Sunday, November 19, 2017

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Warren Buffet, the American businessman and philanthropist, supposedly has two rules for how he invests his great fortune. Rule Number One? Never lose money. Rule Number Two? Never forget Rule Number One.

It seems to make sense – if you want to make money, you have to start by not losing money. But in the world of investments, it’s not quite that simple. Return follows risk, and so if you’re not willing to put anything on the line, you’re not going to gain anything more than you already have. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. In the Gospel today, Jesus uses the analogy of investment to speak about the logic of the kingdom of God. The story we hear is fairly straightforward. A master entrusts three servants with his wealth, and then leaves on a journey. He doesn’t give them specific instructions, but it’s clear that he expects them to invest what he has given them and gain a return.

Each servant, as we heard, is entrusted with something. What is it? The Greek word τάλαντον is translated in English as “talent”, but it doesn’t mean here a positive characteristic, skill, or ability. Instead it was a measurement, a weight of precious metal – an ingot of about 75 lbs. Talents were literally the fortunes of people of the ancient world; to have one, was to be wealthy, and to be a servant entrusted with one, was to bear a huge responsibility. We may tend to inherently sympathize somewhat with the fearful servant, who was afraid to put his master’s fortune at risk and so buried it out of fear. But we see how he master’s expectation of his servants is at once trusting and demanding – he has given them much and expects much in return.

This Gospel is often interpreted as reminding us that God has given unique gifts to each of us which we are to put to use in return. That interpretation is not wrong, exactly, but it can quickly devolve into something that’s rather cliché – make the most of all that God has given to you, strive to reach your greatest potential, be the best that you can be. But Jesus is not here just to give us a pep talk. There’s something more going on. 

Willem de Poorter, The Parable of the Talents (c. 1660)
The key to understanding this passage is what each servant has is not truly his; it still is the property of the master. The servant possesses it for a time, but the master is expecting the trust he has shown to be rewarded. The one who has received only one talent, and who buries it in the ground, may appear to be heeding Warren Buffet’s first rule: “never lose money.” But this is not caution; it’s cowardice. When the master returns, he appears unassuming, claiming that he did not want to lose the investment of his demanding master. But he’s really making excuses for his inaction. The intrepid servants are rewarded for their boldness, and the lazy one is punished.

The point of Jesus’s parable, of course, is not really to give us advice about investments; rather, he’s trying to impart to us a warning about our duty as Christians. In the Gospel of Matthew, this passage follows the one from last week about the five wise virgins and the five foolish virgins, and it continues the same theme: “Be ready; stay awake”. This latter part of the Gospel of Matthew is a series of descriptions about how to prepare for the end times – what the disciples of Jesus should do after he ascends to the Father and prior to his Second Coming. Since we happen to be in that very time – the era of the Church – we might consider this parable addressed directly to us.

As with last week’s Gospel, Jesus sees inaction in this period as an acute danger. This inaction can take different forms. As with the foolish virgins, it can be a lack of vigilance, of becoming drowsy, and failing to be ready for the Master’s return. We can become too accustomed to this world, to in love with its pleasures and attractions that we fail to take seriously the Gospel command to wait eagerly for Jesus’s return, preparing ourselves to greet him with continued works of faith, hope, and charity.

Inaction can also take the form of fear. Like the servants in the parable, we have been entrusted with talents – not gold or silver, and not even primarily our various positive qualities or characteristics. Rather, we have been endowed with gifts from on high – gifts that are God’s ultimately, and which he lends to us to be utilized. The talents we have been given are spiritual treasures: forgiveness, patience, endurance, kindness, generosity, humility, temperance, courage – above all, faith, hope, and love. These are not our strengths, not our talents innately – they are God’s, they are the result of his grace and they remain his even when they are within us. They are a free gift, given to us without cost, but not without expectation.

If Jesus warned us last week that we can become drowsy, like the foolish virgins, unprepared for his return, then this week he warns us that we may misunderstand the nature of the graces that we have as his believers. Faith in Jesus can bring us new life, peace, and joy, but if we do not utilize that investment of grace to make that gift increase all the more – if we let it lie dormant, or bury it under the weight of our fear and insecurity – then Christ himself will punish us for our inaction when he returns. Our Master has made a strategic investment in us, and he expects from us a return, grace upon grace.

Friends, Jesus knows a principle of return that Warren Buffett, for all of his billions, knows nothing about: give what has been given to you, and you will be all the richer for it. God has invested spiritual capital in each of us, not because of our own merits, but due to our relationship to his Son Jesus. Our own fear or laziness might tempt us to bury these gifts within us, to let them go unused and unnoticed, but Jesus commands us to share what we have received, not tomorrow but today. If we do not venture to the put the Gospel into practice now with the spiritual treasures we have been given, then we may miss out on the heavenly gains that are to come.

The English cardinal Henry Edward Manning once wrote, “Next to grace, time is the most precious gift of God. Yet how much of both we waste. Time is full of eternity. As we use it so shall we be. Every day has its opportunities; every hour its offer of grace.” Let’s look to return the Lord’s investment in us – sharing faith with those who do not believe; providing hope to those who are afraid; showing love and mercy to everyone, as they have been shown by God to us. Jesus is coming back and he wants a return on what he has entrusted to us. May he find us good and faithful servants, so that we may share his lasting joy.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Servant to All

If there’s one thing that Jesus was good at in his public ministry, it was making people in places of privilege feel uncomfortable. Throughout the Gospels, we hear how he ruffles the feathers of those whom society favored. He tells the man who has invited him to dinner, that he has shown him less hospitality than the woman from the street who anoints his feet with oil. He tells the rich man who wants to follow God’s commandments that he should sell what he has and give the money to the poor. He tells the person who feels self-righteous, they should look at the plank in their own eye before the speck in the eye of the other.

There’s probably no group though that Jesus vexes more than the scribes and the Pharisees, the religious leaders whom the Jewish people looked up to at that time. Today, we hear how Jesus warns the people that they are hypocrites – they claim the spiritual tradition of Moses, along with his authority, but their actions do not conform to their own words. They give the appearance of piety, of following God’s law, but they are obsessed with honor, they love money too much, and they burden the people with heavy demands without helping them to follow them. They are like the Temple priests that the prophet Malachi criticizes in the First Reading; they have abused their position of caring for God’s people in order to serve themselves.

Now, I recognize that there is a not so subtle irony for me as a priest from this pulpit to be telling you about the failures of religious authorities. A Gospel like this one makes me uncomfortable because I recognize that much of what Jesus criticizes about the Pharisees and scribes could be – and sadly, sometimes is – true in our faith tradition, especially from priests. We come to this vocation because of a calling to serve, but at times, we let you down, we let God down; like the Pharisees and scribes, we serve ourselves.

Today is Vocations Sunday, the Church’s chance each year to encourage and promote vocations, especially to the priesthood and religious life. I serve as an Assistant Vocations Director for our diocese and I feel a certain obligation today to preach about vocations, especially with a congregation with so many young people. It may seem counter-intuitive to promote the priesthood and religious life when the Gospel is an account of Jesus warning about religious authorities. But there is an opportunity here: to talk honestly about what we believe about vocations and how we can all contribute to good ones.

At the heart of Jesus’s problem with the Pharisees is not that they claim religious authority, but that they have forgotten what must ground that authority: loving service. At the heart of Jesus’s mission is God’s desire to attend to what we need and give it to us – though great, indeed though God himself, Jesus came to serve us. To share in his divine life, he calls us to follow his lead, to seek to love as he loves each in the way that God calls. We do that by our vocation.

Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (mosaic), Basilica of San Marco, Venice, c. 120

The word “vocation” means calling; every person has a vocation because every person is called by God to holiness. Those vocations can vary – the three traditional ones are priesthood or religious life or to marriage – but all of them are about learning how God invites me to love, specifically, how God wants me to love Jesus and to love with the heart of Jesus. In marriage, the most common vocation, the husband and wife love Jesus in and through each other, sacrificing for each other as Jesus sacrificed for the Church, and allowing their love to be creative, as God’s is, and to bear fruit in new life. In religious life, men and women forsake the values and pursuits of this world in order to love God radically, embracing poverty, chastity, and obedience and devoting themselves either to prayer or to charitable service. In the priesthood, God calls men to love precisely as Jesus loved: not one person but all, to lay down their lives for the sake of the many by becoming an alter Christ, “another Christ,” and by making the grace of Jesus present through the sacraments.

Those ways of loving, those vocations, are the most fundamental reality of how God calls us to relationship with him. They are like heavenly blueprints for our lives; the more fully we learn them, embrace them, and construct our lives according to them, the more we will discover the true purpose of the life God has given to us. How often we are caught up, indeed deluded, in our own goals and dreams and pursuits and never stop to ask ourselves: Is this from God? Is this forming my heart to be who God wants me to be? Is this drawing me closer to heaven? Like the Pharisees, we seek worldly honor and success, we want lives that are full of meaning and distinction in the eyes of others, and too often we fail to ask whether God sees things like we do.

I think the time has come for us to be bold, to be courageous in a radical way with what God is inviting us to do. The world around us can’t wait any longer for us joyfully follow how God is leading us; to respond to the inner longing, the inner calling of our heart to serve him as we know he wants us to do. If there is one problem that I think plagues us today it is the belief, especially present among young people, that we are not up to the challenge, that we are somehow not really capable of doing what we think God wants. We have to recognize that for what it is – a lie and a temptation! God’s grace is transformative, his power knows no limits, his benevolence and love is all-consuming. All he awaits is our “Yes,” our willingness to follow where he will lead.

Vocations Sunday is a chance for us to pray for our priests, bishops, deacons, and lay ministers; for every person in authority that they may embody the servant leadership of Jesus. But it’s also a chance for us to remember and rededicate ourselves to our vocation, how God is calling us to love, and to remember that each of us represents the Church by our vocation. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a reminder that we must be involved in encouraging those who are still searching for God’s calling. We need strong, selfless, faithful marriages; we need young people who are willing to devote their lives to Christ in religious life; we need men who are man enough to be another Christ by serving as his priests. We need parents who speak to their children not about careers but about vocations; friends who will encourage the vocation they see blossoming in another; boyfriends and girlfriends who will smile and pray instead of laugh if their significant other says they think God might be calling them to religious life and the priesthood.

Friends, these words may make us somewhat uncomfortable. But Jesus does that sometimes, in order to call all of us to loving service – not just those of us who stand in pulpits and preach sermons. Each of us by our baptism shares in the mission of Christ: to serve our brothers and sisters in self-sacrificing love, whether it is in the household, in the convent, in the parish, in whatever context we find ourselves. Whatever our vocation – whether we know it and are committed to it, or are still searching for it – may doing God’s will be foremost in our minds. Jesus has told us his standard for success, and it is the only one that matters: “The greatest among you must be servant to all.” May this Eucharist help us to humble ourselves in our vocations so that God may one day greatly exalt us.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

God and Caesar

If you have ever been to Washington, DC, you might have noticed that the cars of that city have interesting license plates. Underneath the city flag of three stars and two bars, the words “Taxation Without Representation” are printed. It’s a reminder – and a protest – from the residents of the District of Columbia that, although they are taxed like every other American citizen, they have no Congressional representative. As a result, they feel as if they no voice in the larger happenings of our country.

Of course, our American idea of representative government is a relatively recent one. For most of human history, people have lived in societies with rulers not accountable to them and governments in which they had no voice. The Jews of first-century Palestine were no exception to this. Their nation was a province of a larger empire, their homeland an occupied territory of the foreign Roman power. The Pax Romana of Jesus’s day allowed for relative peace throughout the Mediterranean, but with simmering resentments and uneasy alliances. The Jewish people, more than others, found themselves caught in a conundrum: to cooperate was to become an active participant in their own subjugation, while to openly oppose Roman rule meant certain alienation, imprisonment, or death.

 James Tissot, The Tribute Money (c. 1890)

In the Gospel today, Jesus is confronted with this dilemma. Jews from both sides of the question – who normally detested each other – have joined forces to try to trap Jesus. The Herodians fear Jesus will upset the balance of things they have worked to establish with the Romans; the Pharisees believe Jesus is a threat to their authority and a false Messiah. The question they ask seems innocent enough: is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar? The tax in question was a certain coin, a denarius, that called Caesar divine. We can see, therefore, that Jesus is caught in a real dilemma: if he says it’s okay to pay the tax to Caesar, the Pharisees can claim he is blaspheming God and can stone him to death; but if he says it’s not okay, the Herodians can arrest him for sedition.

As we heard, Jesus sees through their false flattery to the malice that is underneath. His response to their question – “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but to God what belongs to God” – is charged with meaning. Often, you will hear this Gospel and this phrase in particular explained as the Christian approach to political questions: that the church and state are separate realities with separate spheres of influence and obligation. But I think that narrows Jesus’s meaning considerably; his underlying point is something deeper.

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar but to God what belongs to God.” The implicit question Jesus leaves us with is: what belongs to God? The answer of course is everything – everything we have belongs to God, since everything we have has been received from God. Jesus is telling the Pharisees and Herodians that, being so focused on the external challenges of living among the Romans, they have forgotten that God is greater than Caesar. They have been so caught up in the one whose image is on a coin, they have forgotten that they bear God’s image – his image and likeness, in the words of the Book of Genesis – within them.

The denarius of Tiberius Caesar: "Tiberius Caesar, divine son of Augustus and High Priest" 

We too face situations of adversity, confronting things or people or situations in our life that tempt us to lose sight of what God calls us to be. Maybe it’s a family member or a coworker that drives us crazy but whom we have to put up with; maybe it’s an obligation that has been placed upon us or a situation that of our own making that is less than enjoyable. Maybe it’s a spiritual battle we are waging of some kind, a moral weakness that we can’t seem to overcome or a spiritual dryness where we’re searching for God. We can let these challenges consume us, distorting the interior image of ourselves that we draw from God – permitting ourselves to be misshapen by anger, resentment, self-interest, lust, bitterness, greed, or whatever particular reaction we may have to the challenge that our Caesars present. Or, we can recall that God has fashioned us after himself, in his own image and likeness, and that it is in him that we find our true identity and draw our strength. Every day, we have the chance to glorify and honor God, or something else; if we seek to give God what he is due first, then we will have the proper disposition to deal with the Caesars of this world as we must.

Friends, like those license plates of the District of Columbia, life presents us with constant reminders that we are not in control of every situation and that we live in a world that often is not looking out for our own best interests. But we shouldn’t let our problems take the place of God. Instead, we let God be God, and so be reminded in everything that who we are depends upon who he is, and upon what he gives us in each moment. Caesar may have a grasp on the happenings of this world, and at times we may have to pay the tax of living in the way things are now, less than ideal as they may be. But our true citizenship is in heaven, and we have there One who constantly is our representative, interceding on our behalf at the right hand of his Father, ministering to our every need and reminding us that we are his. With that knowledge, in that identity, we can face the challenges this world brings. At the Eucharistic table to which we will come in a few minutes, may the presence of Christ reassure us again of God’s presence and strength and help us to give back to him all that he has given to us.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Better Than Boxing

Leonard Defrance, Men Fighting (c. 1790)

After grade school, I had the privilege of attending an all boys Catholic high school, which had the imaginative name of… Catholic High School for Boys. Despite the dull name, it was –and still is – a remarkable school, in large part because of its remarkable principal. When I arrived there, Fr. George Tribou had been the principal for more than 30 years; he had taught my father and my uncles and now he was teaching me. He was a living legend, both as a great teacher and as a strict disciplinarian. We heard stories about the creative punishments he would sometimes give out for guys who were acting out. Not all of them would go over well today; for example, if you were caught smoking in the parking lot, he’d make you smoke the whole pack of cigarettes until you were just about sick.

I remember one year there were two guys a grade or two above us that kept getting into fights. They were friends, of a sort, who were also kind of rivals and couldn’t help but end up antagonizing each other. Throughout the fall, Fr. Tribou tried different things to calm them down, to help them get along, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, by the beginning of the spring, he had had enough. He announced that that afternoon, classes would be shortened by 30 minutes and the entire school would end the day end the gym. When we got there, we found a boxing ring set up, and the two troublemakers in the middle. They had huge, oversized boxing gloves on – the kind that would allow them to swing as hard as they liked and not cause any real damage. The sight of them fighting was pretty ridiculous, and by the end of their ten rounds, they were laughing along with the rest of us.

Because we are people of free will and independent minds, it’s inevitable that we will at times find ourselves in conflict with one another. How we deal with those conflicts largely depends on their context and on the willingness of each person to sort through them. Most times, we won’t be able to solve our differences by slugging it out with someone, nor should we. We have to find more creative avenues for solving our conflicts.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is clear that he wants us as his followers to see our conflicts with one other as redefined in light of him. Our Christian discipleship guides the way in which we handle – and are willing to handle – conflicts with others. Most of Jesus’s teachings about how we are to treat others deals first with recognizing our own faults – seeing “the plank” in our own eye rather than “the splinter” in another’s. Sometimes, the analogy is even more dire – that we should settle with our opponent on the way to court lest we be handed over to the judge and then to the jailer. Jesus is clear that the Christian first approaches any conflict with an eye to themselves – what have I done that needs forgiveness, where am I at fault, where do I need to be reconciled?

In today’s Gospel (Mt 18:15-20), however, Jesus speaks what to do in the other situation – if we are the injured party. First, we have to remember how much he speaks about the importance of forgiveness. “How many times do I have to forgive?” Peter asks this question to Jesus, just as we might ask it of ourselves about a person who keeps committing offense against us. “Not seven times,” Jesus answers, “but seventy times seven.” That is, an innumerable amount of times – we forgive as often as someone sincerely asks.

Sometimes though, when another hurts us, they don’t ask for forgiveness. This is the situation addressed today by Jesus and I think it’s one that we would do well to take to heart. Jesus’s direction, of course, is not to pick up boxing gloves and slug it out with the one who has hurt us. Rather, he says that we should humbly approach the person individually and make them aware of the fact they have hurt us. Notice that Jesus does not say we should approach them to accuse them, or to make them feel bad, or to let them know how angry we are about what they’ve done. Instead, first, we’re interested only in making them aware that they have hurt us in some way.

Hopefully, that alleviates the situation. As Jesus says, “if he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” We exist as part of a family – a human family, but especially with fellow Christians in the family of God – and seeing others as fellow members of our families, as brothers and sisters, can help us remember that we should be willing to dialogue and understanding. If speaking in private doesn’t work, then we can look at bringing the matter to others, first to a few, then even to the larger community, to help the person who has wronged us see their offense. The aim through all of this is not to shame the person but to help them realize the sin they have committed, not just against us but against God.

Sadly, even this at times doesn’t always work, and Jesus envisions this scenario too. There are times when we must unfortunately treat others as “a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jews of the time would have understood these words as advice to be are wary of such people, to avoid interacting with them too much, but also to always be ready to forgive and accept them again if they repent. Forgiveness does not mean we have to let ourselves be hurt again and again; we can and must be on guard around those who have hurt us and especially those who have not recognized they have done so. But for the Christian person, we never write anyone off – we never say anyone is beyond forgiveness, not ours and not God’s.

Friends, the way of loving and of forgiving that Jesus invites us to is ultimately the way God loves and forgives us. While it might feel good to slug it out with someone who has hurt us, either literally or figuratively, it doesn’t accomplish much in the end. My old principal, Fr. Tribou, knew that – what those two guys couldn’t settle with boxing gloves they got over via laughter of the ridiculousness of their own hardheadedness. We too should be people who are openly seeking harmony – with God, with ourselves, and with each other. Remembering our own faults, being ready to forgive, addressing someone in private who has wronged us – these are the mature ways the Christian disciple handles conflict. So don’t harden your heart against the person who has hurt you – but pray for them, talk to them, if possible, and love them enough to forgive them. Because Jesus loves you in the exact same way.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Costly Discipleship

The German philosopher and social theorist Karl Marx famously once wrote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” You’ve probably heard that quote or come across it before – maybe you’ve even heard it, as I have, from a friend or family member who wants to explain to you why they are atheist or agnostic, or maybe why they’re spiritual but not religious.

It’s no secret that organized religion has taken a popularity hit in recent years, Christianity included. Studies have shown that more and more Americans, especially among the younger millennial generation, identity when asked as “Nones” – they do not ascribe to any particular church or affiliation. The reasons for this are numerous, but certainly some acknowledgment must be made of the sentiment expressed by Karl Marx. Many look at what religion offers – including, traditional forms of Christianity – and it feels a little too convenient, too domestic. With so many causes of injustice and so many examples of suffering, religion for some can become a way of staying up in the clouds and not engaging with the realities of the world as it is.

As you might guess, I don’t agree with Karl Marx, but I do think some people do approach religion that way, even some of us Christians. We can tend to say things like “God’s in charge,” and “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Let go and let God.” These things are not necessarily untrue – but we can use them as a false panacea, a kind of therapeutic cheeriness that glosses over the real pain and suffering that does exist in the world. Whether it’s some private tragedy that we suffer at a personal or family level, or whether it’s the inexplicable devastation of something like the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, religion doesn’t explain all of our problems or make them go away.

Horace Vernet, Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem (1844)

There’s a time in every Christian's life when we feel a bit like Jeremiah in the first reading (Jer 20:7-9) today: “You have duped me, O Lord, and I have let myself be duped.” Jeremiah was called by God to preach his Word, proclaiming the sins of the Israelite people and the coming judgment for their sins. But his message, as one might expect, was not well received and he suffered great persecution because of it. Jeremiah perhaps had been under the impression that if he was faithful, if he did what God had asked of him, everything would work out fine. Instead, he finds himself abandoned by friends and neighbors, beaten and nearly murdered, and eventually arrested and put into stocks for all of Jerusalem to ridicule. In this context, he cries out to God in the words of our reading, lamenting in desperation all that he has had to sacrifice. We can relate – our faith hasn't saved us from suffering; if anything, we've suffered more because of it.

In the Gospel today (Mt 16:21-27), Jesus is very clear with his disciples what the cost of following him is. Peter, having confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, as we heard in last Sunday’s reading, today takes him and aside him and rebukes him. Imagine the audacity! And yet, the reason for this rebuke is something altogether shocking to Peter, something scandalous even – that the Messiah, the Son of God, would have to suffer and die. Peter’s religious framework did not allow for that – “God forbid” it, as he says. But Jesus is not interested in religion as the way we would have it, in faith as a panacea for our problems. Instead, he says that the Christian life is one of paradox – to seek to save one’s life is to lose it, and to lose one’s life for his sake is to find it.

The mystery of the Cross – that is, the mystery of salvation that comes through Jesus’s sacrifice and death and our participation in that mystery by our own suffering – is not something that makes sense according to the way the world thinks. It does not fit the mindset of the present age, as St. Paul says; as we hear elsewhere in Scripture to many it is foolishness, a stumbling block. Even we who are Christians, who use the symbols of the cross and the crucifix as symbols, too often struggle to understand how our faith is defined by the mystery of the Cross. We end up with a watered-down Christianity, one full of platitudes and nice moral sentiments.

And yet, for 2000 years, people have heard the invitation, “Take up your Cross and follow me,” and they have responded. In every age, in every land, men and women have found in the paradox of Christianity a truth not found elsewhere – that radical love, self-sacrificial love, love in the shape of Christ’s Cross is redeeming and life-giving and world-changing. For Christians, encountering the Cross doesn’t mean finding a set of pat replies to any question we may ask; it doesn’t give us a reason to avoid realities of life and keep our head in the clouds. But what it does give, and what the world cannot give, is the grace of salvation, of true transformation which the world does not know.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

A religion that gives easy answers is rightly one we should be skeptical of, as the “Nones” well know. But what Karl Marx and others who think like him did not see, at least about Christianity, was understood well by another German thinker. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in the era of Nazi Germany, who as his country was descending into madness, was working with a group of Christians intent upon taking the Gospel seriously. He saw that it was only in Christian faith that the evils of Nazism could be combatted, and so he resisted and encouraged others to do so, a decision that eventually cost him his life.

In one of his famous works, Bonhoeffer writes that discipleship is not an offer that we make to Jesus – as if we will follow him on our terms, if our conditions are met, if it suits us. Rather, it is an offer Christ makes to us – we can take it or leave it, but the terms are clear: we must take up the Cross. As he writes, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die” – that is, to die to self, to kill all the parts of oneself that do not conform to the radical love of the Cross, perhaps even that it may “cost a man his life,” as it did Bonhoeffer himself, all because from it “it gives a man the only true life.”

Friends, in the Gospel today, Jesus assures us that we will suffer if we follow him, and this at times is truly a hard thing to understand and accept. But at the end, the Cross can help us face down any evil because after it comes the Resurrection. A Christian faith that has not wrestled with suffering, and found in the Cross the possibility of redemption, has not fully matured. Jesus asks us, like Peter, not to be “Satan” – the word means “adversary” – not to be opposed to the way of grace he has given us. When we resist the message of the Cross – as too antiquated, as too difficult – then our religion might as well be the tame sentimentalism that Karl Marx decried. However, if we embrace the mystery of the Cross as the mystery of our sanctification, the way in which we work out our salvation, in the words of St. Paul, then our discipleship will lead us through the Cross to the Resurrection.

May this Eucharist which we will share in a few moments, in which we unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus’s Death and Resurrection, be for us renewed strength – not to find easy answers in our faith – but to take up our daily Cross, mysterious as it can be, and follow our Lord.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Questions and Answers

We’ve all heard the expression, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question, just stupid answers.” Whether the phrase is literally true or not, we know what it is intended to convey – that asking a question is never dumb because it’s better to be honest than pretend you know something you don’t. But how you answer a question? That can be something else entirely.

In the Gospel today (Mt 16:13-20), Jesus asks two questions that, if not stupid, at least seem silly. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then “Who do you say that I am?” On the one hand, there’s an obvious answer to the question: he’s Jesus from Nazareth, the one whom everyone was going to hear preach and perform miracles. Jesus, of course, isn’t asking them if they know his name. But the questions still seem kind of dumb: “Who do people – who do you – say that I am?” Is he asking them what kind of impression he’s making? Is he concerned about his public image?

Jesus, of course, isn’t asking anything nearly so superficial. His questions are not intended to boost his ego or satisfy his own interest – instead they are intended to make the disciples ponder what they have seen and heard. At this time, they have been with Jesus for a while. They had heard him preach like no one they have had ever heard; they had him do things no one had ever seen. The question then that Jesus asks is clearly one that they had already been asking themselves, one that they had been pondering silently – Just who is this Jesus from Nazareth?

Questions, and their answers, in many ways dominate our day to day. They range from the mundane – “What shall I have for breakfast this morning?”, “What will I watch on TV tonight?” – to the more serious – “How am I going to make the next payment?”, “How can I make this relationship work?” They can even be life-changing, “Will she say yes?” or “How long do I have, Doc?” The way we ask those questions, and the way we answer them, shape in large part the course of our lives.

As hugely significant as many of the questions we face are, none of them are as crucial as that simple question that Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Because far beyond just looking for the response of his name, or for an evaluation of what kind of impression he’s making, Jesus is asking them to form a judgment – a decision, an answer – about him, about who he really is, based upon all that they have seen and heard and understood. While the people – the crowd, the ones who witness him from a distance – think that he is a great preacher, a prophet in the mode of John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, Jesus implicitly encourages his disciples to answer more boldly.

Ariel Amegian, The Face of Christ (1935), based upon a negative of the Shroud of Turin

The questions of who Jesus is – not who was he historically, but what does all that he did and said mean ultimately about him – has been argued and debated ever since his own time. Many people today are content with answering that question by saying that Jesus was a holy man, a man of God, a preacher or a prophet ahead of his time, who wasn’t afraid to upend social convention. He taught things like “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Judge not lest you be judged,” – ideas that all of us can take to heart more deeply and that our society should learn from.

But to answer the question of who Jesus is in that way is not sufficient. Numerous holy men and prophets – even from other religions – have given us bits of wisdom and insight into the human condition and have taught moral axioms that can help us. If that’s all Jesus is, then he’s not much different from John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah – or from Confucius, or the Buddha, or Muhammad. But lest we be satisfied by that answer, Jesus asks again, to his disciples, to us, “Who do you say that I am?”

For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of being the pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Fayetteville, the church that ministers to the community of the University of Arkansas. In that role, I’m often involved in a lot of the activities of our college students on the university campus. This past week, I was helping man our Catholic Campus Ministry booth at Razorbash, the annual student fair held outside the Union for all of the campus clubs and organizations. As our group was passing out flyers to new Catholic students, answering questions and handing out rosaries, a group of Muslim young women came up and asked us about the Catholic faith. Specifically, they asked us about Jesus – about what we believed about him. As we talked, it became clear that their particular branch of Islam holds Jesus in very high regard. They believe, for example, he is a prophet of Allah, that he has (in some way) ascended to heaven, and that he will return to earth prior to the Final Judgment. For these young women, Jesus was not just a holy man or a moral teacher – he was a figure of deep reverence.

And yet, for us as Christians, even that is not enough. For we make a claim that even those women, who clearly respect Jesus deeply, would not dare to make. We say – as we hear Peter say in the Gospel – that he is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” That claim – that answer to the question of who Jesus is – distinguishes Christians, not only from those Muslim women, but from the more acceptable answer from our society and our culture to reduce Jesus to mere moral platitudes. To say that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is to say that our lives are not merely informed by what he taught, they have been re-formed around him – he is the focus, he is the one by which we orient ourselves. Amid every other question that we are asked or must ask ourselves, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus means for us that we have an underlying answer – an answer given by that mysterious reality, at once beyond reason but nonetheless consistent with reason, which we call faith – viz., that Jesus is God himself.

We don’t answer such a tremendous question in such a tremendous way alone. Rather, we do so as part of the community of disciples, as part of the Church which is founded upon the Rock of Peter and which speaks with the faith of Peter. To have faith in Jesus, as Peter did, does not mean that we will always get it right, that we will never again fall short of what God wants or that we’ll wonder why exactly he is asking us to endure some particular trial or challenge. We need only look to the life of Peter himself – who denied three times this friend whom he called the Christ – as proof of that. But what faith does mean – what believing as the Church believes does do for us – is that we always know where to turn back to, where to find again the Answer to our questioning. It means reminding ourselves, despite our failings and our questionings, that we have a Savior, a Christ, a God with us.

In hindsight, I’m not sure that I answered those Muslim women a few days ago in as full a way as I would have liked. Nonetheless, what I said to them I continue to remind myself of each day – Jesus is my Savior, my Redeemer, my God. Like Peter first long ago, we are always relearning how to approach each day and each challenge with faith – to respond to life’s questions not with stupid answers but with faith in the One who is the Answer to every question. Each day, Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”, and each day, he asks us to answer anew.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

With Eyes Turned Upward*

You’ve no doubt seen the reports and read the stories, and you’re probably just about worn out from news of it. But, if you still haven’t heard, tomorrow our country will see a fairly rare celestial event – a total solar eclipse that will sweep across our country from Oregon to the Carolinas. They say hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, from around the world will head to locations within the vicinity of the total eclipse to see it … including, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, yours truly. Millions more will be watching from their own homes, schools, and businesses. Scientists will be observing and taking measurements, news channels will be broadcasting, and eyes around the hemisphere will be turned upward toward the sky.

I thought of this rush of attention preparing for Mass today because I imagine the scale of interest in the eclipse is something similar to that which Jesus would have generated in his day. People weren’t buying special sunglasses to go see him, of course, but they certainly were leaving their homes, heading out into the countryside to hear him and follow him, and above all spreading word about what he said and what he did. In his day, Jesus was something more than just rockstar famous – to meet him was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Gospel we heard today (Mt 15:21-28) is evidence of this. Jesus enters into a foreign territory, the region of Tyre and Sidon, and he is immediately confronted by a Canaanite woman. Though she would never have met, never even have seen Jesus, she clearly knew who he was. With a daughter tormented by a demon, she had heard of his power of healing; though not a Jew, she refers to him as “Son of David,” a clear reference to the Messiah awaited by the Jews. It’s evident this is not a chance encounter – this Canaanite woman has come with a purpose to find and confront the only one who can help her.

Limbourg Brothers, Christ and the Canaanite Woman (detail, c. 1412) from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

It’s not just unexpected, then, how Jesus responds – indeed, it seems shocking, even cruel, that he treats her as he does. Notice he does not at first address her directly; when he does speak to her, he refers to her and to other non-Jews as “dogs”, a common epithet used to refer to Gentiles. To understand Jesus’s behavior, we have to add a little more context to the story. His disciples, like other first century Jews, awaited a Messiah – the one foretold by God to restore Israel to right relationship with God and to prominence before the Gentile nations. The Messiah would be the champion of Jewish identity – from the Jews and for the Jews alone.

And so when Jesus is approached by this pagan, Gentile woman, his disciples are dismissive of her; surely, Jesus the Messiah, the King of the Jews, will have nothing to do with her. Jesus plays along – he is the Jewish Messiah, and he has come first to redeem the lost children of Israel. But, as the Canaanite woman correctly points out, with her statement of great faith, the mission of Jesus is ultimately one for all peoples, one that breaks down barriers and divisions and unites, that offers reconciliation with God to Jew and Gentile alike. By testing the faith of the Canaanite woman, Jesus shows his disciples that they must move past their previous, narrow way of thinking and come to understand the full breadth of God’s plan of salvation.

We may look at the attitude of the disciples toward the Canaanite woman and wonder how they could be so prejudiced. And yet, as we have seen in our own time, in recent weeks, there is a terrible tendency among humans of any age to descend into tribalism. The violent clashes in Charlottesville a week ago, including the act of terror that resulted in a young woman’s death, have left many of us wondering whether the legitimate debates that mark our public discourse are being unraveled by unbridled hatred and fear. More and more, it seems we are giving in to the all-too-human weakness of defining ourselves by our differences, to see in the other not a potential friend and ally, not a fellow human being, but a stranger and a threat.

In the wake of Charlottesville, we’ve seen many who have spoken out in resistance to this mentality, and rightly so. Fortunately, the reality is that people of good will and decency still far outnumber those with more malicious intentions; but that does not mean we are excused to stand idly by and let someone else deal with the problem. What do we as followers of Jesus have to say in this new cultural climate? What does our Christian faith ask of us?

First, we must speak out against blatant evil. As our bishops have done throughout the past week, we must decry racism as the sin it is. There is a natural tendency all of us have to take interest in and have pride for where we come from, what our history is, and who our ancestors were. But if that interest and pride morphs into something antagonistic – something which opposes or does violence to another – then we must denounce such ideology as the false prophet that it is. As Christians, we believe in the dignity of every human being as created in the image and likeness of God, and this must be always forefront in our minds and respected by our actions.

Second, we should not be afraid to take account of our own spiritual houses. The way to combat evil is to work for good, but that is only done well if we have searched within ourselves and rooted out the evil found there. Conversion of heart is a central message of our Christian faith, and one that we must learn again and again. We may not be able to remake the world single-handedly, but we can seek to start with ourselves. Perhaps each of us could reflect upon where we are tempted by the forces of division: perhaps, to view the person across the quad a particular way because of how they look; or to judge our roommate or our classmate because of a slight we’ve perceived; or to dismiss a group of people because they think or act in a way different from our own. Jesus challenges us, just as he challenged his disciples, to look beyond outward differences and find in the other our common humanity within.

Finally, I think that we as the Body of Christ, the Church, have a special role to play in the cultural and political climate of today. In an era in which we both celebrate diversity but also desire unity, too many are giving into the forces of factionalism and sectarianism, defining themselves by a party or ideology or background that emphasizes division rather than commonality. As Christians, though we know that these are narrow-minded ways of thinking. God doesn’t look at the color of our skin or our political tendencies or our cultural background when he looks at us; he peers instead into our hearts, to know and love us as the individual he has created us to be. The family of God is defined not by the outside but by what lies within.

Many today are speaking out against being excluded and marginalized – that they or those they care about have been victims of forces of injustice and fear. As we seek to hear their voices and understand their concerns, we as Christians also must point them to a reality beyond this one. Our fallen, sinful world is not going to be fixed by merely adjusting our way of thinking. We need salvation, redemption, what Jesus offers and the world cannot give. Jesus may have been rockstar famous in his day, but it seems that in our day we've forgotten that only he can give true freedom. In the end, the voices we hear rising around us, speaking out… we recognize that they are clamoring, ultimately, for Christ.

It’s always amazing to me that when we gather here on Sundays each week, we do so in a way that stands in great contrast to the forces of division that seem to dominate the headlines. We come from every ethnic background and cultural tradition, from every walk of life and political ideology; we come as young and old, as rich and poor, as man and woman, as the Jew and as the Canaanite woman – and yet, here, we gather as the one People of God. The Church is the most diverse social group known to history, and yet we are the most united as well, raised out of every difference by our common faith in Jesus.

Friends, as we start a new semester here at the university, let’s not allow the forces of darkness to eclipse the light that Jesus gives. We must speak out against evil where it rears its head, but we can never condemn as evil the person who differs from us. Just as Jesus taught his disciples by drawing out the faith of the Canaanite woman, he seeks to teach us now as well. Each day he gives us the grace to look beyond the categories of “us” vs. “them” and to see instead the other as a fellow human, a likely friend, and a potential brother or sister in Christ. He came to unite, not to divide, to turn our eyes upward toward him, to grant us the peace and justice that many so ardently now desire. What he started, we are called to continue – across our campus, across our city and state, and beyond – to point others to Jesus, again and again. As we share in a few minutes his Sacrament of Holy Communion, may it empower us to go forth from this church to proclaim to the world his Good News.

*This homily for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time was crafted partially in response to the violent events in Charlottesville, VA, on August 12-13, 2017.