Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holy Families

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, Year B
Genesis 15.1-6; 21.1-3 Psalm 105 Heb. 11.8, 11-12, 17-19 Luke 2.22-40

On this Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I’d like to tell you the story of another family – a woman named Maria, a man named Luigi, and their four children. Maria Corsini was born in the mid-1880s in Florence, Italy. She was a military kid – her father was in the Italian army – and so they moved around quite a bit as Maria grew up. For a time, Maria attended a Catholic school, but her father had a disagreement with some of the nuns who ran the school, and so he withdrew Maria and sent her to a public school. She became a volunteer nurse with the Red Cross, eventually serving in both the First and Second World Wars, and she liked to write in her spare time on music and education. In 1905, Maria married Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi. He was a lawyer, working for the Italian version of the IRS, and together they had four children. Their family life was always full – sports, vacations to the ocean, large gatherings with an extended family. Friends used to say that their house was particularly noisy at mealtimes. But this family never let their pastimes and busy-ness get in the way of their faith – Luigi, Maria, and their children attended mass daily; they prayed the rosary together every night; and they regularly participated in all-night vigils and weekend retreats. Their lives were in no way extraordinary – but they were full of life, full of faith, and full of love. Luigi died of a heart attack in 1951, and Maria died in 1965. Less than fifty years later, in 2001, Pope John Paul II beatified the couple – they are now Blesseds Luigi and Maria, one step away from sainthood. They made history as the first married couple in the life of the Church to be beatified together, and to be beatified primarily because they lived the best married life possible. Pope John Paul said in the homily at their beatification mass that Maria and Luigi “lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.” They became holy as husband and wife, as parents, as children of God living through the regular ups and downs of life.

Sometimes we can look at the life of the Holy Family – the family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – or even the families of the saints as being too perfect or too out of reach for us and our families. It’s true, our own families will never completely be like the Holy Family. But there are some lessons we can learn from their life in Nazareth that can shape our lives today, lessons that all holy families have learned through the ages. We can learn the lesson of silence – there are few words and few stories of the Holy Family recorded in Scripture. The silence of the gospels on the life of the Holy Family reminds us that we, too, need to find time in our busy lives for recollection, study, prayer, and reading. It is in silence that we grow spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. It is in silence that a family can learn how to communicate well. We can also learn the lesson of sorrow. Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart; even the perfect life of the Holy Family was not without pain and sorrow, all the way to Mary standing at the foot of her son’s cross. But from the right perspective, we can learn from our suffering and grow stronger because of it. And finally, we can learn the lesson of faith. Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus to the Temple because that was part of their religious tradition. We are all called to do everything we can to make our faith the point around which our entire family life rotates. When a family prays together – in the home as well as in the community of the Church – it is much easier to find the strength and wisdom to live a family life that is holy.

Of course, the reality is not the ideal. There are countless ways that our families are not like the Holy Family. We know all too well the pain of broken families, the challenges of single parents, the struggles of mistrust, infidelity, and heartache. But, with God’s grace and with conscious effort, we can make our families holy, no matter what the family looks like. With a foundation in faith, we can live very ordinary lives in an extraordinary way.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Earth Meets Heaven

Homily for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Year B
On Christmas Eve in 1943, a young German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. About a week before Christmas, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents. This is what he wrote: “Of course, you can’t help thinking of my being in prison over Christmas, and it is bound to throw a shadow over the few hours of happiness which still await you in these times. All I can do to help is to assure you that I know you will keep it in the same spirit as I do, for we are agreed on how Christmas ought to be kept. … For a Christian there is nothing peculiarly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell. I daresay it will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name. … That God should come down to the very place which men usually abhor, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn – these are things which a prisoner can understand better than anyone else. For the prisoner, the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. … It will certainly be a quiet Christmas for everybody, and the children will look back on it for long afterwards. But for the first time, perhaps, many will learn the true meaning of Christmas.”

The true meaning of Christmas. Certainly, that is what we are all here to celebrate. It is a story we need to hear over and over again, because it never gets old, and it never loses its meaning. The story of Christmas tells of a child born this day who is much more than a child – he is God himself.

What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.

(William Dix, What Child Is This, verse 1)

What we celebrate this day is truly life-changing and world-changing. The birth of Christ marked the turning point in human history – it was the beginning of an earthly life that would end in an empty tomb that had once held the body of a crucified man. But this birth was meant for the whole human race, too. The birth of this child marked the beginning of the end of death – for us; the beginning of the end of sin – for us; the beginning of the end of selfishness, pride, and anxiety –for all of us. The promise of this day is nothing less than the promise of heaven – God became man not to live as a child, but to show us how to get to heaven, to teach us how to love God and neighbor here in this life with one eye always fixed on the life to come.

And our eyes at last shall see him, though his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heav’n above:
And he leads his children on to the place where he has gone.

(Cecil Frances Alexander, Once in Royal David's City, verse 5)

And so what is the true meaning of Christmas? It’s the story of a child born in humble circumstances, born right in the midst of our poverty and suffering, born to live and die and rise from the dead in order to open for us the gates of heaven. On that holy night, earth and heaven were joined together – not just for a brief moment, but forever. And now, today, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, we can still glimpse heaven; we can reflect the eternal in the love we show to God and in the love we show to those around us. Today, we can still glimpse heaven in the gifts we give, not to one another, but to the one who came to save us.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb:
If I were a wise man, I would do my part,
yet what can I give him – give my heart.

(Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter, verse 4)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Gift of Heaven

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B
2 Sam. 7.1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16 Psalm 89 Rom. 16.25-27 Luke 1.26-38

What do you want for Christmas? There are only a few days left, and I’m sure many of us have been thinking about this question for as long as the Christmas decorations have been out in the stores, or even longer. For kids of all ages, it seems like anything to do with the Nintendo Wii is right at the top of the list this year. For technology lovers, the iPhone is still hot, or the latest iPod – or maybe it’s a fancy new digital camera. Book lovers seem to be flocking to anything to do with the Twilight series, or perhaps the latest from the Harry Potter Franchise – The Tales of Beedle the Bard, or for the more serious minded, maybe a copy of The Last Lecture. But, of course, this year is a bit different than most years in recent memory. Not a few people in this country would simply like the promise of a good job this Christmas, or the stabilization of the financial markets. We want a bailout plan that works and a future that looks promising. And, of course, who wouldn’t throw in a wish for some real and lasting peace this Christmas, a peace that in many parts of the world - even in the land of Jesus’ birth - seems elusive. What do you want for Christmas?

Alas, come Thursday, most of us will find our wishes unfulfilled. Sure, we may get the latest Wii game or a new bestseller to read, we may get a restaurant gift card or some home-baked cookies. But the greater things in life – the things that would really make a difference in our daily living this Christmas – well, there’s not much time left for miracles. This Thursday will be a great diversion – it will be a chance to spend good, quality time with those we love, thankful for what we do have, grateful that Christmas comes every year, no matter what. We will sit with the poverty of our gift-giving, knowing that there is nothing that we could wrap and put under a tree that truly speaks of the depths of our love and gratitude for the people in our lives. But still, we wish there could be more. And, as Christians, we know that there can be.

For today, we sit with Mary, the young virgin of Nazareth, betrothed to a man named Joseph. Today, we sit with her as we hear the voice of an angel, announcing the impossible and heralding the coming of a gift that surpasses all others. He is the Prince of Peace, we are told – but he is much more than simply a peacemaker. He is descendant of David, but he is much more than any earthly king or ruler. Gabriel, the angel, tells us that this child is the “Son of the Most High,” and that he will rule over a kingdom that will never end. His name will be Jesus, which means the Lord saves, because he will lead us in the path to salvation, he will open for us the gates to eternity. The gift of this child is nothing less than the gift of God himself, living here among us and drawing us to him. The gift of Christmas is nothing less than the promise of heaven.

Does that change our Christmas plans? We will still gather with family and friends, we will still share the bounty of our lives around a table of good food, we will still exchange gifts as signs of our love. But because we’re Christian, because we take the message of God spoken through an angel seriously, all of that is secondary. The gift of Christmas, the promise of heaven, leads us here to pray. The gift of a little child calls us together as a people of faith to give thanks and praise, to worship as one Body of Christ, here in this place. The many gifts of our Christmas pale in comparison to the one gift that God offers. And when we come together to celebrate that gift, we really can glimpse the eternal; we can welcome a savior; we can celebrate the impossible – God made man.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

He is almost here!

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 61.1-2a, 10-11 Luke 1 I Thess. 5.16-24 John 1.6-8, 19-28

I hate it when people get confused. Everything thinks that I’m the one – but they couldn’t be more wrong. He’s very close – getting closer by the day. But it’s not me. I am not the Christ. I am not the Prophet. And I am certainly not Elijah. My name is John. And I am just a voice, a voice crying out in the desert, a voice calling for people to get ready for him – my cousin – the man they call Jesus.

Maybe they’re confused because I’m baptizing people. It’s definitely a powerful thing to do, to plunge a believer into the waters for the forgiveness of sins. But just because I’m the one calling these people to the water, that doesn’t mean that I’m the one forgiving sins. Only God can do that – I certainly can’t. I am not God. But he is here, and he’s not too far away.

Or maybe they’re confused because I quote from the Scriptures a lot. It’s true, I know the Scriptures well. I know that Isaiah’s prophecies are ready to be fulfilled. But I didn’t write the Scriptures. Those holy writers weren’t inspired by me – they were inspired by God himself, by the Spirit of the Lord. I am not the Spirit, but he, too, is not far away.

Or maybe they’re just confused because they’re impatient – and I can certainly sympathize with that. We want to know everything right now – we want God to show himself to us right now. It’s so hard to wait. But it’s almost here – the root of Jesse has sprung forth and is ready to blossom, the day of the Lord is dawning even as we speak. Our patience will not be in vain – the Christ will come, without a doubt. Even I can hardly take the excitement and joy of the anticipation!

And so, in the meantime, what do we do? Do we just sit around and wait? Well, we could – but there is so much work to be done. We have to get ready for this great day that is coming. We have to pray without ceasing, giving thanks and praise to God in all things. We have to listen to and obey the Spirit of the Lord, the one who will give us the wisdom we need to recognize him when he comes. We have to read the prophets and spread the good news – that the day is almost here! Our salvation is at hand! The long-awaiting Messiah is in our midst, the mighty Lord who does great things for us! When the time comes, I am ready to step aside and let him take control of the world; I am ready for the attention to turn away from me and onto him. Because he is the light, he is our Lord, he is the Christ. And even though I am nothing in his presence, I know that his coming among us will make us all holy and blessed. No, I am not the Christ – but he is almost here!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
Click on the Scripture citations for a link to the readings
Isaiah 40.1-5, 9-11 Psalm 85 2 Peter 3.8-14 Mark 1.1-8

He was a man on the edge, this cousin of mine. And everyone thought that I was the wild one. I hadn’t actually seen my cousin in many years – my self-imposed exile had pretty much kept me away from all the many get-togethers of our extended family. Over the years, the desert had almost become like home for me, and after a while I didn’t even mind the diet I was forced to live on. This was where I needed to be, this was where God had called me. In the desert, the Scriptures were my daily companions, the prophets my closest friends. In the desert, I came to know Isaiah and Jeremiah and the others as well as I knew my own family. Besides, my people needed a shaking-up – we all needed to repent, we needed to remember God’s great covenant with his chosen people. After so many years in the desert, some people think I’d gone crazy. But sometimes we need the solitude to be able to listen, we need the quiet to remember who God is and who we are, and we need the isolation to figure our where we’re going. Yes, for me the desert is a good place – not because it’s dry, or hot, or rocky – but because here, there is nothing between me and God. But enough about me. It’s my cousin that you’re really interested in.

From the first time I met him, there was a connection – at least, that’s the story my mother told me. You see, I don’t remember the first time we met, because neither of us had been born yet. But my mother loved to tell the story of when his mother came to visit. She said she would never forget the feeling she had when I leapt in her womb when his mother approached. There was something special about this cousin of mine, there was a connection that was much stronger than blood. We grew up at the same time, but in different towns – he was in Nazareth, I was in the Judean hillside. We saw each other the most on the big pilgrimages to Jerusalem, when our whole family would get together for days upon days of prayer, teachings, and of course good food. And then God led me here, to the desert, and I didn’t see my cousin for a long time.

When you’re out here in the desert, and you can really talk with God, gradually everything about your life and the world becomes clearer. I know he’s going to find me one day, out here in the desert. I know he’s going to come and ask to be baptized. And when he does, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to think of him just as my cousin. You see, everything I’m doing out here is not about me – it’s about getting people ready for him. All this time out here in the desert has made me realize that one thing – nothing is about me. That might seem strange coming from a guy who’s by himself just about all the time, living out on the fringes of society. But it’s true. That’s what all the prophets have told us – there is a shepherd and Lord who will feed us and guide us away from ourselves – he’s the one we should think about. But even the desert itself has taught me – out here, the days all seem to run together; it’s easy to lose track of time. There’s only one thing that keeps me moving – there’s no way I could survive out here without God. And every time I see my cousin, there’s something about him that seems to change even time itself. Whenever I see my cousin, I remember that it’s not about me – it’s really about him. I’m just an ordinary man, perhaps living a little out-of-the-ordinary out here in the desert, but there’s nothing special about me. If you want someone who’s on the edge, who’s different – if you want to know someone who can give meaning and purpose and direction to your life, someone who can give comfort in sorrow and strength in adversity – if you want to know a forgiveness and love that is complete, then don’t look at me. Look at my cousin, our brother, and our Lord. Look at Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Because everything about me will come to an end. But everything about him will have no ending.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Anxious Advent

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B
Click on the Scripture citations for a link to the readings
Isaiah 63.16b-17; 64.2-7 Psalm 80 1 Cor. 1.3-9 Mark 13.33-37

In case you’re a visitor to our church and this is your first time here, I want to clue you in on something that all of our regular members noticed pretty quickly today: my chair is in a new place; for this season of Advent and Christmas, the presider’s chair is on a different side of the altar – and that one change throws everything off. The servers are sitting in a different place, the Eucharistic Ministers have new furniture to navigate, and everyone has to get used to things looking a little different. Now, this change is just temporary – just for this season – but it’s a great time to do it, because it’s not normal, it’s not what we’re comfortable with. It’s something new. And so is the season of Advent itself.

It’s sometimes hard to grasp what Advent is supposed to be about when the world around us has been celebrating Christmas for over a month now. Advent is a new beginning – it’s a time of preparation and waiting for two things: for the annual celebration of the birth of Christ at Christmas and also for the return of Christ at the end of time. Advent helps us look at Christmas a little differently than the rest of our society, but it also helps us to prepare by recognizing the anxieties that we live in. Try to think of it this way. There is no issue that is more on people’s minds these days than the economy. No one is comfortable these days – we’re anxious, fretful, worried about what next month or next year will bring. It’s hard for us to live in the present, the right now. The security that we thought we had in our retirement account or savings plan is not there any more – and so we spend our time anxious about the future, our eyes straining to see what’s going to happen next. The biggest question that we ask every day is: when will all this end; when will the economy recover, and jobs be created, the stock market stabilize, and the anxiety be over? And we can’t wait for all that to happen. That is what Advent should feel like.

Think about it. Advent is not a comfortable season – the readings today challenge us in more ways than one. Isaiah is pretty blunt in speaking to God: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags.” Something is not right in our lives. Advent can be a reminder that we’re not comfortable, because we’re not perfect. But we want things to be better. We need to wake up and get our act together before we can welcome Christ’s birth with true joy. Advent helps us to recognize our anxieties, our worries – we don’t just go right to Christmas, because we need to prepare ourselves. But everything we do this season is oriented toward the future – Advent only makes sense when we preparing for something else – there’s a future out there for us, a future full of hope, and these days of Advent help to get us ready. Yes, Advent is a lot like an economic crisis – it’s not comfortable, it brings anxieties and worries, it’s oriented to the future, and if we really look at our lives, we might wonder how we can pull things together.

But there’s a difference between Advent and the economy. A big part of our economic worries is caused by not knowing what the future will bring or when things will get better – we hope things will get better, but we really don’t know. But with Advent, we do know what’s coming – we know that after four short weeks, we’ll celebrate Christmas; and we also know that, when the time has come, Christ will come back to bring the world to its completion. The future is set for us, and we know that it will be glorious. But it would still be too easy for us to skip Advent and go right to the celebrations. And that’s exactly what we need to avoid. Isaiah was right – we are sinful, “our guilt carries us away like the wind.” That’s where our anxiety and uncomfortableness come from. But Isaiah didn’t stop there, he ends his reflections by remembering that God, indeed, is our father, and that “we are all the work of [God’s] hands.” We don’t deserve Christmas – by ourselves, we are not worthy of the blessings that come from God’s birth as one of us. But Christmas will always follow Advent, because Christ’s birth is God’s gift to us. And Christ’s second coming is a sure thing – it’s not a question of what, but when. The anxiety and newness of these Advent days is not permanent – it’s only four short weeks. Christmas will come and Christ will come – but not yet. In the meantime, we wait and we prepare.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

No Mashed Potatoes

Homily for Thanksgiving Day 2008
This year, my family made a major decision that could forever change the landscape of our Thanksgiving Day table – we dropped mashed potatoes off the menu. Now, this decision was not an easy one to make – it actually took several years for everyone to agree that we simply had too many side dishes for one meal. And then, once we acknowledged the overabundance of side dishes, it was even more difficult to decide which one we could give up. And it was only after much discussion and bargaining that the mashed potatoes were chosen as the one side that we could do without – at least for this year. Maybe it’s just a sign of the general trend of our entire country right now – the need to cut back and make do with less. Or it could be part of a general realization that, just because we can have something, that doesn’t mean we have to have it. Or maybe I’m just thinking too much about what a mashed-potato-free Thanksgiving meal will be like.

Of course, we know that Thanksgiving Day is not really about the food. Today is a day to count our blessings, to remember the rich abundance that God has showered on us, and to direct our minds away from our own needs and desires and look instead toward God, the source of all our gifts. Today is a day to spend time with those we love – the family and friends who help to give our lives joy and meaning. And today is a day to remember others – to remember those who were with us for this holiday in past years, but who are separated from us now; but also to remember those in our community and in our world whose blessings are fewer in number than our own.

In the whole scheme of things, the meal is really secondary. This day would certainly have just as much meaning for us if there were no turkey or cranberry relish in sight, and it is part of our fallen human nature and our longing to be satisfied that we spend so much time and effort on the food. To give thanks in all things, as St. Paul calls us to do in his letter to the Colossians; to give thanks in all things does not have to happen around a dinner table, or even in the company of family and friends. To give thanks in all things is a way of life, a way of making decisions, no matter what the external realities of our lives bring us. To be able to know how to live in abundance and also to live in humble circumstances, to thank God in all things through our words and our actions, that is what it means to be a Christian. But the real blessing of this day is that an entire country of people – all 305 million of us – can put aside our differences and our anxieties, our fears and our dreams, to do one thing: give thanks. The real blessing of this day is that, when you strip away all the externals, we can all agree what it is really about. Today is a day to give thanks. Now that is a miracle that no amount of mashed potatoes could make happen.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"I was ill and you cared for me"

Homily for Christ the King, Year A
When he had his conversion on the road to Damascus, St. Paul saw a great blinding light and heard a voice from heaven, the voice of Christ himself: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This shocked man who had fallen to the road would have had every reason to be confused – it was true, he had been persecuting people, but he hadn’t persecuted Jesus; he had never even met Jesus. But when he thought about the voice from heaven, everything made sense. Saul had indeed been persecuting Jesus, because Jesus lives in the Church, he lives in those who follow him, those who believe that he is the Son of God; to be Christian is to be filled with Christ. When one member of Christ’s body suffers, Christ himself feels the pain; and when one member of Christ’s body rejoices, Christ too is filled with joy.

And so it is in today’s gospel. The least ones that Jesus talks about – the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned – these people who are the least of all and the most helpless of all are really Christ. When we care for them, we care for Christ; and when we ignore them, we ignore Christ. Part of the glory and wonder of the Incarnation is that Christ became one of us to share in everything that makes us human, and it is in our weakness and suffering that we are most human. To love people at their weakest – at their most radically human – is to love Christ, who did not avoid suffering and death even though he is the King of the world.

Today, our parish community comes together especially to bring love and healing to the sick. The Anointing of the Sick recognizes the presence of the Holy Spirit among us and asks that Christ, the Great Shepherd and Physician, may bring healing and comfort to those members of His Body who are feeling the effects of sickness or advanced age. Through this sacrament, the whole Church unites itself with both Christ and the sick to bring them together and hold them in prayer. To care for the sick is one of the most fundamental calls for all who follow Christ. For when one member of the Body of Christ suffers, we all suffer, and Christ suffers with us. And when one member of the Body of Christ is Anointed, the whole Church “supports [them] in their struggle against illness and continues Christ’s messianic work of healing” (Pastoral Care of the Sick, General Introduction, 98). For we are all members of one Body, joined together in Christ.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Tour of the Church

Homily for the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Year A
It is an unusual feast, what we celebrate today, and especially because it rarely falls on Sunday. The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica is celebrated every year on November 9th, but it is only when that day falls on a Sunday that our entire church celebrates this feast. The last time was in 2003 – the next time will be in 2014. But this is a great feast to celebrate. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the Pope’s Cathedral – it is the church in Rome where the Holy Father has his cathedra, his bishop’s chair, from which he presides as Bishop of Rome. The church itself is important because it was the first Christian church built in Rome after Christianity became legalized in the fourth century. But we celebrate the dedication of this church not because of the building itself, but because it is a symbol of all church buildings. Over the main doors of the Lateran Basilica are the words: “Mother and Head of All the Churches of Rome and the World.” The Lateran Basilica is the most important church building in the world, and celebrating this one particular church is a way of celebrating all churches throughout the world.

Today, I’d like to take a brief tour of our church building. As we enter our church, we first encounter fonts of holy water at each of the doors. We bless ourselves with this holy water as a reminder of our baptism. Just as we entered the Church through baptism, we also physically enter the church building with a reminder of the water of new life. In just about any church, the largest area is dominated by seats for the community. A church building, first of all, is a place where the people of God gather together as a community to pray. The pews that make up the majority of our church are not just a convenient place to sit, but the large space they take up is a reminder that this building is a place of communal prayer. The pews in our particular church are surrounded by two things that can help remind us of what it means to be part of the Christian community. Our pews are surrounded by windows of colored glass that let abundant light into the building. When we come together as a community to pray, we are not in darkness, but in the light – a light that only Christ can provide. Our pews are also surrounded by the Stations of the Cross, one of the most common features of Catholic churches. These stations provide an opportunity to walk and meditate on the final journey of Jesus Christ – the journey to the cross, to the tomb, and ultimately to the resurrection. Our lives, too, are a journey – often, a journey through suffering – but always with Christ walking right beside us and leading us to new life.

The heart of any Catholic church is found in the sanctuary, marked off in our church by the raised, carpeted area here at the front of the building. The sanctuary contains the chair for the presider and the servers. It contains this reading stand – called an ambo – from which the Scripture is proclaimed. It is from this ambo that we hear God speak to us through the readings, the homily, and the general intercessions. On the other side of the sanctuary is the Baptismal Font. We are currently in the process of designing a new Baptismal Font which will be located in the same area as our current font but will be larger and permanent, allowing for both the baptism of infants and adults. At the back of the sanctuary is the Tabernacle, in which is kept the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated hosts which are used for communion to the sick and dying as well as serving as a focus for prayer. When we enter a Catholic church, there is always a candle lit – most often a red candle, like ours – next to the Tabernacle. This lit candle is a reminder that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved here in this church. When we enter the church, we genuflect in reverence to Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament, and we treat this building as a place of reverence and prayer because we believe that Christ truly is present here among us.

But the most important of all the parts of a church building is the altar. It is on the altar that the bread and wine that we bring forward becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. It is on the altar that Christ becomes truly present among us, and it is from the altar that we are nourished by the Eucharist. The altar itself is meant to represent Christ. It is most often made of stone – like our marble – to remind us that Jesus Christ is the Cornerstone of the Church, the Living Stone chosen by God. More than anything else in this building, the altar is treated with reverence. When a church building is dedicated, the altar is anointed with the oil of Chrism. Candles are placed on its top, and a white cloth covers it as further signs of honor and reverence. At the beginning and end of every Mass, the priest kisses the altar. And when incense is used, it is the altar that is incensed.

But the Church is much more than the stone, metal, and wood that make up this building. St. Paul tells us that we are God’s building, that we are the temple of God. It is what takes place in this building that makes it a church. Here, in this place, we truly become the Body of Christ. Here, in this place, we are strengthened as members of a community, we receive the grace of the sacraments, and we offer our prayers to God as we move forward on the journey of life. Here, we are reborn in baptism and anointed with the Spirit; here, men and women are united as one flesh in the sacrament of marriage; and here, our beloved dead are sent forth into the arms of our loving God. And whenever we leave this building, we take a part of it with us. We take the words of Scripture, the fellowship of family and friends, the hope of new life, the grace of the Eucharist – we take all these things with us into the rest of the world. Because the dwelling place of God is not just inside these walls of sandstone; the dwelling place of God is in each one of us.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

"There are no ordinary people"

Homily for All Souls Day, Year A
For most of us, there is nothing that is more real than death. There are few experiences that affect us as deeply and as long as the death of a loved one, or the realization that our own death is imminent. Part of the power of death is the loss, the void that it creates. But we also feel the depth of sorrow that fills our hearts, even if our faith tells us that those who have died continue to live. For us who remain in this life, the separation caused by death is very real indeed. And so, on this All Souls’ Day, the reality of death hits home. Today, we as a parish mourn in a particular way for the 25 members of our church community who have died in the past year, whose names will be read later in our liturgy. But today we also mourn for an unknown number of family and friends, acquaintances and strangers, who have made the transition from temporal life to eternal life, this year or any year. We mourn for the saints and the sinners, the rich and the poor, the known and unknown from all over the world who have crossed the threshold of death.

But today’s Feast of All Souls is not always what it seems. Because, really, today is not a day to talk about death; it is a day to talk about life. Today is not a day to honor the dead, it is a day to rejoice in the living. Because we Christians aren’t really into things that are temporary, or momentary, or fragile. As St. Paul reminds us, the death that we will all experience is transitory – it is just a moment, an event, not a lasting reality. Even the depth of grief and sorrow that we feel when someone close to us dies is a temporary feeling. The loss that pulls at our hearts can be painful, to be sure, but in the big picture, it is just a momentary affliction. Because death itself does not last. Our God is the God of the living, not the dead. As painful as death and separation can be for us, the witness of Christ leads us beyond death to life.

On this All Souls’ Day, we do mourn; but we cannot stop there. We Christians do not exalt death – we rejoice in life. We do not remember the dead as people from our past – we remember them for who they really are – people who are living still, for all eternity. To put it another way, the people put in our lives are not mere mortals – in the words of C.S. Lewis, “there are no ordinary people” (The Weight of Glory). We are all immortal – we are made to live, and to live forever. Whether our earthly life is cut off before it has a chance to live on its own, or we live to a ripe old age, we are all created to live forever – beyond the moment of death, we will live forever. Just think – we live among immortals; every person you ever encounter will live forever; and, if we take that realization seriously, then it comes with a responsibility. Again in the words of C.S. Lewis, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.” If we know that every human being will live forever, then we must also know that each human life is holy and sacred. How we treat the life that is next to us, the very life of God that is present in each human being, how we live and how we help others live tells the world what it means to follow Christ. The true lesson of All Souls’ Day is this: there is nothing more important for us as Christians than to see God’s image in every immortal body and soul that is created, from the moment of conception until the moment when God decides that it is time to transition from earthly life to eternal life. We are made to live, and there is nothing more important than the life of God within us.

It is a burden heavy to bear, this gift of life, the weight of glory that lives in each human person. It is indeed a burden heavy to bear, because when we live – completely and authentically – when we truly live, we know that we do not walk alone. When we live as children of God, we carry the weight of the human race on our shoulders, those on this earth today, those yet to be conceived, and those who have already entered into eternity. The weight of life is a weight that will break the backs of the proud and crush those who trust only in themselves. But when we truly live, that weight is not an unbearable heaviness. For us who follow Christ, life is no burden at all, but the glory of God. The only sorrow that will last is the sorrow for a life that is not lived.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

We Believe in the Saints

Homily for All Saints Day, Year A
I think it is safe to say that all of the most important things we believe as Christians are celebrated today as we honor All Saints. We especially celebrate the what Christ teaches us about death, life, human identity, and our mission as Christians. Today, we celebrate our belief that death is not the end, that death has been conquered by Christ through his own death on the cross. The lives of the saints remind of the martyrs like St. Polycarp of Smryna who courageously accepted his own death because he knew that death was not the end.

Today, we celebrate what we believe is beyond death – the gift of eternity, the promised hope of the resurrection that God’s grace freely gives to us. The lives of the saints remind of the hope that was seen by people like St. Monica, who looked beyond the many sufferings of her home life to the glories of the other shore, the life that was yet to come.

Today, we remember what it means to be human, that we human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and that we are called to love one another as God loves us. The lives of the saints reminds of people like St. Katharine Drexel, who saw God’s image reflected in African-American and Native American children who were often ignored by the rest of society.

Today, we honor those men and women who have taken God’s gifts seriously and have shaped their lives according to what God has given them. The lives of the saints reminds of people like St. John Bosco, who used his talents as a performer and magician to draw children together in order to tell them about Christ.

And so it is that all the most important things we believe as Christians are celebrated in the Saints – the belief that death is not the end, that God has opened for us the gates of heaven; the belief that we are all made in God’s image and likeness, and that we are called to use God’s gifts to spread the gospel. But it’s not just about them – the men and women of the past whose lives have already earned an eternal reward – it’s also about us. Today, we ask for the grace to follow not our own way, but the way of Christ – that we, too, may be saints.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Bottom Line: Love

Homily for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
When it comes to making moral decisions, Jesus gives us a pretty simple standard to go by. It doesn’t matter whether the decision we have to make is a personal choice, like how to treat your parents or your children; or a social choice, like how to address issues of poverty and homelessness. When we are confronted with a moral choice, simply remember the two great commandments: love God above all else, and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s that simple. Make decisions out of love.

With a national election now only days away, this simple standard is a good reminder. As a Church, we do not tell anyone how to vote; we do not endorse individual candidates or platforms. But, as a Church, we do have the responsibility to remind ourselves who we are called to be as Christians. St. Paul reminds us that we are to be “imitators … of the Lord.” Just as he loved us, so we are to love in return. When it comes to making decisions, the standard of love must go before us. When it comes to making decisions, we have to think first about how we would want to be loved, and then love others in the same way. If we are thankful for the gift of life that has been given to us, then out of love we are called to do everything we can to ensure that the same gift of life is given to others, especially those who cannot speak for themselves. If we are thankful for the quality of our lives, the food and shelter and material goods that we have been blessed with, then, out of love for others, we are called to make decisions that ensure a just distribution of the world’s resources for all people. If we are thankful for the peace and security that we find in our country, then, out of love, we are called to help spread that peace throughout the world as best we can. This standard of love doesn’t tell us who to vote for, but it does help us form our consciences as we make any crucial decision.

In their document, Faithful Citizenship, the bishops of the United States call for a renewed public sphere that is “focused more on moral principles than on the latest polls; Focused more on the needs of the weak than on benefits for the strong; Focused more on the pursuit of the common good than on the demands of narrow interests” (Faithful Citizenship 62). At the heart of all of these transformations is love. Love must guide everything we do; it is the most important virtue to take with us not only into the election booth, but everywhere we go. Love is not a partisan choice but a gospel truth.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Litany of Ministries

Homily for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
What does it mean to be a church? When he wrote to the Thessalonians, St. Paul specifically referred to them as being part of a church. He describes this church as a community of people chosen by God who devote themselves to the work of faith, the labor of love, and the endurance in hope that comes through Christ Jesus. That is what a church is: a people called by God, formed in the love of Christ, and trying to project the faith, hope, and love of the gospel into their wider community. So it was for the church of the Thessalonians, and so it is for us here, today, at the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. As part of our annual stewardship season, today we especially celebrate the ministries and organizations that help us to be church in our community.

Continuing a tradition we began last year, today I will read out a litany of the ministries and organization of our parish. As I do so, I invite anyone involved in that ministry either as a leader or as a participant to stand and to remain standing until I ask you to be seated.

We begin with the leadership groups of our parish:
Parish Staff
Pastoral Council
Finance Council
ENVISION Priority Team Leaders

Christian Service Commission
Soup Kitchen
Ministry to the Sick
Catholics in Action
St. Vincent de Paul
Bereavement Team
Funeral Lunches
Resurrection Choir
Health Ministry

Faith Formation Commission
RCIA for Children
Faith First/Faith Formation for Children
Adult Faith Formation
Parish Mission
Children’s Liturgy of the Word
Vacation Bible School
Baptism Preparation
Parish Retreat

Parish Life Commission
Welcoming Committee
Parish Feast Day/Summer Picnic
Divorce Recovery
Marriage Preparation Sponsor Couples
Prime Timers
Parish Newsletter
Young Adult Ministry
Child Care

School Commission
Commission of Education
School Faculty and Staff
Technology Committee
Marketing and Development Committee

Spiritual Life Commission
Prayer Line
Pro-Life Ministry
Eucharistic Adoration
Catholics Returning Home
Liturgy Committee
Altar Servers
Eucharistic Ministers
Art and Environment

Stewardship Commission
Called to Serve Stewardship Committee
Main Event
Capital Campaign
Buildings and Grounds

Youth Commission
Youth Ministry Commission
Our Lady’s Activity Team
High School Youth Group
Confirmation Preparation
Youth Ministry Volunteers
Youth Ministry Athletic Committee
Youth Ministry Athletic Volunteers

Our faith is clearly alive here at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but by no means is it exhausted. St. Paul concludes his introduction to the Thessalonians by reminding them that the gospel is not just a set of words to be spoken by a conviction to be lived. It is through this living out of our faith that we truly become members of a church, gathered together in Christ.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pauline Stewardship in an Economic Crisis

Homily for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Annual Stewardship Appeal
Several months ago, our parish staff set aside this weekend for the annual pastor’s stewardship homily. We chose this particular weekend simply because of timing – October is the traditional month for our annual stewardship appeal, both here in the parish and throughout the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, and this weekend was the best time to begin this appeal. We hadn’t looked closely at the Scripture readings for this Sunday, and, of course, we had no idea what would be going on in the financial world. If we had known about this particular combination of Scripture readings and world-wide financial turmoil, I wonder if we would have chosen today to talk about stewardship. But it really is a perfect time.

Now, when most of us hear the word stewardship, the first thing we think is money. So, you might think, the annual pastor’s stewardship homily is probably going to be a reminder about the importance of giving from our financial resources to support the needs of the Church. But, hopefully, many of us will remember that stewardship is not just about money – it is about generously sharing our time, talent, and treasure with our parish and our wider community. But, still, how can we talk about anything involving money in the Church when the anxieties of the world financial markets are consuming us? As is often the case, St. Paul can help us. He tells us today that he “know[s] how to live in humble circumstances ... [and] also how to live with abundance; [he has] learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry” (Philippians 4.12-13). In other words, St. Paul knows what it is like to go from being secure in his financial circumstances one day, and then to lose it all the next day. Most of us can definitely identify with that. The roller coaster of the economy makes life challenging, to say the least. So what does Paul do? On the ups and downs of an economic roller coaster, Paul remembers that “God will fully supply whatever you need” (Philippians 4.19). He has faith, instead of anxiety; trust, instead of fear. It is said that worry and anxiety are the emotions of atheists. If we truly believe in God, then we know that he will take care of us. Faith can carry us through any turmoil; but we have to really believe.

But still, even if we can find that faith and trust that can be so elusive, what prevents us from keeping everything to ourselves, cautiously guarding what little financial resources we have left? Why on earth should we share with others, when we have so little to begin with? This past week, Pope Benedict spoke on the economic crisis as he opened a World Synod of Bishops that is studying Scripture. He reminded the world of a simple reality that most of us seem to have forgotten: that, in the end, money disappears; it vanishes. “All these things [like success, career, and money, that] we thought were real and were counting on are in fact realities of a second order” (quoted in a Catholic News Service article at Only one thing lasts, Pope Benedict reminds us – and that is the word of God, a word that appears weak, but is really “the foundation of everything.” Stewardship recognizes that God is the only thing that endures, and then we make decisions based on that fundamental belief, decisions that ultimately help bring the word of God to others. Sharing our time, talent, and treasure with our parish community means that we are able to offer bereavement programs for those who have lost a loved one, helping them to learn how God will carry them through grief. Sharing our time, talent, and treasure means that we can sponsor our high school youth on a mission trip to help rebuild cities like New Orleans that are recovering from natural disasters, giving them a message of hope; and we can also help people in our own community who are struggling with rent, utilities, or food. Sharing our time, talent, and treasure means that we can have professional staff and lay volunteers who visit the sick and the homebound on a regular basis, bringing the Eucharist and the love of our community. Sharing our time, talent, and treasure means that the faith is passed on to our children, and our parish can provide regular opportunities for people of all ages to grow in understanding the word of God. Sharing our time, talent, and treasure as parishioners means that the tuition in our Catholic school is 25% less than it would be without parish support. Sharing our time, talent, and treasure means that we can have a variety of ministries that help us pray and worship God in gratitude for His many gifts.

If we can get to the point where we rely first of all on God’s grace, and not on our bank accounts or stock portfolios, then we will realize that nothing we have really belongs to us, everything is a gift from God. And in gratitude, we are compelled to use those gifts wisely and well, to return the first fruits of those gifts to the one who has blessed us, and to help others find the same faith that guides our lives. That is what stewardship is all about – recognizing that everything we have comes from God, being grateful for those gifts, and then generously returning those gifts to God, even with increase. It doesn’t matter whether we find ourselves in abundance or in humble circumstances; God will supply whatever we need. And you can put all of your stock in that.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pauline Anxieties

Homily for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
One of the main goals of the Year of St. Paul that we are now in is that we will be able to understand more clearly how St. Paul’s writings apply to us, today, even 2000 years after they were written. But with readings like the one we heard from St. Paul this evening/morning, and with what’s going on in the real world these days, it’s not so easy to make the connection. The first words out of St. Paul’s mouth today: “Brothers and sisters, have no anxiety at all” (Philippians 4.6a). St. Paul clearly never invested in the Stock Market or tried to get a loan from a bank. He never had to figure out how to pay for gas with prices like they are today. He never had to worry where he was going to get the money to pay his health insurance or medical bills, or how he was going pay tuition for his children to attend a good college or a Catholic school. He never had to worry about whether his job would still exist six or twelve months from now. How can he dare to tell us not to be anxious about anything? This whole idea that St. Paul – or any of the Scriptures – can be relevant for our lives just can’t be true. They had no idea what it would be like to live and try to survive in the year 2008.

But let’s take a step back. As it turns out, Paul did have much to be anxious about. When he wrote the letter to the Philippians, he was in prison, facing a charge that could condemn him to death if he were found guilty. Paul had faced strong opposition and direct rejection in his work, the work of spreading the gospel, even from people who had initially welcomed and supported him. He sometimes thought that he was failing in the mission that God had given him; there were quarrels and disputes in the Christian communities he had founded, and because he was so far away from these communities, there was very little he could do to make things better. As it turns out, Paul had much to be anxious about – maybe not the financial concerns of an economic crisis, but anxieties that were just as real and just as significant.

And in the midst of all that anxiety, Paul has one very specific piece of advice, advice that he gives both to the Philippians and to us: pray. When you find yourself anxious – whatever that may be – sit down, figure out what you need help with, and “make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4.6b). Turn everything over to God in prayer and petition. And if you do this, Paul says, then you will find a peace that is so deep and mysterious that it can only come from God. Now, he doesn’t say that God will give you everything you ask for exactly the way you want it – but what God is guaranteed to give you is the peace and comfort that will see you through any trial, any anxiety, no matter what happens. God will always take care of you, and if you take your requests to him in prayer, then he will give you the sense of peace that all will be well.

Maybe St. Paul does have something to say to us today. Even if he didn’t have to worry about the state of his retirement savings, of the stability of his checking account, St. Paul lived each day not knowing what the next day would bring. And his advice really is a good idea – present your needs to God, and remember: God will provide for all that you need. So don’t worry about what you are to eat, or what you are to wear (see Matthew 6.25-34), have no anxiety at all, because the one thing in this world that never changes is God’s love and care for each of his children.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

What's Wrong with the World

Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
A hundred years ago, a major newspaper in England asked several well-known people to give a response to the question: “What’s wrong with the world?” As you could imagine, everyone had an opinion, often a long and complicated opinion, placing the blame on any number of people or institutions. But one man gave a very simple, two word response. The writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton said, in response to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” – “I am.” On the one hand, we could say that Chesterton was just acknowledging what we should all acknowledge – that we are sinners, and that even the best of us make bad choices. The world we live in is not perfect, and will never be perfect, because it is inhabited exclusively of people who are sinners. Only when Christ conquers sin – only when the world is remade at the end of time – will everything be as it should be. Chesterton’s humanity – just the same as yours or mine – means that this world is not perfect.

But there’s another way of looking at this question and response, and St. Paul can help us. He writes to the Philippians: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. … humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests but also for those of others.” (Phil. 2.2-4) So we look at the question again: What’s wrong with the world – I am, because I am selfish. What’s wrong with the world – I am, because I think more about what’s good for me than what’s good for the person down the street. What’s wrong with the world – I am, because I am not part of a we. Our world can never be perfect as long as it’s made up of sinful people, but it can be better – and St. Paul suggests that the way to make it better is to make the world a community rather than a population of individuals. The human person is both sacred and social – we are both made in God’s image and made for community. The way to make this world a better place is to get to the point where we are all thinking of the common good, what’s best for humanity and each of its members, not just what’s best for me.

For the next forty days or so, it will be almost impossible to escape talk of the economy, the election, and the issues that face our country. And all of these discussion really boil down to trying to figure out what’s wrong with our world. The challenge of our faith – as St. Paul reminds us today – is to do everything we do with “the same attitude that is in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2.5). And a major part of that attitude is to look at our world with a communal lens rather and a mirror that simply reflects my image onto everyone else. What’s wrong with the world? I am. But how can the world be better – by regarding others as more important than me.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

All is Fair with God's Grace

Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Note: The times in this homily were changed based on the time of the Mass. The times included below are for the 11:00 am Sunday Mass.

Six days, twenty-one hours, and 50 minutes.

That’s how long it’s been since my house, and many of the houses in my neighborhood, last had power. Six days, twenty-one hours, and 50 minutes – and we’re still waiting. And yet there are other houses, not to far away, that got their power back on Monday on Tuesday this past week. And some places never lost power – this church building and our parish school and offices never lost power, even in the midst of last Sunday’s wind storms. But for many of my neighbors and I, it’s been Six days, twenty-one hours, and about 51 minutes and we’re still waiting. It’s not fair.

I, for one, can certainly empathize with the vineyard workers in today’s parable; the ones who got their early in the morning and worked all day, only to receive the same pay as others who had only worked for an hour. It’s not fair – it’s not fair that someone else gets paid the same as me for doing a lot less work; it’s not fair for people right down the road to have electricity and not me; it’s not fair. But from God’s perspective, fairness is not the be-all and end-all virtue. Seeing everything played out fairly is not what leads to happiness, either for us or for the people around us. The point of the parable of the vineyard workers is that God’s generosity extends to everyone. It may not be fair in our eyes, but God’s goodness goes beyond what is fair. If we hope to receive God’s grace, then we have to be ready to accept the fact that the same grace will be offered to everyone else. If we’re ready to acknowledge God’s forgiveness, then we have to be able to recognize God’s forgiveness for everyone, even the people we don’t think deserve to be forgiven.

It might not be fair, it might not make sense – to our minds, at least. But as Isaiah reminds us, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55.8). God doesn’t operate by looking around to see who most deserves his love, who has fairly won his gift of grace. No, God blindly bestows his grace on everyone out of unbounded generosity. But in order to see God’s grace, we do have to work – remember, everyone in the vineyard who received pay did work. We do have to work with the grace that is given to us, we do have to “conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ,” (Philippians 1.27a), as St. Paul tells us. God’s gifts are freely given, but we have to do something with them.

Six days, twenty-one hours, and now about 55 minutes. It may not be fair, but I’m just thankful that there is electricity to be restored, and I'm thankful that there is always God’s grace to be received.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Cross as Vocation

Homily for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Year A
You see it everywhere – on walls and hillsides, at the tops of buildings, in houses, in bedrooms, even as graffiti; you can see it hanging on chains around people’s necks, or on rings, or as earrings. And, of course, you see it in churches. The cross is as universal a symbol as you can get, and its meaning can be as diverse as the number of places it hangs. For some, the cross is a symbol of our salvation. For others, it is a reminder of a cruel form of capital punishment. Some people see the cross and immediately think of love or new life, while others only see suffering and death. Of course, the cross is all these things – that is exactly what makes it such a powerful symbol, its ability to mean many different things all at once.

This weekend, here in our parish and in parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, we are beginning a Parish Vocation Cross Initiative as part of the celebrations of the 175th Anniversary of the founding of our diocese. Each weekend over the next year, an individual or family in our parish will receive a cross to take with them for the week as a reminder to pray for vocations – vocations to the priesthood and religious life, but also an awareness of the vocations to married life and single life. The cross will become the focus of prayer each day during the week that someone has our Parish Vocations Cross. Then, the next weekend, they will pass that cross along to someone else to spend a week in prayer for vocations.

Vocations and the cross – an unlikely combination, perhaps, but a perfect combination. St. Paul makes the connection for us. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul talks about the death of Jesus on the cross as an emptying – Jesus loves us so much that he completely emptied himself by accepting death on a cross. He accepted this suffering and humiliation not for himself, but for us – everything Jesus was about while on this earth, from his birth to his ascension, was to empty himself so that we could be filled with life. His death on the cross and his victory in resurrection changed nothing for him – but it changed everything for us. The cross is the perfect example of what it means to love another person more than yourself. And that is really what a vocation is all about, too.

A vocation to married life means that you love your spouse and children more than yourself – you want them to be happy, you want them to have a fulfilled life. The same thing is true for the priesthood or religious life – my goal as a priest is bring God’s love to the people I am called to serve. I want you to be able to find God, I want you have a fulfilled life. Of course, we don’t always do that perfectly – no matter what vocation we follow – but we try. Living your life following a vocation means that you try to make everything you do focus not on yourself but on someone else. A vocation, lived well, is selfless – it is focused outward – it is just like Jesus on the cross, dying not for his own sake, but for us. Vocations and the cross – an unlikely combination, perhaps, but perfect examples of selfless love.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Forming Conscience

Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
“Do not conform yourselves to this age.” Virtually everyone in this country would agree that we face many challenges as a nation. The bishops of the United States summarize it this way: “We are a nation at war, with all of its human costs; a county often divided by race and ethnicity; a nation of immigrants struggling with immigration. We are an affluent society where too many live in poverty; part of a global community confronting terrorism and facing urgent threats to our environment; a culture built on families, where some now question the value of marriage and family life. We pride ourselves on supporting human rights, but we fail even to protect the fundamental right to life, especially for unborn children.” (The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2007) “Do not conform yourselves to this age,” St. Paul tells us today. There is much in this age that would lead us away from God, that would lead us away from family-centered communities, that would lead us away from any understanding of the common good. This is an age of individual rights that trump basic human dignity. This is an age in which convenience is the chief virtue. This is an age of personal success at all costs. St. Paul is right to remind us not to conform ourselves to this age.

But what do we do? Faced with these challenges, in the midst of a heated presidential election campaign, what do we do? St. Paul continues – he tells us to renew our minds, to transform our lives, to discern the will of God. Put another way, we are called to form our consciences through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In this age, it is difficult to make decisions. The challenge of living in a world of instant communication is that it is often difficult to separate truth from opinion, and it is especially difficult to distinguish well-informed opinion from not-so-well-informed opinion. Just this week, a prominent Catholic politician said that centuries-long debate about when life begins has produced different opinions, and she seemed to suggest that the Catholic Church has not come to a conclusion on origins of human life. A well-formed conscience knows that this is not the case. A well-formed conscience knows that the Church teaches that life begins at the moment of conception, and we must treat that life with all the respect that is given to a child of God. That is what the Church teaches, that is what we believe, no matter what any politician might say; but it takes a well-formed conscience to know that. To form our conscience is to develop the virtue of prudence, to wisely listen for the voice of God through Scripture and tradition, to carefully deliberate all knowledge and alternatives, and to have the courage to act on our convictions. To form our conscience – to be transformed by the renewal of our minds – is a fundamental responsibility of all people, and it must be an important part of our own lives especially over the next two months.

Some people say that politics and religion should never be mixed. But our faith has much to say to inform our politics, and in the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation. We have a duty to be a moral witness, to so form our consciences that our participation in society helps to advance the common good and protect the dignity of the human person. It is not an option, it is not an opinion, it is our call. “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12.2)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Polling Questions

Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Sometimes, homilies are more about asking questions than they are about giving answers. So I’ll give you this warning up front – today is one of those times. Today’s homily has more questions than it does answers. And I encourage you to use the silence that follows the homily to think about how you would answer these questions.

In some ways, Jesus would make a good political advisor. For one, he knows the value of opinion polls. Really, that’s what he is about in today’s gospel – polling the disciples, who in turn have polled a wider population on who they think the Son of Man is. So the disciples report that, in the latest poll, 32% think Jesus is John the Baptist; 13% say that he is Elijah; 10% say Jeremiah; another 18% say that he is one of the other prophets; and 27% are undecided. And, of course, there’s a margin of error in this particular poll of +/- 4%. But when Jesus takes the same poll among his disciples, asking their personal opinions, there is only one answer, given by Peter as the spokesperson of the group: Peter says, without hesitation, I am 100% sure that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. At least among his disciples, Jesus has a pretty high approval rating.

But from here, there’s another question that is implied. The gospels weren’t written for the benefit of the disciples; they knew Jesus personally, they lived through the events that are recorded on the written page. The gospels were written for us, for those blessed ones who have not seen and yet believe. Some of the people say that Jesus is a prophet, and Peter says that Jesus is the Son of God, but what about you – what do you think? There are plenty of opinions in our own time about who Jesus is – from being just a nice guy to a highly motivational speaker; from a prophet mighty in word and deed to a person who lived 2000 years ago but means nothing today. And in the end, do the polls matter? Does it matter what other people think? Either Jesus is God, or he is not; it’s not a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of faith, and it’s a matter of shaping your life on how you answer that question.

There are serious repercussions for acknowledging Jesus as God. If that is what we say, if that is what we believe, then it should make a difference in our lives. And so I ask you today – Who do you say that Jesus is? If you can honestly say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Son of God, then how is your life changed by that statement? And if you cannot say that Jesus is the Son of God, then what could convince you that he is?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

E-mail in Church?

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Are you addicted to e-mail? If so, you’re in pretty good company. A recent survey of e-mail users found that 46% of people surveyed admitted to being addicted to e-mail – up from only 15% just a year ago. Almost two-thirds of the people surveyed check their work e-mail over the weekend, and over a fourth check their work e-mail on vacation. This new survey has all kinds of statistics about e-mail use in the United States, including stats on where and when people are most likely to check their e-mail, but there is one statistic in particular that applies to what we are doing here: 15% of e-mail users admit that they regularly check their e-mail in church. Now that’s a generalization of course, and just one particular survey, but it’s telling nonetheless. Not only have we become an e-mail culture, but the boundaries between our work and personal lives and our worship of God are getting more blurry all the time.

But here – in church! This same survey found that over 50% of e-mail users check their e-mail in the bathroom or while driving. But in church! This is a house of prayer, as Isaiah calls it, a house of prayer for all people. E-mail has done wonderful things for communications, even within our parish – our parish prayer line reaches dozens of people each week via e-mail. From the perspective of Isaiah the prophet, I worry not about e-mail communication of itself; I worry about this house, this house of prayer, a house where all people can come for one purpose: to worship God, to gather as a community in prayer, to receive the grace of the sacraments. This house is not the place to check e-mail. This house is not the place to talk on the phone. But this house is also not the place to judge others based on their actions, their clothes, or anything else you think you know about them. This is a house of prayer for our community, a house of prayer for all people, a house in which we meet the very presence of God. And we must not take our presence here lightly.

It’s true that no two people pray in the same way. It’s also true that we are all in different places in our own relationship with God – some are strong in that relationship, others are just beginning. Some are filled with joy and peace, others are struggling to accept what God has given them. But here, in this house of prayer, we can all come together. Here, we all gather in the presence of God, listening to God’s word, strengthened by the presence of a church full of disciples. Here, we all receive the grace and strength of the Eucharist to live the way God wants us to live – with charity, with forgiveness, with hope, and with peace. Here we all pray together, because God knows we need prayers, God knows we need help, God knows we need his presence. What a privilege it is to come to this house of prayer and soak in the presence of God – what a privilege it is to come here and touch the divine! Because here, we are truly whole – and nothing should distract us from praying in God’s own house.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Olympic Victory in Faith

Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
For the next two weeks, we will hear stories of perseverance. For the next two weeks, we will hear stories of years of struggle, years of determination, years of focused effort. For the next two weeks, we will hear stories of triumph, of dreams achieved; and we will probably also hear stories of dreams that have fallen short of reaching their final goal. These are the weeks of the Twenty-Ninth Olympiad, and the whole world is focused on Beijing as over 10,000 athletes compete for medals in 30 summer sports. In the weeks and months leading up to this point, there have been countless stories of local heroes and determined athletes striving to achieve their life’s goal of competing in the Olympics, and those stories will certainly continue. Just to compete in the Olympic games is a dream-come-true for many, a recognition that their long hours of determined practice have paid off. But for others, the only accomplished dream will be a gold medal, or even eight gold medals. Because in the end, there are winners and losers. These athletes are the best of the best, but we have to admit that some are better than others, and it is the competition for victory that now takes center stage.

But is that true for us, who run the race of a Christian? Is it true that there are some who are better at being Christian than others, that if we have an Olympic contest in faith, there would be some type of winners and losers? If so, then certainly the Peter we meet today would not fare very well. Walking on water is not an Olympic sport, but faith in Jesus Christ is very much at the heart of the Christian race. Even standing right in front of his Lord and Savior, Peter lacked the focus, he lacked the determination, he lacked the faith to stand firm with a sea full of distractions. Peter’s trial-run in faith was a failure; without the ever-ready hand of Christ, he would have sunk in the waters of the Sea of Galilee. There would be no gold medal in faith for this failed fisherman.

But St. Paul tells us a different story. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us that “the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize. Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor. 9.24-25). Run so as to win. The story of Peter’s faith did not end that day on the Sea of Galilee. He had some really strong moments – like when he proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But he also had some other failures – like when he denied even knowing Jesus right before his Lord’s death. But in the end, he persevered. With God’s grace, with divine forgiveness, and with a hand that was always stretched out to lift him up, Peter persevered in running the race of a Christian, and he was given the task of feeding the sheep of Christ’s flock.

The Christian race is not too different from the Olympic games. To triumph as a Christian it takes years of practice, and it comes with countless failures. It takes constant perseverance and determination. And, yes, there are winners and losers. But the only way to lose is to trust so much in your own abilities and your own efforts that you ignore the hand that Jesus is stretching out to you to lift you up. The only way to win is to grasp the hand of Christ and let him lead you to victory.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Good News

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Sometimes, we just need some good news. When the newspaper headlines cry out that unemployment in the United States is at a four-year high, we just need some good news. When soldiers and innocent citizens die in the hotspots of the world, and children die on our own streets, we just need some good news. When the lives of celebrities become the most talked-about topic at the office, we need some good news that really makes a difference us. Even when we’re happy that gas is below $4.00 a gallon, we need some really good news. And today, we’re in luck. Because this is a good news day. Even if your own life is full of troubles, and the world isn’t much better, we can all find good news in today’s readings.

Take Isaiah to start – if you’re thirsty, come to the water! If you don’t have any money, come and be fed. All we have to do is come to the Lord, and he will feed us, he will guide us, he will nourish us. God will take care of everything we need – now that is good news!

But it doesn’t end there – listen to what St. Paul says to the Romans – God loves us so much that there is nothing that can separate us from that love. It’s so amazing, it’s almost over the top – not death, not famine, not anything from our past, not any kind of anguish can ever separate us from God’s love – now that is good news!

And finally the gospel – that familiar story of the feeding of the multitude. Not only does Christ feed the crowd, but there is so much left over that it fills twelve baskets. Christ wants to give us not just the bare minimum, but we wants to give us an abundance – with leftovers – now that is good news!

It sounds almost too good to be true. Especially when we look at our own lives and realize that we our not always deserving of God’s love; when we look at our communities and our world and see people turning away from God, or who don’t even recognize that God is here. It seems too good to be true when we hear these promises, when we hear that nothing can separate us from God’s love, that God can give us blessings in abundance, that he will feed us and guide us always. But it is true, for us who have faith, who recognize God’s love, this is good news indeed. And we are desperately in need of some good news.

But there’s a catch – there’s always a catch. For God’s love to be effective in our lives – for this good news to make any difference – we have to do something with it. God’s goodness to us is like a present – neatly wrapped in a box with shiny wrapping paper and a big bow on top, with a name tag made out just for us. We could very easily just let it sit there and admire the pretty paper or the beautiful bow – isn’t it nice that God decided to give us something, we might say. I wonder what’s inside? But it’s wrapped so nicely, I don’t want to ruin the wrapping paper by opening it up! If all we do is sit around and talk about God’s many gifts – if all we do is talk about the good news we hear today – then we might as well send it back, because a gift isn’t what it is supposed to be until it is unwrapped and used. But if we unwrap God’s gift, if we take the good news and put it to work, if we tell everyone we know about this great gift we have received, then God’s love will really live in us, and it will spread through us. And that will really be good news.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Credit Card Wisdom

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
I hate to ignore people, or things, but sometimes, I just have to. Take the mail, for instance. Each day, as I go through my stack of mail, there are always some letters or envelopes that I ignore. Nothing from a parishioner, of course, or a friend, or anything to do with my role as pastor. But it seems that every day, without fail, the mail comes with something that I have deemed worthy of ignoring; and the most often culprit: the offer of a new credit card. I am perfectly skilled at sending these credit card offers directly to the trash can – a perfect plot to ignore something that I don’t need. And it’s not just in the mail. My ears and brain have been pretty thoroughly trained to ignore – or tune out – credit card commercials on TV. But this week, something happened.

This week, about half-way through my usual ignoring of a credit card commercial, something caught my ear. This is what I heard the voice in the commercial say: “We are a nation of consumers. And there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, there’s a lot of cool stuff out there. The trouble is, there's so much cool stuff, it’s easy to get carried away. If that happens, this material world of ours can stop being wonderful and start getting stressful.” By this point, I am riveted; this is no ordinary credit card commercial. In fact, parts of it sound an awful lot like the Christian gospel. The voice goes on: “But what if a credit card company recognized that. What if they admitted that there is a time to spend and a time to save. What if instead of encouraging us to spend more, they actually helped us to spend smarter. Maybe then we could have a better quality of life and be in a better financial position while we're living it. We could have less debt and more fun.” My skill of ignoring credit card mailings and commercials had hit an obstacle. Who knew that the advertising department of a major credit card company had been reading the Book of Ecclesiastes and the First Book of Kings. Clearly, they want to help us be like Solomon.

Now, it’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s worth thinking about. God tells Solomon that he will give him whatever he desires. There is so much cool stuff out there, and we consumers are naturally attracted to it. Imagine – we could have whatever we wanted – it would be so easy to get carried away which, according to the commercial, would lead us into credit card debt; or, according to the Bible, would lead us into idolatry. But remember what Solomon asks for – not riches, not victory in battle, not long life – he asks for wisdom, the ability to make good choices, an understanding heart that can distinguish between right and wrong. And this is exactly what this credit card company is offering – a certain kind of wisdom, knowing when to spend and when to save, keeping us from going into debt by knowing how to make the right financial choices. This credit card company wants to help us be like Solomon, to choose wisdom first of all.

But there’s one difference. Solomon chose wisdom – and that is all he chose. For most of us, our downfall is that we might try to develop wisdom first, but then ignore that wisdom in order to satisfy every desire, to accumulate all the things that we think will make us happy. The difference between the credit card commercial and the gospel is that the commercial sees wisdom as a means to another end – the goal of personal gratification. But the gospel sees wisdom as the one pearl of great price – as that one thing that we are willing to give everything we have to gain. For us Christians, wisdom is the goal. And if we have wisdom, then there is nothing else that we need.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Crisis Management

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
There is a story about two monks who are praying evening prayer together, and as they are praying, a great storm begins to move through. They can hear enormous peals of thunder; lightning seems to continually light up the sky; trees are knocking against the stained glass windows, and the wind seems strong enough to blow the building over. When the storm seems like its worst, one monk interrupts the recitation of the psalms and turns to the other monk, saying, “We’d better put our books down and start praying!” The other monk has a strange look on his face – because he thought they were already praying.*

For most of us, there are two types of prayer: standard prayer and crisis prayer. Sometimes they go together, but often, like the one monk, we keep them separate. Standard prayer is any kind of prayer that takes place on a regular basis, like the mass, or the rosary, or Eucharistic adoration. Standard prayer leads us to pray before meals, or when we’re at a church meeting, or before going to bed at night. For the most part, we know what to expect with standard prayer, and we know how these prayers go. The other type of prayer is the exact opposite. Crisis prayer is unexpected. It is the frantic, tearful prayer at the bedside of a dying family member, or the prayer that you will find enough money to pay all the bills, which keep going up. Crisis prayer sometimes comes with community, but a lot of the time, it’s a hidden prayer, a private prayer. “Please, God, help me find a new job;” or, “Lord Jesus, take away this cancer, let the chemo work.”

But there’s another difference with crisis prayer. Standard prayer is often repetitious or routine – we know what words come after, “Bless us, O Lord …” or “Our Father …” Once you’ve been part of the Christian community for a while, these prayers become second nature. But crisis prayer is different. We don’t know how to pray when the doctor gives us six months to live; we don’t know how to pray when our house is destroyed by a fire; we don’t know how to pray when the soldier we love doesn’t come back home alive. And how could we? What words can we find in the midst of crisis that help convey our deepest longings to God? Most of the time, when we’re in crisis, we don’t even know what to pray for. Everything seems like it’s falling apart; we want to pray, we want to find God in the midst of our fears, but we can’t find the words. And that is where the Spirit comes in. In our weakness, when we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for, “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” (Romans 8.26) When we don’t know how to pray, the Holy Spirit takes over and intercedes on our behalf with the Father.

Our prayer is never perfect, and it is never the same. But as long as we keep the channels open, as long as we make God a regular part of our lives, then we will recognize God’s hands guiding us through any crisis, leading us through the Christian community, to be gathered into his barn. God always takes care of us, especially in times of crisis, even if it’s hard to see at the time. And if we let the Holy Spirit take over, then all will be well, according to God’s will, because the Holy Spirit can manage any crisis.

* Based on a story in Praying with St. Paul, ed. Fr. Peter John Cameron, p. 68.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

John Grady, d. 2008

I recently learned of the death of Mr. John Grady, who had been the director of the La Salle University Honors Program since 1969. Over the past 40 years, La Salle's Honors Program had come to be recognized as one of the best in the country, and this was certainly due to the leadership and vision of Mr. Grady. I was privileged to be a part of the Honors Program Class of 2000 - in fact, the Honors Program was one of the main reasons I went to La Salle, and almost all of the friends that I still keep in touch with from college were also members of the Honors Program. Part of Mr. Grady's success with the Honors Program was that he made it a very personal program - I remember that he called me personally at home inviting me to join the program, and apparently he did this for everyone offered a position in the Honors Program. He challenged us all to be better and to learn more - to always ask the impertinent question - and he did so always with determination and focus. The Honors Program consists of a series of small-group classes for freshmen - called The Triple - covering Western Civilization from the perspectives of history, literature, and philosophy, all at the same time. After The Triple, everyone took upper level Honors Seminars taught by the best professors at the school on topics that don't make it into the regular curriculum - like Religion in Philadelphia or Opera or the significance of the local history of the La Salle Campus (which is quite interesting!). The last time I was at La Salle, in November of last year, I stopped by the Honors Center to see Mr. Grady, but he was recovering from treatments for cancer and was working from home at the time. Every college or university has something that sets it apart from other schools, and the Honors Program was that unique and meaningful program at La Salle. John Grady made the Honors Program great, and he will be greatly missed. May he rest in peace!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Waiting for Glory

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
This past Friday, Apple released the latest version of the iPhone, and while the response and reaction has been mixed, there was one thing in this process that has become a standard part of releasing any new technological gadget – the overnight lines. Whether it’s a new cell phone or the latest gaming system, - or even tickets to a hit concert or last year’s release of the final Harry Potter book – it has now become the norm for people to camp out in front of stores hours – and sometimes even days – before a new product is released so that they are among the first people to get their new toy. Now, it’s true that there are just as many people out there who think that these overnight-consumer-campers are crazy; but we have to admit that it’s become an intrinsic part of our consumer landscape – I want whatever the new thing is, and I want it now. Instant gratification, which makes it so hard to wait for anything. And that makes St. Paul and our Christian faith such a hard sell.

Because, in many ways, being a Christian is about waiting. Part of following Christ is about looking back – back to our creation in God’s image, to our sinful fall, and to the birth, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. But it’s just as important for us to look forward – to wait for what is to come, for “the glory that is to be revealed for us” (Romans 8.18). And a big part of that waiting has to do with suffering. We don’t need to be reminded that our lives are tied up in suffering – whether it’s the physical pain of illness, or the emotional pain of failed dreams or broken relationships. Our lives are marked by suffering. St. Paul knows that suffering very well – not only was he imprisoned and shipwrecked multiple times, he was alienated from many of his close associates and lost as many arguments about Christ as he won. What he tries to remind us today, though, is that suffering is not the end of the story – and, even more, suffering is not the heart of the story. Whatever we suffer now – and we certainly do suffer much – that suffering is nothing compared to what is to come, compared to the glory of heaven. St. Teresa of Avila put it this way – she said that “from heaven, the most miserable earthly life will look like one bad night in an inconvenient hotel!” (Quoted in Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering, p. 139) Our suffering is real. But the promise of glory, of life with God, is also real. And there is no comparison between the two.

But we’re not there yet – for now, we wait – with “eager expection” (Romans 8.19) we “groan within ourselves” (Romans 8.23) and we wait. But not without purpose. Our lives are not just a living airport, where we sit around and wait for our heaven-bound plane to take off, perhaps reading a magazine, grabbing a bite to eat, chatting with our neighbors. If we are just waiting for the trip to heaven, then this life would be completely meaningless – and God certainly did not put us on earth to live meaningless lives. So why are we here? What are we supposed to do on this side of heaven? Do we just enjoy the latest cell phone and waste away our lives by fulfilling every possible desire? No – our call in this life is to guide one another to God, to lead each other to the glory of heaven. Just look around – there are empty spaces here; there are countless people who do not know God, who don’t have a clue about the glory that will conquer all our suffering, who have no idea that God became one of us so that he could suffer and die like and so that he could rise from the dead and lead us to eternal life. We are waiting for the glory of heaven, but there is a world out there that is doing nothing more than waiting in line for the latest cell phone. What are we supposed to do on this side of heaven? Our call – our vocation as God’s people – is to lead one another to glory, to help each other get to heaven, where life conquers death and glory conquers suffering. Then, when we’re all together, we shall truly be home.

*** The final paragraph of this homily is endebted to C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “The Weight of Glory.”***

Sunday, July 6, 2008

End of Year Debt

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Note: This weekend, our parish welcomed Sister Trinita Baeza, OSP, a member of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, for our first of two summer mission appeals. Sister Trinita shared stories of the work and ministry of her community in Costa Rica and inner-city Baltimore. In light of her presence and remarks, the homily at all masses this weekend was significantly abbreviated.

Today, I have some important news for everyone– we are in debt. We as a church and, if I my hunch is right, each and every individual and family here, are in debt. It really should come as no surprise, what with the kind of world we live in, with the way people let their desires control their decisions, with the skyrocketing costs of what it takes to live a decent life. Unfortunately, there is no other way to say it – all these factors, and plenty more, have led us into debt. But don’t worry – there is hope, because, “we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (Romans 8.12). Yes, we are in debt, but there is hope because we are in debt to God – we are in debt to him for the wonderful gift of salvation he has offered to us through Jesus Christ. Jesus conquered all the limitations of this world – even death itself – not for his own sake, but for us, to be able to give us life. If we live in the Spirit – and we can do that, because the Spirit lives in us – if we live in the Spirit, then we recognize that all we have, all we are, and all we ever will be comes to us only through the gracious gift of God. Yes, we are in debt, not just now but all the time – we are in debt to Jesus Christ – we belong to him. And that is not a bad thing.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

St. Paul in Everyday Life

Homily for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Year A
Today, I’d like to introduce you to five people: Priscilla, Timothy, Lydia, Mark, and Jason. Let’s start with Priscilla.

Priscilla is a high school senior who is stuck in holding mode – she has applied to a few different colleges, but she knows that it will really be the scholarships or financial aid that determine where she will end up. And now, she is waiting, with her whole future dependent on acceptance letters and financial packages that will determine where she will spend the next four years of her life. The stress is becoming so unbearable that she can’t concentrate on her studies, or even on enjoying her senior year. But one thing does help; she remembers what St. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4.6-7) She’s still worried, but she places those worries in God’s hands, and she finds peace.

As they sit at the dinner table, surrounded by family and friends, Timothy and Lydia think back on the last fifty years of marriage; there certainly were good times, but there were struggles, too. What made it last? Each time someone asks them that question, they remember the words they heard on their wedding day, from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, words they have tried to live out each day: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13.4-5a, 8a)

Lying in a hospital bed, it is the pain that consumes Mark more than anything else – an unbearable pain that not even the strongest medications can take away. Sitting next to the bed, Mark’s wife feels completely helpless – there is nothing she can do for this man she loves so much. It’s not fair for such a good person to be suffering so much. But, by the time they leave the hospital, they remember that our sufferings are joined with the suffering of Christ, that St. Paul said in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12.7b-10)

As a college student, Jason finds is hard to stay connected to his faith. And especially when you’re a college athlete, like Jason is, faith and church can easily take a back seat. All that talk about God – what does he have to do with my life? How can those church people think that the Bible can speak to me? But, one day, a friend shows Jason something that St. Paul wrote, in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” (1 Cor. 9.24-25) And, you know, that sort of makes sense.

Today begins the International Year of St. Paul, a year-long celebration of the 2000th anniversary of St. Paul’s birth. Throughout the world, Christians will be spending this next year getting to know this apostle, missionary, and author better. St. Paul’s letters are some of the most practical writings in the whole Bible. He experienced firsthand weakness, love, anxiety, and disillusionment as he preached the gospel, and he wrote about these things – these very human experiences –to remind us how God meets us in these very emotions. People like Priscilla, Lydia and Timothy, Mark, and Jason, people like you and me, can find in St. Paul’s writings strength and wisdom for our Christian journey. St. Paul is relevant today because he still speaks to us and shows us the way to Christ through our very humanity. St. Paul teaches us what it means to be a Christian. Our hope during this coming year is that we can spend time reading his words and learning about his life so that we, too, can become better Christians. For, as Paul said to the church in Rome, we are “not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1.16).