Saturday, November 5, 2016

In Good Conscience





32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

2 Macc 7: 1-2, 9-14

2 Thess 2: 16-3:5

Lk 20: 27-38

 

When I was a boy my parents had this big old bible, the one with the gold on the edges of the pages, and it had all these full page color paintings of bible stories in it.  There was the story of the Good Samaritan, the Woman at the Well, and the Fall of Jericho. I liked to look at the pictures because, heck, I was a kid.

I remember one picture in particular, that of the third brother in today’s first reading. He had his eyes raised to heaven and his hands on the chopping block, and a thin stream of blood was flowing out of his mouth. I know, pretty gruesome, but it isn’t the drawing of his hands and mouth that has stuck with me all these years. It is his eyes. The artist had captured almost a look of ecstasy on the man’s face. And I still remember the words written on the page, the same words we heard him say this morning. And I wondered what it meant to be raised to new life. I still ponder that today.

There are two themes to today’s readings. The first is conscience and the decisions we will all be called to make for our faith. The second is the reason why we make those decisions, the promise of what is to come for those who endure.

The story of the Maccabees isn’t read very often in our liturgy, and in fact, is not even included in Protestant bibles. But I think we see a lot of parallels between their story and what we are experiencing in our world today. What was happening to force such choices on the Jews and why were they so stubborn in their opposition?

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, there was a struggle for control of Israel, Egypt and Syria. Eventually the Seleucids from Syria gained control and began a program of Hellenization that threatened to force the Jews to abandon their monotheism for the Greek’s paganism. They erected a shrine to the Greek god Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem, outlawed circumcision, and forced the Jews to either eat pork as a sign of abandoning their law or be tortured and killed. That is the choice that faced the seven brothers in today’s reading.

To the Jews, this was more than a religious struggle. This was a struggle for their identity as a people. They saw the Law as being both a sign of their fidelity to God and a symbol of themselves as a nation. It is easy to see why they would resist the Greek’s effort to assimilate them. They could not in good conscience go against the Law. They chose death over assimiliation.

We talk a lot about conscience today, don’t we? Your conscience is the thing that guides you in your choices, and it does not form in a vacuum. It is your sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and it must always keep in mind the consequences of your actions.

The movie, Hacksaw Ridge, opened this week. It is the story of a World War II conscientious objector who faced the difficult decision of how to serve his country without taking human life. He went on to save 75 men’s lives during the battle of Okinawa, and received the Medal of Honor for it. We celebrate his heroic story, and it is inspiring to us all. In the movie he prays, “Lord, help me get one more.”

Most of us will never have to face a life or death choice like his, or the Maccabees. But we are witnessing Christians in the world today who are making that choice daily.  Coincidentally also in Syria and other areas of the Middle East, Christians are being forced to choose between conversion to radical Islam or torture and death. What drives these Christians to choose death rather than go against their consciences is their faith in Jesus and his message of hope. I wonder how we would choose in the same situation.

When we hear these horror stories, what do we think? Do we stop and say a quick prayer for the Christians who have died? Do we do more and offer financial support to groups who are trying to help them? Do we write our senators pushing to grant more of them refugee status? Do we even notice the horror of it all because it is happening so far away? A movie about a soldier who saved 75 men without lifting a gun or firing a shot we find heroic because we all recognize and agree that war is horrible and to be avoided. But would anyone go to see a movie about a lone Christian who kneels outside the local abortion clinic or stands vigil outside a prison gas chamber, or the spouse desperate to save a dying marriage, praying, “Lord, let me save one more”? Those are the life and death things we must deal with. Those are our battlefields.Those are the tough choices we need to make, those everyday decisions on how to view our fellow human beings.

Consider the upcoming election. I think that most if not all of us have been struggling with our consciences on how we should vote. What does it mean to vote your conscience, and what are the consequences of our vote? I think so often we choose our faith based upon our politics and not the other way around. Do you see your vote as an act of faith? As an act of discipleship? As an act of heroism? Do you seek the Church’s guidance on the issues before making a decision? Do you separate church and state in your own heart, as well as in the public square, or do you view all things through your eyes of faith?

You will form your conscience whether you want to or not. It is formed by your life experiences, your moral upbringing and belief, and your faith, or lack of faith, in God. As faithful Catholics, we are called to constantly be forming our consciences. It is not that right and wrong are constantly changing, it’s that our understanding of right and wrong develops and grows. As Catholics, we are required to form our consciences within the teachings and guidance of the Church. Not because we blindly follow the law, but because, like the Maccabees, our faith defines who we are. Our relationship with God is central to our lives, because we are all called to build up the kingdom. We can abide by changes in thought and practice in society to a certain extent, but eventually we will be called upon to make a choice. It seems that more and more society’s norms are in direct opposition to our consciences. Some choices are easy and obvious, others are actually between life and death.

It is a good thing that we have a conscience to guide us, and it is a good thing that it is often a struggle to determine the correct course of action in a given situation. However, as the writer Robert Royal once said, “When someone wrestles with their conscience, it’s remarkable how often he wins.” What do you do when your conscience tells you the right thing to do is the opposite of what you want to do? What do you do when the consequences are just too dire, so you go against your conscience? I think that every time we choose to go against our conscience it dies a little bit, and it takes a long time to build it up again. It takes courage to follow a properly formed conscience.

The thing that gave the Maccabees the courage to resist was their hope in what was to come. There was a growing belief in Judaism at the time that there was an afterlife, that they would be raised again by their God to a glorious future. It was this hope that drove them to resist. It was that hope that gave them their conviction.

In Jesus’ time there were still divisions in Judaism around the existence of an afterlife and especially of the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, and it was they who were testing Jesus in the gospel today. They were focusing on the letter of the law and Jesus was trying to help them see the bigger picture. He was focusing on the hope of the message, and they would not allow themselves to see it. They were focusing on death, He was focusing on life.

But then, Jesus always focused on life. He never said it would be easy. In fact, he predicted the opposite. But he always said it would be worth it. And he promised to never leave us orphans. He is always there to strengthen us and give us the grace we need to make the right choices, no matter how hard they are. As St. Paul tells us today,

But the Lord is faithful;

He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God

and to the endurance of Christ. 

 


 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Conversation


30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

Sir 35: 12-14,16-18

2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18

Lk 18:9-14

 

It matters how you talk to people, doesn’t it?

Someone introduced me to a man the other day at a party. At first he seemed an interesting sort, and I was asking him about himself. He was more than willing to comply. But after a few minutes I started feeling uneasy, because of the way he was talking about himself. Especially his accomplishments. The more he talked the more the conversation became more and more one sided. He wasn’t outright boasting, but he wasn’t actually being humble either. I could tell he had a healthy dose of ego, and it turned me off to him. After we parted, I realized that he had never asked me anything about myself. I was doing all the asking and all the listening, and he was doing all the talking. And you know, I don’t really remember what he said.

Oh, no, wait a minute. That was me.

It’s easy to talk about ourselves, isn’t it? And the people we like to talk to the most are the ones who are interested in us. It’s easy to find ourselves talking more and more about ourselves and our accomplishments when someone is encouraging us to do so. How often have you walked away from a conversation and thought, “I really don’t know much more about that person. I did all the talking.”

I don’t think that’s boasting, necessarily. It’s natural. Our favorite subject is ourselves. It’s easy to get carried away about ourselves. Most of us are not egotists, but we all know some people who are. They are just as annoying as the tax collector in today’s parable.

There are some people who never really listen to you, they are just waiting for their turn to talk. I think we all do that from time to time. But the really great conversations are the ones where we encourage each other to talk because we are truly interested in what the other has to say. We want to know more about them and they want to know more about us. That’s stimulating, not annoying. That type of relationship is not one-upmanship. That is one of mutual interest and understanding.

God’s the same way. God doesn’t want us to talk to him only about ourselves. God knows all about us. He knows our accomplishments and He’s proud of them, more proud than we are ourselves. He also knows our failures, and that’s what He wants to talk to us about. He wants us to be grateful for what we have and for what we have done with what we have. He also wants us to recognize where and when we have fallen short, ask for forgiveness, and then move on.

We pray to God because we need to say it and we need to believe that he likes to hear it. We need to know that we’re ok with God. We need to know that we have ultimate value, that we are accepted by our creator, even though we don’t really deserve it. We need to have that hope and know that there’s a purpose to life, with all its joys and sufferings. It is through our prayer that we keep our relationship with God in focus.

 

But does God answer prayers? Ah, the great question. When we ask it we are usually referring to prayers of petition. We ask God for something and then sit back and wait to see if we get it. Sometimes we do get what we ask for, but rarely does God answer us boldly and loudly, so we can easily recognize it. Rarely do we get that miracle we’ve been hoping for. But then, we never got that pony we asked our parents for for Christmas, did we? And I think we oftentimes make excuses for not getting what we asked for. “God knows best, and I guess I really didn’t need it. So I guess I’ll try to word it a bit differently next time.” Or, we look back and try hard to see how God really did answer our prayers. “Yeah, that was it, right there. It really did work out ok in the end, even if it wasn’t the way I expected it or planned it.” We desperately need to believe that God hears us.

 

But what about those prayers of hopelessness when we are enveloped in deep suffering and poverty of body and spirit? When we are not asking for things but just for an end to our pain? What about the millions of people who go to bed hungry every night, who aren’t asking for a better job or a new car but just to survive? Sometimes their prayers are never answered with the alleviation of their suffering. Does that mean they weren’t answered? Does that mean that God has abandoned them?

 

St. Paul experienced this. Many times he prayed that he be relieved of an unknown physical ailment, only to get the answer that sorry, he had to put up with it. He came to the conclusion that it was only when he was weak and had to rely totally on God that he was actually stronger. But that still didn’t make him feel any better. And today we heard that even after an entire career of bringing the Good News to people the world over, he was still alone and abandoned by them in his time of need. Just like Jesus. But even when he looked back on his life’s race and saw all the times he’d stumbled and fell, he still kept his eyes on the finish line. He never lost hope.

 

God does not guarantee that when we ask for things from Him we will necessarily get what we request. He only guarantees that we will receive His mercy and through that mercy, hope. Prayer is always answered with mercy.

 

And mercy is all about hope. Can you imagine what the world would be like if God were not merciful towards us? What if he left us to our own devices in our evil and sinfulness? Without God’s mercy there would be no good on the earth. Because we sin we need to ask for and receive forgiveness. If God in his mercy does not forgive us we are doomed to destroy ourselves. Without the possibility of forgiveness we would go insane. Without God’s mercy we would have no hope. Because the opposite of mercy is despair.

 

And true mercy requires the one who receives it to accept it with humility. Not in humiliation, but with an understanding that even though our actions require forgiveness, we still have great value. Mercy is accepting our true place in the scheme of things and knowing what our true relationship is with our creator. Have mercy on us sinners. We need to accept that we are only the creatures, and we don’t have all the answers. Sometimes it all makes sense and oftentimes it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean we give up in frustration.

 

So, does it matter how we talk to God? Is our attitude towards prayer more important than the words themselves? It does in today’s parable. One man went away justified, the other didn’t. And it wasn’t because of what they said, it’s how they said it.

God doesn’t want us to do all the talking. God doesn’t want us to focus on ourselves. He wants us to focus on him. He wants us to stop talking and just listen sometime. He wants us to be curious about him, to ask lots of questions and get to know him better.

Your God wants to have a conversation with you. One on one, person to person. He likes to hear from you, he finds you infinitely interesting, and he loves to be with you. Do you feel the same way about him?

 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pay Attention



26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle C
I was giving a talk a while back on stewardship, and how to me, stewardship was not about fundraising and money, giving of your time, talent and treasure. I figure that most folks support what they love, and so stewardship is all about falling in love with Jesus again, and by extension, His church and the parish. As I was talking about falling in love with your parish, I saw a man in the front row becoming more and more agitated. He was actually getting angry.
And so I stopped and asked him what was wrong. He said, “But what if you don’t love your parish, especially your priest? What if they have not been there for you when you needed them? What if they have just blown you off and don’t really care about you?” He then went on to tell me that he was suffering from cancer and had reached out to his parish priest. It took the priest a couple of days to even call him back, and then when they did talk the priest made some flippant remarks and said maybe he’d have time to visit the next week.
The man said that he was a Knight of Columbus and he had just finished doing some repairs on the church building. He was very involved in the parish and now felt that he had been abandoned in his time of need. How could he fall in love with something like that?
And you know, I didn’t have an answer for him. Whatever the situation truly was – I was only hearing one side of the story – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that this man was hungering for something and he wasn’t being fed. He longed to feed  on the scraps of his priest’s free time and didn’t even get that.
Did the priest truly not care? Was he really more concerned with his own life than that of his parishioner? I have no idea. All I know is that Lazarus was being overlooked again.
It’s tough being a priest, and I don’t want to single priests out. I am just giving an example. However, we expect our leaders to be there for us when we need them, and we feel betrayed or less than worthy when they don’t give us what we want. I am probably very guilty of this myself. I have no idea when I have made a passing remark or been too involved in my own world to see when people are reaching out to me. Major issues such as a health scare or marital problems usually get my attention. It’s the small things, the little cues people give off, that I sometimes miss. It is not indifference, it is more inattention. But people notice.
I think people have more of a problem with indifference than outright hostility. I can deal with it if you have a problem with me openly. I know what that is and I can figure out a way to handle it. But indifference is more subtle. You really don’t know why someone seems to be ignoring you or minimizing what you are saying. We don’t often know the person’s intent, and so we assign it to them. Most times we think the worst and then keep it within ourselves, and the other person doesn’t even know there is a problem.
The man in my seminar never told his priest how he felt. He just let it stew within him until something I said brought it bubbling to the surface. And that man, who had been a leader in his parish, transferred his distrust of his priest to the entire parish, and he ceased to do anything there anymore. He just went to the early Mass on Sundays because it was quiet and he could sit there without anyone bothering him.
That was the rich man’s sin today. In none of these readings today do we hear that wealth is evil and poverty is a virtue. Jesus isn’t saying that all the rich will go to hell and all the poor will go to heaven. This is not pitting the rich against the poor and vice versa in class warfare. This is all about watching out for one another. It is about being attentive, not being indifferent.
The rich man never directly hurt Lazarus. He never oppressed him or stole from him. The rich man’s sin was that he never even noticed Lazarus!  The sin of the rich man was not that he was rich, it was that he was not a good steward of the gifts he had been given. He had grown complacent in his prosperity to the point where he assumed it would always be there. His complacency blinded him to the need of his fellow man right outside his door.
We have no idea whether or not the rich man was a good man or if Lazarus was a bum. We don’t know why Lazarus was in his state or how the rich man got his wealth. Not important. All we know is that Abraham says that each was in the position they received from God.
We are all given gifts from God in some measure or other. Some people are given much, some virtually no material goods at all. Some are given great talents while others just enough to get by. We can argue about the fairness of it all some other time. What’s important is not how much you are given; it is what you do with what you have.
Recall what Jesus says in Matthew chapter 25, on how we will be judged. Those folks who wouldn’t be going to heaven didn’t even know they were doing anything wrong when they ignored the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the poor. Didn’t matter.
Turn the story around. What if the rich man had come down with leprosy or some other horrible disease, and Lazarus knew about it but did nothing? Or even worse, didn’t care because he was so wrapped up in his own situation? Would their places in heaven be reversed?
There are plenty of good rich people and plenty of bums. But all of us are rich in some ways and poor in others. I love one of the Prayers of the Faithful options in the marriage rite that prays for “the hungry rich and the hungry poor”. We are all hungry, aren’t we? We are all at times the rich man and at times Lazarus. And most of us are spiritually poor, especially when we are materially rich.
Paul speaks to Timothy today about using the gifts he has been given. “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” Those are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and we will all be judged on how we use those gifts.
We hear a lot about giving back. People who have wealth or fame seem to have a need to give back to society or something. That may be a worthwhile thing to do, but what are they giving back to? And why think of it as giving back, as if there’s some sort of quid pro quo involved in success. No, it must be seen as gift giving. We receive the gift from God and then pass it on to others because that’s what a gift is.
I think that most people would give up many of the things that make their lives easier if they just had more time with the important people in their lives. I know our children would really rather spend more quality time with their parents than have all the toys and electronics and stuff we give them. Even if it doesn’t seem like it.
I know that the most important part of my ministry, and Fr. Stan’s and Deacon Bob’s, is our presence to our people. Just being there for you and with you is what matters. Yeah, we’re going to screw up sometimes and say something careless or disappoint you, but heck, that’s what all that forgiveness stuff is for. I think all of us intend to do good, and so I try not to think ill of anyone. Try to think the same of us. It’s hard sometimes, but I think that’s the best way to live as a steward of the gifts we’ve been given.
Because the greatest gift God has given us is one another.