Saturday, January 30, 2016

Homily for Ordinary Time 4 - January 31, 2016

Homily for January 31, 2016

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Human Dignity


            The year was 1968 – the Civil Rights Movement was in full-swing. Tragically, Martin Luther King Jr. had just died, but his vision lived on. That summer, the Olympics were held in Mexico City. The USA sent two African-Americans, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, as part of their track-and-field team. They had been wildly successful in the Olympic trials, breaking several world records.

            The day came for the much-anticipated 200 meter relay. The race was run, and Tommy came in first, while John came in third. The two of them decided to turn their victory into something much bigger – they wanted to take a stand for racial equality. As they approached the podium to receive their awards, they took off their shoes in solidarity with their poor black brethren at home, while they donned a pin to their uniforms, advocating for human rights.

            As they were headed to the podium, the man who came in second – a white Australian named Peter Norman – asked what they were doing. When the black men explained their actions, Peter did something surprising – he asked if he could join them in their witness. They quickly found a human rights pin to put on his jersey, and the three of them stood united on the podium – from two different races, from countries across the world, they stood to advocate for equality for all.

            But this came at a price. Because of their actions, the US Olympic Committee immediately sent John and Tommy home. Peter, meanwhile, was ostracized when he returned home, and was uninvited to the next Olympics. It was a difficult price they paid – the price of standing up for human dignity.

            We believe that every human being has dignity because they were created in God’s image and likeness. Regardless of race, culture, language, intelligence, or how much money is in the bank account, every human being has equal dignity under God as His son or daughter.

            Denying someone dignity based upon the color of their skin, their accent, or their heritage is gravely immoral. This is precisely what the Jews were doing in the Gospel. Jesus brings up two examples of God’s mercy towards “outsiders” – how God cleansed a foreign leper through the prophet Elisha, and how God multiplied bread for a foreign widow through Elijah – and the Jews are furious! How is it that God could be generous to these foreigners? How dare Jesus say that these dirty half-breeds are worthy of the Kingdom of God? And yet He does – because in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free. All human beings have equal dignity in the sight of God.

            But racism is only one denial of human dignity. Our first reading tells us that God knew us from the moment we were conceived – He loved us, and called us to holiness, from the very first moment of our existence in our mother’s womb. Yet many people in today’s society want to deny even the basic human right – the right to life – to unborn babies through the atrocity of abortion.

            Because of our common dignity, human beings have basic human rights, which are given by God. First among these rights is the right to life, the right to be respected, the right to food and shelter, the right to freedom of speech and worship. These rights are given to us, not by the government or by popular vote, but by God, as an intrinsic part of our dignity. All of us, from the homeless man on the street to the newly-arrived immigrant, from the child in the womb to the elderly person with Alzheimers, from the famous pop star on American Idol to the man with Down’s syndrome, all of us have equal dignity in the eyes of God.

            Sadly, there are many offenses to human dignity, even in America. I mentioned racism and abortion, which are two of the greatest crimes against the dignity of the human person. But other offenses exist: from bullying to human trafficking, from gun violence to our culture’s disrespect for the elderly.

            So what is the antidote to all of these crimes against the dignity of the human person? St. Paul puts it out there in the second reading today – LOVE. As Pope St. John Paul II so beautifully said, “The only proper response to another human being is love.” But lest we think love is a mushy gushy emotion, he spells it out: Love is patient, love is kind, it is not rude, it is not arrogant, it rejoices in the truth. Love must be practical – we cannot say we love someone until we take the step to actually do it!

            So love – practically. At Westhill High School in Stamford, there are two cafeterias because of the size of the school – but students decided they were only going to sit with their own race, so they dubbed one the “Black Caf” and one the “White Caf” and ne’er the two shall mix. Do you want to love practically and overcome racism? Go sit in the opposite cafeteria. Do you want to love practically? Pray in front of the Stamford Planned Parenthood on Friday mornings from 8-10am, which is the time that abortions are taking place. Do you want to love practically? Get to know some of the Hispanic immigrants in our community.

            Yes, this requires us to get out of our comfort zone. But if I’ve learned anything in my year-and-a-half in Stamford, it’s that love requires us to cross the distance between us and the other…and when we do that, we find that it isn’t much of a distance at all, since we were all made in the image and likeness of the One who endowed everyone with equal human dignity.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Homily for January 24, 2016 - Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for January 24, 2016

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Word of God


            Our first reading from Nehemiah picks up in the middle of a great story. The Jews had been scattered all over the Middle East because of the Babylonians who conquered them and dragged them off into exile. Even after the exile was officially over, many of the Jews who were servants didn’t have the means to return home, a journey of hundreds of miles. Nehemiah is one of those exiles, far from home, a servant of the King of Persia who misses his homeland. His King grants him the freedom to return home, which he does, but he finds the holy city of Jerusalem in ruins. So, rallying his Jewish compatriots, he rebuilds the Temple and the city.

            When the entire temple was done, they held a ceremony to rededicate it. As part of the ceremony, the High Priest Ezra took the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – and read it aloud to all of the people, as we heard in the first reading. The people were moved with sorrow – they heard about the great things God had done, and they realized how they had failed to live up to the Law of God. But Nehemiah and Ezra tell them not to weep, but to rejoice, for this was a day of God’s mercy! The people of Israel, upon hearing these words, rededicated themselves to following the Lord. Their hearts had been moved and strengthened – because they heard the Word of the Lord.

            Our Gospel also talks about the power of the Word. Luke is explaining why he is writing this Gospel – so that we may have confidence in the truth about Jesus Christ, and so that we might come to believe in Him. It’s through the Word of God that we come to that saving faith.

            With such powerful words in the Bible, how many of you actually read it with any regularity? Almost everyone has a Bible, and almost no one reads it. But think, for a moment – if someone gave you a book that had the secret to living until you’re 100 years old, becoming a millionaire, looking like a movie star, and always having hundreds of friends, wouldn’t you read that book? I’d say that book would be a must-read! Well, most of us own a book about how to live forever, how to have everlasting joy, how to know the God who is madly in love with us: that book the Bible!

            Of course, the Bible isn’t a book – it’s a library. It contains seventy-three books in every genre: history, letters, poetry, wise sayings, parables, and even songs. These are not just ordinary books, however. We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God – in other words, the author of the Bible is ultimately the Holy Spirit, working through human instruments! God used the human authors to communicate His truths about salvation.

            Although the Bible is inspired, we must interpret it within the living tradition of the Church. It can be dangerous when we try to interpret the Scriptures on our own! There’s an old joke about a man who was having a really hard time in his life, so he asked God for a sign about what to do. He opened the Bible at random and his eyes first fell on the sentence, “And Judas hanged himself.” The man thought, ‘Hmm, that wasn’t very hopeful.’ He then opened the Bible again randomly and it read, “And Jesus said, ‘Go, and do likewise.’” Yikes! That’s just a joke, but it makes an important point – We can’t always take everything in the Bible absolutely literally, because God didn’t mean it to be read that way! We need to read the Bible within the living tradition of the Church.

After all, what came first: the Church or the Bible? Actually, it was the Church! The first book of the New Testament to be written (St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians) wasn’t written until 60 AD – thirty years after Jesus’ Resurrection! So, the Church had existed for thirty years by the time the first words of the New Testament were written. Even the final list of the books of the Bible (called the “canon” of Scripture) wasn’t decided upon until 325AD…and it was decided upon by the Church! So we must read the inspired Scriptures sentire cum ecclesia – while thinking with the mind of the Church.

            Now, with that caveat, please go and read the Bible on your own! The book of Hebrews says that “The Word of God is living and effective, sharper than a two-edged sword.” Read – and study – the Word of God! It can change your life. I know a friend who, when trying to make a tough decision, turned to Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper and not harm you, to give you a future full of hope.” Another friend said that she became more active in her church as a teen because of 1 Timothy 4:12 – “Do not let anyone look down upon your youth, but set an example to all believers in faith, love, and purity.”

            I know that a Scripture passage had a huge impact on my own life. When I was a freshman in college seminary, the scandals in the priesthood hit the front pages – and my own faith was shaken badly. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a priest anymore. So I went on a silent retreat one weekend, trying to sort things out. I was just kind of hanging out in the retreat house, not really praying, when out of nowhere a word popped into my head – “Mark 3:13”. I had no idea what verse that was – I mean, that’s not usually a verse you see printed on greeting cards and coffee mugs. So I went to go look it up and it hit me square between the eyes – “And Jesus went up the mountain to pray, and He called to Himself those whom He wanted, and they came to Him.” Okay, vocations crisis over, I guess God really did want me to become a priest.

            So, read the Scriptures! They are a great gift to us. St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” A few months ago an elderly gentleman approached me after Mass here and grumbled, “I’ve been a Catholic all my life, and I ain’t never read the Bible. I ain’t gonna start now.” It’s true – Catholics have a terrible reputation for not reading the Word of God. What a shame! If you don’t know Scripture, you don’t know Jesus. So read the Word – read it daily, drink it in, let it change your heart. After all, “His Word is a lamp for my steps and a light for my path.”

            Did you know that’s from Psalm 119? You will if you read the Bible!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Homily for January 17, 2016 - Ordinary Time 2

Homily for January 17, 2016

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

We Become What We Believe In


            One of my favorite Christian hip-hop artists (yes, there is such a thing) is a man named Lecrae…yes, that’s his full name. He had quite a remarkable conversion story. Like many fatherless black men, he grew up on the streets of Dallas, becoming a drug dealer by the time he was sixteen. His grandma had given him a bible, but he never looked at it, just threw it on the backseat of his car as a good-luck charm.

            One day he was pulled over by a cop and busted for drugs. But as the officer was searching the car for drugs, he found the bible in the backseat. The officer told him that he would let him off and wouldn’t arrest him, if he promised to start reading the Bible. Of course Lecrae agreed…and it slowly started to change his life. Although he didn’t change overnight, that was the opening to allow the Holy Spirit to transform him. He’s now a faithful Christian artist, ministering to many fatherless urban youth through his music.

            As one of my favorite alternative bands sings, “We become what we believe in.” The key to today’s Gospel is in the last sentence: “This was the first of Jesus’ miracles, and His disciples began to believe in Him.” There are all sorts of things you can take from this miracle – Jesus sanctifying marriage by His presence at the wedding feast, His love for His mother in respecting her request for more wine, the great love of God for us in caring even about the mundane problems of life like running out of wine at a party – but the overarching reality is that this miracle drives home the weight of Jesus Himself. Yes, this man here truly is the Son of God, Who has power to change water into wine, who has power to walk on water, to change bread into His Body, to raise the dead.

            We become what we believe in. What if we took seriously the words of Jesus? What if we got rid of this false idea that those words in the Gospels are just nice words, high ideals, but not actually how we are supposed to live? I fear that we don’t really believe in Jesus. We think He’s some sort of myth that’s supposed to make us feel good. Last year I visited our religious education kids to talk about Jesus’ Resurrection and one of the kids said to me, “Wait, you mean to tell me that really happened?” Uh, yeah, it did. And until we realize that what Jesus said is absolutely real – as real as the science we believe in, as real as the politics we follow, more real than all of the worries and cares and concerns of our daily lives – than our lives will not be changed by Him and by His grace. We become what we believe in.

             Once we believe – like Mary did, like the disciples did – then Mary’s exhortation makes sense: Do whatever He tells you. If Jesus is a myth, don’t bother. But if Jesus is real, and He is who He says He is, then His words are our directions for life. Pick up your Cross and follow Me. If something causes you to sin, cut it off. Forgive your enemies. Strive to become a saint. We become what we believe in.

            I can testify that this is countercultural, even among Christians. One time I went out to lunch with one of the deacons at a different parish, and he was encouraging me to order dessert. I told him, jokingly, “Nah, I’ve got two goals in life: to be a saint, and to be a thin priest. And I think both of them will be equally difficult!” His face grew very dark and he shot back, “You think you can be a saint? Who do you think you are?” Woah! Come on, man, aren’t you a deacon? I mean, I know I’m nothing special, but shouldn’t that be everyone’s goal? Doesn’t the Gospel mean anything? He didn’t really believe that we should take Jesus’ words seriously. We become what we believe in.

            It boils down to this: Jesus is real. He proved it through miracles, like at the Wedding Feast of Cana. I can testify that He has proved it over and over again in my life. This Faith we believe is not a myth. It’s the Truth. And if you believe in the Truth – not halfheartedly, but with your entire life - you will become what you believe in: you will become a saint.