  The children who have been crucified by radical forces in Syria, they are remembered by God.  The children who have been aborted in clinics across the United States, they are remembered by God.  Not so that he can take vengeance on their killers, but because he is merciful, and wants no one to perish, and wants so divinely for all to come home to salvation.  As Psalm 34, verse 18 says, “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and the crushed in spirit he saves.”  This is all GOOD NEWS!  What world leader can sincerely make THAT claim for himself?

We are called by John the Baptist to look beyond the trials and tribulations of this world, real though they are.  We are not to assume a Pollyanna attitude and pretend to live in a world that does not exist.  We are situated in history, like John the Baptist was, when Barack Obama is our president, when Rick Snyder is our governor, when George Heartwell is our mayor–and whether that delights us or appalls us, we look reality square in the eye and say, “The REALLY Good News is on the way, and is already here, and it’s the Lord Jesus, our Savior and our Good Shepherd, and WE ARE HIS PEOPLE!”  We are rejoicing in his coming in history, we are rejoicing in his presence with us, and we are rejoicing that he is to come in glory.  Don’t be afraid, world!  While you’re fussing and fuming and wringing your hands about why people act the way they do, we are proclaiming a jubilee of mercy.  God IS fixing it, and all you have to do to understand that is get on board.  Clearly, whatever YOU’RE doing . . . isn’t working.

Homily for November 22, 2015

HOMILY – NOVEMBER 22

Let’s zero in for a moment on one verse in today’s Gospel, verse 36:  “If my kingdom DID belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting.”  Stop there.  You might say, “No, wait.  Read on.  It only makes sense if you finish Jesus’ sentence:  ‘My attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.’  Isn’t that a good motive for fighting?  Wouldn’t that have been a worthy cause, to save Jesus from his impending doom?  But the Apostles had already chickened out and run away.”

And that’s Jesus point exactly.  “If my kingdom DID belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting.”  But they aren’t.  They’re not around.  This makes no EARTHLY sense to them, either, because “my kingdom is not of this world.”  Is this kingdom of Christ worth fighting for, then?  Oh yes, it’s infinitely and eternally worthy.  But FIGHTING rather pales in comparison to infinity and eternity, doesn’t it?  Because this kingdom, not of this world, cannot be won, conquered, or held by fighting.  It’s accomplished by FAITH.  Fighting is of THIS world.  If you don’t believe that, turn on the radio, turn on the TV, read the paper, plunge into the Internet.  We humans are a quarrelsome lot.  We pick fights over EVERYTHING!  So catch the full impact of Jesus’ statement:  “If my kingdom DID belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting.”

Now, let’s admit it.  His attendants, his disciples, DO fight.  Catholics and Protestants fight.  Romans and Orthodox fight.  In Rwanda, 20 years, ago, Catholic Hutu and Catholic Tutsi fought each other to the death.  Protestant churches fight among themselves and, presto!, that produces more Protestant churches.  But you’ll notice that when we fight, it’s so often done in the spirit of the world:  name-calling, exaggeration, inaccuracies, self-serving and self-righteous accusations, personal attacks.  If we persist in imitating the world and its ways in attempting to serve Christ and his kingdom, we are only holding ourselves up to judgment in the eyes of the world itself.  And all the world will say is, “See, even THEY fight.  And they’re not even very good at it!!”

How different this is from Jesus’ definition of those who belong to HIS kingdom!  “By THIS will all know that you are my disciples, by the LOVE you have for one another.”  And of course, by “one another,” he doesn’t just mean we should love those who are like us or close to us.  He means EVERYBODY.  Those we love and those we don’t, those who are friends and those who are enemies, those we’re close to and those we’re not, those who are like us and those who are, oh, so different.  And he made this quite clear, over and over again.

What a strange and unusual kingdom this is!  “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus tells Peter, when in the garden the Apostle shows a last flicker of evaporating bravery in defense of his master, “for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.”

“But Lord,” we protest, “they’ll wipe us out!!”

And Christ the King replies with a smile, “You’re talking about a kingdom that started with eleven fishermen and a tax collector, and in 300 years had become the religion of the Roman Empire.  Now what’s that you were saying?”

Take careful note that when Jesus spoke with soldiers, he didn’t talk DOWN to them with an air of moral superiority.  He never told one of them to abandon their post, even with the reputation they had for brutal suppression of those they ruled.  That, too, is because his kingdom is not of this world.  Many early Christian converts were serving in the military.  Some laid down their arms, others did not.  Self-defense and defense of one’s nation is an affair of the world.  The kingdom of Christ does not involve itself in it, but strives to be of service to all.  Fighting is a method employed by the world to resolve its affairs.  The kingdom of Christ holds all of us to a different standard, even while we recognize that there are times when limited violence must be used in defending against aggression and in resolving some of the affairs of this world.  That’s BECAUSE they are affairs of this world.  Christ our King is always calling us to do better.

Fighting is part of our fallen human nature.  Hurt those who hurt you.  Do unto others before they have a chance to do unto you.  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  ((Shake fist in the air.))  “I’LL GET YOU FOR THIS!!”  None of these ingrained reactions which seem so “natural” to us can ever lead us to the infinity and eternity of Christ’s kingdom.  Even as he is tortured to death because of the treachery and conniving of those who are threatened by his message, Christ our King calls them and us to conversion, to the better way of his kingdom, to genuine mercy and justice, and to life with him forever.  Baptism makes you royalty in this kingdom.  The Holy Spirit anoints you for greatness.  The Eucharist enables you to dine each day at the King’s banquet.  You don’t have to wait.  Your mission as his ambassador in this world continues — today and every day.

Homily for November 15, 2015

HOMILY – NOVEMBER 15

That first reading from the Book of Daniel is most often heard at Catholic funerals.  It’s definitely a reading about the end times:  on a global scale, the end of the world; on an individual scale, our own personal death.  We hear about these things especially in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament and in the Book of Revelation in the New.  And then, of course, there’s the Gospel passage we heard today, this one from Mark.  It’s amazing how quickly some people get creeped out when we start talking about the end times.  I hope we don’t think Jesus was gathering the Apostles around the campfire and telling ghost stories; but from the reaction of many people, you’d think that was the case.

Christians believe that Christ has CONQUERED death by his own death on the cross and by his glorious resurrection.  So why do so many of us break out in a cold sweat when we hear about death, or the end of the world?  Let’s take a closer look at the first reading and the Gospel and see what’s so scary about them.  Sure, Daniel has references to “a time unsurpassed in distress,” and some “who sleep in the dust of the earth . . . shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.”  Tough words, but read on:  “YOUR people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book. . .  The wise shall shine brightly . . . and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”  Are you found written in the book?  Are you wise?  Do you lead the many to justice?  If you’re engaged in these works of the Kingdom, see, you have nothing to fear.  And if you’re NOT so engaged, you can change.  Anytime.  It’s your choice.

Then in the Gospel we hear about the physical collapse of the universe.  No surprise.  God made it all from nothing, it can certainly return to its former state.  Too many people, though, stop reading at the end of that first paragraph.  Jesus goes on, first taking a victorious image from Daniel:  “the Son of Man coming in the clouds” with great power and glory, he will “send out his angels and gather his elect from the four winds.”  Are you part of the elect?  Do you want to be?  Christ has already chosen and called you.  Now it’s YOUR choice.

Jesus then tells us that all these things happening — in fact, WHATEVER  happens — can be seen as a sign “that he is near, at the gates.”  You’re hearing this about the Someone who loves you more than anyone else ever could, who died on the cross for you, who WANTS you with him forever in the Kingdom of Heaven as a member of his Church, his precious Bride.  Does it seem too good to be true?  Do you WANT it to be true in your case?  Once again, now it’s your choice.

With nearly everyone in this church this morning, Jesus has given us plenty of reason NOT to be afraid.  Many of us were called by God and brought to the font of baptism when we were infants.  “Let the children come to me,” Jesus said; and thanks be to God, you had parents who took him up on the hope and promise contained in that invitation.  Our new little brother who is being brought for baptism by his family this morning is the latest in a long line of potential saints whose eternal life began at this font.  Whether or not they ARE saints — well, God took the initiative and extended the invitation, it’s up to each of us to follow up on it.  Many of us came to Christ at a later age, but Jesus reassures us, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him.”  Thanks be to God, you who are converts have allowed the Father to draw you by his grace to this precious gift of his Son.  And this precious gift is not just a spiritual relationship, it’s a real flesh-and-blood communion with the One who loves us to death!  And he has gathered us here to celebrate that, and to worship the Father with him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homily for November 8, 2015

HOMILY – NOVEMBER 8

Perhaps you’ve heard the old story about the barnyard animals arguing about who did more for the farmer.  The hen had the floor, or the roost, clucking, “No one does more for the farmer than I do.  Every morning without fail, I provide him an egg for his breakfast.”

At that, the pig spoke up.  “I don’t want to ruffle any feathers here,” he said, “but I would submit that I do much more than that for the farmer.  You see, there’s bound to come a time when the farmer decides to have more than an egg for his breakfast.  He might well decide to have ham, or bacon.  And when he does, you, Mrs. Hen, will note that you simply make a contribution.  In my case, it’s total commitment.”

And that’s kind of Jesus’ point in the Gospel, about the widow and her mite, and certainly the point of the story of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath.  In each case, these widows really had nothing to lose by giving the last bit of oil and flour or the last two coins which they had.  Those tiny bits of material belongings could not save them from ultimate death.  Reduced to complete and absolute poverty, they gave up all they had, to rely totally on God.  I would wager that none of us has been in that position, no matter to what extent we might have pled poverty at one time or another in our lives.

Jesus doesn’t rush in with a safety net or a social program to save the widow at the temple.  Relying totally on God and on the goodness of his people, she will no doubt join the beggars who were very familiar faces to those who came to worship at the temple.  Their presence didn’t inspire political speeches about how this party or that would be more dedicated to caring for the poor.  That was not considered to be a function of government in Jesus’ day.  Beggars were usually persons handicapped by age or infirmity who had no relatives to help sustain them.  Without family, they relied on the great family of God, who had been telling his people all through the Old Testament that they were to care for the widow and the orphan in their midst.  It wasn’t the duty of government.  It was the duty of EVERYONE.  And Christ continues that great tradition of charity in God’s name by underscoring the fact that charity to anyone in need is an act of praise and love for God, an act in which they should see HIS face in the face of the one in need.

As we hear in the letter to the Hebrews in the second reading, Christ’s supreme act of love on the cross is the summit of all actions of charity.  When the Innocent Lamb offers himself for our sins, he makes a total commitment to God.  He holds nothing back.  As we have said many times, God shows us in the cross that he will go to any lengths and pay any price to convince us of his love and win us back to his divine embrace.

How do we express our comprehension of this great gift?  How do we express our thanks, our appreciation?  With a token offering?  Or with the gift of our whole self, in imitation of Christ?  St. Paul tells us in the letter to the Romans, “None of us lives as his own master, and none of us dies as his own master.  Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”  Do we act in that way?  Do we think and act as though all of our possessions come from God and belong to God, and are given to us only to see how and for whose benefit we will use them?

There are some people who try to excuse themselves by saying, “What?  Am I supposed to cash in my 401(k) and give it all to the poor?  Should I give away all the money I’ve tried to save for my children’s education?”  The answer from God himself is, “Of course not.”  God expects us to be prudent and responsible with what we have so we will not DELIBERATELY become a burden on others.  It is not a sin to be rich, and it is not a virtue to be poor.  The sin and the virtue rest in our attitude about what we have, and about how we manifest our love for God and neighbor in our use of this world’s goods.

I’ve never heard anyone tell a tale of financial woe and blame it on tithing — you know, “If I hadn’t given that ten percent to the church and to charity, I’d be well off today.”  Rather, it’s so often those who hold back for themselves and who are NOT generous with God and others, who experience dire financial straits because of their lack of planning.  The psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  We could well say, “Stewardship and tithing is the beginning of sound budgeting.”  Put your priorities in order by setting aside your tithe for God FIRST, and you will find yourself learning very well how to manage the remaining ninety percent.  And you and your children will learn in the process from whom that ninety percent has come.

Homily for November 1, 2015

HOMILY – NOVEMBER 1

Praise the Lord!  It’s our feast day!!  Well, not quite yet, but there’s promise, and there’s hope.  The promise is Christ’s, and our hope is in the mercy of a God who wants none of his children to be lost.  Later this week, on Thursday, we’ll hear the Gospel reading in the weekday Mass when Christ the Good Shepherd tells us straying sheep that there will be more joy in heaven over ONE repentant sinner than over ninety-nine who have no need to repent.  I can tell you that those have been words of hope and comfort for THIS sinner all those times the Good Shepherd had to carry my soggy, soiled, sorry self back home after I’d wandered away too far for much too long.  Why he even bothers after it happens over and over again, even to this day, is a mystery of his mercy.  But it’s a mystery I can only rejoice in.  And I suspect you know the feeling, too.

So, what awaits us?  Our readings on this solemnity of All Saints are a comprehensive study of our life as members of the Kingdom of God.  The first reading, from Revelation, gives us a picture of that for which we hope:  what’s going on eternally in that heavenly Kingdom.  Then St. John, always anxious to show us that Christ is neither a fantasy nor a pipedream, tells us in the second reading just who we are, and the great dignity God both gives us and wants us to share forever.  Finally, the Lord himself begins his Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, laying out for us how we are to achieve the goal and gift of eternal life.  In short, we’re shown what heaven IS, we’re assured that God intends us to BE there, and we’re given the GPS to show us the WAY.  It’s like an open-book exam!!  How can we lose?  Well, if we had the answer to that, we wouldn’t need those confessionals in the church, would we?  If love really meant never having to say you’re sorry, we wouldn’t have needed a Savior, would we?  It would have been rather pointless for Christ to endure the Cross to show us the cost of our sins, wouldn’t it?

But we’re in very good company, my friends.  The saints we celebrate today, the canonized and the un-canonized, all have their own stories about personal sin and redemption and salvation, all except Mary, who never tarnished the life of God within her.  As God allowed himself to grow within her physically, she never denied him the opportunity to grow within her spiritually.  In a human way, how Christ must have had his Mother in mind when he spoke these sayings of blessedness that we call the Beatitudes!  And since she is not divine, she can show us, her children, that these directions to life in the Kingdom are not beyond our reach as human beings.

The other saints?  Well, we know a little about many of them and a whole lot about some of them.  We look at the Apostles, diamonds in the rough, eager yet confused, very much in need of the breath of God’s Spirit to set them on joyful fire for their sacred mission.  We look at an Augustine, who freely confesses that there wasn’t a sin he didn’t commit before his conversion.  We look at the somber Jerome, the scholarly Thomas Aquinas, the devout and very practical mystics Gertrude the Great and Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila (AH-vee-luh), the soldier Ignatius, the jokester Philip Neri, the zealous Francis Xavier, and all those who have preceded us in these and other pews, all eager to spread the word of what the Lord in his mercy had done for them.  What a lesson we learn, just from their diversity!  People from every race and tongue, from every continent and occupation, young and old, royalty and peasant.

We pray that we shall have all eternity to hear their stories and together give glory to God for the never-ending accounts of his infinite mercy.  Those who are living the virtues spoken of by Christ in his Sermon are already living the life of the Kingdom, though they are here on earth.  For that reason, Christ can call them “blessed.”  If you’re ever tempted by the evil one to think that an eternity with God in the Kingdom would be boring, you perhaps have not yet experienced the thrill of discovering how beautifully it all fits together, how there is a never-ending feast for mind, heart, and spirit which our earthly senses cannot even comprehend.  Think how eager our loved ones are who have gone before us, to welcome us home and introduce us to eternal life.  We’ll hear in Eucharistic Prayer Number 3 today a wonderful description of that eternal day and eternal life:  “There we hope to enjoy forever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall be like you for all the ages and praise you without end through Christ our Lord.”

We need often to ponder the joys that await us in the Kingdom of heaven in order to live well the life of that Kingdom here on earth.  Even non-believers have the right to expect of us, the followers of Christ, that we will model for them the way home to God as All the Saints model that way home for us.  That’s the secret of holiness.  It can never be hoarded.  We have their example.  Now do as they did, and pay it forward.

Homily for October 25, 2015

HOMILY – OCTOBER 25

I began studying canon law at Catholic University out in Washington, D.C., ‘way back in 1979!  The campus was abuzz with the exciting news of the upcoming visit of Pope John Paul II, who had been elected less than a year earlier.  The Archdiocese of Washington invited all the priests, no matter where we were from, to participate in what was anticipated to be a Mass with a million people on the National Mall, stretching from Capitol Hill west to the Lincoln Memorial.  (They needed help with Communion!)

That Sunday morning dawned and the whole city was in holiday mode.  Buses and subways were jammed.  We waited out in the hot sun for several hours before the Mass started at 4 p.m., but we had interesting seating.  About 3 p.m., bishops and other prelates began entering the Mall through the “checkpoint” right near our chairs.  Sitting among us was a young, rather newly ordained priest from D.C., whom we had already gotten to know as one of the few men to have made it through seminary studies and been ordained while being totally blind.  Father Charlie was of course always accompanied by his beautiful guide dog, and the two of them were a very familiar presence at clergy gatherings in the nation’s capital.

We moved Father Charlie from the third or fourth row back, where he had taken his place, right up to the front row so he could be closer to the action as the excitement was building.  The reaction of most of the bishops and other prelates as they came in and looked down and saw the dog lying there went from puzzled (“How did a dog get in HERE?”) to genuine disdain (“How did THAT get in here?”)  We were chuckling among ourselves, noting the fact that most of them didn’t observe or didn’t seem to have a clue as to what the dog’s purpose was.

Then, all of a sudden, at 3:45, in walked Pope John Paul II, to a growing wave of thunderous cheers from the million or so people as they caught a glimpse of him.  The Pope smiled and waved at us priests, then his eye was immediately caught by Father Charlie and his dog.  The Holy Father went directly over to Charlie and grabbed his hands.  He brought them up to his own face, and let Charlie “see” the Pope with his hands and fingers in a way that none of the rest of us could.  It took Charlie only about five seconds to get his “picture” of the Pope through his sense of touch, but in those five seconds the eyes of all the rest of us were blurring with tears.  “Dear God,” we were saying joyfully to each other, “it took the Pope himself to really recognize what was going on there with Charlie and his dog!  It took the Pope himself to see the truth of the situation.  What a beautiful gesture!!  And all the rest of the bishops came in and were only concerned about protocol.”  And then one of the priests jokingly piped up and said what the rest of us were thinking:  “Shows ya THEY’RE not infallible, doesn’t it?”  We all laughed.  Charlie laughed.  I think his dog laughed.

I think about St. John Paul, and Father Charlie, and his dog whenever we have the story about Jesus and the blind man.  Most of us feel sorry for people who cannot see with their eyes.  Father Charlie could “see” the Pope with his hands and fingers; and yet, how can you “see” something as glorious as a Lake Michigan sunset with hands and fingers?  There are some things that the sense of touch just can’t adequately convey.  Well, now, let’s turn that around.  How can we “see” something as glorious as the Kingdom of Heaven with the eyes of this body?  There’s an infinite number of things that the sense of sight just can’t adequately convey.  Can you imagine the angels and saints saying among themselves, “Poor guys, if they could only see what WE can, they’d understand.  And maybe then they’d make the right choices.”

Well, don’t count on the latter.  Remember Jesus’ warning in the parable about the rich man, and the poor man Lazarus, that if the rich man’s brothers didn’t pay attention to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t believe even if someone rose from the dead?  That’s kind of where we’re at.  If we can’t appreciate the beauty and power of God and believe his Word with all the powers of the senses he gives us, we’ve deliberately stifled our vision, whether we see with our eyes or our fingers.  Similarly, we can stifle the vision of our hearts by refusing the vision, the gift of faith, and making up our minds that if we can’t “see” it with our eyes, it doesn’t exist.  And even if we HAVE the gift of faith, how often do we make the wrong choices because we blind ourselves with sin?  How we each need to call out to the Lord with the man in the Gospel, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”

And he will!  Our God is so anxious to eternally show us things that “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into anyone’s heart.”  Whether we “see” with our fingers and hands or with our eyes, the vision that we call faith tells us one thing:  “Child of God, you ain’t seen NOTHIN’ yet!!!”

Homily for October 18, 2015

HOMILY – OCTOBER 18

Well, there was a great opening line in the first reading!  You come to church, and the first thing you hear from God’s Word is, “The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity”!  Now is Isaiah the prophet talking about himself?  Or about the Messiah, the Anointed One, who would come some 700 years later?  Regardless of whom he’s speaking, it’s a pretty dismal way to get anyone to sign on to being part of God’s people, don’t you think?  What kind of God is PLEASED to crush anyone in their infirmity?

If it seems monstrous, think about taking your child to the dentist.  A cavity has to be filled, a tooth has come in crooked and needs to come out because it’s crowding the other teeth, and so on.  Your child, no doubt, is having thoughts similar to Isaiah 53, only about YOU!  What kind of monster would drag a child to the torturers, who will only make things worse by pretending that “this won’t hurt a bit.”  The child imagines that he hears, through his screams, the doctor’s voice saying, “We’ve got to make him stop writhing!  Nurse, give those thumb screws a quarter turn!  And tighten that neck brace!”  And then, “We’ve got to numb the gum so you won’t feel a thing,” as the dentist approaches with an evil smirk, holding a harpoon that would send even Moby Dick to the ocean floor.

Like God, you too are pleased (in a way) to take your child to the dentist.  You know that the momentary pain and discomfort, your child’s and your own, will have a satisfactory result:  better dental and overall health.  Only a real monster would let the child continue on without care, letting teeth rot and fall out.  “I’m 19 years old,” says the young man through a checkerboard grin, “and I’ve never been to a dentist.”  Nor likely ever had a date!  No pain, no gain.  And that’s the way it is with God.  He is pleased to crush his Anointed One in infirmity, because that stark reality of human and divine suffering undertaken for our salvation is the only way we can be “bought back” — REDEEMED — and come home to the eternal Kingdom which God has prepared for us.

What’s true of the Messiah himself is true of all of us, his disciples.  Like James and John the apostles, who approach Jesus in the Gospel with a special request, we might be inclined to mistakenly think that all will go well for us if only we cast our lot with Christ.  “Can you drink the cup from which I shall drink?”  “WE CAN,” they reply enthusiastically, thinking no doubt of feasting at a glorious banquet table in the Messiah’s royal palace.  Oh, there WILL be a great banquet table, and there WILL be a feast; but in order to get THERE and enjoy it, you first have to have your teeth fixed, so there will be the trip to the dentist, or its equivalent.  Indeed, you see, the landscape is littered with the broken spiritual shards of once-faithful Christians who have turned away from Christ out of disappointment.  “I prayed and prayed, and nothing happened!”  “God dealt me a rotten hand in life.”  “Why did God make my parent/child/friend suffer so?”  How could they have ever gazed at a crucifix as a disciple of Christ and NOT thought that they would follow in his steps — to resurrection indeed, but first to Calvary.

There is great wisdom to be gained in the devotion which is represented all the way around the walls of every Catholic church, including our own:  the Way of the Cross, or the Stations of the Cross.  This beautiful prayer is a series of meditations on the sufferings of Christ, most often in prayers composed to ask God’s help in our own sufferings; and comparing us who DESERVE chastisement for our sins to Christ, who in his innocence took all our guilt upon himself, all the way to the cross.  One of the main points of the Stations is that Christ does what he does out of love, and we follow in his steps out of love:  not only making the Stations in church, but making the Stations in our own lives, with all of our various sufferings offered with Christ for the salvation of the world.  We are, after all, a priestly people.  Just how did we expect to do that sacrifice-thing without any discomfort?

So even if our question is, “How can God just stand by while innocent children suffer?’ the answer comes from God himself:  “How can YOU just stand by while my Son, the innocent Lamb, suffers for your sins?  Being his disciple means joining him on the cross, not because I demand it,” says God, “but because it’s the only way you will appreciate how costly your sins are.  Indeed, they can lure you right out of the eternal Kingdom I want to share with you.  So join him, my dear child, in his offering.  Never underestimate the power and value of the Eucharist.  When you hear the words in this Mass, ‘Pray, brethren, that MY sacrifice and YOURS may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father,’ realize that your priest is not only speaking for himself, but is already speaking in my Son’s name, and that you are joining your trials and troubles to the greatest Sacrifice of all, for the salvation of the world.”

What a privilege it is to share in the name and the mission of Christ our High Priest, and to walk with him daily, in the light — and in the shadow — of the Cross!

Homily for October 11, 2015

HOMILY – OCTOBER 11

Wisdom!  Maybe there’s no word, other than “love,” that’s so misunderstood and abused.  We believers know wisdom as the first of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  It’s not necessarily the first to be received, acquired, or appreciated, but it is definitely first in order of importance.  With wisdom, all the other gifts and all of our priorities fall into their proper place.  Without it, it doesn’t matter what other gifts we have, we shall still find ourselves sadly deficient.  Just as with the sacraments, all the others lead to the Eucharist and derive their meaning and power from the Eucharist, so it is with wisdom and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit.

We’re all familiar with the expression “wise guy.”  That, of course, has nothing to do with wisdom, but with sarcasm or a mockingly sharp wit.  A person can be well endowed with a biting sense of humor and still not be wise, especially when the bite leaves emotional teeth marks, either deliberately or inadvertently.

If we confuse wisdom with a kind of perspicácity, a kind of detached overview of the world and its affairs, well, that’s the kind of overview — or overSIGHT — which agnostics attribute to God as they understand him:  cool, uninvolved detachment, bordering on lofty disinterest.  But that’s not OUR God, and that’s not the Holy Spirit’s gift of wisdom.  Our God is incarnational.  When we screw up, he is anxious to help us recover.  He gets right down into our nitty-gritty, even to the extent of plunging into his creation and becoming one of us — “even unto death,” as St. Paul says, “the death of the cross.”  So much for divine detachment!

Wisdom cannot be equated with knowledge.  There are lots of smart people who have sworn off any belief in God as a figment of crippled imaginations.  They know a lot, in terms of facts and figures, but they aren’t willing to let go and have FAITH, without which they can have no really productive imagination at all.  Without faith, all their factual knowledge and problem-solving ability is like rats finally discovering how to get out of the maze — only to discover that there’s nothing else!  They repeat the original sin of thinking that they can create their own paradise, only to discover that it’s eternally elusive without the love of its Creator.  Without faith, what’s the point of everything else?

Wisdom is not the same as understanding, certainly not in the worldly sense.  A politician, for instance, or a tycoon, or a combination of the two, might be cunning, shrewd, calculating, expert at reading others, being able to immediately detect strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how to use them for his or her own purposes.  They understand a lot — too much, even.  But they employ that understanding in a very self-serving way rather than in genuine PUBLIC service.  Even though they see all the connections and are very skilled at bringing others on board with their schemes, all this is ultimately used to create a new universe centered on them and their agenda.

Wisdom is not raw power.  It’s not even INTERESTED in power.  Wisdom is content with truth, and is convinced of Jesus’ words, “The truth will set you free.”  While wisdom can inspire us to be clever in PRESENTING the truth, that is much different than being conniving or compelling.  Wisdom knows that the truth can speak for itself, and that we are only its servants.  “Behold the handmaid, the servant, of the Lord. . .”

Wisdom surely is not the same thing as worldly success or keeping the rules.  The rich young man who comes to Jesus in the Gospel has done well, both materially and spiritually.  He’s a good man, obeying all the rules while becoming well-to-do at the same time.  He’s definitely not a crook.  But he lacks wisdom.  When Jesus shows him the path to genuine life, he can’t tear himself away from the comfort of his stuff.  Wisdom would help him let go and realize that, no matter what our circumstances might be, only ONE thing is necessary.  That’s what our first missionary here in Grand Rapids, Father Frederic Baraga, exemplified.  Leave the stuff behind, and just show others the love of Christ.  Rich or poor, we all have baggage we don’t need.  That’s wisdom.

So little Anna, who is being baptized today, is being introduced into the wisdom and love of God.  We pray that we won’t get in the way of helping her grow in these gifts which are planted in her.  And we pray that we ourselves might know the difference between genuine wisdom and all those false brands of wisdom touted by the world around us.  Just knowing there’s a difference, and acting upon it — well, that means we fear and appreciate God’s judgment more than the world’s.  And as God’s own Word tells us in at least three different places, “The fear of the Lord is the BEGINNING of wisdom.”  Let’s begin again, by standing and being in awe at his presence among us.