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.