Sunday, September 20, 2015


September 20, 2015–– 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 2:12, 17–20 / James 3:16–4:3 / Mark 9:30–37

Some people seem to segment their lives––to say that faith only belongs to a personal and private “religious” part of life, kept distinct from the “everyday” contexts of business or science or even public morality. God’s message through James is that such thinking is wrong. Trying to live that way is damnable. This is because faith is what a person believes, and what a person believes affects what a person does. A person cannot "believe" one way and live another. James says our lives will be marked one of two ways, and he uses two different "hooks" on which to hang his point: every person is characterized by one of two wisdoms and one of two friendships.

Jesus said the fruit of people's lives reveals who they are. Paul explicitly described the behavior of people controlled by the sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. Then he went on to warn: those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21). It should be obvious that James is saying the same thing in his own way. He is talking about the two ways to live in this world: a person is either opposed to God and his ways, or embracing God and his ways. This is life by one of two “wisdoms”––wisdom that is cut off from God or wisdom that has its source in God.

James gives us a description of the wisdom from above: it is first of all pure; then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (3:17). Do you know what happens when we do not live that way? If we look around us we can see the results of living according to the world's wisdom. Remember, James is talking about faith––what we believe. People do what they do because of what they truly believe.

The world's wisdom pits people against each other. Think about all the divisions in our news headlines right now! James describes it this way:

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions…. (4:1).

We hear this in our commercial society. We are urged to think about ourselves: get the best... have something bigger or better than the next guy. The world says, "indulge yourself––you deserve it". Or consider the growing problem of road rage: someone cuts me off…. hinders what I want to do…. gets in my way…. 

This is what happens when everyone is determined to put his own desires above everything else: Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice (3:16). This is why our society is falling apart. This is why basic respect for others is disappearing and violence is escalating. People have followed their own selfish desires and turned away from Gods wisdom.

Even in the Church there are examples of people who have not learned to turn from the world's wisdom. Sometimes people say, "But I prayed about it..." That is good, but notice what James says about prayer: You do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4:3). Prayer is not telling God what we want. Early in James’ letter we are told what to pray for: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God…. (1:5).

We can only get God’s wisdom when we seek friendship with God. This is not the same as outwardly practicing "religion." Friendship with God is not just routine religious ritual. Friendship with God is not merely following a moral code. Friendship with God means putting him first in everything…. everyday. Friendship with God means not grieving him by seeking or trying to hold onto things that are contrary to his character. In the verse immediately following our reading James says: whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (4:4).

When the Bible uses the word world in this context it means an attitude that is in rebellion against God. This attitude is all around us. Being a Christian is more than “God on Sunday and the rest of life the other days of the week.” In our lives, Jesus is either Lord of all or he is not truly Lord at all. Jesus meant it when he called his disciples to humility and serving and sacrificial love.

The world does not understand this, so much so that what James says can be inverted: whoever wishes to be a friend of God makes himself an enemy of the world. This is what the Wisdom writer is describing in the first reading. Wicked people hate goodness. Godliness shows the true nature of selfishness, and darkness wants to snuff out the light. The Wisdom writer reveals the threat of the wicked; paraphrased they say, “Let’s kill the good guy; he makes us look bad.” This is fulfilled in the Gospel when Jesus tells the disciples: The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him….

The same threat hangs over people who follow Jesus. It is true in our world today. Christians are being persecuted and killed. The Boko Haram gang is killing Christians in Nigeria. ISIS is killing Christians in the Near East and wherever else they can. But such hatred is not limited to those contexts; there are militant homosexuals in this county who have openly stated their desire that Christians be exterminated. And far more pervasive, think about the explicit and growing voice in our country for Christians to keep quiet about morality and public policy? Maybe some of us push things like this out of our conscious thoughts. Others let the worries and threats almost consume them. The important thing for all of us is to remember we are in a spiritual war for our souls. Our one hope is to believe and trust God. 

If we want to be a friend of God and have his wisdom, there is a basic question to answer: Who or what is going to be first in my life? If I want my own way, I cannot be a friend of God. We cannot be friends with God if we never take time to be with him, to listen to him and to obey him. If our minds are being shaped more by the media and popular opinion than being transformed by God's Word and his Spirit as he comes to us through the Church, we are not embracing God’s wisdom.

In this ancient letter to the Church, James gives us the basics: There are two (opposing) wisdoms tied to two (opposing) friendships. We have to choose…. and all of us are making our choice for one or the other in everything we do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Suffering Mother

Sometimes a parishioner will ask for a copy of one of my daily sermons. I usually do not write them out, and have to go back in my mind to try to recapture something of what I said. The following is based on yesterday's proclamation:

Tuesday: September 15, 2015 –– 24th Week in Ordinary Time / Our Lady of Sorrows
Hebrews 5:7–9 / John 19:25–27 or Luke 2:33–35
The Suffering Mother

One of the big contrasts between “pop-Christianity” and historic, orthodox Catholicism is the issue of suffering. Many who claim Christian Faith (and we leave final judgment to God alone for all of us) have embraced a cliché: Jesus suffered so we won’t have to. This is worse than wrong. It is heresy. It is diabolical. It is at total odds with real Christian Faith.

There is a “theology of suffering” in the Scriptures that is unavoidably clear to anyone who will read and be open to the plain meaning of the text. Use an unabridged concordance (the old-fashioned way has certain advantages) to see the entries for “suffer” and “suffering.” Or if that is too much trouble, just look at two sources.

First, look at the First Letter of Peter:
For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (2:19–21)

But even if you do suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed (3:14).

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought…. (4:1)

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God (4:12–16).

Is it so hard to get the point Peter is making as he writes to his Christian flock?

Second, consider the mother of Jesus, who the Church honors today especially by focusing on her sorrows. For all the joy Mary experienced in her intimate relationship with God (bearing and being the Mother of God since Jesus is God), she was subjected to deep suffering. Early in Jesus’ life Mary heard the prophecy of Simeon given to her: a sword will pierce through your own soul also Lu 2:35). As Mary stood at the foot of the cross she watched the agony and death of her only Son.

I know a little bit of what it means as a parent to hurt over the things that hurt my children and grandchildren. I don’t mean the agony of seeing them truly suffer and die, but merely the disappointments and hardships that a broken world throws in their path. I want so badly to be able to fix the things that give them grief.

And so I find, in the fullness of Catholic Faith, that Jesus has provided––through the Communion of Saints––a mother for us…. a mother who understands the suffering we feel because of a broken world.

We are invited to believe that God uses our pain to take into the depths of his heart and character. This means God can use suffering for our good. The hard things in this world remind us that this world is not all there is; we are not to live only for the here-and-now. When we hurt we are (lovingly) forced––if we are faithful––deeper and deeper in our trust in our Heavenly Father. We are to believe that suffering can change us so that we are more like Jesus.

When that happens, our Lord multiplies his grace through us even in others’ sufferings. This is what St Paul writes to the Corinthians: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2Cor 1:3-4).

If you are hurting today (and who of us does not face things in this world that hurt?!), know that we are part of the Body of Christ and we do not suffer alone. Know that Jesus works in and through suffering to save us. It was true even in the life of his mother.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jesus in the Eucharist…. Jesus in Us

August 16, 2015 –– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proverbs 9:1–6 / Ephesians 5:15–20 / John 6:51–58
Jesus in the Eucharist…. Jesus in Us

Perception affects us far more than we usually realize. Our “personal perspective” shapes what we understand as reality. This is true on so many levels: gender, age, family system, race, religion, social and national identity, education…. A comprehensive understanding of reality can be known only to God. This is why people need what theologians call revelation (God “revealing” to us what we otherwise would not recognize nor understand). It is also why we need the Church––a faith community with continuity that can make reasonable claim for trustworthiness and authority. As individuals we are just too limited to discern reality and truth.

This is one of the reasons I became Catholic. As I will make clear a bit later, I came into the Church from a wonderful tradition. Yet no Christian tradition other than the Catholic Church has the fullness of Christian Faith. That leaves Catholic people with a lot to live up to.

My early Christian formation was in a tradition that did not recognize the literal Body and Blood of Jesus in the Bread and Cup of Communion. My tradition had an intensity of faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ, but it was blind to a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. I have no idea how many times I read the sixth chapter of John in my pre-Catholic life. I do remember one of my grad school teachers making a big deal out of “The Bread of Life Discourse” that progressively unfolds in this chapter, but there was no recognition of any connection to the Eucharist. It’s a matter of perspective: if you can’t see it, you don’t get it.

Once you see it, though, there is a shift in perspective. Once you see it, it is impossible not to see it. I have been on both sides, and I have experienced the WOW of an expanded perspective. I do understand how many Christians just don’t see it; I was once one of them. But now I see it, and there’s no going back.

Yet my journey into the Church extended over eight years. I did not see at once everything that brought me to a crisis of decision about the Church (and I should remind all of us again that none of us sees “everything”––no matter how great our personal perspective, so we always need the constant help of the Holy Spirit and the Church!). But as I began to see the almost unbelievable things Jesus says in this chapter of John’s Gospel, I was also plagued with questions that seemed discouraging. Then I saw this was exactly what happened even as Jesus gave these words. In the following section that is part of next Sunday’s readings, Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This is hard; who can accept it? ….As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

I had some particular hindrances and discouragements. My thoughts went something like this: If Jesus is literally present in the Bread and the Cup, then where is the power and the glory? Why aren’t we all driven to our knees every time the Tabernacle door is opened? How can people who dishonor the Sacrament not be burned to ashes on the spot? Well, those answers came rather easily. When Jesus was walking the roads with his disciples, people looking at him did not see power and glory. They saw an ordinary-looking man who at times was conspicuous and intriguing, but nothing that compelled their belief. The only time Jesus revealed his glory was at the Transfiguration, and that was to the three “top” disciples so that they would have something tangible to hold onto when they later had to face Jesus’ crucifixion. So the true nature of the Eucharist is usually hidden just as Jesus went around mostly incognito. God does not overwhelm us to force our belief.

I had a second, and more troubling, question. If Jesus is literally in the Eucharist, and Catholics really believe this, then why aren’t all Catholics conspicuous because of their holy lives? Jesus says, Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. One of my earliest obstacles to giving the Catholic Church any serious consideration was most of the Catholics I had ever met. To refer again to my earlier tradition, I had been formed by people who both modeled and taught that being a Christian means inviting Jesus into one’s life and allowing the Holy Spirit to do a process of conversion that changes a sinner into a saint. I was taught that the words I use matters. I was taught that how I respond to others in everyday life matters. I was taught that the way I spend my money matters. I was taught the implications of what St Paul says in today’s second reading: Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise…. be filled with the Spirit…

Then the Lord gave me another insight. I would not have wanted the congregation I was pastoring to be judged by its worst member; likewise, the Lord let me see I was not to judge the Catholic Church by “Catholics” who were not living it. Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” We who are in the Church shape the way onlookers perceive the Catholic Church (so again I’m back to the sub-theme of perception).

I once had a perspective that did not see the Real Presence of  Jesus in the Eucharist: “literally and wholly present—body and blood, soul and divinity”. On the other hand, most Catholics grow up hearing that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus, or at least grow up in a context where this is assumed. Could it be that the Eucharist is so assumed in our Catholic contexts that we lose our perspective? It seems we can come to Communion with presumption: it’s just what we do…. yeah, the Church says this is Jesus, so “okay”…. “Well, I’m here, but I don’t expect much because it seems that not much ever happens….”

The Lord helped me see even more: For whatever reason, the practical effect of the Sacraments depends on us (again, I think it’s because God refuses to overwhelm us in order to make us love him). There is inherent power in the Sacrament, but the effect of the Eucharist in your life depends on the degree to which you open yourself to Jesus. Our response of faith affects the power of the Sacrament in our lives. Think of Jesus in his hometown: he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith (Matt 13:58).

Truly listen to what Jesus said: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world…. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. These are the words of our Lord. This is the core of who we are called to be as Catholic Christians.

Now hear again the invitation in our first reading: Wisdom says, “To the one who lacks understanding (and this is all of us; we do not graduate from the school of faith in this life), come eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed…” In a former sermon I made the point You are what you eat. In the name of our Lord I call all of us to believe and “feed” on Jesus with our bodies and in our souls: Ask Jesus to unleash the power of his life within you when you receive him in the Eucharist. Be open to him. Seek him. Obey him. If we will do this, our lives will be transformed and we will be a testimony to the truth of our Lord’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

God and the Cross

John Stott once said, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in,” he said, “is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

Sunday, August 2, 2015

You Are What You Eat (revisited)

August 2, 2015 –– 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Exodus 16:2–4, 12–15 / Ephesians 4:17, 20–24 / John 6:24–35
You Are What You Eat (revisited from 8/19/12)

Every rational person on earth, every day, is making decisions about the most basic issues of meaning and fulfillment. Even subconsciously we all choose the things we think will make us happy. How do we decide what is good for us?

Some think that personal pleasure is high on the list. The physical senses and appetites are strong and we can easily think physical pleasure is the recipe for happiness. The Israelites, hungry and thirsty and feeling their vulnerability in the desert, told Moses: If only we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our kettles of meat and ate our fill of bread! Yet here we are immersed in physical comforts: food choices beyond description, homes that can maintain our ideal temperature, access to medical care that is almost unbelievable…. and beyond the physical, we have options for personal entertainment that are past numbering. Yet how many truly contented people do you know?

Another way of understanding this is self-centeredness––selfishness. Countless people around us believe that if they can always get their own way they will be happy. This can mean cutting others off when they drive. It can mean doing whatever it takes to be at the head of the line. It can mean being deceitful or back-stabbing others to get ahead at work. It simply means living Me first! St Paul identifies this kind of mentality in the second reading when he warns not to live as the Gentiles (or pagans) do, in the futility of their minds….

So, whether it is a hedonistic life indulging the senses…. or a steady ingestion of entertaining distractions to avoid facing the hard issues of life…. or a way of living that “feeds” on trying to be in control…. the underlying truth is simply this: You are what you eat.

Think of the way most people in our culture seem to live. They feed on a steady diet of prime-time entertainment. There is broad acceptance of main-stream media with its assumption of relativism and self-gratification. Then we wonder why so many people are impatient to the point of being mean, feel constant stress, and express cynicism instead of having hope for anything better. There is a disconnect so that cause and effect seem imperceptible. How often do we think: You are what you eat?

It is in this context that we hear St Paul’s words: Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. You are what you eat. So Jesus gives us a different choice that can make all the difference in this world––and for all eternity. He presents the two options clearly: Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you. We are surrounded with voices clamoring for “the food which perishes”, but how do we find “the food which endures to eternal life”? Jesus gives several facets of the answer.

First, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” This is not mere mental assent. This is not taking “Jesus” from our shelf of options when it’s convenient (or when life is inconvenient and we are forced to admit that we need help). Believing in Jesus means taking seriously that Almighty God came into our world as a real human being and both told and showed us what is most important. If we “believe” him, we will not give priority to the food which perishes.

Second, this means a right understanding of what is real and true: “my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” We live in a world that gets “real and true” upside down and backwards. Our world questions whether anything is absolutely true and rejects any authority that questions our “right” to choose as we please, But there is another option: Jesus Christ came down from heaven to give us the truth and show us the way. Only Jesus is able to give life to the world.

As Catholics entrusted with the fullness of Christian Faith, we believe that Jesus gives himself to us in a wonderful and mysterious way: I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. His words become even more explicit as this Bread of Life chapter develops its conclusion. With growing emphasis the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel beckons us to face one thing: You are what you eat.

I have been challenged by one of my friends from some years past who would not watch more hours of TV each week than he spent in public and personal worship. How can we feed on spiritual junk food (or even media “poison”) and hope to become more and more like Jesus? There is cause and effect in the spiritual world.

St Ignatius is known for his discerning of spirits. In the early stage of his conversion he was attracted to “worldly” things like books of fiction and tales of knights and battles. In today’s world he would have liked action movies and video games like Call of Duty: Black Ops. But as he read first his fiction and then stories of saints, he began to notice something.

When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts he still experienced great joy. (From the life of Saint Ignatius from his own words by Luis Gonzalez)

He was learning the basic lesson: You are what you eat. And so I end where I began. Every day,  each of us is making decisions about the the most basic issues of meaning and fulfillment and the things we think will make us happy. How many truly contented people do you know? You are what you eat. Jesus calls us to feed on him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The god of Eros

A little reflection: It is is extreme irony that the god of Eros, which attracts its devotees with "love" and pleasure, shows its ultimate nature with such intolerant cruelty.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Storms of Life

June 21, 2015 –– 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Job 38:1, 8–11 / Psalm 107 / 2 Corinthians 5:14–17 / Mark 4:35–41
The Storms of Life

This is classic Bible story. As a child I sang a song about Jesus commanding the storm to stop. Long before the day of video we had “flannel graph” illustrations to visualize each stage of the story. There are eyewitness details to establish the setting: other boats, the exact time, how the boat was filling with water, how Jesus was asleep in the stern on a cushion, the honesty of the disciples' terror…. But this is not mere Bible story for children; this story is given to encourage faith in Jesus.

It starts with a common occurrence for Jesus and his disciples. Getting into a boat on this lake was, for them, like me getting in my car to drive from E-town to Mechanicsburg––not without possible danger, but still something that is done routinely. This time, though, a storm hit. It was a sudden and furious squall, and so bad that even these experienced fishermen were afraid. We know the story: Jesus was asleep, they awakened him, he told the storm to be still, and it did.

Now if life for Christians always followed this paradigm, we wouldn't have any problems. But life is not always like this, even for people who believe. "Storms" still come into ours lives––cancer, miscarriage, violent deaths, traffic accidents, the loss of income, natural disasters…. It is threatening even to watch the daily news. There is plenty in our world to cause fear, and there is not always immediate deliverance when we cry out. So what does this story really mean?

We read this story of Jesus and the storm and wonder why, if God loves us, the power of Jesus doesn't intervene every time. We want God to fix the here and now instead of, what seems to us, playing a game of hide-and-seek. Is he with us in the storm or not? How does the world of Bible stories intersect with the realities of life in our world?

This takes us to the heart of faith. Faith is not merely believing in the miraculous. Faith is easy when there is an unmistakable miracle. Faith calls us to trust in the presence of Jesus when it seems nothing is going right. Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that even the storm did not matter if he was with them. He chose, on that occasion, to still the storm to prove his point, but obviously he did not keep the storm from coming.

Still, we want know: If Jesus can still the storm, then why doesn't he do it every time? It's the age old question: if God is all powerful and all loving, then how can such awful things continue to exist in the world? How can we be expected not to be afraid when it's so easy for us to be hurt?

We know only what God has revealed to us. We know that we have been given an ability to choose. We know that choosing disobedience to God has opened the whole universe to chaos (Romans 8:20). Hard and horrible things happen. This is the nature of our present world.

Yet God has also revealed himself as coming into this hard world to be with us. Think about this: If God were to stop all bad things, it would change the nature of our response to him. It would not be faith directing our responses but rather his intervening (and dominating) presence. We would not choose to love God, but rather be overwhelmed by him. If God acts to prevent the consequences of choice, the true gift of choice is withdrawn. The very Passion of Christ would not exist in a world where God always delivers from fear and suffering.

God does not give temporal deliverance every time. When God became one of us in Christ, he never promised us an easy time or said that Christians would be always be spared the horrifying things. In the life of the early church, when persecution threatened to overwhelm its very existence, the disciples had to learn a different way that Jesus was with them in the “storm”. In early Christian art the Church was depicted as a boat on a perilous sea. In fact, when Mark was writing this Gospel, the lions in Rome were already looking forward to their first taste of raw Christian. The Jesus who stopped the storm that day for his disciples also said: Take up your cross and follow me. Mark's point in this story is that when Jesus is with us, we do not have to be ultimately afraid.

This is the true nature of Christian Faith. What Jesus affirmed to the disciples that day on the boat was that he was with them. In times of fear, Jesus invites us to have faith and to believe that storms do not last forever and they do not have the last word. Jesus is bigger than our “storms”, and when we invite him into our lives he is with us.

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