Welcome to CatholicPreacher! I use this page as a type of archive of my thoughts for my Sunday homily.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Second Sunday of Advent

Ready the Way of the Lord

"His winnowing fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing floor"(John the Baptist)

Today, we make a shift from focusing on the “end times” to the other end of our journey, preparing for the coming of Messiah!  It is a preparation that harkens back to the time when John the Baptist was preparing the way by preaching repentance in the wilderness, but it is also the preparation we live today that anticipates the revelation of God’s kingdom more perfectly.
            We begin our story as we Christians often do, with our Jewish brothers and sisters who first heard and responded to God’s revelation.  Isaiah’s text celebrates the arrival of the perfect king with three sets of distinguishing virtues: deep wisdom and understanding, might and counsel, and knowledge and fear of God—virtues of intelligence, practical ability, and piety.  What more could one ask of a leader?  Alas, this hope faded over time. 
            With the birth of Jesus, King of King and Lord of Lords, Emmanuel—God-With-Us, the kingdom was not fully realized, but Jesus’ coming set in motion the building of the kingdom.  Just as John pointed the way of Messiah, Jesus pointed the way to God’s Kingdom, and the Holy Spirit continues to guide us and provide us with hope.  John’s “reading of the way” now is transformed into our mandate to “walk the way” made by Jesus for a people who were originally known as “People of the Way”.
            John’s preparation of repentance for the coming of Jesus the first time is still valid today for us who set out on the way of Christ.  Before we plot a course, we have to know where we are in relationship to our destination; that is why repentance is part of Advent.  Repentance, as the word suggests, orients us a hundred and eighty degrees from our present course; it turns us around and gets us going in the right direction. John uses the image of the winnowing fan separating the valuable wheat from the waste of the chaff.  The chaff is the lighter and unusable part of the wheat and must be separated from the valuable kernel of the wheat itself.  Often this is preached as a metaphor for God punishing the unrighteous as “chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”.  While this may be valid, for us it is also an opportunity to see a more personal dimension to repentance. The chaff is all those things that accumulate in our lives that obscure the true wheat of Christ; the Good News.  Though the ministration of the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, we can let go of all that is not Good News both for ourselves and for others. Advent is a time for looking at what we cling to that keeps us from paying attention to our destination, for dulling our sense of direction as well as the destination.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Christ the King

There is that famous line from Mel Brooks's movie History of the World: Part I, "It's good to be king!"  Being king brings up beautiful imagery of elaborate court ritual, absolute authority, and feasting; sounds a lot like the institutional church!   But Jesus' words to Pilate betray this image of opulence.  When asked about his kingdom, Jesus replies "My kingdom does not belong to this world" (New American Bible).  Another translation has it as "My kingdom is not of this world"(New International Version).  The sense of Jesus' reply is that his kingdom is neither the kingdom of Rome nor the kingdom envisioned by the religious authorities; both groups lose.

The Solemnity of Christ the King that embraces Jesus as king is relatively new.  It was established in 1925 to counter what the Church saw as an increasing tendency to worship human wisdom and power, which was loosely defined as modernism.  By later positioning the solemnity at the end of the Church's liturgical year in 1969, it further enhanced its standing as the summit of Christ's rule, andimplicitly, the Church as Christ's kingdom.

The songs and imagery associated with this celebration, however, often blunt the irony of Christ as king.  The common representation is a resurrected, non-bloody, Jesus hovering (rather than being nailed) on the cross.  The image of Christ as king is ironic because he is the king with a crown of thorns with a procession of humiliation and a knightly court of cowards.  It seems, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians  "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God."

The ironic image of Jesus as king nailed to the cross speaks of a different kind of power than the power of earthly kingdoms.  In a general audience at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI suggests power of God’ which is different from human power; it reveals, in fact, His love.” 

"The power of God's kingdom as embodied by Jesus' death isn't exclusively revealed by the resurrection, although the saving power of God is most apparent here. It is the magnitude of God's love for His creation in self-sacrifice that shows Christ's real power as king. " 

The ultimate love is the love that sacrifices self for another. This is the real power that defines Christ's kingdom.  This is why evil can never ultimately triumph over good; evil avoids self-sacrifice.  Evil always seeks what is best for the self over and against the other.  It destroys community and ultimately destroys itself.

Self-sacrificing love, on the other hand,  is the ultimate Christian act where one falls into the opened arms of Christ on the cross, trusting in the power of God's ability to bring life from death.  Christ's kingdom, indeed, is not of this world, but it is for this world.  Nothing is of more importance than conforming ourselves to this likeness of Christ as King.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

“Never put a period where God has put a comma”—Gracie Allen

Zacchaeus was just about the most despised Jew among the Jewish people living in Jericho. He was the Chief Tax Collector; he ran the crew of collectors that exploited the poor and grew rich off of the weakest of society. Is it any wonder, then, when Jesus decided to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that his disciples grumbled; they had good reason to grumble. Once again, we have a story that puts conventional wisdom to the test and puts on display “God’s foolishness”(2 Corinthians).
The structure of the story can help us enter the story and sort out this “foolishness”. First, Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. No matter where we are in life, no matter how distant from what others recognize as God’s favor, we are being sought-out like a shepherd for a single lost lamb.
Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Christ.  Earlier in Luke, just after Jesus responded to the disciples’ request “to teach us to pray” with the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says “So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (11:9-10).
Having been found, Zacchaeus’ response was to make reparation for his sins. Rather than simply confessing, he changed his life. Our response to our calling is a changed life; repentance means turning around.  Salvation is preceded by repentance, but it is the saving Grace of God that brings us to our knees; it is God’s loving us that allows such a repentant attitude. We can only repent if we can experience the depth of God’s love.

As Christians, our mission is the mission of Christ: Seek the lost and let them see God’s love for them, and the place to begin is with your own “lostness”. In our adoration of the Body of Christ, it is we who are in the tree trying to get a glimpse of Jesus, and it is Christ who speaks to our hearts: “Today I will come and stay with you”.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Gustave Dore - The Pharisee and the Publican

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."  Oscar Wilde

Last week's posting has an epigraph from Meister Eckhart, one of the church's great mystics, who famously wrote that if you only had a single prayer to pray, "Thank you" would suffice.
This week, we continue with the general theme of prayer with the righteous Pharisee as an exemplar of how not to pray and the sinful "publican," or tax collector, the one whose prayer for mercy was answered.  As usual, the unexpected is central to this parable, but this is not one of Jesus' many Kingdom parables; it is, rather, a parable about relating directly to God.
      Jesus famously had told his disciples how to pray with the gift of the Our Father; however, he doesn't answer the question when asked by his disciples how to pray directly.  Instead, he tells them what to pray for.  Today's gospel moves into one's disposition in prayer, the how, that is directed at all of us because gift easily becomes possession (Daniel Harrington, S.J.).  
     The Pharisee's prayer was more horizontal than vertical; that is, his prayer was gratitude for not being connected with sinners, of being an island of righteousness.

O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.

His gratitude springs from "not being like the rest of humanity," it begins in separation, focusing on his side-view of a sinner.  And the tax collector was a sinner.  Let's not make him into some noble hero.  Tax collectors were famous sellouts in Jesus' time.  They were Jews who profited from their association with the Romans and were allowed to keep whatever more they could collect from their fellow Jews and had the power to have non-compliant Jews arrested.  As with most people invested with such power, the power was abused, and these folks were famously despised.  The Pharisees were a group of religious scholars who were trying to bring the average Jew hope by helping the average person live a righteous life through the commentary on the Torah that translated the Law into practice. St.Paul is, perhaps, the most famous Pharisee to become a Christian.  The Pharisee's pride grew from being socially, educationally, and religiously set apart from the people he was called to lead.  I think there is a lesson somewhere in it for me as a priest, and for anyone in a position of authority within the church.  I can imagine such pride was incremental and crept in as he appropriated each compliment and praise received from the people he helped, growing like a wildfire until it consumed him in the deception that what they adored was him rather than God's gift to him.  The tax collector had no such delusions.
     The tax collector's prayer was vertical; off at a distance, and prostrated, he couldn't even see or hear the Pharisee.  The tax collector's sins were too painful for him to list.  He simply prays "Have mercy on me, a sinner!" Scripture says he went away justified; God forgave his sins not because he was a righteous person, but because he prayed from his poverty rather than his wealth.  The Pharisee prayed from what he considered his great possessions: his righteousness. Like the widow only putting a penny for the Temple collection, she gives all she has.  She isn't donating a small portion of her wealth; Jesus observes in that parable that "she gave from her poverty."  In prayer, we must pray from our poverty because this is our state in relation to God.  We have nothing to stand on but clay feet, but it is the same clay God formed, it is human clay, and it is the source of true humility and genuine gratitude because God has redeemed it in Christ.  
     It is when we pray from our poverty that we tap the riches that God has given to us.  Time and time again, God's grace seeks out the humble, the lowly and the dispossessed.  Throughout salvation history, God visits the least regarded and comes to visit and give great comfort.  There is something in the nature of God that desires such intimacy like that of a mother caring for her sick child. We don't need to be great and notorious sinners to attract God's notice, but merely to be people who understand they share the lot of humanity in the struggle to image the Divine. The Oscar Wilde quotation "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" comes to mind. Our prayer is always a cry for mercy when we begin with being grateful for having the vision of the stars from the gutter.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances"  1Thessalonians 5:16-17

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
Meister Eckhart

One of the greatest acts of faith is prayer. Prayer acknowledges God explicitly and is done with the hope that God is listening.  To surround one's daily life in prayer, to strive to "pray without ceasing" is to hold on to the tail of a tiger and not let go.

      Today's gospel has a widow holding on to the tail of a tiger in the form of a judge who refuses to hear her case, but she prevails in the end because she refuses to let the matter drop.  Out of sheer fatigue, boredom, or a desire to simply get on with it, the judge finally relents, and she is afforded justice because of her perseverance.  Jesus uses this story to suggest that his disciples will soon find themselves like the widow, alone and in need of help and that the only way to proceed is to pray and not lose faith.  Jesus links faith with the endurance of prayer by asking "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

     How much more, Jesus reasons, will God who loves you hear your prayer and act decisively to render judgment? The word "quickly" in the scripture does not indicate a short time from asking, but rather the speed of God's action once God acts, His decisiveness.  As we read a couple of weeks ago, faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is required because faith is not measured in degrees; it is experienced by its presence or absence. 

     Faith is not something that is mainly feeling but is an action guided by the will and sustained by the strength of hope.  Though we tire, and at times fail to pray formally, our fatigue and desire for prayer itself is a prayer.   Reciting to oneself "Oh God, I wish I could pray" is a prayer.  Constant prayer is living with this awareness.

    The strong tradition of the "Jesus Prayer" in the Orthodox Church ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner") is the mantra-like prayer that infuses one's being so that prayer is made constant in the awareness of one's beating heart or breathing.   The practice of stillness, or waiting upon God as prayer has a long and honored tradition within Christianity. Lighting a candle, paying attention to one's breath and only finding oneself in God's presence is also prayer.  Today, we might say that books on all manner of praying abound, and sell very well; whether or not anyone is praying is another matter.

     Prayer may not satisfy us that we are praying, but this need not distract us.  Lifting our hearts to God, desiring to be seen by God in our hesitation, our fear, our inability to form words allows the Spirit to pray in us and through us.  Being involved in praying can be as simple as sitting quietly and listening for God's "quiet, whispering voice."  We don't have faith because we pray.  We pray because we already have faith. It is God, through the Holy Spirit, which ultimately makes prayer possible.  We have this great stream of prayer running directly through our hearts like a great torrent.  We have only to jump in and let it carry us for God's "quickness" to be realized.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ten had Faith; One had Gratitude

            Today's reading from The Book of Kings and the Gospel of Luke highlights healing and the outsider.  In Kings, Naaman, a Syrian, is healed by Elisha as a sign of God's blessing to those outside Israel.  In Luke, of the ten healed of leprosy, it is only the Samaritan that returns to give thanks.  Both the Samaritan and Syrian have the dubious distinction of being least-favored, not part of the "Chosen Ones", yet God's blessing rests on them.
            In the gospel story, the ten lepers are outside the city and cry to Jesus not directly for healing, but for mercy.  Such a cry reveals the connection between illness and a loss of favor with God; if you were sick, you had lost favor with God.  Jesus doesn't pray for them, but simply commands them to journey to a priest to be certified as being healed.  They had to begin the journey still uncured.  It was on their way that they were healed; it was their faith that got them moving.
            Faith requires us to act as if what we proclaim has already been brought about.  This is why there is always an element of the absurd in living a life of faith.  St. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 1:

 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

What, then, is the point of returning to give thanks if everyone was healed?  The other nine didn’t return to a leprous state because gratitude can only be a gift, not a requirement.  The gratitude of the Samaritan was rewarded by a relationship with Christ, a personal encounter one-on-one the other nine did not establish.  The Samaritan’s gift was relationship---the ongoing and direct connection to God.
            This story also serves to highlight another reality of the Christian life.  While a Christian may have faith, faith enough even to heal, that doesn’t mean she or he has that intimacy and closeness that those whose faith is sustained by gratitude enjoy.  Gratitude is what sustains us when we are not healed, for whatever reason; when our prayers seem to go unanswered.  Gratitude is what allows us to pass the blessings of our faith to others.  The other nine were healed, but how many lived that restoration and “returned Glorifying God in a loud voice”? One.
            We are called to “Glorify God in a loud voice” by displaying our gratitude, living our life as a gift from God that we can share with the world, with the “foreigners”, the outsiders who cannot lay claim to any blessing other than the one we can give that comes from God.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

"If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts"--Psalm 95

Having heard the voice of God, how could one’s heart be hardened?  Last week, we began a subtle transition from focusing on justice for the poor to faith.  Jesus’ story quoted Abraham speaking to “the rich man” who was seeking a spectacle to save the faith of his ancestors: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” Faith does not grow from spectacle; however, the apostles, this week, seem to be asking Jesus to somehow “increase their faith.”  His reply isn’t a recipe for “increasing,” but suggests they lack faith.
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
     The mustard seed is famously small---roughly the size of a grain of sand.  Essentially, Jesus is saying “If you had any faith, you would not have to ask for more.”  Faith isn’t something that comes in all sizes; it comes in one size. Also, the gift of faith is often misunderstood as a type of passivity, of letting life wash over oneself and hoping for the best.  This passivity, however, is heresy.  It is called “quietism.”  Because faith has an element of endurance and patience, it doesn’t mean that faith is only waiting for something to happen. Faith is either present or absent, active or dormant. Let’s consider the cardinal virtues to dig deeper.
     The three cardinal virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love are joined for a reason.  They are joined because they complement one another and work together.  One aspect of this trinity can be understood as true faith engendering hope and the courage to love in the face of evil and doubt.  Despair is the relinquishing of hope, which is not the same thing as feeling depressed or defeated or searching for hope in the chaos and disappointment that marks many lives of people with faith.  True despair is acting in the world as if there was no hope; hating rather than loving because “What’s the point? Life is meaningless anyway; why not hate?”  Just as faith engenders love through hope, despair allows for hatred by renouncing hope.  One a virtue, the other a mortal sin. It is this scar of sin that can harden one’s heart as the Psalmist sings.
     The “hardened heart” is the heart that lives from despair.  Even the heart that has heard the Lord’s voice can despair because very often where faith leads us, the heart fears to go.  Following a timid heart rather than Christ stiffens the heart with an unnatural reluctance to love; the heart refuses to be vulnerable. What unlocks the potential of faith (rather than simply “strengthening” it) is action expressed in loving despite feelings of fear, doubt, and despair.  Love is not a feeling; it is a commitment to action in response to Christ’s command to love God and love one’s neighbor.  If you wait to feel like loving someone, your love will only serve an emotional need.

     If you respond to God with “I can’t possibly do this”, listen for the reply: “You are right. You can do nothing without me."  Open your heart and let the Spirit live and guide you”.   We are, indeed, as the gospel says “unprofitable servants” We bring God no profit through loving others.  Loving others, especially those for whom the feeling of love is absent, is God’s gift to us.