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.

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