Saturday, September 29, 2012

New Hearts

26th Sunday in OT
Today we hear something pretty radical from Jesus.  If you hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to sin gouge it out. Etc.  I don't know about you, but I have been trained to read this passage metaphorically.  "Don't worry: Jesus doesn't literally mean that we are supposed to cut off our hands."  In some sense, this is true.  Make no mistake, no one should go home today and amputate anything.  But, I don't really think that Jesus is being metaphorical.
 Listen again to what he says: if your hand causes you to sin.  Let's think about this for a minute: does your hand really cause you to sin?  As many of you know, in addition to being the chaplain at Marian I am also the girls golf coach.  And it is a lot of fun to work with the girls teaching them the game of golf.  One time I was working with a girl at the driving range.  She was struggling to hit her driver, it was going everywhere but straight.  So she says to me, “I think I need a new driver.”  So I asked her if I could borrow the driver for a second, and I hit one straight as an arrow, which if anyone has ever played with me knows that a straight shot is a bit of a miracle.  So I said, the driver looks fine to me…
 In golf it is usually pilot error not the plane that causes something to go wrong.  If it was really the driver that causes the ball to fly poorly, I would certainly recommend that they get a new one.  But, usually the clubs are just fine.  If we want to fix the ball flight we need to fix the real cause, something in the golf swing.
I think the lesson Jesus is telling us is similar.  But is it really the hand that causes the sin.  No.  Something else causes the sin.  There is a deep truth that Jesus is getting at here.
First, sin is terrible.  Listen to the starkness of the terms here.  Cut it off and throw it away, better to go to heaven maimed.  The stakes are high.  Jesus is not simply trying to frighten us, I think he is trying to open our eyes to the absolute horror of sin.  While we are all sinners, there is nothing good about sin.  It is terrible.  It causes grief and turmoil in our lives.  We should learn to despise sin, pray for its eradication, strive to do better each and every day.  God is certainly loving and merciful, but that is not to say that sin doesn't matter. I've heard people say: Oh, God doesn't care if I'm a sinner... Really!  Jesus says today that sin is so bad that we should take radical steps to cleanse ourselves of sin.  So the first lesson we learn is that sin is terrible and we should get rid of it.
Secondly, what is the cause of sin?  As I have been saying it is not really our hands, or tongues, or eyes, etc.  Even if we use parts of our bodies to sin, these parts are not the cause.  What is the cause?  It's our hard hearts, it's pride, it's selfishness.  Jesus says in another place that it is not what enters a person from the outside that causes us to be defiled, rather all sin starts within and comes out.  Basically this means we all need to jettison our hard hearts and replace them with warm hearts full of love.
This might be a bit discouraging.  In some sense it would almost be easier to chop off something.  Sometimes is it quite painful to come to terms with our weaknesses, to come to terms with our hardness of heart.  Very often, our hardness of heart comes from years of pain and mistreatment.  How do we get rid of something so deep?  On our own, this would be impossible.  But for God nothing is impossible.
We heard in the first reading that Moses prayed and the spirit of God was put into the hearts of the people.  This is exactly what we believe happens at baptism.  The spirit of God was given to each of us.  And if we allow him to do so, the Spirit can reach down even to the hardest heart.  The Spirit can cleanse and purify us.
Indeed our weakness, our sinfulness, our hardness of hearts cause us to sin, but the good news is that we can get rid of these things.  By the power of God at work within us we can be renewed and transformed.  But, we have to be open to this power.  Today as we receive Holy Communion we approach humble and contrite, we approach recognizing our weakness, and we ask Christ to give us new hearts.  The girls on my team don’t need new golf clubs, and none of us need to amputate any part of our bodies.  But we all need new hearts full of love, and only Christ can give them to us.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

We follow Jesus as St. Matthew did

25th Sunday OT year B:
Last week we heard Jesus asking his disciples: who do you say that I am?  Peter responded with his great proclamation of faith: you are the Christ.  This confession is the beginning of faith.  It is the center of our faith.  Jesus Christ, the son of God reveals to us the Father and he sends the Spirit upon the Church.  Jesus Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God, so everything we know and everything we believe begins with this one statement: you are the Christ.
But, faith is more than something we know.  Faith has everything to do with who we are and what we do.  For us to say Jesus is the Christ has implications.  Simply to believe with our minds is not sufficient.  Faith is not simply a matter of knowledge, faith is a relationship with Christ that bears on how we live.  This is why Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.  Last week we heard Jesus invite the crowds: if you wish to follow me, deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me.  Today we celebrate the memory of one of these disciples.  Today we celebrate the feast of St. Matthew.  Remember that St. Matthew was sitting at his customs post, minding his own business.  Jesus approaches him and simply says: follow me.  Matthew left everything behind to follow him.  What an inspiration for all of us!  Jesus says to each one of us: follow me.
Like St. Matthew we are followers of Jesus, like St. Peter we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.  So today we can picture ourselves in the company of Jesus, we are walking with him, following him.  What is his message: the son of man will be handed over, killed, and rise on the third day.  The central message of Jesus is his death and resurrection.  That was the central message in the gospel, and it is the central message down till the present day.  In fact, we say that every Mass is a renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary.  At every Mass we enter into the very dying and rising of Jesus.  As we walk along on this journey of faith with Christ, the central message is the same: Jesus has died, but he rose again.
But this is, by no means, an easy message.  St. Paul said many years ago that the cross is a stumbling block to the Jewish people and foolishness to the Gentiles.  Remember how we began: Jesus is the Christ, but he explains that the Christ will suffer.  This is not how we would have drawn it up.  In our cosmic game plan Jesus would have annihilated sin and death with fire and brimstone from heaven.  So the cross is indeed difficult to understand.  But, we are in good company: the gospel relates that the disciples did not understand the teaching.  Indeed the cross, the suffering and death of Jesus is certainly a mystery.  But if we probe this mystery we find the love of God poured out upon the world for the salvation of all.  So, my friends we constantly proclaim the cross, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the more we understand this mystery the more we know and love Christ.
But, there is something puzzling about the gospel passage.  It says they were afraid to question Jesus.  Why were they afraid?  Well I wasn’t there, but my best guess is that they were afraid to ask Jesus because they understood the implications.  If Jesus is going to suffer, that means we too will suffer.  If we are following Jesus, and he will deny himself and pick up his cross, then as followers we will have to do the same.  No wonder they were afraid, their whole conversation was not about self-denial: they were arguing about who was the greatest.  The same might be true for all of us: if we follow Jesus as St. Matthew did, if we hear the proclamation of his death and resurrection, we might see the implications.  To follow Jesus means to lay down one’s life like he did.  But there is no other path to happiness and holiness, there is no other path to life everlasting than the way of the Cross: listen again to the words of St. James: Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.  But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.
Today we remember St. Matthew, we remember our patron who had the courage to follow Christ.  Through his intercession may we have the courage to do the same: St. Matthew, our Patron: pray for us.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Who do you say that I am?

24th Sunday OT:

At the heart of our gospel today is the question of identity. The question begins in general terms, even Jesus says: who do people say that I am? The responses of the people are as general as Jesus' own question: some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others one of the prophets. In other words, some people say you are a great preacher who is traveling around preaching repentance just like John the Baptist. Others are saying even more, you are a prophet like Elijah who was the man of God. These answers are not wrong, Jesus was a preacher who spoke of repentance; he was a prophet who spoke about and for God. But, while these people who said Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or a prophet might not have been wrong, they weren't correct. These titles do not get to who Jesus really is.

After this question of generalities, Jesus makes it alarmingly concrete: who do you say that I am? What an uncomfortable question! Imagine that someone walked up to you and asked: who do you say that I am? Even if it was your spouse or your child, it would be a hard question to answer.

Jesus really puts Peter on the spot here. Who am I? Do you know me better than those others who think of me as just another prophet or preacher? Am I more than that? But, Peter doesn't even hesitate: you are the Christ. This answer is vastly different from the previous answers, which were generic and spoke about the things that Jesus did. This new answer gets to the very identity of Jesus: you are not just some preacher, not just another prophet: you are the Christ, the son of God.

So, it seems like there are two camps in the world: those who know about Jesus, and those who know Jesus. The first group sees only the things Jesus said and did: he is some great prophet. The second group knows Jesus, knows his identity: you are the Christ.

How is Peter able to see Jesus and identify who he really is? How does he get into the second group? There is no doubt that Peter heard Jesus preaching, that he thought of him as a prophet, but how did he get past the generalities? Peter knew Jesus. It is just that simple. Peter had a relationship with Christ, he spent time with him, spoke with him, followed him, etc. He got to know Jesus on a personal level. He was able to move beyond generalities because he encountered Jesus in the specifics of his life.

Don't we all want to do the same? Don't we all want to know Jesus? It is not enough to know about Jesus; salvation, holiness, and grace come from knowing Jesus. How do we get from the first group to the second group? Jesus gives us a roadmap: whoever wishes to follow me must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow after me. The way to know Jesus is to follow him, the way to follow him is to deny ourselves and take up our crosses.

This is, by no means, an easy task. The road of discipleship can be a road of suffering and hardship, but this should not surprise us. We are Christians, we bear the name of Christ. He suffered, and we suffer. He denied himself on the cross, we deny ourselves in our daily lives. But it is in and through our difficulties that we follow Christ, that we become like him, that we get to know him. Here in this holy Eucharist, Christ comes to us and he asks us the same question he asked St. Peter: who do you say that I am? We will only be able to answer this question well if we follow Jesus, if we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Our God will come with salvation for his people:

23rd Sunday OT:

Our God will come with vindication for his people. These words of the prophet Isaiah capture the faith of the people of Israel. More than likely these words were written sometime near the time of the exile. It was a difficult time, they were being attacked by Assyria, their nation was crumbling around them. But, they held onto their faith that God would come to save them.

How beautiful for us to read this passage in the light of Christ. The people of Israel believed that God would never leave them, never abandon them. They believed that God would bring them salvation, but who could imagine how God planned, in the fullness of time, to bring about this salvation: God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son so that all those who believe in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. The Good News of salvation is that God indeed comes for his people. He came as one of us; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This time God wasn't bringing salvation from Assyrians, Egyptians, or Babylonians. This time he came to do battle with the very brokenness of humanity itself. Our Savior came to do battle with sin, with death, with the fallenness that is ours. Jesus came to speak Good News to his people.

Jesus came to bring salvation to Israel, to the chosen people, but, he also came as a man to speak to all men and women. We see this truth in our gospel today. Right at the beginning of our reading we hear that Jesus entered the Decapolis. This region was a gentile region. The man in the story today becomes a symbol for all the Gentiles, all the non-Jewish people, in other words all of us. We know that in the Old Testament, God spoke to his people Israel through the prophets. But, non-Jewish people might be considered deaf to the voice of God. So, the deaf person in the gospel could stand for all those who were outside of the people of Israel, deaf to the Word of God. But, Christ opens the ears of the Gentile. When Christ comes among us, he opens our ears to hear the Good News of salvation. After he opens our ears, it becomes imperative that he touches our tongues as well, for after having heard Good News, it is impossible to be silent.

Christ came to preach the Good News to all, to open the ears of all humanity so that we can hear God's Word, he came to loosen our tongues so we could proclaim this Word. By his incarnation, by taking on our common human nature, no one is excluded. Christ came for us all. This is why James found the giving of preferential treatment to a class of people so offensive. Christ came for all of us, rich and poor, Jewish and Gentile, slave and free.

And look at the price that Christ pays to open our ears and touch out tongues. It says in the gospel today that Jesus groaned. Think of another time when Christ is in agony: on the cross. Every time we look at the Cross of Christ we see how much he loves every person on the planet, every human person who has ever lived. Christ came for all, and he gave himself up for all. As Christians, as those who have been touched by Christ, we too should go out to all of humanity. By his death on the Cross Jesus brought salvation for his people.

We were first touched by the power of this sacrifice on the day of our baptism, and we are strengthened and renewed by this sacrifice every time we gather at this altar. And at the end of this mass, and every mass, we are sent on a mission to go and announce the gospel of the Lord. Each week we reenact this gospel passage, Christ touches our ears with his words, he touches our tongues in Holy Communion, then we go out to spread the Good News.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Christ came to set us free

22nd Sunday of OT:

This is one of those weeks where our readings are speaking to us about morality. Morality is the way we live our lives as disciples of Jesus. James exhorts us in the second reading: be doers of the word and not hearers only. The word of God is living and active. Rather than being something that can be grabbed and possessed, the Word of God grabs and possesses us, it spurs us on to action. We hear the word of God and we want to put it into practice.

Sounds good so far, right? Hear the word of God and put it into practice by living a moral life. But, there can often be a bit of a disconnect between faith and life. We hear about Jesus, we believe in him, we want to be his disciples, we understand that living the moral life is what this means. Then what do we get? It seems like we get a bunch of rules and regulations. We want to follow Jesus, and we get a list of things we are not supposed to do: thou shalt not this, that, and the other thing. Whether it is the 10 commandments, the moral teachings of the gospel, or something from the Catechism, it seems to outline a bunch of stuff we are not allowed to do.

And, maybe it is just me, but doesn't it seem like God looked at the human heart, found all the things we really want to do, then made commandments against it? Don't we love to speak ill of our neighbor: can't do it, that's gossip. Don't we just love to be angry at our enemies: can't do it, we are supposed to love our enemies. Don't we just love to indulge in any kind of pleasurable thing: can't do it, that is lust, or greed, or gluttony. It seems like we are stuck in some cosmic tug of war. On the one hand there is the moral code, and on the other, there are the inclinations of our hearts set in opposition. So, for many of us, life becomes a matter of trying to dodge the sin we might desire in our hearts. It is almost as if sin were potholes in the road: if we can just make it down the street without hitting any of the major potholes we will be ok. But, this is a crazy way to live life. And this is not what morality is supposed to be about. Morality is not a matter of avoiding sin. Rather, it's about living life to the full.

Listen again to the words from Deuteronomy: hear the statutes and decrees (why? So that life will be miserable and you will be prone to fail? No) so that you may live, and may enter and take possession of the land. I find that so beautiful, hear the statutes and decrees so that you may live. God gives us the commandments through Christ and the Church not because he wants us to struggle and fail, but because he wants us to be happy and blessed. We were not made for sin! We were made to be holy, to be with God, to live.

But, what about our sinful inclinations: today Christ labels it so well, there is a bunch of junk that can pour out of our hearts: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, etc. We have inherited original sin, we are prone to fall. But, Christ came to help us. Through grace, we can be healed, maybe not totally in this life. Christ came to set us free, he came to purify our minds and our hearts. Jesus did not come simply to give us a new set of rules and regulations; rather, he came to set us free. He does this especially through the sacraments. When we are baptized, confirmed, when we receive communion, confess our sins, when we are anointed, when you got married, when I got ordained, the grace of God is at work within us, making us more like Christ, healing us down to our hearts.

So the moral life was not given to us to make us miserable. It is a guide to true human fulfillment. While our hearts are set in opposition to the law, Christ came to set us free. We cannot lose hope. Christ came to renew and transform us, Christ came to heal our hearts, so that a life of discipleship is not one of misery, but one of joy. Right here in this Holy Eucharist Christ pours his life out for us, as we receive his body and blood, he can transform us, heal us, set us free so that we can live and be with him in that promised land that awaits us.