Sunday, July 20, 2014

Seeds of Justice

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle A

Why do you come here and not to some other church? Why St. Mary’s and not St. Ann’s or St. Ambrose, or Shepherd of the Mountains or St. Luke’s? Most likely it is because you like the people. And most likely you like the people because someone has been kind to you here. Kindnesses are the little things we do for people just because we like them or respect them or care about them.

And we also perform little kindnesses to people we don’t even know all the time, don’t we? We hold the door open for them, we smile at them in the checkout line, we make a comment about how beautiful their baby is. We don’t do these little things because we want something in return. We do them just because that’s how we treat other human beings, just because they are human beings. We don’t even think about it, we just do it.

We hear in the book of wisdom today that justice is played out as kindness. We hear a lot about social justice these days, and not just in the religious sense. The big budget battles going on in Washington lately are couched in the language of social justice. What is fair. But justice is not fairness. It’s not about leveling the playing field or taking from the rich to give to the poor. True justice means giving all people what they are entitled to, just because they are human beings with inherent dignity. We tend to think of justice in terms of crime and punishment, but to God, justice is simply treating you as his child, just because you are his child. And because you are his child you enjoy certain rights and are bound by certain responsibilities.

And just because you think you have a right to do something does not make it just. Justice is allowing you to live the way you were intended to live. Just because you want to live a certain way doesn’t mean you were meant to live that way. Just because you want to do it does not make it right. And so sometimes justice seems unfair, because we don’t always want to live as we were meant to. Sometimes justice means we have to say no. Sometimes justice means someone needs to tell us no.

What makes a person kind? I think the thing people desire most is to feel that they are special and appreciated. We are kind when or actions make people feel that way. Most of us don’t go around working for the great causes of justice, but the mustard seeds of justice are the little kindnesses we do for other people. We can protest on the steps of the capitol, or pray in front of the abortion clinic, but it is kindness that changes people hearts. We change the world when we change the individual human heart. And we do that through kindness.

Have you ever had someone’s kindness to you affect your entire day? Has someone ever said or done something to you that just made you feel good about yourself, and changed your outlook on the day? Have you seen the commercials that show people in a city going about their day and one person does something to help a stranger, like pick up a dropped package or something, and then that person helps another person, and that one helps someone else, until finally it comes back around so that someone is nice to the first person who started it all? Paying it forward? That’s how grace works. That’s how our faith is lived out each day. Yes, we are called to stand up against the great evils of the day, but we act most like God when we do simple kindnesses for people.

These little kindnesses are the mustard seeds of justice. If we see the person in the checkout line as someone worthy of respect just because they are them, it makes it easier to make those bigger, tougher decisions later on, even reaching up to Capitol Hill. Social justice literally begins at home. And if kindness is the way we bring forth justice then we must begin by being kind to those closest to us. There are two types of kindness, active and passive. The greatest active kindness we do is to pray for the needs of others. Then there are the little kindnesses we do for those we love. We bring our spouse a cup of coffee in the morning; we pick up after our kids without complaining; we hold the door for someone at the office. But kindness can also be what we don’t do. We don’t blow up when our teenager comes home after curfew. We patiently wait for our wives to put on their makeup. We have compassion and understanding for the friend who is having a hard day.

It may be the small gestures that help us build our faith, too. We all have faith that began small. Grace is like that. The grace we are given never really goes away. It stays in us, and, like yeast, can cause the entirety of our faith to grow. We have no way of knowing if something that was given to us very early on is what we need today in order to make correct decisions.

That’s one reason we baptize infants. Something profound happens to our souls when we are baptized, and God’s grace enters into our lives in a very special way. A baby is incapable of sinning, however, by wiping away original sin God allows his grace to affect us, so that as we grow we will be more able to make correct decisions. The seeds planted in us as children affect the decisions we make as teenagers and adults.

A life of virtue is made up of thousands of small virtuous decisions, just as a life of evil is made up of thousands of incorrect decisions.  Just as faith starts out as a very small seed, an idea planted in our hearts which can then affect our entire lives and the lives of the entire human race, so too evil. People are not born evil, we are all born good, and rarely do people make the decision to act evilly all at once in a big way. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to kill someone. Instead, we make decision upon decision upon decision throughout our lives, often beginning as children, that bring us to an evil, or good end.

Faith starts with a very small idea, and then affects all our other ideas as well. Someone once said that there is nothing more powerful in the world than an idea whose time has come. I’d say that there is nothing more powerful than a single person’s faith. The faith of one person affects their entire family, their workplace, their neighborhood, town, and nation. And I think that is the message of hope we hold for the world. Because while that yeast is only a fraction of the ingredients used in the bread, it causes the entire loaf of dough to rise. The world seems to be growing more and more indifferent to God every day. The rest of the dough isn’t very good, but all it takes is us, that small measure of yeast, to help it all to rise. Do you know that there is a bakery in San Francisco that has been making sourdough bread with the same hunk of mother yeast for the past 100 years! The yeast even gives rise to itself, and they keep it in a special refrigerator under lock and key, because without that special yeast the bread would not have its particular taste and texture.

The Church is like that. Though the dough of the world has been mostly poor throughout history, the yeast of the Church has helped it to rise. We must guard it and cherish it and protect it so that it can continue to give mankind its special taste and texture. Our yeast is what God uses to bring justice to the world.

Christians are like mustard seeds. We can and are the yeast for the entire world. The world is a big place, but our faith can raise up the entire world, even if there are only a few of us left. Remember, Jesus started with twelve.

Jesus was kind. If you think back about all he did in his life what he really was was a kind man. He did things, great and small, for other people just because they deserved it simply because they were his children. Pope Paul VI said if you want peace work for justice. I will add, and do it by being kind to one another.

Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that small groups of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has." We can change the world, one heart at a time. And the first heart that must change is my own.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Elevator Story

6th Sunday of Easter
Cycle A
There is a television show out there right now called Shark Tank. In it, people with a new product or business pitch their ideas to a panel of successful business owners and investors, in the hope that one of them will fund their new venture. They do not have a lot of time to do it, either. They have to distill their idea into a short presentation, hoping that they can convince someone to give them a lot of money.

Another name for this is the elevator talk. A wise businessman once said that if you have a business or an idea you should be able to come up with a two minute description of it, just in case you are ever in an elevator with someone who can give you the money and resources you need to get to the next level. Someone like Donald Trump or Warren Buffet. Imagine that you are alone with one of them for two minutes in an elevator and they ask you what you do. What would you say? This is your only chance to influence them and your entire future is riding on the outcome. What would you say?

Peter is saying the same thing today in our second reading. He tells his disciples, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Have you ever tried to distill your belief in Jesus Christ into one or two sentences? It is easy to drone on and on about something. It takes a lot of effort and thought to come up with a short description of your faith.

Why are you a Christian? Why are you specifically a Catholic? I talk to people all the time when they are preparing to have their children baptized, and I ask them that very question. Some say it is because they were raised Catholic, and it is all they know and they feel comfortable with it. Others say it is because of the rich tradition of the Church. They like the rituals and the symbols and the history. Others say it is because they have come to believe that the fullness of the truth of Jesus Christ is found in the Catholic Church, and so they follow.

But isn’t it all about hope? What do you hope for? In the gospel today Jesus boils down what it means to be a disciple. He gives us his elevator speech. He says, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” Do you realize what he is saying to you? Not only is Jesus in the Father, but Jesus is in you and you are in him. That means you are in God and God is in you. You are godlike.

Do you realize how radical that idea is? No other religion makes such a claim. The Eastern religions are all about transcending into something higher than yourself, but you do not become God. Islam’s image of God is removed from humanity. Islam’s God cannot be truly known. We claim that we actually become one with God. Not with nature or with some philosophy of living, but with the creator Himself.

How is that for an elevator speech? Imagine that you are riding in an elevator alone with a stranger, and he asks you why you are wearing that crucifix around your neck. And you say, “Because I am a Catholic.” And he then asks you why you are a Catholic and you say, “Because I have a hope and knowledge that I am one with God, both here and for all eternity. And I believe that because I am a disciple of Jesus Christ and of His Church.” Either the person will turn away and think you are some kind of a nut or you will start a very interesting conversation.

Peter told his disciples to be ready with their elevator stories for two reasons: first, because people are looking for simple explanations for things. If you open a copy of the Catechism and start reading it to that person in the elevator they will get off on the next floor, even if it is not their floor. Details can come later if there is interest. Keep it simple and you will influence people. The other reason Peter said this is because he wanted us to stop and take the time to really think about why we are followers of Christ. Get down to the kernal of truth that underlies our belief and distill it down to what really matters.

Once you have come up with your elevator story, write it down on a piece of paper and hang it on the wall where you will see it each and every day of your life. This will keep you focused on it and will also give you encouragement when you suffer difficulties because of your beliefs. Remember that Peter also said, “But do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.”

Not if you are maligned, but when. Discipleship always comes with a cost.

Jesus said today that we are his friends if we keep his commandments. At first I found that odd. Who puts conditions like that on their friendship? But then I realized that we all do. We all put conditions on our friendships with others. I command you to share the same interests as me. I command you to have the same political beliefs as me. I command you to be of the same race or nationality as me. If you do not follow my commandments for you then we really can have no relationship.

But Jesus’ commandment is this: Love one another as I have loved you. Jesus’ commandment is not focused on himself but on our relationships with others. Because He knows that if we love one another we will love Him. If we truly love one another as He loves us we will be in Him as he is in the Father. But I think we often use this commandment to avoid the really hard choices in life. Perhaps because it is so open ended and broad we can use it to duck our responsibility to our fellow man.

Many people use the command to love one another as an excuse to be tolerant of any behavior in the name of love. We say that Jesus showed his love for people by accepting everybody. They point to the story of the woman caught in adultery and quote Jesus as saying, “Neither do I condemn you” but ignore his commandment to “Go and sin no more.” If Jesus accepted people’s bad behavior why did he have to die for our sins?

Jesus did not place limits on his love, but his love will naturally place limits on us. Love means gently guiding and correcting each other when we stray from commandments that we know are good for us. Just as a loving parent will limit a child’s behavior for the good of the child, so too does God place limits on our behaviors.

But it takes courage when we are called to stand up for good behavior over bad, and that is why we use the “Who am I to judge?” card. Jesus gave us many commandments, you know. He told us to go out and make disciples of all nations, he said to do this in memory of me, he said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. And yet we hate to evangelize other people because we do not really believe that our truth is the truth. We miss Mass on Sundays for no good reason. And we think that loving our neighbor as ourselves means that we can ignore all those inconvenient ten commandments about lying and stealing and killing the innocent and adultery. Because who am I to judge others? Just because something is right for me does not mean it is right for anybody else. And besides, how relevant are those ancient laws for us anyway?

We will all be called to give an account of what we believe, and for what we have done with that belief. Imagine that you have died and are standing before the Lord for judgment. What if he only gives you two minutes to explain to him why you are his disciple? Your eternal future depends on what you say. Could you do it? Could you boil down your entire life of faith into one paragraph? And would that be convincing to God? What is your elevator story?

Remember that an elevator goes both up and down.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Into the Night

Mass of the Lord’s Supper
It was Easter Sunday, and as usual the church was full. And just as usual, the only open seats were in the front. Five minutes before the Mass was to begin, the door opened and a homeless man shuffled in. It took him a while to walk down the aisle. He walked in wearing on his back all his earthly possessions. Even though the morning was warm he was wearing a heavy jacket, and it was obvious to all he passed that he had been sweating in it all winter long.
As he passed by each row, the people sitting on the aisle refused to make eye contact with the man, just in case he was thinking of sitting next to them. As he passed there arose the murmur of low voices as people began commenting on his presence there. Slowly he shuffled up to the front row and sat down. The people sitting on his right and his left slowly shifted in their seats, giving him plenty of space.
Suddenly, one of the ushers, and elderly man who had served in that role at that parish for over twenty years, walked slowly down the aisle, his eyes on the homeless man. You could hear the whispered comments. “Jerry will take care of this guy. He’ll get him out of here.” Jerry genuflected to the altar and then sat down right next to the homeless man. He turned to smile at him and then sat there quietly, not speaking to him throughout the entire Mass. He just sat there as if it were any other Sunday and he was sitting with his friend.
Small gestures mean something. Small actions or inactions can make all the difference.
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over.” Jesus knew the power of small gestures. Jesus chose to prepare himself for his baptism of suffering and death by sharing a last Passover meal with his friends. He knew that not only he but they would suffer terribly the next few hours. He knew that they would suffer the pain of thinking their dreams and their hopes had died with Jesus. They would suffer the anguish of uncertainty and guilt as they abandoned him. And Jesus knew that eventually they would all suffer for their discipleship and most of them would die for it.
He knew that he had to prepare them for their suffering just as he was preparing for his. And so he used the simple gesture of washing their feet to symbolize the role they were to play. Jesus wanted his disciples to begin their journey of discipleship with clean feet. “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over.”
Our feet carry us on our journey through life, and sometimes they get dirtied by our sins and mistakes. Not all of us is dirty, and we do not have to remain soiled forever. We need to clean up some parts of our lives from time to time. Whoever has bathed in the waters of baptism only need to keep their feet clean, for otherwise they are clean all over.
But Jesus didn’t want the apostles to wash their own feet. He wanted them to wash each other’s feet. He took the first step to prepare them for their journeys. But he also knew that their feet would eventually get dirty again and would need to be cleaned. He gave them the job to keep each other clean.
He has given us the same job. We are to also help each other stay clean throughout our journeys to the Father. It is a humbling job, both for those who wash and for those who are being washed. Sometimes those feet need a good scrubbing and other times we just need someone to sit with us quietly and validate our dignity. Either way, we are all journeying on this road together, aware that our road can be filled with danger, fear, and anxiety. Like Jesus, after we leave this supper we will go out into the night, into the darkness. Tonight there will be no words of dismissal. We will not be called to go forth in the peace of Christ to love and serve one another. We will just leave. Into the quiet of the night. To prepare.