Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sodom, hell and hope (Sunday homily)


The first reading mentions the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, so let’s start there.
The passage we heard doesn’t spell out the sins involved, 
but I think most of us know; in any case, 
you can read about it in chapter 19 of Genesis if you want.

I’m going to talk about three things in this homily. First is the sin of Sodom. 
The second is hell. And the third is hope.

So let’s talk a little about what was going on in Sodom.

Until not that many years ago, 
there wouldn’t have been that much controversy
in reiterating that sexual behavior involving two people of the same sex 
is a mortal sin. 
But our society is changing rapidly, 
and now there is intense social pressure for us to keep quiet. 
After all, we can always talk about something else, can’t we? 
But when the subject comes up, you and I have a duty to speak up. 
It came up in the readings, so I’m speaking up.

One of difficulties in talking about the issues relating to homosexual activity
is that our society has language and concepts that are problematic, 
and first we have to address that. 
So, for example, many people tend to identify and define themselves by an attribute. 
But does this make sense?

Let me use a personal example.* My “ampleness” isn’t a result of a bee sting! 
It’s a result of eating too much over the years. 
That’s a moral failing of mine; it’s one of the deadly sins, gluttony. 
That doesn’t define me, however. But there are people who do, 
indeed, shape their lives around food and eating. 
You can see a whole cable channel dedicated to this; and on another channel, 
a show about people who are over 600 pounds as a result.

Also, when we talk about this subject, 
it sometimes seems like we’re making it out to be the worst possible sin. 
There are Ten Commandments, 
and it’s possible to commit mortal sins involving all ten. 
So we don’t want to overstate the matter.

It’s also necessary to make very clear that feelings aren’t sins. 
A husband’s eye may stray, and his wife may think murderous thoughts 
when she sees where he’s looking, 
but virtue lies not in impulses, but in our choices.

The real problem with Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t only lust, 
but a more general state of moral madness. 

I read an article recently by Catholic scholar Anthony Esolen called 
“The Uses of Disgust.” 
It’s an excellent article, you can find it online. 

He makes the point that all of us have, built in, 
a faculty for disgust, for revulsion, and he compares it to our sense of smell. 
He writes, “What smells good to a vulture, flesh rotting in the sun, 
smells repugnant to us, because eating such flesh would be bad for us. 
The smell is then protective; 
it keeps us from tasting even a little of something that would sicken or kill.”

And his point is that our moral sense is meant to work that way, too. 
But, of course, if we ignore – or kill off – that faculty of moral repugnance…
then we will find ourselves consuming what is bad for us, and claiming to like it.

And that’s what was wrong with Sodom and Gomorrah. 
It wasn’t just one moral failing. They’d completely lost their way. 
Understanding that explains why God would talk of destroying the city; 
because it means they had reached the point of no return.

There is another word for the point of no return: it’s called hell. 

The clear point of this whole episode is not, fire and brimstone,
but God wanting to rescue all that he can. 
If you read on, there aren’t even ten innocent people. 
There are four, that is, Abraham’s cousin, Lot, his wife and two daughters; 
and if you read the next chapter, they weren’t exactly innocent, either. 

But what they were was salvageable. They weren’t beyond hope. 
So God sends his angels to rescue them. 
And many of us have had that experience: 
whether being saved from moral danger or physical danger. 
I can distinctly remember a time I was riding in the back seat of my dad’s car, 
and I had my head out the window. 
Something made me pull my head in; and just after I did, 
a car coming the other way came frighteningly close. 
And there have been many times in my life when I wanted to do the wrong thing, 
and something blocked my way. And I bet that’s happened to you, too.

So when we wonder why God cares – about two people of the same sex,
 or about whether we wait for marriage, or contraception, 
how we might entertain ourselves…this is why: 
because God knows these things, however attractive, distort us. 
It’s not all at once, it’s little by little. 

If there is a hell – and Jesus talks about it a lot, so I think there is one – 
do you think many people really set out in life to go there? 
So then, how do people end up there? By losing – by destroying – 
that sense of revulsion from what is evil. 

All right, enough fire and brimstone. Let’s turn to what Jesus said in the Gospel. 
He told us: God wants to give us good gifts. He is eager to give them to us! 
He wants us to want them. 
Notice what Jesus said: “how much more will the Father in heaven 
give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"

The Holy Spirit in us is what helps us revive our moral compass, 
if it’s been beaten up,
 and to help us turn our hearts and desires from what seems good, 
to what truly is good. 
We first receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism. 
As Saint Paul makes clear, the gift of baptism, the gift of God himself, 
washes away all transgressions. They are, as he says, “nailed to the cross.” 

And, after baptism? That’s what the sacrament of confession is for: 
renewing the grace of baptism, and applying that powerful solvent 
to any and all sins we may confess. 

I’ll say it again: the Father wants to give us good gifts. 
He offers us total and complete forgiveness. He offers us chance after chance. 
He offers us life in the Holy Spirit. 
He offers us life with the Trinity forever. It’s so easy! 

“And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; 
knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; 
and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, 
the door will be opened."

*At the 5 pm Mass, I used the example of my being left-handed. Afterward, I decided an example of a moral failing would be more apt.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

If Jesus came to your house (Sunday homily)

If Jesus Christ called, and invited himself over for dinner 
at your house, what would you do?

How would you react?

Let’s see what the checklist would be:

- Clean the house; I mean, really clean the house!
- Go to the store and get the fancy stuff – the very best food.
- Clean up the kids.
- Get out the best clothes, a fresh shave, 
run to the hairdresser, maybe?
- Tell everyone –with the laser-gaze of death 
that only mothers can give – 
that they are to be on their very best behavior!
- Maybe mow the lawn? Trim the hedges? 
Put the garden hose away?

What kind of meal would you fix for the Lord?

Remember, he came to earth as a Jewish man, 
so that means he kept Kosher. How do you cook Jewish food? 
What can you fix for him?

Do you serve drinks? He did make wine; would he like a beer? 
In a glass, or would he just drink it out of the can?

What do you talk about? If you and your spouse have been fighting, 
maybe you decide beforehand that everyone will be all smiles.

And, if you don’t have time to clean all the rooms, 
you just keep the Divine Guest out of the kids bedrooms, 
if they are too much of a mess.
Hopefully you don’t have a nervous breakdown 
until after the Lord goes home!

On the other hand…

Doesn’t Jesus already know what your house looks like normally?

And doesn’t he already know 
what you and your spouse are arguing about? 
So if Jesus came to your house, maybe that’s what you talk about: 
you stop trying to keep everything perfect, 
and instead, you let things be real. 
Maybe you just open your heart to him, tell him what’s going on, 
and ask for his help. 
Ask him the questions you’re dying to know the answers to.

In short, if Jesus came to your house tonight, 
would you spend your time trying to see what you could do for him – 
or would you see how you can be open to him 
doing as much as he can, for you?

And then, having God as your guest in your house isn’t a calamity, 
but a joy – and you don’t want him to leave.

By the way, my question isn’t just for the homily. 
I encourage you to take this question home with you. 
If Jesus were coming to stay at your house – what would you do? 
I suggest this for a couple of reasons.

First, this is a really powerful way to pray.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola recommended it. 

Namely, take a scene from Scripture – 
such as the readings we’re talking about – and use your imagination. 
Put yourself in that scene. 
Would you be Martha? Mary? Abraham? Sarah? 
One of the servants? How would you react? What would you do?

And, second, being able to let Jesus come to your house, as it were, 
and instead of being on pins and needles, 
you are able to relax and be with someone you trust…
that’s the heart of prayer! 

To be able to be with Jesus as a friend; closer than a friend, really: 
because we are with our Creator and our Redeemer. 
Nothing is hidden, and nothing need stand between us.

(Added at some Masses:

When Paul talks about the mystery that was hidden from ages ago, but revealed in us, 
this is what he's talking about: Jesus coming to our house -- but not our physical house, 
but the "house" of our hearts, our lives. And that leads to a further mystery, 
foreshadowed by the first reading: of Jesus bringing us to his house, to the life of the Trinity!)

Every Thursday we have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament – 
that is, Jesus is on the altar for us to gaze at him, 
talk to him, and him to us –
from the morning Mass until around 8:45 pm when we have Benediction.

This is our opportunity to sit with Jesus 
and to enter into that friendship. Maybe it’s hard, at first. 
What do I say? How do I talk to God? 
Do I have to use certain words?

No, just visit with him. Gaze at him. Open one of the Gospels, 
and read his words. Imagine you are with him. Tell him what hurts. 
Bring the names of all the people you care about to him. 

God wants to come and visit with you, today.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Death in Dallas (Sunday homily)

(My homily was from notes; this is a close approximation.)

I think we are all aware of the ugly events of the past week. In Dallas, five police officers were murdered, and several other people were wounded. You may not realize that police officers were shot at in other places as well. The shootings in Dallas came a day after two controversial incidents in which police, in carrying out their duties, shot and killed two men. And all that is against a backdrop of concern and suspicion about other incidents in which people died in interactions with police.

Now, we know these situations get misreported and misrepresented by media, by activists and politicians. And we know these things are not always clear-cut. One case is not like another. We know the police have a difficult job; so a lot of time our sympathy goes with them. On the other hand, some of the situations look pretty bad, and it's hard to understand why the police acted as they did.

There is a tendency to take sides; but as someone else pointed out, it really is possible to be supportive of the police, and yet also be concerned when things go too far. 

You and I don't have to resolve the facts in these matters to know some things for certain:

-- Of course, nothing justifies cold-blooded murder -- by anyone.

-- Just because there is racism, and there is, doesn't justify violence.

-- Just because being a police officer is dangerous, and it is, doesn't mean anything goes.

This is a mess, because there is so much anger and fear; even if it's based on false claims or misunderstandings doesn't change that. This is a climate in which a lot more ugliness can occur.

So what do we do?

Well let's begin with the words of Jesus in the Gospel. He was asked, "who is my neighbor" -- and with his parable, Jesus gives the answer: anyone; everyone. No, we can't solve everyone's problems, but that doesn't mean we don't have to care, and do what we can.

A good and necessary step is to seek greater understanding.

Suppose you had a neighbor, and you looked over, and thought, gee, they don't take very good care of their yard, and the house needs to be fixed up; and their kids are playing outside pretty late all the time, and they don't look very well cared-for; and while you see all this, in your house, you are forming a definite idea of the sort of people they are next door.

But what if you went out of your house and went next door? Then you might discover some things: that perhaps one of the spouses is ill, and the other spouse is so busy caring for the other, that he or she can't keep up with the kids. Or perhaps there is only one parent carrying the whole load? Maybe they don't have much money so they can't keep up with things; and maybe they don't know anyone to call to help them. My point being, once you are actually in the situation, you might understand the situation rather differently.

What goes on in our cities is depressing, and should alarm us. The poverty isn't so much of material things, but of education; we have schools that don't work very well, and add in crime and drugs, and behind all that are lots of broken families. You and I get frustrated, because we are taxpayers, and we spend large sums of money and nothing seems to do any good. So it's tempting to look away and brush our hands of it all. But they are our neighbors.

And, if we want, we can go and find folks who are beaten and half-dead in Troy, in Piqua, in Dayton and Sidney. 

Finally, you and I can ask the Holy Spirit to guard our hearts against rash assumptions and writing people off, and from anger.

We've had bad times before. In times of conflict, God raises up people who bring a voice of calm and peace; I don't just mean towering, national figures; I mean lots of ordinary people, speaking and praying words of faith. We never seem to have enough of such people. So, how about you and I tell the Lord at this Mass, we're willing to be such people, who speak peace, instead of cynicism and rage?

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Loving our country as Isaiah loved his (Sunday homily)

Tomorrow we celebrate our nation’s birthday: 
240 years ago we declared our independence! 
A lot of us will be at parties, 
and shooting off fireworks today and tomorrow. 

I love our nation’s birthday, I am sure you do too. 
The saddest 4th of July I ever had was when I was a seminarian, 
and I was spending a month in South Korea. 
It was a wonderful experience overall, 
but being away from home on Independence Day made me sad; 
and it was the only 4th of July I spent away from our home.

That love of country that runs deep in us is a good thing; 
in the ancient Roman way of thinking, 
it belonged to the category of pietas, where we get our word piety; 
but for Romans, it was more about our sense of duty and attachment 
to our country and family; as a son or daughter to a mother or father.

There’s a saying, “my country, right or wrong.” 
The great English Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, famously replied, 
“That’s like saying, my mother, drunk or sober”! 

His point being that, yes, if my mother is drunk, 
she is still my mother and I love her; 
but I surely want better for my mother, and for all those I truly love. 
Surely, we want the best for our country; 
to be right, rather than wrong.

That’s what is going on in the first reading; 
the prophet Isaiah loves his country, too. 

In his time, she was in deep trouble, in every way. 
But the prophet receives a vision of a better future, 
when God’s people would be secure 
in the arms of their mother, Jerusalem. 
Yet not only Israel, but all nations would be secure in, 
and draw life from, the City of God. 

The main thing to understand here 
is that this is about spiritual abundance, spiritual life. 
Which means, the nation has to save its soul. 
And this, I think, is what should concern us 
on this 240th anniversary of our Independence: the soul of our country.

I need hardly recount all the reasons to be concerned. 
Our laws continue to allow the destruction of unborn children. 
And, of course, there is the deep confusion about what marriage is. 

So many Americans are caught up in poverty, 
not so much of material things – 
our nation has never had more material things – 
but of education and opportunity, 
which are bound up with problems of 
crime, and drugs, and broken families.

Now, what sort of problems are these? 

They may be economic, or political, or military, or legal, 
but they are also a spiritual problem.
There is a spiritual battle going on. 
Let’s not miss that! 

Isaiah was concerned for the soul of his country, in his time, 
and it is the same for us. 
Isaiah was the voice of conscience in his time; 
and, likewise, so must we be in our time. 

How do we do this?
Well, notice what Jesus told the 70 disciples.
He said, stay focused, don’t get distracted along the way. 
Don’t worry too much about what stuff you bring along; 
but make sure you bring a peaceful spirit. 
If your peace isn’t accepted, it will come back to you. 
So as I said last week: don’t get worked up, get prayed up.

One way to keep our focus is frequent trips to confession. 
When we feel anger, or worry, or we get off track, 
a good confession helps a lot to get our priorities in order. 

This is where Saint Paul’s words in the second reading 
make so much sense. 
He said, “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” 

When Jesus was on the cross, 
he didn’t say, “how terrible this is!” – even though it was! 
Nor did he just give up.
Rather, he said: “Into your hands, Father.” 

When he was seemingly at his most powerless – 
when he was at his lowest – is when Jesus’ power was greatest; 
because that is when he poured out his grace on the world!

That is what you and I, as disciples of Christ, bring to our country.
Yes, we speak out; yes, we vote; yes, we get involved. 
But none of that will mean anything 
unless it is in the grace and power of Jesus Christ. 
If you and I want to make a difference for our country – 
to be right rather than wrong – 
let us offer words and actions bathed in prayer and full of grace.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Focus (Sunday homily)

As I reflected on these readings from Scripture, one word came to mind: focus.

In the first reading, we have Saint Elijah seeking out the man 
God had chosen as his successor, Elisha. Elisha is focused: 
by slaughtering his oxen and giving away the food, 
he shut the door on ever going back 
on his resolve to be the Lord’s prophet.

Then in the Gospel, we see Jesus totally focused on Jerusalem. 
He knows what will happen there: 
he will give his life as a ransom for many. 
James and John’s focus is somewhere else. 

They remind me of a saying a friend of mine has: 
“Keep your eye on the main chance; 
don’t stop to kick every barking dog.” 
James and John are stopping to kick the Samaritans; 
Jesus is keeping his eye on Jerusalem, 
and the Cross, and the salvation of the world.

And what Paul says in the second reading is likewise about focus. 
His advice could be restated as following: 
the reason you don’t want to give into temptations 
and be drawn aside by pleasure, and desires of the flesh, 
is because they will keep you from gaining eternal life.
Keep moving! Keep focused! 
Keep your eye on the main chance, which is heaven!

So when we see Jesus’ conversations with people in the Gospel, 
we might be a little put off by what he says. 
“Let the dead bury the dead,” he says to one man. 

Was Jesus saying that the man shouldn’t care for his dying father? 
Or, if the father was already dead, he shouldn’t give him a funeral? 
That is, after all, one of the corporal works of mercy.

No, I think what’s going on is that Jesus sees these folks’ hearts. 
He knows the man’s heart is divided. 
He kind of wants to follow Jesus; but he holds back. 
Remember, Jesus had a conversation like this with another man – 
a rich young man, who wanted to follow the Lord. 
And Jesus told him: go, sell all you have, and give it to the poor – 
then, come and follow me. And you will have treasure in heaven.
And do you recall what happened? 
The man did not go away and sell his things; 
instead, it says, he went away sad – because he had many possessions.

It’s all about focus. Jesus tells us: 
if you set your hand to the plow and turn back, 
you aren’t fit for the Kingdom. 
I shouldn’t talk about these things, 
because the closest I have come to putting my hand to a plow 
was driving Dave York’s combine – 
but I was driving over stubble, where I couldn’t do any real harm! 
But I noticed when Dave drove that combine, 
even as he was explaining about his farm, 
he kept a steady eye forward; 
he was making sure he didn’t fail to gather any of the corn. 
And I would imagine, when plowing, you want to look ahead, 
to focus on the task, 
rather than looking back to admire your handiwork. 
And in the process, make a mess of things.

What is the task Jesus has for us to focus on? It is the Kingdom. 
You and I are united with Jesus in this life, heading for eternity. 
Don’t let anything slow you down! 
Don’t let sin and bad habits and distractions 
come between us and Jesus.

Our mission is to get to heaven,
and bring as many others with us as we can. 
To the extent that we can, 
we bring the law of the Kingdom into this world – 
because Jesus isn’t just king of heaven, 
he is the rightful king of this world as well.

But we keep our focus. 

So, for example, a lot of us are paying attention 
to national and world events; 
there are elections later this year that are important, 
and we have a voice and a vote. 
God calls us to live in this world according to the truth of Christ, 
but you and I are in this world as wayfarers, as pilgrims. 
We aren’t going to make a paradise on this earth. 

So, while we pay attention, we don’t get bogged down. 
Don’t get angry; don’t get worked up. 
If you find that happening, turn off the TV, and instead, get prayed up! 
Keep our focus on Jesus! 
He is the only one who will save us, no one else.

Last Friday, I was so happy to see 
over a hundred men and boys of all ages come out 
for our first Men’s Prayer Walk. 
It was a good time of friendship; and the cookout was great, 
with good food and games. 
But what was the focus? 
Prayer; and lifting up Jesus Christ before our community, 
and praying for him to bless the people of our parish. 

I walked right behind the older boys 
who were taking turns lifting up the Cross. That was the focus. 
And it seemed like all those taking part understood that.

This coming Friday, we have a group of folks 
who are going to be keeping vigil in the church, 
after the First Friday Mass. 
They will be praying for conversion, seeking to consecrate themselves, 
and our world, more deeply to the Two Hearts: 
the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. 
You are welcome to come and join in. 
Our focus is Jesus – bringing him, as much as we can, to our world; 
and bringing as many people in our families, 
and our community, to Jesus. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

First 'Men's Prayer Walk' a Success!

Yesterday afternoon, Saint Remy Parish revived a tradition from medieval England, and brought it to the fields surrounding the farm community of Russia, Ohio.

Over 100 men and boys answered my invitation to exercise spiritual leadership and guardianship over the parish with a "Men's Prayer Walk." So, yes, this was specifically pitched to men. (One girl did make it, however: a father brought his infant daughter along.)

Where did this come from?

Some time back, I came across an ancient practice -- still observed in some parts of England and Wales -- called "Beating the Bounds." As Wikipedia describes it, "A group of old and young members of the community would walk the boundaries of the parish, usually led by the parish priest and church officials, to share the knowledge of where they lay, and to pray for protection and blessings for the lands." Mindful that I was pastor in a rural parish, this idea struck me as something we could do.

It also occurred to me that this would be a great way to call men -- of all ages -- to exercise spiritual leadership; to exercise their tasks of guarding, guiding and giving. And, I thought it might help build friendships and comraderie.

So, several months back, I began describing the idea to a few people, and they liked it. They helped me develop it further. At one point, I planned it for a Saturday morning; but I was persuaded that a Friday evening would work better. So, we settled on the following plan. We would meet by 5:30 pm behind the priest's house and climb onto a hay wagon, which would take us out to the northern boundary of the parish. There we would begin our walk. Anyone who couldn't walk could stay on the wagon; and we also had a couple of other vehicles available. After walking for an hour -- during which we prayed ten decades of the Rosary, two litanies, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and a consecration to the Sacred Heart -- we climbed back on the hay wagons, and headed back to my back yard for a cookout.

I involved several men of the parish as my "wise men": one took charge of transportation; one took responsibility for food and drink, and a third handled set up and clean up. Several others pitched in with help and ideas -- such as games for the boys (what a great idea!).

My hope and plan was for 50 participants; we more than doubled that. Several men who took part didn't walk; instead, they rode in a golf cart. A number of the boys were in strollers, and some ended up riding their dads' back part or most of the time.

One of the ideas I came up with was to give the boys chalk, and a diagram for them to draw on the street as we went along. What I came up with looked like this:

S.     R.
 2  |  0
 1  |  6
O. P. N.

And in case you are wondering, that is meant to show a cross, surrounded by this year's date, and the words, Sancte Remigii, ora pro nobis, or in English, Saint Remy, pray for us.

Well, the boys really took to that, as I hoped! The only miscue on my part was I didn't plan for enough prayers; I prepared a handout, and we ripped through those prayers in about 35 minutes. So with the help of our recently ordained deacon, we added another set of mysteries, and sang "Immaculate Mary" and "How Great Thou Art." And we had some silence in between.

After an hour, we'd walked about 2.5 miles, then got back on the hay wagons and rode back for a cookout, with the last stragglers leaving after 10 pm. Everyone had a great time. Several young, unmarried guys were really enthusiastic, saying that they were going to see that more of their friends joined us next year.

And there will be a next year: I haven't set the date, but it will be June, and we'll pick up roughly where we left off, and walk another 2-3 miles; and so forth, until we walk the entire circumference of the parish, which is about 25 miles. I figure it will take 9 years or so.

There were many blessings, which make me thing the Lord looked with favor on our endeavor. The weather was perfect; there were no traffic problems (or any others), and a parishioner came to me the day before, offering some fresh ground beef for hamburgers -- as much as we could possibly want.

I might here explain, especially for the benefit of St. Remy Parish, that the actual northern boundary wasn't the road on which we walked, but a quarter-mile north; but that ran through the fields. In olden days, I imagine they would have walked through the fields, because it was rather important to know and maintain those boundaries in those days. The exact boundaries matter less to us today, but it is still worthwhile to have a sense of responsibility for the people of the parish.

And, for the benefit of our parishioners, here are the boundaries of our parish. The northern boundary extends from a quarter-mile west of Darke-Shelby County Road, and a quarter mile north of Redmond Road. Beyond State Route 48, that line continues until it meets Loramie-Washington Road, which is the eastern boundary. The line continues all the way south to Miami-Shelby County Road; and the southern boundary runs along that road, until it reaches a point a quarter-mile west of Darke-Shelby. For those who know the area, this means that our parish includes Dawson, Houston and Mt. Jefferson areas, as well as Russia and the surrounding areas.

Of course you want pictures. Here are some. This first one shows all the men, with the boys running ahead. I'm in there somewhere.


One of our boys carrying the cross. They took turns.


Here's one of our boys using the diagram I gave them to "chalk the walk."


Another of the boys letting people know we'd been there.


Here I am, with the deacon to my right, and the seminarian to my left. If anyone wonders why we didn't wear vestments...well, it was about 85 degrees, and we were in the sun for over an hour.