Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Religion of Hypocrites

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows* in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)

How do you practice your religion?  Religion is such a loaded word these days because people want us to keep it to ourselves.  I prefer the question: how do you live out your faith?  Because you see there is stodgy religion that can get in the way of our genuine relationship with God. This is exactly what is going on in the gospel today when the Pharisees and Scribes find Jesus' disciples eating with "unclean" hands. Jesus is quick to point out that these "laws" were enacted by the scribes and not given by God like the ones given to the people by God through Moses in the first reading. This ceremonial washing was a ritual or a custom that had developed that carried with it the stigma of being declared unclean or sinful if you did not follow these rituals to the tiniest letter of the law. Jesus calls them out as hypocrites because the ceremonial washings did not bring people closer to God but was an excuse for the Pharisees and the Scribes to lord over the people. 

Jesus calling the Pharisees hypocrites is something young people can relate to because they can spot a hypocrite a mile away.  In fact, many young people use this as an excuse for not coming to church: there are too many hypocrites.  I saw a great meme with Kevin Hart the other day that read:

We’re all hypocrites, including the priest that’s preaching to you, and the reason we are here is because we recognize that we sometimes fall short and are in need of God’s mercy.  The Pharisees had no room for that.  They were self-righteous, clean, pure, and looked down on everyone else.  There was no room in their hearts for taking care of the poorest among them because they were too busy lording over everyone with their rules.  Rules and rituals are important, but they shouldn’t hinder or be the end all be all of our relationship with God.  Just yesterday, a brother priest and I were swapping stories of parishioners who get bent out of shape when they see just the slightest liturgical error during the Mass.  (Listen, I am pretty strict on liturgical rules, but in 13 years of priesthood, I don’t think I’ve ever pitched a perfect game.)

So again rules are important, the commandments are important, but they are supposed to strengthen our relationship with and not hinder our relationship with him or our brothers and sisters.  So this is where St. James comes in.  He tells us that we must humbly, yes HUMBLY, listen to God’s word and be doers of that word and just not hearers deluding ourselves.  We have to humbly admit that we don’t have things figured out. That we are all still growing in our faith no matter how young or how old we are.  Why do I go around trying to get people out of their comfort zones when it comes to their faith? Because that’s what Jesus spent three years of his public life doing: calling people to get out of their little, rigid religion box and move into a deeper relationship with God.  (Side note: I blocked off the two extreme seating sections close to the back exits of the church this weekend with ropes because frankly those sections are not needed in most Masses and it caused people to actually sit closer to the altar.  To my surprise, everyone survived, but as I reflected on this on Sunday night, I realized that this gesture was in line with today’s readings.) 

We can’t continue doing what we are doing.  Religion does get in the way sometimes of genuine faith.  Rules can get in the way, if we let them, of a closer relationship with God.  We need to start DOING instead of just listening or pay lip service.  We need to care for the poor, feed the hungry, visit the sick, and as Pope Francis implored us this morning: pray for our fellow Christians who are dying at the hands of Muslim Extremists in the Middle East and Africa.  And above all, we must see Catholicism as more than a religion, for it is our faith and a way of life.  In the early Church, we were called the followers of “The Way.”  So let’s make Catholicism more attractive by our actions not just our words.  And let’s start with something one simple action this week: invite a fellow hypocrite to Mass next week.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Our House

“As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

This is our House.  This is where we come to worship every Sunday.  This is where our community comes to life on the Lord’s Day.  This is where we encounter the Living God.  This is such a special place.  In this House is where we become the “Immaculate Family.” On a personal note, this is where my heart is filled with joy when I see God’s House overflowing as it is this morning for our “Back to School Mass.” There is no place I feel more at home than when I behind the altar offering the Holy Sacrifice for all of you.  All our children are getting ready to embark on another school year of educational adventures, and parents, I thank you for bringing them here this morning to receive the Lord’s blessing as they start a new year.  You have brought them to this House so that they can go forth strengthened by God’s blessing.
But a visit to this House isn’t simply any ordinary visit.  It is a visit that should transform us.  It is a visit that should allow us to delve deeper into the mystery of Christ himself who so very part want to be at the center of your family, so I ask you:  “Is Christ the center of your family?”  Let me take it a step further and ask a more practical question:  “Is Christ the center of your Sunday?”  I know the Church is full this morning because announcements went out and plans were made well ahead of time, but why isn’t it this way every Sunday?  Isn’t this what the Lord deserves?  Or do we make other things the center of our Sundays?  Lest we forget, the third commandment: “Keep holy the Sabbath day.”  Do we make this day holy?  Or are we concerned with traveling with our kids to sporting events, dance competitions, to visit family (which is fine after Mass), or doing everything else and then leaving the Mass for the “if we have time” column?  You’ve heard me say it a thousand times: Holy Mass should be the center of our Sunday.  Everything else, all other events we have planned should revolve around when we go to Mass.  It is a day of rest after that.  A day to spend with family and friends continuing the communion that we have established here in this House.

Yet this is not always the case.  We get lured away by the things of this world.  This is what is happening to Joshua and his people in the first reading.  Joshua is the heir to Moses in leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, but he notices that their attention is being taken away from God and they are being distracted by other gods as they travel through foreign territories.  Joshua draws a line in the sand:

“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
A similar line in the sand is drawn by Jesus in today’s gospel.  For the last five weeks we’ve been hearing Jesus telling us that he is the bread of life come down from heaven, but today this teaching is starting to bother his listeners.  Jesus speaks harshly.  He wants committed followers but many don’t want that commitment and start to walk away.  This prompts Jesus to turn to the Twelve and ask: “Do you also want to go?”  Simon Peter responds: “To whom shall we go?”  Pope Francis made a distinction in Peter’s words this morning pointing out that Peter didn’t say “where shall we go?”  He said: “To whom shall we go?”  Who else is going to feed us like Jesus?  Who else is going to give us peace like Jesus?  Who is going to challenge us to live better lives like Jesus?

My friends, like Joshua and Jesus, I too am drawing a line in the sand this morning.  I want this church packed every Sunday. Jesus longs to see you here at this time in our House.  I long to see all of you here.  So since the Lord has placed me as the head of this household so to speak, I ask you: what is important to you when you wake up on Sunday morning?  Will you follow the way of the world or will you follow the way of the Lord?  “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord!”

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Anything Goes: The Lost Virtue of Obedience

“Therefore, do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:17)

Let’s face it.  We live in a world where pretty much anything goes.  We are taught to be independent, which is not a bad thing, we are to think for ourselves, which again is not a bad thing, but the consequences of these two things is that we ignore the wisdom of the past, of our elders, and make the same mistakes over and over again just to achieve what we think will make us happy.  Again, anything goes.  Kids don’t listen to their parents and slowly we grow to forget the virtue of obedience.  Obedience is almost anathema in society because we somehow believe being obedient is a sign of weakness.  Yet obedience is one of the constants throughout the life of Jesus and his mother Mary.  Through history, the great saints achieved eternal glory through obedience.  In the life of the Church, priests, deacons, and religious promise obedience to their superiors.  We do this because we want to be submissive to the will of God in our lives and allow Him to take us where he needs us and not to where we want to be.  Where He needs us is most often where we find happiness and peace.

St. Paul tells the Ephesians quite frankly in the second reading that we are living evil days.  If you read the news and listen to doomsday prophets you would think that St. Paul is talking about 2015 and not the mid-first century.  Now I must confess that I don’t subscribe to the all those that say the days we were are currently living are the most evil yet.  I like to look at the good happening in the world, but I do recognize that yes there is plenty of evil as well.  But you can apply St. Paul’s observation to pretty much any point in history since he wrote those words.  Today we see the degradation of the family, the persecution of Christians, the ravages of poverty in places that are forgotten, and I can go on but make no mistake that all of us can work to make this world a bit better if only we listen to the will of God.  We cannot live in ignorance, Paul tells us, we have to stand out and be exemplary Christians.  And in this weekend when we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we look to her as the model of what it means to be an exemplary Christian who helps us in our journey by teaching us the virtue of obedience to God.

This past Friday, the Church celebrated the feast of the martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe (for the sake of brevity in this homily, do yourself a favor and google his incredibly life and death).  St. Max was very devout to Mary Immaculate, our patroness, and writes beautifully on obedience and how it shaped the lives of Jesus and Mary:

Obedience is the one and the only way of wisdom and prudence for us to offer glory to God…Scripture set obedience as the theme of [Christ’s] life, repeatedly declaring that he came into the world to do his Father’s will.

Let us love our loving Father with all our hearts. Let our obedience increase that love, above all when it requires us to surrender our own will. Jesus Christ crucified is our sublime guide toward growth in God’s love.

We will learn this lesson more quickly through the Immaculate Virgin, whom God has made the dispenser of his mercy. It is beyond all doubt that Mary’s will represents to us the will of God himself. By dedicating ourselves to her we become in her hands instruments of God’s mercy even as she was such an instrument in God’s hands. We should let ourselves be guided and led by Mary and rest quiet and secure in her hands. She will watch out for us, provide for us, answer our needs of body and spirit; she will dissolve all our difficulties and worries.

Today we gather for Mass in obedience to the Lord’s command.  We are fed and strengthened by the bread of life, the flesh of the Son of Man.  This Eucharist helps us to follow the will of God more perfectly, to live the life of Christ more perfectly, and to live exemplary Christian lives more perfectly.  Yes, obedience is hard (take it from a priest), but the rewards for being obedient to God are eternal.  We entrust ourselves to Mary Immaculate who will “watch out for us” and who teaches us so perfectly the virtue of total obedience to the will of God.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

When God Squeezes Too Hard

“This is enough, O LORD! 1 Kings 19:4

Elijah had had enough.  He was a faithful prophet.  He had done all that the Lord had commanded him to do.  Yet, we find him in today’s first reading wishing for death.  How did he get to this point?  To answer this question we have to go to the previous chapter of the First Book of Kings: chapter 18.  There we see Elijah doing mighty deeds for the Lord.  There was a battle going on, so to speak, between Elijah and the prophets of the false gods.  All of Israel had been gathered at Mount Carmel where Elijah confronted Israel who had been unfaithful to God by worshiping these false gods. So on that mountain Elijah exhorted the people of Israel to choose whom to worship once and for all, and he challenged the 450 prophets of the false gods. They would both offer sacrifices of a young bull and both Elijah and the false prophets would call down fire to consume the sacrifice, “The Lord who answers with fire is God.”  The people consented.  Now Elijah knew how this would end, he knew that as soon as he called down fire from God, it would happen, just as sure as I know that as soon as I call the Holy Spirit down in a few minutes upon the bread and the wine that they will be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.  So Elijah, let the false prophets make their “prayers” first, in fact, Elijah taunted them “Call louder…perhaps your god is asleep.”  (Read 1 Kings 18; it’s all there.)  But of course, nothing happens, but as soon as Elijah calls down fire so that the people may know that the Lord is God, God answers his prayer and the people turn their backs on the false gods and believe again in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

So Elijah defeats the false prophets that had invaded his land, turns the people back to God, and puts and end to a long drought.  Yet Queen Jezebel who brought these false gods to Israel was determined to destroy Elijah which is where we pick up the first reading today.  Elijah had been heroic, done the Lord’s will, and he was still a wanted man fearing for his life.  He fled through the desert and after a day’s journey said “enough!”  All of us have been there.  All of us have been at a place in our lives where despite doing God’s work and living good lives, things still don’t turn out the way we want them.  We feel like the deck is stacked against us.  We may not wish for death like Elijah, but we look up to the heavens and ask God, “why?”  It’s a valid question.  Why, if we do so much good, do bad things still happen to us?  Elijah is considered the mightiest of the prophets of Israel.  In fact, he appeared with Moses during the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Yet Elijah was frustrated with God too.  He reached his wits end and wished for death.

So how did God answer his faithful prophet?  God sent an angel to feed Elijah.  He sent an angel to strengthen him.  Elijah would lie down again after eating, but the angel came back to make sure that he would be strengthened by this heavenly food, for Elijah’s journey was not complete.  This is what the Lord offers his faithful servants: sustenance, strength, food, and oh yea, the gentle nudge of an angel.  This leads us to today’s gospel where it’s not an angel but Jesus Christ himself that feeds us.  Tired? Overwhelmed? Anxious?  In over your head?  Come to the table of life.  Come and be fed the bread of life, the flesh of Christ for the life of the world.  There are so many things that overwhelm us consume us, bring us down, but this Eucharist reminds us that we never take on our problems alone.  Jesus Christ is always with us.  So yes, we may feel squeezed by God from time to time.  Elijah felt it. Even Jesus felt it in Gethsemane.  But He is always with us to feed us and strengthen us and in this Eucharist take it a step further by giving us nothing less than life eternal.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Search for God Ends Here

“…they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.” (John 6:24)

People go searching for Jesus.  That is what is happening in today’s gospel, but the search is a little deeper than that.  Jesus calls the people out immediately and says that they were searching for him only because they were filled with the bread at the multiplication of the loaves in last week’s gospel.  They were searching for something perishable, something temporal.  They weren’t authentically looking for Jesus, so He tells us not to work for food that perishes but for food that is eternal.  That is what will really satisfy us and really give us our fill.

The search of the people in the gospel is our search.  We too search for God and are often searching for him in all the wrong places.  We may think we find the divine in temporal joys, but we can only find him when we enter into a profound and deep relationship with him.  This search is part of the human spirit.  This search is essential to bring us fulfillment.  This past Friday was the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and I read this beautiful passage written by a former Jesuit Superior General, Father Pedro Arrupe, many years ago:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, 
than falling in Love 
in a quite absolute, final way. 
What you are in love with, 
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. 
It will decide 
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings, 
how you spend your weekends, 
what you read, whom you know, 
what breaks your heart, 
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. 
Fall in Love, stay in love, 
and it will decide everything. 

That’s the key to our search for God:  we must fall in love!  This requires commitment, which many of us are hesitant to enter into because it requires change on our part.  But we cannot live our lives going from one fleeting pleasure to another.  We must discover this Love.  We must embrace it, live for it, die for it, and treasure it above all else.  Jesus is offering an end to our search today when he promises us the bread that never perishes: the Eucharist.  This divine bread, which we partake of today, is a tangible sign of that love.  It is eternal, it is a seal, and it satisfies our hunger for the transcendent.  

We must enter into this loving relationship that Jesus offers.  Often we don’t discover what love truly is unless, like Father Arrupe writes, we have our heart broken.  I’d take it a step further: often we don’t truly discover what love is until someone takes your heart out of your chest, throws it on the floor, shatters it, stomps on it and then has it for dinner.  Ok, I may have gotten carried away there, but sometimes it is in the hurt of a broken heart that we discover how deep our love for someone is or isn’t.  This love that Jesus offers is life altering.  Our relationship with him should alter the way we live our lives, the way we go about our day, and should leave us in a state of joy.  So our search for any meaning should end right here at this altar where we receive Jesus Christ.  Stop looking.  The search for Love ends here.  “Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”