The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Our God Heals|Our God Saves

Today’s readings

Today we begin our “Crash Course in Catholicism.”  It’s our hope that through this four-Sunday series of homilies, those who are seeking answers from the Church and those who are wanting to get back to the practice of the faith can find some help in sorting out the obstacles they have been encountering.  For all of us, I think, these four Sundays will give us some important pieces to add to our “faith tool box,” ideas and concepts that will help us when life takes a turn we don’t expect or appreciate, or when people ask us questions we find hard to answer.  As we begin this series, I’d ask you to keep this endeavor in prayer.  And as we begin each of the homilies for these four weeks, I invite you to pray that Jesus would open all of our hearts and minds to accept the faith more fully.

Today’s readings give us the opportunity to discuss two very important concepts: healing and salvation.  These things, honestly, are the whole reason Jesus came to us, the whole reason he left his heavenly throne, took on our flesh, and died on the cross.  These readings are really Good News!

A lot of energy gets expended around the concept of gratitude when this Gospel reading is discussed, and it’s easy to see why that is – just one of the lepers came back and expressed his gratitude.  But I think he also might have been the only one who was really healed.  Here’s why I think that:  For Jesus, the physical ailment wasn’t usually the most important thing he wanted to heal.  Usually, he was looking for interior healing, almost a kind of healing of the person from the inside out.  So yes, the lepers who came to him were in need of physical healing.  “Leprosy” was the name given to all kinds of skin diseases – but only some were really Hansen’s disease, our modern name for leprosy.  The rest were various types of skin eruptions and rashes. When the skin became diseased, people called it leprosy, and the victim suffered exclusion from the community (cf. Lv. 13-14) and became ritually unclean.

So Jesus sends the ten of them off to show themselves to the priests.  When they heard that, it had to be confusing.  The priests are the ones who would have to certify them healed so that they could participate in worship again, but since they hadn’t yet been healed, they had to grumble a bit about being put off to someone else.  Except that on the way they were cleansed (notice carefully that it doesn’t say they were healed).  When that happened, they couldn’t possibly mistake the grace they had been given, but nine of them took it no further than that.  Only just the one returned to give thanks, a sign that he had indeed been healed in body, mind and spirit.

For us then, we need to know that not every healing takes place in the way we would expect, or even in the way we think is best.  God gives us grace according to his purpose and the kind of healing he gives us could well be something we wouldn’t exactly choose.  Perhaps we have found ourselves healed when:

  • A person who loves us tells us a hard truth we need to hear about ourselves.
  • We experience, in a long relationship, opportunities for growth in generosity, forgiveness, patience and humor.
  • Parenting teaches us to give our lives for another in frequent doses of our time, energies, hopes and tears.
  • We suffer a broken relationship, go for counsel and the guidance we receive gives us hope for our future.
  • We seek help for an addiction and the group members offer us wisdom, support and helping hands when we fall and support us “one day at a time.”
  • We suffer the death of a loved one and family and friends are there to grieve with us and eventually there is light at the end of the tunnel.

What is important to get here is that faith is the key to all of this.  Our faith has to have us open to whatever God intends for us.  Our faith has to give us the ability to cry out to God in our need.  Our faith has to make us ready for whatever healing God intends for us.  That’s not easy: that’s why they call it a “leap of faith,” and sometimes it is just that.  Notice the words that Jesus speaks to the Samaritan leper at the end of the reading: “Go your way, your faith has saved you.”  God can do a lot for us, but it is our own act of faith that helps us to see God’s hand in our lives and cooperate with his grace.

I think that’s a good turning point for our second concept, and that is salvation.  Many of us have probably been asked by friends or even strangers who are Evangelical Christians, “Are you saved?” and “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”  So let’s be clear about the answers: Are we saved?  Of course the answer is “Yes” — no ifs, ands or buts.  As I said at the beginning of my homily, this was the reason God sent His Son Jesus into the world.  Salvation is the gift won for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  When we unite our lives to His in Baptism, we are saved.

But what does this even mean?  What are we saved from?  The answer to that is sin and death.  These are the things that separate us, have always separated us, from real happiness with God.  It was the effect of Adam and Eve doing what God told them not to in the beginning, and ever since, it has caused all of us to desire things that are not God, things that, while they seem nice, can never give us real happiness.  This is what causes the human condition by which we so often end up doing the very things we don’t want to do, and because of which we are not able to do the things we want to do.  That is the basic effect of sin, which leads to the breakdown in all kinds of relationships — between fellow human beings, our connection with creation, our relationship with God, and even with ourselves.  Left to our own human devices we can do nothing about these breakdowns of relationships.  That choice in the beginning, which we call original sin, unleashed a torrent of sin and death with us at one side, and God on the other.  There was no way for us to cross it.  But God didn’t create us for death, so in an amazing act of love, he sent his own divine Son, who took on our flesh and paid the price for our sins.  By dying on the cross, that cross became the bridge for us to cross that torrential river of sin and death, and come to our God, to the place he has prepared for us, to the real happiness for which we were created.  That is the essence of our faith.

This is why Saint Paul says to Saint Timothy in our second reading today: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.  I bear witness to Him so that you may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.  If we die with him, we shall also live with him in eternal glory.”  We proclaim boldly that there is a remedy for death, and it is Jesus Christ.  We profess that there absolutely is a Savior, and He is Jesus Christ.  

So have you been saved?  Well, absolutely.  But have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?  That’s more of an individual question.  That process began at your baptism, when either you, or your parents and godparents, accepted that sacrament which makes you part of the Body of Christ.  At your Confirmation, you reaffirmed that by accepting the gift of the Holy Spirit, which leads you to salvation.  And every time you receive the Holy Eucharist, you become what you receive, by incorporating the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ into your own being.  

But it’s easy to do those sacramental things and not have them really change us.  So there is that challenge to really accept that sacramental grace and really accept the salvation God offers us in Christ.  Catholicism is an experiential faith, a living relationship with Christ.  A Catholic is not a person who merely accumulates intellectual knowledge about God nor simply fulfills tradition and the letter of the law.  Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have repeatedly emphasized that Catholic Christianity is an encounter with Jesus.  That encounter happens all through our lives as we pray and grow in our faith.  This encounter with Jesus is the subject of our prayer life, and we will talk more about that in next week’s homily.

In the meantime, what answer should you give to the Evangelical who asks you if you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?  My suggestion would be very simply: “Yes, I have.  Every day.”

Thursday of the Twenty-sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I want to begin my homily by reminding you of the words we heard in our first reading from Nehemiah:

He read out of the book from daybreak till midday,
in the presence of the men, the women,
and those children old enough to understand;
and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

So I hope you won’t mind if I preach from daybreak to midday!

Today’s readings remind us that we are always in the “school” of the faith.  We don’t ever graduate from that school, until, of course, that great day, when we stand before our Lord to be judged, relying on his mercy and on our relationship with him, which is always a gift.  Those who unite themselves to our Lord in faith throughout their lives, those who continue to study the Scriptures and see them fulfilled in our hearing, they have the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

Saint Jerome, whose feast we celebrated earlier this week, underlined this for us.  He said that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, because for all of us who did not live in the same time as Jesus, we rely on the Scriptures not just to tell us who Christ was, but also to have a relationship with him, remembering that Jesus is always present in the proclamation of the Word of God.

We see two Scriptural moments in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  First, the Word is proclaimed.  Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers.  So first, the Word is proclaimed.  In the first reading, Ezra the priest reads from the scroll from daybreak to midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand.  It was quite the proclamation, and also included a kind of homily, apparently, since the reading tells us that Ezra provided an interpretation.

The second Scriptural moment is the Word’s effect on its hearers.  For Ezra, the Word produced a very emotional response.  The people bowed down in the presence of the Word, and began to weep.  The weeping is presumably because, hearing the Word, they realized how far they were from keeping its commandments.  I think we might have that same reaction sometimes.  Nehemiah then instructs them not to weep, but instead to rejoice and celebrate, because the proclamation of the Word on this holy day was an occasion for great joy.

And so today, as we hear the word of God, we too have to let those words have effect on us.  We are sent out as Jesus sent the disciples, with little but his own instruction.  That’s enough, and if we are faithful, we will see the word of God have an effect in every place we bring it.  Praise God for his powerful, effective Word.

The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The past two weekends, we have had the first reading come from the book of the prophet Amos.  I love Amos.  He doesn’t mince words, and you can usually tell what he’s getting at right away.  Today, though, I think it’s a little harder to understand what he means.  The line that jumps out at me is the line, “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.”  It almost sounds like a good thing.  David, of course, was known to be a wonderful musician, so it seems like a good thing that they are able to devise their own accompaniments, right?

But listen to that line again: “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.” Again, it almost sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t at all. David could devise his own accompaniment, because he was singing those Psalms with the voice of God. But if everyone in our choir devised their own accompaniment, we’d have a cacophony. So here Amos is making the point that devising their own accompaniment meant that they listened to what they wanted to hear, they sang the song they wanted to sing, without any thought as to what was right.  They did whatever they wanted to do, because it seemed like God was blessing them.  It’s kind of like the expression, “she dances to her own music.” It’s not a compliment at all.

The rich man in today’s Gospel devised his own accompaniment too. He ignored poor Lazarus every single day of his life. He knew Lazarus’s need, and maybe he even thought he’d get around to helping Lazarus one day. Or maybe he thought, “What good can I do, I’m just one person?” Perhaps he thought, “If I give him something to eat, he’ll just be coming around looking for something to eat tomorrow.” He probably came up with all kinds of excuses about why he couldn’t help Lazarus right here and right now. He was devising his own accompaniment.

And we all know the story about the rich man. Someday becomes never. It’s eventually too late: poor Lazarus dies and goes to be with Father Abraham. But in an ironic twist of fate, the rich man also dies, and it seems like right around the same time. But it seems that Lazarus and the rich man end up in different places, doesn’t it? The rich man learns that devising one’s own accompaniment does not help one to sing a hymn of praise to the Lord, and his choice in life becomes his choice in the life to come. If one doesn’t choose to praise God in life, one won’t have that option in the life to come. Devising our own accompaniment comes with drastic consequences.

Even in death, the rich man is devising his own accompaniment.  Even now, he does not see Lazarus as anything more than a messenger to do his own bidding.  “Father Abraham,” he cries out, “have pity on me.  Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.”  When he learns that’s not possible, he tries another tack: “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.”  He never sees Lazarus as a brother, and that’s why they’re in different places.  That’s why there is that great chasm that Father Abraham talked about between them – the rich man built it himself!  Devising our own accompaniment means that we separate ourselves from the community, we literally excommunicate ourselves.

One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is solidarity with the poor and needy.  This was a topic that the prophets, like Amos, preached about all the time. Solidarity with the poor is the teaching that says we need to be one with our brothers and sisters, and not ignore their presence among us. I became very aware of this as I walked around downtown Chicago one time. I had come with some money to give to the poor. But on the train ride home, I realized that I had just quickly given some of them some money, and never really looked at any of them. They were my brothers and sisters, and I didn’t take the time to look them in the eye. Solidarity calls me – calls all of us – to do just that. We have to step out of that universe that we have set in motion around us and realize that Christ is present in each person God puts in our path, particularly and especially in the person who is in need. We have to step out of our own cacophony where we have devised our own accompaniments and step into the symphony that God has set in motion. 

God knows about this principle of solidarity. Because God holds it so dear, he sent his only Son to take on flesh – our flesh – so that he could live in solidarity with us – all of us who are poor and needy in our sins. He shared in all of our joys and sorrows, and reaffirmed that human life was good. Life was made good at creation and remains good to this day. But if God could take on flesh in solidarity with us, then we must take on the burdens of our brothers and sisters and live in solidarity with them.  We must abandon our own accompaniments and sing the song of our brothers and sisters in need.

In our second reading today, St. Paul tells us to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” We have to be serious about living our faith and proclaiming the Gospel in everything that we do. In solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters, we must sing to God’s own accompaniment and join in the wonderful symphony that is the heavenly worship.

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus tells us some things about discipleship today that, quite honestly, I think might make a person think twice about becoming a disciple.  The first two come right at the beginning of the gospel reading: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  And then, right at the end, he says: “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”  He’s pretty clear: if we’re not willing to do these things, then we cannot be his disciples.

How does that make you feel? Are you willing to literally hate those closest to you for the sake of the Gospel?  Would you take up your cross, knowing what happened to him when he did it, and come after him?  Think of the things that you have that you love: are you willing to renounce them in order to follow Christ?  Today’s Gospel is incredibly challenging, to say the least.  Maybe I should say it’s incredibly unsettling.  We might find ourselves totally willing to be Jesus’ followers, but at what cost?

And that’s the point of the parables he tells.  Who is going to build a building without first calculating how much it would cost to build it to be certain there is adequate funding?  Most of us have probably passed by some commercial buildings that started going up, only to be later abandoned, or that took quite a bit of time to build, possibly because the funding dried up.  So we’re not unfamiliar with the metaphor here.  Or if you were a military leader going into battle, wouldn’t you estimate what the adversary is bringing to the battle to be sure that you can be victorious?  Bringing it down a notch, think of a coach scouting out the other team to see how they play.

In any of these situations, it is absolutely necessary to calculate the cost.  Not to do so would be foolish.  The same is true of discipleship.  There is a cost to discipleship.  Those first disciples, almost without exception, paid for it at the cost of their lives.  Preaching in the name of Jesus was a dangerous thing to do, but they calculated the cost and realized it was worth it, and they did die.  Praise God for their faithfulness to the mission despite the cost; had they not been faithful we might not have the faith.

For us modern disciples, should we choose to follow him, there will be a cost too.  We might not have to pay for it with our lives.  But there will be a cross to bear.  We might have relationships that get in the way.  We might have things that we own that tie us too closely to the world and get in the way of our relationship with Christ. Those will have to go.  That is the cost for us, and today we’re being asked if we are willing to pay it.

So how far do we take this? Do we really have to hate our families? Do we have to sell everything we own? Do we have to take up the cross in such a way that we become doormats for those whose views are different from ours? How much of the cost do we ourselves really need to pay?

We certainly know that Jesus – who loved his mother and father very much – did not mean that we were to alienate ourselves from our families.  But there may be relationships in our lives that are obstacles to the Gospel. Maybe we’d gossip less if we didn’t hang out with people who brought that out of us.  That would certainly help us to be better disciples.  Maybe we’re in friendships or casual relationships that lead us to drink too much, or see the wrong kind of movies, or that draw us away from the healthy relationships we have.  Those relationships have to end if we are to follow Christ more fully. Anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God and our ability to follow him in whatever way he’s called us has to go right now.  Ruthlessly put an end to it now, because otherwise we give up the life to which we are called, the life that is better than even these things that we might enjoy very much.

Today we are being asked to take a stand against abortion.  This is particularly urgent now, especially since our state has enacted laws that support abortion up to the moment of birth.  The way that we protect, or choose not to protect, the most vulnerable among us – the unborn – says a lot about who we are and how we live the Gospel.  We have to be willing to take a stand, no matter the cost, because the cost to our society from the loss of so many souls is just too great.

What can you do?  Our wonderful Reverence for Life Committee is joining with others in our area to observe the 40 Days for Life.  Our parish’s day is October 12th.  We are asking everyone to take one hour to come to the Planned Parenthood facility in Aurora and pray.  Just one hour.  You can make a huge difference and even save a life.  There are blue cards in the pews right now.  We ask that you fill out the top of the card and tear it off, then put it in the collection basket in a few minutes.  One hour and you could save a life.  That’s a great way for us to live the Gospel.

Our Liturgy of the Word today reminds us that following the Gospel on our own terms is not possible. The call to discipleship is one that calls us to step out of our comfort zone, leave behind whatever ties us to the world and separates us from God, and follow our Savior wherever he leads us. So if our only sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom of God is maybe getting out of bed and coming to Church on Sunday, then Jesus is telling us today that’s not enough.  It is a good start, but we have to reflect with wisdom on those things that are getting in the way, because it’s time we gave them up.

As we present our gifts today, God gives us the gift of wisdom.  How we live our lives this week will be the test of the way we’ve put that gift into action.  And don’t forget to drop the top of the blue card in the collection basket.

Labor Day

Readings: Genesis 1:26-2:3 | Psalm 90 | 1 Thessalonians 4:1b-2, 9-12 | Matthew 6:31-34

Today, we’ve gathered to celebrate and bless human labor.  Human labor is a cornerstone of our society and our world, dating all the way back to the creation of the world, as today’s first reading shows us.  Indeed, our labor is a participation in the ongoing creation of the world, and is one of the strongest ways that we can be in communion with our Creator God.  We know that, at the completion of the creation of the world and everything in it, God sanctified the whole of it through rest.  That’s an important point that I think we maybe don’t get the way we should.

Today is an opportunity to take a step back and look at our working and our resting.  We know that we don’t get enough rest.  We are sleep deprived, we take working vacations, we very often don’t take all the vacation we’re allotted, and some don’t take a vacation at all.  Even our children are so over-scheduled that they are sleep deprived as they go from one activity to the next, day after day.  And so our lives are out of balance and I think, very often, we don’t do our best work when we’re working.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that this kind of thing is just crazy.  Worrying about work isn’t going to add a single moment to our lifespan.  In fact, it will more likely reduce them.  We are told very clearly: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.  Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”  By “evil” here, Jesus doesn’t mean something sinister and dark, but just the daily worries and misfortunes that we deal with all the time.

We are certainly required to work hard and always give the best that we have to our employers or employees.  That’s a matter of justice.  We are also required to provide for our families and maintain a home for our loved ones.  That’s a matter or charity.  Work is sacred and always has been, because, as the Genesis reading today shows us, work was instituted by God who told us to fill the earth and subdue it, having dominion over every living thing.  We work because it is a sharing in what we were created for, the very imitation of God.But there is that matter of balance.  And we do have to step back and realize that God did indeed sanctify the whole of creation by blessing it with that seventh day, with that day of rest.  And so we do our spiritual lives no favors when we ignore the commandment to observe the Sabbath through rest and worship.  So much of our lives is consumed in labor; may we never fail to sanctify that labor by observing rest and worship.

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You’ve heard of the deadly sins. They are those sins that can really get at us time and time again in our lives and turn us away from God. They are things like lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. But for each of those deadly sins, there is also a life-giving virtue. Today, our readings focus on humility, which is the life-giving virtue that is the antidote to pride. Of the seven deadly sins, pride is usually considered to be the original and the most serious of the sins. Pride was the sin that caused the angel Lucifer to fall from grace. Pride was the sin that caused our first parents to reach for the forbidden fruit that was beyond them, all in an attempt to know everything God does. A good examination of conscience would probably convince all of us that we suffer from pride from time to time, and sometimes even pervasively, in our own lives. It’s what causes us to compare ourselves to others, to try to solve all our problems in ways that don’t include God, to be angry when everything does not go the way we would have it. Pride is the deadly sin that often-times is the gateway to other sins like judging others, self-righteousness, and sarcasm. Pride, as the saying goes, and as Lucifer found out, doth indeed go before the fall, and when that happens in a person’s life, if it doesn’t break them in a way that convinces them of their need for God, will very often send them into a tailspin of despair. Pride is a particularly ugly thing.

Humility, then, can be the answer to that particularly pernicious sin.  The wisdom writer Sirach, in our first reading, advises us to conduct our affairs with humility: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,  and you will find favor with God.”  But when we think about humility, maybe we associate that with a kind of “wimpiness.” When you think about humble people, perhaps you imagine breast-beating, pious souls who allow themselves to be the doormats for the more aggressive and ambitious.  Humble people, we tend to think, don’t buck the system, they just say their prayers, accept whatever life throws at them, and, when they are inflicted with pain and suffering, they just “offer it up.” (Not that offering up our sufferings is a bad thing, mind you.)

But Jesus described himself as “humble of heart,” and I dare say we wouldn’t think of him as such a pushover.  He, of all people, took every occasion to buck the system and chastise the rich and powerful.  He never just let things go or avoided confrontation.  Confrontation was at the core of what he came to do.  But he was indeed humble, humbling himself to become human like the rest of us, when he could easily have clung to his glory as God.  He was strong enough to call us all, in the strongest of terms, to examine our lives and reform our attitudes, but humble enough to die for our sins.

And so it is this humble Jesus who speaks up and challenges his hearers to adopt lives of humility in today’s gospel reading.  One wonders why the “leading Pharisee” even invited Jesus to the banquet.  If we’ve been paying attention to the story so far, we know that the Pharisee had ulterior motives; he was certainly looking to catch Jesus in an embarrassing situation.  But Jesus isn’t playing along with all that.  In fact, one can certainly taste the disgust he has for what he sees going on at the banquet.

In our day, banquets are usually put together with thoughtfulness and with a mind toward making one’s guests feel comfortable.  If you’ve been involved in a wedding, you know that the hosts try to seat people with those of like mind, with people who might have common experiences.  It’s enough to drive a host to distraction, sometimes, because it is such hard work. But in Jesus’ day, the customs were even more rigid.  People were seated in terms of their importance, and at this banquet, Jesus watched people try to assert how important they were by the places they took at table.  This was all an exercise in pride, and it seems that Jesus was repulsed by it.  So he tells them the parable that exhorts them to humble themselves and take the lowest place instead: far better to be asked to come to a more important place than to be sent down to a lower place and face embarrassment.

But there was another aspect of pride taking place here as well.  The “leading Pharisee” had obviously invited people who were important enough to repay the favor some day – with one obvious exception – Jesus was decidedly not in a position to do so, at least not in this life.  So he tells his host a parable also, exhorting him to humble himself and invite not those who are in a position to repay his generosity, but instead he should invite “he poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” – and know that because they cannot repay him, he would be repaid at the banquet of the righteous in heaven.

We don’t know how the guests or the host responded to Jesus’ exhortation to practice humility.  We do, however, know that Jesus modeled it in his own life.  Indeed, he was not asking them to do something he was unwilling to do himself.  When he said, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” he was in a way foreshadowing what would happen to him.  Humbling himself to take up our cross – our cross – he would be exalted in the glory of the resurrection.

The good news is that glory can be ours too, if we would humble ourselves and lay down our lives for others.  If we stop treating the people in our lives as stepping-stones to something better, we might reach something better than we can find on our own.  If we humble ourselves to feed the poor and needy, to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten, we might be more open to the grace our Lord has in store for us in the kingdom of heaven.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In my first priestly assignment, at Saint Raphael in Naperville, there was a huge football program for elementary school kids called Saint Raphael Football.  It was not just a team, but a league, and lots of surrounding churches had teams in the league.  You couldn’t live in Naperville and not have heard of Saint Raphael Football. So once in a while, in a social setting, someone would ask me what church I was from, and I’d tell them, Saint Raphael.  And they would say to me, “Oh yes, we go there, our son is in that football league.” I always wanted to tell them, “How nice. By the way, we also celebrate the Eucharist there.”  Maybe I should have.  Today’s gospel reading makes me think I should.

We – as a society – have it all wrong.  Our priorities are all messed up.  I think we’re in real danger, now more than ever, and today’s Liturgy of the Word is a wake-up call for us to get it right.  We live in a society that has not just lost its moral compass, but has actually taken pains to bury it away and never look at it.  Everyone seems to think that something is okay if it works for them in their current circumstance, regardless of how it affects others, regardless of how it affects even them in the long-run.  That’s why you turn on the news and hear about shootings everywhere, and that’s why we have politicians vying with one another to see who can support abortion in the strongest possible sense.  As Saint Theresa of Calcutta once said, “And if we can accept that a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?”  In many alarming ways, our moral compass has been buried for so long that we hardly know what it looks like anymore.  

So this homily is probably going to come off sounding kind of harsh to some of you, but if I don’t say what I have to say, I’m not doing my job as your priest.  And I know, really I know, most of you get this.  So please indulge me; if this doesn’t apply to you, please pray for someone who needs to hear it, because you know someone who does.

When Jesus is asked whether only a few will be saved, he deflects the question.  His answer indicates that it’s not the number of those who will be saved – that’s not the issue.  The issue is that some people think they will be saved because they call themselves Christian, or religious, or spiritual, or whatever.  It’s kind of like the people I talked to who considered themselves practicing Catholics simply because their children played in a football league that was marginally affiliated with us.

Jesus says that’s not how it works.  We have to strive to enter the narrow gate.  So what does that mean?  For Jesus, entering eternity through the narrow gate means not just calling yourself religious; that would be a pretty wide gate.  It certainly wouldn’t mean saying that you’re basically a good person, since that criterion is pretty subjective, and so widely misunderstood. The narrow gate means actually practicing the faith: taking time for prayer and worship, receiving the Eucharist for strength, living the gospel, reaching out to the needy, showing love to your neighbor.  It means making one’s faith the first priority, loving God first, worshipping first, loving others first.  Because “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

And I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s hard to do that.  Saint Paul says today that we have to strengthen our drooping hands and weak knees; Jesus says that many will attempt to enter that narrow gate but won’t be strong enough to do it.  That narrow gate of love is hard to enter: it takes effort, it takes grace; it takes strength, and we can only get that grace and strength in one place, and that place is the Church.  That’s why Jesus gives us the Church: to strengthen us for eternal life.

That’s not the best news, however, because so many people these days settle for simply calling themselves religious, or being “spiritual” – whatever that means.  They’ll play football on the team, but won’t make an effort to come to Church to receive the strength they need to live this life and to enter eternal life.  It is here, in the Eucharist, freely given by our gracious Lord, that we receive the strength we need to love, the strength necessary to live our faith and be united with our God.  It is here, in the proclamation of the Word, that we find instruction to live as disciples and are more and more conformed into the image of Christ.  But it’s hard to get to Church because Billy has a soccer game, or Sally has a dance recital, or because Mom and Dad just want to sleep in after a really trying week.

But those decisions, friends, have eternal consequences.  So let me be clear: God is more important than soccer, or football, or cheer, or whatever sport you’re playing; God is more important than the dance recital, and as for sleeping in on Sunday, well, as my grandfather used to say, you can sleep when you’re dead.  And it’s not like it’s an either/or proposition: people don’t have to choose between soccer and Mass or dance and Mass or even sleeping and Mass.  Certainly not in our section of the world.  This parish has Mass nine Masses on Saturday evening and all day Sunday, in three languages, all the way from 4pm on Saturday to 6pm on Sunday.  If those don’t work, there are a bunch of parishes within a short driving distance that have other schedules.  There’s probably a church within a few driving minutes of every football or soccer field in the area; I know a lot of families choose to take that option when schedules are hectic.

The point is, we make time for what’s important to us.  And eternal life is the only thing that we have of lasting importance. So we have to build up the strength to get through that narrow gate one day.  We’ve got to worship God with consistency; we have to live the gospel with consistency.

We’re not going to be able to say one day: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets and we played football on your team.”  We can’t just call ourselves Catholic; we have to live our faith.  We have to worship and pray; we have to reach out to the needy, stand up for truth and justice, make a real effort to love even when it’s not convenient to love, or even when the person who faces us is not as loveable as we’d like.

All of this requires commitment and effort and real work from all of us. We have to strive to enter through that narrow gate, because we don’t want to ever hear those bone-chilling words from today’s Gospel, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, you evildoers!” The good news is we don’t ever have to hear those words: all we have to do is nourish our relationship with Jesus that will give us strength to enter the narrow gate.  After all, the narrow gate is love, and the love of God in Jesus is more than enough to get us through it.

The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

As the current political season heats up in these late summer days, I find that it can be very easy to be dismayed. Every candidate, every bit of legislation, everything that comes at us is so disheartening. There is almost a complete rejection of the sanctity of life, there is very little concern for the poor and those in need, so much game playing and entitlement. And then add to that all the civil unrest in our society, the rampant crime, and constant threat of terror. This is most definitely a time of persecution. So it could well be that we are tempted to despair, to shake our heads and try to avoid hearing about it all.

But we are called to live differently as Christian disciples.  Despair is not an option for us; we have the hope of the Gospel, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the promise of eternity.  So the question that we have is, how do we live through all the sadness of the world around us, not to mention the sadness in our own lives, while we wait for all those promises to be fulfilled?  The virtue that gets us through that is called fortitude, something we don’t talk about often enough, but something that has real value for our spiritual lives.

The Church’s Catechism tells us that “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.” (CCC, 1808) Jesus puts it even more succinctly in today’s Gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” He wants us to be a people on fire, a people who will not waver in our pursuit of living the Gospel, a people who will not back down in the face of obstacles or even oppression, a people who live their faith joyfully and with firm conviction that our God is trustworthy and faithful. The Christian believer is called to exercise the virtue of fortitude because nothing else is worthy of our God.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of fortitude today.  Speaking of Jesus, “the leader and perfecter of our faith,” he says:

For the sake of the joy that lay before him

he endured the cross, despising its shame,

and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners,

in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. 

In your struggle against sin

you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

Resisting the opposition in our society and in our lives to the point of shedding blood is the kind of fortitude that we as disciples need to live in our lives.  It’s a tall order!

Nobody says fortitude is easy. Jesus himself was very realistic about this, and warns us today that fortitude in living the Christian life can be a very divisive way of life. The disciple can and will run into all sorts of oppression, and can even lead to broken relationships with those who are close to us. If that Gospel calls upon us to take an unpopular position, and speak up on behalf of the poor, the alien, the prisoner, or a pro-life issue, we may find that even some of our friends or family cannot go there with us. Being a Christian can make us feel like foreigners in our own land. And we are foreigners, because for those of us who are first of all citizens of God’s kingdom, Jesus’ vision and values come first. All because Jesus has come to set a blazing fire on the earth and that fire, to some extent, already burns in us.

Today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that we aren’t running the race alone. We have at our disposal the support and encouragement of a “great cloud of witnesses” which the Church calls the Communion of Saints. They may be the official saints of the Church, or other saintly people we have known or do know who intercede for us in our struggle of faith.  These are men and women who have suffered much and overcome much in pursuit of the kingdom of God. This great cloud of witnesses cheers us on, is an example for us, and is part of God’s way of helping us to live lives marked by fortitude.  If we didn’t have the example of that great cloud of witnesses, the call to fortitude would surely be insurmountable.

Very often on the journey of discipleship, we may find that the oppression and division that the Gospel causes casts us down.  Think about the loved ones you have called to live the faith, come to Mass, make good decisions, and have rejected that call.  Like poor Jeremiah in today’s first reading, maybe we find that we have been thrown into a cistern of despair or hopelessness. All that sadness I mentioned in the beginning of my homily can be like that. Fortitude is the virtue that helps us in the midst of all that, to wait with faithfulness on someone like Ebed-melech the Cushite to come to our rescue and draw us up out of the pit.

The truth is, today’s Liturgy of the Word can come across as very negative. Who wants to hear about being cast into a cistern? Are we eager to find that we are going to be in angry division with people close to us? The temptation to let all of this go in one ear and out the other, remaining instead in the comfort of our luke-warmness is almost overwhelming. But that’s just not good enough. We can’t live that way and still call ourselves disciples. It is not enough to love God in our heads. We need to be on fire, actively living the graces of baptism that we have received – to live with fortitude, integrity, conviction, fervor, and burning zeal. We have to be willing to live in the shadow of the cross, where we resolve all our divisions and receive the baptism that promotes Gospel peace.

Friday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

God never forgets how much he loves us.  If this weren’t so, none of us would be in existence.  God loves us into life and loves us through our life and one day, if we let him, will love us into eternal life.  The people of Israel had to know this better than anyone.  In today’s first reading, Joshua gathers the people for a reminder.  God had called and given them the promise through Abraham.  Throughout the years, he dispelled all their enemies and especially the Egyptians who subjected them to abject slavery.  He also gave them a future and a city to dwell in: land they had not tilled and cities they had not built.  All of this because he loved them.

The question the Pharisees asked Jesus in the Gospel today had nothing to do with love, which is odd because it was a question about marriage.  Or, actually, the converse of marriage: divorce.  They were asking not because they wanted to know about how to love better in their relationships, but rather because they were trying to trick Jesus into some Moses-bashing.  But Jesus has none of that, reminding them of the indissolubility of love.

Many things can be forgotten.  God forgets things all the time – namely, our sins when we confess them.  But love can never be forgotten.  God never forgets how much he loves us because God is love itself, and we dare not forget how much we love him, and because we love him, how much we love one another.  That love may require all kinds of forgetting: forgetting past hurts, forgetting resentments, forgetting what we think we deserve.  

May we all forget what we have to so that love is the only thing we can remember, and may we all go together, one day, to eternal life.

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