Sunday, September 25, 2016

Lazaruses all around us. Ignore them and go to hell (Sunday homily)

This Gospel is pretty clear in what it tells us about 
God’s expectations about how we respond to the needs 
of those who are poor and suffering.

The question of how we care for the poorest and neediest – 
for all the Lazaruses around us – has a pretty wide application. 

Our parish St. Vincent de Paul group 
is sponsoring a food drive, for example. Obvious application.

And in terms of those who are poor and abandoned, 
how can anyone with a conscience 
not see how this applies in the case of legal abortion? 
Of course I mean the unborn child, 
who is completely abandoned. 
So many treat the unborn child 
the way the rich man treated Lazarus – 
as if he didn’t even exist. 

But I also mean the women and others involved. 
Last week, I attended an annual luncheon 
to benefit the Elizabeth New Life Center, in Sidney, 
and heard the stories of those women 
who are so often exploited by the abortion industry. 
It’s a cruel joke to use the term “choice,” 
because so often, women and girls are pressured, 
and threatened, and manipulated, into getting abortions. 

Thank God for the work the New Life Center, 
and other crisis pregnancy centers nationwide, 
do to help women make the choice for life, 
and then support those women along the way! 

This ministry is the exact opposite of what the Gospel describes. 
They are seeking out all the Lazaruses as they can, 
and binding up their wounds, and getting them back on their feet. 

But let me offer another application. Let’s talk about immigration. 
This is a big subject, 
and I’m not going to get into the details of public policy. 

Rather, I just want to raise the question 
of how this passage applies to this situation. 
The bishops have said, repeatedly, 
that it’s absolutely legitimate for countries 
to control their borders and for people to obey the law. 
But what’s also important is to have compassion 
and to respect every person’s dignity, 
including people who are illegal immigrants, who have broken the law.

So, for example, the bishops have pointed out 
how much of this problem is driven by poverty,
and that is the root cause that needs to be addressed. 
And they’ve pointed out that as legitimate 
as the goal of controlling our borders is, 
nonetheless, sometimes the remedies can be cruel – 
breaking up families, for example – and excessive. 

For example, one proposal has been to make any kind of assistance 
to illegal immigrants a crime, even providing food and shelter.

You and I as citizens have a voice; 
as Catholics, our duty is to raise our voice for all the Lazaruses: 
the unborn, the unwelcome, those trapped in poverty, 
and all those we might rather forget about.

In the prayer I offered near the beginning of Mass, we heard: 
“O God, who manifest your almighty power 
above all by pardoning and showing mercy, 
bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us 
and make those hastening to attain your promises 
heirs to the treasures of heaven.”

Notice that: God wants to give us the “treasures of heaven” – 
it is for that reason that he pardons us and shows us mercy, 
and pours his grace -- his power to transform us – 
“abundantly upon us.” So far, so good.

But, here’s the “but”: 
God sees how generous you and I are – or are not.
He sees whether we go out of our way to bring others 
to share in his treasures. 
And if we don’t, we will share the fate of the rich man in the Gospel, 
who is not waiting to enter into life, 
but is waiting to enter into hell.

The good news is, it’s not hard. If you want mercy, show mercy.
Especially to the poorest.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Use stuff to gain people (Sunday homily)

The parable Jesus told is confusing in some ways. 
But here's the key point: Jesus is telling us to have the right approach 
to money, and stuff, and material success.

Let's compare the worldly way with God's way:
The worldly way is to use people to gain success and money;
God's way is to use money and position to gain people -- that is, for the Kingdom.

One of the principles our Church teaches in the category of social justice 
is "the universal destination of goods." What does that mean?

It means that while we may own this or that thing, ultimately, everything belongs to God; 
and God gave everything in Creation for all his children to enjoy.

Think of a family. Dad passes out slices of pizza to everyone. He intends everyone to get some. 
What happens when he looks up and sees one child has three slices, and two have none?

God doesn't intervene the way my father, or yours, would. 
But he sees, and he will hold us accountable.

Now, the point is not socialism, 
because that just lets someone in government play god, 
and they make a mess of it. 

Rather, the point is that you and I seek to ensure 
every one of God's children gets a fair chance. 
And if no one forces us to share, that doesn't mean 
we can't and shouldn't do it ourselves.

My pizza analogy can be misunderstood, 
because there is only going to be a certain amount of pizza on the table;
but that doesn't mean there isn't an abundance of resources in our world.

It has been fashionable for years to claim that our world is resource-poor,
and that we have too many people. 
I'm sorry, but that is the devil talking!
God never says, "I have too many children."

It is a worldly mindset that says, "too many people."
Remember the disciples in the Gospel, 
when they had all those people listening to Jesus, and they were hungry? 
What did the disciples say? "Send them away."
But Jesus said, "you feed them yourselves." 
The disciples said, we can't do that! 
But when they did it God's way, they had more than enough, 
and twelve baskets of leftovers besides. 

Let's get back to how we approach our stuff and our plans for our lives. 
There is a place for budgets, for ambition, for savings and security.
But the key question we might ask is...

What is it all for?
What will I do with my success, 
my advancement in my career, and whatever stuff I acquire?

Jesus praised the dishonest steward for being prudent -- he used stuff to gain people.
And his point is not to favor dishonesty, but to say, would that the children of light
were doing the same, that is, to gain people for the Kingdom.

If you have a house, you can welcome people.
If you have a car, you can give rides.
If you have money and stuff, you can give some of it away.
Our St. Vincent de Paul group is organizing another food drive, 
which you can read about in the bulletin. 
They want to raise enough to donate over 5,000 items of food to the hungry. 
We did it before and we can do it again.

When I was a new priest, I would give a penance to children, 
who said they were greedy, to go home and give something away. 
But then I realized, they might give away something they shouldn't, so I stopped that. 

Still, I think it's never too early to learn the lesson of letting go of possessions.

If we reach heaven, you and I won't see any of our possessions there. 
None of our money, or stuff, will be there. 
But what we will see is people. And won't it be wonderful 
to see all the people we helped get there, with our stuff?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

God's Mercy is shockingly generous, but... (Sunday homily)

The readings are all about God’s mercy. Let me make three points.

First: God’s mercy is shockingly generous.
Second: God’s mercy requires a response.
Third: That response is both hard – and easy.

In the Gospel, we heard three parables, each about something lost: 
a lost sheep, a lost coin, and most precious, a lost son. 
Scripture scholar Brant Pitre points out something 
about the parables of Jesus that we may not realize: 
that they often contain a twist or a surprise that we may miss, 
because they are so familiar. So let’s take a look.

In the first parable, Jesus says, 
“what man…would not leave the ninety-nine…
and go after the lost one until he finds it?” 
And the answer is, no one would do that! 
If you leave 99 sheep unguarded, what is likely to happen? 
You’ll lose a lot more. 

It’s the same in the second parable. Who would throw a party 
to celebrate finding a penny? Has anyone here ever done that?

Now we come to the third parable. The son’s sinfulness is extreme. 
He wants his father dead; 
he cruelly leaves and completely separates himself from his family. 

But the twist is in the response of the Father. 
He sees the son coming from “a long way off.” 
In other words, he was watching intently for him, day and night. 
Second, the Father runs—runs!—to his son. 
And, above all, the Father is extremely generous. 
Had he said, I’m glad you’re home, we’ll clean you up, 
but you have to prove yourself, wouldn’t that have been generous? 

When God gives, he always gives super-abundantly. 
Manna in the desert. Wine at Cana. Dying on the Cross. 
And so it is here.

So listen up: if you find yourself doubting God’s mercy, 
if you wonder if God can or will forgive you, 
or whether he has forgiven you, stop it! 
I realize sometimes we have feelings we can’t control, 
but be clear on this: if we ask for God’s mercy, he will give it. 

One drop of Jesus’ blood can wash away all sin, 
and when you receive absolution in confession, 
you are bathed in God’s mercy. 
It’s not because we deserve it, or work for it, 
or are in any way worthy of it. 

The psalm we prayed was written by King David, 
after he committed rape, and adultery, and murder,
and betrayal of a loyal servant, and lies to cover it all up. 
And God forgave him.

God’s mercy is so generous that it’s shocking.

Now, second: God’s mercy requires a response. 
This is where so many misunderstand what mercy is. 
Some people have a fantasy image of Jesus, 
that he doesn’t care about rules, he just talked about love. 

Actually, he talked about hell a lot, 
and if you want to boil his teaching down to one commandment, 
it was, take up your cross. Die to ego, die to money, 
die to family attachment, die to sex, die to ambition, die to self. 
The younger son had to die to all his dreams and ego, come home. 
Or else, he’d have died in his sins.

Part of our response is to pray mercy for others. 
This is really what the first reading is about. 
The point here is not that Moses has changed God’s mind, 
but rather, God is helping Moses himself to grow in mercy. 
God wanted Moses himself to say, oh no, God, please have mercy! 

A lot of us can see ourselves in the younger son – 
we’ve done things of which we are deeply ashamed, 
and it can be hard to believe God loves us. 

On the other hand, many of us are more like the older son. 
We’ve been faithful and we’re shocked by the evil things 
others have done. Your job is to intercede, as Moses was called to do. 
The older son said he was devoted; 
but had he prayed, every day, for the return of his lost brother? 

Finally, the response that mercy demands is both hard and easy. 
The sins we have in our lives: what keeps us from leaving them behind?
If we’re out drinking too much, 
or visiting the dark places on the Internet, 
or inflicting anger on others around us, 
or making a god of money or work, 
why don’t we give these things up? 
Some say, it’s impossible, I just can’t. And that’s true for some. 
That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous exists for example. 
If you feel powerless, come and see me, and I’ll help you all I can.

But for most of us, we just don’t want to give them up. 

The son didn’t come home until he became desperate. 
Sometimes the change we need to make is costly; 
sometimes it’s frightening or humiliating. 
But mercy requires a response.

It may seem hard in one sense, 
but in another it’s the easiest thing in the world. 
Go to the Father! Go to confession! 

Confession can be hard in some ways, 
and yet, it’s the easiest thing in the world. 
The priest will walk you through it, 
and no matter what else the priest might say – 
he might talk too long – still, if you tell your sins and are sorry, 
he has to give you absolution! Every single time!

God is ready to forgive. He waits for your response.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

An not-costly way to be Christ's ambassador (Sunday homily)

I want to welcome everyone here, 
especially anyone who is visiting 
and perhaps is not familiar with our parish. 
If you’ve never been inside St. Remy Church, 
please come back another time for Mass, and we’ll be inside the church. 
Our church doors are open every day, from very early to late, 
and they are open for you.

As many of you know, I’ve been talking a lot about 
the importance of each of us sharing our faith. 
It may seem odd, when over 90 percent of our community is Catholic; 
but there are still a lot of folks who need the hope of Jesus Christ, 
and it’s our task to share it. 
When we stand before the Lord, and we say, well, 
I thought 92% would be good enough, we better hope he agrees!

But what you may not know is that for the past year or so, 
I’ve been working with the Pastoral Council, and our parish staff, 
to develop a plan for how we, as a parish, 
can be better oriented toward sharing our hope in Jesus Christ, 
and drawing others to him. 
And then, I listened to that bit in the first reading, 
where it says that the plans of mortals are uncertain, 
and I thought, uh-oh! 
But then I noticed the promise that when the Holy Spirit is involved, 
we have sure wisdom.

Now, I want to give everyone here a task. 
I assume you will be at our picnic today or tomorrow; 
so I ask that you will be Christ’s ambassador 
at our festival this weekend. 
When you are in line, in what you say to others, 
in what you spend your money on, and in how you handle yourself, 
will you be Christ to the others who are here today and tomorrow?

Of course our festival is a fundraiser, 
and it has been very successful in years’ past. 
And as a result, we are able to do a lot of good 
with the money we raise. 
In addition to helping to keep these grounds in top shape, 
these funds help share the faith 
with our children in religious education. 

They help the parish reach out to the homebound, 
the elderly and the needy in our community. 
And we are able to give directly to many worthy causes. 
So each of us has reason to be grateful for our volunteers, 
our festival leadership and for everyone who will take part.

Still, as important as this is as a fundraiser, 
that’s not the only, or even the main, reason we have this picnic. 
Lots of parishes have festivals because they feel they have to; 
but I think it’s different here. 
We could raise the money in other ways if we needed to. 

There are more important reasons for our picnic, 
which is why we call it our “homecoming.” 
This is a time to come together as a family, 
and it is a time to welcome people to our parish. 
Those are the more important reasons to have our annual picnic.

So that is why I’m asking you to be Christ at our picnic, 
so that everyone who is here, 
can come away from this visit with the sense, 
“I’ve been somewhere special; I’ve met some special people today.”

I hope our beer booth folks won’t mind, 
but we don’t want anyone to drink too much beer. 
We don’t want anyone to bet or spend money they can’t afford to lose. 
As you enjoy yourself, and you help others enjoy themselves, 
please be a good neighbor to anyone else who’s here.

Jesus told us to “count the cost” of being his disciple. 
Well, he’s given us perfect weather.
We are blessed to gather with our family and friends, 
we have good planning and preparation. This is about as good as it gets. 
Being his messenger, his welcome, this weekend – not very costly.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What Jeremiah can teach us about this election

In comments on a prior post, I suggested a reader -- who claims I am a bad priest because I won't support a particular political candidate as the blocking maneuver against another candidate -- read the Book of Jeremiah. Another reader asked what I meant. Here's what I had in mind.

Jeremiah was called to his prophetic ministry in a time of great peril for the Kingdom of Judah. After the invasion of Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom in 722 B.C., Judah is hemmed in by contending great powers. Now the threat comes from Babylon.

But Jeremiah's message to the people, the king and the priests is that the nation's true problem is apostasy from God; and God's judgment will take the form of Babylon's coming destruction of the temple and the city they have defiled by injustice, immorality and false worship.

In this crisis, many say that the answer to the peril of Babylon is to seek the help of Egypt; but through Jeremiah, God warns against that expediency:

And now, why go to Egypt,
to drink the waters of the Nile?
Why go to Assyria,
to drink the waters of the River? (2:18)

How frivolous you have become
in changing your course!
By Egypt you will be shamed,
just as you were shamed by Assyria (2:36).

Now, it's important to understand how the sacred texts present the nations surrounding Israel. They are presented not merely as places to go, and political powers that interacted with Israel; they are also presented as expressive of worldly values that compete with the covenant with God. Thus when the children of Israel end up in Egypt, during the famine described in Genesis, Jacob (i.e., Israel) makes his son, Joseph swear that he won't bury Jacob in Egypt: When the time approached for Israel to die, he called his son Joseph and said to him: 

“If it pleases you, put your hand under my thigh as a sign of your enduring fidelity to me; do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my ancestors, take me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.”

“I will do as you say,” (Joseph) replied. 

But his father demanded, “Swear it to me!” So Joseph swore to him. Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed (Genesis 47:29-31).

So what does all this have to do with our upcoming election?

Lots of good folks are rightly anxious about the peril represented by one candidate winning -- and so argue that this means all good people must -- must -- cast their lot with the other candidate. Because I think they are both too flawed, and therefore, I won't vote for either, I was told I'm a shepherd who "cops out on his sheep and leaves them to be ravaged by wolves, or by satan in a pants suit." Take a look at Jeremiah to see what people said about him when he counseled not to rely on Egypt, but to trust in the Almighty.

The parallel is inexact; I do not claim it is sinful to vote for one of these terrible candidates. The bishops have said, in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, that it is licit to vote for the lesser of two evils; but it is also acceptable to refuse to vote for any such candidate. Here are the relevant paragraphs, with key sections in bold:

34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter's intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate's opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

35. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.

36. When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

37. In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate's commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.

There's a lot more to be said about all this, but here's my point. Given a choice between the hammer and the anvil, I think the best answer is to do as Jeremiah kept begging God's People to do: return to the Lord:

Call to me, and I will answer you...
I will restore the fortunes of Judah and Israel, and rebuild them as they were in the beginning. 
I will purify them of all the guilt they incurred by sinning against me; 
I will forgive all their offenses by which they sinned and rebelled against me. 
Then this city shall become joy for me, a name of praise and pride, before all the nations of the earth, as they hear of all the good I am doing for them. 
They shall fear and tremble because of all the prosperity I give it (33:3, 7-9).

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Approaching Holy Mass with humility (Sunday homily)

Let me begin by pointing out something you may have noticed: 
the second reading today was also the second reading last Sunday! 
You may be wondering, how that happened. 
It happened this way: 
while the readings most weeks are assigned, last week’s were special, 
for the anniversary of this church being consecrated, 
and they were chosen by…me. I didn’t notice the coincidence.

In any case, it gives us a chance to really reflect on that reading, 
which is really about the Holy Mass. 
It describes us approaching the heavenly Jerusalem, 
where the angels and saints gather 
in celebration of the salvation won by the blood of Jesus.

So what that describes is heaven – but how do we approach that? 
We do so in the Holy Mass.

Meanwhile, the first reading and the Gospel say a lot about humility. 
And let me point out, in passing, what humility is, and is not. 
Humility is not allowing yourself to be a doormat; 
nor is it denying that you have gifts. 

To be humble is to be at peace with who you and I are, 
with the gifts God gave us. 
The more you and I realize what it means to be a child of God, 
the easier it is to have that genuine humility. 

If I need to build myself up, 
then rushing to get the place of honor makes sense. 

But if I know, deep in my heart and being, that God loves me, 
that I am destined for heaven, 
then who cares where I sit around the table? 

So how does humility come into our approach to Holy Mass?

Here’s one thing that comes to mind: 
sharing your talents generously and without false modesty. 
I didn’t ask Carla if she wants new members of the choir, 
and new singers to help at Mass, but I’m guessing she’d love that. 
Being generous with your gifts, for the benefit of others, 
is true humility. 
If you’d like to share the gift of your voice, let Carla know!

Let me thank you, parents, for the efforts you make 
to bring your families to Mass. 
I am sure there are times when you are frustrated, 
when you feel you cannot enter into prayer during Mass, 
and you wonder if it even “counts.” Be assured, it does. 

Let me highlight another way humility is at work in the Mass – 
and that is in how those, who have particular roles in Mass, 
approach their tasks. The readers come up here, 
not to put themselves forward, but God’s Word. 

The altar servers are like the seraphim and cherubim in heaven, 
who attend to the Lord’s needs, and bow down before him. 
The musicians are here to let the light of Christ 
shine through their voices and talents. 

And the priest is here, not to put himself forward, 
but to surrender 
so that Christ is clearly the priest, the prophet, and the king. 

So that’s why, for example, many – 
such as Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah and others – 
have recommended a recovery of the practice 
of the priest and people facing the same way, 
when the priest is offering the Sacrifice at the altar. 

As you know, I’ve been celebrating Mass this way on Saturday mornings
 and I’ve started doing the same on Tuesdays. 
I’m not claiming there are no merits to the priest 
facing the people at the altar – which is how it will happen at this Mass, 
and how you’re used to seeing it happen. 
And I understand everyone has different preferences, 
and I respect that.

But when the priest and the people face in the same direction, 
it helps emphasize where our focus is – on the Lord. 
And I can tell you, for many priests, 
we are tempted to ego and to draw attention to ourselves, 
and we need help being humble before the Lord.

Finally, take note of what Jesus said in the Gospel, 
about inviting those who are poor, or blind, or disabled. 
This applies to Mass. 

If you know someone who has difficulty getting to Mass, 
what can you do, what can I do, to help them get here? 
Does someone need a ride? 
Or, do you know those who want communion brought to them at home? 
Let me know, please. 

But this also applies to anyone who thinks, oh, I’m not worthy. 
Or, I don’t have the right clothes. Or who feels out of place. 
Everyone here is unworthy. 
Clothes aren’t that important; we do what we can. 
If you know folks who haven’t been here, 
don’t beat them over the head about it, but do check in with them. 
Be a friend, including a spiritual friend, to them.

Something awesome happens at this and every Mass. Let’s share it.