Sunday, January 31, 2016

God: Bigger Than Expected

Our gospel today is a direct continuation of last week's gospel. So think back to last week: Jesus went to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, proclaimed a scripture passage that prophesied about himself, and then declared that, "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing. " That's exactly where this gospel picks up today, with repeating that line. And today we get to see how this line played out.

Now, according to the other gospels, Jesus had already been traveling throughout the Galilee area where Nazareth is for some time before he came back to Nazareth. He had already been preaching and performing miracles, particularly in Capernaum, so word of him had reached Nazareth long before he got there. And the people are divided on how they feel about him. And the way this story sounds to me, it doesn't sound like some people like him and some don't, it sounds like the same people both like him and don't like him. The story says that "all spoke highly of him," and they also asked, "Isn't this the son of Joseph?", which basically means that he's nothing special. They're human, and so they don't always make sense. Just like you and I, they can say yes and no at the same time.

So Jesus reads their hearts and says out loud what they're all thinking. They're thinking, "If you really can do these awesome things over in Capernaum, then surely your own people deserve the same thing." And Jesus says no. That's not the kind and welcoming Jesus we know, so what's going on here?

With what the people were saying, "Isn't the son of Joseph?", they were acting as if they knew him and as if, in knowing him, they could contain him. And it's this sentiment that Jesus says no to, this idea that God can be comprehended or limited.

Jesus demonstrates that the power of God is not predictable, that it can't be limited or controlled, by these two examples he mentions of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. These two stories are examples of times when God used a prophet of Israel to minister to people outside of Israel. And if you were outside of Israel, then you were outside of the covenant and outside of God's love, so these were difficult stories for the Israelites to reconcile with, when God showed love and mercy to those outside of the covenant. They were difficult stories for Israel to reconcile with, because they wanted to put the love of God into a box that they could understand. "God's love exists inside this box but not outside it." In a similar way, the folks in Nazareth wanted to claim some sort of understanding or control over Jesus when they said, "Isn't this the son of Joseph?"

But look at what happens when they realize that Jesus can't be controlled or limited, that he doesn't simply exist to do his bidding. At that point, they tried to kill him. They recognized this power, and they only saw two option. With this awesome power, which is really just God's love put into action, they wanted to either control and understand it, or they wanted to eliminate it. But to allow Jesus to be bigger than they could understand was something they just couldn't tolerate.

Now what this is, is a really dramatic example of something we all do pretty regularly, because the love of God us just as unpredictable and just as uncontrollable for as as it was for them. And we constantly try to fit God into a box, to try to understand God who is flawless love in terms of flawed human love. And that can lead us to decide, perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously, that God can't love that person, that person is outside of God's love, the same way that these folks that Elijah and Elisha were sent to were supposed to be outside of God's love.

Many of us make one of two errors. We think of God as this overly permissive guy who doesn't really care what you do, as long as you're happy and you don't judge, or we think of God as a strict authoritarian figure who is never actually pleased with our efforts. Neither one is actually God, because neither one is actually love. Love is somewhere in the middle. God's love makes demands, yet God's love is genuinely pleased by the efforts we make in this life.

God's love can't be contained or comprehended by our minds. As soon as we think we fully grasp or fully understand, we can be sure we've missed it entirely. So in order to not make the same mistakes as the townspeople in Nazareth, we have to be ready to trust a God who is way bigger and way cooler than we could possibly imagine. If we are only willing to accept a God we can understand, then we'll be amazed at his gracious words one minute and ready to hurl him down headlong the next. But if we accept God love which is both demanding and delightful at the same time, then that opens us up to that love working in our lives.

So ask God today what errors you've made in trying to understand his love and what new piece of his love he wants to show you today. Don't ask yourself, because you'll just come back and say, "none." Make an act of faith, an act of the will that says you're open to whatever new thing he wants to show you, and ask him what new piece of his love he wants to show you today. He won't disappoint.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book Review: Making Gay Okay

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.

Making Gay Okay was one of the best social commentary books I have read in a long time. Robert Reilly does what no social commentator or policy maker in America has done: he looked at the facts at play.He analyzes what is behind the huge gains that the homosexual movement has made in this country in the last twenty years or so. The book is divided up into two major sections: Part 1 is "The Rationalization and How It Works" and Part 2 is "Marching through the Institutions." Together they take the reader through the basics of determining morality and then exactly what is happening to key American institutions.

In the first section, Reilly lays out the basic philosophy of Aristotle, who suggested that reality is something external to us, and therefore it is something to which we must adhere. Since reality it is external to me and not something I created, I must adhere to it or cause great damage to myself. This is especially true as regards morality: morality is external to us and not something we decide for ourselves, therefore we must live in accord with it or we do great harm to ourselves.


This ancient view of the world was eclipsed by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who believed and taught that reality was a human construction. Morality, as one piece of this human construction, could be molded and changed as necessary. But since morality is a construction of a society, in order to change morality, every institution of the society must be made to go along with the change. This can be done subtly or overtly, but it must happen. If any institution is exempt from the new reality, which is really a charade, then the whole charade is threatened.


And that leads to the second half, where Reilly illustrates the homosexual movement's march through key institutions. It started with the psychological sciences. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) had considered homosexuality a "sociopathic personality disturbance," in the original Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in 1953. But by the time the DSM-II was published in 1968, the word "sociopathic" was dropped. But the homosexuality couldn't be promoted as a basic human right if it was still considered a mental illness, so activists had to remove the "thumb of psychiatry." This they successfully did, not by conducting or discovering new research, but simply by political activism. They disrupted meeting, protested, and coerced members of the APA, until the DSM-III was published in 1987, at which point homosexuality was quietly removed as even a category in the manual, despite there being no new evidence to contradict the original manual entry.


To further the charade that homosexuality is absolutely equal to heterosexuality, Reilly documents how activists have made advances in key areas that threatened the charade: parenting, education, the Boy Scouts, the military, and foreign policy. I want only to reprint a quote from a child raised by same-sex parents:

I built up a great deal of fear and frustration. I was angry that I was not part of a 'normal' family and could not live with a 'normal' mother. I wondered what I did to deserve this. Why did my biological mother let a lesbian adopt me? How could she think that this life was better than what she could have given me?...During those years  I talked with my sister about my feelings and problems. We discussed how we didn't understand my mother and her lifestyle. We talked of how we resented her for placing us in such a situation, all the while knowing how hard it would be for us. (page 151)
If you are intimidated by the charge that you are unloving for opposing homosexual acts, I can't recommend this book highly enough as a necessary underpinning to your own knowledge and background. It doesn't so much teach you how to discuss the topic with others, it's not a field manual in that sense, but it is incredibly helpful for educating yourself and letting yourself know that no, you're not going crazy for opposing homosexual acts.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Conversion of St. Paul

The best way to preach a good homily: preach a short homily. When you've said what you need to say, just sit down. HERE is my very short homily for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What to do at Mass...

Every Sunday we gather here at Church to pray and to offer sacrifice to God at this event we call the liturgy, and if we don't understand exactly what we're up to here or why we do it, then this weekly gathering to hear God's word and respond to it can become dangerously monotonous. So much of what we do week to week is the same at Mass, and that can be a real blessing if we know how to respond to it, but it can be a real danger if we let the routine of liturgy just become rote or normal. Have you ever seen someone “meditating” at Mass, where they’re meditating so hard you’d almost think they fell asleep, but you don’t want to judge. Before I was a priest, I have no idea how many of the readings at Mass I didn’t hear because I was “meditating,” or how many times I knelt down for the Eucharistic Prayer, all of a sudden I’m “meditating,” and the next thing I knew it was time to stand up again. I’ve been there, I get it. I struggled because I didn’t know what my role in liturgy was supposed to be. I show up, I sit, stand, sit, stand, sit, stand, kneel, sit, stand, and go home. I didn’t know what my role was supposed to be when I went to Church every Sunday.

"Meditating"
I bring all this up because our first reading and our gospel today provide two glimpses into Jewish liturgy. So this word liturgy is a Greek word that we’ve adopted that basically means “public work.” Liturgy in a religious context usually refers to ritualized public worship, where the words and actions are predictable so that everybody knows what to expect. So the Jews in these readings today were taking part in a sort of liturgy, a ritualized public worship of God. And as the inheritors of God's promise to the Jews, it's important to understand what they were doing in order to understand what we do each week.

In the first reading, Ezra is reintroducing the people to the law of God. This is after the return from exile, where the Jewish people were taken prisoner by the Persians because they were unfaithful to the law. So now they've been allowed to return and they've been working hard to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. Now, Ezra the priest decides it's time to reintroduce the people to the law of God that they may have forgotten or may never have known. So he stands on a platform at one end, and reads from God's Word, and then explains it. The people weep because they realize they haven't been following God's law like they need to, but Ezra and Nehemiah instruct the people not to weep because today is a feast day. Today is for rejoicing, "eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks," and for loving others, "allot portions to those who had nothing prepared." So here we already see the liturgy as a place of instruction for the people, where we learn God’s law and learn how to respond to it.

And then when we turn to the gospel, we see scripture being proclaimed again. In the synagogues of Jesus's day, any man might be invited to read from the scriptures and speak on it for a bit, so today Jesus was invited to do just that, or perhaps he volunteered. So Jesus proclaims this scripture from Isaiah where Isaiah is actually prophesying about the coming Messiah, and Jesus gives a very short sermon: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” So now we see that liturgy, public worship, is not just a place of instruction, but actually a place of fulfillment. And indeed at our liturgy here, we don’t just learn about God’s promise of redemption, we experience its fulfillment through the Eucharist. The Eucharist makes present for us again the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so this public worship is actually the sacrifice of Jesus being offered continuously to the Father.

At the liturgy, the priest stands in the person of Christ, the head, and you are the body. This is no small role. In our second reading, Paul is teaching us about what it means to be the body of Christ. And the way Paul is teaching, he wants this analogy to be taken very seriously. When he says that you are Christ’s body, he doesn’t just mean that you are the group of people who are his followers, in some way he really means you are Christ’s body. Remember what Jesus said to Paul when he was still Saul, when he revealed himself on the road to Damascus and converted Saul to himself. He said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He didn’t say, “Why are you persecuting my people?” Jesus identifies with us to such a degree that he refers to we his people as simply himself, so Paul does the same thing. To say that you are Christ’s body and individually parts of it means that in some way Christ has made you a part of himself, and that you are actually his presence in the world today.

From Catholic Memes
So Christ has given to each of us a role, Paul lists apostles, prophets, teachers, administration, assistance, and others. Whatever this role is, God has made you for it and prepared you for it, and this is how you be the Body of Christ in the world today. Similarly, we each have a role to play in the liturgy, in this public worship of God. The two primary roles in the liturgy are the priest as the head and the people as the body. The priest’s job is to offer the sacrifice, and the people’s job is to unite all the joys, sorrows, triumphs, sufferings, all the good and bad of the world, to this sacrifice by your prayers. So when we come to Mass, you can be an altar server, a reader, an usher, or whatever, but that’s not your primary job here, and fulfilling these roles doesn’t increase your participation in the Mass one bit. You participate most perfectly by bringing the cares of the world, uniting them with Jesus, and offering them to the Father.

What I didn’t know all those years ago, when I was falling asleep in the pews, was that my role was to sanctify my friends, my family, even my struggles, by offering them all to the Father at Mass, united with Jesus. This requires a real belief in the power of prayer, and a real belief that my prayers make a difference. But when we unite our prayers for the world to the prayer of Jesus, Jesus truly can transform the world.

Friday, January 22, 2016

God's Love Will Not Be Defeated

When abortion was legalized in this country in 1973, it was expected that the Supreme Court's decision would end all argument, and that the pro-life supporters would just go quietly into the night. The annual March for Life has shown that to not be the case, largely because the love of God cannot be stopped that easily. HERE's my short homily on this tragic anniversary.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Moses's History Lesson

From today's Office of Readings, Moses is giving the people a short history lesson:
"It was not because you are the largest of all nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all nations. It was because the Lord loved you and because of the fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your fathers..."
God doesn't love is because we're awesome, he doesn't love is because of anything we do to earn his love. He loves is precisely because we aren't very good at much of anything, because we are the, "smallest of all nations." He loves us because he is faithful to his promise. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

God's Joy in You

HERE is the short homily I preached at our local VA hospital this afternoon, based off today's reading of the wedding feast at Cana.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review: Hidden Treasure, Holy Mass

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.

The Hidden Treasure: Holy Mass is  St. Leonard of Port Maurice's attempt to spur both laity and clergy on to greater piety around the Sacrifice of the Mass. St. Leonard was an Italian Franciscan priest living at the turn of the 18th century. He spent much of his ministry traveling and preaching missions.

The chapters of The Hidden Treasure function almost like a parish mission themselves, with the first chapter being about the Three Excellencies of Holy Mass, the second chapter being about how to hear mass devoutly, and so on.

St. Leonard was dealing with various impieties of his time such as disregard for Mass, disdain for Masses that were too long, and the like. Impieties like this are what happen when a religion is inculturated in an unhealthy way: the religion is the very air you breathe but you don't realize it. All you see are the obligations of the religion, so you dispense with the obligations but in doing so you lose the very structure of your life. I am told this is still a problem in Italy today, where it's not uncommon to only go to Mass when life isn't going well or when you need something from God.

But St. Leonard saw the infinite value of the Mass, that it is the sacrifice of Jesus for the redemption of the world made present to us regularly, and he wanted to spread this truth to whoever would listen.

The book can be a bit challenging because St. Leonard uses enthusiastic language that can sound over the top to modern ears (O blessed Mass! O mine of all our good!), but even that is an insight into the piety of the time, and the impiety it was combating.

We have lots of modern books that seek to explain and heighten our reverence for the Mass, but we're not the first generation to under-appreciate this sublime gift, and we're not the first generation seeking to appreciate its full depth. St. Leonard provides a valuable window into the same struggle three hundred years ago.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Discernment

The beginning of Ordinary Time puts us into the beginning of Matthew's Gospel for our readings, and we see Jesus calling his first couple of apostles. HERE's my homily from this morning.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Baptism and Friendship

For this Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, my homily was not written out but rather recorded. Listen HERE if you so choose, and a blessed end of the Christmas season and beginning of the Tempus Per Annum to you.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Feast of the Epiphany

This feast of the Epiphany serves to extend our Christmas celebration even further as we focus on the kings or magi that came from the east to pay homage to the newborn Savior. On this feast of the Epiphany we celebrate how wide-reaching God's promises are, that so early on in Jesus's life, he isn't restricted to just the Jewish nation but he is already made known to the world. This story of the wise men shows us people who accept Jesus and people who reject, and it's useful to examine both.

First, Herod, the one who rejects Jesus. Now, Herod seems to cause trouble for Jesus his whole life through, but it's not always the same Herod. There are actually four rulers named Herod throughout the New Testament, just to confuse us, and none of them liked Jesus or his followers. This Herod was a politician through and through. He knew how to play the game and he knew how to hold onto power. He put a ton of money into rebuilding the Temple even though he himself wasn't Jewish, so the Jewish authorities kind of owed him, that's why he could call the chief priests and the scribes together to find out where the Christ was to be born. But the more important thing to know about Herod is that he is incredibly protective of his power. One commentary called him "violently paranoid" about threats to his power, and another commentary even called it a "persecution complex." If he saw any real or imagined threat to his power, he eliminated it. A historian of the time (Flavius Josephus) tells us that he even killed half of his ten wives, several of his children, and many prominent people in the region because he thought he sensed threats to his power.

To Herod, God's promise, his gift, represents a threat, because Herod isn't willing to change. Jesus is a gift so great that he really only leaves us with two options. I can either conform my life to it or reject it. But I can't accept Jesus and not change my old life. So Herod is useful to us an example of what not to do with the mystery of Jesus, but overall he's not that interesting. He is the typical example of greed and selfishness that we see so often throughout history. But on the other hand, these mysterious magi provide absolutely fascinating figures for us to look at.

The story tell us that they came from the east, and when it says east, we don't want to think of China, we want to think of Iraq. Already that puts them beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. And they already seem to know about Jewish predictions of a Messiah. This is because there were Jewish communities spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, the Jews weren't restricted to just the Holy Land anymore. And wherever the Jews would go, they would certainly talk about their hopes for a Messiah, so it's not surprising that the magi would show up in Jerusalem already knowing about the king of the Jews.

They would have been astrologers, and at the time it was understood that the birth of significant people would be accompanied by the birth or rising of a new star. And what this guiding star was has fascinated people for centuries. Some say it was the intersection of two planets that was noticeably bright, some say it was a comet, some say it was an angel. I'm not worried about exactly what it was. What we want to notice is that God gave them a sign they could understand. They weren't Jews so they couldn't have understood an angel like the shepherds did, but they could understand a star. So God gave them a star, he spoke to them in a language they understood. But, and this is very important, that star didn't take them all the way to Jesus. St. John Chrysostom points out that they had to go to Jerusalem and consult with God's chosen people, the Jews, in order to find the newborn king. Chrysostom said, "The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way the birth of Jesus would be made known to all."

Chrysostom goes on to point out that God called these magi by the means they were most familiar, he called them out of their own lives and their own preoccupations to come encounter him. But in order to encounter him, they couldn't stay in their old lives. We see this throughout the gospels. Jesus called Peter and Andrew while they were fishing, he called Matthew while he was sitting at the tax collector's table, and he called Paul while he was on a mission of zealously persecuting Christians. Humorously, this suggests that Jesus isn't interested in keeping religion out of the workplace, but more seriously, we want to see that the magi, Peter, Andrew, Matthew, and Paul couldn't follow Jesus if they kept doing what they were doing before. In order to follow Jesus, they had to leave behind their old ways of living.

And the other thing that this story of the magi makes clear for us is that the gift of Jesus is for the whole world. These magi weren't Jews, yet they adored Jesus even before most of Judaism did. God the Father wants everyone to come to him by knowing and following his Son, Jesus thorough the Catholic Church. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. God wants all atheists to know and to follow Jesus through the Catholic Church. God wants every Protestant, every Jew. and every Muslim, even ISIS, to know and to follow Jesus. God is calling everyone the same way he called the magi. This gift of Jesus is for absolutely everybody, because God is not stingy with his blessings.

The magi brought their gifts to Jesus, yet really they were the ones receiving a gift in getting to adore this newborn king. And God wants this gift of Jesus to extend to the whole world precisely through the people who have experienced him, whom he calls to a new way of life. You and I, we try to offer our gifts of a humble will and attentive heart to the Lord, but in doing this, like the magi, we receive more than we give. And what we receive we have to pass on to others so that the gifts God gives may grow more and more. If we let ourselves be pulled by God from our old habits into a new way of life and do everything that entails: regularly participating in Mass and Confession, charity to the outcast, preaching his name to others, then the Epiphany of our Lord will indeed spread to the farthest corners of the world.