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

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lost and Found
"God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”
 ---Henry Nouwen The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming

The longer of today’s gospel reading includes the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Because we will hear that parable again in the season of Lent, I have decided to save it for later; however, I will mention it, since it is known by every Christian. It has a unique place with the other two parables: the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  Atonement is the common thread that unites these three parables.  For those who need brushing up in theological-speak, atonement is God’s action to save humanity through Christ’s sacrifice. An easier way to think of atonement is at-one-ment; that we are united to God through the suffering and death of Christ who sacrificed himself for humanity.

Both parables today end with the idea that the salvation of a single sinner is vital.  Put another way: God is saying, “I’m saving humanity one soul at a time.”

            Often when we consider salvation, we think of a blanket of mercy encompassing the entire globe, kind of like a divine dome of safety.  But what today’s gospel parables suggest is a very personal salvation, of God seeking the one who needs to be found.  It is the personal image of the shepherd placing the lost sheep on his shoulders and carrying it home; it is the picture of a woman who has lost one of ten coins lighting a lamp and sweeping the house for the single lost coin.  God’s salvation is universally offered not through a vast network of spiritual energy, but as an individual initiative.

            The personal aspect is further enhanced, though, with the very clear notion that God is in pursuit of us.  He is looking for us like some beleaguered shepherd or a miserly woman who refuses to give up a single coin; there is no “acceptable loss” count with God.  That God seeks the individual is tough for us to imagine.  The eternal creative and redemptive force of the universe worries that a single human might slip through the cracks unnoticed is extraordinary.  Very often I encounter people who say with great exasperation, “I looked, and I haven’t found God.”  The good news, I tell them, is that is okay, He is looking for you, too, and I doubt he will fail.  They look at me incredulously and usually say something like “If that is true, what is taking so long.”  I put my hand on their shoulder, and say “Welcome home; you are found.”

            Being found by God isn’t what most people think.  It isn’t accompanied by the trumpet sounds of angels or a large hand descending through the clouds to tap one on the shoulder.  Rather, it is that we are found, slip away, and are found again in a cosmic game of hide-and-go-seek with God. We are found, experience the joy of a new love and then are drawn away when times get tough, or things go wrong, and wonder why God isn’t with us.  God is always with us and has never left since the day we opened our heart to Him. Rumi, that great Sufi mystic tells of God’s closeness:

God is "what is nearer to you than your neck-vein,"
You have cast the arrow of speculation afar off.
O you, who have made ready your bow and arrows,
The game is close to you, and you shoot too far off.
The further a man shoots, the further off he is,
And the more removed from the treasure he seeks.
The philosopher kills himself with thinking,
Tell him that his back is turned to that treasure;
Tell him that the more he runs to and fro,
The further he is removed from his heart's desire.
The Almighty says, "Make efforts in our ways,"
Not "Make efforts away from us," O restless one.

Finally, God is in the image of the Prodigal Son’s father who has sighted his son from afar, and lifts up his garment and runs out to greet him.  How can God find us again? Sit still.  Open your heart and call to mind who last showed you love, and to whom you loved last; God is in your midst.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

How much is this going to cost me?
“…grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” ---Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship

                I think it is important to notice in today’s gospel that “great crowds” were following Jesus.  Let’s face it, after curing the sick, raising the dead and “sticking it to the man” publically, Jesus’ popularity grew, and the setting of today’s teaching parables is the home of a local prominent Pharisee on the Sabbath.  Jesus wasn’t there for a salon of philosophers, but to cure the Pharisee of “an abnormal swelling of his body”.  This time, it is Jesus asking the difficult question: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?”  The gospel records that everyone remained silent and Jesus healed the man. This healing was preceded by last week’s gospel of the Parable of the Great Banquet that was chiefly about humility.  Today’s gospel follows and is about the cost of discipleship.  Imagine the great interest in what Jesus had to say on the heels of healing on the Sabbath, and healing a Pharisee to boot! But instead of handing out applications for discipleship and encouraging his audience to enlist, Luke’s gospel shows Jesus admonishing his followers to consider the cost of discipleship; that following Him involves renunciation, the “hating” of one’s family, and one's security, and “yes—even life itself.” What follows is a couple of illustrations of the prudence of calculating the cost; ironic, since the demand from Jesus is that unless you give up everything, you cannot be a disciple of his. Notice the two actions that are essential: carrying one's cross and renouncing all that you have.  If your hands are busy holding on tightly to things, or even to relationships such that you can't pick up your cross, you need to let something go; multitasking is as dangerous behind the wheel as it is in the spiritual life.  It is called a divided heart.
            Of course, Jesus isn’t suggesting that one hates his family as a precondition, but rather be willing to find one’s security and honor apart from one’s family—a tall order in first-century civilization.  Those without families were those without standing in society, without security.  This is what Jesus means by “hating” one's family.  But what about “life itself”?   Jesus knew the ultimate cost is martyrdom.  Jesus knew he was headed for the cross that awaited him in Jerusalem, and he knew those who followed him could suffer a similar fate.  Even today, Christians around the world are being martyred for their faith.
            A genuine sacrifice of Christians today, though, is not primarily the sacrifice of one’s life in a decisive moment but comes less apparently in the sacrifice of oneself lived for others over a lifetime.  The gradual giving away of one’s youth and figure to mother a family; the life of those dedicated to living among the poor to ease their suffering, or to love the stranger whom no one has time to love.  We can sacrifice our time to listen to a friend whose life is a train wreck, or go without something we like to share what little we have with a stranger who has even less.  Let our fasting also arise from refraining from eating that we may be free to stay longer with one who needs us rather than default to the need for bodily sustenance.  These “crosses” may not make headlines, but they transform the hearts of those for whom we sacrifice, and they change us; that is the point of Jesus’ message: to sacrifice “even life itself” for others outside our family, friends and those for whom we are naturally inclined to sacrifice. So many of us, myself included, are not condemned by our great lives of scandal and sinfulness, but our regular lives of prudent engagement where sacrifices are far to carefully planned and controlled.  Christianity, when lived as good news for the world, is less about acquiring interior peace and tranquility in mystical rapture, and more about realizing that mystical rapture is always preceded by sacrificial love. What transforms us into a disciple is ultimately our commitment to following Christ on the way to the cross and praying every step of the way for a resurrection.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Creating a Home for the Poor

            From Psalm 68 we get the refrain “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor”.  In this simple verse, we have the profound truth of a connection between divine goodness, home and poverty converging; what is the relationship?
            In the reading from Sirach, a wisdom book, we get the admonition to conduct our affairs with humility “and you will find favor with God”.  Humility is the essential disposition of the seeker in the spiritual life, yet it can become more elusive as we regard our progress in this journey with greater satisfaction.  It is ironic that the consciousness of development is inimical to advances in the life of the spirit.  The great verse from Philippians (2:6-11)

 though he was in the form of God,
He [Jesus]did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

            Humility is realized through emptying, the kenosis of Philippians (κένωσις), that implies leaving room for God to act, of being in a relationship of profound trust with God.  We empty ourselves of our delusions on claims to grandeur, on entitlement to be other than who we are: creations in the likeness of God.  We become more “God-like” the more we accept ourselves as imaging God rather than imagining ourselves to be God.  Jesus’ enjoining would-be banquet guests to prefer the lowest and least seat at the table leaves open the possibility of being invited, “so that when the host comes up to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’” Only the lowly may be exalted; the exalted have no place to go. Our right relationship with God is with those for whom being at the table is pure gift, and who eat and drink in a profound state of gratitude rather than a state of entitlement. But what has this to do with the poor?
            Poverty in Jesus’ time was equivalent to divine condemnation, a sign that one had fallen out of favor with God.  You could be poor in many ways. Women were poor simply for not being born male. The sick and infirm were poor because they were perpetually unclean and cast aside in many instances.  Widows who could no longer be affirmed by being associated with a male were often discarded if a male relative could not, or would not, take them in. Poverty expressed itself in so many ways in addition to the simple poverty of not having enough.  For Jesus, the poor embodied those longing for what the Kingdom represents: acceptance, love, and dignity. 
            The reason it was so difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom had nothing to do with riches directly; it was, and is true today, that the rich life outside the milieu of vulnerability. The rich and this designation would better be rendered “well-insulated”, find hope in maintaining independence and privilege. Jesus didn’t bash someone because they were wealthy but challenged them to become poor and relinquish living “well-insulated” lives to become more fully interdependent among the human community and God.
             Today’s gospel is a mandate for kenosis among God’s people.  Instead of being known by what we have, we can become known by what we trust God to provide and live this hope joyfully in sharing the poverty of our failures, of our humanity.
             Though we may not live in gated communities physically, how often do we refuse entrance to our hearts by someone whom we deem unworthy of our love and trust?  We may not live in great castles with deep moats, but how often do others who come to us, or seem threatening to our stability and peace, encounter the moats we have spent years digging around the place in our hearts when they should be encountering a “Welcome” sign? Very few attain this level of freedom without moats or guardhouses, but by God’s grace, we can make our moats a bit easier to cross or leave a sleepy guard on duty to our gated communities.   
            The poor for whom we make a home first is for ourselves, for our humanity that God created, affirmed as being "very good" and redeemed by becoming poor---God entering our humanity.  Before we can truly welcome the poor, we have to see our poverty as human and learn to live in profound gratitude and trust, so the welcome sign truly announces the Good News.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

"Strive to enter through the narrow door"

            The image of the narrow way, or gate, is treated in both Matthew and Luke; however, Luke’s account, the one we are reading today, provides a fuller context than Matthew’s gospel, but Matthew’s gospel is important to consider as well when trying to understand what Jesus is saying.
            In Matthew, Jesus adds: “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”  In this gospel, it seems the restriction isn’t so much the size of the opening, but that it's difficult to find.  They both have an image of struggle associated with salvation. The context in Luke is Jesus answering the question “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” Such a question was part of a current theological concern of Jesus’ time among the Jews as to who among the Jewish people were the “chosen ones”, the remnant to be saved.
            Typical of Jesus’ style of turning questions in an unexpected direction, he responds with an answer directed towards the questioner as a person rather than to the question with an abstract answer.  Jesus uses the image of one knocking on a door, and the master of the house not opening the door because he does not recognize the petitioner’s voice. What began with a question of abstraction has become personal.   Despite the protests of the petitioner who identifies himself as part of a crowd who “ate and drank” with Jesus, and who witnessed Jesus in the streets, this casual association was not enough.  It is rather difficult to make it through a narrow door when you are part of a crowd.  Again, Jesus reinforces the personal dimension of salvation; crowds aren’t saved, individuals are saved.
            The protection of membership in a particular group, the Essenes, the Pharisees or Sadducees or whatever isn’t enough.  Salvation is recognition, personal recognition by Christ. If the master of the house did not open the door because he didn’t recognize the voice of the petitioner, so too we keep our hearts closed to the voice of God who is trying to enter our hearts.  How many times has Christ stood patiently at the door of our hearts knocking and we have kept him out?  Is it any wonder then he cannot recognize our voice as part of a crowd? The narrow door isn’t narrow because God wants to keep people out; it is narrow because salvation is realized one person at a time; it is a relationship, not a theological abstraction that is the way to salvation.

            Finally, Jesus adds the paradox that many who consider themselves first will be last, and the ones who are least will be first.  The pride that results from considering one's salvation guaranteed through association seems to Christ, at best, suspect. All of us who enter the narrow door do it one at a time, clinging on the hem of Christ’s robe who recognizes us because we recognized him when he knocked and we opened the door of our hearts.  Ultimately, though the door may be narrow, as the hymn reassures us, "There's a wideness in God's mercy". We approach the narrow door alone but walk through it with Christ.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Divine Arsonist
"I have come to set the world on fire"--Jesus

         Today’s readings strike us as particularly harsh, especially the passage from Luke’s gospel (paralleled in Matthew) of family division and strife as a consequence of following Christ; how can this be good news? The old phrase, “No cross, no crown” comes to mind.
        Paul’s famous teaching about the kerygma, or preaching, of the cross, proclaims “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. . . . God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 21-25, 27).
      Paul’s observes that “those who are perishing” see the cross as foolishness.  What a powerful observation!  A sign of “perishing” is dismissing the cross of Christ as foolish.  This superficial understanding can only be penetrated by faith because “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”  Men see the destructiveness of fire, God sees what survives the fire, and redeems the ashes.
      The “cloud of witness” of which Paul writes in Hebrews, includes the great Fathers of our church who witness to this “baptism of fire”.  St. Cyril of Alexandria refers to the “fire of baptism” as the Holy Spirit.  St. Ambrose relates the image of Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit appearing like flames above the apostles.  Fire and water, two of the most basic elements, combined in our baptism to signify both the physical purity and spiritual purity of our initiation. Fire is also the sacrifice of martyrdom which is the ultimate test of our love; are we willing to die for the gospel of Christ?  Are we willing to lay down our lives in our service to Christ?

      The wildfires that seem so destructive, and indeed destroy many homes, also have a natural function of renewal.  When fires clear the dead underbrush, they can cleanse a forest and actually help it to thrive.  When the fires are artificially delayed by well-intentioned firefighting, the undergrowth accumulates such that when there is a fire, say every fifty years, it burns so hotly that it has lost its benefit and destroys the forest rather than help it to thrive.  So it is in the spiritual life.  When one’s focus is to avoid suffering, to insulate one’s life from the “fire”,  when great suffering comes, we are ill-equipped to face it because we have not endured the suffering of lesser trials and temptations.  Our faith must be nurtured in our daily lives of more endurable sufferings and difficulties for the sake of our journey as ambassadors of God’s love to the world. We must learn early to find our refuge in God’s love among the community of the faithful so that we can grow to find our refuge in God alone. Among all of this suffering, we are being directed into the embrace of God’s love in the crucified Christ, which delivers us to the resurrected life, the life of a forest renewed after the fire, of hope rather than despair, of a fire-born faith that can sustain the heat of loving our enemies and keeping the flame of faith alive in our hearts.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

"Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me." (Ps. 138)

     I recall one of the stories of the Desert Fathers in which a young monk asks his spiritual father, his abba, why his prayers are so ineffective; he prays, but rarely gets what he asks for. The monk asks his disciple to take an old, dusty basket and bring him some water.  The disciple obliges but gets no farther than a few steps before the basket leaks the entire contents of water out, and so he must return to refill it.  He does this several more times and soon realizes the futility of using the old basket to carry water.  He returns, sullen, unable to accomplish his abba's request.  He explains his great effort to try and keep the water secure, but that the basket will not hold the water.  His abba nods in agreement. He asks the disciple if he noticed anything different about the basket since he took it to the river.  The disciple says "Yes, it is now clean."  The abba says "Yes, it has been cleaned by the water passing through it while you were filling it. God answers our prayers by first purifying our hearts, not granting us our desires. Only a pure heart can say with faith, "Your will be done."
     What we usually mean by "God does not answer prayer" is "I didn't get what I asked for." For some Christians (and anyone in a fix), prayer can be little more than a spiritual ATM.  Not to discount the need to ask God for those things we need, and we desire, but all prayer should be with the proviso Jesus used in the Garden: "Not my will, but your will be done"(Luke 22).  If Jesus, who was in perfect communion with the Father, humbly submitted to his Father's will when scared, anticipating a gruesome death and feeling abandoned, how much more should we be willing to pray under the condition that it is God's will.
     In today's gospel reading from Luke, Jesus is asked how we are to pray, and Jesus follows up with the "Our Father"--a prayer not invented by Jesus but passed along from John the Baptist who taught his disciples a prayer from the wilderness. The Our Father can be used not simply as a text for our prayer, but is a small catechism on how to pray:

"Father hallowed be your name."
Prayer begins with acknowledging God as Father, or more accurately, Jesus uses the word abba---" daddy" to bring into sharp focus the intimacy with which we can approach God.  God is both supremely holy, but through Christ and the Holy Spirit, supremely accessible to us; we should begin every prayer not only with the awareness of God's holiness but with the great gratitude that we are, as St. Paul says,"heirs of God", God's children (God has no grandchildren).

"Your kingdom come."

Other gospels add "your will be done, etc..."  To first pray for God's kingdom is to honor Christ's central mission, to make the kingdom realized by his disciples, and to spread this grace to all. We must, as Thomas Merton wrote "will the will of God"; our prayer must first raise our consciousness to seek first the Kingdom before all else.  It is, as my spiritual father said many years ago to me, necessary "to pray for the Kingdom of God to come, not the Kingdom of Todd"!

"Give us each day our daily bread."
The "bread" is understood by biblical scholars to point to the Messianic banquet, the eschaton, the final culmination in history of the establishment of the Kingdom for all eternity.  The prayer asks for that realization to be daily; the eschaton isn't only historical, it is eternally present and accessible by grace. We should earnestly pray for this spiritually sustaining need as we realize the need for physical nourishment.

"Forgive us our sins for we forgive everyone in debt to us."
This part of the prayer isn't so much a quid pro quo as it is an admonition to be mindful of the need to avail ourselves of God's mercy so we can extend it as part of building up of the Kingdom.  We need to continue to seek God's merciful grace, not as a reward for forgiving others, but we need to seek God's grace so that we can forgive others. If we live in the gratitude of God's mercy to us, forgiveness can be genuine because it is an extension of the divine forgiveness of God. If this dynamic was working perfectly, I doubt we'd need to include it in our prayer, but it isn't, and we continue to find forgiveness tough at times; so, our focus ought to be seeking God's mercy for our lack of mercy towards others.  The "Jesus Prayer" is a great help: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner".  This ancient prayer, far from being self-abasing, abounds in the awareness of God's great mercy and our constant need of it.

"Do not subject us to the final test."
The Greek word used for "test" is peirasmos, which suggests the trials of the Messiah; the afflictions of the mission of Christ; it isn't suggesting that God is the source of our temptations (God never is the source of temptation--James 1:13).  We pray to be fortified in the life of trials for the sake of the Kingdom and that we might not "be subject"...or perhaps a better word would be "subjugated" to the final test---be overcome by our struggles.  Make no mistake, anyone seriously considering confronting the evil of the world would do well, to begin with, the evil in one's heart.  Satan rejoices in the self-righteous protester who can use an agenda of "social justice" to embitter the heart, and render it lifeless in the pursuit effectively hating one's enemies, but for a "good cause".  Real spiritual combat takes place in the recesses of one's heart, not on the street facing one's enemies.  Do you want to destroy your enemies?  Love them! Where is the enemy now?

The second part of the gospel sets up the short narrative of one who, because he was persistent in appealing to his friend got what he needed.  So "For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened". We need the persistence in prayer to cleanse our hearts like the water sifting through the dirty basket; it takes a lifetime of seeking and knocking to realize whom we sought was always with us, and the door has always been open.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Do This in Remembrance of Me
Today’s readings from the Old Testament and the gospels seem to focus on the miracle of resurrecting the dead; Elijah in 1Kings and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke are both miracle workers.  To be sure, these readings do deal with resurrection, but the resurrection of the two dead sons is only temporary.  In time, these young men will again succumb to death as does every human.  What, then, is the author of Luke and 1 Kings trying to get us to understand?
Each story really begins around a mother’s experience of abandonment by her son’s death.  In 1 Kings, the mother who has hosted Elijah the prophet is filled with anguish believing that the prophet’s visit has brought God’s retribution upon her for some undisclosed sin by killing her only son.  Likewise, in Luke, the widow’s son has passed away and the woman is now alone.  The widow-mother in 1 Kings laments to Elijah
“Why have you done this to me, O man of God?
Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt
and to kill my son?”
The phrase “to call attention” is more literally translated “to bring my sin to remembrance” (RSV). The Greek phrase for remembrance is key; the word is anamnesis and suggests more than bringing up a past thought.  The word carries with it the connotation of bringing a past reality to the present---resurrecting an old wound of an undisclosed sin.  Elijah immediately passes the buck and blames God, but he also pleads “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”  The boy is resurrected, and the story ends with the widow joyfully announcing:  “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” This realization is the crux of the story, and the concept of "word" is crucial.  The Hebrew notion of "word", dabar suggests the “word-action” of God.  The same essential meaning of the Greek logos of John’s gospel that created the world.  God’s word brings life, not death.
In the literal rendering of this story, the truth could be quickly eclipsed by focusing on the extraordinary event of the raising of the dead. The truly eternal life, though, is the revitalization of the widow’s faith that God’s love is real and
present in her world, now, through the prophet's "mouthing" the "word".  In Luke, Jesus’ deep-seated compassion for the widow brought her son back to life but also gave the woman the eternal gift of hope and trust in God’s goodness.  The proclamation that “God has come to help his people” is the crowd's response, not unlike the widow’s response in 1 Kings. Both stories turn on the faithful response of God's chosen ones (Elijah and Jesus).  Would that each person you meet recall the encounter with such joy!
Each Sunday we participate in an “anamnesis” in the memorial of the Mass when we proclaim: “Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again”.  These phrases engender hope in the faithful.  For as St. Paul reminds us “If we have died with Christ, then we shall live with Christ”.  They can be an occasion for us to participate in the Thanksgiving that is called Eucharist as we recall the crucifixions Christ has raised us from, so we can secure the hope of Christ's coming into the lives of so many who wait patiently for hope.
We too share in some part of the vulnerability of the widows when we can’t see God’s will in the mess of our lives, in its pain and seemingly arbitrariness of destruction.  This “widow’s soul” of feeling vulnerable and abandoned is like a great beacon for God and the faithful.  In our grief, God’s great compassion is at work around us like God’s call to Elijah and Jesus’ profound feeling of compassion.  It is precisely when we feel abandoned that we need to draw near to our community, the Church, and the Mass.  Christ’s healing sacrificial power made present at every Mass begins this great healing and salvation. Never underestimate the strength of the faithful’s gratitude in being able to work God’s great healing power in our lives.