Pride and Pusillanimity

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 22C

“Go and take the lowest place.” Many of us never reach our full potential as human beings or as children of God because we don’t understand and value genuine humility. While humility is one of the most important virtues and the necessary foundation for all other Christian virtues, as so many of the Saints bear witness, humility is also one of the most misunderstood of all the virtues. So what is true humility, and why do we need it? 

Humility is nothing other than having an accurate picture of ourselves, of who we are in relation to God and in relation to one another. True humility recognizes the gifts and talents that we have from almighty God and asks how we might use these gifts to better serve God and to serve our neighbor. Genuine humility should always motivate us toward service, to serve even those who cannot repay us, as we hear at the end of today’s Gospel. The most gifted man to ever walk the earth was also the most humble, Jesus Christ, and He always described Himself as One who came to serve, not to be served. 

Pride is usually what we think of as an opposite to humility because pride is thinking too much of ourselves, overestimating our importance and turning a blind eye to our genuine limitations. Pride often gets in the way of the service that God calls us to undertake because the prideful person desires instead to be served, or to serve others only in view of how we might be repaid. Pride prevents us from making a genuine gift of ourselves.

Like most virtues, genuine humility is a balance between two extremes. While pride is usually what we think of as an opposite to humility, the other extreme is probably the more dangerous because it often looks more like the genuine virtue while doing just as much or more to prevent our service of God and neighbor. This other extreme is often just called false humility for lack of a better term, but we might also call it pusillanimity, which is a big word that basically means having a tiny soul. At the other end of the spectrum from pride, false humility or pusillanimity underestimates the gifts that we have from God. We sell ourselves short, and this paralyzes us from serving God and others because we think we’re too weak, too sinful, that we don’t know enough, that we’re too busy and don’t have enough time to help out.  

Far from taking the place of honor or the lowest place, false humility keeps us from even attending the banquet to which God invites us, this banquet of love in which we are called to imitate Christ’s own service of God and of one another. Pride gets in the way, but even more so, false humility and pusillanimity cuts us off from the love that God has for us in Christian service. As we have the opportunity this Stewardship Weekend to give back to God and to His Church something of what He has given to us, to give even our very selves in service of God’s people, may Jesus fill us with His true humility, to recognize our gifts and to stir us into action.  

The Riches of Sacred Scripture

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 22C

With school back in session and the last vestiges of summer falling away, I’ve been getting geared up for the Scripture Course again here at Holy Spirit, which will return to Wednesday mornings this year. We begin on September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, very fitting as we will be taking a closer look at the Letter to the Hebrews and Christ’s role of bringing the suffering and frailty of our humanity to the glory and exalted heights of his heavenly sanctuary. We’ve had quite a few readings from the Letter to the Hebrews on Sundays lately. Hopefully, you’ll be able to join us for Bible Study to continue learning the inexhaustible riches of the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Last year, I had a great time in our Scripture Course exploring many Old Testament themes and the development of the Jewish faith and wisdom as we made our way through the entire Book of Sirach (a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus). We also received a summary of all the major covenants in the Bible, with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the promise of a new covenant through the prophets, all culminating and finding their fulfillment in the Eucharistic Covenant of Jesus Christ. Dr. John Bergsma provided this summary, along with stick figure illustrations, in Bible Basics for Catholics.

With the time that was left in the spring, I tried to provide a general introduction to the figure of St. Luke and the distinctive features of his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, since most of our Gospel readings on Sundays this year come from St. Luke. Six major features include his sense of history, concern for the poor, the importance of women, the working of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and salvation extended to all the nations. Direction and geography also play a role in Luke’s writings. Luke very deliberately sets forth his Gospel account as the journey of Jesus from Galilee through Samaria culminating in the salvation He won for us by His Cross and Resurrection in Jerusalem. The Acts of the Apostles, the second volume of Luke’s work, shows the mission of the Apostles directed by the Holy Spirit, gradually expanding out from Jerusalem, through Samaria and into Gentile territories, finally to end with Paul in Rome, considered at the time to be the center of the known world. We would then take a look at the readings for each upcoming Sunday.

The Scripture Course last year was a great source of enjoyment and enrichment for me personally as I was able to share my love for Sacred Scripture in a different forum than the homily at Mass. I hope it was and can continue to be a source of enrichment and prayer for everyone who is able to attend. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3).



Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 21C

A few years ago, I played basketball for Elk Point-Jefferson High School, and at some point, our coach adopted as our motto the word “unsatisfied.” I’m not sure if that was an indication of how well we played, and “unsatisfied” is definitely more challenging to say at the end of a huddle, rather than just saying “break” or “Huskies,” but it did drive home to us that we should always be striving for more, never fully satisfied with how we played during our last game, or how much we hustled during our last practice, or how many free throws we were able to make yesterday. Unsatisfied. We should always be striving for more.

As true as this is for athletes and sports, it is even more important in our lives of faith and in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Instead of a game we’re playing and trying to win, we have just one life entrusted to us by God. We need to continually strive to live it well, according to the truth of who God made us to be; to practice, every day, as long as it takes, to get good at receiving God’s love, and sharing that love with everyone we meet, to love even those who don’t deserve it, because we didn’t deserve it. And since our eternal destiny depends upon how we live this one life, we should be willing to lose everything else in this short life on earth, if only we might receive the salvation Christ has for us in eternity. Are we doing everything we possibly can, to make sure that we are headed for heaven, or do other questions and concerns take priority? Am I more concerned about what other people think of me and my place in this world rather than about what God is asking of me and my place in the world to come? 

In today’s Gospel, someone asks Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” In other words, how difficult is this, really? Should I kick it into high gear or just give up because I don’t really stand a chance anyway? Will only a few people be saved? Notice that Jesus does not say, Yes, and Jesus does not say, No. He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” If we think we are strong enough already, good enough Catholics, good people, nice people, we need to think again. The Saints were those who were always striving for more, challenging themselves and being challenged by God to answer more fully each day the call to holiness, to pray without ceasing and to serve the least ones. Unsatisfied. Blessed, soon to be Saint, Teresa of Calcutta would often summarize the Gospel on one hand. Five words. You did it to me. Jesus said, Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you did it to me. Mother Teresa was always striving to better serve the poor and abandoned, the dying and those who had no one else to care for them. She was always striving to give more of herself to God, to Jesus in the Eucharist. Unsatisfied. Strive to enter through the narrow gate. 

The original motivation for the question of whether only a few would be saved was probably the prominence of a spiritual elite in the time of Jesus. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests and scholars of the Law, only a few of the total population who were able to keep the laws about cleanliness and the many traditions of the Jews, these were the chosen few, the ones closer to God and often proud of their positions. Even in our own day, we might think that priests, deacons, bishops, cardinals, popes, that they have some advantage over the rest. In some ways, that is possible, in that we have perhaps spent a lot of time and study in learning the truths of the faith, but all of us will be judged rather on how we have actually put those truths into action, and those who know more don’t necessarily do more.  

The first reading from Isaiah prophesied that God would take priests and Levites from among the nations, the Gentiles, the people that had not been chosen by God as the Jews had, and Jesus says that “people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The spiritually elite have no advantage over anyone else in entering the kingdom. If anything, there is more of a danger that they will become complacent and think that they are already doing enough. Unsatisfied. Are you unsatisfied with the state of your own spiritual life? If so, you’re on the right track. But don’t stay there. Keep chasing after Jesus. Strive to enter the narrow gate. 

Death, but not sin

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 20C

“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” Our second reading today, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, is very familiar to me. When I first entered seminary, my classmates and I were told to memorize this entire chapter, Hebrews 12. I’m not sure I ever got it completely word for word, and after all these years, I definitely can’t recite it for you anymore, but it is a very beautiful passage of Scripture that provides motivation for Christian living. 

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us[…] persevere in running the race that lies before us.” What is this cloud of witnesses, who are the spectators of our lives? Whenever I hear this passage, I always remember attending Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, where they have so many statues and images of saints and angels that surround you on every side in that space. Now Hebrews talks about the heavenly worship that we join in whenever we attend Mass, but I would say that the saints and angels and all those who have gone before us in the faith and died in God’s grace, even our own relatives and friends who have died, this whole great cloud of witnesses is always watching us and cheering us on in living the Christian life. 

Our main obstacle and problem and the reason that many of us don’t actually make a lot of progress in our spiritual lives or in running this race is that we don’t see sin for what it really is, our greatest “burden” and hindrance from really thriving as human beings. At our coffee break in the morning with the Holy Spirit Office Staff, we usually come across a political article in the paper. A few weeks ago as we were discussing our options or lack of options for presidential candidates, Deacon Brian pointed out that a huge problem in our political system is that we tend to think that good policies can replace actually having good and virtuous leaders, that the integrity of our system can make up for the lack of integrity in our leaders and in our people. But depending on even the best systems and policies never works once you can no longer depend on good people to uphold them.

Beyond our political system, though, we fail to see that sin is the worst evil in our own personal lives. And because we treat our own sin as a minor problem, we continue to run up against the same walls time and again in our spiritual lives. It’s no great wonder that we continue to face the same problems in our relationships, in our families, in our workplace and in our free time when we have not yet taken a real stand against the greatest evil in our lives. In our struggle against sin, we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. 

As I was growing up, I came across a very short biography of St. Dominic Savio, a student of St. John Bosco in Italy. St. Dominic Savio from a very early age had a motto that he would often repeat to himself, “Death, but not sin.” Death, but not sin. He was very clear in his own approach to life of what his greatest enemy was and the lengths that he should go to to avoid it, that he would rather die than willfully commit even one sin. He would allow his physical life to come to an end rather than jeopardize his spiritual life in the slightest way. 

In my own life, I often wonder what my motto would be, if I’m really honest with myself. Instead of, “Death, but not sin,” it might sound more like, “Sin, but not the slightest inconvenience,” that the greatest evil that I see for myself is being prevented in any moment from doing what I happen to think that I want to do, whether what I want to do is good for me or not. This is why I continue to make little if any progress, because I do not recognize and fight against my greatest enemy. In our struggle against sin, we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. 

Jeremiah and Jesus in our other readings today were uncompromising in the Truth of God’s message that had been entrusted to them, and they were willing to suffer and die rather than disobey the One who sent them. Jesus longs to see this fire break out upon the earth, the fire of God’s love and the fire of hatred for our sin. Do not think that Jesus came “to establish peace on the earth.” He came not to bring peace but the sword. We should never be at peace with our own sins. May the fire of God’s love make us see our true enemy, our own disobedience, that, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” we might begin to really live and to run “the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” 

Put God to the Test

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 20C

Someone once pointed out to me that the only time in the Bible that God ever tells us to test Him is in connection to the practice of tithing. Malachi 3:10 reads, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, and see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven for you, and pour down upon you blessing without measure!” Tithing is the practice of giving back to God ten percent of everything we receive. It is an acknowledgement that our life, our abilities, everything we are and everything we have has been given to us by God, and we are meant to use it to honor and serve Him. It is also an act of faith that God will not be outdone in generosity, that He will provide for us and bless us abundantly if we are faithful to Him. In an agricultural society, tithing usually involved bringing the first ten percent of the harvest, the first fruits of the field, into the Temple. Today, people are more likely to make monetary donations to charities and to their churches. 

The Stewardship Fair for Holy Spirit Parish is right around the corner, so it is time to be asking God what He is calling us to do, how He is calling us to give of ourselves this year. We remember the closing words of last Sunday’s Gospel, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48). What has God entrusted to you, and how is He calling you to use it for the building up of His kingdom?

We usually talk about time, talent, and treasure when we talk about stewardship. If we follow the Old Testament ideal of tithing and giving the ten percent back to God, ten percent of our income is easy enough to calculate. Less clear would be ten percent of our talent, but it would be pretty sad to see someone putting forward only ten percent effort when they volunteer. Something I had never really considered before is what ten percent of our time would be. If we take 24 hours to be the total amount of time that God gives us each day, ten percent of that would be 2.4 hours each day. Now how many of us could confidently say that we are faithful in giving God 2.4 hours of our time each day?

I don’t think we should necessarily just use a simple formula. God might be asking more of us or less of us depending upon our circumstances, but looking at the numbers can at least get us thinking and perhaps challenge us to give more of ourselves than we have before. Please prayerfully consider where and how God is calling you to get involved. So many of the ministries of our parish, including our religious education program, depend upon the generosity of volunteers. This is your parish. Take pride in it. Take responsibility for it. Resources and training are available to help you get involved. Step out in faith. You will not regret it. 

Looking Forward in Hope

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 19C

What are you looking forward to? What do you hope for? What do you anticipate in the future that gives you the strength now to persevere through difficulties and trials? Many parents right now are probably looking forward to the start of the school year, a very ordinary hope. At a deeper level, many of us often hope for a great love or friendship, for being reunited with someone who means the world to us. Sometimes we hope to reach a goal that we’ve set for ourselves. Usually for Olympic athletes, it’s the chance to compete and to represent their country on the world stage, and they persevere through tremendous pain and rigorous training to reach their goals. 

For most of my own life, I was looking forward to being ordained a priest. And this desire to be a priest and to follow God’s will for my life helped me to endure many a boring lecture or difficult exam during my time in seminary. Now, maybe you’re just looking forward to the end of this Mass, and your hope for the end of Mass helps you to endure my boring homily. One of my nieces, nine or ten months old, likes to start clapping when she hears, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” Regardless of what our goals are from time to time, it’s clear that in order for us to make it through the pains and sufferings of today, we need to be able to look beyond them, towards a future full of hope. Focusing only on the pain or trial tends to bog us down and make us forget where we’re headed.

But true Christian hope is not just a naïve optimism or wishful thinking to help us deal with suffering. Real hope is the realization that the whole of our lives should be directed, and is being directed by God, toward our final goal. Here on this earth, we have no lasting home. We are destined for life beyond the grave. Overarching all the small and ordinary hopes of day to day life, we should look forward to Christ’s return. Jesus warns us to be prepared, because He will return at an hour you do not expect. None of us knows how much time we have in this life, and we only get one shot at it. 

I’ve mentioned before that heaven is not just some land of generic happiness, perhaps with golf and cocktail parties. Depending on how you feel about golf and parties, that might actually seem more like hell. In reality, heaven is communion with God, seeing face to face the One who is Truth and Beauty itself. Heaven is union with God and with all the Saints in a happiness beyond anything we can experience on this earth. But how are we preparing ourselves for this union with God? Something else I am utterly convinced of is that God will ultimately give us what we want. He invites everyone into relationship, but He does not force Himself onto anyone. Those who end up eternally separated from God in hell are those who in their final moments persisted in a life of self-absorption. 

So the question for us becomes, what kind of eternity are we preparing for ourselves by the choices we are making in this life? Are we becoming more and more open to God, desiring more each day the life and happiness that He offers us beyond the things of this world? Are we becoming more open to the needs and concerns of those around us? Or are we becoming increasingly consumed by our own concerns and in the things of this passing world? If we find ourselves wanting to spend as little time as possible with God in prayer during this life, what makes us think we’ll want to spend all of our eternity with Him in heaven? 

Jesus always keeps His promises. He will return for us at an hour we do not expect. If the prospect of His return causes fear in us, what changes do we need to make in our lives so that we can begin to look forward to the Lord’s return? Lord Jesus, as we receive you in the Sacrament of Your Body and Blood, let your perfect love cast out all fear from our hearts, that we might look forward with longing to the coming of your Kingdom, now and forever. Amen.