Sunday, January 19, 2020

Fullness of Faith

January 19, 2020 –– 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:3, 5–6 / Psalm 40 / 1 Corinthians 1:1–3 /  John 1:29–34
Fullness of Faith

Properly understood, every facet of Christian faith interfaces with the others. I became more aware of this in my journey into the Catholic Church; one of the authors who influenced me referred to Catholicism as “a seamless garment.” I became persuaded that the Catholic Church is the “fullness of the Faith” in a tangible form.

What does this have to do with today’s readings? Consider St John’s account of the Baptism of Jesus. It is significant that all four Gospels give an account of the Baptism of Jesus. There is no way to unpack the Baptism of Jesus in one homily (or even a reasonable-length book!). Jesus’ Baptism is the gateway into all that God’s salvation means––one of those “seamless garment” threads.

One facet of God’s salvation (and again, everything interfaces) comes into focus through the second reading in St Paul’s opening words of his first Corinthian letter. There is a key word (usually translated one of two ways from the Greek, hagios): holy or saints. We are called to be holy (or saints). One way to understand the reason for Jesus’ Baptism and one key point that Paul is making in this letter is that God’s intention for us is to be holy––to be saints.

This is not easily assimilated by many people and is one way to see why the fulness of the Church is so important. The default popular understanding of saint in the Catholic tradition is a person who has been canonically sanctioned as having fully completed the transformation of being made holy. This, in turn, affects the way many Catholics often respond (or react) to the word holy––they think it is unapproachable. But being a saint is broader than the declaration of canonical perfection; there is an application of being holy that it is for every one of us.

As Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians he reinforces their identity and formation. Something has happened to them to make them who they are: the gathered people of God. Paul says he is writing to the church of God that is in Corinth. He is not writing to all the people in Corinth. There is a distinctive demarcation. It is rooted in Christian identity. How do we see ourselves? Is our connection with God the most significant part of our self-understanding? Beyond anything else, we are Christians. This is where Paul begins his letter.

How is it that these people were part of God's church? The remainder of the letter shows they are far from having arrived at holiness in their present setting. But…. they have been sanctified. This essentially means they have been “set apart”––they now belong to God.

Paul, speaking through the Holy Spirit, also tells the Corinthians (and us!) they were called to be holy (or to be saints). Here it is good to see that holy means "different." One way to be holy is to be distinctive––different for Jesus’ sake.

How is such a thing possible? There is another thing about the Christians Paul addresses: they have a foundation. They have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. They are among others from all over who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. God's grace has been given to them in Christ Jesus. Christianity is Jesus Christ.

Jesus always has the priority. We did not choose him; he chose us. That is always the starting point for the way we understand ourselves and the Church. No individual person nor single congregation stands alone before God. There is a wonderful prayer in the Liturgy that draws us into this mystery of holiness as we prepare to receive the Eucharist. After we pray the Our Father the priest intercedes with these words: look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church…. The Church is a people who are called of God and in Jesus Christ into the great work of salvation that God is doing through his people. Jesus’ Baptism was the initiating expression of that.

We are being called into identity with Jesus. What he did––his Baptism, Passion, Death, and Resurrection––he did for us. And when we follow him into those things we are sanctified––set apart, belonging to God. That, in turn, makes us holy.

Some years ago the Army had a commercial that was so good I wish they had not used it. It should belong to the Church. You may remember it: Be all that you can be. In the Church, whether it was in Corinth so long ago or whether it’s here in our own parish, being all we can be is a lot because it is not all up to us. It is up to the one who calls us.... who sets us apart.... who helps us to be different.... who gives us his gifts.... who promises us his kingdom. 

Remember who you are. You who have followed Jesus in Baptism have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. You are called to be holy––a saint. Believe it, and invite the power of the Holy Spirit to make you be all that you can be.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Sign From God

December 22, 2019 –– Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10–14 / Psalm 24 / Romans 1:1–7 / Matthew 1:18–24
A Sign From God

If we’re honest, we will admit that we would like for God to work on our preferred timetable and to do things in a way that it’s easy for us to understand and obey. Yet the general message we find in Scripture is that God is mysterious and we need to trust him.

When we see trouble on the horizon––whether it’s large scale like global or national, or up-close and personal––we want God to “fix it” so that we aren’t threatened or discomforted. King Ahaz was facing an attack from neighboring kingdoms who had formed a coalition against him. Isaiah told him not to be afraid, that God was at work. Then Isaiah told Ahaz he could even ask God for a sign! (How often do we hope, deep in our hearts, that the Lord will give us a clear sign?!)

Ahaz declined! Maybe he did what is so easy for anyone to do when God does come close––panic and run (that seems to be an inherited response from Adam and Eve). But God also did what he always does––God acts for what is good. The sign was still given: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.

At the time, the sign was unclear. It was rather general and in veiled language. On the other hand, it is an example of something that happens repeatedly in Scripture. The Old Testament especially is full of what biblical scholars call sensus plenior, a Latin phrase that means "fuller sense" to describe a deeper meaning intended by God, but beyond the human author’s intention at the time of writing.

So we do not know exactly how Isaiah understood what he was saying at the time. Yet this in itself has something to say to us. How often are we unsure what God is doing in our own lives and the things going on around us? Our faith may not readily perceive that God is at work in any up-close and personal way. Or we may, indeed, sense that God is truly up to something––yet not understand what it is. Through all the years of salvation history, this is not unusual. Do not be discouraged if you can’t see or aren’t sure of God’s immediate activity. That doesn’t mean God is not at work! 

The reality of this is magnified in the very event when God was finally making plain what he had said through Isaiah. It came 700 years later! And even then Matthew’s story shows that Joseph didn’t understand what was going on. At first he thought what everyone else would come to assume––Mary had done something she shouldn’t have done (this was part of God coming to us in humility). But Joseph had one thing going for him at the start: he was able to discern the voice of God.

Now, I don’t think we should be looking for a particular revelation when we have a vivid dream or when some unusual thought impresses itself in our minds, but…. we should have spiritual ears which are regularly listening for what God might say, and be open. (I would add to that a readiness to seek spiritual counsel if something seems unusual.) What I’m saying is that God wants to be in a relationship with us. I  say this because the fulfillment of God’s message to Isaiah and the outcome of God’s word to Joseph was exactly that: God is with us.

Today we do know what God was saying through Isaiah. The fulfillment of the virgin shall conceive and bear a son is Mary receiving the physical life of God in her womb and giving birth to Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. This is not mere myth; “myth” implies an essential truth. The Virgin Birth is not figurative. This is God at work for our salvation.

We may wonder: why don’t I see God working in big ways like this, “up-close and personal” in my life? The big things are “sprinkled” across the span of salvation history. Scripture is selective. The people and stories which are so familiar come out of centuries of events. C.S. Lewis once observed: “They come on great occasions…. that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men. If your own life does not happen to be near one of those ganglions, how should you expect to see [it]?”  (from Miracles)

As we celebrate another Christmas I want to remind us of three big things from our readings today. First, God is at work for our salvation even if we don’t understand every detail around us. Second, God did a one-time thing through Mary. Third, because of what did God in and through Mary by sending his Son, God is with us, and he wants us to know him.

The way we do that is to believe, to trust, and to listen.

Are you listening?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Spiritual Authority

Wednesday: November 13, 2019–– 32nd Week of Ordinary Time
Wisdom 6:1–11 / Luke 17:11–19
Spiritual Authority

St Paul tells the Romans that the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable (11:29). He is talking about God’s promises to Israel and giving assurance that the Jewish people will not be left out of the salvation accomplished by Christ.

Yet the principle goes beyond the particular application in the Romans letter. The original gift and call that God gave his human creation was to govern the earth as his vice-regents. Humans have an inherent spiritual authority that has a cause and effect in this world. It can be used for great good; it can be used for great harm and evil.

The harm and evil that has been done is quite visible across the span of history. One of the worst conduits is what we think of as political power. That is the basis of the warning in today’s reading from Wisdom: Because authority was given you by the Lord…. Because though you were ministers of his kingdom, you judged not rightly….Terrible and swift shall he come against you….

Lord Acton has been credited with saying “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Pride and a selfish lust for power has turned God’s gift of vice-regency into horrible repercussions in our world.

But God’s people are not totally helpless. One way to understand prayer is our God-given ability to use spiritual authority to combat the forces of evil which operate through dark principalities and powers.

This is also a good way to understand why humility and thankfulness can be powerful actions for good––in our own souls and in the world around us. The Gospel shows us the kind of people God is so prone to work in and through––the lowly and desperate, like the lepers. Yet there is a needed response: thankfulness––an attitude that acknowledges God as God.

When live unto God we are allowing the spiritual power of our vice-regency to flow through us for good. And so we come to him each day, humbly taking our place both as his exalted creatures and as his dependent children. And we pray…. we pray for good and we pray against evil. And we ask for the grace to give thanks always for his good gifts.

The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. Let’s use them wisely.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Life and Death

November 10, 2019 –– 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Maccabees 7:1–2, 9–14 / 2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5 / Luke 20:27–38
Life and Death

This is the time of year when the Church turns our attention through the readings to the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The wisdom of Christian Tradition knows we will not easily think about those things on our own. Our society is obsessed with the here and now. Physical comfort, convenience, and entertainment would be contenders for a “secular trinity.” The Scriptures and the lives of the saints tell us that faithfulness to God is more important that all those things––that faithfulness to God is even worth dying for.  But…. if we are going to hold life in this world loosely, we must have a good reason for our faith. If this life is all there is, the “secular trinity” seems most reasonable. How do we understand the tension of life and death?

The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. They were the aristocrats of Jewish society and collaborated with Rome, the power of the day. Their focus was the here-and-now. An unbalanced focus on life in this world is not an unusual response for the wealthy of any time or place. The Sadducees did not wish to lose their wealth, their comfort, and their “place.” But comfort and convenience can suffocate spiritual life. Who feels a need for God if it seems everything is going great? To the comfortable, heaven can seem like a fairy tale with no relevant meaning. Temporal life becomes more important than God; death is to be avoided at all costs and the interim filled with whatever helps us forget we are going to die.

Contrast the Sadducees with the seven brothers and their mother in the Maccabees story. Life certainly was not comfortable and convenient for them. Alexander the Great’s empire had extended into Judea and there was a tyrannical demand that everyone be totally unified in their allegiance to the state. There was no place for a religious commitment that conflicted with the unification of the social order. How shall we respond when there is pressure to be absorbed into a conformed pattern of living that denies God and his truth? This old Jewish story tells us: Even after being tortured one of the brothers said, It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him….

One gross distortion of contemporary Christian Faith is to see it as a spiritual insurance policy providing coverage from hard and painful things in life. Prayer becomes access to a divine vending machine––say the right words and you get supernatural goodies. The Thessalonian letter written by St Paul almost 2000 years ago is an ongoing reminder to all Christians that the world can be a hard place––especially for those who give total allegiance to Jesus. Here the Apostle Paul is asking the Thessalonian Christians to pray that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith. He knows that all Christians are in a spiritual war and we need God's perspective and presence.

When people give Jesus total allegiance and Christians have a passion to extend the Gospel to the whole earth, there will be obstacles. Christian faith and practice are being suppressed more and more in our own nation. Much of the world is closed to Christian witness today because spiritual warfare is real. There is opposition to Christian Faith to the point of persecution and death. It’s been that way throughout history, yet it’s not only an in-the-past issue. More Christians died for their faith in the 20th Century than all previous centuries combined! It is estimated that in the two millennia of Christian history, 70 million faithful have died for the Faith, and 45.5 million––65%–– were in the last century. We are in a spiritual war. Satan does not want the love and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ to prevail.

How can we stay faithful? How can we not succumb to the numbing effects of seduction like the Sadducees? How can we choose faithfulness to Jesus above ridicule or financial loss, or even   physical persecution? Well, we have examples of faith like the seven brothers and their mother. We have the martyrs of the Church. Most of all, we have Jesus affirming a life that goes beyond this world: the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is a God of the living. As Paul tells the Thessalonians: the Lord is faithful. And so we pray each day for the grace to live in true faithfulness––to give total allegiance to Jesus.

We cannot give witness to something we don't live, and we're not expected to live something God hasn't provided. Knowing Jesus Christ is to know God's love. And knowing that love, we are to show the love of Jesus.... to our wife or husband.... to our children.... to our neighbors.... to the people at work. We are to witness to the love of Christ everywhere we go. When we do that, we are being witnesses of the Gospel (the root of “witness” is martyr). When we witness to the love of God, we show that there is something more important than our own comfort and convenience, or even our very lives. It is because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and coming again to bring total healing to this broken world.

Luke’s setting for this part of his Gospel is Jesus on the way to the cross (see Lu 9:51). This is  so we can know the power of God over death itself. Maccabees tells the story of people who paid the ultimate price for faithfulness to God. Each one of us as Christians is called to “martyrdom” –– laying down our lives in selfless love as a witness to Jesus. It may be a “red martyrdom”–– laying down our physical lives for Jesus’ sake, but more often it’s what the Church calls “white martyrdom”–– dying daily to our selfish desires so that the life and love of Christ in us can grow.

We often hear, “Life is short…. better enjoy it.” How about, “Eternity is long, better prepare for it!”  That is how to keep a true perspective on life and death

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Jesus Wants Everyone

November 3, 2019 –– 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 11:22–12:2 / Psalm 145 / 2 Thessalonians 1:11–2:2 / Luke 19:1–10
Jesus Wants Everyone

When Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth, he read from the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). And preach good news to the poor he did. Later Jesus sent an answer to John, who was in prison and wondering if Jesus was the One, saying, Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deafa hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor (7:22,23).

So it can be surprising that Jesus sought Zacchaeus. Luke tells us he was wealthy (v2). Not only was he wealthy, his wealth came through his collaboration with Rome; he was a tax collector. Here was a man who held in public opinion the place a drug dealer might have today. Here was a man opposite of the blind beggar in the previous story of Luke’s Gospel. Zacchaeus had power. He had advantages. He could buy almost anything he wanted. He was surrounded by comfort.

Just as Jesus had pronounced blessing on the poor, he had denounced the rich:
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry (6:24).

Jesus told horror stories about the rich (12:13ff and 16:19ff). He told the rich ruler to give everything away to the poor, and then commented on the man's reluctance by saying, How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! (18:23). Why did Jesus give attention to Zacchaeus?

Maybe it was because he was a tax collector. Anyone who was that despised by everyone else was especially needful of Jesus' compassion. In fact, Levi (or Matthew), one of the twelve disciples, had been a tax collector (5:27). Quite early in his Gospel Luke says that Jesus had a reputation of being a friend of tax collectors (7:34). And because of that, tax collectors made it a point to gather around Jesus (15:1).

The truth is, Jesus gave himself to anyone who would receive him. Jesus gave all kinds of people an opportunity. He ate with tax collectors, yes, but he also ate with Pharisees (7:36 and 14:1). The issue was not one of relative wealth, occupation or handicap. The issue was then what it is today, one of love and grace on Jesus' part, and one of acceptance or rejection on the part of others.

Zacchaeus took a first step toward Jesus by going out and climbing the tree. Whether wealthy or sinner of any kind, when someone takes the first step toward Jesus, he will offer his love and mercy. Zacchaeus recognized the need to respond to love and mercy, and he did. He gave away half his possessions to the poor and promised to make restitution for the many times he had cheated people. Jesus reaches out to all kinds of people, and the people who choose to follow Jesus show his grace in their lives in some demonstrable ways.

Notice that Zacchaeus gave only half his possessions away. Jesus' word to the rich ruler was to give everything away (18:22). Here is where we find differences. The issue of what to do with wealth did not even exist for the poor who turned to Jesus (like the blind in the previous story). Zacchaeus gave away half and it was enough. Paul wrote to Timothy to tell the rich not to trust in their wealth but to share (1 Tim 6:17-19), but in spite of that warning he does not categorically denounce the rich.

Maybe this is enough for us to begin to see something important about people who follow Jesus.  First of all, Jesus wants all kinds of people as his followers. He wants the poor. He wants the handicapped. He wants the people that much of society thinks is worthless. Jesus wants sinners  ––big sinners. He wants the kind of people who have collaborated with structural evil. He wants people who have used power to hurt others. He wants people whose manners and way of life are disgusting to normal people. Of course he wants them to change, but he wants them. The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.

Jesus wants people who are rich. He does not want rich people because of their money; he wants them in spite of it. He may tell some to give it “all” away; he will certainly have those with money who obey him give some of it away. And all of us, like Zacchaeus, need to give back to anyone we have wronged.

So whether one is a common worker or a corporate executive, a rich person or a poor person, a person with almost every advantage or a person with any kind of handicap, Jesus wants you. Whatever or whoever you are, Jesus wants you. But know this: when Jesus “has us” it will change us, as it changed Zacchaeus.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Desire and Salvation (a daily homily)

Wednesday: October 30, 2019 –– 30th Week in Ordinary Time
Romans 8:26–30 / Luke 13:22–30
Desire, the Holy Spirit, and Salvation

Someone asked Jesus: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus replied by addressing the questioner personally: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” Those who truly desire to be saved will be saved.

St Augustine said:
The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire.

You do not see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

There is then within us a kind of instructed ignorance, instructed, that is, by the Spirit of God who helps our weakness.

The Lord your God tests you…. to enable you to know. So the Spirit moves the saints to plead with sighs too deep for words by inspiring in them a desire for the great and as yet unknown reality that we look forward to with patience. How can words express what we desire when it remains unknown? If we were entirely ignorant of it we would not desire it; again, we would not desire it or seek it with sighs, if we were able to see it. 

Here is a consolation: “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness”…. and “intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”

Whenever we feel drawn to God it is a desire that he has implanted within us. When we respond we are not alone. The Spirit both draws us and helps us. And every day we open ourselves for the grace to hear and follow. Those who do that will be saved.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Living With Passion

September 22, 2019 –– 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 8:4–7 / Psalm 113 / 1 Timothy 2:1–8 / Luke 16:1–13
Living With Passion

In this Gospel story Jesus is not recommending conniving selfishness (the prophet Amos warns about that!). Jesus is making the point that we are in the same position as this steward who saw his imminent dismissal threatening him with ruin––but the crisis which threatens us is even more serious. The steward was losing his temporal security; all of us are going to die, and how we respond to this temporal world will affect us eternally. The word mammon in the Gospel reading is not merely money, but the sum total of temporal values.

As Christians, we believe there are two worlds: the unseen world as well as the one that is visible––the world which is eternal as well as the one that is passing away. Some people live as though this world is all there is and ever will be. That means all their values, all their energies and all their hopes are focused on the here and now. Living that way is the essence of unbelief. To live that way is to leave God and his kingdom out of the picture. It is an attitude which thinks that being “happy” right now is the most important thing––and temporal security is a top priority for having happiness.

Jesus says the man in this story acted "prudently" (v8). The word is sometimes translated “wisely” or “shrewdly” (emphasizing the devious side of being “wise”). The steward had foresight and recognized the critical nature of his situation. Jesus is not commending his character or what he did; rather, Jesus respects the intensity of the man’s perception and motivation to act “prudently” for his welfare, so he says: For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

In essence, Jesus is saying that people who live for the here and now know how to go after what they want. Worldly people know how to be worldly. They are shrewd. They know how to get their way. They know how to take care of what is often called “Number One.” A shrewd businessman knows how to manipulate situations to his own advantage. A playboy knows how to seduce. A “shark” knows how to cheat people. That kind of character goes after their goal with abandon. People consumed with this world know what they want and they know what they have to do to get it. That is how they can be a model to us for how to live with passion for the kingdom of God. The dedication it takes to achieve advancement and pleasure in the here-and-now is the kind of dedication Jesus calls his disciples to have for following him.

We live in a world where most people get things backwards. Beginning with the first disobedience in the Garden, people have always tried to rationalize away God's laws. The Pharisees did it (see v14). Many “religious” people do it today. God calls his people to look at life in an upside-down kind of way.

One way to think about our priorities and motivations is through the values we hold for our children. So much of the focus is on worldly success. Little Johnny might know little or nothing about God, Scripture, or Sacraments, but let him bring home a bad report card, and the reaction is quick. Here is a big problem because if Johnny doesn’t get better grades, he might not get into the best college, and then he won’t be able to make a killing––I mean.... a living.

Too often in today’s culture kids are taught that sports is the most important thing. Weekly church attendance is not so easy, but daily practice is certainly accommodated. We can think that an hour sitting in church is next to eternity (and don’t dare go over), but hours of a Saturday or Sunday (or both) watching games and going to sports meets is no big deal. Meanwhile Johnny and Susie, who can kick a soccer ball or shoot baskets for hours, barely know Scripture and have no clue at Mass. But Mom and Dad haven’t made those things important, so maybe they’re not important at all.

But it’s not just families with kids and young adults…. “Mature adults” can spend hours worrying and strategizing to make sure their retirement income enables them to “live life at the standard you have come to expect” (that line was in a commercial). Retirees can passionately give themselves to the pleasures “we worked for so long and hard to enjoy,” and that’s supposedly the crowning glory of life.

It is so easy for all of us––parents and church leaders––not to be responsible in what matters most to God. Our children hear that they should study hard, get good grades etc., to make it in this world. In its place this is not wrong––but their souls are more important. If we allow our heroes and models to be sports superstars and entertainers who make it big in this world, then what is our true focus? Where are our hearts?

We all have a God-given capacity to go after what we want.... with abandonment. People around us do it all the time. “Go-getters" usually have the admiration of a lot of people. One exception to that is people who are super-motivated about Jesus––they are usually looked upon as "fanatics."

Jesus is calling us to be disciples who are willing to live for his kingdom with the same intensity with which worldly people pursue their own self interests. The unbelieving world will not easily hear the Church if we as Christians are not modeling distinctiveness in our values and commitments. May our Lord have mercy on us all. May he give us, who claim the name of Jesus, the desire and the strength to serve him with passion.

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