Monday, January 22, 2018

A Joy-filled Life

A wonderful neighbor died last week after a long illness.  Here is the homily I gave at her funeral this morning.

          When you move to a new home, you want to make a good impression on your neighbors.  You try not to be noisy, you keep your property neat and tidy, and you do your best to respect your neighbors’ privacy.  Well, when the Meyers moved to Tine Road some 16 years ago, we didn’t make a good impression.  You see, Bubba Meyer, our 110-pound Labrador retriever, was prone to wandering, and a few weeks before Christmas, he paid a visit to the Persons.  After a polite call from Jeff informing us that Bubba was in protective custody on his front lawn, Jessica and I rushed down the street to collect him.  We knew the Persons’ house as the one that was beautifully decorated for Christmas, so you can imagine our horror at finding Bubba on the Persons’ front lawn wrapped in the Christmas lights that had once adorned Jeff’s and Lynn’s bushes.  Jessica and I left that awkward first meeting feeling blessed that we had very forgiving neighbors in Lynn and Jeff.  We also saw something very special in Lynn that day and every day since – a joy that turned lemons into lemonade.  Lynn lived a joy-filled life, and our readings this morning explain how.

          In this morning’s readings we learn about trusting God.  Our Psalm and our second reading teach us to trust that we will see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living because just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too will live in the newness of life.  That’s why our Gospel implores us to let not our hearts be troubled, to trust that “Heaven is as wide as the heart of God, and there is room for all.”[1]

          Trusting God in a world plagued with sickness, pain and suffering can be very difficult and seemingly impossible, but Jesus didn’t trick people into following him.  “He frankly and honestly told men and women that they might expect both glory and pain if they followed him.”[2]  But he also promised to shoulder those burdens with us as he shows us the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.  All we have to do is trust that through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus destroyed the bonds of death and opened the gates to an eternal life of peace, joy and love beyond all imagination.

          So how do we know when we really trust in God’s promises through Jesus Christ?  We live a joy-filled life.  Just think about it, if we really trust that Jesus destroyed the bonds of death and opened the gates to eternal life, we have every reason to rejoice, no matter what challenges we face on this earth.  “God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all.”[3]  When we really put our trust in God, we empty ourselves of fear and anxiety, and we’re filled with God’s joy.  When we really put our trust in God, God’s love, which is stronger than death, empowers us to live a joy-filled life no matter what life throws at us.
          Now, those who know Lynn may see where I’m going with this joy theme.  But Lynn left specific instructions for her homilist that our celebration of the Eucharist today shouldn’t be about her; it should be about Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Church.  My first reaction to Lynn’s instruction is, she’s absolutely right.  The Order of Christian Funerals makes clear that “[a]t the funeral liturgy, the community gathers with the family and friends of the deceased to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the paschal mystery”[4] in the Eucharist.  That said, my second reaction to Lynn’s instruction, is that I’ll just have to beg Lynn’s forgiveness like I did some 16 years ago while untangling Bubba from her Christmas lights.  This celebration isn’t about Lynn, but Lynn is a wonderful example of how we can find strength and live a joy-filled life when we trust God and center our faith on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

          I know of Lynn’s unfailing trust in God first-hand from our many encounters as neighbors, from the countless conversations we shared about our faith, and from the home-made cards she sent us on every occasion.  I know the powerful impact that her joy-filled life had on so many people through beautiful stories about how she helped her fellow chemo patients laugh their way through treatments, how she encouraged others not to feel sorry for themselves, and how she never allowed us to feel sorry for her.  And just this past weekend, I was blessed with a special glimpse into Lynn’s deep faith and trust in the Lord when Jeff let me borrow Lynn’s Bible.
Lynn loved Scripture, and she found great comfort and strength in God’s Word.  As you can see, Lynn’s Bible is well-used; so much so that it even smells of her perfume.  It’s highlighted and underlined on every page and filled with handwritten notes, memories, prayers and profound spiritual insights.  In it I found notes from friends and gifts from her grandchildren.  There are prayers for Laura and Jeffrey (you’re in there a lot, Jeffrey), and a most-fitting tribute penciled next to Psalm 92 that the one who “shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon, majestic, stable, durable and incorruptible” is “my husband Jeff.”  I wonder if she used pencil on purpose, just in case.  Lynn’s Bible is documented proof that she turned everything over to God – her joys, her sorrows and her deepest desires – that she put her trust in the Lord and found great strength in God’s Word.  This Bible is documented proof of how Lynn lived a joy-filled life, even in the face of a grueling illness.
          After Lynn was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, the Person’s Christmas decorations changed.  Lynn had a message for her neighbors, her family and friends, and for all who drove down Tine Road.  So she asked Jeff to build a new decoration to be placed at the foot of their driveway next to the Nativity.  That message consists of three, 4-foot high, candy cane-striped, dog-proof letters:  J-O-Y.  With that simple message and her powerful example, Lynn challenges us to put our trust in God no matter what we may face so that we, too, will be blessed with a joy-filled life, just like she was.    

Readings:  Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11; Psalm 27; Romans 6:3-9; John 14: 1-6

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. II (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 180.
[2] Id.
[3] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York, Doubleday, 1994) p. 117.
[4] Order of Christian Funerals, 129.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Christmas Reflection

                It’s Christmas Eve, I have two Masses and a Christmas party tonight, and guess how I spent my afternoon:  cleaning windows.  No, it’s not a peculiar Meyer family tradition, and it’s not because I prefer the smell of Windex over pine trees and gingerbread.  I cleaned windows this afternoon because my windows were dirty – very dirty; spray twice, let it soak in and scrape with a fingernail kind of dirty.  Like most, I don’t love washing windows, but it did give me a little time to think, which I do appreciate.  So while scrubbing off a year’s worth of grime from my windows, I thought about tonight, tomorrow, and Christmas in general.  You could say, washing windows gave me a little time for Christmas reflection.

                I started off reflecting on the various readings for the Christmas Masses.  In the Catholic tradition, we celebrate Christmas with four Masses – the Vigil Mass; the Mass During the Night; the Mass at Dawn; and the Mass During the Day – each with its proper time and its proper readings.  I love that we have four different sets of readings on Christmas, and as I reflected on them this afternoon, I noticed something interesting.  The Gospel for the Vigil, the first Christmas Mass, is Matthew 1: 1-25, informally known as “Matthew’s begats.”  This passage traces Jesus’ genealogy from Abraham to Joseph and Mary, clearly demonstrating Jesus’ humanity.  By contrast, the Gospel for the Mass During the Day, the last Christmas Mass, is John 1: 1-18, which proclaims Jesus’ divinity:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Thus, from the first Christmas Mass to the last, we find in Christ the marriage of humanity and divinity and the road map for our own divinization:  our return to union with God from our sinful human state.

                That’s what Christmas is all about.  Knowing full-well that we could never free ourselves from the sinful chains that bind us, God sent his only Son to reconcile humanity with divinity, coming in human form to teach us that God’s ways are better than our ways, to show us that humanity and divinity are meant to live together in peace, and to lead us to God’s Kingdom.  God, in his Wisdom, didn’t eliminate suffering, pain and death (at least not yet); rather, he chose to suffer with us.  Through Jesus Christ, God got right down in the muck with us to drag us out, clean us up, and lead us to the eternal banquet in heaven.  That’s the program, but it’s up to us to stick with it, to clean ourselves up through the grace of God, so that we can achieve “that fully divinized human glory of which the child was only the promise.” [1]
Somehow, cleaning windows became a spiritual exercise.  As I stepped back to admire my work on a large plate glass window, I noticed how much nicer a clean window looks than a dirty window.  I could see through it almost as clearly as if there were no window standing between me and the great outdoors.  Sunshine gleaming through another clean window reflected back into my eyes, and the objects behind me danced before me, as in a mirror.  Then, I noticed something interesting.  I saw myself in the window.  There I stood with rays of light glimmering around me, no longer cloudy and distorted by a year’s worth of grime, but clear and crisp, just as God created me to be.  I was pleasantly surprised that I could still look that good.  It was an early Christmas gift and a fitting end to a busy day cleaning windows.  It was a perfect Christmas reflection. 

Merry Christmas!

[1] Jennifer Glenn, “What Child is This?” Assembly, vol. 11:2 (Notre Dame, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy).

Sunday, December 17, 2017

An Expert Witness - Homily for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year B

          In My Cousin Vinny, two college students from New York, are mistakenly charged with murdering a clerk at the Sac-O-Suds in Wahzoo City, Alabama.  In a last-ditch attempt to win acquittal for the two “yutes”, attorney Vinny Gambini calls his girlfriend, Mona Lisa Vito, to the stand as an expert witness in general automotive knowledge.  To challenge her qualifications, the state prosecutor asks Ms. Vito for the correct ignition timing on a 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet with a 327 cubic-inch engine and a four-barrel carburetor.  Ms. Vito immediately recognizes a trick question, and in a line that goes down in cinematic history, she explains that “Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55.  The 327 didn’t come out until ’62, and it wasn’t offered in the Bel Air with a four-barrel carb ‘til ’64.  How-e-vah, in 1964, the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top-dead centah.”[1]  Ms. Vito knew fact from fiction, right from wrong, and she qualified as an expert witness.  Today’s readings teach us how to qualify as expert witnesses, too.  

          In our Gospel passage, we meet a man named John, who was sent by God “to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”  John makes clear that he’s not the light; Jesus is the light, “’the light of the world’ and ‘the true light’ who pierces the darkness of sin and illuminates the path toward salvation.”[2]  In the Sacrament of Baptism, we receive the light of Christ to open our eyes in faith, so we can fulfill our baptismal mission as priests, prophets and kings.  “Just as John the Baptist prepared the world for Christ’s light, so we today must reflect the light we see in Christ and be beacons of hope for the world.”[3]  In other words, we’re called to testify, we’re called to be expert witnesses to the light of Christ in the world.

          So, what does it mean to be an expert witness to the light of Christ?  Well, “[t]he best kind of witness of all is the one [who] can say: ‘This is true, because I know it from my own experience.’”[4]  To testify to the light, we have to live in the light.  To be Christ’s expert witnesses, we have to follow him.  “Those who follow Christ . . . hear a call to deeper love and service [and] walk in the light even while others around them stumble in the gloom.”[5]  Now, I think we can all agree that Isaiah, Mary and Saint Paul qualify as expert witnesses to the light.  So, the best testimony we can give to the profound impact of the light of Christ in our lives is to do exactly what our readings tell us they did: “Rejoice heartily in the Lord”; “Rejoice in God our Savior”; “Rejoice always!”

Now, you must be thinking: “You gotta be kidding me!”  Rejoice always?  Always?  Really?  There’s a lot of heartache in the world, and Scripture tells us that even Isaiah, Mary and Saint Paul suffered.  Well, that’s all true, but the call to “rejoice always” doesn’t ask us to ignore life’s challenges.  Quite the opposite – it invites is to embrace them with an eternal attitude: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”[6]  Sure, we suffer in this world, but an eternal attitude carries us through the suffering and into God’s promise of eternal life.  

That’s what the incarnation is all about.  God became man to embrace our suffering and lead us to eternal life in his Kingdom.  If we truly believe that Jesus Christ conquered sin and death and opened for us the gates to eternal peace and happiness, then we have every reason to rejoice, no matter what our circumstances in this world may be.  And if that doesn’t make you rejoice, try dressing from head to toe in bubblegum pink.  When we rejoice, the light of Christ shines right through us, making us beacons of Christ to the world.  There’s no better testimony to the light of Christ in the world than when we live our lives in such a loving way that people will say, “If such is the servant what must the master be like?”  

          Now, expert witnesses also have to be credible.  They have to distinguish fact from fiction, right from wrong.  That’s why Saint Paul tells us in our second reading to “[t]est everything; retain what is good; [and] [r]efrain from every kind of evil.”  But how can we discern what’s right and what’s wrong when we’re bombarded with demands to think this, to do that, and to believe just about anything?  We turn to Scripture.  Isaiah speaks of God’s particular concern for the poor, the brokenhearted and the marginalized; Saint Paul teaches us that joy is the essential consequence of doing God’s will; and John’s testimony assures us that what comes from God always leads back to God.[7]  If a teaching, practice, or course of action meets these criteria, then it’s credible because it comes from God.  But if a teaching, practice or course of action denigrates the dignity of any person, causes suffering, heartache or pain, or draws us away from God, it’s not credible, and it’s not from God.  It’s just wrong.  Expert witnesses know fact from fiction, right from wrong.

          Mona Lisa Vito knew right from wrong.  After qualifying as an expert witness, Vinny Gambini showed her a picture of the tire tracks purportedly left at the scene of the crime by the defendants’ 1964 Buick Skylark.  He asked Ms. Vito whether the defense was right to argue that two different, but identical cars visited the Sac-O-Suds on that fateful day.  Ms. Vito studied the photo, smiled and answered, “No, the defense is wrong.”  The equal-length tire marks in the picture could only have been made by a car with posi-traction and an independent rear suspension, which weren’t available on the defendants’ 1964 Buick Skylark.  Mona Lisa Vito was a credible expert witness; she knew right from wrong; and she testified to the truth.  The boys’ lives were at risk, and her testimony won their acquittal.  Christ calls us to be his credible, expert witnesses to the world, to testify to the light by loving our neighbor, rejoicing heartily, and leading others to God.  Eternal life is at risk.  Are we qualified? 

 Readings: Isaiah 61: 1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

[1] My Cousin Vinny, Dir. Jonathan Lynn, Perf. Joe Pesci, Marissa Tomei, Ralph Macchio, Fred Gwynne. 20th Century Fox, 1992.
[2]“The Gospel According to John,” The Didache Bible (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014) p. 1409, note to Jn 1:4-9.
[3] Michael Simone, “Become the Light,” America, vol. 217, no. 13 (December 11, 2017) p. 58.
[4] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 1 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 62.
[5] Simone.
[6] Julian of Norwich, The Showings.
[7] See Mary M. McGlone, “The Question of a Lifetime,” National Catholic Reporter, vol. 54, no. 4 (December 1-14, 2017) p. 19.