Humble discipleship (September 10, 2017)

For the graduate studies of my seminary formation, I went to Mundelein seminary. In light of the readings for this weekend, two memories come to mind that I’d like to share.

Some background that may be helpful to know – by the time I had gotten to graduate studies, I had quite a chip on my shoulder about Catholic universities. I hadn’t had the greatest of college experiences and so my default status was one of skepticism – that these people leading my formation would probably be an obstacle rather than a help! Not the greatest of attitudes, to say the least, and it led me into a number of bad habits right off the bat: I gave myself license to skip out on a class here or there, avoid conferences, sleep in for morning prayer, and even skip daily Mass – none of which was optional!

Some time after this became a habit, after lunch (which, of course, I never skipped!), one of my classmates comes to my room, closes the door, sits down and says ‘we need to talk’. ….this is never a good sign.

I don’t recall how he phrased it exactly, but the essential message was ‘why are you here?’. He kindly but bluntly highlighted all of the habits I’ve just mentioned and let me know that it was clear that something was going on – and that I needed to face up to it.

I’d like to say that I responded with humility and grace, accepting the truth of his assessment, and thanking him for bringing it all to me as he did. I’d like to say that. The best I can say is that I didn’t react explosively, but rather sort of sullenly, holding back whatever reaction I had and hoping he would quit talking and leave – which he eventually did.

Of course, he was right – and the truth of that didn’t escape me, despite my brave face. Things didn’t change overnight, but I slowly started to address the things he brought up – especially with the help of my friends, one of which eventually was this very classmate.

Hearing the first reading today, where the Lord gives that exhortation to speak out to the wicked, I have to wonder what it must have been like for my classmate – who wasn’t (yet) my friend, but who gathered the courage to walk into a stranger’s room and have a hard conversation.

I think we’ve all had that impulse, that call, when we need to go to someone and speak that truth they don’t want to hear. And yet, the exhortation of the Lord is very clear: ‘I will give you what to say – and if I tell you that someone is going astray, and you don’t speak out, they’ll die for their sins – but I will hold you accountable. On the other hand, if you speak out and they still don’t change their ways, while they will die, you will be exonerated because you spoke the truth.’

This is Christian love – this is what we are called to do. But even now, as a priest no less, this call still twists my guts when I receive it. There is yet the hesitation in my heart, and I think, all of us.

We don’t get to just dismiss this as Old Testament rhetoric, as if that law is no longer applicable to followers of Jesus (a terrible attitude anyway). But also, as if to rebuke that temptation directly, Jesus speaks to this in the Gospel reading we hear today. If a brother sins against us, what are we to do – well, He says that first we go to him privately, charitably to raise the issue. And if that doesn’t work, our work isn’t done but rather we are to go back with two or three witnesses. If this yet fails, we bring the Church into the matter!

Only then do we get to stop trying to approach them in that way. But even in the way Jesus directs us from that point – ‘treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector’ – is not one of dismissal. Because to whom did Jesus give special attention to, if not Gentiles & tax collectors…among many other outcasts, sinners, and exiles. So too, our work is not yet done.

There’s a humility that is required in being one who goes to someone else and makes the claim that you see something wrong and that you have the truth of the matter. I think we rightfully tremble at assuming that position, because we naturally ask ‘who am I to do this?’. And the reverse is true as well. To have someone come to me and tell me ‘you’ve offended me, you’ve sinned, you’re on the wrong path’ – that’s not something I want to hear! …and yet, I need that too. We all need it.

The second memory that comes to mind in light of the readings is another memory from Mundelein seminary. It was the weekend I went there, well before the events of this encounter with my classmate. I was present to do my entrance interviews. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Mundelein seminary hosts the Liturgical Institute.

This was an initiative by Cardinal George to help train not just future priests but any interested layperson about the treasures of the liturgy. And every weekend the Liturgical Institute takes responsibility for the Masses offered at the seminary – the result of which is the highest of liturgies, with all the stops pulled out.

So I’m at this beautiful Mass, with incense, chant, beautifully sung hymns, and all sorts of glorious tradition on display that I’d never really encountered before. And it was awesome. But what really made an impression was at the calling of the Holy Spirit down upon the bread and wine, as the deacon knelt down. It struck me then – and strikes me every time at Mass – that not just him, but all of us are being called to humility, are practicing humility, at every celebration. The people are kneeling, the deacon kneels a few moments later, and the priest himself genuflects not once, not twice, but three times throughout the course of the Eucharistic prayer, all acknowledging the Word made flesh in our midst.

We are called to humility, right here at Mass. And it is meant to be a gift to us, a help to us. We reasonably ask how we can embrace humility, how we can accept the responsibility to humbly call others to humility, how can we humbly accept when other’s make that call of us? How do I do that well? And yet, here at Mass, we are being trained.

If that were not enough, we have the example of Christ Himself. Based on His own merits, Christ had no reason to embrace humility. He could have just shown up in glory and announced His divinity. But instead He slowly enters into our midst, shows up meekly as a child, comes as one of us. He demonstrates His glory, bit by bit in His life and then in dying a death like ours. It is not until His resurrection that His glory is made clear to us.

We hear Saint Paul today exhort us to love one another – that all of the law is encompassed in love. Not that rules don’t matter, but that if we move in love for each other, the rest will come naturally. Even in the hard things of correcting and being corrected, love is the guiding principle.

As we celebrate Mass, standing together in prayer, kneeling together in humility, coming forward for communion, let us ask the Lord for humility. And yes, this is a dangerous prayer – because He’ll give it to us! But it is a gift, a grace – and we can trust that this is so because Christ led the way.

The point is not that we should sit and beat our breast at how lowly we are; the Lord does not desire that we live in humiliation. He desires to show us the way to life, to resurrection, to glory. This is Christian love, this is the call we receive. And if we don’t know how to do it, let us ask for that gift! God will guide us, gently though firmly. Christ shows us the way, so that we might first receive His friendship and having been so led, that we might share that friendship – in both hard and joyful moments – with all.

Dupes for brussels sprouts & Jesus (September 3, 2017)

Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh
Jesus Christ, incarnate by the Holy Spirit
Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary
Jesus Christ, baptized by John in the Jordan
Jesus Christ, beginning His ministry at Cana
Jesus Christ, healing the sick and rebuking demons
Jesus Christ, forgiving the sinner
Jesus Christ, persecuted
Jesus Christ, celebrating the Last Supper
Jesus Christ, arrested
Jesus Christ, suffering
Jesus Christ, crucified
Jesus Christ, suffering death
Jesus Christ, entombed for three days
Jesus Christ, risen from the dead
Jesus Christ, sending breathing on the Apostles
Jesus Christ, ascending into heaven
Jesus Christ, sending His Holy Spirit
Jesus Christ, returning in glory
Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father

Letting the name of Jesus Christ settle into our hearts this morning, I’d like to turn for a moment to a more mundane topic, though it’s near to my heart too: brussels sprouts.

The reason I bring them up is that I see a pretty clear connection with Jesus. See, I love brussels sprouts. It starts with my father and a dish that he has prepared at our family Thanksgiving celebration for as long as I can remember. It’s fairly simple: obviously you start with brussels sprouts, along with broccoli and cauliflower. You boil them for just under ten minutes and then toss them in a sauce made up of butter, honey-Dijon mustard, lemon juice, marjoram, garlic, capers, along with a touch of salt & pepper.

It’s my favorite vegetable dish. In fact, it’s so popular in our family that all of us regularly insist not only that it be made at Thanksgiving, but that it be made several times throughout the year. I’ve grown up with a special fondness of brussels sprouts as a result.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out that brussels sprouts aren’t actually a popular vegetable. Some folks outright refuse to touch them, with one of my friends referring to them as ‘stinky feet’. I guess that’s a reference to how they think they smell?1

It turns out that my father has gotten me – has gotten our whole family – into loving the most disliked vegetable out there. I’ve been tricked!

The prophet Jeremiah has a similar moment in today’s reading: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”

Jeremiah has reason to be frustrated. If we go back to his call to be a prophet, we are reminded of his original hesitant response: ‘I don’t know about this Lord – I don’t know how to speak. I’m too young!’ To which, the Lord replies simply: ‘Don’t tell me you’re too young. You’ll go where I send you and say what I command. And I will put my words in your mouth!’

So Jeremiah does what the Lord asks – and finds it to be both easy to do and hard to take. He does indeed preach the Truth, but time and time again, those to whom he is proclaiming God’s will reject Jeremiah, rebuke him, persecute him. And so Jeremiah questions, wonders what God is doing.

We don’t get off lightly ourselves. In fact, at baptism we are anointed not in one ministry but in three – as priest, prophet, and king – according to the threefold ministry of Christ Himself. In some ways, Jeremiah had it easy compared us!

“You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” – darn straight! These could be the words of any Christian, wondering at what God is doing with us, to us.

Lord, I’m too young, too old, too sinful, too weak, too afraid. Lord, I just don’t know what to say.

And yet, the Lord reassures us as He reassured Jeremiah: “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” And Christ Himself reassures us: “….do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say.”

And the Lord has put His word into our mouths – the Word made flesh, incarnate by the Holy Spirit, baptized by John in the Jordan, Who began His ministry at Cana, Who healed the sick and rebuking demons, Who forgave the sinner, Who was persecuted, Who celebrated the Last Supper, Who was arrested, Who suffered, died, and rose again, Who breathed on the Apostles, Who sent His Holy Spirit, Who will return in glory, Who is seated at the right hand of the Father.

That Word is Jesus, Who will be placed into our mouths right here at this Mass. Jesus is the first Word, the last Word, the only Word that we need.

It is so tempting to dwell in hesitancy, in worry, in fear of God’s call. Saint Peter himself, along with the Apostles, was overcome with the fearful lies that Satan whispers in each of our hearts.

And so we call on the name of Jesus – to rebuke Satan as He did in that moment on Peter’s behalf, now asking Him to rebuke Satan’s whispered discouragement to us. In Jesus name we renounce the lie that we are too young, that we are too old, that we are too sinful, that we are too weak, that we can be controlled by fear. Let us focus not on the lies of Satan, but on the name of Jesus.

And let us receive the Word made flesh, made present in this Mass at this altar. Let that Word be the only one we rely on, that we proclaim, in which we put our trust. Let us receive the Word that nourishes us and proclaim His goodness to a world that desperately thirsts without knowing why. Let us proclaim the one Word that has the power to fulfill every desire: Jesus Christ.

(For those who might be interested, I offer for your enjoyment Father Maurer’s father’s brussels sprouts dish!)

  1. My friend has since corrected me – she calls them ‘stinky toes’, alluding to her impression of both the sight & smell of brussels sprouts.

Tontos para las coles de Bruselas y Cristo (3 de Septiembre, 2017)

Jesucristo, la Palabra hecho carne
Jesucristo, encarnado por el Espíritu Santo
Jesucristo, nacido de la Virgen María
Jesucristo, bautizado por Juan en el Jordán
Jesucristo, comenzando su ministerio en Caná
Jesucristo, sanando a los enfermos y reprendiendo a los demonios
Jesucristo, perdonando al pecador
Jesucristo, perseguido
Jesucristo, celebrando la Última Cena
Jesucristo, arrestado
Jesucristo, sufriendo
Jesucristo, crucificado
Jesucristo, sufriendo la muerte
Jesucristo, sepultado durante tres días
Jesucristo, resucitado de entre los muertos
Jesucristo, enviando respiración sobre los Apóstoles
Jesucristo, ascendiendo al cielo
Jesucristo, enviando Su Espíritu Santo
Jesucristo, regresando en gloria
Jesucristo, sentado a la diestra del Padre

Dejando que el nombre de Jesucristo se asiente en nuestros corazones esta mañana, me gustaría dedicarme un momento a un tema más mundano, aunque también está cerca de mi corazón: las coles de Bruselas.

La razón por la que los planteo es que veo una conexión bastante clara con Jesús. Me encanta las coles de Bruselas. Comienza con mi padre y un plato que él ha preparado en nuestra celebración de la día de Gracias de nuestra familia por todo tiempo como puedo recordar. Es bastante simple: obviamente empiezas con coles de Bruselas, junto con brócoli y coliflor. Se hierve por poco menos de diez minutos y luego tirarlos en una salsa de mantequilla, miel de mostaza Dijon, jugo de limón, mejorana, ajo, alcaparras, junto con un toque de sal y pimienta.

Es mi plato de verduras favorito. De hecho, es tan popular en nuestra familia que todos nosotros insistimos regularmente no sólo que se haga en el día de Gracias, sino que se haga varias veces durante todo el año. Por eso, he crecido con un cariño especial de coles de Bruselas.

No fue hasta que yo era un adulto que me enteré de que las coles de Bruselas no son realmente un vegetal popular. Algunas personas se niegan rotundamente a tocarlas, con uno de mis amigos refiriéndose a ellos como “pies malolientes”. ¿Supongo que es una referencia a cómo creen que huelen?2

Resulta que mi padre me ha engañado – le ha engañado a toda nuestra familia – en el amor de la más desagradable verdura por ahí. ¡Me han engañado!

El profeta Jeremías tiene un momento similar en la lectura de hoy: “Me sedujiste, Señor, y me dejé seducir.”

Jeremías tiene razones para sentirse frustrado. Si leemos de su llamado a ser profeta, nos recuerda su respuesta vacilante original: “No sé acerca de este Señor – no sé cómo hablar. ¡Soy demasiado joven! A lo que el Señor responde simplemente: ‘No me digas que eres demasiado joven. Irás a donde te envíe y dirás lo que mando. Y pondré mis palabras en tu boca.’”

Así que Jeremías hizo lo que el Señor pide – y encontró que es fácil de hacer y difícil también. De hecho, él predicó la Verdad, pero aquellos a quienes proclamó la voluntad de Dios rechazaban a Jeremías, lo reprendieren, lo persiguieren. Y así Jeremías se preguntó, se preguntó qué está haciendo Dios.

Creo que nosotros tenemos la misma llamada. De hecho, en el bautismo no somos ungidos en un solo ministerio sino en tres – como sacerdote, como profeta y como rey – según el ministerio triple de Cristo mismo. Jeremías lo había comparado con nosotros.

“Me sedujiste, Señor, y me dejé seducir.” Estas podrían ser las palabras de cualquier cristiano, preguntándose qué es lo que Dios está haciendo con nosotros.

Señor, soy demasiado joven, demasiado viejo, demasiado pecador, demasiado débil, demasiado asustado. Señor, no sé qué decir.

Y sin embargo, el Señor nos tranquiliza con las mismas palabras con que el tranquilizó a Jeremías: “Antes de que fueras formado en el vientre, te conocí, antes de que nacieras te he dedicado, un profeta a las naciones que te he designado.” Y Cristo mismo nos tranquiliza: “… .no te preocupes por cómo debes hablar o por lo que vas a decir. Se le dará en ese momento lo que debe decir.”

Y el Señor ha puesto su palabra en nuestras bocas, el Verbo hecho carne, encarnado por el Espíritu Santo, bautizado por Juan en el Jordán, que comenzó su ministerio en Caná, que curó a los enfermos y reprendió a los demonios, que perdonó al pecador, fue perseguido, Quien celebró la Última Cena, Quien fue arrestado, Quien sufrió, murió y resucitó, Quien sopló sobre los Apóstoles, El que envió Su Espíritu Santo, El que regresará en gloria, Quien está sentado a la derecha del Padre .

Esa Palabra es Jesús, que será puesto en nuestras bocas aquí en esta Misa. Jesús es la primera Palabra, la última Palabra, la Palabra única que necesitamos.

La tentación que enfrontemos es vivir en la vacilación, en la preocupación, en el temor de la llamada de Dios. San Pedro, junto con los Apóstoles, fue influenciado por las terribles mentiras que Satanás susurra en cada uno de nuestros corazones.

Y así invocamos el nombre de Jesús – para reprender a Satanás como lo hizo en ese momento en nombre de Pedro, ahora pidiéndole que reprenda el desánimo susurrado de Satanás a nosotros. En el nombre de Jesús renunciamos a la mentira de que somos demasiado jóvenes, que somos demasiado viejos, que somos demasiado pecaminosos, que somos demasiado débiles, que podemos ser controlados por el miedo. No nos concentremos en las mentiras de Satanás, sino en el nombre de Jesús.

Y recibamos el Verbo hecho carne, presente en esta Misa en este altar. Que esa Palabra sea la única en la que confiamos, que proclamamos, en la que confiamos. Recibamos la Palabra que nos alimenta y proclama su bondad a un mundo que desesperadamente quiere aunque no sabe por qué. Proclamemos la única Palabra que tiene el poder de cumplir cada deseo: Jesucristo.

(Para aquellos que estén interesados, ofrezco para su disfrute el plato de coles de Bruselas del padre de padre Maurer)

  1. Mi amigo me corrigió después de oír sobre este sermón – ella los llama “dedos de los pies apestosos”, aludiendo a su impresión de la vista y olor de coles de Bruselas.