Sunday, September 27, 2015

Jesus and Ideology

In our world today, ideology runs rampant. So many people pick a cause, or get picked by a cause, and that cause colors their whole view of the world. And then if somebody is religious and ideological, then everything Jesus says or does is interpreted to fit that ideology. Much closer to home, we saw a lot of this happen with Pope Francis's visit to our country. He speaks in generalities, all straight from Catholic doctrine, and people twist and misinterpret his words to fit their own ideologies. It happens with Jesus, it happens with popes too.

I bring this up because today Jesus really resists being classified in any ideology. We seem him be really really nice and open minded, and then we see him be really really close minded and almost mean. In the first part of the gospel, he tells us to be generous in interpreting any kind thing we see, and then in the second part we see him be very harsh, very strict (even mean) concerning sin.

In last week's gospel Jesus, when the apostles were arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus used a little child to teach them that whoever receives such a child "in my name," receives Jesus, and receives the one who sent him. So there's this idea about doing something good in Jesus's name. So now the apostles have found somebody who is driving out demons in Jesus's name and they think he should stop. Now later on in the Acts of the Apostles we'll see people who are trying to use Jesus's name like a magic trick to drive out demons and it doesn't work, but for the guy today it works. He's successfully driving out demons in Jesus's name, and the only way this could work is if he has authentic faith in Jesus.

The apostles want to be a little closed-minded here and insist that the only people who get to do cool things like heal and drive out demons are those who are a part of our group. But Jesus isn't so closed-minded. He teaches them that anyone who does good in his name is part of their group. Jesus is ok with this man working in his name even though he's not a part of the club. This open, inclusive Jesus is a very popular view of Jesus in our western 21st century. This is a Jesus that gets high approval ratings from our presidents, congresses and judges for being so progressive, as if Jesus cares about whether any human power approves of him.

So this is a Jesus that 21st century progressives really like, but then he has to ruin all of his 21st century credibility with these mean words about sin. Whoever causes an innocent person to sin is better off being forcibly drowned in the ocean. That doesn't sound very open and inviting. Jesus is deadly serious about sin. He is not open-minded about this. He does not welcome all opinions. Whoever or whatever causes sin must be removed.

I've been excited to preach on this scripture for years because I'm convinced that Jesus isn't quite speaking in a metaphor like we think he is. "If you're hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hand to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire." We like to say that he doesn't really mean it, he didn't really mean to cut off your hand, because Jesus is nice and soft and fluffy. But we want to be careful because the conclusion he draws is very, very true. The conclusion he draws, that it is better to enter into life, that is, heaven, maimed than with two hands to go Gehenna, that is, to hell.

No sin, no pleasure in this life is worth it if it risks our eternal destiny. But if you think your hand, your foot, or your eye is the source of your sin, then you've missed the point. Your hand, foot, or eye is not the reason you sin. So we must recognize where the sin in our lives comes from other places. It may come from the friends we keep, it may come from an unmonitored internet connection, it may come from the stuff we endlessly acquire that makes us think that we're self-sufficient. Whatever we allow into our lives that causes us to sin, it is not worth it. Again, Jesus is not open minded and welcoming here. Whatever excuses we make for why this or that sin is excusable, Jesus does not tolerate and he does not accept.

With a gospel like this, most of us will cheer one half of the gospel and be made uncomfortable by the other half. Most of us try to classify Jesus to fit into neatly into our categories, and then when he says something that doesn't fit our categories we become very uncomfortable. We try to insist that Jesus would vote left or right or red or blue. Jesus can't be classified and reduced to an ideology. He's just a little too big for that.

The unifying principle in everything Jesus does is love. Love accepts every good thing, but love never tolerates sin. Sin is always a cheapening of the life that Jesus calls us to. Jesus calls us to a love that actually gives life by affirming the true, the good, and the beautiful. So our job is not to reduce Jesus to our weak human standards and categories, but rather to raise ourselves out of human ideologies to meet Jesus. When we raise ourselves to Jesus's standards then we start to see a view of the world that is so much bigger than the bickering of ideologies. Jesus's view of the world is so much richer and truer than ours. So raise your mind to Christ, take on Christ's view of the world, and through that you will experience Christ's authentic love.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Pope's Important Speeches

Msgr. Charles Pope wrote an excellent article yesterday highlighting the Pope's speeches and visits planned for Thursday during his U.S. visit. First the Pope will address a joint session of Congress, which is a truly a momentous occasion. 60 years ago this would have been unthinkable because the loyalty of Americans was considered suspect in the common culture. Many assumed that Catholics had the ultimate goal of installing the Pope in the White House and turning the U.S. over to him. To go from that unfounded fear to the Pope actually addressing Congress is truly historic. And in many ways Congress is the most powerful group of people on the earth. Their budget run in the billions and their decisions have international repercussions.

But then the Pope will go from there and address Catholic Charities, which ministers to the poor and the marginalized. This is the most important group the Pope will address. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that those who minister to the poor will be recognized by Jesus and receive eternal life, but those who do not minister to the poor will not be recognized by Jesus and will go to hell. Jesus said it, not me, just check Matthew 25:31-46. In a homily once, I quoted Archbishop Chaput when he said, "If we ignore the poor we, will go to hell." I earned some nasty letters for that one because in my naivete I used the word "gay" and "hell" in the same homily, even though they weren't at all connected.

If we don't recognize how much we need the poor, if we don't recognize them as a sure path to Jesus, then we will miss Jesus entirely. The Pope is going to address some very important people on Thursday, but look with the eyes of faith and recognize who the truly important ones.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Guilt, Shame and Humility

Our gospel today is almost two separate stories, but it's important to understand how they go together. First, Jesus is predicting his Passion and the disciples are just not getting it, and then there's this lesson about humility. The two sections could each easily stand on their own, but it's better to see them together.

This is the second time in Mark's gospel that Jesus has predicted his Passion, whey he says, "The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise." Jesus does this a couple time throughout the gospel, trying to get his apostles ready for what's coming. We heard the first prediction last week, just after Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ. They didn't get it last week, and they don't get it this time either. It's important to note here that Jesus isn't speaking to the crowds anymore. For right now, he's only speaking to his disciples; he's giving special attention to his close followers to try to prepare them for what's coming.

Last week when Jesus predicted his Passion, Peter tried to rebuke him and insist that no such thing could happen. But this week when the disciples don't get it, they're too afraid to ask further. Since this is the second time Jesus spoke like this, the disciples are starting to wonder if he might actually mean it, but they're afraid of the implications. If he is really going to be handed over, a term signifying absolute surrender, he is going to let these awful things happen to him, then what might that mean for them? They're expecting Jesus to be some sort of conqueror, and they want to ride on his coattails to victory. But if his victory is going to involve some sort of suffering and death, that makes them afraid, so they don't ask further. But it's sad that they're afraid to ask because Jesus isn't just giving them a warning about what's coming, he's giving them an invitation to join him.

And instead of listening to his words and taking them seriously, they begin an inappropriate discussion about who is the greatest. Now, since Jesus took such pains to correct this discussion, we don't want to see in their discussion a lighthearted talk about whom the better fisherman is or who can throw a football farthest. For Jesus to take the time to correct it, they had to be having a discussion about who was the most virtuous or who was the most deserving of God's love. They had to be having a serious discussion about which of them was the greatest, not a joking one.

So this is where the gospel hits home for us, when we look at how Jesus reacts to their entirely inappropriate discussion. Jesus knows what they were talking about, and what does he do? Does he condemn them or berate them for being so slow? No. Does he excuse them and ignore their totally inappropriate behavior? No. He teaches them.

Let's pause here and examine the silence when Jesus asks them what they were discussing. The disciples' silence speaks volumes. It's a guilty silence, because they know they messed up. Jesus is trying to explain his own violent death and they start discussing which of them is the greatest. So let's look at this for a minute. When our own weakness and our sin comes face to face with Jesus's holiness and gentleness, it should produce in us a feeling of guilt like it did for the disciples here, but never of shame. It's important to clarify between those two words. We often use them interchangeably, but if we use them technically, guilt is that feeling that says, "I did something bad" or, "I did something wrong," whereas shame says, "I am bad." The difference is crucial. When my sin confronts God's holiness, it can and should produce feelings of guilt because that pushes me to change. But shame is never from God, shame comes from the devil whispering in my ear that I am a bad person and that there is no hope. Guilt should lead us to change, but shame simply leads to despair. Guilt can be good if we use it to change, but shame is simply a lie. As Christians who are loved by God, we are made good by God loving us and so we have no reason for shame.

So Jesus takes this guilt that comes from their actions, and he uses it to teach them. He doesn't excuse their actions, nor does he condemn them for it. He uses it to teach them, and the lesson he teaches them is one that each of us needs to hear too. Jesus constantly emphasizes this virtue of humility not because it pleases him to see us all playing nice and letting someone else go first in line, but because humility prepares us for the Passion. Pride can take many different forms, but in this case for the disciples it consisted in them trying to set themselves above each other, which was totally contrary to the humility of the Passion, the "being handed over," that Jesus was just predicting. Pride, insisting that you are the greatest, only sets you up for a fall. Pride is a lie, pride is building your house on sand. When life gets tough, everything you've built will fall. When the storms come, they will reveal that you built your life around you, and when push came to shove, you fell right over.

Humility, on the other hand, being the last of all and servant of all, is so much more than just being nice to each other. Jesus doesn't want us to just be nice to each other. He wants us to receive that person who, quite frankly, it doesn't benefit us to receive. In humility, I can recognize my own weakness and I can recognize that building my life with my own supposed greatness as the foundation is bound to fail. Humility allows me to build my life around God, who is the only sure foundation. This child represents all those who are unable to pay you back for your charity in this world, and in this way this child represents each of us as we relate to God. For everything God does for us, we can't even begin to pay him back. Humility is superior to pride because it helps us to recognize our true position in the world, which is a dignified and noble position. So placing yourself as last of all and servant of all means that you have emptied yourself, it means that you will have the strength to follow Jesus as he allows himself to be handed over. Pride won't do it, pride will crumble. Humility gives you the strength to endure the Cross in order to experience the Resurrection.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Way and the Answer

In ancient times, in the first couple centuries of the Church, Christianity was often known as the Way. Rather than describing yourself as a Christian, you might describe yourself as part of the Way. In places this may have been to avoid persecution, but more importantly, it recognized that to be a Christian, to be a follower of the Christ, meant that you were going somewhere. Being a Christian is not a static or a stagnant thing.

I bring this up because in many parts of the gospel, if you read the wider story instead of just a snippet, Jesus is shown to be moving like he's on a journey and he's going somewhere. This whole conversation we saw today took place "along the way." We're supposed to see in stories like today a sense of urgency. These stories form an invitation for us, Jesus is inviting us to join him on the way.

So, urgently, let's dive into this story. The first important thing to notice, and I've said this before, is that when Jesus says "Who do people say that I am?" and "Who do you say that I am?", he's not taking a public opinion poll. He's not trying to find the popular opinion so he knows what he needs to conform too, because not every answer correct. Jesus is his own man, he isn't whoever you want him to be. So he's asking these questions about the people's opinions to get them thinking along the right lines, to get them thinking about Jesus's identity.

And this question that Jesus poses to Peter, "But who do you say that I am?" everything hinges on this. Remember, he's not asking for Peter's opinion. If Peter gets it right, then his life will be swept along in a new direction, along the Way, to places he could never imagine. But if Peter gets it wrong, then spiritually he is stuck, spiritually he will have stepped off from the way to let other men take the reigns. Everything hinges on Peter's response.

So we run through the popular opinions, and then we come to Peter's famous answer: You are the Christ. So let's unpack this word "Christ." The word Christ means "Messiah," it means, "Anointed One." So a Christ, a Messiah, was expected according to Jewish prophecies. And in the Old Testament, all Jewish kings were anointed, and all Jewish priests were anointed. So some thought that the coming Messiah, the Anointed One, was going to be a king to lead Israel to freedom. Some thought he would be a powerful priest figure. Some thought he would be some sort of superhuman person. But the one thing no one would do is look at this small-town carpenter who until recently still lived with his mom, who now was being a bit of a thorn in the side of legitimate Jewish authorities, and say this is the Messiah. Peter says "You're the Christ," and the only reasonable response is, "And you're crazy."

But we know that's not how Jesus responds. The other gospel accounts of this story tell us that this is the point at which Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter, which means rock, and declares that the Church will be built on him. So we have the question: "Who do you say that I am?" And we have the right response: "You are the Christ." And we have the new mission: "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church." This prepares Peter to walk on the Way with Jesus, so now Jesus can tell them exactly what the Way will entail, and it's not what they had in mind.

At this point he begins to teach them this Way will involve rejection, suffering, and death, and resurrection, and then Jesus is so bold as to phrase this as an invitation and a challenge: "whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." Self denial and a painful, humiliating death, well gee Jesus, who could resist? But this is the offer he extends to each one of us. He never proposed any other way to follow him, he never said, "Whoever wishes to follow me must live for himself, ignore his neighbor, and do whatever he pleases." He never said that! The only way to follow Jesus is by denying yourself and taking up your cross, whatever that cross may be in your life.

But you don't willingly suffer self-denial to follow just anybody, and so the question that Jesus proposes to Peter he proposes to each one of us. Who do you say that I am? How you and I answer that question determines whether we will actually follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, or whether we'll just follow him as long as there's not a football game on. Who we say Jesus is determines whether we'll speak in defense of the poor and the weak, or whether we quietly go along with the crowd when the world wants to kill the unborn or support some supposed right to die. Who we say Jesus is ultimately determines whether we can find 60 minutes out of the 10,000 minutes in a week to spend time with him, or whether we decide that 57 minutes is enough and we ditch out after communion in order to beat Sheridan traffic.

And remember, when Jesus looks at you and says, "But who do you say that I am?", not every answer is valid, not every answer is correct. You can't look at Jesus and say, "You are the Christ, but you understand that I'm not at Church because hey, my football team is on." Jesus doesn't understand. You can't say, "You are the Christ, the creator of all life, but you understand that some life is really inconvenient, so I want to choose which life is worth allowing and which isn't." Jesus doesn't understand. You can't say, "You are the Christ, the creator of every day of my life, but you understand that I can't find 60 minutes to give back to you." Jesus doesn't understand.

When Peter tried to turn Jesus aside from the Way of rejection, self-denial, and death, Jesus gave perhaps the strongest found in the gospels, "Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do." If we get the answer wrong, if we think as human beings do and not as God does, then we step aside from the Way that God has prepared for us. The Way that God has prepared for us leads to the Cross, certainly, but it is only through the Cross that we get to the Resurrection.

So step up with courage to the Christian challenge, step up with courage to walking the Way. Jesus looks at you today and says, "Who do you say that I am?" If you've waffled on this question in the past, face it head on now. Answer the question honestly and correctly, and accept every invitation that comes with it. The first invitation is to take up your own cross, whatever it may be, and follow him. The second invitation however, the one that makes it all worth it, is to the Resurrection. The second invitation is to eternal life with him, and you can't have eternal life without first having the cross. So answer the question, receive the invitation, and walk the Way, the Way to eternal life.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Book Review: Faith and the Future

The stack of books I'm trying to read is much larger than what my calendar allows for. When I do actually finish a book though, I want to use the blog to tell you what I thought about it. I'm happy to lend this or any other book in my library if you live near me and don't look like a hooligan.

I recently finished reading a collection of talks by Pope Benedict XVI entitled Faith and the Future. Now, you need to understand that Pope Benedict was an incredibly prolific writer and speaker before he became pope, so upon his election Catholic publishers gathered everything he had ever written or said and republished it. Faith and the Future is a collection of five radio talks given on three stations in two countries over the course of a year in 1969-1970. They work well united as a book but they weren't intended as such. I loved this book and would highly recommend you read it. At less than 125 pages, it's a very short Ratzinger book.

In these talks, then-Cardinal Ratzinger is just exploring what the place of faith will be in the future. I must admit that I bought the book because of the money quote near the end of the book about the future of the Church,
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge--a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members...But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship. The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek...But when the trial of the sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church (p.116).
This was the bold and beautiful conclusion of the final talk, but much of the book remained more philosophical in nature. Ratzinger spends the first couple talks discussing the place of faith in modern man. He highlights the problem that there is very little place for faith in the modern world if faith is simply a pseudo-knowledge or if faith is simply a replacement for knowledge. If that is what faith is, simply an alternative to knowledge, then faith must cede ground to man's every-increasing knowledge of the world around him. Indeed, in that case it would seem that the 21st century man has much less use for faith than any generation preceding him.

But Ratzinger proposes something more. Ratzinger takes the figure of Abraham, the father of faith, and explains that the Christian faith has always looked towards the future. Abraham put his faith in a promise of future things given by God, a promise of things that he hadn't yet received. Our faith is primarily a faith of the future. Our faith is in a promise of love made by our God. And yet, the fact that our faith is centered in an unknown future doesn't mean that faith is Marx's opium of the masses. Faith doesn't, or at least it shouldn't, make us careless about present injustice, because it's precisely this world, and we in it, whom Jesus wants to save and who need to cooperate with that saving action.

He goes on to point out that our faith is a faith of the future because it is faith in a person, namely, Jesus Christ. In this way, faith looks much more like a marriage bond than a statement of unproven fact: "I believe in you." Faith is characterized by trust in a person, that he is who he says he is and he can do what he says he can do. This kind of faith never becomes obsolete, no matter how enlightened man becomes. The faith that looks ahead by confidently looking at Jesus Christ will endure. This faith will reemerge from any crisis the Church finds herself in. In fact, this faith is distilled and purified in crisis. The book is called Faith and the Future, and Ratzinger convincingly argues that faith in the future will be a more purified and cleansed faith than the faith of today.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Receiving Love and Giving It

This is St. George, but you get the point
The readings today proclaim to us that God loves us, he cares for us, and then they send us out on a mission to love and care for others. So that's what we have to talk about today, we have to talk about love. But this love that God has for us isn't a soft and cuddly love, it isn't gentle and passive. It's more akin to the love a knight has for his beloved that makes him go off and slay a dragon.Apparently this love includes sticking his fingers in a man's ear and touching his tongue, that doesn't sound gentle to me. Our God loves us and so he fights for us, he fights to save us from our sins and to save us from ourselves. Our first reading is trying to prepare us for this love: be strong, fear not. Isaiah proclaims to us that God comes with vindication, with divine recompense. That means he comes to justify us, to fill up what is lacking in us with his holiness and his love.

Let's clarify how God loves us. These readings show us that God doesn't love humanity in a generic, anonymous way. God loves individual persons. John 3:16 tells us that "God so loved the world...", but we want to make sure we keep in mind that he doesn't love the world as the world, he loves individuals in the world. Did you catch that? He doesn't love humanity generically, he loves each of you individually, with everything that is unique about you.

This is important because it helps us to understand this gospel passage. This is one of those healing stories that kind of offends our sensibilities. He sticks his fingers in the guy's ears, touches the guy's tongue, and groans as he heals him. This isn't what we normally associate with Jesus, this is just...weird. At other times somebody can approach Jesus and say, "Master, my servant is at home sick," and Jesus can just say, "Go in peace, your servant is healed." He can heal just by saying the word. And here it's clear he's not trying to impress anybody because it says he took the man off my himself.

This Jesus is afraid to get his hands dirty
I think this story bothers us because it's very earthy, it's very physical. We're much more comfortable with Jesus when he heals just by speaking, but not so much when he touches somebody's ears and tongue. We like Jesus when he's neat and clean. We like the Jesus of the holy cards, you know the ones where he sometimes looks like he's wearing makeup, but not the Jesus who was a first century carpenter in the Middle East. But God the Father made us as physical creatures, the body matters, and when Jesus became man, he raised mankind to a new level of dignity. So it should not surprise us to see Jesus touching in this way. Jesus goes straight to the problem and heals it. The fact that he loves each person individually and not collectively means that when he meets someone with a unique problem, he'll provide a unique solution.

In many ways, this man represents well our relationship with God. When Jesus walks into our lives, we want to respond. We want to hear his words and we want to respond. But look at this man in the gospel today.  He met Jesus and he was deaf and had a speech impediment. So when Jesus walked into his life, he couldn't hear his words and he was unable to respond. That sounds like us who, in our brokenness, can't hardly hear Jesus's words and if we do we certainly seem unable to respond.

But Jesus knows this, and he can handle it. For this man today, who can't hear and can't speak, Jesus uses touch. He takes him off by himself, away from the judgment and the stares of the crowds, and he heals this man's brokenness in a physical way by touching his ears and tongue. Jesus certainly could have healed this man by just speaking to him, but the man wouldn't have understood what he experienced because he wouldn't have heard the words, so Jesus touched him.

Similarly for us, Jesus can to us that I love you and I care for you, but we're as broken as this deaf man with the speech impediment, so Jesus has to use a different means. To reach us in our deafness and our brokenness, Jesus uses the Eucharist. The Eucharist is how Jesus reaches out to touch each one of us in order to grasp our hand in the darkness and to bring us into the light of his love, the Eucharist is how Jesus touches us the way he touched this deaf man today.

So we say that Jesus is really present when we celebrate the Eucharist, that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus. But if we understand that the wrong way, even our Protestant brothers and sisters would agree with us because Jesus told us that, "where two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of them." And that's true, so even apart from the Eucharist, Jesus is really present here simply because we Christians are gathered together, so what's unique about the Eucharist?

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Mass
The Eucharist is different than all other ways Jesus is present to us because in the Eucharist, Jesus is substantially present, and by that we mean is physically present. In the other ways Jesus is present to us like in the scriptures or in our community, we might say he is spiritually or mystically present, but in the Eucharist he is physically present. The ordinary bread and wine are changed into the very body and blood of Jesus during the Eucharistic prayer through a process called transubstantiation, where the very substance, what this thing is at its core, changes from just bread and wine to be the body and blood, while still maintaining the surface appearance of bread and wine. This is how Jesus reaches out to touch us in our darkness and our brokenness.

And if Jesus reaches out to us physically in our brokenness, then that's what we have to do for others as well. James is telling us today in our second reading to show no partiality. At this point, there had started to be divisions whenever they gathered to celebrate the Eucharist, where the rich would be treated better than the poor. But James is working to remind them that since Jesus loves each one of them and reaches out to each one of them the same way, so they have to treat everyone in the assembly the same way.

We don't struggle so much with seating in our churches by income level like James's audience did, but we guard our hearts in ways that cause divisions anyway. If you look around you, there's more brokenness and pain than you would believe, people just hide it. And we don't like to reach out to heal the brokenness in those around us, we don't like to risk our own hearts, because it's much easier to just donate to charity and to love anonymously from a distance. But Jesus sought those who were hurting and relieved their pain, he reaches out to heal our pain, whatever it is. And just as Jesus reaches out to heal us, so he is equips us to reach out and heal others.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Youth Ministry

This, my friends, is how a lot of youth ministry in our churches feels to me.