Sunday, July 30, 2017

The pearl of great price

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time year A:
Today in the gospel Jesus continues to speak to us in parables.  These are engaging stories which help us to see the truth of Christian life.  I like this image of the pearl of great price.  This super valuable pearl is what the merchant had been looking for his whole life.  This merchant sells everything he owns because the pearl is worth everything.  He decides it is much better to have this pearl than everything else he owns.  Pretty extreme if you think about it, but also quite beautiful.  The kingdom of God is more valuable and beautiful than everything we have and everything we own.  It’s worth trading everything.
When I was a kid, I loved baseball cards.  I really liked collecting the pictures, but also reading the backs of the cards.  The backs of the cards had the statistics for the players.  Remember, this was way before Google, so if you wanted to know player statistics it was cards and the newspaper. 
Somehow or another I came into possession of a Don Mattingly card that I really liked.  Not only did I like it, but it was worth like 8 whole dollars.  For a 10-year-old kid, this was big money.  This card was my prized possession.  My friend John had a much bigger card collection than me, and we used to trade some cards.  He really wanted the Don Mattingly.  So, he would make certain offers and I would turn them down.  Finally, he made me the offer I couldn’t refuse.  He laid out about 10 different cards, many of whom were some of my favorite players.  Each of these cards were worth 1 dollar, so I decided to make the deal.  10 one-dollar cards for 1 eight-dollar card.  Right away, I thought I had made out well.  But, you know what?  I regretted that trade every day after.  Obviously, I still haven’t gotten over it yet…  I ended up convinced that I had traded my favorite card for a bunch of rags.  Those 10 mediocre cards never replaced that one great card.
I hope this story strikes home.  This is what the image of the pearl is all about.  The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is that valuable card, that pearl of great price.  It’s more amazing and wonderful than any of us could possibly imagine. 
Deep down each one of us is longing for this heaven.  We are all made for God’s love, we are made to be with God forever.  We all have this desire: can you feel it?  Yet, how often do we end up trading in that pearl of great price for much lesser things?  How often do we trade Don Mattingly for a bunch of mediocrity?
We all do this, I’m sure.  The first way is obvious right: our sins.  Every time we choose sinfulness, selfishness over love and giving, we are trading the pearl for a bunch of rags.  Sins do not satisfy us.  They do not fill that deep longing that we have.  By choosing to sin, we trade away our inheritance for a bunch of nothing.
But, even good things could get in the way of the kingdom.  Those 10 cards I got were all fine.  The possessions of the merchant were all fine.  But, these things are nothing compared to the great prize.  Even good things can cause us to be led astray.  Things like our careers, our ambitions, the desires and goals we have for others.  None of these are bad, but we still need to ask ourselves if they are taking us away from the kingdom of God, the great pearl.

My advice, start with some reflection on the pearl of great price.  Start by reflecting on the great mystery of the kingdom of heaven.  By loving God, by being united with Christ, we will live with God in happy bliss for all eternity.  Does this sound like something you want?  It might be hard to give up our sin, even to give up good things that might lead us astray.  It’s tough to embrace self-denial.  But, it is definitely worth every penny.  It’s not even close.  I’ve regretted trading away Don Mattingly all these years.  But, if we trade away the pearl of great price we will regret it for all eternity.  So don’t be afraid to let go of things in this life.  The kingdom of heaven is worth it.

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.