Sunday, February 28, 2016

The hole in our soul (Sunday homily)

What if you and I were not here in church, in Russia, 
but we were walking in downtown Columbus or Dayton or Cincinnati? 
And a man runs up to us and asks to know your name? 
What would be your reaction? Your immediate reaction?

Are you entirely comfortable giving him your name? Your full name?

I’m guessing not. I’m guessing that you would, like me, 
find that uncomfortable and awkward.  
If someone asked me that, my first question would be, why do you ask?

The point is, sharing my name with someone is a kind of intimacy. 
It opens up unknown possibilities. There’s a risk involved.  

In the first reading, Moses asks to know God’s Name. 
He wants to draw closer to God. 
After all, Moses and God’s People had been in slavery 
for over 400 years. 

The stories of what God did in Abraham’s life, 
in the lives of Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, were all distant memories. 
Perhaps even God himself seemed very distant. 

So notice, God tells Moses, “I am the God of your fathers, 
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” 
Remember them?
Then Moses asks, but the people will want to know your name.

In Hebrew – the language in which this was written – 
names far more significance than just what something is called. 
As scholar John Bergsma explains, 
“in Hebrew culture, the “name” designated the essence or being 
of the person” – it’s not just what someone is called. 
So what God tells Moses – when he says, “I AM WHO AM” – 
he is revealing his true nature: he is the One who truly and fully exists; 
he is being and existence in himself. 
He is the Source; everything depends on him for existence and life.

Think about what was happening to God’s People in Egypt. 
They were slaves. Their lives didn’t belong to themselves; 
they belonged to Pharaoh. 
As far as Pharaoh was concerned, he was their existence; 
he was their god.

This is a challenge and temptation we all face: 
what is the real purpose and center of my life? 
What things in my life are too important? 
What shapes my life, other than God?

Of course we all need to make a living; 
so we need our jobs, our farms, our businesses. 
But that doesn’t mean they have to become our Pharaoh. 
One of the most important things we can do is to consecrate our work, 
our farms, our businesses, to God. 

The Morning Offering prayer is an easy way to do that; 
as well as pausing during our work day to remember that God is our god, 
not our job, and not anything else on this earth. 
A lot of us have consecrated our homes to the Sacred Heart. 
If you haven’t done this, and you want to know how, let me know.

By the way, this is one of the reasons the Sabbath is important. 
The slaves in Egypt didn’t get any Sabbath, any day off. 
Every day, they belonged to Pharaoh. 
When they left Egypt, they began to have a day of rest, 
which means they were free. 
It’s interesting that today, something similar happens. 
People have debts, or are struggling to make a living, 
and what’s the result? 
They have to work an extra job, or two, 
and then they are back in Egypt: no Sabbath, no day of rest. 

We can understand those who work on Sunday because they have to. 
But not everyone has to. Sometimes we choose to. 
What god are we serving when we do that?

But I want to go back to this encounter Moses had with God. 
God revealed his name – his true nature – to Moses, 
that he is Life, Existence, Being-in-itself. 

Now, go back with me to the very beginning, Adam and Eve. 
God gives them existence. They have everything.
Then they sin; they fail to trust God, and turn from him. 
And if you will recall, 
Genesis says that they tried to hide themselves from God.

Do you realize what happened at that moment? 
They lost the center of themselves. 
That’s what turning from God did to them. 
One moment they were united to Existence, to Life; and bam! 
They lost it. Can we even imagine what that might have been like? 
It must have been staggering.

This is what we call Original Sin. 
We all “inherit” that same poverty, that hole in our chests, 
where God belongs. 

And what do we do? We find ways to fill it. 
Work; sports; sex; food, alcohol, money; friends. There’s a long list.
That loss of God is the problem we all have in common. 
It’s why we need to be baptized; 
it’s why parents do well to bring their children for baptism 
soon after birth. 
Baptism isn’t the last step, but the first. 
This is why we need to learn who Jesus is, 
and why it’s so important we help one another find him. 
We need his friendship. 
He fills that hole in our lives.

That’s why Jesus said: do you think those folks the tower fell on 
were worse than you? We’re all in the same boat. 

We all have that hole in our soul. Only Jesus will fill it. 
If you’re not sure what Lent is for, 
and what you’re trying to accomplish, then there’s your task. 
Forget the other stuff that isn’t filling that need. 
Seek friendship with Jesus. Talk to him. 
Seek him in the sacrament of confession. 
Let him accompany you in your day. 
Let him make your life fruitful. 
He will fill that hole.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

What more can God do? What more do we want? (Sunday homily)

Let’s begin with this strange scene in the first reading. 

Before I explain the passage, recall some facts about Abram. 
God has called him from his homeland – 
the city of Ur, in what is today Iraq – 
to travel a long distance to what is now Israel and Palestine. 
Abram is already an old man, and he has no children – 
so he has a lot of reasons to doubt his future, 
and to doubt the promises God has made.

So notice how the passage begins. God “took him outside and said: 
Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. 
Just so, he added, will your descendants be.”

Now, I wonder how many of you noticed something. 
The passage, a few lines later, describes the sun going down – 
meaning, it’s daytime when God does this!

Why would God do that? Well, because it fit Abram’s situation. 
God said, look up at the stars; Abram is thinking, but I can’t see them. 
That’s right, Abram, just as you can’t see your offspring. 
But those stars are up there, whether you can see them or not.
And your future is real, even if you can’t see it.

Then God promises Abram would have all the land.
And when Abram says, how do I know? 
That’s when we have this strange ritual.

At God’s command, Abram cuts up several animals 
and lays them on the ground. Then he waits. 
As he waits, darkness falls and is terrified.

And in the dark, he sees a “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, 
which passed between those pieces” of animal carcasses.

This ritual was intended to work like this: 
after the animals are laid out, 
the people forming the covenant would walk between them, 
in effect saying to each other, may what happened to the animals, 
happen to me, if I do not honor my promises to you.

And who walked between the pieces of the animals? 
Abram did not; he watched. But God did. 
That’s what the torch and the firepot signify.

A covenant goes beyond a contract or a business agreement.
I have a business relationship with my insurance company. 
I haven’t given my whole life to them. If I like another company better, 
I can cancel that contract and make a new one. 

But a covenant binds one whole person to another; and it’s forever. 
By the way, here is the whole misunderstanding about marriage. 
Lots of people think it’s a contract; but God says it’s a covenant – 
which is what the Catholic Church teaches.

But the truly amazing thing to notice 
is that God made a covenant with a human being – with his creature. 

As I said to the folks at Mass Saturday morning, 
a parent might make a covenant with your children. 
But those of you who have livestock, 
I’m certain you don’t make covenants with them. 
When they get fat enough, off to market they go! 

We are God’s creatures. And yet he made a covenant with Abram; 
and then, at Sinai, with the Children of Israel. 
And then, at the Cross, 
he made a “new and eternal covenant” with all of us.

This is what connects the first reading with the Gospel. 
In each case, God is giving a reassurance. 
To Abram, he performs a familiar ritual. 
To the Apostles, Jesus shows the fullness of his glory as God. 
He’s on the way to Jerusalem, to the Cross – 
he’s told the Apostles this, 
and that’s what he and Moses and Elijah were discussing. 
This revelation of his glory lets them know: you can believe Me.

The other connection is even more astounding. 
When God made this covenant with Abram, 
he said, in effect, death will come to me if I do not keep my promises.
In fact, God did keep his promises to Abraham. 
And yet – what happened with the Cross? 
Jesus, the God-Man, surrendered himself, and was killed!

What more can God do?

Do you have trouble trusting God? Abram did. The Apostles did. 
That’s what these signs were about:
letting them know he would keep his promises.

OK, so what is God going to do for me? Where’s my sign?
What do you think the Holy Mass is? 
Before your very eyes, Jesus Christ executes his covenant – 
here, on this altar. 
He lays himself out; he gives himself, totally.
What more do we want?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Go to confession! (Sunday homily)

Jesus spent 40 days in the desert; we have 40 days of Lent. 
The connection is obvious. Our Lord, 
who became man to be in solidarity with us – 
to fight not just for us, but side-by-side with us – leads us into battle. 
And the three temptations from the devil sum up all that tempts us. 
Like Jesus, we are tempted by the flesh, by worldly greed, 
and by the arrogance of power. 

One way to understand the temptations 
the devil presents to Jesus is this. 
The devil appeals to that part of us that says, 
take the shortcut; go ahead and cheat to get ahead; 
win through power. 

The devil tells Jesus: you can have all the kingdoms of the world – 
meaning, all the souls they contain – 
and you only need to do one, little thing: just worship me.

This is how a lot of temptation works out for us. Take the shortcut. 
We have candidates for public office saying, sure, let’s use torture. 
Others say, sure, we take unborn children, at the early stage of life, 
and destroy them for “research,” but they justify it, 
because it’ll go for a good cause. 
The state of California recently legalized killing sick people – 
so called “assisted suicide.” After all, it’ll save money.

A lot of this is also about the arrogance of power. 
We are unwilling to let God be God. We want to be God. 
The whole movement today, not only for redefining marriage; 
it’s moved now to redefining what male and female mean. 

The bottom line is arrogance of power. 

Who cares what God has designed? We are god. 
We make our own design. 
And so you have scientists who want to manipulate human life 
at the genetic level, and “edit” the genetic structure of life. 
They want to create babies on order; 
and they want to mix human and non-human genes together.

But let’s come back to where you and I are.

The main battlefield most of us will face 
is not 1,000 miles away, not 100, not even one mile away. 
It’s inside us: our own heart. 
It’s in the choices we make 
from when the alarm clock buzzes in the morning 
until we return to bed each night. 
It’s in what we do at work each day, 
and on the Internet each afternoon and evening. 
In the words we share with our families – 
and in the refusal to share ourselves with one another.

Our hearts are the battlefield. 
And this Lent is our time to enter into desert silence, 
so that we’re alone with ourselves.

Who among us can say, I don’t need this? 
I have no temptations; I have no weaknesses to overcome? 
The one man who really could say that was Jesus Christ. 
And he went into the desert. 
He went there to say, you’re kidding yourself 
if you think you can win these battles 
without prayer, without cost, without Me! 

There are lots of tools that help us. 
We know three of them: fasting and self denial. Prayer. 
Giving generously to others, especially the poor.

Under the rubric of prayer, let me highlight 
the most powerful weapon of all. The sacrament of confession.

I go to confession about every 2-3 weeks; although, at present, 
I’m overdue. So I promise, I’m going to go this week if I possibly can. 

What do I confess? Like a lot of people, 
I tend to confess the same sins again and again. 

That said, I can tell you: 
there are some sins I don’t confess very often anymore. 

Over the years, with help from God prompting my conscience, 
and the priest giving counsel, 
and my own desire to make something happen, 
and going back to confession again, and again, and again,
I have beaten down some of my sins. 
I don’t know that anyone is ever cured, this side of Purgatory. 

But, we can learn – 
with the help of the Holy Spirit and frequent confession – 
to silence our tongues a little more; 
to avoid certain sections of the Internet 
and to refuse certain pleasures; 
to trust that our business will be OK 
even without cheating and cutting corners. 
We can learn to tame our anger and cool our passions. 
And, we can learn to forgive.

But none of these things will ever happen 
if we cannot humble ourselves and go to confession. 

And, while I’m on the subject, I want to make an announcement: 
starting this week, I’ll be here an hour earlier on Thursdays, 
hearing confessions from 6 pm, before Stations.

In the first reading, when God’s People would come into the temple, 
to offer the first-fruits of their harvest, 
they were bowing down and acknowledging: 
they didn’t do it themselves, they needed God. 

My soul is my battlefield; your soul is yours. 
Can you become who you want to be without God? I cannot. 
That’s why we go to confession. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

God doesn't think about your sin the way you think he does (Sunday homily)

Here are notes from Sunday. The last week or so I've been under the weather to some degree, and really didn't have much energy. I'm feeling better.

The first reading and the Gospel have a lot of similarities. God reveals himself in both; and both times, the human being reacts by becoming deeply aware of his sinfulness.That’s often what happens when we draw close to God. We instinctively recognize sin as something that separates us from God, which it does.

But notice how God reacts – that is, how he does NOT react. God does not recoil from Isaiah in horror. Jesus does not turn away from Peter.

Think about that. 

How many times when we fall into sin, one of the things we may come to believe is that God is against us, God is offended, God is angry, God is going to punish us. The truth is, when we face the reality of sin, we’re projecting onto God our own horror and disgust. We’re right to be disgusted by sin. Would that we all had a true horror of sin, as Saint Louis urged his son.

Sin is indeed horrible, but God does not think you and I are horrible.

The next time you are in a situation wondering whether God can forgive you, remember what Jesus said to Peter: “Do not be afraid!” Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid!

As we go into Lent – Ash Wednesday is this week – what great things might God do in our lives if we can these two things:
a) Not let our sins discourage us;
b) And not be afraid of where God might lead us?

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Always say what needs to be said, and always with love (Sunday homily)

Lent is about 2 weeks away. 
Are you thinking about what you will do with this Lent? 

Now, after listening to the readings, one theme is clear enough: 
when we live our faith and proclaim our faith, 
we won’t always get a good response. 
As obvious as that is, it’s striking to me 
how often people will fall for the counter-argument: 
that you can measure what’s true and good by what’s popular.

I can give you a few examples. 
One is the debate that occurred a year or so ago in Indiana, 
over a law to protect religious freedom. 
A lot of the big corporations came out against it. 

Their position was that if there came a conflict 
between, say, a same-sex wedding, and a baker or a florist 
whose religious beliefs meant they couldn’t participate in that, 
the chamber of commerce thought conscience should lose. 
And why? 
Because other organizations has threatened to boycott Indiana, 
and so it all came down to dollars. 

Another example, which could be told many times over: 
a priest comes into a parish, he shakes things up, 
he gives tough homilies, he tightens up some things; 
and before long, someone writes a letter to the bishop. 
And in the second or third paragraph, 
that letter will say something like, 
“X number of people who used to come to this parish 
don’t come here anymore.”

I don’t know if anyone has ever done it, 
but it could be a really funny bit 
if some comedian did a sketch telling today’s Gospel story 
as if it were a CNN broadcast. 

Wolf Blitzer would come on and say, 
“well, this once-promising rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, 
seems to be off to a rocky start, 
given the reaction of his own relatives and neighbors.” 
And then they’d interview someone from the synagogue, 
who’d say, “This smart-alecky kid thinks he’s the Messiah? 
Well, this is no way to start a movement, by insulting everyone! 
He really needs to be more positive and uplifting!” 

I started out by asking about Lent. 
Maybe one of the things we will do with our Lent 
is to ask God to help us purify ourselves 
of caring whether we’re “winning” or not. 
To stop caring what others think about us.

Not that this is permission for any of us to be jerks about it.
The words we heard from Saint Paul are so beautiful 
we might miss the practical application. 

Notice what Paul said: 
no matter what great things I might be able to do for God, 
if there is not love, they are—I am—nothing. 

Which means, if we have a difficult message to deliver, 
if we have a tough decision to make, are we sure it’s grounded in love? 
Jeremiah’s tough message was always about love: 
his nation was on the road to destruction, 
and he was working night and day to turn them back. 

I recently saw something Penn Jillette said. 
He’s the magician from the team, Penn and Teller, 
and you’ve probably seen them do their act. 
You may not know that Mr. Jillette is an atheist. 

And in the video, Mr. Jillette told the story of a man 
who came up to him, after his show, 
and gave him a copy of the New Testament. 
And Mr. Jillette was impressed. Here’s what he said:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. 
I don’t respect that at all. 
If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, 
and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, 
and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this 
because it would make it socially awkward…
how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? 
How much do you have to hate somebody 
to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

But let’s keep St. Paul’s words in the picture. 
If we do have a tough message to deliver, 
what effort have we made to purify our motives, 
to be sure that love is our motive? 

Here’s a practical suggestion: 
if you expect you will have to say something hard to say: 
whether it’s coworkers, brothers and sisters, children or spouse; 
make sure you are praying for that person, 
in addition to whatever things you say to that person. 

More than that, just to remove all doubt, 
why not go ahead and tell that person, straight out: 
I’m saying this because I love you?

Awkward? Probably. But if we can’t manage 
to communicate God’s love to people, 
then don’t even claim you’re speaking God’s message.
And if you’re not sure just how to explain 
some of the things we believe, in terms of God’s love, 
then we have more work to do ourselves 
to understand what God teaches and asks of us.

For example, perhaps we're not sure how to explain why marriage is a man and a woman, 
not two men or two women. 
And the answer is, because God designed humanity in a particular way--
the union of man and woman, in marriage, open to life, completes the divine image. 
And any alternative is a counterfeit, 
and while they may give us some measure of earthly happiness, 
they actually distort us, and if we persist in them, 
we will be unable to enjoy happiness with God forever.*

Which gives me the opportunity to remind you 
that in a couple of weeks, we’ll have “Symbolon, Part II,” 
and this is a chance to explore and understand our faith better. 
You’ll see the cards in the pews. 
The white card shows you the topics; 
the ivory card is what you use to sign up.

Look at the topics. Why do we need to be baptized? 
Why do we need to go to Mass? And confession? 
Why is marriage so important, 
and why did God design it the way he did? 
You can see that some of the subjects 
we have the most trouble talking about, are in this series.

Remember, this is all free, all available online. 
The white card tells you how to find the materials online. 
This weekend and next, you are invited to fill out the ivory card. 
The office staff will link you up with discussion groups.

To return to my opening question. Lent is coming. 
What will you do with it? 

* This paragraph was improvised several different ways.