Monday, September 30, 2013

The Aisles Must Have Room for Stretchers and Crutches

Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

Something kind of jumped out at me as I read this parable of the rich man and Lazarus in preparation for this weekend: the rich man knew Lazarus’ name and he recognized him, even across the great abyss between heaven and hell.

This fact brings up all kinds of questions.  How many times did he pass Lazarus at that gate?  How often did he see him?  He had learned his name...  Maybe he felt pity for him, maybe he felt bad walking past him.  Maybe he didn’t like to look at him – perhaps he resented the fact that it was his gate that Lazarus had chosen for his spot to beg.

This parable brings to the foreground so many questions about social responsibility, about what it means to love our neighbor.

Christ has told us that whatever we do for the least, we do for him.  And the inverse is true as well, whatever we have not done for the least, we have not done for him.

How can we not take this parable very seriously?  There are beggars on the side of the street that we drive by each day.  There are struggling families here in our community that are dealing with all kinds of issues, from substance abuse problems to mental health issues to deeper spiritual issues.  Maybe some of us live in these situations ourselves, but by and large I have noticed that most of you who come to Mass on Sunday seem to be pretty put together: well fed, well dressed, and by and large socially main stream.  Or you dress up nice, anyway.  But it doesn’t take but a quick drive through the downtown of Augusta to realize that that’s not everyone in our community, is it?

Now the Catholic Church in this country has traditionally been the church of the poor, the church of the immigrant.  All of the old churches – people talk about how today they are in the bad parts of town – well they were always in the bad parts of town because that is where the Catholics lived.  They wouldn’t let us build the Catholic Churches in the good parts of town – I remember reading in Bangor they refused to let them build downtown because they didn’t want drunk Irishmen laying in the gutters and carousing in the streets.  Catholics were not considered to be polite society in the mid-1800s.  We were the ruffians, the riff raff.

But that’s not the case today, is it?  In the 70s and 80s we started building our churches in these suburban neighborhoods, where Catholics were now living.  After the GI bill, Kennedy and Fulton Sheen, Catholics had integrated into mainstream America and were now living the American dream.  And by and large this is still the Church that we have in Maine – it’s different in other parts of the country where there are large Hispanic or other Ethnic populations, but here I would say that our experience of Catholic life is decidedly middle class.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being middle class.  But we need to take a look at this parable, don’t we?  Do people who are poor or living in dysfunctional situations feel like they can come here?  When they look at our churches, when they see us drive into our parking lots and enter these doors, what do they think of all of this?  Do they feel like they could walk in with us?

The parish office is on the top of sand hill.  That’s a rough neighborhood.  There are a lot of Lazaruses there – I can hear them out my window – they have mouths like sailors.  Christ has told us that we cannot be indifferent to our brothers and sisters who are suffering or who are in difficulty.  We cannot just pass them by on our way to church, feeling sorry for them.

In recent years we have professionalized our outreach to the poor, sending those who are suffering to institutions where people are paid to care.  And many of us support these ministries with a check, and that is important because many of them do work that we could not do, but can a referral to a social service agency, whether it be Catholic or state run, really satisfy our duty to the poor among us?  I don’t think so.  You cannot delegate compassion.  Our duty to Lazarus is personal, it is about dignity, it is about whether we acknowledge the humanity of the poor and afflicted or whether we pass them by.   Christ is clear: our parish, our Church must be a place of refuge for those who suffer and are afflicted: we ourselves must be a source of help and encouragement to the Lazaruses of our day.

Pope Francis in the recent interview that caused a big stir put it this way: our Church, the parish, must be like a field hospital: a place where those who are suffering, who are injured, who are addicted or who are tormented, can find the healing and redemption and the encounter with Christ that they seek.  The church cannot be our private club, he said, the place where only those who have their lives in order feel welcome. The Aisles of our churches must always have room for stretchers and crutches.

What does that mean for you and I?  I’m not sure.  Many of us are older.  It’s not as if we can just walk into a poor neighborhood and start ministering to those in need.  And I am not convinced that those who are poor in our community need our money or our handouts to begin with.  Our government is pretty good about providing basic care.  The issues that really are harming people, the issues that are really afflicting them in our time are spiritual in nature.  So many Lazaruses today are afflicted with broken families, mental health issues, addictions, sinful habits, and an immense spiritual poverty.  They need Christ.  They need compassion, love, and a home where they can encounter God – a community that cares about them, cares about helping them to find God and find happiness – that sees in them the face of Christ and treats them with dignity.

A first step for all of us I think must be interior: that we work to see the face of Christ in Lazarus, to leave behind any sense of superiority, distain, prejudice, animosity, judgementalism, or indifference.  And we should pray for the courage and the strength to reach out to Lazarus with compassion and without fear.  Just this prayer alone will accomplish incredible wonders in our community if we take it seriously.

And as we go about this interior work, there are some exterior steps we can take too.  Maybe we work to leave the comfort of our homes more often, to simply go to the gates of our society and spend time there - prioritize being a part of our community.  Many of us do not even know Lazarus’ name.  We are in worse shape than the rich man in the Gospel.  At least he took the time to know the man’s name.  Who are your neighbors?  Who are your co-workers?  Who are the people struggling at the gates of our town?
I am convinced that if we pray and place ourselves at the gate, Christ to show us how to approach the Lazaruses of our community, how to show them that our spiritual home, our church, is also their home, their church.  To tell them about how Christ has come to heal the broken, to save what is lost.  To explain to them that Christ’s merciful love is the only reason we are all here – because in one way or another we are all Lazarus.

Make Friends with Dishonest Wealth

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013

What a fascinating parable Christ tells in the Gospel today, one that certainly causes us to think.  Certainly Christ is not recommending that we steal from our employers or that we be dishonest, right?  So what are we to learn from this parable?

There are two lessons that I would like to focus on today.

The first has to do with our identity.  In the parable, the Master represents God and our relationship to him is compared to that of being stewards.  And this understanding of the human person, of our identity and situation in this world is already a teaching in and of itself.  Because we live in a world that is constantly trying to tell us that we are the masters, don’t we?  Because our world is fallen, our wealth and blessings, which of course are really not of our own creation, often masquerade as if they were.  And I think this is why Christ calls worldly wealth ‘dishonest.’  It is as if someone came in and took all the little ‘made in heaven’ stickers off the things of this world and instead replaced them with new, fraudulent ‘made by you’ stickers.  How easy it is, as individuals, as families, as communities, even as a country, to begin to think that we are responsible for creating our own earthly wealth, to think that we are self-made men and women.  Particularly in our time, when we have so much wealth, when we are so prosperous – it is so easy to forget our dependence upon God for all that we have.  Reminds me of the rich man from another parable that Christ told, who was very successful and built those new big barns to house all his wealth before settling back and saying to himself “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”

I’m not sure if you recall what God said to him.  “You fool.”  That’s a direct quote.  “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”  You fool: you were taken in by dishonest wealth, it got the best of you, it fooled you into thinking you were the master, that it was your permanent possession.

No, Christ teaches us: we are stewards, stewards of wealth that is not our own, that is temporary, that is on loan to us.  All the blessings that we receive and live in this world are given to us by God.  He gives us the natural world to take care of and cultivate and through our work to create things that are good and beautiful.  But these things, this world, is entrusted to us as a stewardship, not as a possession.  Everything is son loan.  Temporary.  Even our own lives.

So this is the first lesson: that of our identity: we are stewards indebted to a master.  But the parable doesn’t end there.  The second lesson has to do with how God expects us to carry out the stewardship that has been entrusted to us.

And I find this to be the really interesting part of this parable.  Because in many places, when speaking of riches or earthly wealth, Christ told his disciples “Go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, then come follow me.”  His guidance in many cases was to be as detached as possible from dishonest wealth so that it would not distract from proclaiming the kingdom. 

This is clearly the guidance that many Christians are called to follow, the radical embrace of poverty that points to the kingdom of God and frees us from any snares or traps involving earthly wealth.  From the first days up until now the Church has raised up men and women who have taken a vow to live this kind of poverty as a witness to the treasures of heaven.  You probably know men and women religious who don’t own a thing.  The clothing that they wear, the car they drive, everything down to their toothbrushes is owned by their community, is owned in common. 

But this kind of radical poverty is not possible for most of us, and most of us have not been called to live this evangelical counsel of poverty in such an intense and beautiful way.  And that is why this parable seems to apply in a particular way to us.  Listen to what our Lord says about what a good steward does with the dishonest wealth entrusted to him: “Make for yourselves friends with dishonest wealth.”

And this is a beautiful thought and description of the purpose of earthly treasure, isn’t it?  How many times we hear such a different message: that earthly wealth is given to us to make us successful, to make us more comfortable, to help us be more financially secure, to give us opportunities.  That being a good steward of earthly wealth basically means that we are careful not to compromise our financial security, or the financial security of our families. 

But Christ shows us the absurdity of this idea.  Security, he shows us, is not something that we can aquire with wealth.  At the end of our lives it does not matter how much we make, how much we set aside: we will not be able to afford the ticket for heaven.  Heaven cannot be purchased with dishonest money.  The currency of heaven is love. 

And so the wise steward uses dishonest wealth in service of the currency of heaven.  He uses his time and treasure in the service of friendship: friendship with his or her spouse, with children, with parents, with neighbors and friends, coworkers and members of the parish, with the poor and the needy.  Prudent stewardship in this world places all dishonest, all earthly wealth, in the service of God and neighbor. 

At the conclusion of a Catholic wedding there is a beautiful blessing for the newly married couple beginning their stewardship together, and it is my prayer for all of you today:  “May you always bear witness to the love of God in this world so that the afflicted and the needy will find in you generous friends, and welcome you into the joys of heaven.  Amen.”

Was the Prodigal Son Sorry?

Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I think that we often assume that he prodigal son was truly remorseful and was looking forward to being home.  That he had repented fully of his errors and was looking forward to walking the straight and narrow.
But it is interesting to note what the prodigal son did not say as he came to his senses in that pig sty: he didn’t say “I really miss my family.”  He didn’t say “I am so sorry for what I’ve done.”  In fact, his rehearsed statement is pretty self-interested and stiff and formal: no affection is expressed.  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I no longer deserve to be called your son, treat me as one of your hired hands.”  Now, perhaps these words express some contrition or sorrow for his sins – but it is not clear that there was really a change of heart in the young man.  In fact, we have good reason to think that he wasn’t too excited about going home – after all, it wasn’t until he was absolutely desperate – until he was starving to death – that he finally decided to return to his father’s house.  It is clear that he recognized that he was in dire need and had a better shot at finding mercy with his father, but it is not clear that he had a deep love or concern for him.

Contrition is the term that we use to speak of remorse or sorrow for one’s sins.  And in our tradition you may have heard of the distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition: and this is really what we are asking about this prodigal son: was his contrition perfect or imperfect?

Because Christians realized from the very beginning that many different things can make us sorry for our sins. Normally, when we have done something wrong we experience what is called imperfect contrition, or the natural effects of sin.  It may be that we become remorseful for our sins because they have brought suffering upon us, as was the case of the prodigal son in today’s Gospel passage.  It may be that we regret what we’ve done because we are worried that we will suffer punishment in the future, like when the whole city of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah because they were afraid of the destruction of their city.  Or it may be that we repent because the revolting and ugly reality of our sins suddenly becomes apparent to us, as in the case of King David, when he repented after recognizing the evil he had inflicted on Uriah the Hittite.
These are all examples of what we call imperfect contrition: a sorrow for sin that is natural and is most common in this world.

But because of Christ and his grace at work in us, we are also given the ability to experience what we call perfect contrition when we recognize our sins.  Perfect contrition is also a sorrow for sin, but it is a sorrow that is rooted in our love of God.

When we love God, when we want to do his will and follow his commands, our sins cause us sorrow because they separate us from the one who we love.  And more than anything else, more than the fact that our sins cause us to suffer or that they are ugly and destructive - more than what our sins do to us, we are most concerned about what they do to our intimacy with Christ, an intimacy that we prize above all things.

I think that many parents experience this kind of contrition when they do something to injure their children: they are not worried about the consequences of their failure for themselves – they worry about the fact that they have injured the child who they love more than the world.

But I think if we are honest, the reality is that many of us, like the prodigal son, do not always or even often have perfect contrition for our sins.  Many times we are contrite because we are ashamed or we are suffering or we are afraid of the repercussions for what we have done.  Our love for God and desire to do his will is sometimes weak.  Sometimes our desires are mixed.

And I think that is why Jesus teaches us with the parables that we hear in the Gospel today.  He teaches us two important things:

The first is that our sorrow for sin does not have to be perfect for God to forgive us.
The father of the prodigal son was not a fool – he knew that his son had not returned because he missed him but because he was starving on his own.  And yet the Father didn’t say “Oh, I can tell you are just saying all of these things so that you can get something to eat – you want me now that you need me.  Well, I’m not going to be used by you, you’re on your own.”  No, the father represents our Heavenly Father who is faithful and loving even when we are not capable of loving him in return.  He knows that sometimes we turn to him for selfish reasons.  Sometimes we repent because we are afraid.  Sometimes we are sorry for our sins because our egos have been injured.  Sometimes we turn to him because we are hurting and we have nowhere else to go.

But while imperfect contrition is not ideal, it is still good because it brings us back to him, which is what we really need and what God wants.  That’s why in the sacrament of confession, perfect contrition is not required, even if it is what we pray for.  We pray that we would always turn to God in repentance because of our love for him, but God doesn’t require our love in order to shower us with his love.  He loves us first, he reaches out to us first, he seeks out the lost lamb who has wandered away from the 99, he searches for the coin amid the floorboards.  More than anything he just wants us back.

And yet this is the secondthing that Christ’s parables teach us: that God’s mercy is always inviting us into a deeper communion of love.  Into an intimacy with him that will make our sorrow for sin pure, that will make our contrition perfect.  That is why Christ tells us these stories, these parables – to show us the goodness of God, to show us our Heavenly Father’s merciful love so that we will come to love him and praise him for his goodness and not be so worried about saving our own hides, so worried about our suffering or feeling ashamed.  That in hearing of God’s mercy, in experiencing his love, love and gratitude will grow in us.  And we will more and more each day be overtaken with love for our God who has reached out to us even when we were struggling on the horizon, lost in the dark, or stuck in the floorboards.

We don’t know the state of the prodigal son’s contrition as he journeyed home.  But I have a sense that when he saw his father running out to meet him, something changed inside of him.  The words that he had been rehearsing – well he got them out, more or less.  But their meaning changed, because his heart changed when he saw his father’s love.  He no regretted his sins merely because of the suffering and pain they had inflicted upon him, but now he experienced a new sorrow for how his actions had injured his father’s love.  Experiencing his father’s loving mercy changed the prodigal son’s sorrow and perfected it.

Christ teaches us of our Heavenly Father’s merciful love in these parables and he allows us to experience this mercy and love in the sacrament of Penance.  As we experience of our Heavenly Father’s mercy, may our contrition be perfected: may we regret our sins not merely because of how they harm us, but more importantly because of how they contradict our love for God.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Vying for Seats of Honor

Homily from the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013

We might imagine the scene at the banquet that Christ encountered in today's Gospel and that prompted his remarks.  Why would the guests be vying for places of honor?  What might have been their motivation?  Let’s look at a few possible guests who are fighting over seats:

Maybe the first is from a family that has been in town for generations.  He is from a big family that has always looked out for their neighbors and has run a good and honest business.  Looking around the room, he could point to an instance in which either he or one of his family members has reached out to help each of the guests around that table.  Some of them work for him or rely on his business.  He has been active in building up the community and is clearly one of the leaders in the town.  Of course he would never fight someone for the seat of honor, but it is clear to him that everyone in the room expects him to take the place of honor because of his standing in the community.  In a sense it is his responsibility, his duty to take one of the places of honor.

But he finds another guest in his way: a guest who is new in the community and doesn’t know as many people.  He would love to sit up where the important people are so that they can really get a sense of his abilities and how blessed his family is.  He makes sure to tell Ezra from the Camel store about how his son was just accepted into the most prestigious pharisaic school in all of Judea. 
And his wife has made the most wonderful desert for everyone.  He has lots of stories to tell.  He is sure that they will love to hear about them – and in fact, he is happy to allow his family and his success to be an inspiration to the others.

But there is a third guest who stands in his way, also vying for a seat of honor.  The last time he was at one of these wedding banquets, Eli the butcher started talking down his carpentry shop, saying his chairs broke after a few months and his tables always wobbled.  The last time that he was at one of these weddings, he got stuck with Josh the stable boy on one side, and Jake, the shepherd on the other.  He had learned all he ever wanted to know about the dietary restrictions for sheep while missing out on all the important conversation at the other end of the table.  Securing a place of honor will keep him connected to the important people instead of ending up in the riff raff section again.

Perhaps these are a few portraits of what drives these men playing musical chairs at a wedding feast:
A sense of entitlement and pride
A desire for acceptance and honor
A fear of being ostracized and left behind.
But notice: they are all blind: they have lost sight of the whole purpose of a banquet: which is to come together and enjoy a meal with your friends.  Instead they are filled with rivalries and jealousies.  They see one another as competitors, and any appearance of friendship between them is just that: appearance.  Their anxiety as they vie for the few miserable scraps of honor and recognition and comfort keeps them from entering into a true communion of life, a communion that can only be fed and nurtured by a mutual desire for heavenly food.

Jesus proposes a different seating arrangement for all of us who are gathered together at this table.  At the banquet of the heavenly feast that he sets before us, Christ encourages us to seek the food that truly nourishes, to seek first the kingdom of God.

In place of the seat of entitlement and pride in earthly success, Christ leads his guests to the seat of humility.  Those who take the seat of humility stand before God with gratitude for his many gifts and look to generously share those gifts with others.  He encourages us to work to raise up others, to give others a chance to have the places of honor.  To remember that in truth we are not entitled to anything because everything that we have and are is an undeserved gift from God.

In place of the desire for acceptance and honor, Christ brings us to the seat of piety: he reminds us that earthly praise is fleeting: that we should seek to please God above all: that we belong to him, that the praise of the angels and the saints is far more valuable than the mere recognition of earthly rulers.

And in place of a fear of being ostracized of left behind, Christ leads us to his own seat, the seat of the outcast, of the stranger, of the mocked, of the scorned, of the ridiculed – and he invites us to join him for the true banquet.  To take our place with the angels and all of the often scorned and overlooked saints who are seated at the table of the Lord, sharing in the joy of his love, singing hymns of praise, and drawn together in an eternal harmony of friendship and peace.