Monday, October 21, 2013

Intimacy is not Built or Maintained on a Whim

Homily for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

Most of us have fixed points in our days – specific times and routines that are a part of daily life.  For most of us, we have some kind of work routine – a time when we must arrive, a time that we have lunch, a time when we are done.  Some of you are in school and have to navigate class schedules and due dates and fixed exam times.  Many of you are parents who have various fixed points surrounding your children: times that they need to be at school, the times of sports practices or games or various other activities.  And many of you are who are a little older are on medications that must be taken at regular intervals – before or after meals, in the morning or the evening or at other prescribed times.  And then there are a whole host of other fixed points that many of us are aware of: the times when stores open and close, the times of t.v. shows or sports games, the schedules for buses and other forms of transportation.  And of course there is Mass and the time for confession and religious education each week here in the parish.

Life is a maze of fixed points, of routines – and by and large we manage to navigate them.  Every once in a while we get mixed up and miss something, but in general most of us live an adult life that moves from one fixed point to another, and in fact we would consider someone who is incapable of meeting the fixed points around them as lacking in maturity or virtue.

And this would be all well and good in a monastery.  Because in a monastery there are fixed points of prayer and community throughout the day.  At morning, noon, evening, and night the bells in the tower ring and everything gets dropped and abandoned as the community comes together in the chapel for prayer.  Meals are likewise fixed points in the day, usually they follow the times of prayer.  And there are also times of recreation that usually follow meals.  And so there is a prayerful pace of life that the walls of a monastery foster and sustain for those who live inside.

But we don’t live in a monastery… we live in a secular culture that has almost no fixed points that direct us to God during the day.  We might say “well, this is what it is to live in the world, we’re not monks.  We have to make our lives a prayer, we have to pray as we can, we have to fit it in along the way.” That is right, in a sense. That is true.  We do have to fit prayer in to a busy and distracted and secular world.

But when we fit prayer into our day, it can’t all be willy nilly, haphazard and always distracted.  And this is because a “Howdy God” here and a “Hey can you help me on this” there just can’t sustain a healthy Christian life.  It is too superficial, it doesn’t have roots that are deep enough to sustain our Catholic faith and way of life.
If we allow our prayer to become shallow and fragmented, pretty soon we will find that Christ’s teaching has become confusing and hard to understand, that more often than not we are just suffering through Mass, that we have begun to doubt God’s faithfulness or in the reality of the sacraments, and have started to resent the sacrifices that are required in order to follow him.

And this makes sense, doesn’t it?  Those of you who are married know this.  A real relationship, true love cannot exist without moments of undistracted attention, without real listening, without real speaking from the heart.  Intimacy is not built or maintained on a whim.  It is not something that you just fit in when you can, when you can get to it.  If you don’t regularly put everything else aside and give your attention in an undistracted way, even if not for a long time, then the relationship starts to become superficial.  It starts to feel fake.  Soon, especially if that relationship makes any demands upon us, we wonder why we are bothering.

Prayer is the same way.  If we are not setting aside deliberate and undistracted time for prayer, we will begin to lose our connection to God and start to wonder why we are bothering to practice our faith at all.

I am convinced that the real reason that so many Catholics have left the practice of the faith in recent decades is almost entirely due to a lack of prayer in daily life.  In our second reading today we hear St. Paul pleading: “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed.  I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient.”

Can we do that if we don’t know Christ well?  If we just exchange a few haphazard words as we pass through the day?  No.  It’s not possible.  Our faith will be stunted or lost altogether – either it will be dead as we sit here in the pews or soon we won’t even make it through the doors after a while.

I started by talking about fixed points.  And about monasteries.  We don’t live in them.  But all the same, I hope you can see how critical it is that we be serious about praying.  This week I read an article by Peter Kreeft on prayer.  He is a college professor who lives a busy life.  Here are a few of his thoughts about prayer:

“The major obstacle in most of our lives to just saying yes to prayer, the most popular and powerful excuse we give for not praying, or not praying more, or not praying regularly, is that we have no time.”  He writes. “The only effective answer to that excuse, I find, is a kind of murder. You have to kill something, you have to say no to something else, in order to make time to pray. Of course, you will never find time to pray, you have to make time to pray. And that means unmaking something else.”

“Deciding to do that is the first thing. And you probably won’t decide to do it, only wish to do it, unless you see prayer for what it is: a matter of life or death, your lifeline to God, to life itself.”

Christ tells us in the Gospel that it is a necessity that we pray always without becoming weary.”  A Christian must live a daily existence that is prayerful.  And I think we could say that there is no greater challenge, and no greater joy than achieving a solid prayer life in the midst of the daily routines of a world that no longer has any fixed points that help us turn to God.

You and I must make fixed points of prayer in our day.  Not haphazard, not leftover scraps.  But usually I find it must be in the morning and somewhere we can be undisturbed.  It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be a particular thing.  Even if you just sit by yourself and listen, or read, or whatever.  Just chock out some God time, schedule it, insist on it.  Perhaps your children or your wives and husbands or friends will be frustrated at times, it will be inconvenient at times, you will be frustrated at times.  But by our persistence we will be witnessing to our families and to our world that our relationship with Christ is serious, that we are not playing around here.  That God is the one who sustains us.  We acknowledge and proclaim this fact when we pray.

Think of the people around you, your family and friends.  Think about how it would impact you if you saw them set aside time each day to pray – if you saw that they were serious about prayer.  If you witnessed your husband, your wife, your father or mother, your daughter or son, consciously and deliberately turn to God each day in prayer.  Is that not an incredibly reassuring and grounding thought?  Prayer isn’t just good for us.  It also assures and bolsters those around us because it roots us in God who is steadfast and faithful, and makes us a source of strength and assurance for others.  Without disciplined prayer we are like sponges that have no integrity, that soak up everything around us and can be shaped and molded by anything that comes our way. Fixed times of prayer provide structure to life and make us into living stones that God can use to anchor our families, church, and community.  So encourage one another, help one another to pray, like Aaron and Hur who helped Moses to keep his arms raised up.  To quote Peter Kreeft: “The single most important piece of advice I know about prayer is also the simplest: Just do it!”

Monday, October 14, 2013

Clubhouse of the Ineffable?

Homily for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

This past week I started yet another debate on facebook.  I like to post links to various articles and things that I am reading, and inevitably someone makes a comment, and then someone comments on that, and next thing you know, you have a conversation thread with over 100 entries of people arguing back and forth on a given issue.  And sometimes the comments can be quite enlightening…

In this particular debate, for example, one of the contributors defined a church as a “clubhouse of the ineffable.”  And I thought of this definition when I read the readings for Mass this weekend.

Because our readings this weekend demonstrate that this idea of a church as a clubhouse is entirely opposed to a Judeo-Christian understanding of who we are and what defines us as men and women of faith, and more specifically as followers of Christ.

Naaman is a Syrian, he is not a member of the club.  And the leper who returns to glorify God after he is healed is a Samaritan, a foreigner, not a member of the club.  Yet Christ says “Stand up and go, your faith has saved you.”

And it is not as if these are the only two examples in the scriptures.
The Old Testament is full of prophetic visions that speak of all people from every nation, from the north, south, east and west, streaming into Jerusalem.  The Jewish people understood that the covenant entrusted to them was meant to extend one day to all people – that their covenant with the Lord did not form a clubhouse for a few chosen, but a sanctuary for all people.

Jesus not only underlines this idea, but he just hammers it again and again.  Need we think of the parable of the Good Samaritan?  His scandalous conversations with the Samaritan woman at the well, his declaring that the pagan centurion had more faith than all of Israel?

Clubhouse?  No, no, no… Christ despised the idea of the church being a clubhouse.  He went after those who acted as if they were the leaders of a club, calling them hypocrites and turning over their tables.

And the Church, from its earliest years, took note.  St. Paul immediately saw that Christians need not be members of the Jewish community.  And the first bishops viciously fought Gnostic attempts to make the Church into some kind of esoteric secret society for the chosen few.
The Church is Catholic, they declared – it is universal.  Christ’s life, his salvation, true Christian religion must be Catholic, must extend to all people.  To be Christian is to be Catholic – the Church cannot be a club, because Christ clearly taught that the person refused membership, who is left outside the gate - is him.

Yet the perception that churches are clubhouses of the ineffable – this is a common perception today, isn’t it?  I think of all the people who say “Well, I’m not a religious person.”  Isn’t what they often mean “I’m not the type to belong to a religious club.”?  I worship God without the rules and dues and politics.  Clubs are so often characterized by politics, by egos, by who can do what and who can’t do what, who has power and who doesn’t.  Especially younger people today - they can’t stand clubs – they don’t join them.  And they shun organized religion as if it were another club.

So let’s look at the New Evangelization.  How many times it seems that the question those promoting the New Evangelization are asking is “How can we get more people to come and be a member of our club?  “The Evangelicals are getting everyone to be a part of their club – look at how cool it is: they are doing all these great things for their members.  What are we doing for our members?”
So many of our protestant friends understand church in this way.  They call those who go to their churches ‘members’ and if they switch churches, they change ‘membership.’  And we sometimes see these huge mega-churches and all of the neat activities that they provide to their members.  So is that what the New Evangelization is about, figuring out what we can do to provide a competitive religious experience in our churches and get people to switch membership to our Catholic club?

No, no, no!  I don’t know how to be more emphatic about this!  That is a dead end!  It is not Catholic, it is not even Christian.  Christianity is universal, it is Catholic, it is for everyone – there are no members, there are no insiders and outsiders, it is the furthest thing from a club!

And this is because what makes us the Church is not us!  We are made into the Church by Christ, who gathers us into one and makes us members of his body.  It is not we who choose him, but he who chooses us.  He gives us faith – and as we see in the readings today, his gift of faith transcends the boundaries of any earthly clubhouse.  Our identity is in Christ, we are HIS people, members of HIS flock, the flock that HE shepherds and gathers from among all the nations.  Our Psalm response today proclaims loudly “The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.”

So if a church, if St. Joseph’s is not a clubhouse, what is it?  Ahhh!  Now we are getting somewhere!  What would we call this place?  A place of encounter?  A visible sign and tangible expression of Christ’s saving work in our community?  A precious refuge and sanctuary freely offered to all people?  We could go on.  The second Vatican council calls the church a building of living stones, a sheepfold, a boat on the seas of life.   Pope Francis recently called local churches field hospitals.

But how many of our neighbors see this church that way?    I’m afraid not too many.  How do we show them the truth?  How do you and I witness to the Catholicity of our faith?

Two thoughts:
The first is that we must live a communion of life with Christ outside of these walls.  If we walk with Christ throughout the week, then it will be more clear to our community that this place is not a club, but instead a place where we come to celebrate and deepen and offer back to God the life that we live with him all week long.  When we live with Christ in daily life, the walls of our church become transparent to our community and it becomes clear that this cannot be a clubhouse, since there are no walls keeping Christ in or keeping them out – Christ walks freely with us wherever we are – he is not trapped in a clubhouse.

Secondly: the places that we build and the way we act in our churches is important in communicating our Catholicity.  There is a problematic trend in recent decades - we have been building our churches out in the suburbs, and have set them up in a way that increasingly resembles a country club.  The enthusiastic greeters at the door smile and say “Welcome to OUR church!”  which sounds an awful lot like “Welcome to OUR club!”  to those who visit.

Maybe what we should really be saying is “Welcome to your Church!  You didn’t even know it, but you have one!  We’ve been keeping it open for you and waiting for you to arrive!”
That’s one of the things that I loved about churches in Europe.  There, the churches are in the center of town and the door is always open.  There is no sense of membership – anyone wandering down the street, sometimes even a stray cat or dog, can wander in and find a place of prayer and refreshment.

Does this community see our church as their church?  That this is a building that we keep open for them?  Our churches must communicate catholicity: they must be understood to exist for all people in the community, regardless of their spiritual or religious background or leanings.  Everyone who lives in this town is a parishioner, either actually or potentially, because everyone who lives in this town is called to be a saint in Christ.  The membership requirement for Christ is that we be human.  Every single person who lives in this town meets that criteria, not just those who receive envelopes.

In our readings this weekend we hear the stories about how two foreigners, two outsiders, a Syrian and a Samaritan, are led by the Holy Spirit and are amazed and profoundly grateful to find healing and redemption in an encounter with the true God.  What about the outsiders of our day: our pagan and protestant friends and neighbors?  Are we trying to entice them to join our religious club?  Or are we trying to live in the Holy Spirit so that they will find Christ in us and be amazed and profoundly grateful for an encounter with the true God alive in the members of Christ’s body, the Catholic Church?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

So Where is Your Cross?

We had missionary sisters visiting and speaking in place of the homily this week, so I am instead posting a homily that I gave for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time back in 2010.  

Here is a link to the readings:

Jesus’ words in today’s gospel could not have been easy for his disciples to hear.  
He made it clear that discipleship, if it was to be genuine, would place an incredible demand on their lives, would bestow upon them certain duties and obligations – a heavy responsibility that they were called to shoulder.

No one that I know of likes to talk about the duties and obligations that come from being a person of faith – the demands that our faith places on our shoulders.  
I wonder if part of the reason for that is that there already seem to be so many duties and responsibilities that we all shoulder each day.
If we have children, they lay a claim on our lives – this is clear from the very first moments of the first child’s birth.  
You can never stop being a father or mother.
And while our parents are still living there are certainly duties and responsibilities that we have to them in turn – they brought us into this world, and we will always be indebted to them at a basic, natural level.  
Our brothers and sisters and other family lay a claim on our lives – though we have not chosen them, they are a part of our lives and we have an obligation to look out for their welfare.
If we are married, we have certain duties and responsibilities to our spouse – the promises made at the wedding make it clear that husband and wife have a mutual obligation to work for each others’ good.
And let’s not forget work – the demands that are made of us in order to keep food on the table.  Or the many different social obligations and responsibilities that we have – to friends, neighbors, to our community, our country, etc.  All of these areas lay claim on our lives, they limit what we do and the choices that we make, they often oblige us to do things that we do not want to do.

Do you feel the weight?  
With all of these demands placed upon us, with all of these pressures being brought to bear, life can sometimes feel so heavy, like such toil.  And we can be brought to the point where we wonder if we can keep our heads above water, if we can fulfill so many obligations without losing ourselves in the process.    
I think it was when she reached that point that my mom would sometimes threaten to run away from home.  

I imagine we’ve all been there, we’ve all arrived at the end of a long day only to be asked to give and give and give… more than we feel that we have.  Pushed to the point where we even had a hard time making sense of what was going on around us, 
to where we wondered if our own sanity would start to fail and our lives would start to fall apart.  Maybe it was the job, maybe a huge conflict with our spouse.  Maybe it was in struggling with illness, or in taking care of a loved one.  Maybe it was when the newborn was screaming all night or at 3 in the morning when the paper due the next morning was still in shambles.

In those moments – when there seems to be nothing left except the brutal weight of life’s demands on our shoulders and we feel the weight of them bearing down on us – that’s when we are carrying those crosses that Jesus is talking about.  

And in response to these demands, our Lord gives us only one path forward: pick it up and carry it.  If you want to be a follower of Christ, take up your cross and follow him.  Following his example of obedience and faithfulness, we are called to shoulder the burdens of life with courage, perseverance, and trust.  

I say trust because Christ promises us that it will be in those moments of abandonment to the will of the Lord, that we will be closest to him.  After all, he is very acquainted with crosses, he is the Lord of the cross.  And not only will be close to him, we will also become more self-aware – more aware of who God made us to be.  You want to see what it means to be a man, to be a woman?  Look to the cross.  We hold it up for a reason.  That is the crucified God in whose image and likeness in which we were made.  There is no other image and likeness – there is only one, the one that was crucified, Jesus Christ – true God and true man.

That is hard to accept, sometimes, though, isn’t it.  To accept the image and likeness of God on the cross.  We want to be made in the image and likeness of a God who does not suffer.  Of a God who is a happy angel who just floats away from pain and suffering and sin.  We like to think that God wouldn’t ask us to bear such things.  That he would keep us from having to endure such brutality.

But that’s not the way God is.  That’s not what Jesus showed us.  Instead of running or refusing to submit, Jesus humbled himself, even unto death, Saint Paul tells us in one place, and death on a cross.  Your heart, your mind, your body, your soul – they are made in that image and likeness: and so we can say that every human being is made to carry the cross.  Jesus Christ the cross-bearer is the pattern from which we are all made, who we are called to be.  

It follows, then, that when we do not submit, when we don’t take up our crosses, we become less human.  We betray our hearts, and minds, and bodies – because they are all made in the image and likeness of a cross-bearer.  And an interior conflict begins to eat away at us as we become more alienated from our very selves.  By refusing the cross, we refuse to be truly human.  

Meaning, fulfillment, life, joy – they can only flow from an embrace of the cross in this life.  The more we accept that abandonment, the more we let ourselves be nailed down, poured out for the sake of God and others - the more we will understand who we truly are, who we were made to be.  And the more we will be open to the grace and mission of Jesus Christ, who works through and in our submission to bring about his kingdom of new life in this world.  

Take up your cross and follow Christ.  There is no other way, no other image, no other likeness.  We cannot rise with the Lord if we have not died with him – if we have not carried the cross by his side.  Something deep within each of us that knows this truth – we’ve experienced it over and over.  The peace and fulfillment that comes in those times of greatest sacrifice.  But how often we need to be reminded!

I urge you to honestly ask yourselves, your families today: where are the crosses that you have refused to lift?  The crosses that you are pretending aren’t there or aren’t yours?  Where are the crosses that you are running from?  Where are the crosses that you carry halfheartedly and with resentment?  

Are your crosses too heavy?  You can’t carry them alone?  
Why do you think we’re here?  Why do you think Christ gave us his Church?  Why the Eucharist if not to feed us and give us strength, why Confession if not to help us when we falter?  Why the scriptures if not to give us encouragement?  Why one another if not to sustain each other in prayer and good works?
All these things, all of these gifts, all of this grace that we have received: it is all ordered to one purpose – to help us carry our crosses and follow Christ to new life.  

So where is your cross?  Get down on your knees and hoist those hard, heavy wooden crossbeams back on your shoulders.  Then rise to the full stature and dignity of your humanity: take up your cross and follow Christ.