Saturday, September 29, 2012

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

This homily originally appeared in Connect! magazine

When we picture Jesus, we tend to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken man who loved and cared for everyone. While he was certainly that, he was also a man who was passionate about the truth and unafraid to proclaim it whenever necessary. There are times throughout the gospels when Jesus, because of his love of the truth, can sound severe and even harsh. We can sometimes be shocked when we hear Jesus speaking clearly about the reality of hell or when he tells the religious leaders that they are like "vipers" and "white-washed coffins." However, Jesus was not crucified because he was nice. Much of what he said upset the people of his day. Not only was he loved and followed because of his strong proclamation of the truth, but he was hated as well.

It can be a temptation for us when we read passages in the Scriptures which do not sound "nice" to want to overlook them. However, all of Scripture is inspired by God and meant for our education and edification whether it be verses that bring us consolation or words that make us question our choices and our way of life. We have to pay attention to and take very seriously the Scriptures when they point out our sinful behavior no matter how difficult they may be to hear. Otherwise, we may continue in that behavior and miss out on the graces God wishes to shower upon us.

Today's readings have some very harsh and pointed words for those who are envious. Jesus rebukes his disciples for trying to stop a man from casting out demons in his name. Instead of being concerned with the people who were suffering, the disciples were trying to control the powers Jesus had given them. They considered themselves "insiders", part of a clique, and were unwilling to share their authority with others, even if it meant allowing someone to continue to be caught in the grip of the devil.

In essence, they were envious of the others who were able to perform wonders in Jesus' name.

Envy is one of the seven deadly sins and an offense against the tenth commandment. It is also one of the most unpleasant feelings we can have. In fact, Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that envy is the only sin that does not give any pleasure. When we are envious, we begrudge people the talents, friendships and material possessions they have. Envy is such an offense against God because it can lead to our wishing or even committing harm on others. When we are jealous, we tell God that all the blessings he has given us are not good enough.

No one is immune from envy. It happens among classmates, it can take place between neighbors, and it can be found in businesses. Sad to say, even clergymen can find themselves envying other deacons or priests who are more charismatic or better preachers. When jealousy does find a place in our hearts, it destroys relationships and communities. It is at the root of many crimes such as robbery, fraud and even murder.

In a materialistic culture like our own, envy is widespread and far-reaching. Over the past years, we can see the effects it has had on our economy. As we suffer through the current financial crisis, we have to ask ourselves, how much of it was caused by jealousy? Is it not true that people over-extended themselves buying homes, cars and other items they could not afford because they wanted to impress their friends and neighbors or because they wanted what other people had? In the process, many have lost their homes and their life savings, families have been torn apart and whole neighborhoods have been ruined. When we consider how much havoc envy has wreaked it is easy to understand why Jesus had such harsh words to say about it to his disciples.

The good news is that there is a way out for us who might find ourselves struggling with envy. As with any sin, it begins by turning to Jesus and asking forgiveness. In prayer, we can confess to God that we are envious because we do not always appreciate how he has blessed us. We can ask him to give us a real and lasting gratitude for the good things we already enjoy. And we can ask him to give us a true humility so that we do not always have to be the center of attention and do not always have to impress everyone all the time.

If our jealousy has led us to seriously harm others by spreading rumors about them or stealing from them, we should go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as soon as possible. And, whenever possible, we should try to make things right by restoring whatever we may have damaged or stolen. Another good way of overcoming envy and learning humility is to ask forgiveness of the person we have harmed and confessing to him or her that we were acting out of jealousy. Chances are they already know that, but it will go a long way toward healing the relationship.

The essence of the Christian life is to follow the example of love which Christ set for us. It means loving others as we love ourselves and putting the interests of others before our own. It is the exact opposite of how we act when we are jealous. And so, another important cure for envy is to pray for the well-being of the people we are jealous of. In fact, as difficult as it may sound, we should ask God to bless them with the talents, friendships and material possessions we would like for ourselves. One of the Church's greatest preachers, Saint John Chrysostom put it this way:

Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother's progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised.

When we do that sincerely, we begin to feel the grip of envy loosen on our hearts. We live with a deeper sense of gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. And we begin to marvel at how God's blessings are spread far and wide for his greater glory.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

God's Little Ones

Who are the people whom the world considers important? Who are the people who show up on the covers of Time, Newsweek and People magazines? They are the women and men with power who make things happen. Or the rich who have luxurious homes and fast cars. They are the "beautiful people" - actors, musicians, politicians - who are attractive and have personalities that get them noticed. These are the people our materialistic culture holds up as "heroes". These are the people our society worships.

But the way we measure importance is far different from the way Jesus measured it. Power, money, looks, charisma - none of that made a person important to him. Instead, Jesus came to serve those who went unnoticed, those who didn't seem to make a difference in society. He came for the sick, the lepers, the poor and all those pushed aside by the world and seen as a drain on its resources. Those were the people he sought out in every city and town he entered. When he preached God's love and concern for every person, he was speaking to them. When he healed, theirs were the bodies he touched. And it was the sinners he chose to eat with, not those who were righteous in their own eyes. Everything Jesus did and said was directed to those who were forgotten, pushed aside, ridiculed and reviled.

And so he taught his followers that the only way that they could be important in God's eyes - the only way that they could get noticed - was to make themselves the slaves of others. If God's loving gaze was always on the poor, then they had to make themselves poor. If it was the sick that God was gathering into his kingdom, then they had to be found among them. The strong would have to make themselves the slaves of the weak, and the rich would have to put themselves at the service of the poor. Jesus taught that his greatest follower would be the one who acted as if everyone else were greater, as if everyone else were holier, as if everyone else were more important.

In today's gospel, Jesus illustrates his point by placing a child in their midst. In doing so, he was stressing that their job was to reach out to those members of society who were the most insignificant. In Jesus' day, children had no legal rights at all and were, therefore, the most vulnerable members of society. Jesus' message was that the greatest of his disciples would be the ones to look after the needs of the most vulnerable, those who otherwise would fall through the cracks.

Why does Jesus insist on this point? Because he believed that every human life had the same value in God's eyes. The poor person's life means as much as the wealthy person's life. The life of the sick is no less valuable than that of the healthy and strong. In God's eyes, the death of an Iraqi soldier is as tragic as the death of an American soldier. A person's power or money cannot make their lives more precious. To God, every human life is worth creating and every human life is worth saving. God never thinks that he has wasted his gift of life on any one of us.

The greatest example of this is the cross. Jesus, the innocent Son of God, the most important person who ever lived, was willing to give his life for each and every one of us. Whenever we are tempted to doubt our own worth or the worth of another person, we must remember that, no matter what we might think about ourselves or others, God thought us precious enough to offer up his Son in sacrifice for us. Jesus was willing to give his life up for ours. How, then, could we ever doubt the inestimable value of each and every human life, no matter how young or how old, how rich or how poor, how weak or how strong?

Jesus calls us who wish to follow him to serve the needs of those society deems unimportant. We must consider the needs of those who normally go unnoticed to be more important than our own because every human being deserves our love and attention.

Who in our lives could be going unnoticed and could use a little love and attention? Do you have a sick relative who would be delighted to get a visit from you? Is there someone at your work who is struggling and could use a helping hand? Is there someone at your school who has trouble making friends and would appreciate it if you sat with him or her in the cafeteria? Is there a poor person asking for hand outs at the light on your way to work whom you could give a dollar to and let know that someone cares for him? Each of us knows such people. They are Jesus approaching us in disguise and asking us if we love him. Even though our society has little use for them, they are God's precious children worth more to him than we can ever know.

What makes a person important in God's eyes? We know that wealth, beautiful homes and powerful positions cannot impress the all-powerful God who created the universe with all its wonders. To impress God it takes a loving heart willing to go out of its way for those who cry out for our help. At the end of time, the world with all its glory will be wiped away. Everything we thought was important will be no more. We will each stand naked before the God who created us, and we will be judged on how we loved the poor people he placed in our lives. Today can be the day when we confess to God that we have been busy trying to impress the wrong people. And today can be the day when we begin to ask him to open our eyes and our hearts to those in our families, in our places of business, in our schools and in our communities who are truly in need and who, therefore, are truly important and deserving in his eyes.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Do You Believe?

What is faith? What do we mean when we say that we have it?

Having faith means believing in something without any hard evidence. For instance, I do not need faith to know that two plus two equals four because it can be proven to me. However, I do need faith to believe God exists because it cannot be proven.

Faith, however, also means something more. It means trust. It means not only knowing that God exists, but loving him and placing our lives in his hands.

Because faith is both belief and trust, it can be at work in our lives on two levels.

On the first level, we accept certain truths of Catholic teaching. For instance, we believe that God exists, that we should go to Mass on Sundays or that babies should be baptized. This is a faith of the head, an intellectual faith, dealing mainly with doctrines and catechism. It is a faith of belief which is centered on facts and data. Most people have at least this level of faith at work in their lives.

However, there is a deeper level of faith which not only agrees that God exists and that he loves everyone, but believes it so deeply that it changes the way a person thinks, acts and speaks. If the first level of faith is a faith of the head, this second level is a faith of the heart, a faith that drives us to believe with our whole being. People who have been given such faith love everyone because they believe that God loves everyone. They forgive whomever may hurt them because they believe that God forgives all wrongs. This level of faith goes beyond mere belief in God to trust in God. People who have such a gift of faith are willing to stake their lives on what they believe, not just their intellect or their opinions.

It is this second level of faith that James describes in today's second reading. When he says that faith without works is dead, he means that if our beliefs do not lead us to change the way we live, then our faith has no power to save us. If it is not making a difference in the choices we make, then we really do not have it. We all know this from our personal lives. People may tell us they love us. But we know that our true friends are the ones who stand by us in the bad times as well as the good times. It is the actions of our friends that reveal whether or not they have love for us in their hearts. Just so, it is our actions that reveal whether or not our faith is real.

In today's gospel reading, both levels of faith -faith of the head and faith of the heart - are tested in Peter. When Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?", Peter alone has the right answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." But when Jesus pushes beyond this faith of the head to see if he has a deeper faith of the heart, Peter flunks. Peter could not accept that being the Messiah meant that Jesus would have to suffer. Though in his head he could believe that Jesus was the Son of God, in his heart he was not ready to accept the consequences.

As with Peter, it is suffering oftentimes which tests on what level our faith is operating. It is natural to want to avoid suffering and even more natural to not want to see the people we love suffer. Sometimes, however, suffering is unavoidable. It is at those moments that our faith is tested. Faith that is merely at the level of the head will not be able to survive the ordeals of disease, divorce or death. It takes a faith of the heart to continue to believe that God loves us no matter what difficulties we or our loved ones face. The good news is that God uses suffering not only to test the faith we already have, but to offer us a deeper faith. If we can accept difficulties with patience, God can make the faith in our head trickle down into our heart. That way, we can learn to trust that no matter how senseless our suffering may seem, God still loves us and can still make all things work for our good.

Suffering is very often an inevitable part of life. Jesus came not to take our suffering away but to suffer with us and to make our suffering an opportunity to have a deeper faith of the heart. And so Jesus says to all of us who want to follow him: "Pick up your cross and follow me. Pick up your suffering and follow me. Pick up your loneliness and follow me. Pick up your broken marriage and follow me. Pick up your failed business and follow me." These difficulties need not be obstacles in following Jesus, but they are the ways God uses to help us grow in holiness and trust. It is the way God uses to place in our hearts a faith that can really save us.

(image by Marisol Sousa)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

He Opens My Ears That I May Hear

For over 70 years, Alcoholics Anonymous has helped people from all over the world overcome addictions to alcohol, drugs and other destructive behaviors. Through a program comprised of 12 steps, the addicts learn to combat the spiritual sickness at the root of their compulsions by confessing that they are powerless to change their behavior and by giving control of their lives over to a "higher power". As they make their way through the other steps and achieve a certain level of serenity and healing, they learn that it is not enough for them to simply stop drinking or using drugs. If they are to know true and lasting healing, they cannot keep their stories to themselves. Rather, they have to reach out to others with the good news that their addictions can be overcome. It is part of the healing process itself to help bring others to experience healing in their own lives.

The same is true with those who are healed by Jesus. They are so overcome with joy after their encounter with him that they have to tell everyone about it. It is interesting that throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus commands people not to tell anyone who he is and what he has done for them. It seems strange to us that Jesus would want to hide his identity, but he needed it to be clear to the people that he would not be a political Messiah who would liberate them from Roman rule, but a suffering servant who would free all people from the tyranny of sin. When he tells the apostles not to tell anyone who he is, they obey him. Even the demons whom he casts out obey him when he tells them to keep quiet. But those whom Jesus heals, though they are warned sternly not to spread the word, cannot help but go around telling everyone they meet about the powerful prophet who restored them to health. For them, telling the story of Jesus' healing power is part of the healing process itself.

Today's gospel is no different. Jesus opens the ears of a deaf man and heals his speech impediment. Throughout his whole life he was unable to hear the sounds all around him. Now the first voice he hears is that of Jesus commanding his ears to be opened. During his life he probably spoke only when necessary because he was ashamed of his speech impediment. Now, with his tongue loosened by Jesus, he cannot help but tell everyone about the miracle that God performed in his life. His first clear words were praise of God for the gift of healing he received in Jesus. How could he now be expected to keep silent about the great work God performed in his life?

Jesus continues to be in our midst exercising his healing powers. Though it is rare, it still happens that people are cured of diseases or physical impairments through the power of prayer. Most often, however, the healings we experience through faith are of an emotional or spiritual nature. Because of our own prayers or those of others, we may find ourselves finally able to forgive someone who has hurt us. Or we may find the strength to let go of a burden of anger which we were carrying for many years. Or we may simply be overcome with a sense of God's infinite mercy and believe that our sins have been forgiving. No matter how we may experience it, each of us here has been touched by Jesus and healed. Now it is up to us to tell others about it so that they too may meet Jesus, the healer. If we want to hold on to the healing we have received, and if we want it to deepen in our lives, we must spread the word.

It could also be that many of us have been waiting for a healing that just has not come yet. Whether the cure we are seeking is for ourselves or someone we love, we have prayed, offered up Masses and asked others to pray for us, but God has not chosen to touch us with his healing power as yet. It could be that, for reasons only he can know, he wants us to bear that suffering so that we can grow to be more like his Son. Or it could be that he wants us first to bear witness to what he has already done for us to others. Many times when we take the opportunity to speak to others about the wonders God has worked in our lives, we look back and see that the healing has already been granted to us. We just have not noticed it. If we are seeking a healing and have tried everything from prayer to counseling to try to get it, could it be that God is asking us to try one more thing - making known to others the good things Jesus has already done for us?

Before we approach this altar to receive the Body of Christ, we will pray: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed." The Eucharist is the greatest source of healing for our body, mind and spirit. The man in today's gospel was privileged to have Jesus touch his ears and his tongue, but we have the awesome gift of receiving him into our entire body. If we approach him with faith, he will open our ears to hear his word and loosen our tongues to proclaim his praises. If we seek a healing, he knows it and most certainly will want to grant it to us in some form or another. It will then be up to us to spread the word that our God heals and saves.

(image by Marisol Sousa)