Thursday, April 17, 2014

What’s Good About It?

A Jewish friend of mine asked if I could tell her what’s “good” about Good Friday.  Jesus died on Good Friday, what’s so good about that?  On the surface, that’s not good, especially since Jesus was betrayed by a friend, denied three times by his closest collaborator and abandoned by his followers, all in that one day.  So what’s good about it?  Well, Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate gift of self-sacrificing love.  Jesus freely accepted death on a cross to reconcile humanity and divinity, to free humanity from death by carrying humanity through death into eternal life.  Jesus was willing to undergo death himself so that we could live forever in the peace of God’s Kingdom.  In my opinion, that’s about as good as it gets.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

You’re One of a Kind!

Pilgrim:  “Francis, you’re one of a kind!"

Pope Francis:  “So are you.  You're one of a kind, too!  There are no two people like you."

That brief exchange in Saint Peter’s Square this morning says it all.  It expresses in personal terms the principle that underlies God’s relationship with us and our relationships with each other – the dignity of the human person.  Because, we believe, we’re created in the image and likeness of God, we all have a dignity bestowed on us by God that can never be taken away.  Respecting that dignity is our way of honoring the source of our dignity and thanking God for that gift. 

The Pilgrim and the Pope are acknowledging each other as special in the eyes of God and, therefore, in each other’s eyes.  They’re respecting each other’s dignity.  But they’re also acknowledging each other’s uniqueness.  While we all have dignity, each of us also has unique gifts bestowed on us by God.  We are, in fact, one of a kind.  In return for these gifts, God asks us to use them for the benefit of others – to promote the dignity of others.  And there’s no shortage of opportunities to do so.  If you can knit, you can make hats to warm the heads of cancer patients; if you can make balloon animals, you can put a smile on a child's face; if you’re a great hugger, you can warm the heart of someone who is sad.  The list is endless. 

The exchange between the Pope and the Pilgrim made me think of all of the people who share their gifts with me.  Each person helps me in his or her own unique and special way.  I'm grateful to God for putting them in my life, and I'm grateful to them for ministering to me.  So I say to each of you, “Thank you!  You’re one of a kind!”

Click here to see a video of the Pope’s exchange with the Pilgrim.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Death is Done - Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 6, 2014

          Death was no stranger to John Donne.  You remember him; he was the English poet, lawyer and cleric whose poems you probably read in high school or college.  What you may not know is that John Donne’s father died when he was only four years old; that two of his sisters died before he was ten; that six of his twelve children died before reaching adulthood; and that his wife died in childbirth.  As I said, death was no stranger to John Donne, but death didn't conquer him, and it didn't rule his life.  He wasn't afraid of death because he believed that death is done.  And that’s the point of today’s Gospel.

          In today’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed as the resurrection and the life, the one who fulfills the prophesy of Ezekiel in our first reading:  “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.”  Fulfilling a prophesy is a pretty big deal, so the raising of Lazarus can’t simply be a private favor that Jesus grants to his close friends.  It’s much more than that.  It’s “Jesus’ culminating self-revelation on the eve of the passion.”[1]  It’s Jesus’ revelation that he is the resurrection and the life.  Up to this point, Martha and Mary and many others certainly knew that Jesus was special.  He could heal the sick – all agree that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus would still be alive.  But they never imagined that Jesus would actually bring Lazarus back to life.  They never imagined it, because they didn't understand who Jesus really is.  They had no clue that Jesus was the one sent by God to raise the dead to new life.  They had no idea that Jesus could conquer death – that through Jesus, death is done. 

          But how can we say that “death is done,” when we still die?  Well, let’s take a closer look at our Gospel.  At the beginning of the passage, Jesus says that “[t]his illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  When we speak of the glory of God, we have to understand that God isn't on an ego trip; he doesn't need our accolades.  God is glorified when he gives his own life to his people.[2]  God communicates his life to us through Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life – the one who carries us through death into God’s eternal life.  By taking human form in the person of Jesus, God brought eternal life into this world.  So eternal life isn't something we’re waiting for.  It begins now.  And if eternal life begins now, then death is done.  Death is no longer an end; it’s a transition that serves God’s purpose of bringing all believers into the fullness of God’s eternal life.

          John Donne spoke eloquently of how death serves God’s purpose in the last sermon he gave just a few days before he died.  Donne explained that the Trinitarian God delivers us from death, by death and in death.[3]  [You knew you were getting an English lesson as soon as I mentioned a poet at the beginning of this homily, so brush off your prepositions].   Donne explained that God the Father, the God of power, rescues us from death by sharing his eternal life with us.   Sharing in God’s eternal life means that we will never be separated from God, even by death. 

God the Son, the God of mercy, rescued us by death when he entered death himself.   “The love that troubles Jesus and makes him weep at the loss of Lazarus also makes him go after Lazarus and free him from the imprisonment of death.”[4]  Just the same, Jesus’ love for all humanity makes him go after us to free us from the imprisonment of death.  By accepting death, Jesus brought God’s eternal life into the realm of death to free us from it, and so we were saved from death, by his death.  Finally, John Donne preached that God the Spirit, the God of comfort, rescues us in death by giving us the consolation at the hour of our death that we are loved infinitely by God and that death is not our end; it’s our entrance into the fullness of God’s eternal life.  That “[c]onsolation ultimately comes from realizing that love is stronger than death.”[5]  So God fulfills his purpose of bringing all believers into the fullness of eternal life by saving us from death, by death and in death.  I think we've run out of prepositions, so death must be done.  But I’m not.  

The challenge for us, then, is believing.  A lot of people live their lives under the philosophy that when we’re dead, we’re done.  They spend their lives counting the days, waiting for death, fearing death.  What a sad way to live.  But that’s not the Christian philosophy.  “Christians are invited and enabled to integrate the ever-ambiguous experience of death, that of loved ones and [our] own, into [our] faith vision.”[6]  That faith vision calls us to believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life; to believe that God has rescued us from death, by death and in death; to believe that through the gift of eternal life, death is done.  Believing opens our hearts to the consolation of the Spirit that carries us through our mourning and our weeping, through our pain and our  suffering, and through death into eternal life.  Believing is a wonderful way to live.

John Donne believed, so even though he mourned the deaths of his loved ones, he wasn't afraid of death; it didn't rule his life.  In fact, one of his most famous poems confronts death head on.  It’s formally known as Sonnet X of the Holy Sonnets, but it’s more popularly known by the words of its opening and closing lines:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me. . . .
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

[1] Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003) at 174.
[2] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Year A (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2006) at 143.
[3] John Donne, “Death’s Duel,” (March 1631), Christian Classics Ethereal Library,
[4] Shea at 153.
[5] Id.
[6] Schneiders at 183.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Dig a Little Deeper

I was just preparing for tomorrow’s Mass, minding my own business, when a song got stuck in my head:  Dig a Little Deeper in the Well, by the Oak Ridge Boys.  I haven’t heard that song for years, and now it’s playing over, and over again in my mind.  I don’t expect the choir to be singing it at Mass tomorrow, but I’m afraid it’ll still be bouncing off the walls of my cabeza.  So if you go to the noon Mass tomorrow, beware – instead of Holy, Holy, Holy, you might hear me singing “Dig, Dig Dig . . . .”
So how did preparing for Mass make me think of the Oak Ridge Boys.  Well (so to speak), Sunday’s Gospel reading tells the story of the Woman at the Well.   You remember her, she’s the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well and learns a lesson about the difference between drinking water and drinking of the living water.  My mind is pretty simple, so when I read a story about a well, I think, “Dig a little deeper in the well, boys, you gotta dig a little deeper in the well.  If you want a good and cool drink of water you gotta dig a little deeper in the well.”  I really hope I just launched that tune in your head for the rest of the day!   

The basic point of the Gospel, or at least one of them, is that Jesus is the living water – if we drink of the living water, we’ll never thirst.  In other words, every human need, every human desire is ultimately fulfilled by God, not by earthly goods.  We can drink all of the well water we want, but if we don’t drink of the living water, we’ll never be truly satisfied.  

This isn't the easiest message to absorb.  How can spiritual fulfillment take precedence over physical fulfillment?  We’re constantly experiencing physical needs (hunger, thirst), and we know that if we don’t satisfy them, we’ll die.  Well, that is the point.  We’re all going to die someday.  Food and water (and Ghirardelli dark chocolate mint candy) may sustain us in this life, but they won’t do us any good in the next life (I could make an argument that Ghirardelli candy has eternal value, but that’s a subject for a future blog posting). 

The trick to placing our spiritual needs ahead of our physical needs is remembering that life is so much more than just this life.  God promised an eternal life of perfect love for all who have faith in him.  Drinking of the living water, immersing ourselves in God and dedicating our lives to loving God by loving our neighbor, both sustains us in this life and carries us happily into the next.  Living each day with the song of eternal life playing over and over again in our hearts and minds offers a deeper, richer, more fulfilling life than one spent worrying about when we’re going to die.  Eternal life is the gift of the living water.  Finding the living water requires faith.  And if you’re having trouble finding it, you gotta dig a little deeper.

If this post wasn't enough to get the song stuck in your head, follow this link to hear “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well,” by the Oak Ridge Boys.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Pray Without Ceasing

                Earlier this week, I was asked to speak with a little girl who had been offering her daily prayers for a young woman who was suffering from cancer.  It seemed that the young woman was not doing well, and the girl’s parents were concerned that she would lose faith in the power of prayer if the young woman died.  Explaining the benefits of prayer in seemingly hopeless situations is tough enough, but explaining it to a child is even more difficult.  Kids go right to the toughest questions:  “Didn't you say that God is all powerful?”  “Doesn't God love us?”  “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?”  I do my best to answer the questions, (“yes, “absolutely,” and “I don’t know),” but my conversations about prayer always seem to end the same way:  “Keep praying.  Pray without ceasing.”

                Prayer is the elevation of the mind and heart to God.  In prayer we place our deepest longings, our profound gratitude, our darkest fears and our greatest hopes before God, trusting that in his divine providence, “All will be well, and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.”[1]  But sometimes all isn't well, or at least it doesn't seem to be.  We don’t always get what we want in prayer, and sometimes we get exactly what we didn't want.  And yet, Saint Paul still tells us to “pray without ceasing.”  (1 Thess. 5:17)  The cynic in me wonders if this advice just increases the odds of getting what I want, but I know better.

                This challenge of prayer is one of perspective.  We may think we know what’s best for us or for others, but we may not.  We’re simply creatures living within our creator’s vast plan to make all well.  From our lowly vantage point, we can’t see the whole plan.  Think of it this way:  when you search for a destination on Google Maps, you get a pin-point location on a zoomed in map.  That’s our perspective.  If you want to know how to get there or what it’s near, you have to zoom out.  That’s God’s perspective.  God sees the whole picture – the whole plan – and knows the best way to get to the final destination.  God’s in the driver’s seat.  We have to sit back and trust that God loves us; that he always wants what's best for us. 

                If it’s all in God’s hands, why bother praying?  Well, prayer is an act of love.  Saint Paul might just as well have said, “Love without ceasing.”  Praying to God is loving God.  Praying for others is loving our neighbors.  Loving our neighbors is wanting what’s best for them, even when it may not be what we want or what we think is best for them.  Every time we pray for people, God receives our prayer as a selfless act of love.  Sometimes the specific words of our petitions may not fit perfectly into God’s plan, but God receives each prayer as a building block in his Kingdom of Love.  And the opportunity to live in the peace, and the happiness and the love of God’s Kingdom is the best outcome we could ever pray for.

                A little while ago, I learned that the young woman I mentioned at the beginning of this post has died.  I had been praying for her recovery.  On the surface, I didn't get what I prayed for.  Part of me wants to pack up my beads and leave the pray-ground.  But I know deep down that I really wanted something more for her:  I wanted whatever was best for her, from God’s perspective.  And because I truly believe that all is well, that that young woman now lives perfectly happy and healthy in the peace of God’s loving embrace, I know that my prayer was answered.  So I’ll keep on praying.  I’ll pray for that young woman’s family and friends; I’ll pray for my wife, my daughters, my family and friends; I’ll pray for my aunt and my friends who have cancer; I’ll pray for all who are hurting; I’ll pray for my friends’ new baby boy; I’ll pray for life; I’ll pray for peace.  I’ll pray without ceasing.

[1] Julian of Norwich, The Showings.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

No Deal! Deal? - Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, March 9, 2014

Temptation of Christ by Vasily Surikov
            Faust; The Devil and Daniel Webster; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Damn Yankees; and my favorite:  The Devil Went Down to Georgia – making a deal with the devil has been a popular theme in the arts for hundreds of years.  The story line is basically the same.  Some poor soul wants something beyond his reach.  Whether it’s the height of happiness; perpetual youth; a Major League Pennant; or a shiny fiddle made of gold, the protagonist becomes so desperate for the object of his desire that he willingly sells his soul to the devil to get it.  Sometimes the devil wins; sometimes he’s outsmarted – but there’s one common thread in every story:  someone succumbs to temptation and makes a deal with the devil.  Today’s Gospel tells a different story – Jesus stands up to temptation and tells Satan, “No deal!”  Through his example and the disciplines of Lent, we can too.
          It may be comforting to know that even Jesus faced temptation from the devil.  In today’s Gospel, Satan comes to him when he’s most vulnerable – when he’s hungry and weak from 40 days of fasting.   And in his vulnerability, Satan tries to convince Jesus to be something other than what he really is – the Beloved Son of God.  He tries to “seduce Jesus into thinking that what it means to be God’s Son is to be physically full, physically safe, and politically powerful.”[1]  As we heard in our first reading, that’s exactly what Satan did to Adam and Eve – he convinced them that by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, by disobeying God, they could be like God.  Well, they couldn't, and we all know how that worked out for them.  They fell prey to temptation, they made a deal with the devil and were driven from Paradise forever.  Jesus, on the other hand, knows who he really is; he knows what it means to be the Beloved Son of God, and he accepts that it doesn't always mean that he’ll have an abundance of food, that he’ll be safe from physical harm, or that he’ll be politically powerful.  So he stands strong against the temptation to sin and refuses to deal with the devil.

          Sin is a strange thing.  In fact, it’s so strange that the Church refers to it as a mystery to “acknowledge its irrational character and its intoxicating allure, even when we rationally know better.  Sin draws us away from God and directs us to nothingness.”[2]  But we sin anyway.  Why is that?  Well, we’re afraid.  We’re afraid that we won’t have enough to survive, so we hoard our belongings.  We’re afraid that we’ll be hurt, so we lash out at others under the guise that a good offense is the best defense.  We’re afraid that the good things of life will never come to us, so we take advantage of others in order to get them.  The strangest thing about sin is that every time we succumb to temptation, we lose an opportunity to experience the only joy that will ever fulfill us – the self-giving love of God.  We miss the opportunity to love God by loving our neighbor, by sharing what we have; by treating people with compassion; and by respecting human dignity.  Through sin, we lose the opportunity to be who we really are:  Beloved Sons and Daughters of God.

          Just like Jesus, the devil approaches us when we’re most vulnerable – when we’re sick, when we’re lonely, when we’re afraid.  In our weakest moments, we can count on Satan to try his level best to tempt us.  And he’s good at it too.  “The devil doesn't come dressed in a red cape and pointy horns.  He comes as everything [we've] ever wished for”[3] that’s beyond our grasp.  The most dangerous temptations to sin appeal to our “fantasy selves,” to the person we think we want to be, not to the person we really are.  Our vulnerability lies in not understanding what it means to be a Beloved Son or Daughter of God, in not believing with every ounce of our conviction that God loves us and that, because of God’s love, all will be well in the end no matter what this world throws at us.  “When we do not know who we are, we enter into temptation.  When we do know who we are, we can reach for the resources to resist it.”[4]  So the secret to avoiding the temptation to sin lies in knowing that we really are Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, in believing in God’s promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ, and in trusting that God never welches on a deal. 

          So what resources are available to us to resist temptation?  Well, how about the disciplines of Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving?  Let’s start with prayer.  “The best way to say no is to be in touch with a stronger yes.”[5]  That yes, of course, is God, and the best way to be in touch with God is through prayer.  In prayer we speak directly and intimately with God, sharing our hopes and our fears, our joys and our sorrows with him.  Through prayer, we hear God’s voice calling us to love and helping us discern between right and wrong.  With prayer, we bear the mantle of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, a shield that can deflect Satan’s strongest temptations.  

          Fasting – I hate fasting, which, of course, suggests that I need it most of all.  Fasting helps us empty ourselves of what we think we need so that we can be who we really are:  Beloved Sons and Daughters of God who are “filled to the brim with divine life.”[6]  When we’re full of divine life – God’s self-giving love – we can’t hold it in, and that leads us right to almsgiving.  There’s no surer way to love God than to love our neighbor, and Satan knows it.  Some of the most egregious sins we can commit involve harming or taking advantage of another person.  But when we love one another, when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, we love God and really tick off Satan.

So I've got a deal for you.  Together, this Lent, let's tick off Satan.  Let’s commit ourselves to tackle at least one temptation that Satan keeps throwing at us by dedicating ourselves to prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  What’s in it for us?  Well, we’ll ground ourselves in our true identity as Sons and Daughters of God; we’ll be filled to the brim with God’s self-giving love; and we’ll strengthen ourselves in our resolve to sin no more, so we can say to Satan in no uncertain terms, “No Deal!”  What do you think?  Deal?

[1] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers:  On Earth as It is in Heaven, Matthew, Year A (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2004) at 105.
[2] John W. Martens, “Away with Sin,” America, vol. 210, no. 7 (March 3, 2014) at 38.
[3] Tucker Max, Assholes Finish First (New York, Gallery Books, 2011).
[4] Shea at 107.
[5] Id.
[6] Father Robert Barron, “Lent Day 4 – Mother Teresa’s secret to Joy,” Lent Reflections with Father Robert Barron, March 8, 2014.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

It's All About You!

          One of the first rules of homiletics is to avoid using the word “you” in homilies as much as possible.  The reasons are pretty simple and maybe even obvious:  the word “you” can come across as accusatory; and Scripture speaks to everyone – preacher included – so the word “we” is preferred.  Well, it seems like someone forgot to tell Jesus about the first rule of homiletics; he uses the words “you” and “your” five times in the seven short sentences of today’s Gospel passage.  I guess that’s because today’s Gospel is all about you.

          There’s no escaping it; Jesus is talking to you in today’s Gospel.  In fact, for you grammar aficionados out there, the original ancient Greek text makes clear that Jesus is using the second person, plural form of the subjective and possessive pronouns in this passage.  For you normal people out there, that means he’s talking to you, all of you (including me).  Well, now that he has our attention, what’s he telling us?  [I’m sorry, I can’t help switching back to the first person – I feel naughty saying “you”].  Jesus is telling us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  He’s not telling us what we’re going to become or what we need to become.  He’s telling us what we already are – salt and light – because that’s what disciples are.

          In baptism, we became Disciples of Christ, and with baptism we take on a mission – we’re called to bring Christ to the nations by feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless and clothing the naked, just like our first reading from Isaiah tells us.  “Jesus’ followers are challenged to active engagement in their ‘good works.’  The goal of their works is that other people might come to praise God.”[1]

So why salt and light?  Well, as the Latin proverb goes, “Nothing is more useful than sun and salt.”[2]  Salt purifies; it preserves; it enhances flavor.  If you've ever been on a low sodium diet, or if you have an icy driveway, you know just how important salt is.  And light?  Light leads us through darkness; it calms our fears; it brings us life.  I don’t think I need to remind you how you felt during the Irene or Sandy blackouts?  So “[w]hen Jesus compares his followers to salt, he says that they improve the quality of human existence and preserve it from destruction.  When Jesus calls his disciples the light of the world, he says that our actions serve as a beacon of light in a dark world.”[3]  That may seem like a tall order, but we’re not alone.  We’re called as disciples to let our light shine to all, but we “do not generate the light any more than salt generates its own saltiness.” [4]  Our light is kindled by God, our salt is mined by God.  We’re called as disciples to use these gifts to bring people to the loving God who gave them to us.

Now that brings me back to you.  When I tap someone on the shoulder to join a ministry, the most common response I get is, “I can’t.”  It usually follows a litany of self-proclaimed weaknesses like “I’m not good at that;” “I have no talent;” or my personal favorite, “I’m not holy enough.”  To be honest, these excuses just don’t cut it.  As a great theologian once said, “To flee into invisibility is to deny the call”[5] of discipleship.  For better or for worse, “the material [that] God has found apt for knowing, loving and serving him is human nature:  blood, flesh, bone, salt, water, will, intellect.”[6]  It’s you!  And if you still can’t get over your weaknesses, take a look at Saint Paul.  “From the perspective of worldly standards, Paul’s mission should be a failure. . . .  He is plagued by illness, his appearance is unimpressive, his personal delivery is weak.”[7]  He talks about his weaknesses all the time, including in our second reading this morning from First Corinthians.  But his weaknesses don’t stop him from being what he truly is, what we all are – the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  St. Paul’s weaknesses don’t stop him because he lets God’s Spirit and power work through him and his weaknesses.  It’s the same for you.  It’s all about you.  Will you let God’s Spirit and power work through you and your weaknesses, or will you set your lamp under a bushel basket; will you let your salt become insipid?

In my experience, the people who say “I can’t” can’t see the good they do every day, the good that made me tap them on the shoulder in the first place.  I’ll bet that most of you here don’t give yourself credit for the positive impact you have on the world.  Think about it for a minute:
-         You feed the hungry with more than 5,000 food items and more than 3,000 full meals each year.  You are the salt of the earth;
-         You've sheltered the homeless by providing 24 Haitian families with homes of their own;  You are the light of the world;
-         You've clothed the naked with 24,778 diapers collected in just one month.  You are a city set on a hill (made out of diaper boxes, no doubt) ;
Please, please don’t hide your talents; share them.  Let your light shine before others so that you and they and we can give glory to God.

          Well, by my count, I've violated the no “you” policy 35 times in this homily, and there are a few more to come.  Please don’t write the Bishop.  I hope you don’t feel that I’m being accusatory – that’s not my intention or desire.  And I hope you don’t think that I’m excluding myself from the reach of today’s Gospel.  I definitely am not.  But if you think I’m speaking to you in today’s homily, well, actually, Jesus is.  You can’t escape it, because his Gospel is all about you.

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, “The Gospel of Matthew,” Sacra Pagina, vol. 1 (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2007) at 80.
[2]Nil sole et sale utilius.”
[3] Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew,” The Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament, Robert J. Karris, ed. (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1992) at 870.
[4] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994) at 182.
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, trans. (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2001) at 113.
[6] Caryll Houselander, “Accepting the Prophet.”
[7] Harrington, “Matthew,” at 870.