Saturday, October 4, 2014

Little Smartalek

Welcoming those who humble us
 Job 40: 3-5
Then Job answered the LORD and said: Behold, I am of little account; what can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth. Though I have spoken once, I will not do so again; though twice, I will do so no more.
             One of the most appealing virtues to possess is humility, but it’s also one of the most difficult and painful to attain.  St. Teresa of Avila said all authentic prayer requires 3 basic virtues: “fraternal love, detachment from things, and humility” (Way of Perfection).  Every saint is humble.  Sooner or later God sends us someone to humble us.  He sent me a kindergartner.

            A few weeks ago, I visited the school, and noticed one of the kindergarten students sitting by himself.  Figuring the shepherd should seek the lost sheep, I went over to talk with him.  I asked him why he was sitting by himself.  He said sheepishly, “I got in trouble.”  I said, “Well, it happens, but try to be better.”  He noticed my coffee cup and asked, “What’s in your cup?”  I said, “It’s hot coffee.”  He asked, “Why are you drinking that?”  I thought I would make him think a little so I said, “Why do you think I am drinking that?”  He replied, “Why do YOU think you’re drinking that??”  And I thought to myself: “Now I know why you’re sitting by yourself, you little smartalek!”  But what a great answer he gave: he made ME think.  He humbled me.

            Today’s first reading is from the fascinating Old Testament book of Job.  Job is a righteous man.  He’s so good that even God brags about him.  But there’s still one more virtue Job needs, namely, humility.  Who does God send to teach Job this crucial lesson?  He sends the devil, who deprives Job of all his possessions and tells him to blaspheme God.  I don’t think God sent the devil just to test Job; he sent him to teach Job, to teach him humility.  So even though Job demands an answer for his plight and problems, he ultimately concludes: “Behold, I am of little account; what can I answer you?  I put my hand over my mouth.”  I wanted to put my hand over that little kindergartner’s mouth!  You see, God sent Satan to humble Job, just like he sent a kindergartner to humble me.  Every saint must learn humility.

            Would you say you are a very humble person?  If you think you’re humble, that’s a pretty good sign you’re probably NOT!  Most truly humble people think they are filled with pride and arrogance.  Humility is one of those elusive virtues that you don’t get by demanding it or by some spiritual exercise.  You have to sneak up on it, or better, it has to sneak up on you, in the form of someone God sends to humble you, like a kindergartner.  Humility is a virtue we cannot get on our own; someone else must give it to us, like the person who out-smarts us, or is funnier than us, or is more beautiful than us, or is stronger than us, or is more loving and patient than us, or is more generous than us.  Today open your eyes and your heart to the people God sends to teach you humility.  Every saint must be humble.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Rockstar Babies

Learning to love others more than ourselves
Matthew 18:1-5, 10

The disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”

            Who am I holding my arms this morning?  It’s a little baby named “Valentina” (she’s not so little!).  Everyone loves babies.  Raise your hand if you love babies.  Good!  How do you show your love for a baby?  We hug them, we kiss them, we squeeze them, we make sure they don’t cry – except in church, where all babies cry!  As babies grow up with all this love, they believe they are the center of the universe, they are “rockstars” whom everyone loves as soon as they walk into a room.  Everyone starts to “Oh!” and “Ah!” when they see them.

            Now, it’s good for people to love us, but should we always believe others should take care of us and be at our beck and call, to make sure we don’t cry?  No.  As we grow up, we learn there are other people in the world, and we should take care of them, and make sure they don’t cry!  Do you know when many people finally learn that lesson?  When they have babies of their own.  That’s when some people finally grow up and love someone else more than they love themselves.  In fact, a good mother or father would gladly give their life for their baby; they would die so their baby could live. They realize that someone else is the rockstar, not me, and that’s a good thing.

            Did you know that the angels had to learn this lesson, too?  God made the angels first and He loved them very much, like we love babies.  Angels believed they were the center of the universe, they were rockstars.  But God wanted the angels to grow up and love others more than they loved themselves, and so God created Adam and Eve.  Some of the angels did grew up; these good angels love human beings, and care for us, and make sure we don’t cry.  But other angels did NOT love people, and that’s where the “fallen angels” come from.  They are the original "bullies," who pick on those who are smaller and weaker than themselves.  The fallen angels still want to be the rockstars of the universe.  Jesus is talking about these good angels when he says in the gospel: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”  These good angels take care of us like we’re the rockstars; they love us more than they love themselves.

            Today we will bless the “Guardian Angels” in our school.  Older students will guide and protect the younger students, like good angels.  Do you know what the Guardian Angel program is trying to teach you?  It is trying to teach you two things: 1) stop thinking you are the center of the universe, and that everyone should always take care of you; and 2) start trying to love someone else more than you love yourself.  You will have to learn this lesson again and again in your life.  You better start figuring it out now!

            Today, as we look at this chubby baby, Valentina, it’s very easy for us to love her, and we do.  I hope someday, she will love someone else more than she loves herself; that she, too, will be a good angel.

      Praised be Jesus Christ!

Snake Oil Salesman

Backing up our words with our actions
Matthew 21:28-32
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: "What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, 'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.' He said in reply, 'I will not, ' but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, 'Yes, sir, ‘but did not go. Which of the two did his father's will?" They answered, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him."

        Have you heard the phrase, “talk is cheap”? Of course you have. It means that it’s easy to say one thing and do another. Or, how convenient it is to tell a lie and get out of trouble. One of the greatest movies of all time is “The Princess Bride.” (Just kidding, it’s good, not great.) In one compelling scene Westley has been captured and Count Tyrone says with a sinister smile, “Come sir, we must get you to your ship.” That was completely false; they were going to torture and finally kill him. Westley wisely replies: “We are men of action; lies do not become us.” Westley say through the Count’s craftiness. You see, what makes talk cheap is that it is not backed up by our actions, or worse, our actions go in the opposite direction of our words; they undermine our words. Like any form of currency, like the U.S. dollar or the European Euro, talk becomes cheap when it’s not backed up by the gold of our actions and choices. Men of action always get the best exchange rate for their words because their talk is never cheap.

        In the gospel today we meet two kinds of men: one is a man of action, the other is full of cheap talk. Jesus tells the parable of a man with two sons, each of whom he asks to work in his vineyard. The first says, “no” but he goes and works; the second says, “Sure!” but he doesn’t; he’s lazy and stays home. Even the chief priests and elders could see the first son was the man of action, the laudable son, while the second son was basically a snake-oil salesman. Jesus drives home his point: talk is cheap, what matters are our actions. You see, the chief priests and the elders talked a good game, but their actions often contradicted true conversion of heart. The cash-talk of the chief priests was cheap because it wasn’t backed up by the gold of their actions; they were not men of action.
Recently, a distraught wife went to the local police station, along with her next-door neighbor, to report that her husband was missing. The policeman asked for a description of the missing man. The wife said: “He’s 35 years old, 6-foot 4-inches talk, has dark eyes, dark wavy hair, an athletic build, weighs 185 pounds, is soft-spoken, and is good to the children.” The next door neighbor protested: “Your husband is 5-foot 8-inches, chubby, bald, has a big mouth, and is mean to your children.” The wife replied, “Yes, but who wants HIM back?” The wife was looking for a good man of action. Isn’t that what all women are looking for?

        I’m currently reading Scott Hahn’s new book called “Consuming the Word.” It’s about how the early Christians understood the Bible. He made this surprising statement. He said: “The expressions ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ were not applied to the sacred books [of the Bible] until the end of the second century.” Hahn explains further: “For the Apostle Paul and the early Christians the ‘new covenant’ [the New Testament] was neither a book nor a collection of books, but rather the dynamic reality of the new bond between God and Christian believers based on the person and saving work of Christ” (p. 30). In other words, the New Testament was first sacred action before it was a sacred word; it was the Holy Mass before it was the Holy Bible. You see two centuries of liturgical action was like the gold that was needed to underwrite the words that the apostles used to compose the New Testament. Because the apostles were first men of action in living their faith, their words were not cheap when they wrote about their faith.

        You probably know by now that I’ve written a book myself. It’s called “Oh, For the Love of God.” For the love of God, I’m glad it’s finally finished! Now, if you’re thinking about writing a book, let me give you a little friendly advice: DON’T DO IT!! Why? Well, first because I don’t need the competition from other books better than mine. If you don’t write, better chance someone will buy mine. Second, because writing a book is very humbling. It took many hands to put together this book, and in the end, my own contribution was rather small. But here’s the main reason: now people can read my words and see what they weigh, whether my talk is cheap, or if my words are backed by the gold of any good actions. Does my book reveal me to be like the first son who was a man of action, or the second son, the snake-oil salesman? And so, it’s much easier NOT to write a book, and because if you do, you learn exactly what the exchange rate is for your words.

        Of course, no one will escape having their name in a book, namely, the Book of Life. There, the story of our whole lives will be written for all the world to see. Our words will be weighed in the balance of divine justice, and Jesus will judge whether we were men and women of action, or people full of cheap talk. You know, it’s not an easy thing to write a book. The book of my life is being written now, even as I speak these words. And so is your’s.

Praised be Jesus Christ!


Loving the family God chooses for us

Luke 8:19-21
 The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him but were unable to join him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.” He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers  are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”

             Do you know what a “framily” is?  That’s spelled “f-r-a-m-i-l-y” and was a silly commercial where Sprint wireless company featured a talking hamster as the father and various international people as part of a family.  It was all a marketing gimmick, but underlying it was an attempt to redefine a family as the people you choose to be in your family.  But a true family is made up of precisely the people you DON’T get to pick; rather, your family consists of the people God picks for you.  We just returned from the Honduras mission and several of us shook our heads in humble amazement that we were born in the U.S. and had the families we do, while others are born in poverty.  Somehow, that’s part of God’s mysterious plan for each of us.  God chooses our family for us; we don’t get to pick and choose our own “framily.”

             In the gospel today, Jesus is re-defining who belongs in a family.  When his blood mother and brothers come to speak to him, Jesus announces that those who do God’s will are mother and brother and sister to him.  In other words, Jesus’ true family are those re-born by baptism and who do God’s will.  You see, baptism forms a stronger family bond than even blood.  Think about this: the people in the pews next to you are also the family God has chosen for you.  Some of us would rather be related to a talking hamster than some of the clowns in our Church!  Belonging to the family of the Church is also somehow God’s mysterious plan for each of us.

             I believe the family – understood as the people God picks for us – is under severe attack today.  We want to redefine the family on our terms, not God’s.  This is why same-sex marriage is such a problem: we’re redefining the family as the people we pick.  Some people love their pets more than their own children – granted, some pets are easier to love than some children!  When we’re tempted to leave the Catholic Church, and seek one we like more, we redefine the Church-family God gave us.  In India we have the custom of “arranged marriages,” where the parents play a role in choosing your husband or wife.  It’s really trying to see how God’s hand is guiding you to find your spouse.  Why do you think I became a priest: I wanted none of that!  But I didn’t really escape an arranged marriage, did I?  The bishop sent me to you.  Sometimes, we don’t like the pastor we get.  Well, believe me, folks, it’s no cake-walk for us, either!

            Instead of redefining the family on your terms, try to see your family as part of God’s mysterious plan for you, and try to love the members of your family.  If your family is the people God has picked for you, do you really think you can do better?

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Catholic Lite

Growing in faith through Catholic schools
Isaiah 55:6-9
Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near. Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked his thoughts; let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.

             How Catholic would you say you are?  On a scale of one to ten – where one is zero % Catholic, and ten is a Super Catholic – where would you rank yourself?  In March, 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of U.S. Catholics.  They found that only 27% of Catholics considered themselves “strong Catholics,” roughly one out of four.  That means that 73% of us consider ourselves “Catholic Lite,” meaning that most Catholics don’t know their faith, or have stopped practicing their faith, or are C.E.O. Catholics (Christmas and Easter Only), or have even started attending Protestant churches.  One Episcopalian friend jokes that his faith is “Catholic Lite.”  But joining another denomination is no answer for a weak faith because they experience the same struggles Catholics do.

 Consider these humorous examples.   A teacher asked students to bring an item to class that represented their religious beliefs.  A Catholic student brought a crucifix.  A Jewish student brought a Menora.  A Baptist student brought a CorningWare dish.  Or, take this example.  A Southern Baptist and a Methodist crash-landed on a desert island and they were the only ones there.  The Methodist got real worried and said, “I don’t think they’ll ever find us.  We didn’t have a chance to radio where we are.  They’ll never find us.”  The Baptist was just the picture of peace.  The Methodist asked, “How can you be so confident they are going to find us?”   The Baptist said, “Well, I make $400,000 a year and I tithe every Sunday.  My preacher is going to find me.”   Since we don’t have any rich Catholics here at I.C., I don’t have to worry if you crash on a desert island.  In other words, all Christians struggle in their faith, no one is a perfect 10.  Some Catholics struggle with abortion, others accept contraception, others question homosexuality, some oppose the Church’s teaching about immigration, others don’t like celibacy for priests (ahem!), etc.  We’re all Catholic Lite trying to get closer to becoming a perfect 10.  I had a teacher in high school who never gave any students 100% on a test, even when they answered every question correctly.  He explained, “Nobody is perfect; only God is.”

             Our readings today show us this phenomenon of imperfect faith is nothing new.  Isaiah prophesies way back in 740 B.C. speaking for God: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  To make it clear how far apart human and divine thinking is, Isaiah proposes this staggering image: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”  The difference between God and us is the difference between Bo Derek in the movie “Perfect 10” and Pee Wee Herman.  Get the picture?  In the gospel, Jesus tells a parable where laborers who work only a few hours are paid the SAME amount as those who work all day.  Then, Jesus draws the conclusion: “Thus the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”  We’ve heard that line so often, I doubt we truly feel its full force.  Our scales of justice are the opposite; we rather think, “First come, first serve,” that seems a lot more fair.  If Jesus taught this principle in the London School of Economics, he would have been thrown out on his ear.  What’s my point?  Jesus teaches that God’s thinking is radically different from ours.  Even though we may believe in God, we have a long way to go to think like God; our faith is still Catholic Lite.

 There are lots of ways to grow in the faith, but I am convinced the best beginning we can make in our faith is to attend a Catholic school.  The gap between heaven and earth may be huge, but Catholic schools go a long way to bridge that gap.  For 8 hours a day and 5 days a week, students breathe a very Christian air.  They pray when school starts and at meals, they see statues of Jesus and the saints as if they walked the hallways with them (and they do!), they attend Mass, they kneel and confess their sins.  Of course, they take religious education classes, but as Scott Hahn likes to say, “The Catholic faith is as much ‘caught’ as it is ‘taught’.”  In the halls and classrooms, the playgrounds and cafeterias, children learn their faith almost by “osmosis.”  They begin to think more like God and less like human beings; they begin to believe that maybe Jesus was right and the “the last should be first and the first should be last.”  Last year, Immaculate Conception School was nationally recognized as a Blue Ribbon School, but do you know what I consider the biggest compliment?  When I hear about public school teachers who LOVE to get students from a Catholic school because of how well behaved and studious and hard-working, and mostly how Christian they are.  Our students have started to walk along that bridge between heaven and earth.  One Catholic school’s motto was: “We prepare out students not just for Harvard, but for heaven.”  Every Catholic school does that.  The best cure for Catholic Lite is a Catholic school, because it moves students into that top 25% who consider themselves “strong Catholics.”

             Because I love Catholic schools so much, I’m doing something I’ve never done before: publishing a book of my homilies.  Some people have asked if I’m going to write a second one.  I say: “You know, that’s like asking a woman who’s just had a baby when she’s going to have another one!”  You better duck!  So, no, I’m not writing a second book, so be sure to buy this one!  I’m donating the proceeds to our school endowment fund, so our school will be around for years and years.  Why?  Because like Isaiah said: “God’s ways are above our ways as the heavens are above the earth.”  Catholic schools bridge that gap between heaven and earth and teach children not only how to get to Harvard but also how to get to heaven.  I hope you’ll join me in this effort and come to the book signing Sunday evening in the Galvin Center.  The best cure for a Catholic Lite is a Catholic school.

Praised be Jesus Christ!