Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Sunday Homilies for the Month of October

I recently was asked to write homilies for the Sundays of October for publication in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. The homilies can be found here.

If you end up at the Mass I am preaching on October 20, fret not - you will get a fresh homily!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Party! Party! Party! - Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

          I had to video record today's homily for a class that I'm taking.  If you prefer to hear the homily as delivered, click here.

I’ve never been much of a partier.  I know you’re shocked.  Handsome, witty, gregarious – you’d think I’d be the life of the party, but I’m not.  The truth is, I don’t feel comfortable at parties.  Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong; other times I don’t want to be with some of the people who are going.  And occasionally, I want to go but don’t feel welcome.  Parties just aren’t my thing.  Today’s Gospel is challenging for people like me because today’s Gospel can be summed up in three words:  Party!  Party!  Party!  I don’t think I’ve ever said that in my entire life.

If today’s Gospel can be summed up in just those three words, you may be wondering why I chose the long version and made you stand for four and a half minutes.  The simple answer is:  just because I can.  The better answer is because I wanted you to hear the common thread that Jesus weaves into the three parables in the longer passage.  In the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, we hear, “Rejoice with me,” and in the parable of the Lost Son, we hear, “We must celebrate and rejoice.”  Each parable ends with a party.  What are we celebrating?  Finding the lost; the return of our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters to the community of faith.  We’re celebrating the fact that Jesus doesn’t take loss lightly; he never gives up trying to find us when we’re lost; and he’s always ready to run to us, embrace us, and carry us home when we return.  Why is that such a big deal?  Because finding the lost “represents an alignment between God and creation. . ..  The simultaneous rejoicing of heaven and earth means that they are in sync. . .. What unites them is joy in the realization that things are the way they were meant to be. Creation is fulfilled.”[1]

In these three parables, Jesus makes clear that the joy of finding the lost is so great that it can’t be contained; one person alone can’t adequately celebrate it; we need a party, [2] and everyone in heaven and on earth, all of us with the angels, and saints are invited.  That’s pretty cool, right?  We can get down with the angels and saints.  Just tell us when and where.  Well, the party starts right now, right here at Mass.  At Mass, we come together with the angels and saints as a community of faith to rejoice and celebrate Jesus’ saving sacrifice that reunites the lost with the Father.  I’ll bet you didn’t realize that “There’s a party going on right here, a celebration to last throughout the year.”  I’ll bet you also didn’t realize that Jesus is a Kool and the Gang fan.

We all like a good party (well, except for me), so you’d think that Mass would be packed.  We have 2,500 families in our parish, but only half are active.  What’s stopping people from joining the party?  What makes people stand outside though they hear the very harp of David inside?  Our readings point to two attitudes that may be prime culprits: I’m not worthy; and You’re not worthy.  Let’s take each in turn.     

I’m not worthy – Let’s face it, we are a people prone to sin.  Sometimes we make bad choices and go to the wrong party, like the Israelites in our first reading.  They had a party, alright, but it wasn’t the party that God invited them to.  The Israelites threw their own party and left God off the invitation list.  That’s sin in a nutshell, and we do it all the time in a host of different ways.  But we can’t let our sinfulness keep us from the party.  There is no sin that can stop the party in heaven.  If you think you’re bad, take a look at Saint Paul.  By his own admission in our second reading, he was a blasphemer, a persecutor, arrogant, and the foremost of sinners.  Now he’s a Saint.  Saint Paul is proof that “God often uses individuals with serious weaknesses so his power and presence might shine through all the more.”[3]  None of us are worthy of an invitation to God’s party, but he invites us anyway.  Who are we to deny God the opportunity to let his power and presence shine through us?  We need to join the party.

Attitude number 2:  You’re not worthy – We humans have a strange tendency to see ourselves in a much better light than we see others.  The Pharisees and scribes at the beginning of our Gospel were pretty upset that Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners.  Like the Pharisees, the scribes, and the older brother in the parable of the Lost Son, we sometimes take the attitude that sinners have no place among us, forgetting that we need God’s mercy, too.  Well, I can assure you that it is poor theology to think that part of the bliss of heaven is to see the people we don’t like in hell.  “It is the tremendous truth that God is kinder than men and women.  [Some] would write off the tax collectors and sinners as beyond the pale and as deserving of nothing but destruction; not so God.”[4]  We have no right to decide who goes to God’s party.  In fact, “the Lukan parables call for us to celebrate with God because God has been merciful not only to us but to others also, even those we would not otherwise have accepted into our fellowship.”[5]  We need to nip this grudging attitude in the bud whenever it threatens to keep us from the party, because we need to join the party, too.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address a third attitude that can result from the second:  I’m not welcome.  Our words, actions, or wayward glances can make people feel unwelcome.  If, in any way, you feel unwelcome, please come talk to one of our priests or deacons.  You are welcome.  You have a right to be here, and sometimes “You gotta fight . . . for your right . . . to party!”  Jesus loves the Beastie Boys, too.

How do we cure the attitudes that keep us from the party?  With the humble, contrite heart of our Psalmist.  Psalm 51 is a psalm of contrition that beautifully describes how an “initial admission and awareness of sin is transformed into a focus on God and what only God can do: create a clean heart, put a new and right spirit within me.”[6]  A heart emptied of the burdens of arrogance and sin can be filled with God’s loving mercy that exceeds all bounds.  This transformation is made manifest through the sacrament of reconciliation, where we confess our sins, receive absolution, and formally RSVP to God’s invitation to his party.  “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.  To receive his mercy, we must admit our faults.  ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’”[7]  A humble, contrite heart worked for the younger brother in the parable of the Lost Son— and he got a party.  It will work for us, too.  We need to acknowledge and confess our sins and join the party.

Today’s Gospel challenges people like me, but it challenges us as a community of faith, too.  Are we the joy-filled, welcoming parish that Jesus calls us to be, or are we a bunch of party poopers and wallflowers?  Immaculate Conception is an awesome parish with so much to offer, but the numbers suggest that people are going to another party.  We need to make this the best party in town.  With a little creativity, imagination, and determination, I know we can do it.  With a little creativity, we could deck out the church and celebrate every liturgy with the enthusiasm of Christmas and Easter.  With a little imagination, we could throw a big party in the parish hall after our Advent and Lent penance services as proof of our appreciation of God’s great gift of merciful forgiveness.  With a little determination, we could find our lost brothers and sisters, make them feel welcome, carry them home, and celebrate their return.  With a little creativity, imagination, and determination, people will gaze up Saint Mary’s Hill at our beautiful church and think Party! Party! Party!

[1] John Shea, Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow, Luke, Year C (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006), 258.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 185-186.

[3] Jeffrey Cole, ed., The Didache Bible (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014), 1618n.

[4] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 2001), 238.

[5] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 298.

[6] John Endres, Julia D. E. Prinz, “Psalms,” The Paulist Biblical Commentary, ed. José Enrique Aguilar Chiu, Richard J. Clifford, Carol J. Dempsey, Eileen M. Schuller, Thomas D. Stegman, Ronald D. Witherup (New York: Paulist Press, 2018), 484.

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1847.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Real Presence – A Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

            A Pew Research Center Study on What Americans Know About Religion includes some very disappointing results for Catholics.  The July 23rd report reveals that only 31% of American Catholics believe that the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of Christ.  Equally disturbing, 65% of American Catholics believe that the Eucharist is only a symbol of Christ’s presence, comprised of 22% who understand the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist but still believe that it’s only a symbol, and 43% who believe that the Catholic Church actually teaches that the Eucharist is only a symbol.  The rest just don’t know.[1]  It seems that the divisions that Jesus warns about in our Gospel continue to this day.  It seems that we need a better understanding of Christ’s real presence.

            Today’s readings present the stark reality that following God’s ways causes division.  Poor Jeremiah is tossed into a well and left to die for delivering God’s unpopular message that the Israelites must submit themselves to the invading Babylonian army.  In our Gospel, Jesus pulls no punches about the divisive impact of Christian discipleship: “A household of five will be divided three against two and two against three.”  It may seem crazy that the Prince of Peace would foster discord, but the reason behind these divisions is pretty simple:  God’s real presence in a sinful world upsets the status quo.  Some people just don’t like it, because God’s presence demands a response.  It challenges us to conform our ways to God’s ways. 

            Let’s take this point a little deeper.  At the very beginning of our Gospel, Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  No, Jesus isn’t a pyromaniac.  “In the Hebrew Scriptures, divine fire represents the presence of God,”[2] as we see in God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush; in Ezekiel’s vision of a burning figure seated on the celestial throne; and, of course, in the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in “tongues as of fire.”  Jesus is telling us that he has come to consume the earth with God’s fiery presence.  God became man to dwell among us, to purify us like fire-tried gold, and to fan the flames of faith among his people so that we may remain in God’s loving presence forever.  By dwelling among us, Jesus showed us that it’s possible to live as God intends for us to live, if only we would change our ways.  “God’s presence always demands a transformation and a response.”[3] 

Christ’s mission is all about presence, God’s real presence among us, which brings us back to the Eucharist.  Catholics believe that in the Eucharist, “Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and divinity.”[4]  This doctrine may be hard to swallow, so to speak, but it flows directly from Scripture, it has been believed and transmitted through sacred tradition and the sacraments of the Church since the time of the Apostles, and it makes sense.  Allow me to explain.

In John’s Gospel, chapter 6, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever” (John 6: 51).  This teaching challenged Jesus’ followers, to say the least.  In fact, they were disgusted by it, but Jesus didn’t back down.  After he’s confronted with the crowd’s disgust, he ups the ante.  When he next says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6: 54), he changes his verb from one that means simply “to eat” (phagein in the original Greek) to one that means “to gnaw on” (trogein in the original Greek).  And the result?  Division.  Jesus had the opportunity to soften his message, to tell people that he was only speaking metaphorically, that the flesh and blood image was just a symbol, but he didn’t.  There was division, and people left. 

Now let’s fast forward to the Last Supper, where Jesus presents his body and blood to us in the form of bread and wine.  Again, his words are clear, “This is my Body;” “This is my Blood;” “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22: 19-20).  Knowing how difficult it would be for us to consume flesh and drink blood, he presents himself to us in the forms of common food and drink.  He meets us where we are and accommodates our weaknesses.  He stays with us in the Eucharist to help us make the changes we need to make to remain in God’s loving presence forever. 

So how does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ while it still looks and tastes like bread and wine?  We can thank Saint Thomas Aquinas for the answer.  Every material item has a substance and a form.  Tulips and roses are both flowers, but they look quite different.  The material or essential components that make them both flowers are their substance; their outward appearance (color, shape of petals, etc.) is their form.  Fr. Mike and I are both men in substance, but one of us is blessed with youthful good looks, and the other looks like Fr. Mike – different forms.  The Church believes, then, that in the consecration at Mass, the substance of the bread and wine change to the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ while remaining in the form of bread and wine.[5]  Transubstantiation is a miracle that isn’t easy to grasp, but it makes sense.

            The Eucharist is Christ’s great gift of his continued presence among us, not just spiritually, but tangibly as well.  Through the Eucharist, Jesus continues to challenge us to conform our ways to God’s ways, to console us in difficult times, to inspire us to serve our brothers and sisters, and to strengthen us to carry out our Christian mission.  It’s no symbol; it’s a wonderful gift of Jesus’ real presence.

So how did we end up in a place where only 31% of Catholics believe that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist?  In my opinion, the Church’s failure to properly catechize the faithful has led to the very divisions that Jesus talks about in our Gospel.  By failing to ground the faithful in philosophy and theology, science has become the exclusive means for understanding our world, and faith is viewed as suspect.  Faith is divided against reason.  Likewise, by emphasizing good works over doctrine, Catholics have become unable to understand and explain what we believe and why we bother to do good works in the first place.  Doctrine is viewed as archaic.  Doctrine is divided against good works. 

We need to heal these divisions.  We need to engage Catholics in solid intellectual and spiritual formation in the faith, trusting that great “cloud of witnesses” – the Saints whose inspiring lives were grounded in their firm belief in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist.  We need to unite as one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church to heal all wounds of division by rediscovering that all healing begins and ends with Christ’s real presence.

[1] Pew Research Center, “What Americans Know About Religion,” July 23, 2019,
[2] Michael J. Simone, “Send Down Your Fire,” America, vol. 221, no. 3 (August 5, 2019), p. 45.
[3] Id.
[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1413.
[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1376.