Sunday, August 21, 2016

Jesus Yes, Religion No?

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It’s always on a bumper sticker, isn’t it? It said, “Jesus yes, religion no”. Today’s readings made me think of that bumper sticker.

I think a lot of people feel this way. It’s that whole, “I’m spiritual but not religious bit again”. And I can sort of understand where they’re coming from. But, can you have one without the other? I think the people who make this claim come from a couple of different mindsets. First, they are mostly ignorant of history and of the bible. They have a one-sided or incomplete or inaccurate view of what the Church is and what followers of Christ are called to do. They have been told for their whole lives that most of the wars and violence in the world have been perpetrated in the name of religion. All religion does is try to force an antiquated moral code on people. Religious people are so intolerant. They are bigots. They are judgmental. We are so far beyond that today.

Second, I think many people just don’t want to be told what to do. Even deeper, they don’t like the fact that religion sets a higher standard for us to live by. It oftentimes tears off the veneer and the masks we wear and forces us to see our lives for what they really are. And we don’t like what we see. Religion requires something of us. It’s not so much that religion is judgmental; it’s that religion forces us to judge ourselves.

Why wouldn’t Christianity be attractive to everyone? If you take the teachings of Jesus by themselves, I don’t think a single person would disagree that they are noble and a great way to pattern your life. They would probably also agree that if everyone lived those teachings the world would be a great place to live. In theory. But when I am challenged to go against the common wisdom, when I am called to put myself on the line, when the teachings of Christ contradict the way I want to live my life, that’s when Christianity is attacked.  

We love Christ, its Christianity we have a problem with.

Are the teachings of Christ impossible to follow? Is the doorway too narrow to enter through?

The heresy of Universalism is very widespread today, both in society and within the Church itself. Universalism says that if God is a loving and merciful god, then how could He ever condemn any of his creatures to an eternity outside His presence. Therefore, everyone is going to Heaven. This supposes, of course, that there is no hell. There are no consequences to our actions here because everyone is saved. Jesus welcomes everyone and all behavior is tolerated. That’s a really comfortable way to believe. That’s an easy Jesus to follow. That gets me off the hook.

We don’t want the narrow gate. We want the super highway.

So, logically, if everyone is saved, then it doesn’t really matter what religion you follow, or whether you follow a religion at all. They’re all the same and they’re all usually pretty bad. Unless it’s something exotic and “spiritual”. Then that’s pretty cool. If my salvation is assured, I can do pretty much what I want with no consequences. Don’t judge me because I am my own judge, and I’m pretty lenient on myself.

I don’t want to strive for salvation. Will few be saved? Will you be one of them? Is it so difficult to do? Why do we have to strive so hard? Well, because everything worthwhile is worth working for. We think nothing of striving for success in our careers, in sports, in our relationships. We work hard at what’s important to us. Just look at the Olympic games the past two weeks. We love to hear the stories of athletes who have worked so hard for so long to succeed, especially those who have to overcome broken homes, physical injuries, and repeated failures. Some prove strong enough and some don’t.

Why are we so willing to strive for earthly success but think we won’t have to strive for eternal life?

God does not make it hard for us to get to heaven. We do. We are the ones who fight and claw and do everything we can to avoid doing what it takes to be saved. We have been shown the path; we have been shown the way. We know the way but don’t want to accept it. Partly because it goes counter to how we strive for material success. In that realm we try to do it all by ourselves. We know we have to sacrifice and toil and work really hard. That’s not what Jesus tells us to do. Jesus tells us to be like him. The last two lines of the gospel today sum it up.

Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.

Jesus didn’t strive for earthly things. He humbled himself and took on the role of servant. When you let go of your attachment to all the stuff and success the world promises life actually gets easier. Are you strong enough to let go of it all. Are you strong enough to persevere until the end? The ones the world thinks are important are not really so, and those the world discards are the ones that really make a difference.

Jesus says there will be many who strive to enter but won’t be strong enough to do so. But he says that people will come from all over to recline at the banquet. So, which is it? He warns against making the assumption that you will be saved just because you know about Him. It takes more than that. Assume nothing. Strive to serve and Jesus will do the rest. Switch the focus off yourself and onto the Kingdom.

I think the most lasting image of the Rio Olympics won’t necessarily be Michael Phelps winning more medals than anyone in history. I don’t think it will be Ryan Lochte’s antics. I think it will be the image of Abby D’Angostino and Nikki Hamblin, who collided in the women’s 5000 meter race, and then stopped and helped each other up so they could try to finish the race. Two women who had been striving to win with all their being, but when given the choice, they chose to serve one another. They came in last in the race, but first in the hearts of the world.

After the race, D’Angostino said, “Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way… This whole time here he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance — and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. 
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.

What a wonderful metaphor for our race to God. That’s the narrow gate. Never tire of doing what is good. Never take your eyes off the prize. Never take your eyes off the needs of others. Not because it is easy, but because it is difficult. Everything worthwhile usually is.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Eye on the Prize

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

The summer Olympics are here again. Did you watch the opening ceremonies last night? One of my favorite things is the parade of nations. Every Olympics it seems the TV commentators have some inspiring story or other to tell about some of the athletes. One runner last night from Africa used to train barefoot because his parents were too poor to buy him shoes. Another woman in a wheelchair carried her country’s flag in. She had begun her career in taekwando, but after a car accident left her paralyzed she took up archery and made the Olympic team. And to make it more inspiring, she was competing on the Iranian team, which has very few women. Saudi Arabia also had some women on its team this year.

I love these stories of perseverance and courage and sacrifice. My favorite line from last night was that, for most of those athletes, the opening ceremonies are their Olympics. They have little chance of winning a medal, so just the fact that they qualified to be there is all they will take away from years and years of struggle and preparation.

What sets Olympic level athletes apart is not only their talent but their unwavering focus on the prize. They never take their eyes off the goal, even if that goal is to just participate. They are ever vigilant. That’s what our readings are about today.

When we are focused on the goal, it’s easy to be vigilant. We watch out for what is important to us. As parents, we never really stop worrying about our children. We are ever vigilant of them. When they are little we always keep one eye on them, to make sure they are safe. We do this because we love them and we don’t want anything to happen to them. We never want them to suffer or need for anything.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

But I also think we are so vigilant of our children because we couldn’t bear it if something happened to them. We couldn’t live with ourselves if something we did or didn’t do caused our children pain. And we are terrified of losing them.

Why do we feel this way about our children but not about our souls?

Shouldn’t we watch out for and protect our very souls? Shouldn’t that be what we are most vigilant of? After all, that’s what will be going to heaven.

There are so many dangers to us in the world today. We need to keep an eye on so many things. Physical dangers at home, in the workplace, in public. Sadly, we have been forced to train ourselves to be ever more aware of what is happening around us in public, due to the danger of terrorism and violence. Even in our churches there has been deadly violence lately.

And there are so many spiritual dangers to our souls. The breakdown of the family and many of the institutions that used to provide us with safety and stability. The lack of trust between the people we look to to protect us and the people who they protect. The dismal regard in which we hold our government. The failings of leadership in our own Church. And the constant bombardment of immoral influences through the media and the internet. Our very culture seems to be falling apart sometimes.

It is easy to become numbed by all these negative influences. Our souls seem to shut down as a protection mechanism. We oftentimes just want to throw in the towel. That’s what I think Jesus is talking about today when he tells us to be vigilant. We can’t just give up. We have to keep hoping and praying and working for the kingdom of God. We have to remain the bulwark against the evils of the world. We have to make it a habit to remain conscious of the world, not because we fear it but because we are called to change it.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be vigilant out of fear. Fear that we’ll miss out on heaven if we don’t watch out. He wants us to be vigilant because he loves us and wants us to be with him forever. He wants us to be vigilant because it’s good for us. We don’t want our children to be safe and healthy and happy because we fear the consequences. We want them to be safe and healthy and happy because we love them and couldn’t imagine life without them.

This gospel passage is usually interpreted to be referring to Jesus’ second coming or to our deaths. We are to keep ourselves in a state of grace because you never know when the next moment will be your last, and that’s a very wise way to live. However, I see it sometimes in a different way. You never know when Jesus will want to come into your life in a special way. You never know when the grace of the Holy Spirit is there waiting to help you or fulfill you. You never know when true happiness is there available to you. Therefore, be on the lookout for it. Keep yourself open to God. Don’t harden your hearts to His presence.

We need to be aware of when Jesus comes to us in other people. Not just in the poor and needy that we are called to serve. But also in the people who are called to serve and help us in our time of need. Jesus comes to us in thousands of little ways every day; in an unexpected phone call from an old friend, in a smile at the checkout counter, in the simple things that make us smile and remember for a moment what is truly important. We need to stay vigilant for those moments as well, because they can break through the negativity and give us a glimpse once again of the promise of Christ.

It’s tough sometimes to do that. There are so many things that can blind us to God’s grace. Unless you are locked up in a monastery somewhere praying 24/7, it is so easy to forget to watch out for your soul. All the stresses and problems in our lives make it hard to keep our eyes and hearts on God. And if we don’t keep God in the center of our lives He will usually fall by the wayside.

It is a lot like taking care of your health. If you are in the habit of taking care of yourself, then sickness oftentimes can be avoided. Sometimes that habit is forced upon you by your circumstances. For example, I have been blessed by very good health my entire life. Therefore, I tended to take it for granted. I ate and drank whatever I liked and exercise was a bad word for me. However, three years ago I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Suddenly I had to check my blood sugar several times a day. I had to take meds, which for a guy who never took more than an aspirin was tough to get in the routine of doing. I had to watch what I ate and drank. And I had to start exercising. Now my health is something I am vigilant of. I have gotten into the practice and habit of tracking my progress and getting better at taking care of myself. I read up on the science of diabetes. I download recipes.

This would seem natural for me. I mean, the consequences of not doing it can be fatal. I do all these things because not only do I want to live a long and healthy life, I want to feel better now. Taking these preventative measures helps me to feel better now. I do not do them out of fear of what could happen. I do them because I am happier when I do.

It’s the same with your spiritual health. We should not fear death nor the second coming of Christ. But we should make our spiritual health as important to us as our physical health. We should get in the habit of actively being aware of the state of our souls. We should build practices to strengthen our spiritual health. Not because we are afraid of the consequences but because if we do we will feel better. We will be happier because we will be aligning our spiritual selves with the Holy Spirit Himself.

To those who have been given much, more will be required. Reaching the Olympic games does not mean things get easier. They get harder. And if you have a record of winning, like Michael Phelps, you can’t rest on your laurels. The world expects even more of you. You have to push yourself even more. You have to stay motivated and focused.

It’s the same in our lives as Christians. We have been given the great gift of God’s grace. We have been given the truth and we will be expected to do something with it. We have the fullness of the revelation of God to the world, and we can’t just keep it to ourselves. With that knowledge comes great responsibility. We are required to live our lives to a higher standard, because the world is watching us.

And our vigilance should be born out of hope and joy in the promise of Jesus. We are vigilant not because we need to be but because we want to be. We look not at the consequences but to the prize. Those thousands of young people in Rio de Janiero right now have struggled and persevered not because they fear failure but because they see the prize within reach. For some of them years of preparation will be over in mere seconds, but they are willing to endure the struggle for the glory that awaits them.

Isn’t the glory that awaits us so much more? Keep your eyes on the prize.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Let 'Er Rip

Feast of Pentecost
Cycle C

Last year I got to travel to Paris on business. I flew into Charles de Gaulle airport and took the train to the Gare du Nord. My hotel was only a few blocks from the station, but when I got off the train I saw signs for at least six exits, all with different street names. I had no idea which one would take me in the right direction, so I just picked the closest one and went outside. I fired up my handy GPS on my phone to get directions.

It wouldn’t work. Must have been because it didn’t speak French. So I pulled up the hotel’s website. It had one of those little street maps on it with the location of the hotel. I pulled that up and expanded it. There it was, so easy to see. So I set off down the street in the direction I thought I should go. But as any of you who have been to Paris know, the streets run in every direction with no logical order. I was soon lost. I would walk in one direction hoping to run into a street I recognized on the map, but when I didn’t hit it I figured I’d gone in the wrong direction, so I turned around and went the other way. No luck there either.

After about an hour of this, I did something I never do. I asked people on the street for help. Now, Parisians are known for being friendly, helpful and polite, especially if the only words of French you know are parley vous Anglais. All I got were stares, some blank, some amused, and some hostile. They all brushed me off in their perfect French, and I was more lost than before.

Finally, I went into a small hotel, thinking that surely somebody there would be able to speak the international language of English. Negative with the front desk clerk. Negative with the manager. But finally they pulled someone from the back office who in her broken English pulled out a little tourist street map, circled where I was and drew a line directly to where I needed to go.

Finally, someone who spoke my language! I got it. I understood. It made sense to me. I was lost and now I was found.

It says in the story of Pentecost that after hearing Peter’s exhortation that day some 3000 people were baptized and became disciples. 3000 people! About one percent of the population of Jerusalem at that time. In one day! Wow. That’s some sermon. What caused such a response? What attracted them to the apostles that day and what was it about Peter’s message that changed their lives so dramatically?

They came to the spectacle. They heard the noise of the rushing wind and gathered around the house. Suddenly they realized that they were each hearing the apostles preach in their own languages. At first they thought the apostles were drunk, but then they realized that something amazing was happening. They understood what they were saying. And it wasn’t that the apostles knew a bunch of languages, people standing right next to each other heard the same words being spoken, but each in their own language simultaneously.

The message got through to them because finally somebody was speaking their language. They were not preaching at them, they were speaking to them. The message was universal, no matter what language it was spoken in. But now it was personal. Now they got it. They had been lost and now they were found. And it says they were shaken to the core.

It wasn’t the message that attracted them at first. It was the messengers. The excitement, the enthusiasm of the preachers attracted them. Initially they were confused; at first they discounted and ridiculed the messengers. Most of them had never heard of Jesus of Nazareth, they were from other countries. But then they listened and were able to understand because someone was speaking their language. They came for the excitement, they stayed for the miracle, and they were changed by the gospel.

Something drove the apostles out into the street. Something gave them great power in their speech and bolstered their confidence. Just that morning they had been a bunch of illiterate men cowering in a borrowed room in a borrowed house. Suddenly they were out in the street preaching fearlessly. They had no idea what they would do or say. They just let it rip. They were in the grip of the Spirit and they just went with it.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever just let ‘er rip? Has something ever gotten you so worked up you just had to tell people about it, and you didn’t worry or care about what you would say?

I think that we all have experienced that to some extent during our lives. A marriage proposal, the birth of a child, a new job, a political position, anything we’re passionate about. We have those major moments in our lives where we have a feeling of deep joy and excitement that compels us to share it with others.

It’s the same with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is within us every second of our lives. We wouldn’t exist without Him. But sometimes the Spirit moves within us in much deeper ways. Sometimes we feel His presence almost physically, and we feel compelled to share it with others. We don’t worry about what we will say, we just have to say it. The sacraments are like that.

Last week and today/yesterday we celebrated first communion here at St. Mary’s. I think we’ve all been to a first communion for the little ones. They were all sitting here up front so shiny and scrubbed and beautiful. The girls in their white dresses like little brides, the boys with their shirts untucked and ties askew. They were excited, you could see it in their eyes. They had been preparing for this for so long. At last they would be able to experience what had been denied them their whole lives. At last they would be like everybody else in church. They would receive Jesus.

And sitting right behind them were their parents, grandparents, family and friends. They had traveled from all over to be there for this very special day. And I was struck at the contrast between their faces and postures and those of the children before them. They were not, how should I say it -as enthused. Rarely did they open their mouths to join the children in prayer or song. It was as if they had forgotten why they were really there.

I know that at their own first communions they were as precious and innocent and excited as those children in front of them. And perhaps they did feel the joy that comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit, but their faces didn’t show it. Sadly, I see those same looks when I look out every Sunday.

What happens to us as we get older? What changes in us that we oftentimes forget the joy and wonder of our first holy communion? Have we been worn down so much by our everyday lives that we cannot recognize and rejoice in the wonderful gift we have been given? Does the Spirit work less in us as we mature? Do we lose sight of Him in the routine of coming to Mass every Sunday? During any relationship, we feel closer to the other sometimes more than others. We get comfortable with one another, and oftentimes we take each other for granted. Can we take the Holy Spirit for granted?

For the little ones it is new and wonderful. What can we do to keep the joy within us everyday throughout our lives? It’s hard to maintain that enthusiasm. It’s easy to see the workings of the Spirit in the major events of our lives, but like anything, with repetition it can seem stale and routine. We lose the joy we had at our first communion.

How do we get it back? How do we maintain it? Can we increase the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, or does He just come and go as he wishes?

Yes, we can increase the Spirit’s presence, simply by asking for it. Why not just ask? The Holy Spirit wants to dwell within us just as He did with the apostles that first Pentecost. Why are they any different from us? We are all disciples, we all lack confidence, we are all scared from time to time, none of us really knows what to say or do most of the time. Jesus told the apostles to wait for the advocate who would give them understanding and power and guide them. Don’t we all need that? And Jesus has given us the mechanism for being closer to Him, he has given us the way to increase the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He has given us the sacraments.

Peter told those 3000 people that day to be baptized and they would receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus told his disciples to do this in memory of me. He said what sins you forgive are forgiven them. At every Mass at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer the priest asks the Holy Spirit to be present in the gifts of bread and wine so that they will become the body and blood of Christ. At the end of that prayer he asks the Holy Spirit to come upon us, His people, so that we will be changed and prepared to take the gospel out into the world.

Our little children know that. For them the Holy Spirit is someone special. He has touched their hearts and souls by making them receptacles of Jesus Christ himself. They understand how special the gift is, even if they do not understand the theology behind it.

Our children are apostles to us, their parents and grandparents, family and friends. Jesus said that unless we become like the little children we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those 3000 people that first Pentecost were not converted by the apostles arguments but by their enthusiasm. We will not be changed by our children’s arguments, but by their enthusiasm.

Maybe if we listen to them better and see their joy we will be able to enter into that joy again ourselves. Maybe we will be able to reclaim the wonder and innocence of our own first holy communion. Maybe we can experience the wonder and enter into the mystery of every Mass, every sacrament, every time we celebrate together. And maybe, just maybe, driven by the Spirit we will reclaim the enthusiasm that was so attractive in the beginning and will renew the face of the earth.