Sunday, August 26, 2012

Who Do You Serve?

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

When I was ordained a deacon, I remember very well the promise of obedience that we all made.  Approaching the bishop, you place your hands into his and he asks you “Do you promise obedience to me and to my successors?”

And again at the ordination to the priesthood, I gave my hands to the bishop, and again the question “Do you promise obedience to me and to my successors?”

It is the only promise that the priest makes twice.  So it will stick.  And I have often heard older priests say that it is the most difficult promise – not celibacy, not the discipline of prayer, but obedience.

Obedience is one of the most counter cultural concepts lived and taught by the Church today.  Particularly, I think, in our American culture.  And that is why I think that the readings this weekend, if we are open to them, are some of the more challenging readings that we hear all year.

Joshua starts us off right away in our first reading with the question: Who will you serve?  Will you serve the Lord?

And in our second reading, St. Paul was adamant in his insistence that wives should be subordinate to their husbands and husbands love their wives as Christ loves the Church by giving up his life for her.  In our Gospel, which follows Jesus’ challenging teaching about the Eucharist, he asks his followers to choose: will they accept his teaching?  Many don’t and they leave.  Peter, and some others stay.

The situations are stark and the stakes are high in our readings this weekend.  They show us men and women who have to make a decision, who have to decide: Who will we serve?  Whose teaching will we follow?  There is no dodging the question, no hedging.  You have to look into someone’s eyes and decide: will you follow or not.  I think it might be the fundamental question that our society is asking Catholics today.  Who will you serve?

Now you can see how many people, many of us might have wanted to ask Joshua or Jesus, well why do I have to answer you?  Can’t you just leave us alone and let us figure it out?  Why this insistence that there be a choice?  Why does someone have to serve someone else and follow their teaching, why can’t everyone just make up their own mind?  Why obedience?  Educated, well informed people should be able to live and let live, right?  What if I reject the either or, serve this or serve that?  Can’t we be masters of our own destiny?  Isn’t that the American dream?

But St. Peter knew better than that. He knew that he was going to serve someone, something – and if not, he would just be serving himself.  And so as he looked around at the options, the choice was very clear to him: where else was he going to go?  He was pretty convinced that there was something different about Jesus Christ, that he spoke words of eternal life, that he understood the truth about our destiny and knew how to get there.  Could he say the same for his wife?  For his governor?  For his best friend?  For himself?  No.

And he also knew that if you are really serving someone, obedient to someone, you cannot pick and choose what to follow and what not to follow.  He didn’t say to Jesus, “Well, I will follow you and I like your teachings about the poor, but this whole Eucharist thing, I’m just not really sure that I can buy that.”  Who’s the master in that picture, Peter or Jesus?  It would have been Peter, setting himself up as arbiter and jury, deciding which teachings of Jesus he should accept or not accept.  No, when you are serving someone you don’t just accept the teachings and decisions that you approve of.  That’s what you do with an advisor when you are the master.  Peter knew that Jesus did not come to be an advisor, but that he was God’s son.  And you don’t ask God’s son for advice, you ask him what he wants you to do.

If you look at the statistics, I think it’s very clear that many, many Catholics are treating the Church as an advisor.  They are happy to accept the teachings of Christ that they have an easy time accepting, but the teachings they find problematic – well, they overlook them.  Their master is somewhere else – who is it?

Some might respond: but Father, you just made a switch – you started with Jesus and ended with the Church.  I am serving Jesus, I am obedient to him, but the Church – well that is an advisor to me on how to serve him.  The Church is made up of human beings.

True, and don’t we know that in recent years.  But the weakness and sinfulness of the Church does not change the fact that we are all weak and sinful human beings, does it?  And if we are not obedient to our bishop’s interpretation of Christ’s will in matters of faith and morals when they speak in union with the pope, then whose interpretation are we obedient to?  Who are our masters?  Who are we serving?  We’re serving someone, we’re listening to someone.  We’re making someone else the master, whether it be ourselves or a political party, or some other social affiliation.  And unlike the bishops, who Christ promised would always be guided by the Holy Spirit to keep the faith until he returns, we have no guarantee that our evaluation, much less the evaluation of a political party, will be guided by God’s will.

Are we first Catholics, or are we first democrats, or first republicans, or first independents?  Who has the authority to interpret Jesus’ teaching and apply it to our world today?   A priest very clearly promises obedience to his bishop – twice – so it is very clear that he must follow his lead – even if he can’t stand the man, and even if he argues with him.  When push comes to shove,  Peter understood that even when the teachings are hard, even when the road is difficult, we must trust that in Christ and his Church dwell the words of spirit and life, and work to figure out how to accept that.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Reverencing the Body of Christ

Homily for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

I know that many of you were a part of the Way of the Cross procession that our parish organized on Palm Sunday this year.  It was a moving event and I think that a number of the scenes from that day have stuck with many of us.  The way that Jesus was portrayed by the young man from our parish certainly had an impact on many people.  In particular, the last stations at St. Johns church would be hard to forget, as we watched this young man stripped half naked, shaking as he hung from the cross because he had dragged that huge thing a mile and a half across town.  To be so vulnerable and exposed before hundreds of people like that, before being gently lowered into the arms of his mother.  The Church was quiet, very quiet.

I was pretty involved in rehearsing the scene – practicing taking Jesus down from the cross.  And even during the rehearsal, there was a sense of respect or of what I might even call reverence as we worked to figure out how to take Jesus’ body from the cross and lay him gently so that he could rest in the arms of his mother.  The fact that we were just enacting a scene did not change the fact that we were carrying in our arms the body of another human being who was entrusting his safety to us.  

It reminds me a bit of carrying a newborn.  My brother and sister in law just had a baby a couple weeks ago and I was down the day after she was born.  I found myself up at 4:00am holding the little one – not a common experience for a priest.  How can you not have a certain, again, I’m going to call it reverence, as you gingerly and carefully hold that little child who is so vulnerable and precious?

Another experience I had of that same kind of reverence was when I was in Calcutta as a seminarian, working for a morning at Mother Teresa’s house for the dying.  We were asked to help bathe the male residents.  So each of us went to cot after cot, lifting up these young men who were so weakened by disease that they could not stand and weighed half our weight.  And there was a sense of profound reverence as we carried them, naked and vulnerable, to the shower room, washed them head to toe, and then brought them back to their beds.

Why bring these experiences up?  Because they came to mind as I reflected on the words of Christ in our Gospel today: Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you do not have life within you.  We might also put it this way: When you eat my body and drink my blood, you have my life in you, you hold my body, my life in your hands, entrusted to you, given to you.

We need to think about what that means.  It means that the bread and wine in a moment are transformed and become the flesh and blood, the body, of this man, Jesus Christ.  Just as his body was taken down from the cross and placed in the arms of his mother, so his body is taken from this altar and placed into our hands, our mouths.  In a sense, every time a Christian receives communion, he or she takes the place of Mary in the pieta.  The body of Christ is laid in our arms in a profound act of vulnerability, of intimacy.  Christ could not give us anything more personal of himself: his own body, his own blood: placed in our hands.

What if the Eucharistic minister handed us a newborn baby?  How would we hold that child, what kind of reverence would we have?  What if the Eucharistic minister handed us a naked, dying man?  How would we hold him, how would we reverence his body?   My experience is that the rest of the world goes away for a moment – all of your attention is focused on the life, the existence of the person you are holding in your arms.  The full weight of what, of who, you are carrying holds your attention fast.  Every move you make, every thought, is directed toward how you can respect and revere the body, the life that has been entrusted to you.  Your world is entirely consumed by what you are carrying.

In a few moments, the Eucharistic minister will place the body of the Risen Lord of Heaven and Earth in your hands, upon your tongue.  Will we carry his body with this same reverence, allowing it to consume us – our attention, our desires, our hopes and dreams?  And not just for the few steps on the way back to the pew, but for the rest of the week?

Jesus teaches us in the Gospel today that the Christian is a Christ-bearer: one who is entrusted with Christ’s body, and whose life must be consumed through, with, and in the Body of Christ.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Who Defines the Catholic Church?

Homily for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time

It would be interesting to take a poll of all of the people in our area, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and ask them this question:  “How would you define the Catholic Church?”  My sense that for many people in our area, especially our young people, the definition of the Catholic Church they would give would be quite superficial.  Maybe they would begin with the hierarchy – the pope and bishops, they might mention Jesus - perhaps they would highlight the social teachings of the Church – maybe some of the main beliefs that we profess each week in the creed.

But I wonder how many would say something like: “It is the group of people who in Baptism God has adopted as his sons and daughters and who he feeds with the body and blood of his Son so that they are made into members of his body working to redeem and sanctify the world.”

Alright -  no one would say that.  I don’t think I would even come up with that off the top of my head.  I had some time to think about it when I was working on the homily.   But this is the definition that Jesus gives us in the Gospel today: the Church, his followers, are those he feeds so that they can faithfully live in him, carrying out his work in the world.

How can we work to help our culture rediscover the right definition, the truth about the Catholic faith?  How will our society encounter in us, in our Church, not just a set of beliefs or an institution, but a doorway, a gate through which God leads all men and women to the green pastures of intimate union with him?  

Maybe some would say that we should do an advertising campaign, hire pr consultants, or work on our branding.  And perhaps some of these steps might help.  But the reality is much more simple and challenging: our culture will see the truth about us when we live it.  When we, as St. Paul urges us in our second reading today, put away the old self of our former ways of life, and are renewed in the spirit of our minds and put on the new self, created in God’s way of righteousness and holiness of truth.

When we show in our lives that we are men and women nourished by heavenly food.
When we stop at least in the morning and evening for a substantial period of time to speak with Christ who is our source of nourishment and strength.
When we choose to turn off the television and leave aside browsing online and instead spend time and effort working to understand and live the lessons of the sacred scriptures and the lives of the saints.
When we set up routines in our families that place common prayer and engagement in the life of the parish first, and let extracurricular and social engagements and entertainment time come second.
When we resolve to find the help we need in confession and with learned men and women of faith, not settling for sinful habits or a mediocre life, but seeking true holiness and union with God no matter the personal cost.
When we actively seek out ways to be of service to others with our time, gifts, and finances more than seeking ways that others can be of service to us.
When we sacrifice in order to make our relationships with our wives and husbands, our children and parents, a top priority.
When we prioritize community with our brothers and sisters in Christ, whose encouragement and support we need and who we are meant to support and encourage in living the Christian life.
And when we courageously stand against bigotry, gossip, deceitfulness, manipulations, and hatred in the workplace, at home, in our friendships, in our community, and especially in our parish.

Do people know that you are Catholic?  How?  I have a feeling most people figure out that I am.  But what about the rest of us?  I hope that it’s not just because they see our cars parked here for Mass on Sunday.  I hope it’s not because we sometimes wear a t-shirt from a Catholic event or have a wall calendar of the popes, or because they have overheard us arguing about a church teaching.  Any definition of the Catholic faith based on such superficial observations will be horribly impoverished.

Our children, our neighbors, our community need to see in us the witness of a truly different kind of life.  And so our parish must continually ask itself: Is it clear by the choices that we make each day that Jesus Christ is the source of our deepest nourishment and strength – the beginning and end of each day?  Do we seek to do his work, his will, above all things, to be faithful to him in all that we do and say?  Are we devoted to one another, who have been made brothers and sisters to one another in Christ?  Can the world see, when they look upon us, that we are members of a body that is nourished with of a new and different kind of food –
a food that comes from heaven, a food that unites us to God and one another and makes us sharers in his work?

The credibility of our faith demands that Christians not lower the bar, settling for a mediocre secular life.  St. Paul urges us all: Put away the old self of your former way of life, be renewed in the spirit of your minds and put on the new self.  May our witness show the world that what defines the Church is not principally the hierarchy or controversial teachings, but a beautiful, generous, compassionate, courageous divine life lived and shared among those who are nourished by Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Needing To Be Fed

Homily for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Eating is a very strange activity, when you think about it.  Absorbing another thing into your body.  That’s probably why so many horror movies have to do with something eating something else.  The idea that you would consume another thing that was alive – that you would chew the life out of some vegetable. 
I remember some bumper sticker that asked if carrots screamed when you pulled them out of the ground. 

It is strange, if you step back for a moment and think about it, that in order to live we have to feed on other living things.  Why didn’t God just make it so that we absorbed energy from the sun?  Or why not that we could just chew on rocks or dirt?  Or why not just make us water or air powered?  I’m sure that’s what we would do, if we were in charge of putting together little human creatures – try to make them self-sufficient.   Instead, look how we ended up: needing to eat, needing to be fed.  Why?

Our Responsorial Psalm today speaks to our dependence upon God: The eyes of all look hopefully to you and you give them their food in due season. 

The psalmist’s reflection teaches us something important: our hunger, our needing to be fed, is not a sign of weakness, is not a punishment given to us by God.  No, because we know of God’s goodness, we can see that our dependence upon him is actually a blessed gateway that God has built into our world so that he can demonstrate his love for us.  Hunger opens us to receive  his gifts, it makes us raise our eyes for a moment and look to the one who is the source of our nourishment.  Our need to be fed is a blessing that opens us to God’s providential love. 

And so hunger is not the worst of evils – instead, it is a lack of hunger that is in fact revealed as the greatest threat to us. Think of one of the most common symptoms of depression: lack of hunger.  Think of one of the great signs of illness: no appetite.  It was not a group of 100 full and contented people that Elisha fed.  It was not a crowd of 5,000 sated and happy people that Jesus fed.  They were hungry.  And it was their hunger that caused their eyes to look upon him, waiting for him to give them the food that they needed.

But we have a hard time thinking that way, don’t we?  Because it is sometimes painful, we see hunger as a curse, a state to be avoided at all costs – we work hard to make sure that our families are never hungry, that we are as close as we can be to full all the time.  And we avoid not just hunger, but any dependency, any longing or unfulfilled need.  Our culture teaches us that the successful person is a self-sufficient person, one who is not in desperate need of God, though maybe does glance up from time to time to thank him.  That God is not so much our provider and source of life as he is our enabler, our collaborator.  That he helps us with the things we’re working to achieve, but that we don’t need him to survive, strictly speaking.  To kneel and beg?  Isn’t that for the sinful and desperate?  An action beneath our dignity?

No, no it’s not.  Kneeling and begging is just fine with Jesus, and in fact it is only to kneelers and beggars – people who are directly dependent upon him – that God can offer his gifts. 

And so the readings challenge us today to ask: do we acknowledge and live our dependence upon God?  And I don’t mean just in some vague, abstract sense. As we hear in today’s Psalm: are our eyes hopefully upon him, waiting for him to give us what we need in due season? 
Do we place our trust in him and cultivate in our prayer and in our lifestyle a dependence upon him at each hour of the day?  Do we recognize our need to be nourished and forgiven by life of Christ poured out for us in the sacraments? 

If the crowd of 5,000 had, as it sat before our Lord, decided that there was no way that Jesus could take care of them and that they should figure out amongst themselves what was best to eat – if they had voted and all chipped in and pulled something together – maybe they got the local kebab vendor to come over.  Would they have eaten that evening?  Well yes, I imagine, they would have, and maybe they wouldn’t have had to wait so long. 

But would their eyes have been as closely fixed upon Jesus as he broke the bread and said the blessing?  Would Jesus have been able to show them, in their dependency and hunger, such a great sign and miracle of the Eucharist and of God’s providential care for them, or would they have gone away believing that they had to take care of themselves?  Would Jesus have had the opportunity to give them more than they needed – rich and poor alike – so much that there were 12 wicker baskets left over, or would many that day have left hungry after the kebab guy ran out of food?

Listen to the words of the great St. Augustine as he commented on the psalm we hear today:

Focus your minds, brothers and sisters, on this great God. 
What was God meaning to do when he made heaven and earth, the sea, and all the creatures in them?  Perhaps someone may say “I see all these great things, to be sure: But does God regard me as one of the things he made?  Does he really care about me among all these?  Is God even aware of me now?  Does he know whether I am alive?”  What are you saying?  Do not let such wicked ideas creep into your heart, be not lukewarm doubters who despair and stop believing that God takes account of them.  If God took the trouble to create you, will he not take the trouble to re-create you?  Is not he who made heaven and earth and sea your God?