Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Core of the Gospel

March 11, 2018 –– Fourth Sunday in Lent
2  Chronicles 36:14–16, 19–23 / Psalm 137 / Ephesians 2:4–10 / John 3:14–21
The Core of the Gospel

Today’s text from Ephesians: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and especially the well-know text from the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life, remind me of Billy Graham.

Billy Graham’s recent death and funeral was a major news item spanning a couple of weeks. Of course it dominated the Evangelical media, but even the secular press gave it high priority. What particularly fascinated me were the numerous Catholic commentaries I read. [One of them was written by a convert-priest in South Carolina who I came to know in my own Catholic journey. His Evangelical background and college path through Bob Jones University had much in common with my personal history, so I resonated with Fr Dwight Longenecker’s comments about Billy Graham. I hope my lightly edited use of his article for this homily will be understood in the context of the esteem I have for what he has said.]

Someone asked why everybody thought Billy Graham was so great. It was because he preached the simple message of a human race locked in sin and in need of a savior, and that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son so that all who believe in him might have everlasting life. That’s it.

I was brought up in a devout Evangelical home where Billy Graham’s model of Christian faith was assumed. We memorized Bible verses and believed that you had to “get saved.” We went forward in church and accepted Jesus into our lives as our personal Lord and Savior. That had a key role in making me who I am today.

Billy Graham’s message was often ridiculed. Intellectuals would sneer, and many religious people dismissed it as naive. Theologians said it was too simplistic. Unrepentant sinners would scorn it and laugh and turn away. But many, many ordinary people heard that simple message and had their lives forever changed.

I think our Catholic churches could be stronger if we took a bit of a lesson from Billy Graham. I know he’s not a Catholic. I know his theology was not as developed as it could have been. I know we do not preach his simple, easy message of eternal security–“Just say yes to Jesus and you can know you are going to heaven.” I know we stress the sacraments and membership in the Church. I know that being a Catholic is more complicated and full and abundant than the reductionist beliefs of  “pop-Christianity.”

But…. on the other hand, isn’t the core message still the same? Do we not call sinners every Sunday at Mass to repent of their sins and come forward in an altar call to receive Jesus? Do we not call sinners to come to confession, to say they are sorry for their sins and accept the forgiveness of Jesus? And if we do not say that people can know absolutely that they are going to heaven, we can certainly say that they can know today that they are on the road to heaven if they say “Yes” to Jesus and seek to live in a state of grace.

Could it be…. that churches have people who win prizes for humanitarian efforts while they vote for the dismemberment of unborn children…. that churches have people who seem more concerned to save the planet than to save souls…. that churches have far too many shallow (and worse) clergy…. could it be that the main reason churches (both Catholic and Protestant) have people modeling a faith that is not The Faith is because we have let the core of what it is all about get out of focus?!

What Christianity is all about is the core message Billy Graham preached so simply––a sinful humanity in need of a savior. That is the Gospel.

I have not walked away from the good things that came from my early Christian heritage––I have just grown in them and found there is more and more. If I had to choose a label it would be “Evangelical Catholic.”

I hope Billy Graham’s passing has reminded all of us who profess the name of Jesus what it’s all about: a sinful humanity in need of a savior, and God has given us his Son for that very reason. That is truly for all of us. It is our Catholic Faith.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Grace to Keep Going

February 18, 2018 –– First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8–15 /  Psalm 25 / 1 Peter 3:18–22 / Mark 1:12–15
The Grace to Keep Going

The response psalm usually has a limited selection of verses. Many of the psalms are too long to sing every verse given our cultural expectations of time. The psalm verses today emphasize God’s love with the explicit words compassion and kindness and goodness. There is also the wonderful affirmation: he shows sinners the way.

It is good to remember that we are sinners. St Paul gave this foundational word of Christian truth to the Romans: all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). He is not saying we have lost the image of God which we were given in creation (Gen 1:27), but we are broken because of disobedience, and the resulting power of sin has affected our whole world. One important way to understand salvation is being healed and restored to the full glory of God (which we see and are given in Jesus––Heb 1:3, Col 2:9).

A popular misunderstanding of Christian faith––we can even dare to call it a heresy––is that salvation is only forgiveness of sins. All of us surely need forgiveness, but the salvation that leads us to eternal life is so much more. We come to God and ask for the gracious forgiveness of sins because of the death of Christ, but we need to understand it is so that we can be healed of the tragic brokenness that affects all of us.

It is glorious to come away from a time of confession knowing we have been forgiven. But if we’re honest, we too often think almost immediately about the weaknesses and patterns which seem so easily to pull us down. The devil wants us to get discouraged about that and just quit trying.

WRONG! The only way lose the spiritual fight is to quit trying. There is a verse in Psalm 25 that was not part of today’s response. It comes in v3 and the Grail translation in The Liturgy of the Hours is especially insightful and wonderful:

Those who hope in you shall not be disappointed,
but only those who wantonly break faith.

Let’s unpack this. We so easily feel our failures. We can think God gets tired of our weakness and stumbling. But the psalmist gives us a testimony of God’s mercies, and it’s a witness that has withstood the test of time. Throughout the ages God’s people have learned to say:

….your compassion, O Lord, and your love are from of old.
In your kindness remember me, because of your goodness, O Lord.

The devil wants us to think that God is just looking for an excuse to judge and reject us. Turning again to St Paul’s words to the Romans: God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us! Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (5:8,9).

God’s anger is directed at sin. God loves us so much that he hates the things that hurt us. And because of that hurt, God became a human being just like us in the person of his Son to take that hurt upon himself…. to let that hurt kill him on the cross. That was what God did so that the resurrection life that comes after the cross can do its work in us. Yes, we have forgiveness. We also have healing.

But healing usually comes more slowly than we wish….. healing can try our patience. It can seem a broken bone or recuperation from surgery takes forever for full healing. We get impatient with ourselves. We get impatient with others who are not healing as quickly as we would like.

Here’s a word for Lent: Do not be afraid to face your sins. Do not get discouraged if change does not seem to be happening soon enough––in yourself and in others.

The one thing the enemy of our souls wants us to do is get discouraged and quit. Remember, though, that giving up and quitting is the only way to block the process of grace in your life.

Those who hope in you shall not be disappointed,
but only those who wantonly break faith.

“Breaking faith” is not who we are. God wants to give us the grace to keep going. Here is a great encouragement from the writer to the Hebrews: We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved (10:39).

We believe and trust one thing: the grace of God that is given to us in Jesus Christ. 

Have a good Lent!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Confrontation with Evil

January 28, 2018 –– 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 18:15–20 / Psalm 95 / 1 Corinthians 7:32–35 / Mark 1:21–28
Confrontation with Evil

In popular terminology Christian Faith is supernatural. Christian Faith encompasses a “spirit-world” and believes that the Creator God is actively involved in every nuance of what is called “natural”––from microbes to galaxies far, far away. This visible world that we mostly take for granted is actually a spiritual battleground. The Christian apologist C. S. Lewis once wrote: “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.” That is not to say the battle between good and evil is equal. Christianity condemns dualism: the idea that that good and evil are in eternal conflict. The creature, Satan, is in rebellion against the Creator God, but Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God the Father, entered our world to lead us into the security and life of God’s forever kingdom.

Mark started his Gospel by identifying what it is: the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark had come to believe that a man, Jesus from Nazareth, was unlike any other person. Mark's Gospel was written to tell why it is right to believe that the man Jesus was God's promised Messiah and God's divine Son.

Jesus came declaring the presence of a new kingdom. We don’t usually think about “kingdoms” (that word is not very contemporary), but we do understand what it means to live in a world where power is a big deal. We understand implications of authority. The message of Jesus was that the kingdom of God had come in power. The actions of Jesus were designed to show that the kingdom of God had come with authority. But with Jesus, the words “power” and “authority” do not point to what we normally would expect.

If we had been there to hear and see the man known as Jesus, we would have seen…. a peasant Galilean accompanied by a rag-muffin type of following. So what caused people to realize that with Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed there was a distinctive power and authority? By all external observations he was an ordinary man, even a nobody. But when he talked, people were amazed. When he acted, people were astounded. And as he talked and acted, people could not help but be attracted.

When Jesus spoke in the synagogue that day it was not a boring “talk.” Jesus spoke with authority. There was something that made a person see beyond a simple Galilean peasant. There was life in what he spoke. There was a freshness and a reality and a power.

Yet words alone can be manipulated to be deceptive. Jesus' verbal authority was challenged on the spot. In the synagogue was a man who was under the control of a demonic spirit. An onlooker would have seen the man get to his feet, but it was the evil spirit using the man's vocal chords which did the speaking: What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are––the Holy One of God! In his first letter John says, The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work (3:8). This demon knew exactly what was happening, and it was reacting. Satan fights back when his territory is invaded and challenged. Sometimes when we feel down and it seems nothing is going right, there is a possibility that evil itself is attacking us.

Here is where Jesus proved the authority behind his words. His talk of the kingdom of God was not mere talk. So Jesus spoke again, and it was a command to the demon. The verb there is simply, Shut up. Sometimes we need to tell the powers of hell to shut up. We can do that in the authority of Jesus Christ.

Not only did Jesus tell the demon to shut up, he made it come out and leave the man: The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. Hear St. John again: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. The meaning was clear to the people in the synagogue: A new teaching––and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.

We live in a culture that until recently has scoffed the supernatural. Many still think a rational, "scientific" explanation can be found for everything. There is also a fresh interest in spiritualism (which often turns to the occult). As C. S. Lewis so clearly stated, we live each day in confrontation with evil. Our Christian faith has real ramifications. We are called to embrace what is true and good and beautiful and turn away from all that is false and harmful and ugly. When we do that, there will often be reaction––and some of it will not be pleasant because evil fights back.

We need to know and understand that Jesus has authority over evil spirits. We follow the One who has the true authority in this world. We belong to the King who has given us citizenship in his kingdom and gives all who belong to him the gift of his Spirit.

With apostolic authority, Mark invites us to believe that God's kingdom has come, and Jesus is the King. This is our Christian Faith.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

God At Work

December 24, 2017 –– 4th Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1–5, 8b–12, 14a, 16 / Psalm 89 / Romans 16: 25–27 / Luke 1:26–38
God At Work

Today’s readings tell us that God has come into our world in some definite and incredible ways. The Creator God of all-that-is wants to be involved in our lives.

The Scriptures give us pictures through stories which show something of what that means. One of the extended Old Testament stories is about David, the boy-shepherd who became the model-king of Israel. King David is a wonderful example of great faith mixed with human weakness. There were times when the power of God working though him was nothing short of incredible; yet David was human enough that the power of sin sometimes clouded his faith so that he made some terrible decisions. But God gave David a huge promise: I will make your name great…. will establish a house for you…. will establish the throne of [your son’s] kingdom forever (2Sam 7: 9, 11, 13). It was one of the ways God himself was at work to come into our world.

When we come to the Gospel story we know the story end from the beginning. We can take it for granted: the angel Gabriel was sent from God… to a virgin… named Mary. The angel’s message was the fulfillment of God’s promise to David, but the glory of the kingdom was not visible. 
And for all the honor that Mary has since received from the Church, nothing would have seemed special about Mary at the time. If we could have looked in the window that day we would have seen what appeared to be a nobody––a poor young woman seemingly in the process of doing what most young women did: she was betrothed to a man named Joseph.

And it got worse: you will conceive in your womb and bear a son….  Not only is Mary seemingly a poor nobody, her life is about to marked with scandal. Mary was going to have a child and she was not yet married. These stories define who we are as Christians.

We need to take care with the story not to “put it on a shelf” ––something to be taken out once a year and allowed to take us to a nostalgic place of warm fuzzies about a baby surrounded by animals and shepherds and even angels. If we do that, we can miss two important things. First, we can think of this as a "once upon a time" story and lose the impact of what is true and real.

If that happens, we will miss an even more important thing (at least on a personal level): the story includes us! The God who entered our world in such a miraculous way wants to work supernaturally in each of us. That’s not to say that we are going to be as substantial in God’s work as David. Certainly none of us will have the stature in God’s plan as Mary.

But…. We are each invited to believe that just as God was at work personally in David and Mary (and many others in the ongoing biblical story), God wants to be at work in each of our lives to fulfill his purpose for coming into our world. The story that God is writing is not limited to the events we read in the Bible. Those long-ago stories happened so we can be part of what God is doing even today. God sent his Son to be the eternal King of the Kingdom prefigured by David because he wants us to be part of that Kingdom. God sent Jesus to be conceived in the womb of Mary and called holy, the Son of God, because he wants Jesus to be “conceived” in each one of us so that we can be HOLY.

What are you expecting God to do in your life because he sent his Son? It seems the world at large hardly expects to see Christians living from day to day any differently from anyone else.  Maybe we think our sins disqualify us from God using us. If that idea comes into your mind, think of David. Maybe we think we are too insignificant––as Mary would have appeared to be. But the story is true and our Faith is true: on this fourth Sunday of Advent we live our days in the presence of the God who, through the angel, told Mary: nothing will be impossible for God.

What does God want to do in you? One way to find out is to tell the Lord from your heart exactly what Mary said: May it be done to me according to your word. If we do that, we will discover God at work in each of our lives.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Wednesday: December 13, 2017 –– 2nd Week in Advent
Isaiah 40: 25–31 / Psalm 103 / Matthew 11: 28–30

Except for people limited by an innocence of either age or mental capacity, I think it can be assumed that everyone is aware of some worry, threat, pain, or limitation that seems too big or unjust or hopeless. It is the nature of this world that things go wrong.

It is often wondered why, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, that he doesn’t “fix” everything and leave us all happy. Actually, God has promised to do just that––but not yet.

Why? I believe one reason is that God wants us to feel the effects of sin (disregard of his “Manufacturer’s Instructions”––a good way to understand his Commandments). The option of disregarding God is necessary for love. God wants us to love him, and love cannot be forced (or it’s not love). God could have made us as programmed robots, but there can be no relationship with a machine. Again, he wants us to love him as he loves us.

So God gives us the choice of disregarding and disobeying him. Yet, in love, he allows us to receive the repercussions of that disobedience. He allows us to hurt each other and to be hurt by a universe that was broken when we chose evil (disobedience). Why is disobedience evil? Because God is the epitome of goodness, and when we choose to turn from goodness the result is bad. Again, God lets us feel the bad in the hope that we will turn and run to him.

And this is what God wants (but remember, it’s our choice––the nature of love). Yet when we take the tiniest step toward God, we find that he has already taken incredible steps toward us. He comes to us. That is the message of Christmas. He takes our death and gives us his life. That is the message of the Cross and the Resurrection.

So every day, we have a choice. We can focus on hard circumstances and listen to the world’s (the devil’s) lie that mere nice circumstances will fix everything. We can think it’s up to us; that we humans can fix the world by ourselves (but we are too far too limited in perspective and ability). OR…. we can believe that God has promised to fix everything (in his time) and begin to live now as if God is truly real and here.

That is the invitation from Jesus in this Gospel. It’s not a promise to give an immediate fix to everything, but a promise that if we come to him he will be with us. The Psalm tells us how that can be: we can come to Jesus for rest because, even though he is God, he gives us forgiveness instead of judgment. And if we truly believe that, it changes how we live in this world. Instead of feeling beaten down, Isaiah says that God will lift us up even as we live in a hard world.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Let’s ask for the grace to believe that today…. and every day.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The King Whose Name Is Love

November 26, 2017 –– 34th (Last) Sunday in Ordinary Time / Solemnity of Christ the King (A)
Ezekiel 34:11–12, 15–17 / 1 Corinthians 15:20–26, 28 / Matthew 25:31–46
The King Whose Name Is Love

Imagine a world in which no one was put down, left out, or abused….

There would be no stories in the news with details we need to hide from our children.

We could trust people in authority to do the right thing––and certainly never to do anything atrocious.

Earlier in the chapter of the first reading, God lets the people know that he is quite aware of the inequity and injustice happening on earth: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! (34:2). It’s not only in our day that prominent––and not so prominent––people have abused others. But that is not the way it is supposed to be, and it’s not the total picture.

From each big politician, each pastor, and each individual parent, from those who are relatively good and strong to those terribly weak and bad––above and beyond every person on this earth who has the prerogative of any power over others, we have a Good Shepherd who has promised: I myself will look after and tend my sheep (Ez 34:11).

Today we celebrate in a focused way that this Good Shepherd is Jesus Christ the King. This Shepherd says:
I myself will pasture my sheep;
  I myself will give them rest.
The lost I will seek out,
  the strayed I will bring back,
  the injured I will bind up
  the sick I will heal….
This Shepherd is able to do what he says because the Shepherd is the King.

How many of us need rest? How many people close to us are straying or injured or sick? Our Shepherd-King says, I will pasture my sheep.

A mom was concerned about her kindergarten son walking to school. Johnny didn't want his mother to walk with him so she had an idea. She asked a neighbor to follow him to school in the mornings, staying at a distance, so he probably wouldn't notice her. The neighbor said that since she was up early with her young daughter anyway, it would be a good way to get a bit of exercise, so she agreed.

The next school day, the neighbor and her little girl set out following behind Johnny as he walked to school with another neighbor boy. She did this for the whole week. As the boys walked and chatted, Johnny’s little friend noticed the same lady was following them every day. Finally he said to Johnny, "Have you noticed that lady following us to school all week? Do you know her?"

Johnny nonchalantly replied, "Yeah, I know who she is."

The friend said, "Well, who is she?"

"That's just Shirley Goodnest," Timmy replied,"and her little girl, Marcy."

Who is that, and why is she always following us? "

"Well," Johnny explained, "every night my Mom makes me say the 23rd Psalm with my prayers, 'cuz she worries about me so much. And the Psalm says, 'Shirley Goodnest and Marcy shall follow me all the days of my life', so I guess I'll just have to get used to it!"

We have a King, and one of his names is Love. He is our Shepherd, and he promises to follow us all the days of our lives. All we need to do to truly profit from this is to believe it.

Sunday, November 5, 2017


November 5, 2017 –– 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 1:14b–2:2b, 8–10 / Psalm 131 / 1 Thessalonians 2:7b–9, 13 / Matthew 23:1–12

No one likes a hypocrite. Some of the strongest words in Scripture are directed toward religious people who say one thing and do another. The first reading and the Gospel are examples. Through Malachi, God warns priests who do not keep my ways. In the Gospel, Jesus describes some of the Pharisees by saying: they preach but they do not practice.

It’s likely that many of the Pharisees meant well. They understood that God had commanded his people to be holy. Have you ever thought about how hard it is to define the world holy? “Holy” can be threatening. It can seem unattainable. It can even project images of self-righteousness and judgmentalism. It seems easier to describe what holiness is not than to define what it is, but that can turn into a negative bunch of rules. Some perfectionists are rigid because they so deeply want everything to be right. Even beyond that, some people who want to emphasize holiness do so by exalting themselves––what they do and don’t do, and that is the essence of hypocrisy.

It’s not that boundaries and rules are bad (try to imagine football with no boundaries or rules!) but, again, no one likes a hypocrite. So the thing that puts the boundaries and rules in proper perspective is, using the football analogy, a love of the game and good sportsmanship.  A good word for those things is integrity. People respect integrity––in total contrast to hypocrisy––and especially in religion. It is refreshing to find a wonderful example of this in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.

There have always been so-called “spiritual leaders” who are charlatans. There are hucksters and hypocrites in our world, and in Paul's day there were many wandering teachers and magicians who made a living by fleecing other people and living wicked lives. Some of Paul's opponents in Thessalonica tried to put him in that category. They said: 
––he was in error (v3) 
––he had impure motives (v3) 
––he was trying to trick them (v3) 
––he was trying to impress them (v4) 
––he was a flatterer (v5) 
––he was greedy (v5)

Paul was not that kind of man. Later in this letter he urged his readers to embrace his own standard: to abstain from every form of evil (1Thess 5:22). He did not even take what he could have legitimately received for his ministry. It was his right to receive from the people his upkeep for the time he was with them. But no, he worked night and day in order not to burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God (v9). One loose translation says, "Day and night we worked so that our preaching of the gospel to you might not cost you a penny” (J.B.Phillips). Paul's way of living was so entwined with that of Christ that his very life was an expression of the gospel. That is integrity. 

The Thessalonians saw a picture of the heavenly Father through Paul. He says we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God (vs.11,12). Paul was able to affirm: in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe. It was out of this that the Thessalonian church was born. One goal of a Christian life is to model who God is; the Lord builds his Church on that.

The Psalmist describes integrity as someone who stands by his oath even to his hurt or to put it another way, makes firm commitments and does not renege on his promise (15:4). Integrity is someone who is willing to say "I was wrong.” Integrity is helping others at a cost to ourselves. The test of integrity is when the heat is on––when we are under is pressure. Paul reminded the Thessalonian church: we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the face of great opposition (v2). Our integrity, or the lack of it, also shows when we think no one looking. Someone has said a man is what he does when he is alone.

Often the biggest impediment to integrity is trying to appear better than we are. This is why Jesus criticized the Pharisees. We are not here to impress each other. In the Gospel Jesus says the way to be great is to a servant, for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted. And Jesus tells us why this is so important: you have but one Father in heaven and you are all brothers. We need to walk humbly before God (see Micah 6:8). When our thoughts turn to who might be looking at us, let’s remember that––first of all––we are living under the gaze of our Lord.

God is calling us to love him––each one of us with our personal gifts and weaknesses, and in our respective places. St Augustine said Love God and do what you will.  When we do that, through his grace and strength, our lives can model consistency and love and faithfulness. That is one of the best ways to evangelize. The world is hungry for people who live with integrity.

Hear again these words from St Paul: we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well.… That is the Christian character of integrity.

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