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.