Sunday, March 19, 2017

Don't You Understand?

3rd Sunday of Lent

Cycle A

Do you understand what you believe? Do you believe what you understand?

Jesus challenged the woman at the well on this. She had questioned his nationalism. "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" She questioned his veracity. "Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water?” She questioned his authority. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” She questioned his piety. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem." To Jesus, none of that mattered. She needed to understand.

If you only knew who was sitting here with you and to whom you are speaking. And he proceeded to open her eyes.

It is through reason that we understand with the head. It is through prayer and contemplation and worship that we understand with the heart. If all you have is book learning then your faith has no motivation. If all you have is emotion, your faith has no roots. It is like the person Jesus said builds his house on sand. When trials and tribulations blow there is no conviction there to keep it from being torn down.

Conviction comes from the heart. Why is it that sports teams that have the most talent do not always win the championship? Every player knows the rules of the game, and all of them possess great skills. It is what is in the heart that makes them champions. It is the heart that gives them the strength and courage to go further, to excel, to conquer in the face of great adversity.

The woman at the well was faithful to her understanding of her beliefs, but that alone would not ensure her salvation. It was not until she had a conversation with her God, one to one, face to face, did she begin to understand. And that conversation was brutal and honest. It brought into the light what had been going on in the darkness.

I think it’s the same with many people today, maybe even with most people today. Why do you worship the way you do? Why are you Catholic and what do you really understand about your faith? How much have you studied what your Church teaches you? How much time have you spent in contemplation and prayer to try to ascertain why those teachings are necessary for your life? How has that brought you face-to-face with Jesus? Are you inspired by your beliefs? Do they change you? Do they change the people around you?

I think we cradle Catholics oftentimes worship out of a sense of obligation or fear or habit, without ever trying to understand the what or the why. When you come here on Sunday, do you really listen to the readings as they are being proclaimed? Is that the only time in your week that you experience the scriptures? Is the weekly homily the only time you think about what the scriptures are trying to tell you, to change you? Do you fully participate in the Mass every Sunday? Is this the only time you pray?

I think the reason I am Catholic is that I have studied and contemplated my faith and it makes sense to me. It’s reasonable. I believe I have a good understanding of what I believe and therefore can see its relevance in my life and its place in the world. I can also explain it to others in a logical way. But that only takes me so far. Like the woman at the well, once she gained a better understanding of who the person before her was, she was able to not only change her own behavior, but bring others to Christ.

I’ve said many times before that unless you can internalize the intellectual you cannot make it personal. Unless you have an actual encounter with Jesus yourself all you will have is a bunch of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding can help stoke the fire within you, but it is not the fire itself. Knowledge does not drive people to be greater than they were. Knowledge is only the starting point for conversion.

It takes looking into the very eyes of your Savior.

The apostles had a good understanding of their faith, but what compelled them to leave hearth and home and become the most influential human beings in history was their personal relationship with Jesus. He was not just an intellectual exercise to them. He was their friend and brother.

For over 25 years I have had the privilege of walking alongside hundreds of adults who have answered the call to become Catholic. Each of them has a unique story of their call. Some are dramatic. Some have gone through some horrific experiences. Some have battled some pretty strong demons. But all have one thing in common: they all were looking for that personal encounter with God. Something had called them to the Church, but it wasn’t until they experienced the touch of Jesus that they felt they had made the right decision. It wasn’t until then that they felt at home.

We may call these encounters conversion experiences, and they are, but for most of us our conversions are much more subtle. We encounter God in the stuff or our everyday lives, many, many times, and each encounter requires a response from us to God’s outreach.

Most of us experience God in the simple things all around us. A newborn child, a lover’s kiss, the awesome beauty of a landscape, a sunrise or sunset. Most of us don’t have life shattering encounters with our God. Most of us encounter Him in countless little ways throughout the days of our lives. I think actually those encounters are the most lasting and the strongest. Because they build upon one another.

You know what we call these daily encounters with God? Grace. Grace is simply God touching our lives in some way. Sometimes His grace is strong and obvious, like on your wedding day or when you held your firstborn for the first time. Sometimes it hits you over the head like a rock. We can be shaken when we encounter God for the first time. It can be life-changing and can re-direct our lives in ways we never imagined.

Has that ever happened to you? Has something soul-shaking ever happened to you? I often see it in families who have suffered the sudden loss of a loved one, or who have sickness thrust upon them. Times like that force us to focus on the fact that we are ultimately not in control of our lives, no matter how much we want to believe that. But what usually happens is that when we finally release our grip God takes over.

Lent is the perfect time to encounter the risen Christ. How have you been preparing for that encounter? Have you taken the time to pray, fast and give alms this Lenten season? Have you taken advantage of the most awesome example of God’s grace, to see the Lord face-to-face in the confessional? You see, the most obvious result of saying yes to God’s call is to change your life. We are all called to repentance, each and every day. Conversion requires repentance. We must first see ourselves for who we truly are, coldly and honestly, before we can accept the burning fire of God’s love in our lives.

And while that conversion experience is a very personal one, it will also affect those around you. Like the woman at the well, once she said yes she changed. She changed her view of herself, she changed her view of God, and she then went out and changed the world.
Will you do the same?


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Broken Windows

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

Sir 15:15-20

1 Cor 2:6-10

Mt 5:17-37


I guess I must have been about 13 years old. I can’t remember exactly what I had done wrong, but my dad had caught me red-handed and I was sitting on my bed waiting for him to come in for “the talk”. You see, whenever I did something wrong, first my dad would send me to my room for a while to “think about it”. Then, after he figured I’d been softened up enough, he’d come in and we’d talk about it. Usually he talked and I listened. Those were some of the most profound learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Anyway, on this occasion I must have done something particularly heinous, because he proceeded to explain to me that what I had done had actually broken each and every one of the ten commandments. Each and every one. And he walked me through all ten in order and explained how I had broken it.

At first I was incredulous. I thought he was exaggerating. Surely I hadn’t killed anyone or anything like that. I don’t think I even knew what “covet” meant at the time, but I’d broken those two also. But, like Jesus in today’s gospel, he showed me how there were the seeds of my transgression that day in each of those ancient commandments. Dad was trying to tell me that I need to see further than do’s and don’ts.

He wasn’t trying to make me feel bad…well, maybe a little. He wanted me to be able to make decisions based upon more than just a set of rules. He wanted me to expand my awareness of right and wrong. And obviously, since I still remember it, that event has helped direct my conscience throughout my life.

Why was Jesus addressing this with his disciples that day? He had just finished preaching the Beatitudes to them. He had just told them that there was a new, proactive way of following the law. The ten commandments were mostly prohibitions. Necessary for any society to order itself, but full of “thall shalt nots”. The Beatitudes were a new way of looking at the world and the relationships among people. They were more about attitudes than actions. Was Jesus issuing a caveat here? Was he reminding them that this new way of acting and thinking was just a natural extension of those ancient prohibitions? Was he also trying to expand their awareness of right and wrong?

Or when Jesus said things like the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath, did some of his disciples think he was throwing out the old for the new, and so they weren’t bound by the law anymore? Were they trying to find loopholes in the law, those exceptions that gave them a free pass in this or that situation? They had done it with the law on divorce. They did it with how they treated foreigners and strangers. They were always looking for exceptions, for reasons the law didn’t apply to them. I think we all look for loopholes when we don’t want to keep the law because it is difficult or inconvenient to do so. We do it with the laws of society and the laws of God.

I don’t think Jesus was using hyperbole here. Jesus was talking about the sin of complacency. He was warning about getting bogged down in the letter of the law and ignoring the spirit of the law.

I’ve never killed anybody, so I’m off the hook with that one. But how many times have I murdered someone’s reputation through my gossiping?

I honor my father and mother, so that one doesn’t apply to me, either. Most of us honor our parents. But we can also honor the stranger amongst us.

Most of us are honest most of the time. But we can all work to be more transparent with those we love. How often does our yes mean yes and our no mean no?

Jesus wants us to see beyond the do’s and don’ts, to look beyond the law to the person who fulfilled it. But to Jesus it’s not just the spirit of the law that is important, but the letter as well. “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

You’ve probably heard of the “broken window” theory of law enforcement. I believe it started in New York City in the ‘80’s. The thought was that if police tried to stop the simple petty crimes such as graffiti and vandalism, more serious crime would also be reduced. Clean up Times Square and other crimes would diminish. They even got rid of those guys who came up and tried to wash your windows while you were stopped at a light. Instead of spending all our resources on the big stuff… sort of a top down strategy…spend time also on the little stuff, because usually those people who committed the big crimes started out by committing little crimes. And it worked. Major crime was reduced drastically, and New York City is considered one of the safest major cities in the world today.

The letter springs out of the spirit. The letter is how we act out the spirit. It must be both. If it is just the spirit of the law then we will always rationalize a way around it. If it is just the letter then we will become rigid and unmerciful.

Originally the Jewish people saw the law as a very positive thing. It was written by the very hand of their God and given to them as a sign of the special covenant God had made with them. If they kept God’s law God would protect them and make them prosper. If they broke the law usually bad things happened to them. But over time the law itself became the most important thing and not the covenant it represented. It is sometimes easier to focus on the action and not on the meaning behind it. It can become blind obedience, not life changing behavior.

Christianity is not a completely new faith that sprung up on Pentecost two thousand years ago. Practically all of the teachings of Jesus can be traced to their roots in the Judaism he practiced. And if we truly believe that Jesus is the Word Made Flesh that has been with the Father since the beginning, then Christianity has been around since then also. St. Paul says today, “We speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory”.

If something is true it’s true. God does not change, only our understanding of God changes. Only the way we follow God changes. God set up the law so that we could live as we were created to live. The law is to guide us to God. It isn’t supposed to be about punishment, it is supposed to lead to our salvation. “If you choose to keep the commandments, they will save you.” The law is not intended to imprison us but to set us free.

We do not follow the law because if we don’t bad things will happen to us. We follow the law because it leads to so much more.

What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Pledge Allegiance

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

Is 8:23-9:3-1

Ps 27:1,4,13-14

1 Cor 1:10-13, 17

Mt 4: 12-23


I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.

I guess the saying, “the more things change the more they stay the same” applies to today’s readings. From the very beginning of the Church there have been divisions. We hear today that the Corinthians were already taking sides, this one following Apollos, this other one Cephas, and yet another Paul. And it’s a natural thing to do. We do it ourselves. We prefer this priest or that, this pope or that, this politician or that. And I think that we follow them because they agree with us. Their worldview parallels ours, and that makes us feel justified and important.

Human beings have always joined themselves in factions, usually based upon what we feel best serves our interests. We naturally are attracted to people and movements that coincide with and reinforce our own beliefs. Ironically, in this way when we group ourselves with others we do it for completely selfish reasons. It really isn’t about the group, it is about us.

And I think the most destructive thing about this tribalism is that typically it moves beyond just identifying with a specific group to vilifying and demonizing people outside the group, who do not agree with our worldview. Factionalism often leads to arrogance and discrimination and closemindedness. It can ultimately lead to violence astonishingly quickly.

So, St. Paul is understandably frustrated. Didn’t they get it? It wasn’t about a human being’s thoughts or teachings or eloquence. It was about Jesus. It is about God. The one person who can truthfully claim that it is all about him is Jesus. Paul himself said that Jesus must increase and he must decrease. The deeper your understanding of your discipleship, the more you become like Jesus and the more he becomes the center of your life.

It’s like a cup of water. It can only hold so much. If you fill it with something else the water must be displaced. The more we let Jesus fill our souls the less space we ourselves will take up.

I think that’s what the apostles experienced when Jesus called them by the seashore. Their lives were filled with the cares and simple joys of their everyday lives. Like us, they were focused on themselves, even though they were devoutly religious people. Their belief in God was very important to them, but it wasn’t everything. They needed to make more room in their lives for God.

Jesus had one consistent message throughout his earthly ministry – “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Sometimes he referred to the Kingdom of Heaven, like today. Either way, the message is the same, for them and for us. I think we all too often think of God as being somewhere else. God is in heaven, a place we have some foggy idea of. Every now and then we are aware of God’s presence in our world; when we reach out to him in our distress, when we thank him for something wonderful that has been given to us, when we see the beauty around us in nature and in one another. For most of us, we move through awareness and unawareness of God.

Jesus is telling us something different today. He is saying that God is not somewhere else, he is here. And he is immanent, here at this very time in our lives and active in history. There are some people who view God almost like a celestial watchmaker. He has fashioned an unimaginably complex universe, set it in motion, and then lets it run by itself with no continuing interference from him.

But the reality of the incarnation – God become man – refutes that belief. Our king is so involved in our lives, in every area and fiber of our lives that he chose to become one of us. He is intimately a part of who we are and who we are destined to be. We are fully human when we rally around our king. We are fulfilling our destiny when we subjugate our will to His.

Jesus urges his disciples to be united around their king. But it’s so much more than just being subjects of the king. No matter how benevolent an earthly king is, there is still always a degree of separation between him and his subjects. Jesus said that our unity with our king is so much deeper, the lines of separation destroyed. He prayed, “that all of them may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

We are unified around our king. He is and should be the center of everything in our lives. It is difficult I think for us to submit to our king. As I said before, we gravitate towards those who agree with us. With God it’s different. We should not rally around our king because he agrees with us but because we agree with him. We are subjects, not the king ourselves. It is easy to forget that sometimes, especially with all the busyness in our lives.

Remember that the beginning of Jesus’ call to us is the word “Repent”. We are to first and foremost get our relationship right with our God. We need to realize that we all have the need to repent, to change, to turn from our sinfulness and re-orient ourselves to God each and every day.

Jesus repeated his message constantly, because we need to hear it constantly. It is so easy to fall back into our factions, to become broken, to split ourselves off into our little tribes who all agree but may not necessarily conform to the will of God. There can only be one king. Anyone else is an usurper and a pretender, even if it is ourselves. We must repent of anything that keeps us from complete unity with our king and our God.

Leave behind your tribe. Leave behind your faction. Leave behind anything and everything that causes division and strife in your church and in your life, and switch your allegiance to the King.

That is the one path to being truly happy in this life and in the kingdom to come.