Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Good Messenger

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai
          The Japanese tell a story of an old man who lived in a beautiful home on top of a mountain.  Each day he took a walk in his garden and looked out at the sea below.  One day he noticed that the water was acting strangely – it appeared dark; it moved against the wind and drew away from the shore.  The old man knew exactly what that meant, and he knew that he had to warn his neighbors in the village along the shore.  He quickly grabbed a torch and set fire to his house.  When the villagers saw the flames, some said “Let’s climb the mountain to save our friend,” while others said, “He’s gone mad!  Why else would he set his house on fire?  Let him be.”  Well, the villagers who climbed the mountain to save their neighbor were themselves saved.  Those who remained in the village below perished in the tsunami that struck the shore.  That old man was a good messenger.  Today’s readings are teaching us how to be good messengers, too.

          In our first reading, Amos reveals himself as a reluctant prophet. He was perfectly happy living his life as a shepherd and dresser of sycamores (I’ll explain what that is after Mass), but when God’s call came, Amos left his happy life to take up the much more difficult life as God’s messenger.   In our Gospel passage, Jesus sends the apostles out two-by-two to bring his message to the people – to preach repentance, drive out demons and heal the sick.  These readings remind us of the waters of baptism when each one of us was commissioned as a prophet, as God’s messenger, and they teach us what it takes to be a good messenger:  We have to know the message; we have to live the message; and we have to love our neighbor.
        I think we can all agree that a good messenger has to know the message.  “When the apostles went out to preach, they did not create a message; they brought a message.  They didn’t tell people what they believed and what they considered probable; they told people what Jesus had told them.”[1]  So it’s our duty as messengers to understand Jesus’ message.  How many of us can say that we can explain our faith comfortably to our children, to our colleagues at work, or to a member of another faith?  We have to know and understand what Jesus said in order to deliver his message.  We need to immerse ourselves in scripture and Church teachings; we need to plunge head-first into faith formation programs; we need to ask questions; and we need to plumb the depths of every resource available to us to find the answers (like what a dresser of sycamores is).    

But knowing the Christian message is much more than simply understanding the words.  To know the Christian message, we have to know Jesus.  Jesus is God’s Word made flesh.  God’s Word isn’t relegated to dusty pages sitting on a shelf.  It’s alive and incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.  “It is the encounter with and dwelling with Jesus that creates disciples.  The apostles are able to represent Jesus because they know him and have lived with him.”[2]  We need to know him, too.  To know Jesus’ message, we have to develop a deep, personal relationship with him.  We need to speak openly and honestly with Jesus in prayer, casting our burdens before him and thanking him for saving our souls.  We need to fill ourselves with his divine love through the gift of the Eucharist.  We need to live as he lived.

Jesus’ message is meant to be lived.  It’s not a message sealed in a bottle that bobs aimlessly with the ebbs and flows of life.  It’s a tidal wave of faith, hope and love intended to flood the hearts of every person.  It’s a no-frills, take action kind of life.  In our Gospel “we see that the mark of the Christian disciple was to be utter simplicity, complete trust, and generosity.”[3]  It’s a great way to live because it’s a joy-filled life.  As Pope Francis Tweeted last year, “I cannot imagine a Christian who does not know how to smile.”[4]  We have every reason to smile.  And smiles are infectious.  So the best way to deliver Jesus’ message is to live that message – to live a joyful life anchored in faith, hope and love.  “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but by attraction.”[5]  Good messengers live Jesus’ message in such a way that it’s irresistible.

Finally, a good messenger has to love his neighbor.  Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that “to love is to will the good of another.”[6]  That’s why when we have a good thing, we want to share it with our loved ones.  The Christian message is such a good thing that it flows right through us; love compels us to share it.  But love also requires that we honor human dignity by respecting each person’s God-given free will.  “Speaking the truth by no means guarantees acceptance, for the truth will be uncomfortable for some.”[7]  We can’t force Christ’s message on anyone.  Even the most compelling messenger, Jesus himself, was rejected.  But he loves us all the same.  So “when we bring the Gospel it must be with a spirit of humility.”[8]  It must be with a spirit of love.  A good messenger loves his neighbor, even when he’s rejected by him.

          That old Japanese man was a good messenger.  He read the message of the sea and he understood it.  He lived that message by taking immediate action to share it with his neighbors, whom he loved to the point of self-sacrifice.  His message was received by some and rejected by others, but he was still a good messenger.   We’re all called by God to be good messengers.  Are we?

Readings:  Amos 7: 12-15; Psalm 85; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 7-13

[1] William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible:  Gospel of Mark (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) at 166.
[2] John W. Martens, “Where Do You Live?” America, vol. 213, no. 1 (July 6-13, 2015) at 45.
[3] Barclay at 166.
[4] Pope Francis, Twitter, January 30, 2014.
[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Nov. 24, 2013) at 14.
[6] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 26.4, corp. art.
[7] Donald E. Gowan, “Amos,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996) at 412.
[8] Martens at 27.

Monday, July 6, 2015


The Scream, by Edvard Munch
                For as long as I’ve been reading newspapers, I’ve checked my horoscope every day.  I don’t know anything about astrology – I won’t tell you that you’re behaving a certain way because you’re a Leo or a Pisces, and I won’t warn you not to marry a certain person because your signs are incompatible.  I don’t even believe that the stars under which we’re born can predict anything.  But I kind of like the idea of getting a short forecast of my future at the beginning of each day, whether accurate or not.  I just like reading my horoscope . . . well, until today.

                Here’s the horoscope that greeted me this morning:

Sagittarius (Nov. 22 – Dec. 21).  You’ll serve, you’ll entertain, you’ll comfort.  You can’t help but wonder when your turn will come – not today, so don’t hold your breath.

What in the world kind of horoscope is that?  It reminds of a line from Shrek the Musical when Shrek’s parents are sending him away at age seven:  “It’s a big, bright beautiful world, with happiness all around.  It’s peaches and cream and every dream comes true . . . but not for you.”[1]  There isn’t even a glimmer of hope in that horoscope – not even an inkling as to when my turn will come.  I immediately called my sister (a fellow Sagittarius), and we commiserated in our best Eeyore voices:  “Not today.”

                Complaints aside (for now), I admit that this horoscope gave me a good laugh.  I actually laughed out loud when I read it, and I had to share it right away.  It made me laugh because it’s so real.  I’ll bet most of us, whether Sagittarians or not, spend a good part of our days serving, entertaining and comforting, occasionally wondering when our turn will come.  That’s basically how life goes.  We were created to love God by loving our neighbor; and loving our neighbor involves a whole lot of serving, entertaining and comforting.  Just think of the corporal works of mercy:  Feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; bury the dead.

                So the secret to a happy life is to find joy and fulfillment in serving, entertaining and comforting.  Sure, serving, entertaining and comforting can be exhausting; and for that reason, we all need to be served, entertained and comforted as well.  But when we use our God-given talents to serve, entertain and comfort our neighbor, we’re fulfilling our God-given purpose.  That should make us very happy.  I’ve never met a parent who enjoys changing diapers and cleaning up vomit.  But I’ve also never met a parent who, looking back on his or her life, didn’t find tremendous joy, satisfaction and fulfillment in being a mother or father.  Happiness is a choice – so we can wallow in self-pity as we serve, entertain and comfort, or we can find great joy in the opportunity to fulfill our God-given purpose by helping others.
                Now back to my horoscope.  I didn’t think much about that horoscope until I sat down to write this post.  It made me laugh again because it’s so real.  How did I spend my day?  I served, I entertained and I comforted.  And I was very happy.  I wonder if tomorrow’s horoscope can top that.

[1] “Big, Bright, Beautiful World,” Shrek the Musical, music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Dependent Independence

Old Glory at the Washington Monument
Michael A. Meyer (1985)
          Last night, as I was perusing the musings of fellow Tweeps, I came across a 2011 CBS News survey tweeted by CARA, a social science research center affiliated with my alma mater, Georgetown University. The survey asked American adults: “Do you happen to fly the American flag on special days like the Fourth of July or Flag Day?” To my surprise, the results suggest a connection between religious affiliation and flying the flag. Of those responding “yes,” 71% were Catholic, 66% were Mainline Protestant (whatever that means), 64% were Evangelical Christians (apparently they’re not Mainline Protestants), 61% were other religions, and 55% expressed no religious affiliation. The connection escaped me, so I moved on to other tweets. But by the dawn’s early light, it hit me. The connection between religious affiliation and flying the flag stems from the fact that the United States is founded on dependent independence.

          “So Mike,” you ask, “what’s dependent independence?” Well, in establishing the Thirteen Colonies as independent states by severing ties with the British crown, the Founding Fathers didn’t expect that we would or could go it alone. There’s a reason why the Declaration of Independence invokes God four times:

  • Declaring that the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitle us to assume our separate and equal station among the powers of the earth;
  • Establishing the self-evident truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness;”
  • “[A]ppealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions;” and
  • Firmly relying “on the protection of divine Providence.”

The Founding Fathers realized that our independence would always be dependent on God.

          Generally speaking, the Founding Fathers were educated men steeped in the classics. As such, they would have been well-versed in the sciences, philosophy and theology. They would have been familiar with Plato’s argument that humans can attain transcendent reality by using our reason to detach ourselves from the material world and to develop our ability to focus on transcendent “forms.” The Founding Fathers also would have known how Saint Augustine tempered that philosophical mouthful by arguing that while we can attain unity with transcendent reality (i.e., God), we cannot attain unity with God alone – we need God’s help. The key for Saint Augustine is humilitas – humility. “Augustine recognized, through his own experience, that it wasn’t what he did that brought him to union with God, but rather, it was what God was doing in his life.”[1] Union with transcendent reality, with self-evident truth, with God, comes from self-emptying, from the admission of need, from a declaration of dependence.

          So what’s the link between religious affiliation and flying the flag? Well, those with religious beliefs generally accept that that we’re created by a transcendent God, which means that all that we have and all that we need is provided to us by our Creator. In short, we humbly accept that we can’t go it alone; we need God. We need God for food; we need God for shelter; and yes, we even need God for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So when we fly the flag, we humbly acknowledge that our independence is a gift from God and that we cannot achieve or maintain that independence without “the protection of divine Providence.” By flying the flag we acknowledge, as the Founding Fathers did, that the only independence worth fighting for is dependent independence.

[1] Anthony Ciorra, The History of Christian Spirituality (Now You Know Media, 2012) at disk 1, track 26.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Top Ten Ways the Church Can Help Save the Environment

On the eve of the publication of Laudato Si', Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment, here’s my Top Ten Ways the Church Can Help Save the Environment.

10.  Bishops’ mitres double as rain barrels.
Canada Falls (Michael A. Meyer 2014)

9.  Shred and compost papal elector ballots instead of burning them.

8.  Shorter homilies to reduce greenhouse gases.

7.  Replace burning incense with evaporating essential oils.

6.  Ban smoking in Vatican City (after Pope Francis finishes the box of cubans he just received from Raoul).

5.  Start the Easter Vigil in complete darkness to save energy (oh, we already do that).

4.  Pack the pews on Christmas to keep everyone warm (oh, we already do that, too).

3.  Replace polyester vestments with natural fibers.

2.  Invoke the winged angels to fan the congregation on hot summer days.

1.  Crosses double as wind turbines.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Holy Buckets

On the fifth anniversary of my diaconal ordination, I am posting my first homily - given the following day - June 13, 2010, the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

          I know what you’re thinking:  “What is he doing up there?  I know that my mother is resisting the urge to say, “Michael, get down from there right now!”  Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m wondering the same thing, and that reminds me of a story of a farmer who would carry two buckets of water up a hill every day to water his garden.  Over time, one of the buckets developed a hole, and as the farmer walked to his garden, the bucket would leak so his balance would be thrown off, his shoulders would get sore and the bucket would be half empty by the time he made it to the garden.  After some time the bucket finally said, “Farmer, I’m sorry I have a hole.  I have caused you much pain and have not been able to carry my full share of water to the garden.  I understand if you want to get rid of me and replace me with a new bucket.”  But the farmer replied, “Oh Bucket, when I realized you were leaking, I planted rose bushes along the side of the road where I carried you.  Haven’t you noticed all of the beautiful flowers that you have been watering everyday as we walk to the garden together?”  That bucket discovered that she was loved and accepted, holes and all, and that’s what today’s Gospel is about.

          In our Gospel passage, a known sinner marches into a Pharisee’s home and subjects herself to the ridicule of the community so she can wash and anoint Jesus’ feet.  What in the world caused her to do that?   Love.  Somehow, somewhere this woman discovered true love – God’s love.  She discovered that God loved her, faults and all.  And she just couldn’t contain herself.  That love flowed right through her in an extravagant act of devotion - washing and anointing the feet of the Anointed One.  We see the same devotion at the end of the Gospel with the women who received God’s love in the form of forgiveness or healing and devoted their lives to following Christ and serving him.  These women were able to love much, because they received and accepted much love. 

          God’s love is dynamic!  It moves us and shakes us.  And it’s like a lifesaver – it’s meant to be shared.  That’s because God can’t contain himself.  God bubbles over in love and good cheer, and he just has to share his good feelings with us so we can share them with each other.[1]  But in order to share God’s love, we have to allow ourselves to receive it first.  And that’s not always easy because a lot of people – myself included – spend a lot of time dwelling on our faults.  Now, acknowledging our faults isn’t a bad thing.  But if we hang onto our faults too tightly, they can dominate us.  We may even start defining ourselves by our faults:  “I’m no good at sports; I’m not good enough for that job promotion; I can’t drink out of a juice box without squirting juice all over myself.”  My girls say, “You don’t squeeze it, Daddy.” Obsessing about our faults blinds us to the beauty of our creation in the image of God.  We become unable see God in us and all the good we can do with his love.  We fail to smell those roses.     

          We have to receive God’s love with faith and confidence.  God never stops loving us – faults and all – and all he asks is that we return that love to him by sharing it with each other.  I’m not making this up.  You know that when we receive God’s love in the form of the Eucharist, we’re not told to hold him inside all to ourselves.  What’s the command we hear at the end of Mass? (Given by the Deacon, I would add).   We hear that same command toward the end of this Gospel.   We’re told to “Go!”  “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!”  Why?  Because the love of Christ is flowing right through us.  We’re leaking Jesus all over the place, and God wants us to carry his Living Water to the whole World.  When we truly accept God’s love – his mercy, his forgiveness, his sacrifice, his consolation – we can’t hold it in.  We want to share it with everyone we meet.  We’re flooded with an urgent need to return it to God through service to one another – just like the women in today’s Gospel.

          I know how they felt.  About seven or eight years ago, I returned to confession after almost 30 years of not going.  After that much time, I was so bogged down in my faults, that I really couldn’t see much good in me at all.  I was miserable.  But not long after that confession, I began to see beyond my faults to the God who never stopped loving me – faults and all.  And then I couldn’t contain myself. I wanted everyone around me to experience the love that I felt.  I read everything I could get my hands on; I became more active in the parish; I began praying more.  Jessica even started calling me Saint Michael – I’ve been called worse.  I began spiritual direction; I entered diaconate formation.  And now I stand here before all of you – the people who bring God’s love to me every day in so many ways:  through your support, your prayers, your kind words, and a lot of laughs.  I stand here praying that, in some small way, I can return that love to God in service to you as your Deacon. 

          Unfortunately, this bucket has a lot of holes in it.  Maybe you think yours does too.  But God loves us anyway – holes and all – and he still calls us to carry his Living Water to the World.  So do you know what that makes us?  Holy Buckets!

[1] Barron, Robert, Thomas Aquinas:  Spiritual Master (New York, Crossroad Publishing 2008) 107-108.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Real People – Memorial Day 2015

Private Fulton Henry Meyers
443rd Coast Artillery Battalion
Died:  November 9, 1942
North Africa Campaign, World War II
          The other day I heard a radio commentator vilify the idea of Memorial Day.  He explained that he thought that setting aside a day to glorify war was wrong and that it was especially wrong in the context of church services, parades and family barbecues.  I was a little surprised on hearing these words, not that they came from the mouth of that particular commentator, but because I, perhaps naively, thought that Memorial Day was a universally accepted holiday.  Who could object to dedicating a day to the memory of those who died to protect our freedom?  But then it dawned on me that this commentator just didn’t get it.  Memorial Day isn’t about war.  It’s about people - real people who gave their lives for others.  And that’s who Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel.

          Our familiar Gospel passage recalls the story of the rich man who’s looking for the secret to eternal life.  Jesus tells him in no uncertain terms that he must follow the commandments, sell all he has and give it to the poor.  He must live a life for others; he must live a life of selfless giving.  In short, it’s all about people.  Unfortunately, this rich man couldn’t do that.  He was too attached to his worldly goods, he was too comfortable with life as he knew it to accept the gift of eternal life.  And so he went away sad.

             The Gospel is clear – our lives are ordered to serve others.  “Service is the rent we pay for being.  It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time."[1]  Service isn’t a chore – it’s a gift that fills us with great joy.  Just think of how good you feel when you do a good deed; when you help a friend in need; when you serve others.  That good feeling gives us a glimpse of the eternal life that is ours when we turn away from ourselves and dedicate our lives to others.

          And so on Memorial Day, we don’t celebrate or glorify war.  We hate war and the death and destruction it brings.  On Memorial Day we celebrate people. 

+ On Memorial Day we gather together as a faith community in our churches to remember real people who understood that there is no greater love than this:  “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  (John 15:13); 

+ On Memorial Day we come together as a nation at parades and civic services to honor real people who “gave the last full measure of devotion”[2] to safeguard the freedoms we enjoy, including religious freedom and the freedom of speech; and

+On Memorial Day, we come together with family and friends to celebrate real people, our grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters, who died in the service of others, whom we respect and miss and love so much.

          You know, that radio commentator just didn’t get it.  He’s so wrapped up in himself and his self-righteousness that he’s forgotten real people.  Like the rich man in today’s Gospel, he goes away sad.  We, on the other hand, can go away happy because we have the opportunity today and every day to listen to Jesus, to follow the example of those we honor today – to live a life of selfless giving, to remember that it’s all about real people, and thereby receive the gift of eternal life.

Readings:  Sirach 17:20-24; Psalm 32; Mark 10 17-27

[1] Marian Wright Edelman
[2] Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863).

Saturday, May 16, 2015

I Believe

I had a great hike with some great men today.  The reflection I gave on the hike follows:

          When Eric, Evan, Ken and I agreed that today’s theme would be “Why We Believe in God,” I didn't expect that it would take me so long to prepare this talk.  I didn't doubt or a lack reasons for why I believe in God.  My problem was that I had too many reasons; I had trouble choosing which ones best expressed why I believe.

        As a lawyer, I’m trained to gather   facts, review testimony and balance evidence to find the truth.  I've done my homework.  I can recite for you the several cosmological arguments for the existence of God based on motion – if an object in motion must be set in motion by some other object or force, then there must be a first “Unmoved Mover” that set it all in motion; causation – if things exist that are caused or created by other things, then there must be a first “Uncaused Cause” that made it all happen; gradation – if there are greater degrees of perfection in qualities like beauty, goodness, or knowledge, then there must be a perfect standard by which all such qualities are measured; and intelligent design – if we understand that the universe operates in an orderly, intelligent manner, then it must have been designed by an “Intelligent Designer.” 

These arguments all make sense to me; they appeal to my sense of reason; and they've been put forth over the centuries by minds greater than mine whom I respect very much.  But intellectual arguments like these didn't convince me of the existence of God or lead me to some dramatic conversion.  They simply serve as rational support for what I've come to believe from my own experiences during the 49 years of my life. 

+ When I see a beautiful painting of a waterfall, I know that it was created by a talented artist with an eye for beauty.  So why wouldn't I believe that the waterfall itself was created by a talented artist with an eye for beauty?

+ When I marvel at the human feats performed by a robot, I know that it was created by an intelligent engineer with a mind for complex design.  So why wouldn't I believe that the human body was created by an intelligent engineer with a mind for complex design?

+ When I read the laws of civilized nations, I know that they were conceived by thoughtful legislators with a sense for justice.  So why wouldn't I believe that the laws of nature that speak to us in our hearts were conceived by a thoughtful legislator with a sense for justice?

+ When my parents taught me not to run with scissors and to eat my vegetables, I learned that they were right and that I could trust that they had my best interests at heart.  So why wouldn't I think that they were right and trust that they had my best interests at heart when they taught me to believe in God?

+ When I study new things, I learn that there’s always a teacher who knows more than I do.  So why wouldn't I believe that there’s teacher who knows more than we all do?

+ When I feel called to serve others, I’m filled with a sense of purpose.  So why wouldn't I believe that when I’m called to serve others, I’m called by one who gave me that purpose?

+ When I’m given a special gift, I know that I’m loved by the one who gave it to me.   So why wouldn't I believe that the gifts I cherish most – my life, my family and my friends – were given to me by one who loves me most?

         As you know, I could go on for hours.  Suffice it to say that I've gathered the facts, I've reviewed the testimony, I've balanced the evidence, and I've found the Truth.  That’s why I believe.