Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (July 27, 2014)

Our first scripture is an excerpt from the First Book of Kings, a text from the Old Testament that describes the extraordinary events that led to establishment of the Kingdom of David.

Remember, the Kingdom of David was a royal dynasty that was founded by David. David lived about a thousand years before the birth of the Lord Jesus. Remember also that Joseph, the husband of the Lord Jesus’ mother, Mary, is identified in the Gospel as a descendent of King David. In this way, the Lord Jesus comes into the House and Family of King David.

David is the mightiest of all the Israelite kings and the one king whom the Bible records, that despite many failures, he sought to live in accord with the commandments of God. Unlike many other ancient historical texts, the Bible is completely honest about the rulers of Israel (and all worldly rulers as well!)- most of the Israelite kings were hardly up to the task and their infidelity, indiscretions, idolatry and egoism brought conflict and misery to the Israelites.

The Bible is both ambivalent and honest about kings, indeed all men and women who wield worldly power. Why? Because the Bible reveals that God is the world’s true king, and it is precisely when powerful men and women do not accept and understand this revelation that makes this world such a violent and sin-filled place.

David differed from his successors, not because he wasn’t himself guilty of infidelity, indiscretions, idolatry and egoism, but because he was honest about his failures, repentant and willing to make amends.

David had a virtue rare to be found among great men and women- humility.

Today’s scripture from the First Book of Kings is about David’s son, Solomon, who succeeds his father as ruler of the Israelites.

Solomon, is a man who has everything that the world considers to be important- wealth, pleasure, power and honors- but he is also the beneficiary of a heavenly gift.

The Lord offers Solomon the opportunity to ask him for anything, for the fulfillment of his heart’s deepest desire. God will give it to him. Solomon need only ask.

What can the man who has everything the world considers to be important ask for?

What more does the man who has everything want?

Solomon wants wisdom and manifests that he already is in possession of this gift in requesting it.

The scriptures praise the wisdom of Solomon, it is, after all, a good thing to be wise, even better to be a wise king.

But there is a sting in the tail of the Bible’s story of Solomon. At the end of his long reign, Solomon’s wisdom falters, and out of romantic affection and for the sake of political expedience, he commits the most grievous and serious sin- he worships false gods.

And this sets the stage for much misery, in fact, it will be idolatry that breaks the Kingdom of David and leads to its destruction.

The lesson?

Solomon was indeed wise (the Bible insists that he was the wisest of all) but worldly wisdom ultimately is not enough. Greater than worldly wisdom is fidelity to God, the humility to accept his commandments and practice those commandments with integrity.

And in this respect, we are compelled to look at our own lives, because in the end, when we meet the Lord face to face, our lives will not be measured by those things that the world considers to be important, but by the commandments of the Lord and our fidelity to him.

In the end, it is not our university degrees, business connections, bank accounts, political affiliations, or even our ethnic and family identity that matter. And this is important to remember, because far too often we make these things the measure of a person’s life and this is a terrible mistake. Why? Because all these things, like the wisdom of Solomon, reach their limit, fail us, even end up subverting us, and then, pass away. What matters the most, and what endures beyond all worldly things, is fidelity.

Our second scripture is an excerpt from the New Testament, an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

St. Paul speaks about what he calls “predestination” and insists that all all who have been baptized and have come to know Christ in his Church have been called, justified and glorified.

Sounds beautiful and important- but what does it mean?

When St. Paul says that we have been “predestined” it means that the fact we are Christians is not an accident, nor is it simply about a personal decision. Being a Christian is not like signing up for an email list or joining private club. Instead, anyone who is a Christian has been chosen for this identity by the Lord himself. Here, the words of Christ the Lord himself are worth pondering- “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”.

God may have worked through some secondary cause, even through our own will, to bring us into relationship with him as a Christian, but ultimately he is the one who has called us and summoned us into a relationship with himself.

Being a Christian is not just a matter of personal choice or preference, but a recognition that God has chosen, God has decided, God has preferred, and that he has done so, is no mere accident.

But not only has God chosen us, he has also called us, justified us, and glorified us.

What does this all mean?

That he has called us means that he encounters us in a personal way as someone who can be known and who knows us. This is why God reveals himself in Christ, for in Christ, God shows himself to us, not as some idea or feeling or cosmic force, but as a living, divine person who becomes like us so that he can speak to us as one speaks to a person face to face.

In this way, in Christ, God calls us, but in calling us he also justifies us and this means that he sets us in right relationship with himself. Concretely, this means that he gives us a way of life by which we can know what he wants and live in such a way that our lives will be imbued with meaning and purpose.

To be justified means that you have accepted from Christ a new way of life and are faithful to the expectations and demands of that new way of life. To be justified is to live as a disciple of the Lord Jesus wants you to live. To follow his commandments and do what he asks you to do.

But we are not only chosen, and called, and justified, but we are also glorified.

When the Bible speaks about glory it is referring to God revealing his divine presence to us. So if we are being glorified, it means that is some way God offering his divine presence to us in such a way that his divine presence is becoming part of who we are.

How does this happen? It happens in the Sacraments.

What? How?

Consider this: when we are in relationship with Christ we can share in his divine life. When Christ says in the Gospel he has come to offer us his full and abundant life, this is what he means. He is going to give us something extraordinary- holy communion with his divine life!

This holy communion happens to us, not just in a heavenly realm after we die, but right now. How so? In the Sacraments. The Sacraments are not just faith based entertainment or quaint religious customs or symbols of Catholic culture. The Sacraments are privileged occasions when the divine presence of God in Christ meets us in forms what we can see, touch, even taste, and through these forms we are given a share in Christ’s own divine life!

The Sacraments are a personal invitation from God in Christ to know him and to have a relationship with Christ.

In it through our participation in the Sacraments that we are glorified!

Finally, there is Christ the Lord’s Gospel in which he speaks about the mysterious Kingdom of God, a reality so valuable that it is worth giving up everything we have so that we can share in its riches.

The temptation is to think of the Kingdom of God as a spiritual realm far, far away. It’s heaven or something like that.

That’s not what Christ the Lord is talking about. He is talking about something much closer to our lives and our experience. He is talking about a relationship with himself and the Kingdom of God is where this will happen- and this happens, not just in heaven, but even right now!

This relationship with Christ doesn’t just happen in your mind or in your emotions. So where does this relationship happen?

This relationship with Jesus Christ happens in your own life, in your own experience, in this world, right here and right now- in the Sacraments of the Church.

As I said, the Sacraments bear into your own life, indeed into your own body, the divine life and presence of Christ the Lord. Once, Christ the Lord revealed himself in the body of his Incarnation, but now, he reveals himself in the Sacraments of the Church.

The Sacraments are signs, revelations, of God’s Kingdom come- not just in heaven, but right here, right now!

And because these Sacraments are routes of access to the divine life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself they are literally, so valuable that they are worth giving up everything so that we can share in their riches.

Consider what we sacrifice, what we surrender for merely worldly things, things that will ultimately pass away, things that will ultimately fail us, even subvert us. How much we give up for the treasures of the kingdom of this world?

Ask yourself- what have you ever sacrificed, what have you ever surrendered for the treasures of the Kingdom of heaven?

How shrewd our investments are in regards to earthly treasures!

What can be said of our investments in the treasures of the Kingdom of God!

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Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (July 13th, 2014)

Our first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
The Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the most beautiful and intricately detailed texts in all the Holy Scriptures. The purpose of the book is to provide a theological interpretation of some of the pivotal events in the history of the Israelites. This means that the prophet is not simply a journalist or historian reporting the facts of what happened, but he is considering events in relation to what he discerns about what God is doing in the arena of human history.

Remember, the Bible does not present a “god” who is uninterested and uninvolved in his creation. The God of the Bible does not exist “somewhere out there” light years from the earth. Nor is the God of biblical revelation reduced to watching us “from a distance”. The God of the Bible does not simply exist in the small, cramped places of our minds or emotions.

The God of the Bible is a living person who is not only intensely interested in his creation, but he acts in the midst of his creation in extraordinary ways.

The prophet Isaiah describes for us how God has acted in historical events and foresees with the keen spiritual vision of a prophet, how God will act in the future.
That’s what the whole of Isaiah’s book is about- what about the part that we heard proclaimed today.

The prophet’s words likely sounded poetic, but cryptic to our ears- here is a way to understand what Isaiah wants us to understand.

The prophet Isaiah speaks about God’s Word and describes how God’s Word is a living word- now what does this mean?

It means that God’s word is power, and the power of God’s word is that it effects change. God’s word creates and transforms. Isaiah isn’t just pulling this profound idea out of nowhere, he is referencing the description of the power of God’s word in the opening chapter of the Old Testament Book of Genesis- which describes God’s creation as originating in the power of his word. God speaks (“Deus Dixit!”) and things begin to happen- great things, marvelous things, creative things.
What might this mean concretely for us?

Consider how God’s Word is spoken by the prophets and you will have an insight.
When the prophets speak God’s word, the power of God to effect transformation manifests itself. How so? First, the word of the Lord calls, that is, it calls us out directly, gets our attention, names us, insists that God is speaking directly to us and the only proper response to that call is to listen.

Second, the word of the Lord convicts us, that is, God reveals our truth, shows us who we are, what we have done and what we have failed to do. God’s word of truth rescues us from our illusions and compels us to honesty about our lives, our relationships our decisions. The word of God convicts us and is an unrelenting test of our sincerity.

And finally, the word of the Lord commands us. What does this mean? It means that once God has our attention and has told us our truth, then we places before us a new way of life. I know that the culture influences us to think that God’s commandments means that he is bossing us around, but what is really happening is that he is revealing to us a new way of life- and once we have received God’s commandments, this new way of life, then we have a decision to make- will we accept this new way of life or will we refuse.

Whatever our decision, our life is changed- our life is transformed. God’s word- his call which convicts us and commands us changes and transforms.

This is what today’s scripture from the prophet Isaiah is all about.

Now, this word of God, this living word that creates, changes, transforms has done something absolutely unexpected and utterly remarkable in the Lord Jesus.
What happened?

The evangelist John speaks of the living word of God in the opening of his Gospel, testifying that God’s word has, in Christ, taken on “flesh”- this is St. John’s way of saying that God has, in Christ, accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. Because God in Christ has done this, he now speaks to us, not through the mediation of a prophet, but directly. God’s calls to us; God convicts us; God commands us in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to believe that God’s Word has become flesh in Jesus Christ.

And it is now God’s Word, spoken through the flesh of Jesus Christ, meaning through the Lord Jesus himself that creates us anew, effects change in our hearts and minds, and transforms our way of life.

Today’s second reading, an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, testifies that this creative, life changing, transforming power of God’s word in Christ is precisely what the world has been waiting for.

In fact, the world, indeed creation itself, is so desperate to receive God’s word in Christ that it is literally groaning in agony, anticipating the power of God’s word in Christ.

St. Paul’s insight should shock us out of an illusions we might have in regards to the Word of God. The Word of God is not just some amusing anecdote or personal story… The Word of God is not just ancient literature meant to be studied by a scholarly elite. The Word of God is the power of God in Christ, a power that calls us, convicts us, and commands us- and this power of God in Christ is what the world is waiting for, what the world needs, and the means by which God is acting in the world, right now, to draw the world into communion with himself.

Here is something that brings all this very close to your experience. Listen carefully.

The Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, becomes what it is through the creative and transformative power of God’s Word spoken in Christ.
The startling highpoint of the Mass is when the words of God in Christ are spoken to the gifts of bread and wine, and God’s word in Christ then re-creates, transforms those gifts, changing them from mere bread and wine into the living, real, divine life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself.

God’s word in Christ does that! And God’s word in Christ does what it does to the Blessed Sacrament so that the same power, the same creative, transformative power of God in Christ can be received right now in this very temple.
Receiving the Blessed Sacrament means that God meets you- and in, through and with Christ, he calls you, convicts you, (for true and authentic reception is only possible through a humble admission that we are not worthy), and through the Eucharist he commands us- do this, he insists, as I make myself the sacrifice of divine life and love that you receive- you now make your own life a sacrifice of love for God and for your neighbor!

That’s what Holy Communion is all about! It is the very real and living power of God in Christ spoken to you! Face to face- the Word (Christ) becomes in the Blessed Sacrament, flesh and blood for you! The Eucharist is the power of the Word of God in Christ that calls you, convicts you and commands you. And once you have received the Blessed Sacrament, you are saying “I will change”- “I will let Jesus Christ transform me.” That is, by the way, the fullest implication of the “Amen” you offer before the Blessed Sacrament is given to you.

You should only receive the Blessed Sacrament if you are willing to change, if you are willing to be transformed. Because if you are not willing, then receiving the Eucharist is akin to perjury or making a promise that you have no intention of ever keeping! Yes, it is true. The stakes are really that high!

If we receive the Eucharist with no intention of letting God’s creative and transformative power do its work in us, then God’s word in Christ will convict us of fraud!

Lastly, just a word in regards to the Gospel.

Most preachers will use today’s Gospel as an occasion for an examination of conscience, asking what it might be that an individual has done or failed to do in regards to their receptivity to the Word of God. This is good.

But here is how this Gospel convicts me:
The Word of God in Christ (which in the Gospel is likened to the seeds) is sown into soil. That soil is not just my own soul or my own life. It’s real soil. It’s a real place. The soil, the ground is this parish.

A Catholic parish is not just a collection of faith based infrastructure meant to house the activities of a faith based club. A parish is territory- mission territory.
That’s how you should think of this parish and its boundaries. All Catholic parishes have boundaries and too many Catholics think that these boundaries only mean that if your house is in those boundaries you are guaranteed faith-based services. That’s a dangerous mistake to make!

Think of the boundaries as signifying for you the mission territory you are responsible for. Note I said “you”- not just the priest or the parish staff, but you- the parish, this geographical area is your mission territory. It is the soil into which the Word of God in Christ will be sown.

Your job, your mission, it to prepare this territory, this soil, this parish, to receive the Word of God in Christ. Note, not just prepare yourself, or the people who are registered members of parish, but this whole territory in which you live.

You are here to till the soil, remove the weeds and rocks, to get rid of those things that inhibit receptivity to Christ, so that when the Word of God in Christ is proclaimed and the invitation to know Christ in his Church is extended to people- they are ready to receive him.

Stop thinking of today’s Gospel as a charming story. It is a call from the Lord Jesus that convicts us all and commands us all to accept a new way of life.

Today’s Gospel is telling us all in no uncertain terms that too much of the land that Christ has entrusted to us is fallow, or full of rocks or choked with weeds- and it is time for all of us to tend to that soil, to turn our attention to this mission territory, and be willing to get our hands dirty!
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Memorial of St. Benedict (July 11th, 2014)

Survey the Internet or visit a bookstore and you may find scores of books about the Church, books that explore the Church’s history, theology and spirituality. Expand your search to include the plethora of news and commentary available in print and online and you will find that the Church will likely be included in the headlines. Books about the Church sell. News about the Church captures the culture’s attention.

A careful look at all this writing and reporting and you will discover that much of what is written about the Church is presented as an expose- calling attention to ways in which the Church and its representatives are implicated in what is seedy, unlawful and unsavory. Much of this begs us to consider how an institution capable of so much corruption can continue to be taken seriously.

The Gospels present a question raised in regards to the Lord Jesus- “Can anything good come from Nazareth.” The question of the day seems to be “Can anything good come from the Church.”

The answer is yes. And the saint the Church celebrates today is a case in point.

Saint Benedict was born in the year 480 AD into a family of means, but the allure of wealth, pleasure, power and honors could not gain mastery over him. Around the year 500 AD he eschewed the privileges that the world would have accorded him and he withdrew into solitude, seeking insight from the Lord Jesus, asking him in prayer if there might be an alternative way of life, a way of life through which he might become ever more Christ-like.

Convinced that such a way of life was possible, he founded communities of men and women who would give their lives over to the Lord Jesus in a manner that was radical. They would commit themselves wholly and completely to the Church’s mission by taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They would share their gifts and resources, dedicating their possession to the common good. They would live their faith publicly and boldly through works of mercy, hospitality and study.

In these ways, these Benedictine men and women would become a creative minority and through their unique way of life, effect the transformation of the culture. From these Benedictine communities of intentional disciples thousands upon thousands of people would come to know the Lord Jesus and share in his life in communion with his Church.

But Benedict’s movement was not only religious, but also cultural.

Providence was directing Benedict’s efforts because as the unity imposed by Rome on the disparate cultures of Europe dissolved, the communities of St. Benedict would become the means by which European civilization would be preserved and move forward.

It is not an understatement to say that what is best about our own civilization, what remains in our culture that is good and true and beautiful, owes a debt of gratitude to Saint Benedict and his way of life.

The Church, (of which each of us is but one small, but necessary part), has a long history and our own personal histories are embedded in the Church’s story. This history, this story, because it is a deeply human story, includes good and bad, virtue and vice, shadows and light, saints and sinners. Told from one side, the story is incomplete. Understood in its totality, we see the great goodness that the Church bears into the world.

The life of St. Benedict reminds us of the totality of the Church’s story, but his story should also provoke us from the complacency that so often results from a narrowness of mind and heart.

The story of the Church is not only a tale of woe, it is also the story of men like St. Benedict, and our own story as well.

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Homily for Saturday of the Thirteenth Week of the Year (July 5th, 2014)

All this week the first scripture for daily Mass has been an excerpt from the Book of the Old Testament Prophet Amos.

Remember, the prophet Amos spoke the Lord’s word of truth during the reign of King Jeroboam II, who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel during an unprecedented period of prosperity. Jeroboam was a capable ruler, in worldly terms, one of the best rulers in the history of the Israelite kingdom. However, he was an idolater and while his policies brought great prosperity to the ruling elites of Israel, the poor languished in misery.

Amos reminded Jeroboam and the elites that the God of Israel hears the cry of the poor and their indifference to the sufferings of the poor would bring down a terrifying judgment on the Kingdom of Israel.

Today, the prophet Amos sets his spiritual vision on the future and foresees the end of the royal house of David. Remember, David had established the Israelite kingdom and his descendants ruled that kingdom. This vision would come to pass, when in the year 587 BC, the Babylonians would conquer the lands of Israel and kill most of the descendants of David, those that survived would fade into obscurity.

And yet, Amos foresees, God would one day act to restore the royal house of David, and would do so in a manner that would be as extraordinary as it would be unexpected.

This restoration happens in Christ the Lord, who is born into the remnant of David’s lineage. In Christ, God makes himself a descendent of David and establishes a new kingdom for a new kind of Israel. And the great representation of this new kingdom and this new Israel is the Church. This is why the Gospels acclaim Christ as the “son of David.”

This all might sound strange. Our categories for understanding the Faith of the Church have for many years privileged personal experience and often times our personal experiences are not all that rooted in the ground of Biblical revelation.

But the Church does not know the Lord simply through our personal experiences, but through what the Lord reveals about himself, a revelation that is communicated to us, not simply through our own preferred ideas or feelings, but through the testimony of the Scriptures.

It is through the Scriptures that we come to know Christ and it is through the Apostolic Faith, the Faith of the Church, that we come to understand what the Scriptures have to say about Christ. The Scriptures are not just historical or literary documents, they are an image of Christ the Lord.

As we profess in the Church’s great Creed, the Christ in whom we believe is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. If we do not know the Scriptures of whom Christ is the fulfillment, we will not truly know the Lord Jesus.

While our first scripture foresees Christ the Lord as the one who restores the royal house of David, the Gospel passage for today presents Christ as the bridegroom.

This is an image of God that takes us deep into Biblical revelation. God is likened to a bridegroom and Israel as his bride. This representation becomes a reality in Christ, who as the divine bridegroom, takes as his bride, the new Israel, the Church. In fact, the Bible will come to its conclusion with a magnificent description of the wedding of Christ the Bridegroom and the Church the Bride.

The Mass is our participation in the wedding of Christ and the Church. Our worship in the Mass is not just the community celebrating its values or the parish coming together to get to know one another and promote our favorite causes. The Mass is, as the scriptures testify, “the wedding feast of the Lamb of God”, the holy communion we receive is the love of Christ the Bridegroom for the Church the Bride.

It is not ourselves that we celebrate and receive in the Mass, but the coming of Christ the Bridegroom into this very temple.

Wednesday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time (July 2nd, 2014)

Yesterday, I spoke about the historical circumstances into which the Old Testament prophet Amos proclaimed the word of the Lord. Jeroboam II was the king of Israel and he was one of the most corrupt kings to ever sit on the royal throne of Israel.

Jeroboam had insulated himself from the consequences of his idolatry because he wealthy and the cultural elites of Israel looked the other way because they were the beneficiaries of Jeroboam’s economic policies.

Amos spoke the Lord’s word of truth and warned the king and the cultural elites that God was ready to act and God’s justice, not the king’s deceptions, would prevail. And all the money in the king’s treasury would not rescue them from the consequences of their idolatry.

Another thing that would not rescue the king and the elites of Israel was to put on a mask of piety and pretend through attentiveness to religious observances that they were followers of the God of Israel.

God is not mocked by that kind of charade. God knows our character. God knows even the deepest and most hidden recesses of the human heart.

Conversion to the Lord is not just a matter of appearances and goes deeper than attending to the rituals of religion. In fact, if we make the rituals of our faith a mask behind which we hide the real truth about what we have done and failed to do, we rob those rituals of their true power- we take what is sacred and make it into a blasphemy.

The Church’s worship in the Mass begins with and returns again and again to appeals to the Lord for the forgiveness of our sins and this is not just pious boilerplate. This emphasis on the necessity of a plea for mercy and the need for the Lord’s forgiveness is meant as an unrelenting invitation to conversion, to change our hearts and minds, to turn away from sin and believe the Gospel.

For old king Jeroboam and the elites of Israel long ago, the opportunity for conversion has come and gone and we hope that they accepted the Lord’s word of truth and repented.

For us, the opportunity is right now.

A frightening scene in today’s Gospel!

Christ the Lord casts out demons, dark and dangerous powers that have seized hold of two poor souls. This is what God in Christ comes into this world, into our lives to do- to rescue us from dark and dangerous powers.

By driving the demon into the herd of swine, he sends what is unclean into what is unclean. Like attracts like and together they come to a ruinous end.

What is curious about this story is the end, where people seeing what Christ has done, do not rejoice at the arrival of Christ’s liberating power, but insist that Christ go away.

This might indicate that in some way, the people of the Gadarene Territory had benefitted from the evil in their midst. How often this is the truth! How often do people cling to evil deeds because such things provide them with wealth, pleasure, power and honors! How often do people try to harness evil for their own purposes, all the while insisting that that they are actually doing good!

In the end, no matter what our excuses, placing ourselves at the service of evil bring us only to a ruinous end.

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