Sunday, September 27, 2009

What did he say? We're supposed to do what?

Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Numbers 11.25-29 Psalm 19 James 5.1-6 Mark 9.38-48

If we really took what Jesus says literally, then this church would be filled with people without hands, without feet, without eyes, and with millstones tied around their necks. Because the fact is that we all sin, we sin with our hands, stealing what belongs to others; we sin with our feet, walking away from an unjust situation without doing anything; we sin with our eyes, looking to see how we can use another person for our own pleasure; and we lead other people to sin by the way we live and act. Not one is immune from sin. And yet, we don’t take Jesus at his word, we don’t practice self-mutilation in order to get rid of those parts of our bodies that sin. And thank goodness we don’t. Because it really wouldn’t do any good. If we cut off a hand because it is causing us to sin, then we will very easily find another way to sin. Besides, it’s not really the foot or the hand or the eye that causes us to sin. Sin is a choice, a decision of the mind and the will; our limbs and organs do not act on their own. A hand does not cause us to steal; a deliberate choice of the will causes us to steal, our fallen human nature causes us to steal, our disordered priorities and habits cause us to steal. Self-mutilation is a pointless, ineffective solution to the problem of sin. So why does Jesus suggest it?

It seems to me that Jesus is trying to get us to get to the heart of what really causes sin and, on the other hand, what causes us to do good. Sin comes from us, not from God. The goal of a Christian life is to sin less and to become holy. In other words, the goal of a Christian life is to become less human and more like God. Of course, we’ll never get there in this life. But we can make progress. We can train ourselves through prayer, discipline, and hard work to become more and more open to God’s grace working in us. We can learn how to sin less and do more good, with God’s help. As soon as we rely too much on our own hands and eyes and feet to do the work of the gospel, then we will fail. It is only through God’s grace that we can be like Christ, it is not through any part of our fallen humanity.

So don’t cut off your hand or your foot or pluck out your eye – at least not literally. They may be instruments of sin, but they can also be instruments of grace. Instead, cut off your dependence on your humanity, your own effort, to do good. If we rely instead on God, he will use those same parts of our body to see injustice and work to end it, to serve others with our hands, our feet, and our hearts, to cooperate with him in building his kingdom.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Competing with Reality TV

Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Wisdom 2.12, 17-20 Psalm 54 James 3.16-4.3 Mark 9.30-37

Over the past several years, there has been a definite trend in the kind of shows that occupy primetime television: you might call this the era of reality TV. And while there are some exceptions, most of reality TV boils down to one thing: competition. From Survivor to America’s Got Talent, from Dancing with the Stars to Iron Chef, from The Biggest Loser to America’s Next Top Model. We have become obsessed with watching regular, every-day people compete against one another on national television – and it’s even better when we get to vote for who we want to win. And who knows, someday we might be there – singing on American Idol or traveling across the world on The Amazing Race or in the boardroom on The Apprentice. And if we’re not there, in front of the cameras, at least we get to watch – we get to live vicariously through the televised contests of both celebrities and regular Americans. It’s entertainment at its best. And a lot of it is all about competition – deciding who is the greatest.

Some things never change. Even the disciples had that argument. They tried to hide it from Jesus, but he knew what their conversations were about, he knew that they were arguing among themselves over which one of them was the greatest, the favorite, the most likely to succeed. So what’s this all about? Why the obsession with putting ourselves up against one another? It seems that underneath all our comparing and competing is a need to be loved and accepted. Acceptance is so hard to come by that we feel like we need to look a certain way or be accomplished at a certain talent or win some kind of award, or else we’re just mediocre – and who wants to be mediocre? And then, if we can’t find success and acceptance by our own performance, we get so obsessed with watching other people perform that our lives become meaningful based on their success. How many people’s moods will change based on who wins the Governor’s Cup? Once again, it’s all about competition – who is the greatest.

Now this isn’t to say that competition is bad. But the danger of an obsession with competition is that when everyone is so determined to be first, then more often than not, God ends up being last. When we spend all our time either competing or watching other people compete, there is very little room left for God. Which is why Jesus tells the disciples, and us, that we should be like servants and children. If we really want to be great and first, then we must humble ourselves and become the last and the least. Healthy, fun competition is good – it makes us stronger, better people, it calls us to live up to high standards, it makes us determined and passionate. But in the end, the winners and losers are all the same – they are all loved equally by God, they are all given the same opportunities for grace and love, they are all offered the same gift of heaven. Some choose to accept God’s gifts, and others ignore him. It is that choice that divides the world. But in the competition for our souls, there is only one winner – God himself. The rest of us are simply his children, equally loved and equally redeemed by Christ. And I would much rather be a child of God than the next American Idol.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

God vs. Satan

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Isaiah 50.4c-9a Psalm 116 James 2.14-18 Mark 8.27-35

This weekend, we welcomed two Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to our parish for a mission appeal. The sisters shared the work of their order in serving the poor and the aged. Because of the mission appeal, this week's homily took an abbreviated form.

In many ways, life is all one big struggle; a struggle between good and evil, between right and wrong, between God and Satan. Whether its on the worldwide stage or within our own country or in the depths of our individual souls, there is a constant struggle in our lives between two diametrically opposed sides. The natural question becomes: who will win? Will good prevail, or will the powers of evil conquer? In our personal lives, its often some of both – sometimes we make positive, loving, moral choices; and other times we succumb to pride, greed, lust, or any number of other temptations that lead us to evil. Even St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, said things and did things that were both for God and against God, even to the point that today Jesus calls Peter Satan. But in the end, in the big picture, when human history has come to its completion and the world is at an end, who will win? Will the powers of good, the powers of God, prevail against pride and selfishness? Or will humanity have become so sinful and depraved that Satan will be able to claim an eternal victory? From an individual perspective, it sometimes seems like the sides are equally matched. But they’re not. Because the battle between good and evil that takes place in each of our own lives and in human history is a battle waged with imperfect people. But the ultimate battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is a battle between the one, eternal God, creator of all, and one of God’s creatures who has lost his way. The ultimate battle between good and evil is really no contest at all – there can only be one outcome. Nothing – no one – not even Satan himself – is any match for the grace and goodness of God – the one being who is all-powerful, all-merciful, and all-loving. And so with Jesus we say, “Get behind us, Satan.” In the end, you will never win. You are no match for God almighty.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Lonely Death

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Isaiah 35.4-7a Psalm 146 James 2.1-5 Mark 7.31-37

About a year and a half ago, I was asked to say some prayers at a funeral home for an elderly woman who had died. As I found out, this woman did not have any immediate family; she had been in a health-care facility for several years and had seemingly lost touch with any family or friends she had once had. And she was poor – not just poor, but destitute. Toward the end of her life, she had no money or possessions of her own and had been declared a ward of the state, with the government paying for the minimal amount of comfort and care during her dying days. Somewhere in her files at the health care facility, there was a mention that this woman was Catholic. So, when she died, the funeral home handling her arrangements called and asked if I would do a brief prayer service at the funeral home before her simple burial in an unmarked plot. I was told that there were some distant relatives they were trying to contact who might be there, plus some of the nurses who had cared for her, and her state appointed guardian – but probably only a few people. In the end, no one showed up for her funeral – it was just me and the funeral director. So I said the prayers, blessed her body, and entrusted her to God’s care – in all respects, a Christian burial. But it was heart wrenching to imagine that anyone’s life could come to this. No family, no relationships, no money. Just a priest and a funeral director saying some prayers.

Hopefully stories like this should make us uncomfortable – how can we as a society, as a church, as individuals let something like this happen? Where is the human dignity, the respect for each person’s life, created in the image of God? But it is all too real and all too common, and too often we ignore the reality of the poor, the lonely, and the abandoned. St. James gives us one scenario in today’s second reading. If two people walk into a church, one visibly wealthy and one visibly poor, we are likely to treat them very differently. It seems that we are often naturally attracted to money or possessions – almost like being drawn to wealth by a magnet. Those who are rich want to be richer, and those who are poor want to be rich. And we think that the way to get there is to surround ourselves with people and things that make us look wealthier than we are. Or at the least, we judge people based on how much money they appear to have. Where is the human dignity in this, the respect for each person’s life, created equally in the image of God?

To be poor does not just mean that you lack material goods. Being poor can also be a lack of basic human rights, a lack of love, a lack of faith, a lack of recognition by the society or the church. The US Bishops have put it very simply: “That so many people are poor in a nation as rich as ours is a social and moral scandal that we cannot ignore” (Economic Justice for All 16). And it’s not only far away, it’s people right here – in this very parish, in this very church today – people who struggle to eat, who struggle to pay their bills, who struggle to live a life worthy of human dignity. The gospel calls us to treat all people with love and respect, but to show a special love, a preferential option, for the poor. Catholic Charities USA has called for a campaign to reduce poverty in the United States by 50 percent by 2020. In the coming months we will talk about specific ways that we as a diocese and as a parish are working to spread hope and love in our communities. But it must all start in our hearts. It must start with an attitude that does not judge people based on appearance or possessions. It must start with a love that treats everyone the same. It must start with a faith that shows no partiality. Then, and only then, can we begin the hard work as individuals, as a church, and as a whole society to make sure that no one dies alone and destitute – with no family, no relationships, no money – with only a priest and a funeral director to send them forth into God’s kingdom. Or worse than that, with no one.