Friday, December 2, 2016

"FREELY YOU HAVE RECEIVED, FREELY GIVE."


Homily for December 3rd, 2015: Matthew 9:35-10:1,5a, 6-8.       

          “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give,” Jesus tells us. Or, as another translation has it: “Freely you have received, freely give.” Can you think of something that is all your own, and not a gift from God? Many people might cite their achievements, the money they have earned, the awards they may have received. Would any of that be possible without the talents and abilities God has given us? When you stop to think about it, everything we have is given to us by God. There is one exception: our sins. They are all our own. Everything else comes ultimately from God – not because we are good enough to deserve God’s gifts – for none of us is. God showers his gifts on us not as rewards for being good, but simply because He is so good that he wants to share his goodness and love with us. 

          What is the appropriate response? We can describe it in a single word: thanksgiving. Here’s a question we all need to ask ourselves from time to time: Am I a thankful person? If we are people of prayer – and you would hardly be here if you weren’t – then we’re probably pretty good at asking God for things. Are we equally good at saying “Thank you,” when our requests are granted?

I was born before universal air travel. In my childhood I remember hearing about the Pastor of a wealthy parish who regretted that so many of his parishioners were lost at sea every summer. When they asked him, How come? he explained: “Lots of my people ask every June for Masses for a safe passage to Europe. Come Labor Day I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Masses of thanksgiving requested for a safe return.”

What is the best way to thank God for all his gifts? The closing words of our gospel reading tell us: “Freely you have received, freely give.” In other words: we can’t keep God’s gifts, unless we give them away.” And it gets even better. When we do give them away, they come back to us. If you doubt that, just try it!

 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"DO YOU BELIEVE I CAN DO THIS?"


Homily for December 2nd, 2016: Matthew 9:27-31         

          “Do you believe that I can do this?” Jesus asks the two blind men who ask for healing. “Yes, Lord,” they respond. This declaration of faith is crucial. Faith opens us up to the action of God, as the sunshine opens up the flowers to the sun’s life giving warmth and the morning dew. Jesus reaffirms the close connection between faith and healing when he says: “Let it be done to you according to your faith.” Whereupon he touches the two and they are immediately healed.

          Now comes a surprise. “See that no one knows this,” he commands. Why? Bible scholars have been puzzling over this question ever since the gospels were written. The most convincing answer seems to be that Jesus did not wish to be known as a sensational wonder-worker. If all those who preach Jesus Christ today were to follow his example, a number of hot gospelers on TV have to go off the air. In Jesus’ day many of his people thought that when the long awaited Messiah came, he would be a person of power and glory. The only power that Jesus had was the power of love. His only glory was acceptance of the cross – an instrument of shame, degradation and death.

          Pope Benedict gives perhaps the best explanation for Jesus’ unwillingness to reveal his true identity until after his resurrection. Identifying himself publicly as Messiah, the anointed servant of God, “would undoubtedly have been misinterpreted in the public climate of Israel [Pope Benedict writes] and would necessarily have led to false hopes in him and on the other hand to political action against him. … The true Messiah is the ‘Son of Man,’ who is condemned to death as the precondition for his entrance into glory as the one who rose from death after three days.” (Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, pp. 297f)

          The two newly healed blind men know nothing of all this, of course. Overwhelmed with gratitude for their newfound sight, “they went out [Matthew tells us] and spread word of him throughout all that land.” Now, after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection has removed all false expectations of the Messiah, Jesus invites us to do the same: with words when necessary, but in any case through a joy no less intense and contagious than that of the two men in today’s gospel: previously blind, but now able to see.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

HOPE'S BASIS, AND ITS FRUITS


Dec. 6th, 2016: Second Sunday in Advent Year A.
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15;4-9; Matt. 3:1-12.
AIM:  To instill hope by showing how the celebration of God’s mighty acts assures us of their continuation and inspires us to work for justice.
 
          Why do we Christians still read the Old Testament? Hasn’t Christ’s coming made those dusty old books obsolete? Many people ask those questions. Paul answers them when he writes in our second reading: “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by patient endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Scriptures Paul is talking about are the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament. The New Testament did not exist in Paul’s day. 
          We’ll look in a moment at just what Paul meant when he said that the Old Testament scriptures encourage us to have hope. First, however, we must note that the Old Testament is incomplete. It looks forward to a fulfillment in the future.  Today’s first reading, describing the ideal king from the family of David, is a good example of this future orientation. The king Isaiah writes about in that first reading had not yet appeared. Isaiah looked forward confidently to his future coming.
          The New Testament proclaims that in Jesus Christ this future has arrived. John the Baptist makes this claim in today’s gospel when he says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Even the New Testament, however, which proclaims the fulfillment of all the old promises of God’s decisive intervention in history, still looks forward to the completion of this intervention, when Christ returns in glory at what the first letter of Peter calls “the consummation of all things” (4:7). 
          Both parts of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, look forward. Yet both also constantly recall the past by telling and re-telling the story of God’s “mighty acts” on behalf of his people. Central in the religion which Jesus learned
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from Mary and Joseph, and at the synagogue school in Nazareth, was the recalling of Israel’s most important feast, the Passover, the greatest of all God’s mighty acts: the deliverance of his people from their oppressors in Egypt.
          Trapped between the advancing Egyptian army and the waters which blocked their flight, God’s people had experienced their own deliverance, and their enemies’ destruction. Recalling and celebrating that mighty act in the Passover ritual each year, Jesus’ people believed –and faithful Jews believe today – that the unique, unrepeatable event from the past becomes, through its liturgical celebration, a living reality in the present.
          Why is it is important for us to know this? Because we Catholics believe the same about the Eucharist. The Mass is not merely a mental recalling of the Last Supper and Calvary. It makes these unrepeatable past events, through which Christ won our salvation, a living reality in the present. The reliving, through liturgical celebration, of the past event assures us, the worshipers, that the God who delivered his people from certain death long ago remains today – and for all future time – the same: the God of the impossible, whose characteristic work it is to bring life out of death.
          That is why the Scriptures, Old and New Testament alike, delight to recall God’s “mighty acts.” They reveal who God is: not just who he was, but (because God cannot change) who he is today, and will be for all time to come. At the heart of biblical faith is the conviction that God’s mighty acts in the past contain the assurance of further saving acts in the present and future. For us Christians, therefore, the Old Testament will never become obsolete. Its record of God’s acts in the past gives us hope for the present, and points us toward the future.
          We are not to await that future passively, however. Too often Christians have cultivated a false “other-worldliness” which treats this world as a ‘vale of tears’ through which we must trudge mournfully to get to heaven. Such a spirituality removes the hope we derive from God’s past mighty acts from this world to heaven. Karl Marx, the intellectual father of communism, called that kind of religion “the opium of the people.” And in that at least Marx was right. 
          Of course biblical faith teaches that the complete fulfillment of hope belongs not to this world but to heaven. But because we are already, through baptism, “citizens of heaven”, as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians (3:20), we are called to establish “colonies of heaven” here on earth. 
          Answering this call means working for the justice and peace described by Isaiah in powerful images in our first reading. There Isaiah prophesies a descendant of the great King David who will “judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.” His reign, when it comes, will establish world peace, symbolized by Isaiah’s prophecy that under this ideal king “there shall be no harm or ruin ... for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the water covers the sea.”
          When the Pope and the bishops speak, therefore, about issues of social justice – protecting the unborn and the aged, the poor and oppressed, and correcting unjust structures of society which produce these evils – they are not mixing up religion and politics, as their critics inside the Church and out like to claim. People who contend that religious leaders should speak only about spiritual matters would make religion into a purely private affair – something like stamp collecting, bird watching, or jogging – for people who happen to like that kind of thing. A religion that never ventures out of the four walls of the church into the rough and tumble of the public square is irrelevant or worse. Karl Marx was right to call such a religion the opium of the people: something used by the powerful to blindfold people to injustice here and now by promising them pie-in-the-sky-when-they die. Only to the extent that we are willing to work here and now for the justice and peace of which Isaiah speaks in our first reading do we become people capable of receiving that perfect justice and peace which come from God alone.
          In the gospel we heard John the Baptist’s summons to this task: “Repent ... Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Luke’s gospel describes the kind of repentance John demanded. The well off were to share with the poor. Tax collectors were to stop exploiting people. Soldiers must not steal or accuse people falsely. (Luke 3:10-14) In John’s day such demands were just as controversial and unpopular as statements about social justice by the Pope and our bishops are in certain quarters today. 
          John warned that those who reject his summons to repent are like a tree which is cut down because it bears no fruit; or like the chaff which is burned up once the wheat, which alone has value, has been separated from it. Translated into modern terms John’s teaching tells us that our attitude toward the world in which we live is determining, even now, whether we belong to the chaff which the wind blows away; or to the grain which the Lord of the harvest, Jesus Christ, will gather into his heavenly Father’s barn.
          Here in the Eucharist we celebrate and relive our Passover deliverance at Calvary: the ground of our hope for the present and for the future. As the Eucharist ends, Jesus, our high priest, sends us forth into his Father’s world with the commission described by Paul in our second reading: “with one accord [and] one voice [to] glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” by working for his justice and his peace.
 

TWO HOUSES


Homily for December 1st, 2016: Matthew 7:21, 24-27.

          “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus tells us, “but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Who are the people who say, “Lord, Lord”? We are! Every time we pray – and your presence here shows that you do pray – we are saying, “Lord, Lord.” God asks for more, Jesus is telling us. If our prayers do not bear fruit in our lives, they are useless.

          The parable of the two houses which follows shows the difference between words and deeds. It may reflect something Jesus himself had witnessed: a house built on sandy, low lying ground, swept away by heavy rains and storms. Those of us who live in the Mississippi valley witness that every decade or so. Houses built, despite all previous experience, on the floodplain are swept away, or rendered uninhabitable, when the Father of Waters, as the native Americans called the river, overflows its banks. Meanwhile, those who build on higher ground, with solid foundations, experience no loss at all.

          What does it mean to build on sand? It means basing our lives and hopes on things that are unstable and fleeting: money, success, fame – even health and prosperity. To build on rock means to build our lives on God. The Bible often compares God to solid rock. We have an example in today’s first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, “Trust in the Lord forever,” he writes, “for the Lord is an eternal Rock.” Simply calling out ‘Lord, Lord,” is useless, if the good things we do are not done for Him, but for our own glory, to impress other people.

          Here is a prayer written by a man who built on God: Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, a hero to his people for defending them, at great personal cost, during the German occupation of World War I. It goes like this: “O Holy Spirit, Beloved of my soul, I adore you. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do. Give me your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that you desire of me and to accept all that you permit to happen to me. Let me only know your will. Amen.”

          I pray that prayer myself, every day.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"COME AFTER ME."


Homily for November 30th, 2016: Matthew 4:18-22.

Simon and his brother Andrew were fishermen. Yet at Jesus’ call, they immediately leave their nets and boat and follow him. Their nets and boat were their livelihood, their security. They were burning their bridges behind them. Why? If we could have asked them, I think they might have said something like this: “You would have to have known this man Jesus. There was something about him that made it impossible to say No.”

God still calls today. He called each one of us when we were still in our mothers’ wombs. He calls us to walk with him, to be so full of his love that others will see the joy on our faces and want what we have. Christianity, it has been said, cannot be taught.  It must be caught.

          Perhaps you’re thinking: “I could never do that.” You’re wrong. Here is a list that came to me in an e-mail, years ago, of some of the great people in the Bible. Every one of them had a reason for thinking God could not use them. So the next time you feel like God can’t use you, remember: 

“Noah was a drunk. Abraham was too old. Isaac was a daydreamer. Jacob was a liar. Leah was ugly. Joseph was abused by his brothers. Moses had a stuttering problem.  Gideon was afraid. Sampson had long hair and was a womanizer. Rahab was a prostitute.  Jeremiah and Timothy thought they were too young. David had an extra-marital affair and was a murderer. Elijah was suicidal. Isaiah thought himself unworthy. Jonah ran away from God’s call. Naomi was a widow. Job went bankrupt. Martha was a perpetual worrier. The Samaritan woman who spoke with Jesus at the well was five times divorced. Zaccheus was too small. Peter denied Christ. The disciples fell asleep while praying. At Jesus’ arrest, they all forsook him and fled. Paul was too religious. Timothy had an ulcer. And Lazarus was dead!” 

          So what’s your excuse? Whatever it may be, God can still use you to your full potential. Besides, you aren’t the message. You’re only the messenger.

          When you were born, you were crying, and everyone around you was smiling. Start today (if you haven’t started already) living your life so that when you die, you’re the only one smiling, and everyone around you is crying.

Monday, November 28, 2016

THINGS HIDDDEN FROM THE WISE AND LEARNED.


Homily for November 29th, 2016: Luke 10:21-24.

          The seventy-two have just returned from their missionary journeys to tell Jesus: “Even the demons are subject to us” (Luke 10:17). Jesus responds with the spontaneous hymn of praise to his heavenly Father which we have just heard: “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike.” The wise and learned are those who fail to respond to Jesus, because they feel no need for God. Jesus’ disciples are the childlike, whose hearts and minds are open to the Lord.

          Who are today's wise and learned? They teach in our elite universities; they run the great foundations, with names like Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates. They dominate Hollywood and the media. With few exceptions they consider the killing of unborn children whose birth might be an inconvenience to be a wonderful advance in humanity’s ascent from ignorance and superstition to enlightenment and freedom. They charge those of us who consider abortion for any reason a crime and a grave sin with waging a “war on women.” They look down with patronizing scorn, disbelief, and hatred on those who insist that life is precious at every stage: in the womb, but also in old age, when Grandma’s mind has gone ahead of her, and her meaningful life is over. When we contend that marriage is the union of one man and one woman; and that re-defining marriage is an injustice to children, who have a right to a father and a mother, they denounce us as bigots.

          Who, on the other hand, are today’s childlike? We are! We pray in this Mass that our merciful and loving Lord may keep us always so: aware that we can never make it on our own; that we are dependent every day, every hour, and every minute on the One who came to show us what the invisible God is like; who always walks with us on the journey of life; and who is waiting for each one of us at the end of the road – to welcome us home!

 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"LORD, I AM NOT WORTHY . . . "


Homily for Nov. 28th, 2016. Matt. 8:5-11.

          Immediately before the healing story we have just heard, Jesus has healed a leper by reaching out and touching him. Obedient to the law of his people, Jesus sends the man to the priests in the Jerusalem Temple. Jewish priests were also quarantine officials. With a priestly certificate of good health the leper, previously bound to live apart from others, lest they too become infected, could enter society again. There is irony here: later it would be Jewish priests who would conspire the arrest Jesus.

          The centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant is a Gentile military officer. This is clear from his response when Jesus says he will come to heal the servant. The officer shows both courtesy to Jesus and respect for the Jewish law by saying: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.” He knows that in entering a Gentile house Jesus could become ritually unclean. So he suggests an alternative: “Only say the word and my servant will be healed.” I do that all the time, he says. I give orders to those under my authority, and they do what I command.

          Upon hearing these words, Matthew tells us, Jesus “was amazed.” Normally it is the witnesses who are amazed at Jesus’ healings. Here it is the Lord himself who shows amazement. I have not found faith like this from my own people, Jesus says. This outsider, who has neither our divine law, nor our prophets, he tells the people, shows greater faith than you do. The words which follow about people coming from east and west to take seats at God’s heavenly banquet alongside Israel’s heroes are a prophecy of the Church. Originally a sect within Judaism, the Church would break out of its Jewish womb to become the worldwide community of Gentiles as well.

          The centurion’s words continue to resound two millennia later. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” we say before we approach the Lord’s table to receive his Body and Blood, “but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” Even after a good confession, we are still unworthy of the Lord’s gift. He gives himself to us for one reason: not because we are good enough; but because he is so good that he longs to share his love with us.   

         

 

Friday, November 25, 2016

"PRAY ALWAYS."


Homily for November 26th, 2016: Luke 21:34-36.

          On this last day of the year in the Church’s calendar she gives us this short gospel reading from Luke’s gospel, just two verses. It contains Jesus’ command: “Be vigilant at all times and pray.” What wonderful advice to take with us, as we cross the threshold of a new year. 

          But is it realistic? Can we pray always? I asked that question myself sixty-seven years ago, as a 21-year-old seminarian. The question forced itself on me through the reading a spiritual classic: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. He was a Carmelite lay brother who worked in the kitchen of his monastery in Paris, where he died in 1691. The book tells on how Brother Lawrence was constantly thinking of God, and praying to him, as he worked all day in the kitchen.

Could I do that? I asked myself. What if I decided to think of God during some daily recurring activity? After several false starts I resolved to think of God every time I went up or downstairs. I resolved to turn to the Lord God whenever I went up or downstairs. I would repeat the holy name of Jesus at each step. I’ve been working on this now for 67 years. I could never tell you how much it has helped me and how much joy it has put into my heart.

Why not try doing something like that yourself? If prayer of the stairs doesn’t appeal to you, what about resolving to turn to God whenever, during the day, you must wait? Every day offers us many such times. We wait in line at the post office or bank, at the supermarket, at the doctor, in traffic – when we walk to or from our cars. Why not turn these empty times into times for prayer? Short prayers are best: “Jesus, help me;” “Thank you, Lord;” “Lord, have mercy.” Or simply the Holy Names, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph” – or the name of Jesus alone – repeated with every step, every breath, or every heartbeat. These are perfect prayers which take us straight into presence of Him who loves us more than we can ever imagine, and who is close to us always, even when we stray far from Him.

I leave you with two quotations from Brother Lawrence: “In order to know God we must often think of him; and when we come to love him, we shall then think of him often, for our heart will be where our treasure is.”

To which Brother Lawrence adds: “You need not cry very loud. God is closer to us than we think.”