Sunday, November 22, 2015

Jesus Wins

Solemnity of Christ the King
Cycle B

Today we celebrate the great Solemnity of Christ, the King of the Universe. This is the last Sunday in our liturgical year, and it is fitting that at the end we take time to focus on the end of time and God’s great plan for us and for all of creation. Today we come full circle to take stock of the past year, get our priorities straight, and move on to the joyous expectation of the coming season of Advent.

And God’s plan is pretty simple: Jesus says that he is in charge and he wins. Bottom line.

To Christians, this feast is one of great hope. To us, the fact that Christ is king means that He is in control. Eventually, He triumphs over all the other kings of the world. The image of Christ as king helps us focus on the truly important. It gives us hope in the face of all the minor and major setbacks we face in our daily lives and in the world.

Pastor Rick Warren in his best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life” begins with chapter one – “It’s not about you”. And that’s how we should all view our lives. It’s not about us. It’s first and foremost about God. We didn’t create ourselves and we are really not in control of our lives. God did and God is. It is especially important that we remember this when we are faced with an ever-increasing secularity and outright atheism in our society. Just because someone chooses to ignore or deny God does not change the fact of God’s existence and power.

Jesus Christ is our king and we are his subjects. Our king does not lord it over us. Instead, He treats us with mercy, an unreasonable and overly-generous mercy. Like the story of the prince and the pauper, God not only does not impose His will on us, he actually got down in the dirt and became one of us. He calls us; He does not force us. He asks for our allegiance; He does not demand it.

And yet Jesus says that as our king he is also our judge. We are called to discern God’s will in our lives and then are called to live it out. We do that by how we treat other people. We will be judged on how we treat the least among us. Therefore, it’s not about us either. It’s about others. We will be judged on how well we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. How we show our love for one another shows how much we love God, and vice versa.

Jesus Christ is king over all, not just Christians. As we heard Jesus say to Pilate in today’s gospel, His kingdom is not of this world. It transcends borders, religions, space and time. As we begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy next Sunday we should remember that our mercy and love must extend throughout the entire world, to every nation and people, no matter what religion – or no religion – they profess. That is sometimes difficult for us to reconcile in our hearts, especially if that mercy contradicts the king of our politics who is fighting for dominance in our minds.

Sometimes our lives seem more like the Game of Thrones. There are many kings in our lives, and they often war with one another for dominance over our lives. Who will we offer our allegiance to?

The king of money? How generous are you with your hard earned cash? What are you planning to do for those less fortunate than you this Christmas season? And will you do it because you want to bring the generosity of Jesus to their lives or just for a year-end tax deduction?

The king of power? What is the power structure in your marriage and family? Do you see your role as spouse or parent as being that of a servant or a tyrant? Or worse, as a hands-off manager not really engaged in each other’s lives?

The king of sensuality? Are physical pleasures and living the good life your main goal? Are you more focused on all the stuff you’ve accumulated than on the physical needs of others?

The king of politics? Have you become so rigid in your views that you cannot and will not tolerate those who think differently? Do you question their beliefs or their motives?

The king of self? Is it all about you? Can you even see it? Others can.

In the middle ages, the great age of kings, there was a power struggle being waged continuously. When I read history, it is usually with that macro view. The kings and kingdoms represented power. The great events of history are usually related through the perspective of the powerful. The common people were just buffeted by the events. They changed their allegiance to this king or that, depending on who was the winner or on who would cause them the least harm.

There were major kings and emperors and minor rulers as well. Usually it was the petty monarch that caused the most trouble for the people, because they were closer to them. Those other kings I just talked about are those petty kings. We switch our allegiance among them all the time because they are so close to us. The image of the King of the Universe can seem so far away at times. That king is in some other place and while He does exercise final dominion I have to deal with this king living in my heart right now. And it often seems like they are at war within me.

But the King of the Universe is not far away. He is not only within us He has become us. And we have become Him. When we were baptized we were anointed with the sacred chrism, the holiest of oils. Chrism represents the anointing of Jesus as king. The word Christ means literally “anointed”. When we were anointed the priest or deacon said “As Christ was anointed priest, prophet and king, so may you live always as a member of His body, sharing everlasting life”. Unlike the peasants of old, we are not simply buffeted by the whims of the king. We all share in His life. We are His body. We share in the kingdom.

The Jews anointed their kings with oil to symbolize that they were set aside by God with a special task. They were called to be wise and holy and strong and faithful to God. When the king acted so the nation flourished. When he acted contrary to God’s will the nation suffered and was even destroyed. Jesus is wise and holy and strong and faithful to the Father’s will. Therefore, when we also are wise and holy and strong and faithful we are Jesus to the world. Our anointing has set us aside for a special mission. We are the envoys of the great King. We are the ones he has sent out into the world to renew the face of the earth. We are called to bring the good news to the poor and lamentation to the powerful.

The kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom throughout Judea, and he commissioned his disciples to continue to proclaim the kingdom throughout the entire world.

I know this sounds like an impossible task. How can we change the world when we are so small and weak and insignificant? And we can’t. God can. And it has to start in each one of our hearts, first realizing that it isn’t about us, but ultimately it is all about us. The mystery is that it is when we are weak that we are most powerful, because it is then that we are forced to rely totally on our all-powerful King. I take solace in the thought that if it’s not all about me then it’s not all on me, either.

Because remember: Bottom line - Jesus wins.



Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Joy of the Gospel

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle B
Jer 31: 7-9
Ps 126
Heb 5:1-6
Mk 10:46-52

The Lord Has Done Great Things for Us, We are Filled with Joy

Some folks are people of joy. You can see it in their eyes. Even when they are suffering you can still see it in their eyes. Pope St. John Paul was a man of deep joy. You can look at pictures of him throughout his life and he always had a twinkle in his eye. Even when his body was wracked with the pain of Parkinson’s disease, even at the end, he still had that look. Take a look at the poster in the gathering space on your way out and see the look of joy on Pope Francis’ face. His second encyclical is Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel.

You know the look. It is a sense of serenity and almost of mischief. It is the look of someone who knows something. It is the look of a person at peace.

Joy is not happiness. Happiness is a feeling. Joy is a state of being. Happiness is fleeting. Joy is eternal. Happiness can be self-directed. Joy is the result of giving of yourself to others.

Sometimes our joy springs up to the surface so hard we cannot contain it. I remember the look in my bride’s eyes as we made our promises to one another on our wedding day. I remember the deep joy I felt at the birth of our children. It was a physical feeling. You know the feeling, like your heart is going to burst out of your chest. You cannot keep it in, it is so strong.

But in those other times, when events are not bringing your joy forth, it is still there, like an inner current. You know it exists by the way you react to and handle life’s setbacks. I have seen that look in dying people’s eyes. I have seen that look in the eyes of their families as they wait.

Because joy is always based on hope.

We await in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. That’s what joy is – hope. The joy of a wedding day is based on the hopes and dreams of the life the couple have before them. The joy of a newborn baby is all about the hope in the potential that child has within it. The joy of the suffering and dying is about the hope of the resurrection.

Without hope there can be no joy, only despair.

Circumstances and events can bring our joy to the surface. Bishop Robert Barron once said that one of the strongest proofs that God exists is the reality of beauty. It is in beauty that we find good. We find good things beautiful, and they give us a visceral, physical and emotional reaction, and that’s as it should be. Even people who have never professed faith in God still react with joy at the beauty of nature, art, music, and people. That’s how God has chosen to reach out and touch their souls.

But we have something more, don’t we? Do you get an emotional feeling when you come to Mass? You should. What is more beautiful that our churches? We surround ourselves with beautiful buildings, with beautiful artwork and furnishings, with candlelight and incense. We wrap ourselves in wonderful music and prayers. But you know, it isn’t the beauty we surround ourselves that creates our joy. Our joy has led us to create these beautiful things. Because we are compelled to try to give expression to our joy, even though we usually fall far short.

I get emotional during Mass sometimes. Sometimes I get such a deep rush of joy while proclaiming the gospel that I choke up. There are many times that a piece of music causes the joy to well up within me. Beautiful music always causes me joy, especially at Mass, and especially when I hear my daughter sing. I get a rush of joy when I see the look in your eyes when you come forward to receive communion, especially when I haven’t seen you in a while.

I often stand at the head of the communion line and some song or other is being sung that brings up a joyful memory and I get teary eyed. Sometimes it’s just the tune or melody that touches me. Or someone steps forward to receive and there are tears in their eyes and I wonder why. Is it because they have been away from the Church for a long time and have finally reconciled themselves with God? Is it the joy of the Israelites returning home after years of exile, like we heard about in today’s first reading? Have they finally received the forgiveness they have so desperately sought for so long and now are part of the Body of Christ again? Or are they tears of sorrow because of some tragedy in their lives, and they are coming to the table to receive the strength they need to get through one more day?

We find joy in one another. We find joy in our families, especially in our children. Joy is always about your relationship with other people.

Do you ever feel joy at Mass? If not, why not? If joy is all about hope, why wouldn’t we feel hopeful at Mass? The Mass is the ultimate hope, the hope of our eternal salvation. The Mass is structured to give us an emotional, intellectual and spiritual connection with God, and it should cause you great joy. That connection brings us joy, and joy gives us the connection.

Many of us were raised to worship with deep piety and solemnity, and that’s a good thing. Solemnity and joy are not contradictory. Have you ever celebrated a solemn Mass with a huge organ and a choir where you didn’t really understand a word they were saying, but you felt the presence of the Holy Spirit there? That’s also joy. Solemnity does not mean dourness. Solemnity and piety are our ways of acknowledging the awesomeness and power or our God, and the hope of the promise He has given us. Respecting the Mass does not mean we have to look grumpy.

A lot of times when I’m out driving I’ll pull up to a stoplight and the person in the car beside me is just rocking out to the music. Really loudly. They’re just singing along at the top of their lungs and don’t care who sees them or hears them.

Oh wait, that’s me.

Whatever, music has that effect on us, doesn’t it? We sing because we are joyful and the action of singing makes us feel joyful. We should all sing at the top of our lungs during Mass.

Would Thanksgiving dinner be the same if everyone just sat there and said nothing? Or if just the person at the head of the table did all the talking? It’s the same with the Mass. We are all called to full, active participation in the Mass, and that’s why it’s important that we hear with our ears and our hearts, that we pray along with the priest, join in the musical celebration, and enter fully into the mystery of the Eucharist, the sign of our greatest joy and unity.

Sometimes I see someone out in the congregation who has a wide smile and a twinkle in their eye, and I find myself looking at them all the time. We are drawn to joyful people, we want to know what they know that we don’t know.  I remember one time I was serving as the deacon of the Mass during the adult confirmation at the cathedral with Bishop Wester. There were about 150 people who were being confirmed that day, and so it was taking a long time. Almost everyone who came up did so with either a blank look on their face or a look of fear that they would do something wrong. After about twenty minutes of this, a teenage girl stepped forward with such a profound smile on her face. When the bishop said “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” she replied with a resounding “AMEN”, and then returned his embrace with enthusiasm. The bishop  turned to me and said, “Finally, some joy”.

Isn’t that sad? All those people were receiving the Holy Spirit into their hearts and souls in such a profound, life-changing way, and only one of them had informed their face. We today have been given the same wonderful gift, but has it brought us any joy? We have been led in beautiful music, and we have added our voices to the chorus. We have recited the Gloria together, a prayer giving glory to the God who created us and has given us such blessings. We have sung Alleluia and we will pray Holy, Holy, Holy. We should show our joy to those around us.

I truly believe that if we do not ever feel a deep joy in our hearts and souls during the Mass or any of the sacraments we will not truly understand what God is all about. We must have a gut reaction to God, we must have that personal of a relationship with Jesus, or I don’t think we can be joyful people. I remember when my son was born, my firstborn. I couldn’t even stay in the delivery room I was so happy. I had to rush out and call everyone I knew to tell them the joyful news. Joy cannot be contained, it must be shared.

I think our Evangelical brothers and sisters have something there when they pull out all the stops during their worship. Or like the Charismatic Catholics do who met today/yesterday for the Life in the Spirit Seminar. They let their joy spill out. I wonder how we can fulfill our mission of going forth into the world, sent from this Mass, to tell the world about the good news we have just heard and experienced, without joy.

I wonder what someone who had never been inside a Catholic Church or been to a Mass would feel and think if they saw us worship on any given Sunday. Would they see joyful people praying and singing and worshiping happily together? Would they be attracted to that experience and to our community? I hope so. Joy is why I come. Joy is why I am a deacon. Joy is why I stay. What about you?

“Our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed death
and brought life to light through the Gospel.

That is the promise we have received. That is the hope we have been given. What a wonderful promise. What a wonderful hope. What a deep, abiding joy it can bring to us.
Let it out!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

For the Children

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle B

Stop them, Moses, they’re doing it all wrong.

Didn’t Moses know that these things had to be done a certain way? Only certain people were authorized to prophesize. There were rules to follow. These people over here are doing it right, those there are doing it wrong. As if God were limited by human beings on whom he chose to bestow his Spirit.

It is we who place limits on God’s grace. Not God. God wants all his people to be prophets. God calls everyone to prophesize his good news to everyone, not just while sitting in churches. Especially those who remain in the camp. The camp is our everyday lives. That’s where we are called to prophesize the most. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone was a prophet of the truth of the gospel just to those around us?

I think that has been the message of Pope Francis. It has been a regular Popeapalooza this week, hasn’t it? All Francis all the time. His message is one of mercy and less on the trappings of faith. Get out among the people and evangelize to them where they are. Bring the gospel to the world, since that’s where most of the people are. In the camp, not in the church. He has been a living example of that gospel himself. And it is wonderful to see how the world is reacting to him, no matter the reason. Is Francis just the latest celebrity. I hope not. All I really know is that he is a prophet, and everything he is saying and doing is calling us to also be prophets, especially to those on the peripheries of society. Exactly the same way Jesus did.

People are being moved to tears just to be in his presence. But surveys are showing that there is no real “Francis effect” yet, meaning folks are not returning to the pews because of him. There is still 30% of the American public who have become “nones” in the past ten years; people who have left the church and now profess no belief.

Some things are just not priorities and are not necessary for salvation. Too many times we get hung up on those things and overlook what is necessary. In some things it doesn’t matter if you get it just right. That’s what mercy is all about. But it is important to get it right in the things that truly matter. We are called to pass on the correct teachings of Jesus, as given to us by the apostles. It matters because our salvation depends upon it. There is a plan and there is truth. Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all the nations, and teach them everything he has commanded us. Not just those commandments that are easy or that we agree with. They are commandments, after all, not suggestions.

It does matter what you believe and how you pass that on to others, especially to our children. I think we parents will be most harshly judged on how well we have prepared our children for heaven. You know, that’s the first and most important job of a parent, to help our kids get to heaven. I think our generation will be most harshly judged. At least our parents gave us some sort of Catholic identity. We have abandoned even that to the god of political correctness, and the result has been empty pews.

Are we doing it all wrong? Jesus is pretty harsh in condemning those who lead the little ones to sin.

There are two ways to get it wrong with our children. First, by our inaction and inattention. Do we teach them anything at all about their faith? Do we live up to the promise we made at their baptism that we will be their first and best teachers in the ways of faith? Or do we leave it up to the catechists who we take them to for 45 minutes once a week, until they get confirmed, then they’re on their own? We have over 500 children in our religious education programs here at St. Mary’s. Where are they today? They can’t drive themselves here.

What are we teaching them when we don’t come to Mass ourselves every week? What are we teaching them when we allow all the other activities in our lives to change our priorities? When they stand before Jesus, will he care if they were great soccer players or skiers? I hear all the time from parishioners that their greatest pain in life is that their children have left the faith. Well, what did they do themselves to give them a reason to stay? We would never dream of letting our children decide whether or not to go to school, because we know how important an education is for their success in this world. Why do we not think that their spiritual formation is that important? Is it because it is not that important to us?

And our responsibility to raise our children in the faith doesn’t stop once they’re confirmed. Studies show that the vast majority of adults between 18 and 30 who leave the Church lose their faith while at college. How could they not, with the pressures there to question their beliefs and replace them with…what exactly? Even if you have been doing everything right since they were little, I don’t know how you can fight the tide of secular society. We all struggle just to keep up. We are all trying our best to be faithful. But, how many of us with adult children even know what they believe? When was the last time you discussed your faith and theirs with them? When was the last time you prayed with them? How are you helping them raise your grandchildren for heaven?

If you look at all the social and moral hot buttons today, surveys show that Catholics hold the same basic beliefs as the general population. We have bought into the conventional wisdom of the day. We are not counter-cultural; we are the culture. We watch the same television shows and movies, listen to the same degrading music, and when the social activism d’jour pops up that turns everything on its head, we not only cower before it, we embrace it and wonder why our Church can’t keep up with the times. And then we complain and blame when our children leave.

And that’s how we lead the little ones astray. Is it because we do not know enough about our own faith to know that what we’re embracing is wrong? Wrong for our spiritual, mental and emotional health and wrong for humanity? Spirituality abhors a vacuum. If we do not fill that hole in our souls with the living God, then other things, unhealthy things, will fill it for us. Society will fill it for us.

Jesus slams the false teachers pretty hard today. If you do anything to lead a simple believer to sin it would be better if you were dead. Not just dead, but thrown into the sea with a huge stone tied around your neck. Dead and gone to the deep, forgotten. Jesus didn’t often get this graphic. He said something like it one other time, when talking about his betrayer. “It would be better if he had never been born”. Non-existence was preferable to the sin of betrayal. And that is what leading someone astray really is; a betrayal. Betrayal of the sacred trust given us by God to learn the truth about Him and then faithfully pass that on to others, especially to our children. That sacred trust calls us to be prophets.

Is Jesus just speaking in hyperbole today? I don’t think so. And he wasn’t given to euphemisms, either. Sometimes he could be pretty blunt.

If your technology causes you to sin because you are more concerned with answering that text than you are about hearing about what your son did in school today, cut it off.

If your viewing pornography has distorted the way you view your spouse to the point where you cannot be satisfied in your relationship any more, cut it off.

If your political beliefs have become so hardened that you cannot even bear to be in a relationship with someone with a different point of view, pluck them out.

If you judge yourself superior to another Catholic because they do not live up to your understanding of piety, cut it out.

If you have so bought into the conventional wisdom of our secular society that you reject the most basic teachings of your church because you know better, pluck it out. Even worse if you attack and try to destroy those who try to be faithful to them.

It is better that you enter heaven without these things then to enter Gehenna with them. Let go of what is keeping you from prophesying the truth. Let go of what is keeping you from being an effective, loving witness - a Francis - to those in your everyday world. To everyone. To those left in the camp. Especially to the children.