Wednesday, November 25, 2015

First Sunday of Advent - November 29, 2015

First Sunday of Advent

November 29, 2015

Brokenness Needs A Merciful Savior


            There’s something wrong…with us. We are broken. All of us, you and I and everyone else in this crazy, mixed-up world. We are sinners. We feel pain, loneliness, hurt, rejection. We struggle with addictions. We regret our past. We fear the future. We lose our patience. We make mistakes. And so, we need a merciful Savior.

            In 1931, a Polish nun named St. Faustina Kowalska was praying when she had a vision of Jesus, with rays of white and red light flowing from His heart. You may have seen the picture – it is the Divine Mercy image. Jesus revealed Himself to St. Faustina as the King of Divine Mercy, the Savior who comes with mercy to His people. His mercy is so intense, that He said to St. Faustina, “The greater the sinner, the greater their right to My Mercy.”

            All of our brokenness is no match for God’s mercy. His mercy can take everything broken in us – all of our pain, all of our chains, even our sins – and cleanse them, making of us something beautiful for God. Have you ever seen a mosaic? It’s a picture formed by thousands of pieces of glass or ceramic. It forms a beautiful work of art – but first the glass or stone must be broken, then placed in the hands of the master artist to make it beautiful. Likewise, when our brokenness is placed in the hands of the Creator of the world, He can bring about something beautiful from it.

            Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel, especially today’s Gospel. Jesus contrasts two groups of people at His Second Coming – some people will “die of fright”, while some people will “lift up their heads, for their redemption is at hand.” Which one will you be? The difference between the two is that the first group did not trust in Jesus’ mercy, while the second group did. After all, Jesus revealed to St. Faustina that “[those who trust in God’s mercy should] not fear judgment, for they will not be judged.” Which group will you be in – those who trust in God’s mercy, or those who do not?

            Mercy is so important that Pope Francis named 2016 the “Year of Mercy”. He wants to emphasize how important mercy is in our faith – he calls mercy, “the other name of Love.” Our sin, our wounds are like a drop of water lost in the ocean of God’s mercy; it gets dissolved and washed away.

            Why am I talking about mercy during Advent? Because the whole reason Jesus came was to save sinners and heal the broken with His mercy. Let’s be honest with ourselves: we can’t do this whole “life” thing on our own. We need a Savior because we need to be saved! If you think you can get through life on your own, then Jesus isn’t for you! You know what the first step in the 12-step program Alcoholics Anonymous is: admitting we have a problem. When we admit our brokenness and our sin, then the Lord can begin His healing work.

            The good news is, we cannot earn this mercy. Just recently someone came to me, distraught. She had been asked to be a Eucharistic minister, but she thought she couldn’t do it. She explained to me, “Father, I’m not worthy!” No, we’re not worthy…and that’s what makes mercy a gift! Do you know who was the first person to enter Heaven after Jesus’ death? The man dying on the cross next to Jesus. He repented of his sin and trusted in God’s mercy, and Jesus promised that thief that he would be with Him in paradise!

            So how do we embrace God’s mercy? It’s as simple as A-B-C:

            A – Ask for it! If we only knew the mercy and grace that Jesus longs to give us, we would be on our knees day and night. In Heaven, right now, God only wants one thing – to pour out His mercy on us. But we must ask in order to receive mercy!

            B – Be merciful! To receive kindness, we must give kindness. To receive love, we must give love. And to receive mercy, we must give mercy to others, if we desire God’s mercy upon us.

            C – Completely trust in Jesus’ mercy. Beneath that famous image of the Divine Mercy are the words, “Jesus, I Trust in You.”

            Jesus said to St. Faustina, “Humanity will never find peace until it trusts in Divine Mercy.” This Advent, we begin our journey to Christmas by humbly recognizing that we desperately need a Savior because we are broken and sinful, but trusting that His Mercy is greater than our brokenness and sin, and He can make all things new and make something beautiful out of us.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Christ the King Sunday - November 22, 2015

Christ the King Sunday

November 22, 2015

Rejected King


            Today throughout the world, there is a Catholic religious community of monks and nuns called the Carmelites. They live a structured life of prayer, work, sacrifice, and listening for God through Scripture. But there was a time when the Carmelite community was falling apart…

            Like many groups, they started out on-fire with love for God, but over time, the fire was cooled. They began to abandon some of their earlier disciplines – instead of prayer, they spent more time on worldly pursuits. Instead of penance and sacrifice, they slowly introduced more pleasure into their lives.

            But then came two saints: St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Both of them saw value in the Carmelite religious order – but they realized that reform was needed. So they set out to reform their order.

            Naturally, no one likes to be told that they’re not doing the right thing, and both saints suffered a lot of rejection from the Carmelites. John got the worst of it – his fellow Carmelite priests actually kidnapped him and imprisoned him in a tiny closet for nine months, giving him weekly beatings and feeding him only bread and water. He was finally able to escape by taking his door off its hinges, but not without being severely injured and weakened by the experience. Amazing – fellow Catholic priests would kidnap and torture one of their own! But John – and Teresa – were calling them back to holiness, and eventually their reform prevailed, and the Carmelite order returned to its original fervor. The saints had to first experience rejection before triumph.

            The only time Jesus accepts the title “King” in the Gospels is at His crucifixion. We are following a King who was rejected, who was hated, who was an outcast in the world that He Himself created. He came to bring us life and light – but the world preferred (and still prefers) death and darkness. The world does not want Christ as its King!

            Truth is, we who follow Him can expect nothing less than the rejection He endured. It is absolutely impossible to be “cool” in the eyes of the world and be a faithful Christian. We have to choose – which one is more important: to be “cool”, or to be a disciple?

            I was speaking with a dear friend of mine this past week, a woman who has five kids and one more on the way. She was telling me that often, when she takes her kids shopping or to a park, she gets all kinds of odd remarks. People often say to her, “Oh, are you running a day care?” Or when her doctor found out she was pregnant a sixth time, he snidely remarked, “So you’re one of those Catholics…”

            She was telling me this in frustration, as she said to me, “I just want to be a faithful Catholic, open to life, following the teachings of the Church!” But the reality is, we live in a world that chooses not to be under Christ’s Kingship, so when we decide to allow Christ to be OUR King, the world looks at us askance.

            You see, Christ must be King of our entire lives. Our thoughts, our relationships, the TV shows we watch, the way we spend our time and money, how we vote, what we love and what we despise, our hobbies and interests, all of that must be under Christ’s Kingship – and all of that might be called into question and rejected by our family and friends. They will ask, “Why don’t you watch the latest dirty movie? Why don’t you approve of my sinful lifestyle? Why do you make God a priority in your life?” We must expect that it isn’t popular to worship and pledge our allegiance to a rejected King.

            This is the King we worship: a King who dies on a tree! A King who embraces a shameful death! A King who humbles Himself! A King who is rejected! And…a King Who truly rules the universe with His merciful and just love. At the end of time, no one is going to care what the world thinks. When Jesus comes again, He will no longer be the rejected King but the triumphant King. I want to be on His side when that day comes.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Homily for November 15, 2015 - Ordinary Time 33

Homily for Ordinary Time 33

November 15, 2015

The Beginning and the End


            Jesus’ words in the Gospel are mysterious, to say the least. And He is really talking about two major events – one which has already occurred, and one which will occur in the future. But first, some background.

            For the Jewish people, the Temple in Jerusalem was the most sacred space in the universe. It was the place where Heaven met earth, where God literally dwelt. The Temple was the place of sacrifice, the place of worship, the place where sins were forgiven, the place where people encountered God. It was a world unto itself – a microcosm of the universe.

            After all, it was God Himself who gave the Jews their religion. God was the origin of the Old Testament Law, and it was He who instructed them how to build the Temple. The Ark of the Covenant was the very presence of God. So for them, the Temple was everything about their religion – it was where they met God!

            And Jesus knows that the cornerstone of Jewish religion was about to end.

            When Jesus died on the Cross, the veil of the Temple was torn in two. This seems like a really small detail, but it has huge significance. You see, the veil separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. The Holy of Holies was a small room at the very center of the Temple, separated from the rest of the Temple by a curtain. It was in that room that God’s invisible power and presence was located. Only one person – the High Priest – once a year – on Yom Kippur, the Feast of Atonement – was allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies. It was God’s sacred dwelling place.

            But when Jesus died, the curtain was torn from top to bottom. Now people could look into the Holy of Holies and realize…nothing. It was empty. God was not there – no, God was outside of the city, on a Cross, dying for the sins of mankind. The Temple was empty. God no longer dwelt there.

            And about thirty-five years later, the entire Temple was destroyed by the Romans, who sacked it and then destroyed it. To this day only one wall is left standing – the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, where many Jews and Christians still go to pray in Jerusalem.

            For a good first-century Jew, this would have been, literally, the end of their world. The most sacred place was violated. The Temple was empty. God did not dwell there anymore. It isn’t that Judaism was destroyed – no, rather, it was fulfilled in Jesus. Because the entire purpose for the Jewish religion was to prepare the world for the Savior.

            Jesus was preparing His Jewish listeners for this. He is essentially saying, “Your world is about to come to an end. Everything you believed in is about to fall away, because it is being fulfilled in Jesus Himself.”

            That is the historical event that Jesus is speaking about in today’s Gospel. But He is also leading us towards a future event – one that we will experience as well.

            If the goal of the Jewish religion was to prepare the world for Christ’s coming, then the goal of the Catholic religion is to prepare the world for Heaven. There will come a time when this earthly world will end. For most of us (maybe all of us), it will be upon our death, when our connection to this earth will be over. But perhaps it will come sooner than that, when Christ comes again. Regardless of when it comes, it will be the end of the world, literally. And for this, we must be ready.

            Because in the world to come, there will be no church buildings. There will be no Sacraments. We will not need the Eucharist, or Confession, or devotions. Just like the Jewish religion was fulfilled in Jesus, the Catholic religion will be fulfilled in Heaven, where we are able to see God face to face, enjoy total and permanent intimacy with Him, and be in a place of blessed happiness and peace forever. God will conquer evil once and for all, and we will reign with Him over a new creation of joy and love.

            The only thing we get to take with us into this new world is who we have become – the love that we have shared with others, our love for God, and the virtues that have become a part of our soul. So let us use our short time on this earth wisely, prudently, becoming the men and women who will rejoice to close our eyes to this world and open them to see the sights of Heaven.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

November 8, 2015 - Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for Ordinary Time 32

November 8, 2015

Trust in God


            Opening Day, 2005. Cleveland Browns rookie Eric Mahl took the field with all of his teammates. But something was wrong. Oh, he was in the best of health – he could still bench press 450 pounds…but something just felt out-of-place.

            A very devout Catholic, Eric had been drawing closer to the Lord over the past few years, and he had been praying, “Lord, I will do whatever You want me to do.” That’s a very dangerous prayer, my friends, because the Lord will take us up on it. Even as Eric Mahl began his rookie season, taking down opponents on the football field, he continued to ask the Lord to show him his path.

            After one year in the NFL, through prayer became clear that this was not where Eric was meant to be. So he left the multi-million dollar contract, he left the glitter and the cheerleaders and instead decided to spend some time alone to figure out where the Lord was calling him. He spent three years as a hermit in the Arizona desert, praying and discerning, and what he heard was quite extraordinary.

            God was asking him to give up everything and follow Him, bringing His love to the poor and homeless. Like a modern-day Saint Francis, Eric was willing to do it. He gave away all of his possessions, moved back to Cleveland, and for a year lived like a homeless man. He would be found ministering to the homeless as one of them; sleeping in shelters, eating in soup kitchens, praying with the homeless, the lonely, the poor.

            I had the privilege of meeting Eric a few years ago. Above all, he exudes a trust in the Lord…possessing nothing, he has the Lord. And that is enough.

            The woman in today’s Gospel has a similar trust. She gave away everything – her last two pennies – Jesus says it is her livelihood – literally, everything she owned. And she walked out of that temple with a trust in God that puts us to shame. And I guarantee that God provided for her.

            On almost every page of Scripture, God is asking His people that same question – do you trust Me? Do you trust Me? And in almost every situation in our lives, God is asking that same question of us – do you trust Him? Most of the time in the Bible, people end up not trusting God. They try to take matters into their own hands…and things end up a mess because of it! However, when they trust God radically, He brings good out of it.

            I’m reminded of a little-known story from the Bible, from Judges 7. There is a man named Gideon whom God has called to lead His people. Gideon himself is struggling to trust the Lord…he asks for several signs from God before he is willing to lead the Israelites into battle. Finally, Gideon agrees to go, and he gathers the troops to fight an invading tribe. He ends up assembling an army of 32,000 men – not a bad showing! But God says, “That’s too many people – I want you to see that I am fighting for you – so send some men home.” Gideon sends home anyone who wants to go home, and he is left with 10,000. But God says again, “That’s still too many. Cut it down to 300.” So Gideon is left to fight this battle with 300 men…against thousands and thousands of the enemy army. God is inviting him to trust.

            It takes a while but Gideon is willing to trust the Lord. He has his army carry torches in the dead of night, silently, into the enemy camp. On cue, they all cried aloud, waking up the enemy. In the confusion that resulted, the enemy ended up fighting amongst themselves, destroying their whole army, while Gideon and his 300 men all survived. God brought them to the point where it seemed like everything was a failure – and then, because of Gideon’s trust, the Lord came through in an unexpected way.

             So do YOU trust God? Trusting God means that we believe, deeply, that God is our loving Father, Who only wants what’s best for us. He desires that we become fully alive: spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically. He came that “we might have life, and have it most abundantly.” (John 10:10). We can trust Him as a good Father, then! He made many promises in the Scriptures that we can rely on: promises such as, “I will never abandon you.” Or, “Happy are those who follow the law of the Lord.” Or, “All things work for good for those who love God.” If God gives a promise, He will fulfill it, since He cannot deceive. We can trust Him completely!

            Even when He asks us to give up control of a situation. Do you worry? Are you afraid of the future, or concerned about finances or problems at work or school? The antidote is trust. God has come through in the past, even when it seemed like everything was lost. Just look at the Cross – when all hope was lost, God brought great good out of the worst evil in history.

            Sometimes we struggle to trust God because we think that we know what’s best for us. A lot of times we’re like a child who wants candy, but their parent wants them to eat their vegetables instead. Is that parent mean, or uncaring? Of course not – that parent wants what’s truly best for the child. Likewise, God gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want. Perhaps we had our sights set on that new job, and we didn’t get it – and perhaps we would have been miserable if we got that new job. Perhaps our plans for the future just fell through – and maybe God has a better plan for us. I can say that from talking to Eric Mahl, he is much happier with God’s plan of serving the poorest of the poor than he ever was playing in the NFL.

            We believe that God loves us, that He takes care of us like a good Father, and that we can surrender everything to Him: our plans, our future, our worries…and even our last two pennies.