Monday, September 24, 2012

Service to The Least Teaches a Peace From Above

Homily from the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The readings this weekend couldn’t come at a better time as we enter into the last months of a very contentious election year and come to the end of such a tumultuous week in international relations.

Most every one of us, I’m sure, would say that we are sick of the negativity that seems to dominate the headlines – the rivalry, the constant antagonism.  It is a constant refrain on the street: the frustration with the tenor of social dialogue today.

But we still keep watching, don’t we?  We must, or else politicians wouldn’t keep running the adds, the stories of acrimony and division wouldn’t be picked up by the media outlets.  The next juicy tidbit and our ears perk up, maybe even despite us.  What?  He said what?  They did what?  The outrage!  What a travesty!

And if it’s not politics, then so often something else presents itself as the latest source of drama in our lives:  workplace dynamics, competitive sports, family issues, gossip among friends, and even, parish rumors.  Drama at every turn, and we don’t always do our best to avoid it.

In fact, many times if we’re honest, we don’t try to avoid it at all.  And this speaks to a built in contradiction in each of us:  as much as we all sympathize with the statement, “Can’t we all just get along?,” the minute that someone is not getting along all of our heads turn and we just have to know what’s happening.  How often we place ourselves in situations where we know our passions will be roused, sometimes even under the mistaken impression that being engaged in this constant struggle makes us more fully alive.

St. James was clearly speaking to this dysfunctional contradiction in the human person when he wrote to the community of Christians in the letter we heard today.  They were overcome with rivalries and conflict – their passions were aroused, St. James wrote, making war within their members.

And this same dynamic, the passions at war, had overtaken the disciples on their way to Capernaum.  Jesus had just finished speaking about his coming passion and death.  Instead of talking about that, they were obsessing and fighting about who was the greatest among them.

How easy it is to be swept into this river of passionate discord, at school, in the workplace, with friends and family, on the street, watching tv or browsing the internet!  The social dynamics at work make it very difficult not to be pulled into the fray, to become a part of the bitter drama that is unfolding.

But our Christian tradition is clear on this point.  Christ and those who have followed in his footsteps have insisted that the Church not to allow the good in the world, the love of God that is present among us, to be obscured in our midst by divisions and hatreds.  Christians cannot allow petty earthly rivalries and jealousies to draw their eyes away from Christ and his plan of salvation that is unfolding around us.  Instead, St. James urges us to seek a peace that comes from directing our passions and protecting our hearts so that they are not constantly being jerked around by the latest crisis, whether that be at home or in school or at work, in Washington DC or in north Africa.

Christ was clearly able to do this – to keep his eyes fixed on the will of his heavenly Father and on the needs of those around him, even while all hell was quite literally breaking lose.  And in our Gospel today, Jesus teaches his disciples how to keep from being swept away in worldly turmoil.
He tells them, seek to serve those around you – particularly those who are the least.  Christ showed his disciples and us that we should not fight a divisive culture by fleeing to the hills or monasteries, as tempting as that might be, but instead by seeking to serve the casualties of our culture, seeking to serve the least.

To serve those whose lives have been entirely overlooked and ignored because they don’t arouse the passion of other’s sympathy.  Those who suffer silently or alone and whose stories are like so many other stories that they never make it to the top of the news cycle.  Those who have been scarred when they were carelessly used as scapegoats or for the mere entertainment of others.  Those who have been ostracized and shunned because they have refused to participate in the denigration of others.  And yes, those who have perpetrated harm on others and carry with them the heavy burden of shame and guilty conscience.  To serve the least.

Christ commanded us to serve the least not only out of love for them, but also out of love for us.  He knew that in serving the least we are freed from the distractions of division and discord and find peace.  Our service to the least, in the midst of a society that cultivates and encourages the warring of passions, allows us to live and be rooted in what St. James calls a wisdom from above.  A wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, and without insincerity.  In a beautiful irony, God made our world in such a way that service to the least, to our children and those who are vulnerable in society, teaches us a peace that comes from above.  It is the least, it is our children who teach us to naturally shun what is evil and seek what is good.  To be passionate about learning, about being good, about making beautiful things come to life.  To desire to know not so much the faults of others as to hear stories about their virtues.  To speak the truth, regardless of the consequences.  And to love Christ about all things, simply because of how good and loving he is to us.

In a parish there is always a certain amount of conflict and discord, especially in our day when we are going through so many changes and living in such a crazy world.  I know that for Fr. Nadeau and I, and just about every priest I have ever talked to, it is our ministry to the least that keeps our lives in perspective, that keeps us from being overwhelmed by parish politics and focused on Christ and his work.  When we go to anoint someone who is dying, or when we are baptizing a little baby, or counseling someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one.  Or when I go to visit my nieces and my little nephew, who has just reached a stage in his life when at the sight of a crucifix he runs and points to it with great excitement, yelling at the top of his lungs: “Jesus!  Jesus!”

Monday, September 17, 2012

Throwing the Baker in the Batter

Homily for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

(Note: after giving this homily, I had a few other thoughts and tweaks that have been added to this online version)

“Who do you say that I am?”
Quite a question that Jesus asks of his disciples today.  We might rephrase it for ourselves in our day:  “What does faith mean to us?  How does being Catholic affect my life?  What does it mean to be a member of the Church?  What does it mean to have a Christian home, to live a Christian life?”

In our Gospel today, at first it seems that St. Peter gives the right answer: “You are the Christ.” But it doesn’t take long before he demonstrates by his resistance to Jesus’ prediction about the future that his thinking is horribly flawed.  We have to conclude that when Peter said that Jesus was the Christ, he had a very different understanding of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah, the promised one.   It seems clear that Peter thought that Jesus would be successful in this world – that he would bring happiness and peace to those who followed him.  Maybe that he would reward his disciples for their labors and would grant blessings to those he had chosen.  That being a follower of Christ could be a peaceful and blessed kind of life.  In short, when St. Peter answered “You are the Christ,” it seems that what he meant was “You are the one who will make us successful in life.”  And boy did he find out that was the wrong answer.

Now, unfortunately, it seems that we all are prone to the same error that St. Peter fell in to when responding to the gift of faith in our daily lives.  Like Peter, we can begin to think that faith in God is supposed to make us successful, or at least help us to be successful – to have God at your side so that you will be able to conquer whatever challenges are placed before you.
I think this is a common understanding in our world today –
to treat religion as a kind of leg up, like a good education or a healthy lifestyle.  We might hear it even in anecdotal statistics that are sometimes thrown around – “You know, people who believe in God are happier.”  “They are more able to handle life’s troubles.”
“People who are religious are less likely to be criminals and are more likely to volunteer and give to charities.”  When Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” in our world today, it seems that many people respond in one way or another “You are one of the things that is important to have in a successful life.”  Kind of like the ads “Got milk?”, “Got faith.”  One gives you strong bones, the other gives you a strong spirit.  If you want your children to be successful, you should make sure that they get to church and get their sacraments – they can decide later on what they want to do with it, but at least they’ll get a good start.

What does Jesus say to all of this?  “Get behind me, Satan.”  “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  Human beings see their lives in terms of worldly success.
Human beings so often try to use religion as a way to achieve their goals, to get what they want out of life.  Human beings are always tempted to think of God as one more ingredient in the recipe for a successful earthly life.  As one ingredient among many that can be added to life along with others to improve the taste of things.

How vehemently Jesus rejects this notion of faith, this notion of who he is for us, of what he brings to us.  No, Jesus Christ is not an ingredient in the recipe for a successful life.  His life is the bowl that all of the ingredients must be mixed inside, his love is the oven that purifies and prepares us and his pierced hands are the hands that serve us to the Father.  Without him, not a single ingredient makes sense.  Without him, life is just a bunch of meaningless stuff all thrown together with no binding purpose.

When we see how Christ emptied himself, forsaking all earthly success in order to carry out his loving plan of salvation, when  we look upon the cross, we realize that Christ did not come to grant us earthly success, but salvation.  That is why, after Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, Jesus speaks of the cross.  The specter of the cross, foreshadowed by Christ, exposed the inadequacy of Peter’s understanding of Jesus and revealed the true Christ: Christ who takes up his cross out of love for us and who dies in order to give us new life.  Christ who calls us to spend ourselves loving God and others even when such love jeopardizes our earthly success.

The cross shows us that following Christ is a love story, not a success story.  Our relationship with Christ, together as members of his body, his plan for us, is so much more profound and beautiful than mere earthly success that only lasts for the few short days that we wander around on this planet.

The cross makes it clear that we cannot treat Christ as just one more ingredient in a successful earthly life.  No, that is like asking the baker to jump into the batter.  Absurd!  Christ did not come to be an ingredient in our earthly success, but instead to call each of us to be the ingredients in his plan of salvation.

When Christ reveals his cross to us in our daily lives, how do we respond?  When he shows us that we must follow him by our willingness to forsake earthly success in pursuit of his plan of salvation, do we listen?  Or do we, like Peter, rebuke him, insisting that his plan of salvation fit into our plan for earthly success?  That he jump into our mix, instead of us jumping into his?  He asked St. Peter, and he asks each of us “Who do you say that I am?”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Most Important Work of Your Life

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012

Jesus’ teaching today reminds us that the most important work of the Christian is an interior work, the effort to purify and bring order to our inner lives with the help of God’s grace.  And he teaches us this lesson because he wants his disciples to find the freedom and happiness that comes from a purified and well-ordered heart.  He knows that when the heart is divided, when it is constantly distracted, when it is ruled by passions that are out of control, then we cannot find peace and joy and happiness.  And not only that, but those we love most, our families and our friends and community often bear the effects of our heart problems.
He reminds us that a pure heart not only gives peace and joy to us, but to everyone else who we encounter in life.

So I think we can logically conclude from our scriptures today that the most important thing that we can be working on, the most loving thing that we can do for those around us, is to work on our interior lives, to work on purifying and ordering our hearts.  If you want to love your husband or wife more, work on your spiritual life.  If you want to love your children more, work on your spiritual life.  If you want to love your friends and neighbors and coworkers and people you run into on the street, work on your spiritual life.  In short, just as the greatest act of love we can undertake for God is the love of others, so too, the greatest act of love we can undertake for others is to work on our love of God.  They are two sides to the same coin.

Wouldn't it be nice if this interior renewal could happen quickly and without a lot of work.  That God would just reach down one day and zap us – like a big Holy Spirit defibrillator: heavenly paddles put to the chest and zzzt… presto saint.  But real cleaning and ordering doesn't often happen like that, even if there are a few zaps along the way.  Instead, the path that most of us are called to follow is a gradual incline of interior renewal or conversion: a daily effort to fight against vice and grow in virtue.  In short, it’s work.  Don’t we all ask ourselves – I certainly do every day – am I really working on this hard enough?  Am I actively seeking open my heart to Christ and his will or is my effort to know and love him often far too halfhearted?  To have a pure and ordered heart: that is what I know I need and what those around me need in me more than anything – certainly as a priest.  But it is the same for all of us.  What are we doing about that – concretely - this evening, tomorrow morning, afternoon?

And so on this labor day weekend it is fitting that we speak a bit about this most important spiritual occupation, working with Christ to build an interior castle, a spiritual life that is fully alive and open to God’s grace.  But where to begin?  What are tools and method of this art of interior renewal, this work of spiritual construction?  Perhaps more clearly than anywhere, we find in the lives of the saints throughout the centuries the inspiration and clear witness as to how to carry out this work of interior conversion.  Today I thought we could just touch on three main elements.

1. First, the saints show us that we must work to know our destination: to know Christ, whose mind and heart were pure and ordered to the truth  and goodness of God’s will.  The more intimately we know Jesus, the more we are capable of seeing the destination that our hearts seek.  How do we come to know Christ intimately?  The fathers of the Church tell us that ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.  So first and foremost, we must work to immerse ourselves in the sacred scriptures, particularly in the Gospels.  But the scriptures do not interpret themselves, being that they are translated from 3 different languages and cultures of 2-3 thousand years ago that were very different from our own.  And so in our reading we have to rely on the guidance of the great doctors of the church, the moral and doctrinal tradition that has been handed on throughout the centuries, and the lived witness of the saints: all of whom help us to encounter the true Jesus Christ, rather than fall into the easy trap of fabricating an image of Jesus that conforms more to our own goals and desires than to the truth about him.  How often do you and I read scripture and scriptural commentaries, documents of the Church, or books on the lives of the saints?  If interior renewal is our goal, then this work of deepening our understanding of Christ is essential and we have to make it a priority.  How many bookmarks on our browser point us to sites that will help us to grow in the knowledge and love of our faith?

2. But it is not only this intellectual knowledge that we need, right?  We not only need to know where or to whom we’re going –
we also need his help getting there.  And this means that we need to listen to Jesus as he speaks directly to us so that the truth of who he is, what he thinks, and what he desires can begin to really change who we are and what we think, and what we desire.
The saints show us that this interior dialogue – heart to heart - happens through the sacraments, through fasting and other penitential practices, and through long hours of prayer.  Through these aspects of our Catholic life, Christ’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, leads us along the path to holiness.  The sacraments and our spiritual disciplines gradually instill in us the fortitude to persevere when we encounter our human weakness and failures, and to not settle for mediocrity in the spiritual life.  Over time God’s grace has the power to radically transform us through prayer and sacrament, making us less distracted with the trivial things in life, less prone to be overcome by destructive passions, less vulnerable to bouts of anxiety and fear, and more full of joy and hope and goodwill toward others.  Do we take time for prayer?  Real time – is it scheduled, does our day begin and end in prayer?  What about frequent confession and the regular reception of the Eucharist?  In our world, that pushes us in so many directions, it is easy to neglect these spiritual basics.
But if we are serious about interior renewal, for our sakes and the sake of those around us we need to put spiritual things first, and then let life settle in around that.

3. And finally, even  the most hermetic of hermits recognized that the interior can only be purified and ordered when it is constantly being given to those around us.  Christ teaches us continually throughout the Gospels that generous service to others and a sacrificial outpouring of one’s life to friend and neighbor is essential for an interior conversion of life.  We might put it this way: God can only purify and order your heart when you give it to him, not when you keep it buried in your chest.  Do the saints have pure hearts because they love, or do they love because they have pure hearts?  It’s kind of a chicken and egg question, but clearly the two go together.  What is clear is that in working to purify and order our hearts we must be concerned with the hearts of others.  When we give our heart to a brother or sister in need, Jesus tells us that we give it to him, and we know that when we give our hearts to Christ he works to purify them and order them and make them holy.
How much do we go out of our way to build community in our parish and in our neighborhood?  How much potential social time is gobbled up by vegging in front of a television of computer?  It’s easier to plop down on the couch, but you can’t love others from the couch.  Interior renewal means seeking out community, seeking opportunities to love others, and seeking Christian friendship so that we can encourage one another in the path to holiness.  This may be the greatest challenge to us today – building Christian community and culture.

As we look to the witness of the saints, to the instruction of  the scriptures and the witness of  our Catholic tradition, the pathway to interior conversion of life in Christ is pretty clearly revealed to us, it is not a great mystery like the Trinity.

But there is one mystery that each of us must sort out with God alone – and that is the path that we will choose each day.  Will we be hearers of the word only, deluding ourselves, St. Paul asks us today, or will we be doers of the word?  Will we be content with a basic knowledge of Christ, a mediocre prayer life, and kindness to those who are easy to be around?  Christ desires more for us because he knows our hearts and he knows that our hearts need more to find true joy and fulfillment.  That our hearts will be restless until they rest in him.  On this labor day weekend, let us recommit ourselves to the most important work of our lives: the work of building an interior castle, a temple for the Holy Spirit, a foundation that is solidly grounded in the joy and peace and truth of Christ’s love.