Sunday, July 16, 2017

Don't try, train

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A 2017:
I’ll freely admit that today’s gospel is a tough one to preach on.  Jesus gives us a parable, then he also gives us the interpretation.  So, in my experience, most homilies on this gospel fall into two categories.  Number one, priests just end up repeating everything that Jesus says.  They talk about the different categories.  Sorry, but I always think homilies like that are long and boring.  I don’t need to tell you what Jesus just said, Jesus just said it (and he said it better than I could ever do).  Number two, some priests just make up something new.  Last time I heard this gospel I was still in D.C. studying canon law.  The priest that day said: I know Jesus says what this parable is all about, but I think it means something completely different.  Wow, I was stunned.  So this guy knew better than Jesus?  I don’t think so.
So, rather than just give a long boring homily where I repeat what Jesus says, or come up with something new, I thought I would just give some tips on how to be that person who is the rich soil.  We all know that when we hear this parable we want to be that rich soil.  We want to hear the word of God and we want to act on it, giving rich fruit in our lives and in the lives of others.  I mean, we all have that intention right?  So, why don’t we all get there all the time?
This week I was watching the Tour de France.  As I have mentioned before, I’m an avid cyclist, but I’m also a fan of watching the Tour de France on TV.  Thursday was an amazing race.  Chris Froome was leading the race.  He has won the race 3 times in the past, he’s the defending champion, and the favorite to win this year.  During Thursday’s race he was in a good position, near the front.  The cyclists raced through numerous mountains, and Froome looked poised to keep the lead.  However, the last 400 meters of the race went up an extremely steep hill.  Everyone knew it would be a chance to attack.  So, at just the right moment, the rider in second place, who is named Fabio Aru, launched an attack.  It ended up that he was stronger and faster than Chris Froome in that moment.  In fact, he beat Froome by enough time that after the race he took over the lead of the Tour de France and the coveted yellow jersey.  It was an immense triumph for Fabio.  Now, who knows if he will win the whole thing.  In fact, Chris Froome took back the lead yesterday and the yellow jersey.  But, for a few days Fabio was triumphant.
But, that race made me stop and think.  It seemed like Fabio Aru came out of nowhere to beat one of the best cyclists in the world.  But, you know what?  He didn’t come out of nowhere.  He didn’t get lucky.  Rather, Fabio Aru is a world class bike rider.  He has been training his whole life.  He has competed at the highest levels.  It wasn’t a fluke, it wasn’t chance, it wasn’t that he tried this one time.  Rather, he won that race because of a lifetime of dedication, because of all his training.
The same has to be true for us.  I think that all too often we think of a life of goodness and virtue as a one shot deal.  Like we get these chances to be good and holy and virtuous and we just hope that at the right moment we will succeed.  But, nothing in life works like that, and neither does holiness.  If we want to be that rich soil that produces a rich harvest, we need to train, we need to be prepared, we need to be ready at every moment for the Lord to scatter his seed into our hearts.  It’s not about being lucky, it’s about training.
We see this too in the lives of the saints.  One of my favorite saint stories is the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe.  St. Maximilian was a priest who was arrested and placed in the concentration camp by the Nazis.  When a fellow prisoner was condemned to death, St. Maximilian stepped forward and offered to exchange his life for the condemned man saying, he has a wife and kids, I’ll die in his place.  Remarkable right!  But, just like Fabio Aru, this great victory of holiness was not a fluke, it wasn’t luck.  St. Maximilian was ready to make this amazing sacrifice because he had been preparing his whole life.
I think the key to understanding this parable and its underlying message is that there are no shortcuts, there are no secret tricks.  Being a disciple of Jesus is a constant practice of keeping our hearts, our gardens, free of weeds and stones.

This might be a little discouraging.  There’s no secret, no trick.  But, rather than thinking of this as discouraging, I think it’s really exciting.  It means that no matter who we are, no matter where we have been, we can always turn it around.  No time like today.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Being childlike

14th Sunday in OT Year A 2017:
You have hidden from the wise and the learned, but you have revealed to little ones.  This isn’t the first time that Jesus has made this point in the gospel.  He has told us before: humble yourselves like little children.  Children are remarkable in their honesty, their loving nature, their innocence, their reliance on others.  These qualities are certainly admirable.  All of us should aspire to being more honest, loving, innocent, and reliant on God.
But, what I find interesting about today’s gospel, Jesus says that the mysteries of God are revealed to the little ones, and not to the wise.  So, if we want to know more about God, if we want to know God better, we need to be little ones, not the wise and the learned.
I think that’s because when we are wise and learned we make things too difficult.  But, when we are child-like we can see things more clearly.
My first year here at St. Jude we had a meeting for all the kids and parents who were receiving first communion.  Part of my job at the meeting was to go over all the thing necessary for receiving Holy Communion.  So, everyone knows you have to fast for 1 hour before receiving communion.  This means no food or drink other than water or medicine for one hour before receiving communion.  Also, we should not come forward to receive Holy Communion if we are aware of grave sins.  Rather, we should go to confession before receiving communion.  So, I was asking the kids about these requirements.  So, I was asking the kids about eating before communion, and they got all that right.  Then I said something like: what about sin?  Is that good?  No, they all said.  If we do sin, where do we go.  I was trying to get them to say: confession.  But, I was making it all complicated. Where do we go if we sin?   So one kid raised her hand and said: we go to hell.  Wow.  She certainly wasn’t wrong.  I said, “youre right, we would go to hell.  Does anyone want to go there?  No, of course not.  So,” I said, “is there a place we can go to receive forgiveness?”  Yes, confession they all said. 
That little child taught me an important lesson.  First, she taught me to be more careful when I’m asking the kids questions.  But, second, she taught me: sin leads me to hell, communion and confession lead me toward heaven.  What a profound insight!  I’ve taken dozens of theology classes.  I’ve read books on mercy, books on sin, books on confession.  I’ve heard lectures, I’ve given lectures, I’ve done it all.  This sweet, innocent child revealed to me the mysteries of the kingdom.
Sometimes we make it all too complicated.  But, God reveals himself to the childlike.  So, this week make sure it’s not complicated.  Just listen to Jesus: come to me, and I will give you rest.  My yoke is easy, my burden light.  Jesus did not come to earth to make our lives worse.  He didn’t come here to give us huge burdens.  He came to give us life, to give us freedom, to give us himself.  But, we can make things so complicated that we can miss the presence of Christ in our lives. 

So, my advice this week is not complicated or difficult.  Simply spend some time with God.  Spend some time with your Father in heaven.  Be a little child.  Don’t make it complicated.  Just go to God and tell him what you need.  Here the voice of Jesus tell you: come to me and I will give you rest.  The whole spiritual life is built on prayer.  And the most necessary thing for a good life of prayer is humility.  Go to God like a little child and let him reveal to you the mysteries of the kingdom. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Take up your cross?

13th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A:
What does it mean to be Christian?  Sometimes we focus so much on details that we can forget about some of the basics.  Normally when we try to answer: what is a Christian, we might start to mention a number of actions Christians should do: loving, kind, generous, etc.  And, all of that stuff is true.  But, these actions don’t answer the question: what is a Christian?  We might also so: a Christian is a person who believes in Jesus Christ.  This is also true, but not quite complete.
I would answer the question like this: a Christian is a person who lives in Christ, with Christ, and seeks to be like Christ.  A Christian is a person who is united to Jesus, but also a person who is trying to live just like Jesus lived.  A Christian has the mind of Christ, the heart of Christ.
Only in this context can we understand the words of Jesus.  He says some serious things today in the gospel: whoever loves father, mother, son, or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  Take up your cross and follow me.  Jesus is not telling us to stop loving our family members.  Jesus is not telling us to take up our cross simply because he enjoys our suffering.  Rather, his words come in the context of what it means to be Christian: we are called to be in union with Christ and living like Christ.  Now, of course, a Christian loves his/her family members, but that love is guided and shaped by our living relationship with Christ.  We embrace our sufferings, not because we enjoy pain, but because our cross helps to cure us of our innate selfishness.
So, being a Christian is more than just a program for living, more than just a set of guidelines and principles.  Being a Christian means a major change in our lives.  It means Christ is the heart and center of all that we do.  But, how many of us can say that?  I know I struggle, even as a priest, to make Christ the heart and center of my life.  Sinfulness and selfishness can creep in all the time.
But, this is not a new problem.  St. Paul was addressing it with the Romans 2000 years ago: you should consider yourself dead to sin and alive in Christ Jesus.  This is a pretty amazing line if you really stop to think of it.  How much different would our lives seem if we were truly dead to sin, all sin, all day, every day?  It would be an amazing change. 
After high school I started helping out with a youth group over at St. Pat’s downtown.  This youth group was called “The dead theologians society.”  Now, this is dating me a little bit, because the name was kinda borrowed from the Dead Poets Society, which is a movie that is close to 30 years old now…  But, the idea of this youth group was that each week we would gather to study the life of a saint or theologian.  This gave us a great exposure to some of the wonderful theologians and saints of the history of the church.  But, I was struck by the motto of the club: it was mortuum mundo, vivum in Christo.  This is Latin for: “dead to the world, alive in Christ.”  This motto is based on this line from St. Paul.  Christians are called to be alive in Christ, but dead to sin.  This motto has stuck with me over the years.  If we want to be alive in Christ, then we need to turn our back on sin.

So, Christians are called to be like Christ, called to be in union with Christ.  The life of a Christian is anything but boring or plain.  Rather, we are called to be truly alive.  Yet this life is certainly different than what the world would hold dear.  Jesus’ words might strike us a strange today.  But, for those truly alive in Christ, these words cause us no problems whatsoever.  Therefore, let us all take up our crosses and follow after Christ; let us live up to our calling as Christians to die to sin and to be alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.  We do this not because Christianity is about following weird rules.  We do this because we want to be united to Christ, we want to be like Christ, so that we can live with him forever.