Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Fire (Pentecost homily)

As you’ve heard me say nearly every Sunday during Easter Season, 
Easter is all about heaven. That’s why Jesus died and rose, 
in order to create for us a future with him.

So now we come to Pentecost, 
which is, if you will, the final “ingredient.” 
If you are fixing a recipe, you have to put in the last ingredient; 
if you don’t, then it won’t work.
Likewise, without Jesus giving the Holy Spirit, 
his plan for us would fail.

We receive the Holy Spirit first in baptism;
If our parents made that decision for us, 
Then later it falls to us to ratify that choice.

Our language about this can be misleading. 
We talk about “receiving” the Holy Spirit; 
But that’s not nearly strong enough.
We also “receive” a text on our phone:
We glance at it and go on our way.

But surely that’s not what we’re talking about here, right? 
Better would be the language the Bible uses:

The Prophet Ezekiel talks about dry, dead bones coming to life.
Saint Paul talks about a new birth.
Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Jesus told Nicodemus: 
“you must be born again.” 

Or else, take notice of the detail from the book of Acts:
“Fire appeared, and … came to rest on each one of them.”

The key thing about fire is this: unless you contain it,
and it will transform everything it touches.

That is the reason Jesus gives the Holy Spirit: 
so that we will be transformed;
so that we will be changed entirely, and become heavenly.

We use the expression, “playing with Fire” – 
but God the Holy Spirit is not a plaything;
God does not share Himself with you, 
in order to be put on the shelf, or in your pocket, 
or worn around your neck like a religious medal.

Quite graciously, the Holy Spirit offers us a partnership; 
but only with you or me as the junior partner.
If we seek to contain the fire of the Holy Spirit, 
we will quite simply extinguish it.
The Holy Spirit is not an accessory or a hobby or a part-time thing.

When Moses brought the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai,
he said that they had been written by the “finger of God.”
In the Gospels, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit in this way, 
which makes sense, because the Holy Spirit gives us the power 
to obey the law of God written in our hearts.

Now, let me illustrate the two ways we can go:
Either to silence God’s voice in our hearts; or to let God change us.

how this works, 
although I’m going to use a pretty rough image, I’m sorry.
As most of us know, there are some very dark places on the Internet, 
providing a flood of images that are both beguiling and poisonous.
And don’t let my delicate language deceive you.
If you think what I’m talking about is only a little bit naughty, 
and just here or there, I’m sorry, but that is not the case.

It is a massive flood and it is filthier than you can imagine.

People are consuming this sewage, and coming back daily for more.

Here’s the thing: no one who first sees these things is ever blasé. 

The reaction is always the same: 
we know in our gut that it is very wrong.
That is God’s Law written in our hearts: that is our conscience.

So: if everyone knows it’s wrong, why is it everywhere?

Why is smut such a major economic engine of the Internet?
The answer is because people fight the Holy Spirit;
Instead of nourishing and strengthening their conscience, 
they ignore it, turn down the volume, shout over it.
They put out the Fire.

Look at this terrible crime at the high school in Texas, 
unfortunately, not isolated, but another on a list of such crimes.
Everyone wants to know what the problem is; 
We all want to explain it.

The problem of evil isn’t so easy; I don’t want to oversimplify.
But I submit to you that at least one part of it we can identify.
We’d like to say these criminals are just delusional; 
but what do the people involved say? 
“He was entirely normal.” Not crazy.
So let me ask you: do you think these people, 
who do these horrible things, to their family, their classmates, 
were nourishing their conscience – or in the habit of smothering it? 

Most of us will never be that person; but the point is,
when we start down the road of ignoring God in our hearts, 
wherever you and I end up, we won’t be the person we were.
And it won’t be sudden: it will be series of small, easy steps.

Now let me make the point in a different way.
Let me tell you about Bernard Nathanson.
He played a key role in legalizing abortion,
Which has cost untold millions of lives.
He himself was responsible for 75,000 abortions.
And he was an atheist.

However tightly he shut out the voice of God,
over the years, he would see and hear people praying outside the abortion facility he ran.

Someone—many someones—prayed for his conversion.
Many someones talked to him about the Lord—
And many someones showed him the example
of living like a Christian.

After a long time, Bernard Nathanson
stopped committing abortions—
Some time later, he became a pro-life advocate.
Then, he started going to Mass.
And after many years, he was baptized and confirmed
And received the Body and Blood of the Lord.

So you see, it can go either way.

Now, there’s bad news and there is good news.
First the bad news: 
If you want to put out the Fire of the Holy Spirit, you can do it. 
There is darkness beyond the darkness; and we can decide to like it.

Or The good news is that* we can undo the damage. 
The Fire can be kindled anew. 
But it only works if you let God be in charge.
The habit of “no,” “not now,” “that’s too much!” and “later,” 
can be – and must be – 
replaced with “yes, Lord” and “whatever it takes!” 
and “now is the time.” 

The place to rekindle the Fire is first in the silence of our own hearts, 
and then in the sanctuary of the confessional.

I wish I could tell you that it takes only one good confession, 
and then the Fire runs wild, and all our battles are won.
But that rarely happens – because that would mean
we conquered one set of sins, only to be consumed by spiritual pride.

No, it is a painful mercy that conversion usually takes great patience.
What happens is that you and I are a kind of “reverse fire fighter.” 
The task of our local Russia volunteer fire department 
is gradually to contain and kill a fire. 
The bigger it is, the longer it takes.

But our job – with the Holy Spirit – 
is to help the Fire spread into every corner of our lives!
It takes time and daily choices: will I let the Fire of God go here? 
And here? And even here?
Will I unwrap my fingers gripping tightly this vice, 
this inordinate love, and let it be consumed and transformed?

It starts with a single “yes”; followed by about a million more!

* I made these changes after the 5 pm Mass.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Heaven: we already have it. Claim it (Ascension homily)

All during Easter season my homilies have talked about heaven, 
because that’s why Jesus came, suffered, died and rose – 
to open up a future for each of us to be with him forever.

So how appropriate that here we are, and what are we talking about? 
Jesus ascending to his throne in heaven.

That said, this feast of the Ascension 
is not simply about Jesus himself returning to heaven; 
if that’s all it were, then where is the hope?

Rather, Jesus goes, as he said, to prepare a place for us.
It’s about you and me going to heaven.

So let’s talk about this.

First, I want to make a small but important point. 
Notice that this happened 40 days after Jesus’ Resurrection.
So this really should have been observed last Thursday.
But some 30 years or so ago, most bishops in this country 
decided that it would be beneficial to observe this on Sunday, 
so more of the faithful could participate.
That’s why this is happening on Sunday.

Nevertheless, I think it’s important to explain something 
about our Christian Faith, and I want to do it in big, bold letters: 
we are not just telling stories.
Our Faith is built on facts: Jesus was born, he was crucified, 
he died and he rose from the dead, in a particular place and time;

People witnessed all these things, and they were prepared to die – 
very painful deaths – rather than deny what they saw.
Our Faith is built on facts; and if these things did not happen,
We are all wasting our time here.

But back to the main theme:
You and I see Jesus return to heaven, 
and it means you and I are going there.
More than that: it means, in a real sense, we are already there.

Howso? Because you and I are part of Jesus.
How many ways does Jesus have to make this clear?
He calls himself the Bridegroom, and the Church is his Bride.

Jesus calls himself the head, and we are his body.
He is the Vine, we are the branches.
As Saint Paul describes in the second reading, 
we share the same Holy Spirit, 
and all the explosive power and life 
that comes from having God’s Spirit within us.

The point I want to make is that there really is no separation.
The Body of Christ is not a dead body, scattered here and there, 
but a living Body – intact and full of life.

So the conclusion is inescapable: if Jesus is in heaven (and he is), 
then in some true sense, so are we!

Now, just to be clear: you and I have heaven, we have it now; 
but we can lose it. So it’s something you and I must grab and hold on to.
That insight is what set off Saint Paul.
In the second reading, you can hear how excited he was about this. 
Readers will often complain in the sacristy 
that Paul wrote these long sentences – and they are right. 

But if you think about it, that’s exactly what happens 
when someone is erupting with excitement. 
It’s an explosion of words.
Saint Paul realizes: he – and each of us – is already in heaven!
Or, maybe to put it another way, you and I already have heaven; 
we just don’t realize it. 

The difference between really grasping that, and not, 
is the difference between being an on-fire, all-in, filled-with-joy Saint of God,
And being a bored, sometime pew-sitter, 
who can’t wait to get out of church 
because he or she can’t see what it’s all about.

Some of you are here, right now. Maybe you’re half-listening right now!
That’s OK, I’m not offended; but for about 90 seconds, 
WAKE UP! WAKE UP! Listen just for 90 seconds, OK?

Jesus is real, Jesus is here, and what he offers is pure life.
There’s a smorgasbord of life laid before you; 
yet you can still starve if you can’t be bothered to reach out for it. 
That’s not your parents, that’s not your wife or husband;
It’s not my fault, or someone else’s, who failed you. THAT’S ON YOU.

It’s totally normal to be in a situation where you don’t get it.
It’s confusing, or boring, or whatever. Everybody goes through that.
Whatever you love, whatever gets you excited, still takes effort. 
You have to put some work in.
So this notion that when it comes to your Faith, 
someone has to do it all for you, cut up all your food in little pieces?
Feed it to you? Sorry, that’s bogus. That’s an excuse.

Do you like steak? I like steak. 
And if someone puts a hot, juicy steak in front of me,
I’m not going to say, “Oh, no one cut it up, so I can’t eat it! So unfair!”
Dude: I’m eating it if I have to use my bare hands!

My point being that when what I just told you sinks in:
You and I are already in heaven – just claim it!
Then you’re going to grab that steak and chow down.
It’s yours. Claim it! Don’t let anyone or anything keep you from it!

If you are in school, and you go to religious education, 
and something doesn’t make sense? 
Ask and keep asking! “No, tell me again.”

Here’s a “problem” no one has ever brought me:
“We have a student who keeps demanding more.”
Or, “Father! In front of church, 
we have parents and senior citizens picketing! 
They are demanding more opportunities to learn their Faith.”

Don’t get me wrong: our parishioners are great 
for seeking to grow in the Faith. 

The argument I’m making is that no one should be going hungry.
There’s plenty here, and if anyone isn’t getting enough; 
if there’s something I can do, our parish can do, that we’re not?
Please, just tell me. “Father! We need…we want…” Tell me.
We will find a way. You are already in heaven.
Heaven is already yours. Come and get it!

Jesus told his disciples – he told us – to ask for more, and keep asking.
“Ask and you shall receive,” he promised. Hold him to that promise!
He will absolutely keep it.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

What does it mean to be God's friend? (Sunday homily)

In the Gospel, three times we heard Jesus call us his friends. 
“Friends” – that’s very striking. So let’s drill into that.

First of all, how do we even do that?
God is so beyond, how do we have a friendship with God?
I can’t invite God over to play Euchre; I can’t help God repair his barn. 

This was the point of the Incarnation – of God becoming human.
Did the Apostles play cards with Jesus? I don’t know; 
but they did help him with his work, and he with theirs.
They ate and drank and traveled and joked together.

God became human so that we humans could be friends with God.

But what kind of friends?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle – 
who was great because of thought of so many things 
before anyone else did – 
figured out that there are three types of friends.

The first type are those who are merely “useful” – 
so we might think of people at the stores we visit, 
or who deliver things to us.
We might not really know them, yet we are friendly, 
precisely because we do business.

The second sort of friend are those just for pleasure: 
for example, others in a hobby or a club.

But true friendship requires more.
Aristotle said true friendship is oriented to what is good; 
Friends love the good in each other, and love the same good together.

In short, what makes a true friendship is virtue.
If I seek what is good, 
I am drawn to others who love those good things. 
If I don’t have virtue in me, I won’t be drawn to them;
And they won’t be drawn to me.
What would we have in common?

Notice, this is what Jesus is telling us. He says, 
“you are my friends if you do what I command you.”
In other words, love what I love.
See as good what I, your Lord, see as good.

If you have noticed, many of my homilies this Easter  
have been about heaven. 
Jesus’ death and resurrection are about bringing us to heaven.

And this Gospel is also about heaven.

A lot of people think gaining heaven is like passing a test.
I have to get the right answers. I have to know the right things.
I have to be good enough. 
If I’m in a state of mortal sin and I die, I go to hell. 
I better go to confession to get good enough again.

Now, it is absolutely true that if we are in mortal sin, 
and we don’t repent, and we die, yes we will go to hell for eternity.
That is true, and it is frightening, 
and that is an excellent reason to get to confession right away.

Nevertheless, it is still not about passing a test!
It’s about being friends with God.
That’s why we also call confession the sacrament of reconciliation.
And what did Aristotle say? Friends love the good together.

If you want to be a friend of God, love what God loves.
This is important, because if we are honest, we don’t always do that.

People will ask, why should someone go to hell 
for this or that reason. And this is why.
Every day you and I face the choice: do I love the things God loves, 
or do I love and do what I prefer, regardless of what God says?

Jesus is going his way, and he says, come with me, be my companion!
And what do we say?
How about, “Will it take more than an hour on Sunday?”
“Can we schedule it around these other priorities?”
Or, we might tell Jesus, “Maybe later; I’m busy right now.” 
Or, how about, “Can I just meet you there?”

I suspect that’s where a lot of people are.
They won’t spend time with Jesus along the way, 
they’ll just meet him “later” in heaven.
But what makes you think you will want to be with him then, 
if you don’t want to be with him now?

Of course, that raises the question, can someone be in heaven, 
even if they don’t know Jesus in this life?

There’s a longer answer, but here’s a manageable one.
When people seek the Good and live by it, they will discover, 
in the end, that it was Jesus all along.

That’s for other folks, not us. We know who Jesus is.
No excuse for us. Jesus invites us to be friends.
Not once-a-week acquaintances.
Not someone we “do business with” – meaning, here’s my tithe, Lord, 
now I expect a good harvest and no family problems this year.

As you know, I’ve been talking about our parish priorities – 
although I haven’t mentioned them in a bit. 
We’ve been focused on Lent and Easter.

Let me remind you of three of those priorities:
To provide a “better welcome” to those not part of our parish;
To foster “more disciples” – 
that is, to help each other to know and serve Jesus better; 
And to “seek out” those in our families and neighborhoods 
who aren’t believers, or aren’t practicing, and draw them to Christ.

Here’s the thing: there’s no way anyone can do this 
unless you are a friend of Jesus in that full sense.

My barber is a good guy – but I don’t tell everyone I meet 
that they should go to my barber!
However: if he changed my life? Then I would!
So if it’s, “I go to church, yeah…it’s what I do…”:
That’s not very compelling.

On the other hand, how about:
“My life is better, my life has been changed, because of my Friend”: 
that is a compelling story; 
I want to hear that story, and so do many others!

Some days, honestly, I don’t even want you to see me up here. 
What I mean is, it’s not about me. 
Not about my words or funny comments.
Maybe I said something good, or maybe I said something “off.”
It doesn’t matter.

It’s really only about what Jesus himself said. 
You hear him; his words:
“I want you to be my friend. Come with me. Join me.”