Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tricked By God

"You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped..."  (Jeremiah 20:7)

There are days where it feels that we are the only Christians on the face of the earth.  We feel that we have given so much to our faith and to our God and end up with frustration, bewilderment, and yes, sometimes even anger at God.  Nobody listens.  It is lonely being a Catholic out in the world.  It is very easy in here within the sanctuary of our church, but out there it's a different story.  That is why the first reading and the plight of Jeremiah touches us so deeply.  We all have had a crisis of faith where we look up to the heavens and wonder where God is.  Jeremiah was at his wits end when he accuses God of tricking him into this life of prophecy which made him the object of laughter:  "All the day I am an object of laughter;  everyone mocks me (v. 8)."  We have felt this way in the past.  We give of ourselves to God and to his service, and we realize that this life is not easy.

The disciples must have realized this as well in today's Gospel.  In a continuation of last week's gospel, the disciples go from hearing Peter's confession about who Jesus really is to hearing that Jesus had to suffer and die.  Peter wants none of this and goes from being called "the Rock" a few verses earlier to being called Satan because he is thinking like human beings do and not thinking like God.  (Talk about being humbled quickly after being given the keys to the Kingdom.)  The disciples must have thought that life with Jesus was going to be easy.  They could not see the martyrdom that each of them, save one, would eventually endure for the sake of the Kingdom.  They did not realize that following Christ involves taking up our cross, denying ourselves and following him.  It entails laying down our life for our God and our faith.

Of course, this is not easy, but there are moments of triumph and glory along the way.  The disciples received in last week's Gospel an incredible truth that had to be shared:  Jesus is the Messiah!  When they became witnesses of the resurrection, they had to shout it from the rooftops.  Yes, it landed them in prison, but they joyfully accepted the challenges of proclaiming the Gospel.  Do we embrace this challenge with the same joy?  Sure we may complain at times like Jeremiah, but even in his lament, the prophet resigns himself to the fact that he cannot help but speak the truth even if he feels like never uttering the name of God again.  There is some beautiful imagery here at the end of the first reading:  "I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.  But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it."  We cannot hold the beauties of our faith in our hearts because they are meant to be shared.  Even though we may be inclined to push God away in moments of trial, we constantly return to Him because our hearts long for him.  Today, if it weren't a Sunday, we would be celebrating the feast of St. Augustine who famously said on the very first page of his Confessions:  "our heart is restless, until it rests in Thee."  

So yes, there will be days when we will feel like Jeremiah, duped or tricked by God, but He has a plan for us.  It may feel lonely at times to live this life of faith, but Pope Benedict XVI assured a million and a half young people in Madrid last week that we are not alone in this journey of faith.  There are brothers and sisters sitting around you that will help you endure the moments of trails and rejoice with you in the moments of triumph.  Jeremiah goes on to say later on in the same chapter that God will be his champion.  He will never abandon us.  He knows the way.  All we have to do is trust in His will, lay down our lives, take up our cross, and follow Him.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Question

"But who do you say that I am?"  (Mathew 16:15)

As a Christian, we must ask ourselves this question every day.  Who is Jesus?  Our answers evolve, expand, and deepen as we get to know our Lord.  There is a reason why we must daily ask ourselves this question that Jesus asked his disciples.  If our understanding of Jesus and our relationship with him does not evolve, then there is the danger of falling into a spiritual rut or into routine.  Not long ago, my confessor told me, “Beware routine.”  We cannot grow deeper in love with Jesus by just going through the motions.  So daily, this poor priest, kneels before the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus himself, and I ask:  Who is this Jesus?

This morning before any of us woke up, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated the Closing Mass of World Youth Day in Madrid with over a million young people.  He took the same path that I chose to take with my homily, but he is the Holy Father so I’ll let him do the talking:

Dear young people, today Christ is asking you the same question which he asked the Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?”  Respond to him with generosity and courage, as befits young hearts like your own.  Say to him: “Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me.  I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word.  You know me and you love me.  I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands.  I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me”.

In order to respond to Christ in this manner we need faith and lots of it.  In order to “put my whole life into your hands” we need to trust in Jesus who is inviting us into a deeper relationship with him.  The Pope said that he was moved by the great gathering of young people before him.  Every time I stand up here to celebrate Mass with so many young people, I am moved as well.  I see before me young men and women who united in their faith can transform the world.  Notice that I said united because we cannot do what God wants us to do on our own and the Pope echoed that this morning:

We cannot follow Jesus on our own.  Anyone who would be tempted to do so “on his own”, or to approach the life of faith with that kind of individualism so prevalent today, will risk never truly encountering Jesus, or will end up following a counterfeit Jesus.

Too many times we are seduced by individualistic and secular mindsets that the world leads us to.  We come to know Jesus as a community of faith, particularly here in the Breaking of the Bread.  We must get to know Jesus in communion with the Church.  We must resist the temptation of talking to God “my way” or “confessing directly to God” or any of the other individualistic ways we sometimes approach spirituality.  Jesus lived in a community, was strengthened by a community, and shared his Last Supper with a community.  As a priest, I draw strength not only from God but from all of you.  Yes, we must all individually answer the question, “who is Jesus?” but we do so in communion with the Church, and when we finally answer this question, the Holy Father tells us that we must share the Answer:

Friendship with Jesus will also lead you to bear witness to the faith wherever you are, even when it meets with rejection or indifference.  We cannot encounter Christ and not want to make him known to others.  So do not keep Christ to yourselves!  Share with others the joy of your faith.

As we begin a new school year this week, I invite you to continue asking yourself this question.  I tell my students time and time again, we cannot get to the Answer unless we ask the question.  Every morning this week, ask who Jesus is?  Deepen your faith.  Deepen your relationship with him.  And as the Pope implored the young people in Madrid:  “Do no keep Christ to yourselves!”  Share this Jesus and share your youthful joy with the world.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Prejudice and Persistence (8-18-08)

Just got back to the parish this evening.  Did not preach today, so here's my homily for today's readings from August 18, 2008.  God bless, Father Manny

"Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."   (Matthew 15:27)
The opening prayer of the mass always sets the tone for the liturgy and never more so than today.  The prayer starts off with the priest saying, "Let us pray with humility and persistence."  Then it proceeds to affirm that God's "care extends beyond the boundaries of race and nation.  May the walls, which prejudice raises between us, crumble beneath the shadow of your outstretched arm."  This goes to the heart of what today's gospel is about:  persistence overcoming prejudice.  Jesus initially brushes off the plea of the Canaanite woman to cure her daughter.  She approaches him with humility and persistence.  It was common for the Jewish people in the time of Jesus to refer to foreigners as dogs or even swine.  The disciples are insisting that Jesus dismiss the woman as if she were an annoying fly that keeps pestering them.  But her insistence and her faith ultimately gets her child healed.  She probably knew the fragile and hostile dynamic between the Israelites and the Canaanites all too well, so she just wants the leftovers hoping that will be enough to cure her daughter.  This is a teaching moment for Jesus as he underscores the limitations of his ministry to just the Israelites and reaches out to others just as St. Paul proclaims in the second reading calling himself an apostle to the Gentiles.  Paul seeks to bring the saving message of Christ to all peoples.  The gospel is filled with foreigners who recognize who Jesus truly is:  the Samaritan Woman, the Roman Centurion, the Canaanite woman in today's gospel, and at the foot of the cross, the centurion who testifies, "Truly, this was the Son of God."  (Matthew 27:54)

It must have been hard for the disciples to witness this interaction between Jesus and this woman because after all, weren't they the privileged ones?  Weren't they the ones that were supposed to hold "exclusive rights" to all the blessings that come from God?  Yet it is the dogs and the swine that recognize Jesus as the Christ and testify that he was the Son of God.  They were doing more to help spread the Good News than the Israelites.  Such it is in our time when members of other denominations are doing more to spread the Gospel than we are.  If you turn on your T.V. on Sunday morning, you see countless Christian preachers proclaiming God's word, not one of them Catholic.  I did a little research thanks to TV Guide and on Sunday morning you can hear the word of God preached on free TV on 16 different programs between 6am and 12:00 p.m.  The only Catholic program is the Mass is at 6:30 am on Spanish TV and nowhere to be found on English TV unless you have EWTN because our English Mass has been relegated to the Internet.  [Since this was first written, we have brought the English Mass back to free TV at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings.] We've surrendered the TV airwaves to other denominations.  So I do feel a bit like the disciples in the gospel, I thank God that other denominations are preaching Christ, but, I'll admit it, am a little jealous that the Catholic message is not being promoted with the same fervor as say one Christian church in Broward which had three shows on this morning.  Why don't Catholics have the same fervor that these Christians brothers and sisters have in promoting the Word of God on TV?  It's not just about spreading the Word in the media.  We build up so many walls around us that it is difficult for us to be true heralds of the gospel.  What are we doing to tear down the walls that separate us?  What are we doing to bring others to the table?  My fear is that if we don't do anything to spread the Good News, we're going to be the ones on the outside looking in hoping and praying for the scraps that fall off the Master's table.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Chocolate Chip Cookies Always Get Me in Trouble (8-11-08)

Not preaching the next two weekends, so went back into the archive and found this from August 11, 2008.  I wrote this while I was Vocations Director and living at the seminary:

"But when [Peter] saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"  Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" (Matthew 14:30-31)"

The parishioners of my first parish know that I have an affinity for homemade chocolate chip cookies.  I remember getting angry when my pastor would eat the last one of a batch someone had made for me us even though he didn't have much of a sweet tooth.  Yesterday, when I went over for dinner at the seminary, I knew there were some cookies that were baked on Friday stored away in the fridge.  Now since its a big kitchen, we have a walk-in fridge that is huge.  I walked in to get the tray of cookies and the big refrigerator door closed behind me.  I really didn't pay much attention to the door because my hungry eyes were fixed on the cookies.  When I got finally had the cookies in my hand, I turned to walk out and reached for the emergency hatch to let me out, except was broken.  I kept jigglying it and turning it over and over and over again, but the door wouldn't open.  I started banging on the door and started thinking that the cook was frying my dinner some 20-25 feet from the door and the seminarians were all the way in the dining room.  I banged on the door again, and then reached into my pocket to get my cell phone which I started to fumble with my hand.  All of the sudden the door opened and the cook found me with my cell phone in one hand and two chocolate chip cookies in the other.  "Father," he said, "you're pale!"  I started going on and on about the latch being broken and he started laughing and said, "Father, the latch isn't broken.  If you wanted to open the door, all you had to do was push."  Doh!

It was that simple!  And it was simple for Peter.  If he wanted to walk on water, all he had to do was keep his eyes fixed on the Lord and ignore the wind and the waves around him.  Except he couldn't.  Not many of us can.  We know the Lord is there.  We know he is going to take care of us, but the storms in our lives distract us from keeping our eyes fixed on him.  I made light of some cookies that got this greedy little priest in trouble, but what distracts us that gets us in trouble?  What distracts us that prompts us to sink in fear like Peter?  Yet despite our fears, the Lord continues to assure us, "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid. (Matthew 14:27)"  Again, easier said than done because whenever our faith is tested we tend to sink more often than allowing ourselves to be embraced by the caring presence of our God.  Yet, he is there.  We may not see him, we may ignore him, we may even look the other way to focus on the storms and the sitcom-ish predicaments we get ourselves into, but we must never doubt that when the storms in our lives die down, the Lord will be right there with us to remind us that he has never left our side.