The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

The thoughts expressed here are my personal thoughts and sometimes reflect my political views. As a private citizen I have every right to express these views.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Homily: Monday, 15th Week of Ordinary Time

Readings: Ex 1:8-14, 22 • Ps 124 • Mt 10:34-11-1

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I suppose the most obvious question about today's Gospel passage is: Why does Jesus describe His mission and the coming of God's kingdom in terms of conflict and division? Why does He come not to bring peace but a sword, a weapon of war? After all, didn't Jesus come in peace to reconcile a broken and sinful humanity with a merciful and loving God?

Well, Yes, He did, but He also came to wage war, to overthrow the powers and principalities arrayed against God and His kingdom.  And the sword that Jesus brings is a therapeutic weapon. This sword is none other than God's terrible and fiery Word, Jesus Himself.

There's a wonderful passage in the Letter to the Hebrews that spells it out for us:
"The Word of God is alive and active. It cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword, piercing as far as the place where soul and spirit, joints and marrow, divide. It sifts the purposes and thoughts of the heart" [Heb 4:12-13]
We see this, too, in Revelation where John envisions the Son of Man "out of whose mouth came a sharp two-edged sword" [Rev 1:16].

No, Jesus didn't come to bring comfort. He came to bring life. And He does so through His Word, which causes a thorough and frightening interior transformation of everything it touches. It was for this redemptive, transforming act and nothing else that the eternal Word of the Father took on flesh and came into our midst as one of us.

But He comes to wage war - to wage spiritual warfare. That's right -- Christ, the Prince of Peace, comes brandishing the sword of God's Word - a sword that slices through our delusions, cuts away our self-deception, and opens in us a wound - a window to God's truth, the truth that shatters the empty promises of this world. Christ brings peace from the Father, but it's not at all like the peace of this world. No, Christ's peace is often a companion with tribulation.

Scripture tells us there are only two kingdoms: God's kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness, and they are engaged in a battle. In his first letter John contrasts these two kingdoms: "We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one" [1 Jn 5:19].

No neutral ground there. We're either for or against the kingdom of God; and our choices and actions reveal whose kingdom we choose to follow. That's why Jesus challenges us, for a true disciple loves God above all else and is willing to forsake all for Jesus Christ.

Some years ago I was approached after Mass by 16-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, who wanted to become Catholics, but whose parents were atheists and refused to let them join any Church.  This was a hard and courageous thing these young people were doing - placing God's will over that of their parents. Yes, family members can sometimes draw people away from God; just as excessive love for another can keep us from doing God's will in our lives.

Now amidst all this talk of spiritual warfare, we must understand that Jesus never calls for "holy war." He preaches no Christian political ideology. He doesn't call for Christian nations to wage war against unbelievers. No, the sword of Jesus, His Word, pierces the heart and soul of each individual, in a sense causing an internal war.

Nor does Jesus say that we should not love father, mother, daughter, son - just the opposite. We're called to love them, even when they act as enemies of God. But we're not to love them more than we love Jesus.

Finally Jesus calls us to follow Him, for that's what a disciple does. But to follow Jesus isn't merely to imitate Him. Nor does it mean bringing Him into my life. No, to follow Jesus I must enter into His life, so I can be what He is. That is the Christian life. It's not I who make room for Jesus in what I do. It's Jesus inviting me to renounce all, so that I can enter into His humanity and divinity, into His mission, into His life.

Jesus also tells us that we don't follow Him empty-handed, for the Gospel calls us to embrace that which is a condition of discipleship: the Cross. Brothers and sisters, the way of the Christian is nothing less than the Way of the Cross. Like Simon of Cyrene we take up Jesus' Cross and follow Him, as if both His Cross and His road were our own.

This is what made St. Paul so joyful when he wrote:
"God forbid that I should boast of anything but the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world is crucified to me and I to the world!" [Gal 6:14]
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Homily: 15 Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Readings: Is 55:10-11  Ps 65 Rom 8:18-23 Mt 13:1-23

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Immersed in the Gospel, and supported by our faith, we hear the parables of Jesus and we understand...or, at least, we try to understand.

But that's not always the case, is it? Our receptivity, how open we are to receive God's Word, can vary like the seasons.

Sometimes it pierces the soul to the very marrow, and we experience deep conversion of heart.

But then, perhaps too often, it barely seems to scratch the surface, because we're just not ready for it...at least not yet.

And sometimes, we actively resist it. We reject God's Word because it says things we simply don't want to hear. Yes, it's then that we're much more open to the word of the world...which is strange since the world just offers us one empty promise after another: 
A diamond is forever.
It's the real thing. 
Have it your way.
Just do it.
You're in good hands.
Yes, following the world's advice, we're promised that everything will go well...until we come face to face with eternity. Unlike the word of the world, the Word of God both commands and demands.

Not long ago I came across the website of a consulting group that focuses on helping Christian churches fill the pews. The site includes a teasing little blurb with all kinds of interesting suggestions:
Does your church have sufficient parking?
What's the quality of the music?
Is it a friendly, hospitable church?
...and on and on...although make no mistake, these are all good things.

But after reading the consultants' list of suggestions, I noticed something was missing.

There was little or nothing about proclaiming and living God's Word. The only thing that came close was an admonition to "avoid polarization in your preaching." I'm not sure what that means. Maybe it's just another way of saying, "Don't worry, be happy."

But there was nothing about the grace-giving sacramental life...

Nothing about serving God's people beyond the boundaries of the property...

Nothing about being the "salt of the earth" or "the light of the world."

Imagine how these consultants would have responded to Jesus and the parable of the sower.
Jesus, you've just got to be more focused. See this huge crowd? That Word of yours will turn off most of them.
We've heard you.
"Eat my Body...drink my Blood" [Jn 6:53]
"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." [Mt 5:44]
"When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."  [Mt 6:3]
Those words will just drive most of them away. And that's no way to fill the parking lot or the collection basket.
You'll be lucky to end up with a handful of followers.
You just don't understand the dynamics of church growth.
Of course, Jesus didn't have that kind of expert help, the kind available to us today. And so what did He do? 

He gathered the huge crowd, got into the boat, and sat down like teacher and judge, and told His disciples how to spread the Word...  
He told them a parable about a farmer who isn't very careful at all about the sowing of seed: he just throws it all over the place. Although some actually falls on fertile soil, most of it seems to be wasted.

But that's exactly what Jesus has done since He began His public ministry. Unsparing in His generosity, He teaches, He forgives, He heals, He reaches out to all who come to Him, even to those who don't. He has a special love for public sinners, for the poor, for society's misfits and rejects - not the sort who give large contributions.

Jesus, you see, is the Word, the Incarnate Word of God, and so He teaches, and heals, and forgives through His Word and His Work.

He calls for more than simple obedience to the law. He calls for conversion, a change of heart and mind in his hearers. But too many resist His appeal because their hearts are as hard as the rocky ground on which some of that seed fell...or as tangled and suffocating as the briars that choked God's Word before it could grow.

Why? Jesus says they lack understanding. What is this understanding? Brothers and sisters, it's an act of faith, a response to Jesus' call. For their hearts to be opened, they must respond. Without it, they'll just be like so many Christians today who seem to welcome the Gospel but then crumble once they're tested, once they're actually called to live it. Only this understanding, this act of faith, frees us from the allure of the word of the world.

Jesus isn't surprised by their lack of faith. They're the same hardened hearts with which Isaiah had to contend when He spread the seed of God's word.

And Jesus promises us that God is not defeated because, like the farmer, He's a bit of a gambler.



When the farmer bets everything he has...and the outcome isn't guaranteed...well, he’s gambling big time. The higher the stakes, the harder he works. Not just to control the weeds, but to control the every single variable he can. He does so to control the risks.

Consider the extreme and improbable risks that God takes by planting his Word in our hostile world. What are the chances the Word of God will take root and yield a good harvest?
Just try talking love or compassion to a terrorist...or forgiveness to the family of a murder victim.

What about the notion of truth in the midst of a heated political campaign?

How about the command, "Sell what you have and give  to the poor"? [Mt 19:21]  Have you ever seen it in a brochure pushing real estate or financial planning?

How often do the words "praise" and "gratitude" play on the minds of those busily adjusting the parameters of their spreadsheets?

And does the scientist ever realize she's bowing in reverence to the Creator of the universe whenever she leans over the microscope to study the wonders of cellular regeneration?

What are the chances?

You and I might think the chances of the Word of God germinating in a fallen world are mighty slim. But, as it turns out, God is a gambler of the most reckless sort. As the poetry of Isaiah reveals, the Word of God swiftly runs upon the earth and doesn't return to the heavens void!

Day after day, in the face of incredible odds, Jesus hurls out the seed of the Word like a gambler throwing dice. It appears reckless...but faith takes root. Isaiah was confident. Jesus claimed it was a sure thing. God's Word yields its harvest.

In arid hearts that thirst for God, the understanding, the seeds of faith...will take root, "and yield a hundred or sixty or thirty fold" [Mt 13:8]

How's that for a reckless, over-the-top response?

No, God doesn't hesitate. But what about us? What about you and me? What's our response to His Word?

You see, God expects us, His disciples, to join Him in this work of sowing. But too often we're so wrapped up in ourselves, in our needs and wants, we don't realize the impact we can have. Too often we fall into the trap of thinking we must do big things to get God's attention, when exactly the opposite is true.

Indeed, each time you open your Bible, or take time to pray together, or carry God's love to another, or gather together at Mass, or feed the hungry, or visit the sick or imprisoned, more seeds are scattered, more risks are taken!

You see, it's these seemingly little things that plant the seed of God's Word in the world.

Yesterday morning I read a journal article by a psychiatrist who's been studying the growing plague of suicide in our nation, particularly among the young. He concluded the article with these words:

"A few years ago, a man in his thirties took his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge (as more than 1,500 other people have done since the bridge was built). After his death, his psychiatrist went with the medical examiner to the man's apartment where they found his diary. The last entry, written just hours before he died, said, "I'm going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump." [First Things]

I wonder how many Christians, people like you and me, he encountered on that short walk.

Brothers and sisters, sometimes one tiny spot of fertile soil awaits the arrival of a single life-giving seed.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Homily: Mass and Healing Service - July 8, 2017

Readings: Gn 27:1-5,15-29 • Ps 135 • Mt 9:14-17

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Jacob tricks his father, Isaac
What wonderful readings the Church has given us today. Hearing the story of Jacob and Esau only cements my belief in the historical truth of much of the Old Testament. The story of this ancient family is so very human it must be true.

Indeed, passages like today's from Genesis are what separate the Old Testament from the historical and spiritual writings of other ancient peoples. In the writings of those other cultures the failures and sinfulness of their human leaders rarely arise. Yes, according to their chronicles, the ancient kings and pharaohs, the priests and sages were all near-perfect beings. They won every battle, they were always wise and just, and their children were perfect mirror images of themselves.

Among the ancients the only place we'll ever encounter two sons like Jacob and Esau is exactly where we find them, in the Bible - one, along with their mother, conniving and deceitful, the other arrogant and foolish. And yet Jacob, with all his blemishes and sins, is one of the great patriarchs of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

Of course we see it again and again...if only among the kings of God's people. David, the great king who also happened to be an adulterer and murderer. His son, Solomon, who neglects God's gift of wisdom, becomes enamored of foreign women (quite a few of them, actually), and turns to idolatry. And these two kings, perhaps along with Hezekiah, Josiah, and a few others, were probably the best of the bunch.

So...what are we to think?

Well, in truth, we should thank God for the gift of the flawed men and women who fill the pages of God's Word...for what a gift they are to us! In these broken, oh-so-human lives we come face to face with God's enduring forgiveness. We come face to face with God's mercy.

If you worry about your family being mildly dysfunctional, just take a closer look at Abraham's, or Isaac's, or Jacob's. Despite all their problems, all their sinfulness, God's mercy just overflows into their lives. And God wants to shower you and those you love with that same outpouring of mercy.

Brothers and sisters, without God's mercy, we would be - what's the best word? - doomed!

Without God's mercy our sins would overwhelm us.

Without God's mercy, there would be no Incarnation, no redemptive sacrifice on the Cross, no Resurrection to offer us the hope of eternal life.

Without God's mercy there is no salvation; for the Incarnation is the supreme act of mercy, the supreme act of our merciful, loving God.

He becomes one of us, He lives with us, He teaches us, He forgives us, He heals us, He loves us, and He suffers and dies for us. He does all of this for our salvation. He does all of this so we can be healed.

That's right. Without God's mercy there can be no healing. And we are all, every single one of us, in need of healing, aren't we?

Why are you here today? What kind of healing do you seek?

Are you in pain...physical pain, the kind that can scream at you, causing you to question God's love?

Or maybe an illness, one of those devastating, fear-laden illnesses that make prayer so very hard?

Or is it depression, or another spirit-draining affliction that seems to attack our very humanity?

Is this the healing you seek?

What about the healing you need?

When we place ourselves at the foot of the Cross, when we look up at our crucified Lord, do we tear open our very being, do we rend our hearts exposing all to His merciful gaze? Do we come to Him, ready to die to self and sin? Looking at Him, do we find ourselves completely overwhelmed by this incomprehensible act of divine merciful love?

You see, brothers and sisters, I don't know God's plan for you...and neither do you. But I do know what He wants of you.

He wants you, He wants me, He wants every single one of us to come to Him, to abandon ourselves to Him, to allow His will to move within our lives. But it's never easy to set aside our own willfulness and abandon ourselves to God's will.

When our wills dominate, we end up broken, and yet it's through that brokenness that God call to us.  He knows when our need for His mercy, for His healing touch, is greatest.

At some point, though, we will all be broken physically, broken beyond repair. As Paul reminds us this mortal body is just a tent, a temporary dwelling, until you and I move into that eternal dwelling which God has prepared for us [2 Cor 5:1].

But in the meantime, it's so easy to slide into despair, to think that we're not deserving of God's mercy. We become like Peter who, when he suddenly comprehended the gulf between his sinfulness and God's greatness, could only say: "Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man" [Lk 5:8].

But Jesus didn't depart did He? In fact, it was then, at that very moment, that Jesus called Peter and the others to be Apostles, to be sent into the world, to be fishers of men.

Did you listen closely to today's Gospel passage from Matthew? It isn't really so much about fasting as it is about the new covenant that Jesus makes with us. And it is new indeed. It's not the patchwork of the old covenant; it's not old wine poured into old wineskins.

No Jesus is offering us something wonderfully new, and He demands something new from us. This newness is nothing less than the Gospel, the command to love God and to love each other as we love ourselves.

That's right, brothers and sisters, we're to look beyond ourselves, to die to self and sin and live for the other. And we're to do all this even in the midst of hurt and grief and illness and pain.

Just as He called Peter and the Apostles, Jesus calls us in the midst of our brokenness. He calls us when illness and fear try to overwhelm us. And He calls us in our sinfulness, when our flaws are most apparent. It's then when our need for His mercy is the greatest.

Flannery O'Connor
One of my favorite writers is Flannery O'Connor, who wrote so many wonderful stories of repentance, mercy, and redemption. A Georgia girl, she died in her late thirties after a long battle with lupus. It was a battle that lasted her entire adult life. While in the midst of all her suffering, she wrote some remarkable words in a letter to a friend. Listen to them:
"I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, a very instructive place, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies." [The Habit of Being]
Have you ever thought of your affliction, your need for healing, as a mercy? I know I never had. My only serious illness was in my infancy, so I suppose I cannot fully comprehend what Flannery O'Connor meant by these words.

But our Lord certainly understood, always reminding us that fear has no place in the Christian's heart. And so, again, when we suffer, when we turn to God in prayer, what are we to do?

I really believe the first thing to do is to thank Him.

Joyce Kilmer, the Catholic poet, is another of my favorites. He was struck down by a sniper's bullet during World War One. But in the midst of his wartime experience, in the midst of destruction and devastation and death he wrote a little poem called "Thanksgiving." 

     The roar of the world in my ears.
     Thank God for the roar of the world!
     Thank God for the mighty tide of fears
     Against me always hurled!

     Thank God for the bitter and ceaseless strife,
     And the sting of His chastening rod!
     Thank God for the stress and the pain of life,
     And Oh, thank God for God!


Brothers and sisters, that's exactly what we must do: just thank God for everything.

Thank God for the joys and the pains of our lives. They are all gifts, even when they are beyond our understanding. Yes, thank God for life itself.

And then, today and every day, we can let Him worry about the healing.

After all, He's pretty good at it.