The Guest of Honor

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 31C

When I was growing up at home, I used to hate having visitors. And it wasn’t just because I was shy. It was also because I was lazy. You see, every time we knew someone was coming to visit, we’d have to clean up around the house. I tried to convince my mom many times that we really shouldn’t clean up for visitors. It was deceitful. Instead of welcoming them into our home, we would be welcoming them into an artificially tidied-up version, really just the shell of our house that would then lack so much of that lived-in feeling. With up to nine kids in the house, though, there was no escaping the strong sense that the house was definitely lived in. But our small efforts at cleaning up were a sign of the respect we had for our visitors.

In the Gospel today, the tax collector Zacchaeus has very little opportunity to do much cleaning up around the house as Jesus invites himself over. With infinite mercy, Jesus is willing to enter in to the mess of Zacchaeus’s house and the mess of his life, and Zacchaeus is able to welcome him without embarrassment, without anxiety, but instead with overwhelming joy. But this experience of God’s great mercy does not leave Zacchaeus unchanged. His life is transformed. He confesses his faults and repents of his sins as he says, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Far more important than cleaning his house before Jesus arrives, Zacchaeus wants to set his heart in order, to cast out all greed and indifference, so that God can find a lasting home within him.

At every Mass, we, too, are given the awesome opportunity and privilege to welcome Jesus into our own homes, into our minds and hearts. How do we prepare ourselves to receive such a Guest? How do we conduct ourselves in his Presence? Jesus is the King of the Universe, of all that exists. He’s more important than the pope or the president of the United States, and he comes to visit us at every Mass. And, at all times, Jesus is here in the Tabernacle. One of the reasons that the Tabernacle was moved during the renovation was to make it easier for us to keep our focus on Christ when we are here in this worship space. When we come in to the church, are we attentive to the Presence of Christ? Do we silence not only our cell phones, but even more importantly, do we silence our minds and hearts, and do we arrive early to give ourselves the time we need to put aside our distractions and plans and worries, so that we can really focus, and welcome Jesus with joy? 

Another priest shared with me his amazement that so many people would never think of arriving late to the movies, after the show had already begun, and then how so many people are willing to wait at the end through the entire credit sequence to see if there’s one last scene. And yet, so many of us think very little of arriving late to Mass or of leaving before the final blessing and dismissal. What do we really value in life, and how do our actions show to God what we really think is important? One of the practices that I grew up with in Elk Point and in Jefferson was that after the final hymn, everyone in the church would kneel down in silence to give everyone a chance to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the great gift that we had just received, to speak with Jesus, still dwelling within us. 

Do we silence our conversations as we enter this worship area, before and after Mass, to give one another the opportunity to speak with Jesus? I’m glad that Holy Spirit is a friendly and welcoming parish, but there is a time and a place for everything, and the narthex or entryway of the church is a better place to have our conversations, as we try to maintain an atmosphere of silence within this worship area. I hope we care enough about our relationship with Jesus, and our neighbor’s relationship with Jesus, to be more disciplined about treating this area of the church as a sacred space. 

As Jesus enters in to the mess of our lives, our experience of God’s mercy is meant to transform us, as it transformed Zacchaeus, who not only confessed his sins but truly repented and made the necessary changes in order to welcome Jesus fully and follow him in his daily life. Have we allowed God’s mercy to transform us, to actually free us from our sins? Or do we become presumptuous and treat the mercy of God casually, comfortable with where we’re at or giving up on the freedom and transformation that Jesus promises? When we are more focused and attentive to the Presence of Christ in this church and in this Eucharist, we open our minds and hearts to the transforming power of the mercy of God, who wants to dwell within us not only every Sunday, but every day and every moment of our lives. May God fill us, as he filled Zacchaeus, with the burning desire to see Jesus, to climb any tree or to put aside any sin or distraction, and to be transformed. 

Stay Low and Keep Your Feet

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 30C

When I was a junior in high school on the football team, my coach decided to move me from wide receiver to the offensive line. And I wasn’t any bigger back then than I am now, so it became my task to try and block guys who were usually more than 50 pounds heavier than I was. But in football, weight is not always as important as leverage. Our coach always told us, “Stay low and keep your feet.” My one advantage happened to be that I was usually lower to the ground than the defensive linemen. Now I never became an All-American lineman, but by staying low I was able to hold my own and not get injured, and I’ll always remember that advice: “Stay low, and keep your feet.” Football coaches commonly say, “The low man wins,” and this seems to echo what Jesus tells us in the Gospel today: “The one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Coaches seem to understand on a natural level the importance and value of this distinctively Christian virtue that is so often misunderstood. They understand how important it is to be grounded, to stay low and keep your feet, and that this lowliness is never meant to make us shrink back, but should instead propel us forward. 

Too often when we think of being humble, we might associate it with some kind of self-hatred, or never thinking of oneself, or even a denial of the gifts and talents that we have been given by God and that we are called to exercise for the good of others and for our own good. God forbid that humility, this great foundation of all the virtues, should be used as an excuse for cowardice and for backing down in the face of opposition. The word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth or ground, and humility is what keeps us grounded in reality, grounded in the truth of who we are in relation to God and to our neighbors. Humility keeps us from pride, from illusions of grandeur and the endless pursuit of power and domination. But humility also keeps us from selling ourselves short and from shrinking back from the high calling and dignity that is ours in Christ. It is this aspect of humility that my coaches understood, that being grounded, staying low and keeping your feet, is the best way to gain the leverage to not only hold your ground but to move forward in spite of opposition, and this aspect of humility is illustrated quite nicely in our readings today.

In our second reading, St. Paul is definitely not selling himself short. In fact, he might sound much more like the self-righteous Pharisee from the Gospel rather than the humble tax collector. He tells Timothy, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day.” This might almost sound arrogant, but we should also notice how Paul is different from the Pharisee in the Gospel. While the Pharisee distances himself from “the rest of humanity” and from the tax collector—“greedy, dishonest, adulterous” people, as he characterizes them—St. Paul confesses instead that not only will he receive a crown from the Lord, but so will “all who have longed for his appearance.” St. Paul goes on to talk about his lowliness, and being deserted by all when he appeared in court, but he was grounded in the reality of God’s presence and protection during his trial, and this humility and trust in God gave him the strength to go forward in confidence, and persevere in preaching the Gospel in the face of powerful opposition, even to the point of laying down his life in witness to Christ.

The tax collector, on the other hand, as Jesus describes him in the Gospel might not seem very strong. He “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” Isn’t this just self-hatred? Isn’t he shrinking back? No. If we remember the culture of his day, it becomes clear that this humble tax collector is actually very bold. Tax collectors were viewed at that time as being traitors to the Jewish nation and collaborators with their Roman oppressors. They were seen as public sinners and enemies of the freedom of the Jews. This is why Jesus is often criticized in the Gospel for dining with tax collectors. Good Jews should not even associate with them. By coming to the Temple area to pray, the humble tax collector exposes himself to the scorn and contempt of the Pharisee and of everyone else there who thought that tax collectors had no business praying at all and no hope of being heard by God. The tax collector is grounded in the truth of the mercy of God. He acknowledges himself to be a sinner, he stays low, but he keeps his feet and does not despair. He throws himself onto the immense mercy of God, and he allows God’s mercy to justify him, to transform him and to give him new life. His humility and trust in God give him the strength to step out, to pray to God in the face of public opposition. 

Our first reading describes the strength of his prayer. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly, and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” As we approach Christ present in this Eucharist, we ask God for His humility, to pray with perseverance, to imitate the boldness of the tax collector and of St. Paul, to be steadfast in preaching the Gospel of Christ in the midst of a culture and society more and more opposed to the Catholic faith. Stay low, and keep your feet. 

Share Your Faith to Strengthen It

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 30C

It was great to be back to a somewhat regular week. Seeing the bishop, priests, and deacons of the diocese is always enjoyable during our Clergy Days near Chamberlain, and visiting the Black Hills with another priest friend of mine from my seminary days made for a simple and relaxing vacation during the following week, but it’s always good to come home and get back into a routine. I still haven’t gotten back into running as I’d like to, but I hope to be caught up before it gets too cold outside.

One of the best things about being home is having regular opportunity to discuss my Catholic faith. “The Church on earth is by her nature missionary,” so our faith can only be what it is meant to be when we share it with others (Catechism 850, Ad gentes 2). We find a new appreciation for the Gospel in our own lives when we see how it fulfills the desires of those around us, how it leads to greater freedom, greater joy, and greater meaning for our lives as Jesus continues to challenge us and invite us deeper into relationship with Him. So whether in the context of Bible study each Wednesday morning, RCIA on Thursday evenings, the musicians’ retreat we had a few Saturdays ago, or whenever someone has questions, sharing and discussing the faith with others is one of my favorite things to do.

This weekend, we observe World Mission Sunday and have the opportunity to help the spread of the Gospel throughout the world by our prayers and financial support. Our Parish of Holy Spirit is tremendously blessed with many activities, groups, and resources to help us deepen our faith and our relationship with Christ, but in many other parishes and parts of the world, resources are much more limited. Out of gratitude for the great blessings we have received from God, may our generosity spill over to provide for the needs of so many others who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Our faith needs to be shared, exercised, and grown for it to become or remain a living faith. Sometime during the course of this next week, please challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and to share the Good News with someone you haven’t before. Even if it doesn’t change their lives, I promise it will change yours. 

Pray Without Ceasing

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 29C

Just a day or two ago, I was at Mount Rushmore, and as I looked up at the faces carved in stone of the four presidents who symbolize the founding, growth, preservation, and development of our country, I couldn’t help but wonder what those four men would think of our country today, and what they would think of our more recent presidents and the candidates currently running for office. What kind of legacy do we hope to leave to future generations? What kind of ideals do we still live by? As our religious liberty continues to be threatened by our own elected and appointed officials, and as huge portions of our generations continue to be wiped out by choice, what will we decide to do?

On the radio as I returned from Mount Rushmore, I heard that according to a recent survey, 52% of Americans report experiencing significantly more stress this year because of the campaigns and the upcoming election. One commentator suggested avoidance to deal with the stress, to shut off the news and the social media and just put blinders on until after the election. The Gospel today has a better suggestion: “Pray always without becoming weary.” Our country, her leaders, and all of us are definitely in need of prayer, even constant prayer. I’ve always been intrigued by this commandment to pray always, which is very similar to St. Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians, when he says, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). 

This always seemed rather impossible to me, to pray at all times, when obviously, we need to take time to do other things as well, like sleeping, and working, and eating. Christians throughout the ages have had different approaches to how we might fulfill this vocation to constant prayer, even as we go about our other daily tasks. The book that has been the most helpful for me as I’ve tried to make prayer a habit in my own life is a book called The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Brother Lawrence says that prayer can be as simple as an awareness that God is present with us, everywhere, and at all times, and this awareness or consciousness of God’s presence doesn’t take much of our attention, so once we make a habit of it, it becomes easy to practice it at all times, even in the midst of our other activities.

How often throughout the day do we remember that God is with us, that Jesus walks beside us, that the Holy Spirit wants to guide our minds and hearts, to guide our discussions with the people we meet every day? Are we too worried about winning an argument and not concerned enough about what God wants to do through our conversations? Do we invite God into our activities at work, at home, at sporting events, or at the bar? What difference would it make if we could always see Jesus standing beside us? Would we sin less often? Would we speak to Him more often? 

Jesus challenges us “to pray always without becoming weary,” like the persistent widow in today’s Gospel, but we know that we are often in need of the support of those around us, just like Moses in our first reading. If we want to see God back in our schools, back in our business decisions, back in our marriages and in our families, back in the decisions of our government, we need to challenge one another to be more prayerful, to be more aware of God’s presence in our lives and in our daily activities. When we are attentive to God’s presence and God’s will for each situation, we find the motivation to continue working for the preservation of our liberties and for the protection of those who have no voice of their own.  

Blessings of Pain

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 28C

When I was growing up at home, we had a fireplace, and I was always kind of fascinated by fire. I could spend hours just watching the flames dance back and forth. I also liked to stoke the fire, and if I wasn’t careful enough, I could end up burning myself, which, as you probably know, isn’t the most pleasant thing to do. When we get burned, I doubt that many of us think it’s a great blessing to be able to feel the heat and pain caused by the fire, but if you’ve done much research on leprosy or Hansen’s disease, one of the main problems that those afflicted with leprosy experience is damage to their nerve endings and numbness, the inability to feel pain. So while most of us have reflexes to prevent serious injury when we get too close to fire, or when we touch something that’s hot, or even when we just stub our toe, those who have leprosy can end up doing a lot more damage to themselves because they don’t feel the pain that a healthy person feels in the same situation.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers. And how would they know that they’d been healed? They would have started to feel again, and to feel pain, which might explain why only one of them returned to give thanks. For most of us, pain is not a very pleasant experience, but it does serve a purpose. Pain can motivate us to pull back and get out of a harmful situation, like fire or injury. Pain can let us know that all is not well, and a change might be in order. The ability to feel pain is a sign of health and normal functioning. Numbness, whether physical or spiritual, is never a very good thing, even though we might think feeling nothing at all is better than feeling pain.

When we ask God for healing, when we cry out with the lepers, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” God always answers our prayers. But when the answer to our prayers is actually a new awareness of a harmful situation that we’re in, a new awareness of sin, an experience of pain or restlessness and the healing of our spiritual numbness through trials, are we still able to recognize this as a great grace and healing from God, and give thanks?

It’s not the easiest thing for me to point out to Catholics that certain things are serious sins that we need to bring to Confession before receiving Communion again, things like missing Sunday Mass, even when we’re traveling, or to point out that certain living arrangements contrary to God’s law can also prevent us from receiving Communion fruitfully. But throughout the Bible, the Presence of God, and so the Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, was never to be treated casually. The Letter to Hebrews tells us that “our God is a consuming fire,” and St. Paul makes it clear to the Corinthians that the holiness of God in Holy Communion can even be dangerous if we consume the Body and Blood of Jesus without first examining ourselves (Hebrews 12:29, Deuteronomy 4:24; 1 Corinthians 11:27-30).

Are we spiritually aware, or have we perhaps developed a spiritual leprosy, a spiritual numbness that prevents us from experiencing a healthy pain in our conscience? Do we have the reverence we should have, in approaching this fire of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? With Naaman the Syrian and with the Samaritan in today’s Gospel, we give thanks to God even for the pain and trials we experience, as answers to our prayers. May God continue to wake us up to the spiritual realities that surround us, that we may be purified and found worthy to withstand and dwell within the “consuming fire” of God’s love for us.