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Homilies Lent

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

If we take one thought out of Lent, it should be this: we need a Savior.

Even before Jesus’ time, Esther knew this.  Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai was a deeply religious man.  His devotion incurred the wrath of Haman the Agagite, who was a court official of King Ahasuerus of Persia.  Mordecai refused to pay homage to Haman in the way prescribed by law, because it was idolatry. Because of this, Haman developed a deep hatred for Mordecai, and by extension, all of the Israelite people.  He convinced King Ahasuerus to decree that all Israelites be put to death, and they cast lots to determine the date for this despicable event.

Meanwhile, Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, is chosen to fill a spot in the King’s harem, replacing Queen Vashti.  Esther, however, never had revealed her own Israelite heritage to the King.  She would, of course, be part of the extermination order.  Mordecai came to Esther to inform her of the decree that Haman had proposed, and asked her to intercede on behalf of her own people to the King.  She was terrified to do this because court rules forbade her to come to the king without an invitation.  She asked Mordecai to have all of her people fast and pray, and she did the same.  The prayer that she offered is beautifully rendered in today’s first reading.

Esther knew that there was no one that could help her, and that it was totally on her shoulders to intercede for her people.  Doing this was a risk to her own life, and the only one that she could rely on was God himself.  Her prayer was heard, her people were spared, and Haman himself was hung from the same noose that had been prepared for Mordecai and all his fellow Israelites.  This evening, in fact, begins the Jewish feast of Purim, which is a festive observance of this very biblical story.

God hears our own persistent prayers.  We must constantly pray, and trust all of our needs to the one who knows them before we do.  We must ask, seek and knock of the one who made us and cares for us deeply.  But most of all, we must always be aware that, like Esther, we all need a Savior.

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Homilies Lent

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

That’s advice I wish I’d taken sometimes when I’ve been coming down with something and think, “oh, it’ll pass.”  The sick need a physician!  How often have we had what we thought was a little cold or seasonal illness end up being much worse because we let it go, we didn’t want to go to the doctor?  This past year, that’s been so true with COVID-19.  The symptoms start out as something like a common seasonal illness, and sometimes they stay that way, but plenty have had something much worse develop.

Anyone who has battled an addiction will tell you how true this is.  Many have thought, “Oh, I can stop any time I want.”  But they really need that intervention, that twelve step meeting or that time with a counsellor to really do what’s needed.  You cannot make any progress in wellness in any aspect of life if you don’t admit you’re sick and accept help.  We all have difficulty doing that sometimes, I think, and much to our demise.

It’s important that we learn to do that in the spiritual life.  If you don’t think you need a physician for your spiritual life, congratulations, you can skip Lent.  In fact you don’t even need a Savior!  I say that in jest, but really it’s true.  Jesus is very clear today: he came to call sinners to conversion, and that includes all of us.  It’s been said that the Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners.  And thank God that’s true, because all of us, me and you, all of us, need the medicine of grace in our spiritual lives time and time again.  And the good news is that Jesus gives us Lent to do just that.  Be converted, be healed, be made whole so that the glory of Easter can brighten our lives.

So our reflection this morning is two-fold. First, where and how do I need the Divine Physician in my life right now? And second, invite him in and let him heal us.

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Advent Homilies

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Do you remember the best gift you ever got?  What was it?  Who gave it to you?  How long did it last?  Do you still have it? 

Every gift is a little different: some are big, some are small, some make a lasting impact, some are used up and soon forgotten.  The best gifts, I think, are those that create a memory of good times; perhaps the best gifts are those that can be shared.

God gives us gifts too.  And some are big, and some are small, but all of them are important to us and to others.  In this season of giving, I’d like to take a moment to talk about God’s gifts, and how they are to be enjoyed.  There are four points I want to make.

First, God’s gifts are given to be used.  They’re not supposed to be like an action figure that is to be kept in its package and preserved so it can be sold in ten years for a lot of money on eBay!  They aren’t like the “good china” some of us have and almost never use.  They’re supposed to be used for our happiness and God’s glory.  So if it’s a talent for sports, we ought to play.  If it’s intelligence, we ought to study and research and invent.  If it’s creativity, we ought to paint or act or sing.  Keeping it in a box and denying it is an insult to the Giver.

Second, God’s gifts are never just for us.  God gifts us in ways that we can build up our community and our world and help people to come to know God’s love for them.  Always.  Mary never could have kept Jesus to herself, and we’re not supposed to keep our gifts to ourselves either.

Third, we will never know how wonderful our gifts are until we share them with others.  Our gifts are supposed to create memories and bring people together and help people to know God.  When that happens, the full wonder of those gifts will be revealed to us and in us, and we will enjoy them in ways we never could have before we shared them.

Finally, we don’t lose our gifts when we share them.  They don’t get used up when we give them away.  Just as Mary didn’t lose her Son when she gave him to the world, so we won’t lose what God has given us when we share it with others.  That’s just how God’s gifts are.

In today’s Gospel, Mary received a gift.  I don’t know how any of us would feel about that kind of gift, but Mary received it in faith, because Mary was full of grace.  She received the gift of a Savior before anyone else did; her fiat meant that she received salvation before it was ever played out on earth.  It was the best gift ever, and she got to watch it all unfold before her.  Some of it was difficult and painful, but so much of had to be amazing.

Because of Mary’s faith, God was able to send the best gift possible to be shared with all of us: the gift of his only-begotten Son.  Jesus took on our flesh as a little baby, and grew to become a man like us in all things but sin.  He walked among the people of his time and helped them to know of God’s kingdom.  Though he was without sin, he eventually took on our sins and went to the cross for all of us, dying to pay the price for our sins, and canceling out the power that sin and death had to keep us from God.  Because of Mary’s faith, we received the gift of salvation, if we are open to accept it.

And just like all our other gifts from God, those same four principles apply: we have to use, or live our salvation; we have to share the gift of salvation with others; salvation becomes more wonderful every time someone else is saved, and salvation is not something that ever gets used up – it’s meant for everyone.

So this is a bit of a “pep talk” for the coming feast of Christmas and how we should receive and live that gift of salvation.  Let’s be clear: we always need a Savior.  We are sinful, and in our sinfulness we could never enter into relationship with God.  And in this year, our need for a Savior seems to be even greater: the darkness of a pandemic and the sadness of racial unrest and all the other societal unrest we have endured this past year.  This year has been hard on families and workers and schools and just about everybody.  We need to be people of faith and follow our Savior more than ever. And we have to be people who share that gift with others, pointing them to the love and salvation we have in Jesus. 

Our salvation, our relationship with God, is a gift, and it’s up to us to spread it around.  It’s a shame if someone doesn’t know about God and his love for them.  But if they don’t know because we didn’t use our gifts to tell them, then it’s a sin.  This is the season for giving gifts.  The very best gift you can give to anyone is a relationship with God.  Whether it’s your children, or coworkers, or people in the neighborhood, your gift will do so much to make the world a better place.  All we have to do is respond like Mary: “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

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Holy Hours Homilies Lent

Holy Hour: Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Reading: Matthew 14:22-33

Why did you doubt?

This is one of those Saint Peter stories in the Gospel that sometimes causes preachers to give Saint Peter a hard time about his “little faith.”  I think Saint Peter displayed great faith here, although with an admittedly somewhat-rocky execution.  And I think this wonderful little story – one of my favorite Gospel stories – speaks to us in this very ponderous and difficult time, as our world struggles with a pandemic with seemingly no end nor cure in sight.  In times like this, we people of faith have special recourse to the Gospel and the saints, those same faithful friends who accompany us in all the good times and bad times of our lives.  All the more so now.

So I think this story shows Saint Peter doing three things right, and these right things are models for us people of faith in a time like this.

First, he goes to Jesus.  Realizing that what they originally took to be a ghost was, in fact, their Lord, Peter brazenly offers to come to Jesus on the water.  Why?  We could certainly impute all sorts of motives to Peter, maybe even ascribe it to folly.  But what’s right about this is that he wanted to be with Jesus, and Jesus wasn’t in the boat.  In the midst of a storm, he knew it was better to be with the Lord.  

I don’t know about you, but when I look around, it’s as stormy as I ever want to see the world right now.  We can go all sorts of places.  We can watch the wrong Netflix movies, or sit on the couch all day, or spend too much time on the internet, or stand in front of the refrigerator a million times.  But none of that is healthy.  You need to go to Jesus.  And I know that seems impossible when church is closed and you can’t receive the sacraments.  That’s a sadness for all of us. But you can still go to Jesus in your heart, you can pray and read scripture.  You absolutely have to do those things.  Get out of your boat and go where Jesus is.

The second thing Saint Peter does right is that he actually walks on the water.  How does he do that?  He does that by looking at Jesus.  Notice very carefully that he only stays above the water while he’s looking at Jesus.  When instead he notices how strong the wind was, he begins to sink.  Eyes on Jesus, he’s walking on water; eyes on the storm, and he’s sinking into the depths.

Our eyes can be fixed in the wrong place pretty easily these days.  We can scroll endlessly through Facebook.  We can watch the news for hours on end.  But none of this is helping us, friends.  All it’s causing is stress and sadness and a deep hole that we can’t fill up.  We have to look at Jesus.  Participate in a livestreamed Mass.  Pray the stations of the cross and the Rosary.  Meditate on the day’s readings.  Read one of the Gospels.  Anything to keep your eyes on Jesus.  Because if all you’re looking at is the storm, you’ll sink deeper and deeper.  Don’t let that happen.

The third thing Saint Peter models for us is when he finds himself sinking, he calls out to Jesus.  “Lord, save me!”  When he does that, he finds out that he can’t ever sink so deep that Jesus can’t pull him out.  Jesus reaches out his hand, catches him, and they both get back in the boat.

“Lord, save me!”  Sometimes we don’t know what to pray when things get bad.  I remember back in seminary when both of my parents came down with cancer and I had no idea how to pray anymore.  All I could say was, “Help.”  Kind of like, “Lord, save me!”  And God did help: he sent some of my classmates to come and pray with me and help me get my head and heart back where they needed to be.  Those little prayers are often more effective than ten minutes of endless talking at God.  

Because we’ve never sunk so far that Jesus can’t be our rescuer.  And when we’re sinking, he’s the best source of refuge.  Don’t ever forget that.  He’s out there, walking on the water, ready to grab your hand at any point.  Don’t ever think your problems are too big or too little to call on Jesus.  Sometimes we forget that we have a Savior, and sometimes we don’t think we need a Savior, all the while sinking deeper into the ocean of despair.  Jesus doesn’t want that to be so.  Reach out your hand, call his Name, and be saved.

One last thing we should note in this story: Jesus says, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Saint Peter did in fact have little faith.  But I would assert that it’s better to have little faith than none at all.  Saint Peter’s little faith put him on the water with his Lord, and got him saved when he was sinking.  The other guys in the boat didn’t have those opportunities for growth.  Saint Peter always wanted to be with Jesus.  Sometimes – okay – often, he messed up.  But every time our Lord gave him a second chance.  And every time, that second chance gave Saint Peter the grace of growing in his faith.  Saint Peter is indeed a good model for all of us, all of us with our little faith.

Categories
Homilies Lent

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

If we take one thought out of Lent, it should be this: we need a Savior.

Even before Jesus’ time, Esther knew this. Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai was a deeply religious man. His devotion incurred the wrath of Haman the Agagite, who was a court official of King Ahasuerus of Persia. Mordecai refused to pay homage to Haman in the way prescribed by law, because he felt that it was idolatry. Because of this, Haman developed a deep hatred for Mordecai, and by extension, all of the Israelite people. He convinced King Ahasuerus to decree that all Israelites be put to death, and they cast lots to determine the date for this despicable event.

Meanwhile, Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, is chosen to fill a spot in the King’s harem, replacing Queen Vashti. Esther never had revealed her own Israelite heritage to the King. Mordecai came to Esther to inform her of the decree that Haman had proposed, and asked her to intercede on behalf of her own people to the King. She was terrified to do this because court rules forbade her to come to the king without an invitation. She asked Mordecai to have all of her people fast and pray, and she did the same. The prayer that she offered is beautifully rendered in today’s first reading.

Esther knew that there was no one that could help her, and that it was totally on her shoulders to intercede for her people. Doing this was a risk to her own life, and the only one that she could rely on was God himself. Her prayer was heard, her people were spared, and Haman himself was hung from the same noose that had been prepared for Mordecai and all his fellow Israelites.

God hears our own persistent prayers. We must constantly pray, and trust all of our needs to the one who knows them before we do. We must ask, seek and knock of the one who made us and cares for us deeply. But most of all, we must always be aware that like Esther, we all need a Savior.

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Easter Homilies

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

Some days, I think there isn’t much I would do for just five minutes of peace and quiet.

If you’re a parent, maybe you’d amend that to longing for just five seconds of peace and quiet!  We are all probably sadly familiar with the many loud distractions our world puts before us.  And we’ve become conditioned to accepting it, even needing it on some primitive level, I think.  How often do we get out of bed and flip on the radio or television right away, or check our text messages or email before our feet even hit the floor?  Can we even get through a car ride without having the radio going?  Is the television always the background noise in our homes?  I know I’m guilty of those myself.  There’s a whole lot of noise out there and it’s become so that we are very uncomfortable with any kind of quiet.

And the noise doesn’t lead us anywhere good.  The Psalmist talks about walking through death’s dark valley.  I think some of the noise out there resembles that dark valley pretty closely.  There are voices out there tempting us to all sorts of evil places: addictions, selfishness; pursuit of wealth, prestige, or power.  Those same voices call us to turn away from the needy, from family, God and the Church.  Those same voices tell us that we are doing just fine on our own, that we don’t need anyone else to make us whole, that we are good enough to accomplish anything worthwhile all by ourselves.  And those voices are wrong, dead wrong.

Those are the voices of those Jesus mentions in the Gospel who circumvent the gate and come to “steal and slaughter and destroy.”  The frightening thing is, we have become so used to these distracting voices that we have turned away from God, turned away from the Savior we so desperately need, and have been led astray.  That’s the heart of why our pews aren’t filled, why people call themselves “spiritual but not religious”, why the likes of Oprah and Doctor Phil and Joel Osteen have become so popular in this day and age.

So maybe we have to become a little more like sheep.  Now I want to be careful about saying that, because being like sheep has a pretty negative connotation.  To be clear: I don’t mean that in the sense of cultivating blind obedience.  Because, as it turns out, sheep aren’t as dumb as we often think of them.  Here’s the backstory on today’s Gospel image of the sheep, the shepherd, and the sheepfold:  In Jesus’ day, the shepherds would gather several flocks in the same fenced-enclosure. The sheepfold might be constructed in a pasture using brush and sticks; or, it would adjoin a wall of a house and have makeshift walls for the other sides. Owners of small flocks of sheep would have combined them in the secure enclosure at night.  Someone – the gatekeeper – would then guard the flocks. The “gate” would have been a simple entrance, but the gatekeeper might even stretch out across the opening and literally be the “gate.” The shepherds would arrive early in the morning and be admitted by the gatekeeper. They would call out to their sheep and the members of the flock recognize the voice of their own shepherd, and that shepherd would “lead them out.”  The shepherd then walks in front of the flock and they follow. (cf. Jude Sicilliano, OP)

We, like the sheep, have to cultivate the silence and the ability to hear our shepherd’s voice and follow him, being led to green pastures, and not be distracted by all the noise out there.  We are a people in great need of a Savior, of the Good Shepherd.  When we deny that, we’ve already lost any hope of the glory of heaven.  We desperately need the guidance of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life; the one who leads us to eternity, laying down his own life to keep us out of the eternal clutches of sin and death.  Jesus came into this world and gave himself so that we might “have life and have it more abundantly.”  We just have to stop settling for the noise out there and tune in to our Savior’s voice.

Here’s a way to pray with this in the coming week.  Take five minutes, or even just five seconds if that’s all you can find, and consciously turn off the noise: whether it’s the physical noise of the television or radio, or the internal noise of distractions in your head.  And then reflect on what voices are out there distracting you from hearing  the voice of your Good Shepherd.  Ask the Good Shepherd to help you tune them out so that you can more readily discern his voice and follow the right path.

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Homilies Ordinary Time

Monday of the Third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This is a tough text from the Gospel today.  Jesus says that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness…”  This seems to be an incongruous statement from Jesus, who came to be all about forgiveness.  That he would withhold it from any sinner is shocking, I think.

But we have to remember what it is that Jesus was addressing here.  The scribes who had come from Jerusalem catch up with Jesus and begin to make trouble for him.  They are being obstinate in their unbelief, even to the point of being intellectually dishonest.  They know that Satan cannot cast himself out, but that’s just what they’re accusing Jesus of being and doing.  They would rather say foolish things than to believe that Jesus came to cast out sin and forgive sinners.

Salvation and forgiveness are a gift, and gifts must be accepted.  If one refuses to be forgiven, he or she will never have forgiveness.  If one refuses to believe that he or she needs a Savior, then he or she will never come at last to eternity.

May we never forget how much we need our Savior.

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Homilies Ordinary Time

The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The thing is, you know, the Pharisee was quite right. His righteousness was beyond reproach. He has been innocent of greed, dishonesty and adultery. He has been more pious than even the law requires. Fasting was only required once a year, on the Day of Atonement, but he fasts twice a week. Tithes were only required to be paid on one’s earnings, but he pays them not only on his earnings, but also on all of his possessions, basically, he paid the tithe on his total net worth. He was probably quite right about his own righteousness, and he may well have been right about the failures of righteousness in the tax collector as well.

And, in those days, tax collectors were despicable human beings. They worked for the Romans, were in league with the foreign occupation. They were told what they had to collect, and whatever the collected over and above that was theirs to keep. Now certainly, they were entitled to some income, so a modest markup would have been understandable – that was how they were paid. But mostly the modest markup was far from modest, and bordered on extortion. The tax collector in our parable today does not deny that he has participated in those activities. He does not even pray about anything he has done except for one thing: he has sinned. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says.

Both of these men were right in what they said about themselves. From an objective point of view, they have presented themselves honestly before God and everyone. So what’s the problem? Where has the Pharisee gone wrong and how did the tax collector end up justified?

It’s pretty easy to see what went wrong when we step back and look at the nature of their prayers. The Pharisee uses the word “I” four times. It’s all about him. The tax collector does not use the word “I” at all; he uses the word “me.” What’s the difference? Grammar lesson here: “I” is the subject, “me” is the object. So, for the Pharisee, it was all about what he had done through his own righteousness, and not about what God had done or could do. For the tax collector, it wasn’t about him at all. He acknowledges his sinfulness and asked God to have mercy. And that’s the second difference. The tax collector asks for something, namely mercy, and receives it: he goes home justified. The Pharisee asks for nothing, and that’s just what he gets: nothing.

So I think today’s Liturgy of the Word is asking us a very important question: have you been aware of your need for a Savior? Because sin is exhausting. Anyone who has struggled with sin, or a pattern of sin, in their lives can tell you that. Those who have been dragged down by any kind of addiction or who have tried to work on a character flaw or striven to expel any kind of vice from their lives often relate how exhausting the sin can be. Sin saps our spiritual energy, weakens our resolve to do good, and causes us to turn away in shame from family, friends, and all those whose spiritual companionship we need in order to grow as Christians. That’s just the way sin works.

But today’s Liturgy gives us very good news. Sirach says in today’s first reading that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” We see that very clearly in the parable in today’s Gospel. The lowly tax collector cannot even bring himself to raise his eyes to heaven. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says. It is the perfect Act of Contrition. He acknowledges his sin, he prays for God’s mercy. And God responds. He can go home justified.

Just like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we have come to this holy placed to pray today. What is our prayer like?  Are there sins that have become a pattern for us? Do we have addictions that need to be worked out? Have we failed in some way in our daily life? What dark corners of our lives desperately need God’s light and God’s mercy? In what ways do we need a Savior? Have we asked for God’s mercy, or have we been like the Pharisee, asking for nothing and receiving exactly that?

Pray the tax collector’s prayer after me: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

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Advent Homilies

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Today’s readings

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  John the Baptist was certainly voicing the question others probably were asking; they may have been envisioning quite a different kind of savior, one who was strict and zealous, who sought to restore Israel to international greatness.  But Jesus makes it clear that he is a Savior who comes to heal and bind up wounds, to forgive sins, and to bring people back to God.  People today are still asking if Jesus is the one who is to come.  And they are asking us.  Our lives must give witness that Jesus is still restoring sight to the blind, giving new strength to the lame, cleansing those whose infirmities keep them marginalized, helping the deaf to hear, giving new life to those whose dead in their sins, and preaching the good news to the poor.  The watching world needs to see all of that in us.