Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dying to Baseball

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B
Jeremiah 31.31-34 Psalm 51 Hebrews 5.7-9 John 12.20-33

Our Lenten journey is coming to an end. Today is the last Sunday of Lenten purple – next weekend, we begin the holiest week of the year with Palm Sunday. On the one hand, this might be a good time to reflect on what Lent has been like for us this year, to look at how well we have lived the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of this season. But our faith challenges us to do something more. In his rule for monks, St. Benedict advised his monks that their entire life should be a perpetual Lent. To live Lent all the time, not just during these 40 days before Easter, means that we should always be in the process of conversion, we should always be about the process of examining our lives and making the adjustments needed so that we become more and more like Christ. We should live each day not just for itself, but looking forward to what comes at the end of Lent: death and resurrection, for Christ, and for us. St. Benedict also told his monks that they should keep death daily before their eyes. The death of Christ, first of all; but also their own deaths. To live with our eyes fixed on the end of our earthly existence means that we also live with our eyes fixed on heaven. And during the perpetual Lent of our lives, we strive each day to become worthy to enjoy the eternal happiness of our heavenly home.

But there’s another way we can follow St. Benedict’s advice. Part of the traditional practice of Lent is to fast, to give up things that we enjoy. Some people fast from food – chocolate or meat. Some people fast from television or movies or whatever else. When we fast from something, we are dying to ourselves, even if only in a small way. Not eating the bowl of ice cream that we love so much is a little death – a depravation, a sacrifice – that, hopefully, helps unite us to the sacrifice of Christ and helps us remember who gave us everything we have in the first place. And if we die to self, if we regularly practice these little sacrifices, then we will be more prepared for the bigger sacrifices and the more powerful sufferings that may come our way. Like the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, when we die to self, we become more like Christ; and, with the grace of God, we can be so much more effective Christian men and women in our daily lives. And the more we are like Christ, the less we are afraid of death. And, believe it or not, this week’s sports page had an example of what this means.

In less than two weeks, on Friday, April 10, the Detroit Tigers Major League Baseball Team will play their home opener at Comerica Park in Detroit. The first pitch is scheduled for 1:05 pm. Michael Ochab has been at every home opener for the Tigers for the past twenty years. But this year, he won’t be there on April 10. Instead, he’ll be at his parish church for the afternoon Good Friday service. Michael says that breaking his 20-year streak of home openers with the Tigers was a “no-brainer,” because enjoying the festivities of opening day for baseball just “doesn’t seem appropriate this year” on Good Friday. Even for a die-hard baseball fan, Michael’s faith comes first. And there is nowhere else he would be on Good Friday afternoon other than in his parish church.*

To make our lives a perpetual Lent. And to keep death daily before our eyes. It changes how we look at the world, it changes how we make decisions, it changes how live our faith. And maybe – just maybe – we could even have the grace to be like Michael, the Detroit Tigers fan, who is dying to his love of baseball in order to commemorate the death of Christ. With God’s grace and a lifetime of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we can die to self in order to live for God. What’s your baseball that you need to die to?

* See the article at Catholic News Service

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rejoicing in God's Riches

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B
2 Chr. 36.14-16, 19-23 Psalm 137 Ephesians 2.4-10 John 3.14-21

In some ways, today seems a strange day for rejoicing. Yet that is what the Church asks of us. It is Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, one of two days during the year when rose vestments are worn. It is the only Sunday during Lent when flowers are allowed in the church. This weekend, we are called to step outside the regular disciplines and atmosphere of Lent to rejoice. It seems a strange thing to do, especially in the midst of the somberness of this season. And what’s more, once again the news of the week has led to more outcry than rejoicing, more anger and frustration at the acts and mindset of the few who are growing wealthier while the rest of the country is struggling. There is nothing to rejoice about in the daily news headlines. And yet, here we are, on this Laetare Sunday. The church calendar does not change depending on what is going on in the world. And so, today, we are called to rejoice. Something isn’t right.

Or is it … as a matter of fact, we do hear about riches and wealth in today’s readings, a richness that can remind us of the great things we do have. St. Paul is writing to the Ephesians about God’s grace, and listen to what he says: “God, who is rich in mercy … raised us up with him, … that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2.4-7). No matter what we have, no matter what our lives look like, there is one person who is always rich – perhaps not rich in the ways of this world, but rich in mercy and in grace. God, who loved us so much that he sent is only son to die for us – this same God is so rich and overflowing in mercy and grace that we cannot even imagine it. It’s so unbelievable, we have to hear it over and over for it to really sink in. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again – when it comes down to it, as long as we have the love of God, then what else do we need? The only way we should really despair is if God’s grace were to run out, if his forgiveness were to run dry. But the promise of the gospel, the promise that St. Paul gives to the Ephesians and to us, is that that will never happen. God’s grace cannot run out, God’s love does not expire, the riches of God’s mercy can never go bankrupt. Now that is something to rejoice about. It can’t get much simpler than that.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Lenten Journey with Sin

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B
Exodus 20.1-17 Psalm 19 1 Corinthians 1.22-25 John 2.13-25

Almost exactly two years ago, a fire destroyed St. Anne Catholic Church in New Castle, Indiana. The fire was a result of arson, set after a theft gone wrong. Just recently, the arsonist confessed and was sentenced. Last weekend, a pastor was shot and killed during Sunday services at a church in Maryville, Illinois. Just two days later, eleven people died in a shooting rampage in Alabama. And on Thursday, the man behind a multi-billion dollar financial scam was convicted of fraud and perjury and sentenced to jail. We understand crime – we may not understand why people commit crime, but we do understand that certain actions violate laws, take away other people’s rights and property, and cause harm to the good of both individuals and society. And today, as we listen to the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses, it’s easy to equate many of these commandments with crime – to take another’s life, to steal, to lie under oath. But that’s just the surface. The Ten Commandments are not really about crime, they’re about sin – and it’s much harder for us to understand sin.

The textbook definition of sin is that it is a turning away from God; a thought, action, or inaction that separates us from the image of Christ that is within us. A sin is different from a crime in terms of whom it affects: crimes affect people and property, while sin can affect people and property, but sin first and foremost always affects God. There are major sins, like intentionally killing an innocent human being, or deliberate and vocal hatred of a group of people; actions like rape and child molestation. But most of us are caught up in the smaller sins – the daily sins that we can so easily fall into. We fail to truly honor our parents or other authority figures. We do not observe a day of worship and rest on Sundays. We participate in new ways of stealing, like pirating music or software or violating copyright laws. We spread gossip easily and readily, making our stories about other people more and more colorful and less and less truthful as we tell them. We dishonor the truth about someone’s life by judging them, and telling everyone we know what we think. We lust with the eyes, we covet with our minds – even if we never go beyond our thoughts. And perhaps more than any other sin, we trust in ourselves more than we trust in God.

And the thing is – we all do it; we all sin. There is not a single person in this church today who does not sin. But that doesn’t mean that we can just accept our sinfulness and move on. At the other end of the spectrum, we can’t just put the entire human race in prison. At the very end of today’s gospel, St. John tells us that Jesus understood the human nature very well (John 2.25). Jesus knows what we are like, he knows that we are sinners; but he also knows that we have the divine image within us, he knows that we can be so much better, so much more like him than we are. Does he get angry when we sin? Sure he does, because he knows we can do better. But deeper than any anger is a pure love and forgiveness, a recognition that with God’s grace and wisdom, we can overcome sin, we can become more like God.

None of us are perfect; we are human, and we sin. But God is perfect, and God can help us to sin less and to be more like him. That’s the journey of Lent, the journey out of oneself and toward the cross and resurrection. It’s the journey made possible through the Sacraments, especially Reconciliation and Eucharist. It’s the journey that is strengthened and nourished each time we gather together as a community of sinners to pray to our God. In our weakness, all we need to do is look to God, whose own weakness “is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1.25).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Remember: God Is On Our Side

Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B
Genesis 22.1-18 Psalm 116 Romans 8.31b-34 Mark 9.2-10

If you’re like me, you’ve had about enough bad news, most of it about the economy. Even with promises that things will get better, that the economic stimulus package will make a difference and that jobs will be created, it seems like there continues to be a daily dose of bad news of some kind or other – and you don’t need me to read off a litany of our troubles. What we all do need is some good news, some hope, and a positive plan for the future. And I think we can find that good news, right here in our parish. Yes, these are challenging times, more so for some than for others, but really they are challenging for us all. As members of this parish, you have a right to know where we stand financially and what measures we are taking to ensure that our ministries will continue in their work of spreading the gospel message. And even with the challenges we face as a parish, there is much good news to share.

Recently, our parish Finance Council met to review the first six months of the fiscal year, from July through December 2008. The good news of this review is that our parish is in a very stable financial position. The great generosity and stewardship of our parishioners has resulted in several years of income exceeding expenses, and the first six months of this fiscal year continue that trend. On the other side of the equation, our parish and school staff members are committed to a responsible use of the resources that are entrusted to us, and we have been able to watch our expenses carefully while also providing quality ministries and programs for our parishioners and students. Everything that we do as a parish is made possible by your generosity. To share time, talent, and treasure with our parish community is a direct way of giving back to God some of the many blessings he has given us. We recognize that the state of the economy has made it more difficult for some people to give what they would like. But we also know that we are called to share the first-fruits, to give to God out of our abundance, whatever that abundance may be, not our leftovers. And the good news is that our weekly collections as of right now are exactly where they were last year – we have not seen a dramatic change in collections over the past year. Please know that everything you give to the parish is a sacred gift, which is why we place the collection basket at the foot of the altar during Mass. Our staff and Finance Council are committed to using these gifts wisely and well, and for your generosity, we are grateful.

But we also recognize the challenges that individuals and families are facing. Over the past several months, our Pastoral Council, Finance Council, School Commission, and parish staff have been carefully considering how we can be the best stewards of our parish resources. In December, we announced that the tuition for our grade school will be frozen for the 2009-2010 school year at the current year’s levels. We hope that the stable tuition will be one small way that will help families afford a Catholic education. A little over a week ago, our Finance Council and I decided to follow the recommendation of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in freezing all staff salaries for the parish and school. This freeze is across the board – from myself to our teachers to our staff members. We are grateful to the dedicated staff and faculty that we have, and the salary freeze is a precautionary measure not knowing exactly what the future will bring. It was a difficult decision to make, but a necessary one.

Perhaps the most exciting new development in our parish right now is the launching of the Kingdom Builders Program. All parishioners should have received a postcard in the mail recently inviting you to a dinner on Saturday, April 4. The Kingdom Builders Program is a new tuition assistance program for our parish school. The dinner on April 4 will launch the program and will be an opportunity to hear about the great things happening in our Catholic school while also having the opportunity to pledge a financial gift that will go directly into a tuition assistance fund. Our hope is to have more money available for tuition assistance so that a Catholic education will be available to all parishioners who desire it and that money will not be an obstacle to enrollment in our school. Such a program is needed now more than ever, and we invite you to prayerfully consider participating in the Kingdom Builders Program. And please join us on April 4 to launch the program and to celebrate our Catholic school. For those who are struggling with tuition payments or who may be hesitant about the cost of Catholic education, please call me or our principal, Terry Horton. Your call is always confidential. We want you here, we want you a part of our school, and through the generosity of our parishioners, we will make it happen.

Now is also a good time to give an update on two capital projects that are currently being planned. The next phase of projects funded by the Legacy for Our Mission Capital Campaign is the construction of a handicapped-accessible restroom on the main level of the church, upgrades to the church narthex, and replacement of the interior and exterior doors at all three entrances into the church. We have finalized the plans for these projects and are awaiting approval from the Archdiocese. We are blessed that the pledges for the Capital Campaign continue to come in and make projects like this possible. This project will be scheduled in the coming months, and I will be sure to keep you updated. At the same time, we are also moving forward with the construction of a new Baptismal Font for the church. Made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donation, the font will be located here in the sanctuary and will be a permanent structure allowing for the baptism of both infants and adults. Some of the marble that will be used in the new font is from our former communion rail, and it is the same marble that is used in the altar and ambo. At all the entrances to the church, you can view for the first time this weekend a photo rendering of the new baptismal font, which is based on a design by our parishioner Ray Day. Both of these projects are funded either through specific donations or the Capital Campaign – they are not a part of our regular operating budget. This is all good news – and we are excited to be able to move forward with these projects.

There is so much more good news that we could talk about – from the extraordinary work of our St. Vincent de Paul Society in service to the poor of our community, to the massive number of volunteers from our parish who help to staff two local soup kitchens; from the ministries that are provided by our parish Faith Formation and Youth Ministry offices, all of which have financial assistance available for those who need it, to the countless hours of volunteer work given to keep our grounds clean, to plan for the future, and to make sure that the good news of the gospel is spread throughout our community. As a parish, we are here to spread the gospel, to get one another to heaven, and to serve you, our parishioners. If there are ways we can do any of that better, ways we can better serve your needs, please let me know – because we are in this together – from now to eternity. And whenever we get bogged down in the struggles and challenges of life, we just need to look to St. Paul. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul asks a simple yet profound question: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” In the big picture, all we need is the love and support of God. In the big picture, the houses that we live in, the cars that we drive, and the food that we eat is of little importance. Money comes and goes, possessions come and go, but the love of God endures for ever. And as long as God is on our side, then we have nothing to fear. There is still good news in the world. And the best news of all is that God is on our side, God is for us, and God will provide.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Laziness and Lent

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B
Genesis 9.8-15 Psalm 25 1 Peter 3.18-22 Matthew 1.12-15

There is something different about Lent – actually, everything should be different during Lent. This is the only time of the year when the Church tells us what we must eat – or, more precisely, what we cannot eat. This is the only time of the year when we bring out symbols like ashes and palms; for many of us, it is the only time of the year when we might pray certain devotions like the stations of the cross. And, for most of us, it is the only time of the year when we fast – when we give up something that we like – fasting from chocolate or television or meat, filling up what is empty with extra prayers and good works. Yes, there is something different about these forty days – different from any other time of the year.

Even what we do here at Mass is different. There are no flowers during Lent – instead, we have bare branches in the sanctuary. The music is more subdued than usual – no preludes or postludes, we sing more things a cappella, without instruments to support us. Even the way we pray is different – our general intercessions, the prayers of the faithful, are more thoughtful and measured, and we will respond to these prayers in song, lifting our voices and our prayers together to the Lord. And there is silence – even more silence than usual – a silence that can be haunting, yet pregnant with meaning. A Mass during Lent looks and sounds different than at any other time of the year.

But why do we need all this different-ness? What makes these forty days so unique that they call for a completely different attitude and atmosphere? I think it all comes down to one thing – we’re lazy. It’s hard work to be a good person; it’s hard work to give ourselves to the service of God, to support and strengthen our family, to make this world a better place. It’s hard work to follow the gospel and live constantly with one eye fixed on the kingdom of heaven. We know how hard it is – and most of the time we’re too lazy to do it. Satan is most successful when he succeeds in making us lazy and apathetic. And boy is that tempting! It’s easy to choose sleep over prayer, to choose a night out at the movies over the weekly Stations of the Cross. It’s easy to spend money on some new clothes or a video game rather than give that money to Catholic Relief Services or the Interfaith Community Council. It’s easy to justify our laziness and sinfulness and put it out of our minds rather than admit our failings and humbly beg God’s mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Year to year, our actions become nothing more than repeatedly hitting the easy button. And that’s why we need Lent.

We need Lent to get us back on track. We need the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of this season to shake us out of our laziness and re-energize our faith. We need the starkness and silence of the Mass to help us once again listen to God. And we need the ashes to remind us of our mortality – that we are not God. We need these forty days each year, because we are lazy – and without an annual push to straighten our lives out, before we know it our laziness will rule our lives, and it will be almost impossible to overcome it. And so everything about Lent is different, and we fill the season with extra opportunities for prayer, Reconciliation, and service. Now, it’s up to you – it’s up to you to make the choice between the laziness of Satan or communion with God. It’s up to all of us to “repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1.15)