Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Life is worth living!

Scriptural Reflection
Tuesday of the 26th Week in Ordinary Time
28 September 2010
St. Lawrence Catholic Center

For daily readings click here

Job is mad. He is spent. Not just a little bit. His life is a living hell. He wants to die. He can't imagine things getting any worse. He just wants it to be over.

This is more than just getting up on the wrong side of the bed. This is more than just having a bad day. Job has passed the point where the good in life outweighs the bad. Usually our lives are a mixture of both, with even on our worst days the good far outweighing the bad. Job is past that point. Way past it. He can no longer see any good. He can no longer experience any good. He has reached the point where life no longer seems worth living.

Yet the great story of Job is Job's deciding not to curse God. He does not blame God. He does not lose faith. He does not forget that his life is a gift, and he is not the author of his life. He does not forget the goodness of his entire life, just because the present is bad. Job does not let his own expectations of what life owes him to cause him to doubt God. Even though he wishes God would take this cup of suffering away, he does not take the occasion to curse God. The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Even though in his present moment Job's experiences nothing good, still he does not let the agony of the moment cancel out the good he has experienced in life. Life at the moment is not worth living for him, but life as a whole was worth living, and so even though he welcomes death, it is not because he has lost faith in God's goodness. Just because he cannot feel it right now does not make Job forget that God is good.

Job is a great model for those of us whose faith seems to wane when things don't go our way. It is ok to expect things to go well. It is ok to plan and to work to receive God's blessings and to make them fruitful. It is not ok to expect things to go our way. It is not faith if it wanes as soon as we do not get what we want. True faith is not only strong when things are good, it flourishes and shows itself to be pure and undefiled when it grows stronger in the face of every difficulty.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The poor are God's gift to us!


26th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

26 September 2010

St. Lawrence Catholic Center at the University of Kansas

The poor may be God's greatest gift to us. Let me say that again. The poor may be God's greatest gift to us. Oftentimes, for those of us who get locked in our own little worlds, paying attention to the poor is the surest way out for us. Today's Gospel challenges us to see the poor not as annoying, not as a problem to be solved, but as God's greatest gift to us. This is certainly true with the rich man. The greatest blessing God ever gave to the rich man was this poor man Lazarus. It wasn't his riches. It was the opportunity God gave the rich man to escape his independence and isolation. God offered the rich man the surest way to save his soul. But the rich man could never see Lazarus as a gift. He only saw him as a annoying burden, something he wished he could get rid of.

This gift of a poor man laying at our doorstep is an impossibility for most of us living in Lawrence Kansas, at least in the way that the rich man experienced it. Lying on someone's doorstep is trespassing. Panhandling on private property is illegal. Most of us would call the cops, and have the person removed from our doorstep. Yet I am not saying this to increase our feelings of guilt. The laws that protect privacy and property are not in and of themselves unjust. Allowing panhandling anywhere and at anytime usually does not improve the lot of the poor, and just as there are prudent reasons for maintaining safety and order in a society, so also there are prudent reasons why many who work with the poor tell you not to give money to anyone who asks. Despite the sharpness of today's Gospel, there are many good reasons for our giving alms in ways that will genuinely help people, not in ways that are in the end counterproductive.

Still, lest we end up isolated like the rich man in today's Gospel, it is incumbent upon us to see the poor as God's greatest gift to us, not as a problem to be prudently solved. Even if we do not have a Lazarus waiting for us at our doorstep on our way home from Church this morning, still we should look forward with joy to our next encounter with the poor, and if there are no such encounters in our immediate future, we should plan to go visit the poor, for they are indeed God's gift to us, to save us from our greed and self-reliance.

Mother Teresa gave a definition of compassion which I contemplate often, but have an impossible time living up to. She said that compassion is believing another person's life is as real as your own. I find this to be a beautiful definition. I still don't know how she accomplished it. Mother Teresa defined compassion not so much as empathy, feeling what another person is going through. She defined it as knowledge - a faith that another person's life is as real as your own. From this faith flows love. Compassion is not forcing yourself to love another, it is a love that flows from faith. I know that when I encounter a person in need, physically or emotionally or spiritually, I do not first ask myself if this person's life is as real as my own. Instead of focusing on the person I focus on the problem. I instead wonder immediately if I can fix the problem, and I measure how much time, energy, attention and money it might take for me to fix the problem. And if I don't want to give that much, or if I can't, instead of giving what I can, I try to run away. I try to ignore the problem, hoping it will fix itself. I try to be as generous as I can, but it is always measured based on what I think I can afford and what I think might work. It is rare that I can truly see my own neediness in the needs of others. It is hard for me to believe as Mother Teresa says, that their life is as real as my own. It is hard for me to be excited for my next encounter with the poor, believing as she did that in meeting them I will meet my true self.

Jesus instead tells us his disciples. Give to everyone who asks of you. I think about this every time I toss away requests for money, every time I ignore a beggar, every time I walk away from someone that wants some of my time and love. Jesus says give to everyone who asks of you. He doesn't say what to give them. He doesn't say how much. He doesn't say we have to solve everyone's problems. He says to give, not counting the cost, for the measure with which we measure will be measured back to us. Jesus lets us judge ourselves through the lens of our generosity to those in need. We are to always give something - a prayer, a compliment, or a dollar. We are to give to everyone who asks of us.

The Gospels from the last two weeks help us to see almsgiving as one of the surest ways to accomplish our salvation, to fit our souls for heaven. It is true that one who is focused on giving to others, one who comes not to be served, but to serve, is eternally happy. If a person goes into their day knowing that the only thing life owes them is the opportunity to love and to serve, it is impossible to take away that person's joy! If there were no poor among us, we would have to invent them, for without the poor we might lose the best way to keep our hearts from becoming hardened like the heart of the rich man.

Today's Gospel also reminds us that we have no excuses. God has revealed through the law and the prophets, and most of all through the paschal mystery of His Son, who He is and what His commandments are. Love one another as I have loved you. God has made Himself clear. We have no excuses. Yet God's commands are not burdensome. Though they may on the surface appear hard, they save us from something much harder, hardness of heart. They save us from ignoring the deepest desire of the human heart, which is to make a perfect gift of one's self in love. God's commands are not an imposition on us, they help us to be fully alive and fully ourselves, and they keep open a future where our lives get bigger and bigger until they end in God, rather than our hopelessly accepting a life that gets smaller and smaller, ending only in ourselves.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Confess the 'money' sins!

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
18/19 September 2010
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

For daily readings click here

The title of this homily is that we have to do better at confessing the money sins. Now I know you're all thinking - what are the money sins? Being judgmental? Unchastity? Envy? But as a confessor, I can assure you I hear these sins confessed all the time. By confessing the money sins, I mean literally 'money' sins. Almost no one confesses their greed. Almost no one confesses their lack of prudence in the use of money. Jesus tells us it is a most dangerous sin indeed. We cannot serve both God and mammom. Both God and our greed. We should make this a more regular part of our confession - what we have done with our money. For Jesus reminds us that where our treasure is, there also will our heart be.

Most of us do not confess the money sins because we think that is the problem of rich people, not us. Well, notwithstanding the fact that if you live in America, no matter how broke you are you still enjoy more security than 95% of the world, the reality is that both the rich and the less rich are addicted to money. Want me to prove it? How hard would it be for you to give a full 10% of your income away? Statistics prove that Americans are some of the most generous people on earth, but that most Americans still give away less than 3% of their income, and the more money you have, the smaller percentage you usually give. What is more, Catholics give way less than Protestants. The Biblical tithe of 10% is the minimum one must give away if one hopes to have any chance of owning his possessions, rather than having his possessions own him. 10% is the minimum, not the maximum, if we are to have any hope whatsoever in trusting in God and not in money, and yet almost no one meets this standard. By the Biblical definition, our possessions own us. They own all of us. Everyone in this chapel tonight. And yet we rarely confess this sin. It should be near the top of the list, always, or Satan is having his way with us. Jesus helps us to form our conscience today. We think it is the sin of the rich who have more than we do, but greed infects almost everyone, and it is the poor, yes even university students, who should be leading the way in giving away what they have, in imitation of the widow who gave her last 2 pennies into the temple treasury.

We give away our possessions because the hallmark virtue of a Christian is charity. Even if there were no injustice in the world, and even if the Church already had all the money She needed to accomplish her mission, Christians would still be obliged to give away 10% or more. We give not according to the relative value we place on the neediness of others. We give because of our need to give. We give because of our need to be free of our possessions, and because of our need to practice the virtue of prudence. While there may truly be a few situations where it is prudent not to give money away, in order to improve our own financial situation, it is instead almost always true that the person who gives more away, grows greatly in the virtue of prudence, and so ends up with more resources because he stops wasting resources. So the more you give away, the more you have. This rule is almost always true. It is not a get rich quick scheme. It is not prosperity theology, that the more you give the more you get. But it is a way of trusting God, that He will not be outdone in generosity, and a true desire to grow in the virtue of prudence, and to find ways to do more with less.

Such great examples are the religious brothers and sisters around us who make vows of poverty, who trust in divine providence and who show us how to be free of our possessions. As a priest, I am to live simply in a way that enables me to live reasonably among the people I serve, neither too much above them or below them. I heard a guy say once that he does not go to Church because he never met a priest who was poor, so even though I disagree with his reasons, his statement pricks my conscience enough to remind me that this homily is as important for me personally as it is for you. Every Christian should be known if not for his poverty, to which some are called for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, but at least by his simplicity, prudence, and charity. Let us pray for our consecrated brothers and sisters who show us what is possible, and who encourage us to serve God and not mammon.

I know I give this homily during a difficult financial time, when people are really struggling, where despair and anger can readily set in because of high unemployment, and because of legitimate disagreements about the state of our economy and the role of government. There is a lot of anger out there, and there must be constructive debate on these things, and we must especially look out for each other when times are tough.

Still, Jesus challenges us not to let political and economic challenges that exist outside of us to cause us to ignore the greater evils that come from within, those evils that threaten us more than taxes and unemplyment ever can. Jesus teaches us how to protect our souls and our virtue no matter what storms are raging outside. Jesus out of love for us shows us how prudent and skilled we are at securing our own self-interests, especially when it seems we will run out of money. Jesus gives as the hero of this weekend's Gospel an unlikely scoundrel indeed, a dishonest steward who while not possessing the virtue of honesty, has plenty of guile and wit and who keeps himself from starving. Jesus reminds us how quickly we stir into action, and how skillful we are, when we are threatened with running out of dishonest wealth. Every dollar we have, you and I, is tainted by original sin. As we know from the most elementary study of economic justice, many dollars are earned by the rich oppressing the poor - such is the economic system you and I live in. And yet we stir into action to secure this dishonest wealth for ourselves. We worry alot that we might run out. Yet we do not worry as much about our spiritual lives, about our relationship with God. We let it slide. We put it off until later. We lose our sense of urgency. If you ever want to find out how much more important money is for you than your spiritual life, the Church recommends that we give alms as a sure remedy against sin. That's right, try fining yourself severely for a sin that you commit. Give $50 to charity every time you commit a certain sin. See how hard it is to make yourself give alms. See how easy it is for us to love our money more than we hate our sin. See how easy it is for us to rationalize that we can live with the sin, whereas we cannot live without our money. Jesus tells us to be as prudent and as concerned in the battle to become the persons we know we can be, as we are in protecting our wealth. For we cannot serve both God and mammon.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ridiculous mercy

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
12 September 2010
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center

For daily readings click here

I dialogue with some very intelligent people who do not believe in God because they think He is mean. They think He is arbitrary. He lets bad things happen to good people, or maybe even causes them. These opponents can usually cite a passage in the Old Testament like the flood or God taking vengeance on His enemies ruthlessly. These people have a point, I guess. God does not mess around with evil. He hates evil with a much more perfect hate than you or I hate evil. We can tolerate it but He does not. God is also just. He is much more just than you or I are. He can see that it is not just to allow people who do not always do good to always live. Yet we can and do complain that it all seems so unfair, that bad people sometimes get to live longer than good people, even though neither should live forever. I guess people who think God is cruel can make some kind of argument. But I usually find that God is more just and hates evil more than we do. We blame God, or wonder where He is, during natural disasters, even though deep down we know that we probably have all the resources and expertise needed to keep people safe. It is moral evil, caused by man, that causes the most cruelty and pain. God may allow evil, but you have to stretch pretty far to say He is not good. God is not cruel. It is true that He does not let us live forever, but it is also true that the life we have is good. Life is worth living because God is good.

But even conceding that very intelligent people sometimes do make arguments against the goodness of God, their citing the times in the scriptures where God seems to take vengeance, or is unfair, seems quite selective indeed. Just as we did not judge KU's season this year, at least we should not have, based on that horrific play against North Dakota State, so also when it comes to God's revelation of His mercy, we see early on in the Bible the possibility of God being only just and not merciful. We see what it might be like for God to continually sweep away everyone in the world over and over again, starting over again with the one most righteous person He could find. But in today's beautiful scriptures, what we see in the Bible instead is the story of the revelation of the heart of God. With the turn of every page, God appears to be more merciful. God may be just on the outside. He may hate evil more than we do. But on the inside, at the heart, God is love. He is mercy. What we see in today's scriptures is the revelation of who God really is, when all the dust has settled. He is a God who allows a man like Moses to be an instrument of His mercy to the Israelites who have become idolaters. He is a God who chooses the greatest persecutor of Christians, Saul, to be an apostle of His mercy and to make more converts to the faith than all the other apostles combined. He is a God who likens Himself to a shepherd who risks losing His entire flock because He cannot bear to lose one little dumb sheep. And by the way, I've been told on good authority, that a sheep carried on the shoulders usually pees on the shepherd who is carrying him back. Or worse. Yet there is more. The God of all glory and majesty compares Himself to a ridiculously foolish widow who wastes all day looking for a penny, then calls Her neighbors for a penny finding party. He reveals Himself as a Father who is willing to give everything that He is asked to give, even to a Son who wishes He was already dead, and who then runs in the most undignified way to embrace that same son the instant he is willing to say He is sorry.

Our God is revealed through the teaching and gift of Jesus Christ to be the God of ridiculous, unthinkable mercy. In the Scriptures, this mercy is revealed as God's deepest attribute, the thing we should most know about God. It is also God's most powerful attribute. God's limitless desire to forgive is more powerful than any natural disaster he could allow or any justice that He can threaten. God will not take back the freedom He has give mankind in love, and so His greatest weapon for the redemption of man and His freedom is His limitless mercy, a mercy that flows from the life and the heart of His only Son.

The challenge of every Christian, I think, is to prefer nothing to the love of God, to prefer nothing to a complete dependence upon this mercy that is revealed to us this morning. Every Christian, from the greatest objective sinner to the least, must say with St. Paul, that of all sinners, I am the foremost. We consider ourselves the foremost sinners, not in a spirit of slavish scrupulosity, but so that we may know God's mercy above all things, and not sit in judgment of others like the older son. We do everything that we can to do good and avoid evil, so that we do not harm others, or put our lives and the lives of others at risk, like the younger son selfishly did in today's Gospel. There is no guarantee that the younger son would come back. Many do not. That is why we do not flirt with evil. But the goal for those who avoid evil is still the same, to day by day become more dependent upon God's mercy, not less. We do not have to do this the hard way, but to do it the hard way is better than to not learn God's mercy at all. It is our goal, the righteous and the unrighteous alike, to know God's mercy more, not less. To need it more, not less. To see that mercy as the most powerful thing in our lives, and the most powerful gift that we have to share with others. More than economic justice, more than greater armies, more than intelligent diplomacy, what the world needs most to eradicate the evil that was present on 9/11 9 years ago is to be touched and healed and set free by God's mercy. Let us begin by preparing our hearts and minds and bodies now for a most fruitful reception of that mercy ourselves in the holy sacrament of the altar.