Sunday, September 25, 2011

Humbly think of others as more imporant than yourselves

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
25 September 2011

Humbly think of others as more important than yourselves.

God sucks.  I know this is an unusual way to start a homily, by stating that God sucks.  But these are not my words.  They are the words of a distraught grandfather in the St. Louis airport this Friday.  God sucks, he said to me.  He wasn't attacking me verbally.  He was letting me know that something terrible had happened in his life.  His 38 day old grandson had died suddenly, and the family was at a loss to explain what happened.  They didn't yet have a medical explanation.  Grandpa was heading to Philadelphia to bury a grandson he had never met.  Grandpa was a former Catholic.  He told me that now he is more Buddhist than anything, and that his son had nothing to do with God.  Grandpa came up to me because he was a former Catholic, and perhaps the only one who would say anything at the burial.  There wouldn't be a minister there.  He told me that he was sure that I couldn't help him, that I couldn't justify why God let this happen anymore than he could, that he had concluded that God sucks.  But he approached me anyway.

I'm not tooting my own horn here, but within a minute, I was able to help him.  I did give him a few things to say at the burial, and he thanked me.  I've buried a few children, visited many more in children's hospitals, spent more than a few hours wondering as we all do, why God's ways seem unfair.  The Israelites in tonight's first reading lay this argument against God, why is life so unfair?  God answers their question with a question; He doesn't respond like a bully, enforcing rules because He says so.  No, he asks whether it would be any more fair for the guilty to be allowed to live forever?  God's question shows us what hell really is; not the unfairness of this world, but the situation where men lived forever while never becoming their best selves.  Think about this for a second - would you want to live forever in a world, yes, even this world, without ever becoming the person you always promised yourself you would be?  Would you want to live forever in this world always growing older and never growing younger?  God in his question shows us what hell is really like.

So the unfairness of this world is something we must accept; it is the fragility of life; yes, even accepting the death of children sometimes, that points us away from desiring a living hell, existing only in this world in a sinful state, always growing older and never younger, and makes us long for those spiritual ways in which we capture the newness and fullness of life.  It is natural for us to question God when the good die young while the wicked prosper, for our anger at God is perhaps the only way in the short term we can tell him how good life is, and how grieved we are by its loss.  If we didn't get upset about the fragility of life, it would be because our hearts have grown cold, and that we have grown incapable of love.  We are angry when the good die young because life is beautiful; life is worth living, and there is meaning in sharing life with those we love.  So even when the unfairness of life hits us the hardest, we know that God who created this world, even if we do not fully understand his ways, is good.  Life is worth living because God is good.

St. Paul shows us in the letter to the Philippians how to cut right through the unfairness of the world; yes, even how to get over the guilt of our good fortune while others around us are so unfortunate.  Humbly think of others as more important than yourselves.  Mother Teresa put it this way:  compassion is believing that another person's life is as real as your own.  Now most of us are familiar with evolutionary arguments that show that there are survival advantages to loving others, to helping others, to sharing life with others.  Those who love and are loved live longer.  But what Paul and Mother Teresa are talking about is something that goes beyond biology; they refer to something that only makes sense if man has a transcendent spiritual freedom.  They encourage us not to love to the point of personal biological advantage, but to love to the point of biological death.  They speak of self-forgetfulness.  They speak not of loving in order to live; they speak of living in order to love.  For a true Christian, love is more important than life.  As St. Paul would tell the Corinthians, if I have life, but have not love, then I am not a person.  I am nothing.

That is why a true Christian, when he has a chance to end his life in order to grow perfect in love, does so.  Christians are to become experts at finding a way to end your life; either spiritually, through a perfect self-forgetfulness, or vocationally, through the priesthood, religious life or marriage, or physically, through the blood of martyrdom.  No one sees biological self-advantage in the cross; the cross is not loving so enhance one's life; it is self-abandonment for the good of the other.  The cross is the path to true and new and everlasting life, a life that is no longer measured in hours but by the depth of love.  Jesus ended his life when a path of perfect love presented itself; he who could not know suffering and death took the form of a slave, and chose the most hideous means of torture so that we would never doubt that love is more important than life.

It's not that a Christian can't wish that life would be more fair.  It's not that we can't get upset when we don't understand, or that God's ways make perfect sense to us.  But we need not say that God sucks, for the fairness of life is not the ultimate question for a Christian; we are baptized into the death of Christ so that our ultimate question is not whether life is fair, but whether life presents me a personal opportunity to grow perfect in love, which is my heart's deepest desire.  To that ultimate question, the answer is always yes.  And insofar as we live this question, the unfairness of this world can never trap us, and there are never a shortage of opportunities to move toward that eternal life for which I am made.

To this great end, let us heed the words of St. Paul.  Humbly think of others as more important than yourselves.  Amen. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Charity is the fullness of justice

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
17 September 2011

Life isn't fair, and it's not going to be, because God has chosen to permit inequality.  Yes, God, from whom justice comes, without whom justice is an illusion not grounded in ultimate reality, He whose thoughts of justice is are 'far above our thoughts' and whose ways of justice is 'far above our ways', yes, He permits inequality.  The one who knows about fairness better than we does not force life to be fair, at least not by our standards.  God permits inequalities, yes, we even dare to say he desires inequalities.  Indeed, God seems far above our protestations of how we would run the world differently, rewarding the good and punishing the bad, preventing bad things from happening to good people.  Indeed, the one who is the author of justice and fairness seems to scoff at our judgments.  In our sense of justice, we identify with the laborers who go out at dawn and earn a full day's pay, while those hired last receive charity.  We identify with the elder son who is loyal to his father, who has to watch his father kill the fatted calf for the delinquent younger son.  We identify with Martha, who works in the kitchen tirelessly to prepare a meal for our Lord, yet is told in the end that her sister Mary who has done no serving has chosen the better part.

It is true in these great parables of Jesus, the basic justice and fairness of God is hidden, while a greater justice, that of charity, is highlighted.  It would be the most superficial of readings of these great parables, to say that God is not fair, that he plays favorites, that in the end, each man will not get what he deserves.  We have the parable of the separation of the sheeps and the goats, for that which you failed to do for my brothers and sisters, you failed to do for me.  We have the great apocalyptic tradition of the Church of how God's justice will be at the end of time, the tradition of purgatory where everything will be set right before it enters the heavenly gates.  We do not for a second need to read in today's parable a deficiency in God's justice.  We might accuse God of unfairness, but in our heart of hearts we know that God is just, and that it is our ways, not his, that are unfair.

Nor should we read into this parable that a follower of Jesus can neglect justice to the preference of charity.  It is never an either/or equation, but a both/and relationship.  Catholics have been instructed that it is morally sinful not to participate responsibly and actively in the political process, to contribute to the civic good and the building up of a society that protects the rights of its citizens and works for justice.  The Church for her part has the responsibility to correct societies and governments when they make errors regarding a true sense of justice, for example, in the area of abortion, and more importantly, the Church serves the state by forming the consciences of its citizens so that leaders with the highest understandings of justice and human flourishing may be elected.

But it should be easy for us to see, and to admit, in receiving the parables of Jesus, that justice is not the Church's final aim, nor her final responsibility.  Jesus did not establish the Church only to make the world more fair.  The Church contributes to the establishment of justice, but Her genius, the reason Christ established Her, is to show forth God's charity, the charity that shines so brightly in today's parable.  In God's view, charity is not a means to justice, justice is the foundation of charity.  Justice is not the end for God, it is the beginning.  God's highest attribute is his charity, so much so that we are saying something more when we say God is love than when we say God is just.  And so with us, made in God's image and likeness.  We do not say that justice is our origin, justice our final calling, justice is our perfection in heaven.  No, we say that love is our origin.  Love is our constant calling.  Love is our perfection in heaven.

Our view of heaven then is not a place where everything is finally equal, but the place where everyone has grown perfect in love.  There will be nothing lacking in heaven, but what we'll notice ns heaven is not the fulfillment of justice, but the fulfillment of charity.  Our view of the Trinity as Christians is not amazement in how three persons can share the Godhead equally, but our amazement is how completely the three persons give themselves away in love.  In the same way here on earth, Christmas is not necessary for the redistribution of wealth, with the rich giving away what they have to the poor in a sense of justice.  No, Christmas is much deeper than that, much more meaningful.  Christmas is a gift-giving contest, where gifts are an expression of the deepest desire of the human heart, to grow perfect in love.

We all have a sense that there is something deeper than equality, something deeper than our own sense of justice.  Even if we had equal abilities and equal possessions, the idea that the need for charity would be eliminated should appal us.  The parables of Jesus show us that charity is greater than justice, that the goal in life is not to make sure everyone has the same, but to grow perfect in love by becoming more dependent upon God and one another.  In this light we come to appreciate why God creates difference and permits, even at times seems to desire inequality, even to the point of raining his goodness on the unjust and chastising the just.  God does all this for the greater purpose of enouraging us to grow perfect in love.

Even when justice is not yet complete, as in today's parable, opportunities abound for Christians to discover their vocation, to be called by God to work in his vineyard, to accept a personal invitation from God to give ourselves away completely in the priesthood, in religious life, in marriage or in other extraordinarily callings.  Whenever this invitation from God comes in our lives, early or late, we should thank God for our vocation, and for the path that allows us to grow perfectly in love with God and with one another.  This is the only acceptable daily wage for the true Christian.

While we work for justice in the world, so that more and more people have the opportunity to live in a good world where it is possible to love God and your neighbor with all your heart, and mind and strength, let us not forget that God permits inequalities so that we are all beggars and all givers, and that while working for justice, the opportunities to grow perfect in love are all around us.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Intensity - love and hate

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
10th Anniversary of the Attacks of 9/11
11 September 2011

For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
 - from the prayers of the Chaplet for Divine Mercy

At the dawn, the very first year of the 21st century, an icon emerged that threatens to be the dominant image of humanity for an entire century - the falling of the World Trade Towers on September 11th, 2001.  This is not an overstatement, at least not from our perspective in America, on the 10th anniversary of these horrendous attacks.  Amidst the many tragedies and triumphs of our new century, many of which, including tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, wars, and yes, if we dare to admit it, abortion, that have claimed countless more lives than the 3000 lost on September 11th, still the memory of those towers collapsing, and the sheer evil that made such attacks possible, is the dominant image of the 21st century so far.  The dominant image is one of moral evil, an evil that today as much as ever is strong enough to dominate man, to threaten his future, and to question his ultimate origin, the meaning of his life, and his final destiny.

But the image of evil is not the only icon that remains from 9/11.  There is as well Body Bag 0001, the fallen hero Fr. Mychal Judge, a chaplain for the Fire Department of New York, who when he first heard of a plane hitting the World Trade Center, responded immediately to help.  As we know well, first responders in droves came to help at the scene, most of them Catholics, and gave their lives trying to save someone else's.  They fulfilled on that fateful day the beautiful words that Jesus said himself; no greater love has anyone than this, than to lay down one's life for one's friends.  It was their job, but the courage and love with which they responded is a bulwark against the evil that threatened to dominate the day. 

And people prayed.  In the face of unthinkable evil, people acted with love and courage, and those of us unable to respond immediately in other ways, we prayed.  These images of love and prayer may not be as dramatic as that image of evil, of those planes flying into the world trade center, an evil that changed the world forever, but they are images that small as they are, when added together, allowed the light to continue to shine through the darkness.

Our scriputure readings today challenge us to understand the uniqueness and depth of the mercy that Jesus Christ has revealed and made perfectly present in the world.  Yes, you heard me right, the mercy of God is the most real thing in the world, and it is perfectly present here, because Jesus Christ has nailed the sins of the world to the Holy Cross, and He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  For a Christian, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ is an event in time, a day in history not unlike the events of 9/11, that forever changes the world.  But for the Christian, the two events do not stand side by side.  For the Christian, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ anticipates and swallows the events of 9/11, so that even when evil appears to have won the day, a Christian may not lose his faith, hope and love.   Yes, you heard me right again, the suffering, death of Jesus Christ is for us a bigger event in history, the smaller as it were anticipating and swallowing the larger, so that when a Christian has every reason to lose faith, to lose hope, and to give up on love, the opposite happens.  Because a Christian kisses the cross of Jesus Christ, and conforms his own life to the mystery of the cross, when something unthinkably evil happens, we immediately know that God is more present, not less present.  We know that God never disappears in the face of evil, but even in the very heart of the mystery of evil, wants to be perfectly present there and to conquer that evil through love.  Because the cross of Jesus Christ is an event in history that turned the world on its head forever, we know the victories of evil to be temporary and illusory, but that justice, mercy, goodness and peace are always stronger, and are the only things that can last forever.

Using the cross of Jesus to make sense of 9/11 is not a way for a Christian to gloss over the tragedy of 9/11, to call evil good and good evil, or to pretend like the pain of 9/11 was not really that bad.  It is to do nothing of the sort.  The response of a Christian to such evil is not to ignore it, or desensitize oneself to it.  No, we know our hearts should be burning, that we are to reach out in love to console those who have lost someone they can never get back, and to mourn the senseless loss of so much goodness in the world.  We are to help in any way we can, but also to join God in responding in hating pure evil with a perfect hate, and in resolving to fight more bravely against cowards who would use the name of God to slaughter the innocent.  Yes, the events of 9/11 challenge us to preserve more intensely the goodness that still remains on earth, and to take care of those we love, while also hating evil more perfectly.

Yet what truly makes Christians unique is the mercy that Jesus taught us, and revealed most perfectly in the mystery of his own life.  Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Forgive seventy times seven times.  If we do not know and live this mercy of Jesus precisely, we do not deserve to be called Christians.  It is not enough for a Christian to hate evil perfectly, he must also forgive his enemies from the heart, and in the face of evil, to resolve to move closer to God and to his enemies in love, so that evil and hatred have fewer and fewer places in this world to grow and prosper.  You do not have to be a Christian to hate evil perfectly, but Christians are those uniquely called and helped by Jesus himself to ride into the face of evil and to conquer it with love.

The suffering and death of Jesus is an event that like 9/11 has changed the world forever.  Jesus gives us the perspective that we need to live on not in fear and hatred, but with a more intense faith, hope and love, yes even in a world threatened by unthinkable evil.  For Jesus teaches us that even as the battle against good and evil takes place in the ambiguous battle lines of Islam versus Christianity, East versus West, secularism versus fundamentalism, and countless other battle lines, our Lord remind us that the ultimate battle line between good and evil rides right through the human heart, in yours and in mine.  At every Mass, we pray for an end to evil in the world around us, to be sure, but more personally, we pray for mercy for the evil we have done, and the good that we have failed to do.  Jesus teaches us well where the ultimate source of evil is, not out there, but in here.  He teaches us perfectly that to fail to forgive our brothers is to pass judgment on ourselves, to allow hatred and evil to have the final say in our hearts.  In the memory of 9/11, let us say with God that the perpetrators of 9/11 have already had their victory, they have had their reward.  But because of Jesus Christ, their victory is vanishing like smoke.  Let us resolve as Christians to not give them a victory that they do not deserve. Let us always respond to greater evil with greater mercy and love, in imitation of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  Amen.