Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Why, Lord?—26th Wednesday of Ordinary Time (Cycle II)

Job 9:1–12, 14–16; Luke 9:57–62

            Why do bad things happen to good people? That question seems to be at the forefront of Job's story. There's a whole branch of theology that we refer to as theodicy dedicated to this question and the question of God's divine attributes. Job seems to be an early student of this mystery.
            Job's story is one that doesn't really fit with the rest of the Hebrew canon. And that makes sense because it's not originally a Hebrew story. It seems to be pre-Mosaic: it originated prior to the Exodus and contains early and late Hebrew vocabulary, makes no mention of a priesthood, and doesn't refer to God as Adonai or Elohim, nor does it use the Tetragrammaton typical of the other Hebrew books—what many people pronounce incorrectly as Yahweh or Jehovah.[i] The story takes place before the days of the Abrahamic patriarchs.
            It seems a bit cruel that El—which is the word for God—allows Satan to try Job in this way, but notice what God says and what He doesn't say. He doesn't say, "Do your worst." He says, "All he has is in your power, only do not touch him." So let me suggest this reading. He is not tempting Satan to test Job but reminding Satan that he's the power on earth because of mankind's fall, and He, the Lord, forbids him to hurt Job directly. He permits the evil that Satan plans, but does not allow Satan to attack Job physically.
            Job seems to understand that the trial is not tied to his worthiness, but he admits his inability to understand why he is allowed to suffer, and that is our own dilemma, isn't it? Why do faithful people suffer? Why do those who love and serve God suffer? So our question and Job's is as old as recorded history. How do we understand suffering in the face of God's justice and goodness?
            So why do we suffer? Notice that Job's suffering is induced by his loss of family and possessions, but we do realize that these things are transient, right? We will always lose these things for the simple reason that people die and material gains decrease. Is it worse to lose them at once or incrementally? Well, I think most of us would agree that sudden loss is worse than a slow, incremental loss because we think and experience our world in the manner of time. But the ultimate end is a loss of all material possessions and all of our loved ones in this temporal world. As Qoheleth wrote in Ecclesiastes, "All things are vanity."
            In the Gospel of Luke, we're given no reprieve. Jesus is telling us to let it go now. So you want to follow me? You know that I own less than the beasts in the field, don't you?" He was countering those who sought to follow out of a desire to gain power. You need to bury your past? The past belongs to the past. You want to do my work but need to turn your attention to home? How can you do your work if you are constantly looking over shoulder?
            Is Jesus really saying, don't bury your dead and don't say good bye to your family? Of course not. Simple charity requires such things. Our Catholic tradition requires such corporal works. But what He is saying is what He said to Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John: "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father." He is talking about clinging to what is here and now. Do not cling to security. Do not cling to the past. Do not cling to the things of the present. All of this will pass away.
            And that includes our pain and suffering. We may not understand its purpose, but if we cling to the pain, we will never discover its purpose. If we cling, we cannot be healed, and we cannot be redeemed. It was only through death that Christ brought about our redemption, and death to ourselves and our clinging is what allows us to be joined with Christ, to be Divinized and made one with Him.

[i] "Book of Job." Theopedia. Accessed Sept. 27, 2016.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

We are our scars.

I've had an interesting week. I've been praying for discernment for direction in my vocation for a number of months now, and this week has brought a number of changes and new assignments that will really give me an opportunity to see if what I think I want is really what I want or what would be good for me. This weekend's challenge was that I was coordinating a spirituality session for Servant School (our diocesan program for deacon and lay ministry formation), and the priest who was teaching had no one to cover a scheduled Mass at a station church. So in addition to setting up recording equipment at the location for the lesson (which turned out to be fruitless), I also had to go out to Oreana, a tiny community in Owyhee County, to preside at a communion service at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church.

The people appreciated that I came on short notice, and I made note of the fact that I scrambled to get a homily together, with some obvious issues of comedic (or literary) quality. But it was a good experience, and I saw some vistas of Southern Idaho that I'd never seen before. It's amazing how you can  live in a state and be completely oblivious to the majestic vistas it holds. The Owyhees are a perfect example.

Anyhoo, after I watched my grandson Nathyn's team trounce their opponents (with Nathyn carrying the ball for 5 yards, and playing on both offensive and defensive lines), and then watching BSU slog through a messy win over OSU (second PAC-12 win this season), I went to wash dishes. AS I usualy do, I put on Pandora to listen as I worked. One of the artists in my mix is a Christian singer who, for some reason I don't know, just tugs on my heart. Sometimes her songs strike me as sappy, but some of her early songs really capture the sense of lostness, brokenness, and darkness that we encounter. I recall reading an interview with Bono about Christian pop music, and one of the things he noted was the fact that so many of these popular artists don't grapple with the challenges of being a Christian, essentially the essence of the Christian mission itself—to pick up our cross and follow Him.

I apparently listen to a lot of Christian music that doesn't fall into that category, but I can see Bono's point. And the song from this one artist I really like falls precisely into the category he mentions.

The line in the song is, "And you wear your scars like they're who you are." The implication is, of course, that your scars don't define you.

And I was listening to that, I thought, "No, my scars ARE who I am." In a way, I thought the statement to be profoundly un-Catholic, and I should certainly expect that since the artist in question isn't Catholic...

...because while our scars don't delimit us our chain us to our past, they most certainly define us—not totally but in part.

I think of where I am in my spiritual life (and I'm by no means advanced), and I consider where I have grown the most and learned to rely on God the most. I'm sure it's no surprise to many of you that those moments of pain and wounding that have caused me to grow most. I've been a practioner of a number of martial arts over the years, and one of the points they impressed on us was that when we feel satisfied with out progress, we are not progressing. When we feel troubled, challenged,, and blocked, then we are progressing.

Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he said in the Gospels of Matthew (16:24) and Luke (9:23) that we must pick up our crosses daily.

Anyway, as Catholics, we believe that our actions motivated by faith have an impact on our redemption. We are certainly saved by God's grace in faith through Jesus Christ, but we also have to assent to it, to collaborate with it, to cooperate with it. And in our assent, we are healed from those sins that have wounded us.

In the reformed economy of salvation, our sins are covered--disguised, hidden, ignored. That means that we aren't really changed in any ontological sense. We're still depraved sinners, but Jesus graciously overlooks that. I'm simplifying because reformed communities take slightly different positions here. But what they all come down to is that our choices and our growth in faith and grace isn't really a part of our salvation. Our actions have no "merit" for no better term.

In the Catholic economy, the cooperation of the faithful is critical. Our sins are not hidden at baptism but banished. If you look at all mentions of baptism in the New Testament, there is no notion of a symbolic cleansing. It replaces circumcision. It is what Peter notes as the requirement for repentance in Acts 2:38. Jesus Himself commands the Apostles to baptize all nations (28:19), and the 1st letter of Peter says "baptism now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21).

So if our sins are covered over and ignored, any progress we have made by learning from our failings is likewise unimportant. Our scars are not who we are.

But if we are both the impact of grace in our lives, our faith, and the results of our cooperation with that grace and faith, then our scars are who we are. Our scars are the reminder of our woundedness and our decision to embark on a path of healing rather than our decision to choose a path that leads to more wounds and our destruction. Scars are a symbol of healing, not a symbol of sin. They are the sign that we have chosen the cross. The wide path is littered with those who have bled out because they never recognized their wound and sought healing. A scar is the very sign of repentance. So we are our scars. They signify our repentance, our change, and our reconciliation. They are not our totality, but if they have not shaped and formed us, then we are not truly repentant, and we have not grown spiritually. We haven't truly taken up our cross.

Whom do you trust?—25th Saturday of Ordinary Time (Cycle II)

            We have an interesting, if not particularly uplifting, selection for our readings today. It's actually rather fitting to have these reminders of the final temporal end of human life given that we have just officially passed into autumn. If you've ever read Moby Dick, you might recall the narrator, Ishmael, reflecting on "the damp, drizzly November in my soul." And we've had just a little of that dampness and drizzle as autumn officially begins.
            Our first reading from Ecclesiastes delivers a message that I wish I had heard when I was an adolescent. Now, I'm sure I'm not alone in that. Many of us blew off the teachings of our parents and the Church, assuming all of those consequences would never come to call, that our chickens wouldn't come home to roost. And of course, if there was ever an egg of the Catholic faith laid in the nest of our hearts, we did experience the consequences. And thank God for that, because that egg hatched and brought many of us back to the practice of the faith.
            I would now like to sincerely apologize for that awful metaphor. I put this homily together in a hurry last night after I learned that Fr. Vogel needed me to preside at this communion service.
            Jesus' message to us in the Gospel of Luke makes the same point, but He personalizes it. Rather than some generic youth coming to suffer in his later years, Jesus says, "The Son of Man is to be handed over to men." I am going into bondage and suffering. The Twelve and the disciples don't get it. They still think that the coming of the Messiah is going to be all Skittles and ponies. In Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth is warning the young that they too will experience this dwindling, this failing of the body, this diminishment. We who are full of our own power, full of our own strength, full of our own ability—our powers will fade. We come into our adult life full of the false promises of the world. And Qoheleth reminds us that our time is coming.
            Notice how different that is from our Lord. He has no illusions about whether He will suffer. The disciples can't fathom it. The idea that the Messiah would fall doesn't fit into their concept of the Messiah. Even now, that is what you'll hear from Jews about Jesus: He isn't the Messiah they were looking for. And that's because they didn't and don't understand what is at stake. But Jesus understands that His temporal defeat will be an eternal victory. That is the good news. That is the very heart of the gospel.
            But the difference here is in the matter of trust. Who do you trust? Do you trust your own faculties? Do you trust someone else to rescue you? Our Lord knew that He would die, but He also knew that His death would conquer death. He knew that His temporal suffering would be an eternal end to suffering for those who believed. Qoheleth's warning goes out to those who put their trust in vanities. Jesus' warning goes out to those who think that we will glide through life unscathed. Jesus said in Matthew and Luke, if you want to be my disciple, pick up your cross and follow me—not "Hop in your Jaguar and follow me," but the way of suffering. Jesus was not on board with the prosperity gospel. He preached the way of suffering and self giving, because the only way to get out of this constant bustle for more—for mine, for my own... is through self sacrifice.

            And He lived it. That there is our reminder of His self giving. And that is the way of our own redemption.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

My Prodigal Life: 24th Sunday for Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

Exodus 32:7–11, 13–14; 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Luke 15:1–32
            I have a rosary that was given to me by a friend. He took up making rosaries after he came into the Church, and when I came back and was confirmed, he made this one for me. I treasure it because of the love with which he made it and simply because it's beautiful. It wasn't until about the time I was in diaconal formation that I recognized the image on the center medal here just above the crucifix. Many rosaries have an image of the Blessed Mother or Jesus, or both in the Pieta, or the Holy Family. There are many to choose from depending on the theme rosary makers have in mind.
            But I walked into the parish office one day, back when it was in what is now the Riffle Center, and I came face to face with a print in the reception area. I thought, "Wait, that looks familiar." It was a print of the Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. And that is the same image on the center medal of my rosary. Many of you probably remember the story of my ordination day, so you probably see how fitting it is for this to be the image on my rosary. The story of the Prodigal Son is the story of my life. And if I asked you to raise your hands if it's your life story as well, I bet we would see a lot of hands.
            The reading today from St. Paul's first letter to Timothy is a recognition of his own prodigality. He plays both parts here. First, he is the older brother judging the younger—the one who would persecute the guilty rather than exercise mercy. Then he recognizes his own deep need for God's mercy and becomes, in the same passage, the younger brother.
            I too can see myself in both brothers: the one who took his inheritance and squandered it, and the older son who judged the younger. I've looked at others and deemed them unworthy of my mercy. Thank God I am not their judge, and thank God I have repented from that perspective.
            As I prepared for this homily, I mentioned to Deb Chester, our RCIA Coordinator and Deacon Mac's long-suffering wife, that the Prodigal Son's story is mine. She said, "I have been each character." And I guess that goes for me, too. I've been both sons, and I am the father in waiting for the return of the prodigal. And I know that many of you are waiting for prodigals to return. We like to think that it's a product of our times, but this gospel reading suggests otherwise. We are not the first generation to worry about our children's salvation.
            Ultimately, of course, this gospel reading is about God's unrelenting mercy, His unwillingness to stop seeking us—because that's really what's happening in our conversion. God is pursuing us. We might think we're chasing Him and seeking Him, but our effort is always a fraction of the effort of God's as He tries to break though to us. If you consider the first two parables from the gospel today—how the shepherd and the woman in the house both go rather overboard in response to finding the sheep or finding the coin. That's what Jesus is saying to us: God's joy at bringing us back is so completely different than how we expect Him to respond.
            Let's talk about the lost son here a bit more. He asks his father to give him what will come to him—his inheritance, which would usually only come to him after the father's death. What is he saying to his father? He's essentially saying, "You are dead to me." The wealth of his father is more important to him than his relationship to his father. Now, according to Mosaic law, the parents in such a situation would be completely within their rights to demand the son's execution. The father could simply refuse and then turn the son over to the religious authorities. But that's not what he does. Instead, he gives the son what he desires.
            And when his son returns and repents, the father welcomes him back joyously and generously, holding nothing back. His son was lost but now he is found—dead but now alive.
            When I think of the younger brother's recognition of his state and his decision to repent, I remember a song by one of my favorite bands, the Classic Crime. The first verse is this: "I'm like a lost boy looking for my father in the wilderness, days in the wrong direction, wondering if I'll ever see his face again."
            The younger son has been looking in the wrong direction and he has come to the recognition that he is lost. That was me. That might've been you at some point. And that is probably many of our children right now. They've listened to the directives of the world, and it has pointed them in the wrong direction. And at some point they may come to that realization that they are lost, but they don't wonder about the Father's face. They often don't remember it. They can't seem to see God's face. They can't find Jesus in the world around them.
            Again, this is nothing new. Look at the Israelites in the first reading. God has just led them out of Egypt—out of bondage. But no sooner than He has freed them and given them a sure guide to stay free in the Law of Moses than they dive headfirst back into bondage. What's more, they credit an inanimate object for their freedom: :This thing, this golden calf that was just now created in our midst has freed us from bondage." That seems so bizarre. They follow a pillar of flame and smoke across the desert and through the Red Sea and turn around to give credit to a lump of metal.
            Sort of like us.
            Don't we do this as well? Look at all the intangible gifts we have: life, love, our own unique talents and abilities. From where do these immaterial things come but from an immaterial God? But what do we use as the measure of our worthiness or success? The lump of metal parked in our driveway! That chunk of land and the house that's built on it! We're so focused on the material gifts that we forget the immaterial gift giver, our Father. It's no wonder, then, that our children don't see him and don't remember His face.
            And part of that responsibility lies in us as well. We are God's hands and feet in this world. Do our wayward children see us being Christ in the world? A recent Pew study suggested that one of the reasons children leave their faith is because Christians don't seem to act any better than anyone else. I will admit that this was one of my excuses as well when I was away from the Church—mostly because I didn't really know what a Christian looked like or acted.
            We have to remember justice and mercy together. We have to remember that God's justice is His mercy. They go together. St. Paul understood this. Moses understood this. Do we?
            God uses every attempt He can to reach us, and very often He uses others to reach us—people who will disrupt our patterns, defy our expectations, and derail our plans. Many times He uses means that put discordance into our lives. And sometimes by shocking us with His beauty. St. Augustine captured this in his Confessions when he spoke of us own conversion in one of my favorite passages in western literature:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
We create these walls—the ones that trap us in lives of dissolution, the ones that land us in sties hungering for the slop of pigs, the ones that cause us to cling to hunks of metal rather than real relationship. And God still tries to break through to us. That is that unrelenting mercy and generosity of the Father to His children.

            Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Fifteen years later, we are no closer to stopping terrorism. Whatever unity we had has long faded. While aggression of that kind cannot go unanswered, we need to remember that the ultimate solution to the conflict in our world is not in our actions and works but in our trust and faith in the generous Father who calls us ever back to Him. If all Catholics truly turned to Him and sought His will, the world would be a much different place. Our hearts will be restless until we rest in Him.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Humility—22nd Sunday for Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

Sirach 3:17–18, 20, 28–29; Hebrews 12:18–19, 22–24; Luke 14: 1, 7–14
            The theme of the Old Testament and Gospel readings this week is humility. It's a subject that many of us would rather not talk about. Fortunately, as the parish staff knows, humility happens to be one of my best qualities. Our youth minister, Alex, assures us that his humility is simply amazing.
            So what is this virtue of humility? I think we hear the word and associate it with humiliation or with being humiliated, and automatically assume humility is something negative. And surely there is something to it. To be humiliated or to be humbled is to be brought low—to be taken down a notch. Humiliation is something that happens to us. Humility, on the other hand, is something we choose. The word itself means lowness or baseness, But perhaps another way to look at humility is in the order of unpretentiousness, and that is how humility is virtuous. To be humble is to see ourselves as we are—to not pretend to be something we are not. In the Magnificat of Luke 2, Blessed Mary says, "My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden."
               Mary recognizes the unmerited gift she has been given. She has done nothing to deserve God's generosity. In our first reading, from Sirach, the writer exhorts the reader, "Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God."
            Let's paraphrase that. If you are great, you should humble yourself.
            Why? Why diminish yourself? How antithetical to our culture is it to be self-diminishing?
            Part of the reason for that is that we often mistake true humility for groveling. But groveling is false humility. It's making more of your flaws, often so that people will feel compelled to build you up. Sometimes it comes from a true case of insecurity. No wonder people don't want to be around someone like that. It's exhausting! I once worked with a woman who was beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished, yet she constantly apologized for the slightest misunderstanding, even when she had no control over the situation. You just want to shake some sense into those people.
            Naturally, no one likes the opposite end of the spectrum either—someone who is constantly talking about their accomplishments, their skills, and their life extraordinary life experiences. What boorish windbags they can be!
            And I really hate it when I discover that I'm that boorish windbag!
            We're mistaken if we think that true humility is anywhere on the spectrum between either of those extremes. True humility is recognizing one's true state, one's true capability, one's true failings. The English word humility comes to us from the Latin word humilitas, which means lowliness or meekness. It's related to another term—humus. If you garden or study biology, you recognize that word. In Latin it means earth or ground. So if we extrapolate from there, humility really means to be grounded—not grasping for things too sublime, not seeking the positions of prestige—just being the person you are and recognizing both your gifts and your weaknesses.
            Jesus' parable in the gospel reading stresses this point, but He uses a slightly devious tactic. Don't seek for the places of honor, because someone might unseat you, and you'll have to walk back to the lower place at the table while everyone watches. Instead, be content with the low place, and then the host will invite you to take one that is higher, and everyone will see you honored.
            Before we accuse Jesus of being passive aggressive here, let's think about what He's saying. The parable is not really meant to instruct people how to behave at a dinner party. That's just the image He uses. Instead, He is talking about our daily walk. How many of us are concerned with matters of prestige and ambition before all else? Alternatively, how many of us go to the office, or to the clinic, or to the retail store with the idea in mind that we want to serve someone to the best of our abilities? That we want to glorify God in our career? That we want to help someone who cannot help themselves?

            Jesus isn't calling us to be CEOs. He isn't calling us to be executives. He isn't calling us to be movers and shakers. He is calling us to be servants, where ever we may be in our lives—even if we are CEOs, executives, or movers and shakers. Whatever our station in life, we have to remember—as our Blessed Mother remembered—our lowly state. All that we have comes from God, and we are utterly dependent upon His abundant generosity. It doesn't get much more humble than that right there: He set aside His glory to share our suffering. He makes Himself present here on this altar to feed us daily. And if that does not give us reason to be humble, I don't know what else could.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Be a Witness—Twentieth Sunday for Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10; Hebrews 12:1–4; Luke 12:49–53
            The good news for you while the air conditioner is out is that all of us are getting a crash course in preparing two-minute homilies. The bad news is that apparently Jesus meant it when he said in the gospel that He wanted to set the earth on fire.
            We have three readings that all talk about the inevitable conflict between the City of God and the Earthly City: the life of faith and belief, and the life of the worldly concerns. If we take nothing from the news of the times, we should at least see clearly that the demands of faith are coming increasingly in conflict with the demands of our culture. This should not surprise us. It has been this way forever. The first case in point is Jeremiah. He gives the people of Israel and Judah bad news, and what do they do? Well, they want to kill the messenger. Fortunately, Ebed-Melech—literally "servant of the king"—convinces the king that this is the wrong thing to do. That was back when world leaders actually listened to sound advice from their advisers rather than the latest poll results.
            St. Paul exhorts us to keep our eyes on the prize—on Jesus. We will encounter opposition just as he did, and we will feel abandoned, but we have a cloud of witnesses—the saints and each other—to intercede for us.
            And in the gospel, Jesus is not talking about unity, not about tolerance. He says, "I am coming to bring division." In the gospel of Matthew's telling of this account, Jesus goes further, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." Why a sword? Why division?
            I think a better question to ask is why continue to pretend that we are not divided when in fact there is division all around us.
            Christian and Catholic faith and morals are being pushed more and more to the peripheries of our society. Our world is becoming more violent, more anti-life, and more anti-faith. This is not a new condition, but it is increasingly our condition. And we can deny it and continue sitting on the fence, or we can recognize the truth and choose to stand our ground and be witnesses for our Catholic faith. There will be division. That much Jesus promised. The questions is whether we'll be willing to pick up our cross when the time comes.

            In a few moments we will stand up to celebrate the Eucharist—the sacrament of our unity with each other, with Christ, and with that cloud of witnesses that St. Paul mentions—that cloud of witnesses that takes part in the same heavenly banquet with us. When we leave this Eucharist today and go about our lives, what will that great cloud of witnesses witness of us?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fatima Exposition and Benediction—Aug. 13

This homily was delivered at an exposition and benediction on what would have been the anniversary of the fourth apparition at Fatima. However, because the children were taken into custody on that day, they were unable to attend to the Blessed Mother until Aug. 19.

Matthew 28:16–20

Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew is that final passage that is known as the Great Commission. This is Christ's sending of the Apostles out to evangelize—to spread the good news. When we look at this passage, we see a number of important directives. First is to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We recognize in this statement the foundation of the sacraments of initiation. But it is also our call to evangelization—go out and make disciples of all nations.
            How does this passage, then, relate to the apparitions of Our Lady to Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco? Well, for the very simple reason that their mission was the same as the Great Commission. The Blessed Mother's message was for them to make disciples, to help convert the world through the intercession of Her Immaculate Heart.
            Evangelization always has two core elements, the first one being that the evangelized need to understand their condition. They need to understand their need for salvation. Perhaps the world of Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco was ripe for such a message. World War I was raging. The Russian revolution was in full swing. The civil wars in Spain and the various secularist movements in Europe were pushing the Church to the peripheries. Perhaps the people could see clearly their need. But in their time as in ours, it is far too easy for people to just keep moving and to ignore the structures of society crashing down around them. In our own time, most people don't even recognize that something is missing from their lives. So part of the message of evangelization is to get those who need to be evangelized to wake up.
            The second part of evangelization, once people recognize their utter need, is to let them know that there is an answer. In that time, the Blessed Mother beckoned all to find refuge in her Immaculate Heart, but Our Lady's ultimate aim is always to draw people to her Son. And the Son is the answer. He is why we call the message euangelion—the good news. The good news is that there is a way out of misery, a way out of the calamity of original sin, and a way back into the embrace of our Lord.

            That was the mission of Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco. That, too, is our mission—the Great commission. Let us begin by consecrating ourselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and then let us take up what Padre Pio called his weapon—the Holy Rosary—and pray for the salvation of the world.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Loving the Other—Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

Deut. 30:10–14; Col. 1:15–20; Luke 10:25–37

            Who is your neighbor? Who do you think of as neighbor? Is it the people in the houses closest to you? The people down the street on the corner? The people in a 10 block radius? Clearly Jesus thinks the term neighbor applies in a much more broad sense than how we usually use it.
            I admit to feeling a twinge of guilt when I hear this parable. I can name maybe three of my close neighbors. That seems so unlike how things were when I grew up. Back when I was in sixth grade, I could name nearly every family on our street. I grew up watching Fred Rogers singing his opening song inviting the viewer to be his neighbor. But we don't seem to live in a world that believes in Mr. Roger's neighborhood anymore. Maybe we never did. But certainly, we have it infinitely better than the world of the first century, where casual barbarism, as I've heard one scholar put it, ruled the day.
            The setting for Jesus' parable in this gospel reading today underscores that fact. A man coming down from Jerusalem is waylaid, beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road to Jericho—a notoriously dangerous stretch of road during that time. Even in modern times this has been the case, as this road was the supply line and route to Jerusalem from the coast during the Israeli war of independence, and the road is still littered with the wrecks of those vehicles ambushed during that time. Anyway, Jesus tells us first that a priest walks down the same road, and seeing the man left for dead, he crosses to the other side to continue his journey. Then a Levite does the same. The commentaries often make the case that the priest and Levite are on their way to Jerusalem to serve in the temple and that they are trying to avoid the ritual impurity they'd incur by touching a dead body, rendering them unable to fulfill their service. However, as I read the passage, I noticed that they were coming down the road from Jerusalem, not going up. And if you know anything about going to Jerusalem, you always go up to it. Even today, for a Jewish person to go to Jerusalem is to make aliya—to go up to Jerusalem. So the priest and Levite are returning from Jerusalem, and hence, not in jeopardy of missing their term of service.
            Before I actually put all that together, I heard a great reflection on this parable from Dr. Brant Pitre, and he confirmed my suspicion. He also pointed out that one mitzvah or commandment for a pious Jew was the obligation to bury the dead. So what Jesus is highlighting here is not the conflict between one commandment and another, but of simple neglect to perform what one knows is just to anyone, friend or enemy, neighbor or stranger.
            So who is our neighbor? That's what the scribe asks. Jews of the first century had varying opinions. Leviticus 19:17-18 says to love your neighbor as yourself, as the scribe rightly notes. Some interpretations only included other Jews as neighbors, but Leviticus 19:33-34 says that one must also love the stranger in your midst as yourself. If this is the case, the stranger is treated as a neighbor. So Jesus is not teaching anything that the Torah didn't already teach. He's simply pointing out to the scribe, who should know better, the truth of the matter. Your neighbor is not just the one like you but may well be one who is quite different and might even hold contrary values to you—in short, your enemy. And Jews and Samaritans of the time were, in fact, bitter enemies.
            But what the parable demonstrates is that mercy is not some lofty concept that we have to struggle to grasp. It's right there in our hearts. We all know what mercy looks like. The scribe recognized it in the actions of the Samaritan easily enough. In our first reading from Deuteronomy 30, Moses makes note as well: "It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?' Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?' No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it."
            In Catholic moral tradition, we have a term for this idea that morality resides in our hearts: natural law. It's the foundation of Catholic moral teaching. It's the reason why the Ten Commandments looks so much like the moral codes of other ancient civilizations. We know what's right in many circumstances, but for whatever reason, like the priest and Levite, we choose not to do it.
            That's what it comes down to—a matter of choice, a matter of the will. And that brings me back to the gospel reading again. Jesus has pretty much schooled the scribe on the meaning of the second greatest commandment to love neighbor as self, but buried in there as well is a lesson about the first commandment—the one that comes to us from Deuteronomy 6:5, a most cherished passage from Hebrew scripture called the Shema: Sh-ma, Yisrael. A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Now Luke and the other gospels vary slightly from the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy. In Luke, the scribe says, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being (or soul, which is perhaps a better translation), with all your strength, and with all your mind." Yes, Jesus adds, "mind" to this passage. I won't get into the technicalities of scriptural redaction here, but suffice it to say that the word mind doesn't appear in the Hebrew. But its presence here is important from a Catholic perspective.
            You see, love is not merely an emotion. It's not just that warm feeling we get in our core when we really desire or prefer one thing over another. It's not merely a heightened state of spiritual awareness of something's importance and value. It's not just an internal experience. As DC Talk used to sing, love is a verb. The word love is used in scripture almost exclusively as a verb. So love is an act of the will.
            And an act of the will is an act that one chooses with the mind fully engaged. Your feelings are all well and good, but if you don't make an act of the will to do something, your feelings are inert. They go nowhere and accomplish nothing.
            In the context of the parable, this is important. To pious Jews, the mitzvot or commandments of the law are not done simply to check boxes off of a form or for external adherence to a code. You perform the commandments as an act of love toward God. And to act, you must engage the will. But to refuse to act, you must also engage the will. So priest and Levite in the story of the good Samaritan choose not to perform an act of love to God, while the Samaritan chooses to perform this act of love by loving his neighbor.
            In a way, the Pharisees get sort of a bum rap in much of our scripture because the whole point of the law for them was to show their love for God in their daily lives. And what Jesus is really calling out here is not those who adhere to the law in letter and spirit, but those who choose not to follow the law when no one is watching. In fact, the parable is about just that disconnect. You cannot show love for God if your love stops at your neighbor's doorstep. You cannot show love for God if it refuses the mercy that justice requires. Love of neighbor is itself an act of love for God.
            The greatest act of love that we know is the act of mercy that Jesus performed up there and in his offering, in which we will take part in a few moments. And mercy often requires us to take up the cross and follow our savior. We are passing through what seems to be a horrendous time of hatred and senseless violence, of partisan rancor, of disillusionment. And instead of trying to find solutions, too many of us are simply content with pointing fingers in the other direction. Well, that's not working. As Dr. King wrote in his book Strength to Love in another time of unrest and rancor, "Darkness cannot drive our darkness. Only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that."
            So will we embrace mercy and cross the road? Will we allow our love to pass over the doorstep of our neighbor and embrace the other? Will we let our own flickering flame dispel some of the darkness in this difficult time?

            I pray that God will have mercy on us, and that we will have mercy on each other.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

God doesn't want you to be happy—Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

2 Samuel 12:7–10, 13; Galatians 2:16, 19–21; Luke 7:36–8:3

God doesn't want you to be happy.

God doesn't want you to be prosperous.

God doesn't want you to be successful.

God doesn't want you to "be nice" to others.

            These are not by any means bad things, mind you, but God doesn't want them for you, at least not as ends in themselves. These are not the goals of a Christian life. God's plan is much bigger than this.
            Yet many American Christians believe that this is what Christianity is about: being nice to one another so that God will be nice to them and help them be happy. In many Christian circles, these are the aims. We live a life of prosperity, happiness, and success, and if we're "nice" to others (that is, if we're not judgmental and cranky), those are all signs that we're a good person and are going to Heaven. And God's role in this schema is to help us be happy and to answer our prayers for prosperity.
            This distortion of Christianity, this heresy, is what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton refer to as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is the faith of most Americans who claim to be Christian or who just claim to believe in God. God is reduced from the Lord of All Creation worthy of our absolute love and devotion to a genie who pops up whenever we rub His bottle the right way and say the right incantation. And His main job is to help us be happy and then convey us to heaven.
            But that's not the faith of the Church, and that's not how our God operates. Christ himself sets out for His disciples what they can expect in this life: poverty, persecution, and the cross. And actually there are very good reasons for this, because we human beings tend to get caught up in our own delusions about ourselves and forget the gratitude we owe to God. Prosperity numbs us to our own shortcomings, to our need for redemption and forgiveness.
            In the reading from 2 Samuel, Nathan condemns David for having committed adultery with Bathsheba and then covering it up by bringing about her husband Uriah's death. Now, notably, Nathan doesn't dwell in this passage on the objective sinfulness of the actions, which is obvious enough. Instead, he points out all that the Lord has done for David up to this point. He brought him out of an obscure life as a shepherd and made him king of Israel. He has given David victory over all of his foes. He has made him prosperous.
            Surely David praises the Lord and writes these Psalms to him, but he's also out for all he can get. He takes the wives and concubines of Saul and many more. He takes Saul's palaces and no doubt adds to them. He has everything he could possibly want, certainly far more than he needs. Yet he has to go even further and take what doesn't belong to him.
            That's the problem with the prosperity gospel and with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. We never recognize when we have enough, and we justify everything based on what we think we lack. Our moral reason becomes an after-the-fact rationalization of what we've done rather than a critical process of evaluating our immediate life choices. Our ability to discern the difference between I want and I need is destroyed. What belongs to the other becomes our need. That is the very essence of what it means to covet.
            Fr. Damien Ference posted a great article on the Word of Fire blog this week about how celibates often idealize married life and the married vocation. Based on some of Fr. Jerry's comments, I don't think he experiences this dilemma, but apparently other priests do. And of course, people in married vocations sometimes also idealize the celibate vocations. Fr. Ference shared some of his notions with his pastor prior to his ordination. His pastor responded, "Kid, the grass is brown on both sides."
            What Fr. Ference came to realize was, as he put it, that "whatever vocation you are called to, the cross is there, " and that "the door to salvation is the cross." The celibate priest or religious in loneliness might imagine having a life partner with whom to share their life experience.
            If only.
            The husband might be thinking, "If only I were a priest, I wouldn't have to hold anyone's purse at the mall."
            The wife with children might be thinking, as I suspect many of you are this week, "If only I were a nun, I might not have to hear the words 'I'm bored' every 20 minutes all          summer         long."
            If only.
            This is our constant temptation, our constant trap. We succumb to it just as our original parents succumbed: if only we knew good from evil; if only we were like God.
            If only.
            If only we were content with the blessings we have. Now there's a path to joy right there. But our abundance becomes a blindness in us of our blessedness. The Gospel reading is a case in point. The Pharisee invites Jesus to dine with him. No doubt, given that he allows all kinds of people, including the sinful woman, into his banquet, he clearly has more than he needs, so much so that his dinner parties are public events. But he assumes that his prosperity is a sign that he is holier, cleaner, more righteous than others. He uses the metric of his own imagined righteousness to judge the sinful woman.
            But Jesus measures by a different standard. The Pharisee doesn't think of himself as dependent on God or beholden in any way. He's righteous! He deserves the fruits of his success.
            But the sinful woman recognizes her utter dependence. And mind you, the sinful woman was by no means a poor woman. She has just anointed Jesus' feet with a costly ointment or nard—the Greek word is actually the same word we use for myhhr. Where else have we heard of myhhr in the gospel accounts? From the gifts of the three wise men. So this sinful woman certainly wasn't poor in material wealth...
            But she was poor in spirit. She recognized her need for God, for his mercy, and for his grace—something the Pharisee did not recognize. And you can't ask for forgiveness when you don't know you need it. Her debt is great, and she knows it. Because she is forgiven much, she loves much.
            Let's circle back to this idea I mentioned earlier: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, this notion that you just have to be a nice person. You sometimes hear people put it this way: "I'm a nice person! I haven't killed anyone."
            That's not really setting the bar very high, is it?
            The problem is that we have forgotten what constitutes sin. Certainly it includes murder right up there at the top, but it also includes not honoring father and mother, coveting what belongs to others, and not giving proper respect and worship to God. You see, the 10 commandments are not about being nice. They are about being just, about being loving, about being merciful—as it turns out, merciful just as God is merciful. And sometimes justice, love, and mercy do not coincide with being simply "nice."
            Imagine that you wake up at 1:00 AM, and you notice that the corner exterior of your neighbor's house is burning. The fire is already too big for you to put out, and the fire fighters will take at least 10 minutes to respond. Someone needs to wake the neighbors! But wait! It's 1:00 AM. You'd be waking them from a dead sleep. That wouldn't be nice.
            Now, that illustration is farfetched, I admit. But how often do we use being nice as a reason not to tell someone the truth in love? We have a country that at times seems to be burning down around us. I like to think it's more those other states on the coasts, but let's face it: we have our problems here in Idaho as well. We're so worried about not being perceived as "nice" that we won't point out simple truths, simple facts: the fact that families and society grow when men and women marry permanently and have children; the fact that identity is not something we invent or choose ourselves but something endowed to us by God; the fact that paying a CEO a salary in the millions while their employees live on food stamps might just be an injustice; and that intentionally taking an innocent life in utero, by weapons of mass destruction, or by euthanasia are all crimes that cry out to God for justice.

            God doesn't want us to be nice. He doesn't want us to be happy. He wants us to be holy, and he offers us the way of the Cross because the cross is the only means of salvation. The door to salvation is the cross.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Sunday: The Ascension of the Lord

Acts 1:1–11; Ephesians 1:17–23; Luke 24:46–53
If you've read the four gospels—and I surely hope you have—you know that each of the gospel writers takes a unique perspective and recalls certain details differently than the others. The first three, the synoptic gospels, are pretty similar to each other but have some small variations. That's why they are called the synoptic gospels, since synoptic means "seeing with the same eyes." The Gospel of John, of course, varies dramatically from the first three. It reminds me of a funny image I've seen on Facebook. Jesus is sitting with the Apostles, and he says to them, "Guys, I need you to listen very carefully. I don't want four different versions of this going around." Yet, that's what we have—four versions of essentially the same story but each with unique perspectives.
This weekend, as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension, we have two readings by the same author that not only don't match each other but vary from the other gospel accounts.
Luke's writings relay the event of Jesus' ascension. St. Luke is the only one of the evangelists who goes into detail here. Note that in the Gospel of Luke he tells them to stay in Jerusalem until the spirit comes to them. Jesus seems to ascend on the same day that he appears to them, after he has opened their minds to the scripture. In Acts, which was also written by Luke, Jesus stays with them for 40 days and teaches them, and only then ascends.
Matthew says that Jesus is going before them to Galilee and makes no mention of the Ascension. Mark makes a general reference to Jesus being taken up but doesn't mention where or when. John mentions all of them going to Galilee but doesn't mention the Ascension. Why such variation between the accounts on this point?
As I mentioned, Luke and Acts were written by the same evangelist. Very few scholars disagree on that point. Both address their writings to this figure Theophilus, which means "God-lover." Some speculate that this might be a generic reference to all the Christian faithful, except that in the Gospel of Luke, the evangelist says, "most excellent Theophilus," which suggests that it is someone whom the author knows and esteems. But one thing that is very clear from Sacred Tradition is this: Luke is the only one who is getting his whole story from one of the people who did not follow Christ in his life time. He is the companion of St. Paul, who came to be an apostle after Christ's death and ascension.
It may be possible that Luke was missing a small part of the Gospel tradition simply because his primary source was someone who was not a primary witness. And it may also be the case that he had a different audience and simply focused on different elements, perhaps some that the other evangelists did not think were necessary for their audiences. That's something for the biblical scholars to debate. For our purposes, we just have to accept that we have four different witnesses, and like all eye witness testimony, different perspectives result in slightly different views.
But we do have this one event, the Ascension, that connects Luke and Acts. Where Luke ends, Acts begins. It is the hinge on which the door to the early Church swings open. Jesus notes that He must return to the Father so that the Father will send the advocate, the Holy Spirit, to remind the Apostles of all that had been revealed to them. Shortly after the Ascension, the Apostles return to the Upper Room, where the Holy Spirit descends on them at the Feast of Pentecost, an event commonly referred to as the birth of the Church. That event is St. Luke's primary concern. In Acts, he is providing a history of the early Church. The style of writing, with this prologue to a particular audience, is precisely the sort of thing that a history of that time would include. But it's a history with a particular aim—to communicate the truth about Jesus and to share His gospel.
So what does the Ascension mean for us as 21st century Christians? What did it mean for the 1st century Christians? Well, we can understand it a bit better if we think about how Jesus turns everything upside down. He reverses the human experience in order to invite us to enter into it, and then we experience it in the opposite order. Let me use a few examples to explain what I mean. First, He exists eternally, then becomes incarnate, while we become incarnate naturally to be born again into eternity. He is baptized to sanctify the waters of the earth, whereas we are sanctified by them. Even his method of speaking shows these same reversals: in the Beatitudes, where he tells us that the poor and persecuted are blessed; in the Gospel of Luke, he says that those who try to gain their lives will lose them, but those who lose or let go of their lives will save them. He speaks in these paradoxes with such frequency that the Gospel of Mark suggests that the Apostles are actually afraid to question Him. This is what scripture means when it says that he will be a sign of contradiction. He will force us to reexamine just what it means to live a good life.
The Ascension is yet another of these reversals. He has come down from heaven to assume a human nature—a human form. He's still Divine and all-powerful, but he takes on the form of weakness—of the temporary and passing flesh. And then, God the Son does something no one would expect from a Divine being: He allows Himself to be killed brutally. But in this single person both human and Divine, He has done something truly miraculous: He has joined human nature to the Divine, so that the human nature now overcomes death, and He Himself rises from the dead. Of all the reversals, this is the most stunning we can imagine.
But Jesus is not the God of average expectations. He's the God of mind-blowing outcomes. He's not finished with His work of redemption. The last step is His Ascension. He returns to where He was before, but there's a difference. He returns with His resurrected human nature—a transformed human nature, a deified human nature—one joined to the very life of God. And again, with these reversals in mind, the baptized ascend at death and then are later resurrected. His resurrection is a promise, and the Ascension is its fulfillment. Our ascension begins at baptism and ends with the resurrection. We are experiencing our own salvation in reverse. We are already saved. We just need to realize it... and act like it. If we did that, the world would be transformed.
St. Athanasius, whose feast day was last Monday, famously wrote that "the Son of God became man so that we might become God." Many of the early Church Fathers from Irenaeus to Clement of Alexandria to Augustine wrote similar statements. But what does this mean? We don't actually become God. That job is taken for ever and ever, amen. What it means, though, is that we are brought into eternal participation in the Divine life of God. We are together with Him and seeing Him directly and understanding Him without our earthly limitations in the way. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12: "We see in a mirror darkly, but then, face to face." John wrote in chapter 3 of his first letter, "[W]e shall be like him, for we shall see Him as He is." All of the obstructions will be gone, and we will comprehend, as well as human nature can, the mind of God.
That is what the Ascension means for us. He will bring our bodies back to life, but more importantly, He will bring us into His presence forever, and there can be nothing greater than that.

Today, we also remember our mothers. Coincidentally, we all have them. But let's first recognize the greatest of our mothers, the Blessed Mother, whose image all of you as women and girls carry. Her experience is the experience of each of you: whether it's in her life without a child before the Annunciation, or in the raising of a child, or in loss and grief. You all share in her experience, and we are blessed by you. Happy Mothers' Day.