Saturday, August 27, 2016

Put on the mind of Christ

22nd Sunday of OT Year C 2016:
From a certain perspective, Jesus’ words today could come off sounding like a pretty basic guide to keep us from getting embarrassed.  It’s almost like: you don’t want to be humiliated at a dinner party, so just be sure that you sit at the low place so you don’t get embarrassed.
But, I think there is something more going on here in this passage.  I think that Jesus is not so much giving us a practical lesson on dinner etiquette.  Rather, he is passing on a mindset, a mentality.  You see, Jesus doesn’t simply give us commands to follow.  Rather, he wants us to follow him.  The calling of a Christian is not simply to carry out certain actions; rather, we are called to be like Christ, to think like Christ, to love like Christ.  Jesus doesn’t want simply to change our actions, he wants to change our hearts and our minds.
But, isn’t that the hard part?  In some ways, it would be so much simpler if we just had to change our actions.  But, that would only be a part of the picture.  He does not just want to cleanse us on the outside, he wants to cleanse us on the inside.
So, this parable can be a pretty good examination of conscience for us.  Don’t look to take the places of honor.  I know that this is a struggle for me.  We all like to be liked and appreciated.  Who among us would say that we really want to sit at the lower end of the table.  There is a prayer that I like called the litany of humility.  One of the prayers in that litany is: deliver me from all human respect. 
Growing in humility is not just an option for us.  It has to be a necessity.  Why is that?  If we are going to be like Christ we certainly need to be humble.  Christ is the Son of God, and yet he became lowly.  He is the king of kings, and he was born in a stable.  He is the lord of heaven and earth, and yet he comes to us here in the Eucharist under the forms of bread and wine.  We cannot be like Christ if we are not humble.  Christ was humble and so we must be as well.
Second: Jesus says, do not invite the wealthy or our family members.  Rather, invite the poor, crippled, etc.  This is another hard one.  In some ways, it’s easy to be nice to people we like.  It’s easy to be nice to people who are popular or influential.  What about the poor, the marginalized, those who are annoying, those who smell or are dirty.  What about the hopeless, the helpless?  Again, if we are going to have the mind and heart of Christ, we probably need to change our thinking.  It’s easy to be nice to people who are nice, but can we have love in our hearts for all God’s children?  Christ loved us all, he died for all of us.  He didn’t just die for the people we like, he died for all.  So, he asks us to love all as well.
So, here is your homework assignment.  Just be aware of your thoughts and feelings this week.  Are they Christ like?  Do you humbly seek to do God’s will without notice, or do you crave human respect and accolades?  Do you love everyone with whom you come in contact, or do you gravitate towards showing kindness only to people you like? 

Jesus wants to change our hearts and our minds.  He wants us to be like him.  Having the mind of Christ and the heart of Christ is no easy thing.  But, it’s the pathway to happiness.  Christ was humble and he loved all.  Today in the gospel, Jesus is calling us to do the same.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Enter the narrow gate

21st Week of OT year C 2016:
Today’s gospel seems to pick up right were we left off last week.  Jesus was talking about setting the earth on fire and was talking about divisions in families.  So, it didn’t seem like the most upbeat message.  This week it is more of the same.  Today we hear that the gate to salvation is narrow and that many people will not be strong enough to enter.  Then he tells us that the master will lock the gate and say: “I never knew you.”  Also, people from all over will recline in the kingdom, and others will be cast out.
I don’t know about you, but I find this all pretty confusing.  Is Jesus coming to bring us good news, or is he discouraging us?  I think the important thing to remember is that we have to read this passage in light of the whole bible.  This is a technique of reading the Bible that is called canonical criticism.  All that term means is that all parts of the Bible should be read in line with other parts of the Bible. 
Jesus says that we have to strive for the narrow gate.  But, in another place, Jesus says: I am the sheep gate.  My sheep hear my voice.  Another passage that is similar to this one, Jesus says: the path to salvation is narrow, while the path to destruction is broad.  Then he goes on to say: I am the way and the truth and the life.
If we read everything together I think we can construct a pretty important message.  For human beings, the road to salvation is narrow, difficult to enter.  But, Jesus came to open up the road for us.
We need a savior.  The sooner we realize this, the better off we will be in our lives.  But, one of the pitfalls of our modern society is this myth that we are self-sufficient.  We love success stories in America.  If you are like me, you have been watching the Olympics.  We love Katie Lydecki or Michael Phelps.  They prove to us that if we work hard, have discipline, and a whole lot of talent, our dreams can come true.  It’s a wonderful story.  But, I hate to break it to all of you.  This isn’t the case with salvation.  We are broken, sinful people.  No matter how hard we work, we cannot earn God’s love, we cannot earn salvation. 
That’s why I think Jesus likes to remind us about the pathway to salvation being a narrow gate.  Many will try, but will not be strong enough to enter.  In fact, none of us are strong enough.  But, the Good News is that we have a savior.  God sent his only begotten Son to free us.  He sent Jesus to break through that gate.  Jesus is the one who can lead us to the Father.  We cannot make it on our own.  But, that’s not the point.  The point is: “we have a savior.”  Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.  No one can go to the Father except through him.  The sooner we realize that lesson the better.  I’m not strong enough to make it to heaven, and neither are you.  But, Christ can take us with him.
This is why it is so important to have a living relationship with Christ.  We have to know him, love him, serve him.  If we are united to him in this life, he will lead us to his eternal kingdom.  The two major keys to being united with Christ are prayer and sacraments.
It is impossible to have a relationship with any human being without communication.  Go ahead, just try it!  If you don’t talk to someone, you don’t have a great relationship with that person.  It’s just that simple.  Do you talk to Jesus?  Do you talk to him every day?  Tell him about your life, tell him about your fears, your hopes, your dreams.  Let him talk back to you in the quite place in your hearts.
Sacraments unite us with Christ.  When we were baptized, we were washed clean and united with Jesus. We are reunited with him after our sins by the sacrament of Confession.  We are joined to him in a very special way right here at this altar with the Holy Eucharist.  He said in John’s Gospel: whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.

So, at first, Jesus’ words today might seem discouraging.  The gate that leads to eternal life is narrow.  In fact, it’s about as wide as the cross.  We cannot make it on our own.  But, thanks be to God, we have a savior, Jesus Christ.  If we are united with him, he will lead us to the Father.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Set the world on fire, one heart at a time

20th Sunday of OT year C 2016:
Today in the gospel Jesus is quite provocative, quite challenging.  When we think about the gospel, the Good News, I bet you don’t think about strife and division.  If you had to think of your favorite bible passage, I doubt many of you first think of this one: a father against his son, son against father, and on and on.  Certainly what Jesus says is 100% accurate.  Faith can sometimes lead to division.  Not everyone will share our belief in Christ.  What’s the old saying: discuss anything except faith and politics.  Those things can cause arguments and disagreements.  But, I think it’s a mistake to think that the arguments are the point of faith.  It’s not necessarily a sign of a healthy faith if everyone is divided against you.  This reminds me of something a professor of mine said to my class once.  He said, “gentlemen, when you become priests and you preach the gospel, some people will be hesitant to change their lives, and they will walk away from you and the church.  That’s to be expected because they walked away from Jesus.  But, they will also walk away from you if you are all a bunch of jerks.  So make sure they aren’t leaving because of that.”  Put that into the context of the reading, there might be divisions in our lives, but let’s make sure that those divisions are not simply caused by our own sinfulness or selfishness.  How do we do that?
Go back to the first part of the gospel.  Jesus says: I have come to set the earth on fire.  What an interesting image.  Fire!  It’s bold and exciting.  Fire is immanently useful for human beings: we use it to cook, we use it to heat our houses, to drive our cars.  Without fire, we wouldn’t have our modern society.  We would still be in caves somewhere.  But, fire is also bold and dangerous.  It can harm, it can destroy.  It can be powerful and scary.  But no matter what, fire is anything but weak, anything but boring or mediocre.  Fire is bold and exciting.
I think that’s what Jesus has in mind here.  He came to set the earth on fire.  This might lead to some divisions.  But, the divisions are not the point, it’s the fire that is key.  He did not come to lull us to sleep.  He did not come to spread of gospel of weakness or mediocrity.  He came to set the world on fire.  Is that our experience of faith?  How many of us can say we have really experienced that fire in our lives?
I used to be a chaplain at Marian High School up in Mishawaka.  I would have an all school mass once a month with the kids.  I always felt a little bit frustrated at that Mass because the fire was missing.  I would say: “Jesus Christ is the son of God, the savior of the world and he wants to give you eternal life.”  The response: yawn…  The response to the amazing message of the gospel was not one of excitement, enthusiasm, but one of apathy.  Now, I know that a lot of that response had to do with the peer pressure the teens experience.  They didn’t want to stand out in the crowd.  I get all that.  But, I thought of it as something important for all of us.  How do we react to this message?  Are we part of the world that is on fire?  Or are we cold and smoldering? 
As I was preparing for the homily this Sunday, I was reminded of Blaise Pascal.  He was a philosopher, scientist, mathematician in the 17th century.  After he died, people found a piece of paper stitched into his coat talking about an important event in his life.  On November 23rd in 1654, Pascal had an intense experience of God.  He called it a night of fire.  I will put his poem in next week’s bulletin, but he said he experienced certainty, heartfelt peace, joy, love: “O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee.”  Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.  This is anything but a mediocre or lukewarm experience.  Pascal had an experience of God and he felt it as a burning fire.
As I read that poem, I felt a great longing.  Don’t we all desire that fire, that burning experience, those tears of joy?  I know I do.  What is the temperature of your relationship with God?  Is it hot, lukewarm, cold?  Jesus wants to set the world on fire.  Let that fire into your life: joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in all of this mystical experience.  But, here are some tips for warming up your relationship.  First, remember that Jesus is the one who does the work.  He has the fire.  We don’t create it on our own.  So ask him for it.  That would be a good daily prayer: dear Lord, fill me with the fire of your love.  One of the images for the Holy Spirit is a tongue of fire: ask the Spirit to give you his fire.  Second, create opportunities for Christ to touch your hearts with his fire.  Go to confession, go to Mass, pray the rosary, spend an hour in the chapel.  Give Christ a chance to touch your hearts.  Another great way would be to go on a retreat.  We have a great Christ Renews His Parish program here at St. Jude.  Hundreds of people in our community have felt the fire of Christ by going on this retreat.  Next month we will be having a women’s and a men’s retreat weekend.  Maybe you haven’t gone on it before.  Go on it this year.  Give God a chance to touch you with the flames.

Blaise Pascal had just one night of fire, and it changed the rest of his life.  Jesus wants to set the whole earth on fire.  Open your hearts to the fire of his love.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Go and do likewise

15th Sunday of Ordinary time year C 2016:
Today we hear the inspiring story of the Good Samaritan.  It’s a powerful reminder of just what mercy is all about.  We have been celebrating mercy this whole past year.  We have been thinking and talking a lot about mercy.  Here again, mercy is in the forefront of our scripture passage.  Mercy is really at the heart of the whole gospel.  Mercy is at the heart of Christ, who came to bring us the Father’s mercy.
In some ways, this story really encapsulates the message behind the year of mercy.  Jesus gives us an example of mercy with the story of the Good Samaritan, then he says: go and do likewise.  This is a great way to live the year of mercy.  We should immerse ourselves in examples of mercy.  Of course, the most important is Jesus.  Reflecting on the mercy of the Cross, the amazing gift of the Eucharist, the sacraments, the Church.  All these things help us to see mercy, so that we can go and do likewise.  There are many other great examples, Mother Theresa, and the mercy she showed to the poorest of the poor.  Saint John Paul II and his courageous witness to hope and mercy.  Saint Faustina and her powerful message of mercy.  One thing that really stuck with me was when we had our mercy roundtable a couple months back.  Members of our community who are living mercy came and shared their stories.  We heard about jail chaplains, hospice ministry, and work with the poor and the needy.  If you feel like this year of mercy is flying by, it’s not too late to seek out some examples of mercy.
Go and do likewise.  That’s the big challenge isn’t it.  I mean, look at Christ on the Cross.  He is the divine savior of the world: go and do likewise.  Die to yourself so that others can live.  Jesus says, I give you myself in the Eucharist, can you give of yourself to feed and strengthen others?  Jesus came to bestow mercy upon us, but not so we can sit on the sidelines.  He says, Go and do likewise.
What can hold us back from living the merciful life?  I suppose there can be a number of roadblocks.  It could be our sinfulness, our selfishness.  We could be blocked simply by our inability or unwillingness to receive God’s mercy.  Hopefully, this year of mercy is a great time to overcome some of these issues.  But, the gospel also points to another roadblock of mercy: self-justification.
I don’t look very good in today’s gospel.  As a canon lawyer, I’m a scholar of the law, like the one in the gospel who tried to justify himself.  Also, you have the priest who walks on the other side of the road.  So, I’m getting it from 2 angles here.  Notice that this scholar of the law knows precisely what the law asks of him.  Jesus asks him: what does the law say.  He knows it: love God above all and your neighbor as yourself.  But, he wanted to justify himself: who is my neighbor?  Excuses.  He wanted an excuse to limit his living of this commandment.  He wanted to be able to draw limits to living the merciful life.  He wanted to be able to comfort himself with only going so far with living these commands.  Making excuses can be a powerful roadblock to living the life of mercy.
In the parable, we have the priest and the Levite, both of whom pass by the poor, beaten man without helping.  I’m sure they had great excuses.  More than likely, the insinuation is that they were heading to the temple.  There were laws in the Old Testament that stated that if a person came into contact with blood or a dead person, they were not able to perform ritual service in the temple until some time had passed.  So, they probably had great excuses: I’d like to help, but I’m on my way to the temple and if I get involved I won’t be able to worship God today.  But, that excuse kept them from living the life of mercy that Jesus to which Jesus is calling.  What about the Good Samaritan?  He had a number of chances to use an excuse: well, this guy can’t walk, so how can I help?  He puts him on his own animal and he walks instead.  He has a longer trip and he can’t stay to help the man.  So, he decides to take him to an inn.  Staying at an inn will cost a lot of money.  He pays for the inn out of his own pocket.  Each time, he could have had a good excuse as to why he wasn’t going to help.  Yet, each time, he doesn’t use an excuse, he simply responds in mercy.
So, here is your homework assignment.  Monitor your use of excuses.  Sometimes we use excuses to justify our behavior in the past.  I see this in confession sometime: forgive me father, I did this or that… but really I only did it because of this reason.  If we want mercy, we should just admit our faults.  Try it at home.  Sometimes we get into fights or arguments simply because we don’t take responsibility.  We want to justify ourselves, deflect blame.  I’m convinced we would all be better off if we just got better at admitting our faults and asking for mercy.  Sometimes we use excuses to pardon ourselves from doing something hard in the future.  I would make peace with that family member, but he wouldn’t listen to me anyway.  I would like to help the poor, but I just don’t know how I would get involved.  I would like to get more active in my faith, but I just don’t have any extra time.

Excuses can be a real barrier to living the life of mercy.  Take some time this week in prayer and ask God to show you the excuses you have been using that stop you from living the life of mercy.  Jesus wanted to lead this scholar of the law to eternal life.  He wants to lead us to eternal life.  This is the mercy he wants to give us.  Christ shows us the great example of mercy and then he says: go and do likewise.