The Bread of Life: heaven’s answer to a hell of a mess (August 26th, 2018)

Before all Masses today, I read this letter to my parishioners regarding abuse by clergy. I am posting it here for reference for those who might wish to read or re-visit it. Please forgive any errors in the Spanish translation, which is dependent on Google Translate and my limited vocabulary:

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 26th, 2018) – Father Maurer’s letter to the Lewis county Catholic community regarding abuse by clergy


Well, this is a hell of a mess. I’m not just cursing, by the way, I’m describing: this mess is from Hell. There is no room for mincing words when we talk what we’re reading about in the grand jury report, what we’re hearing about with former-cardinal McCarrick, what is both being discovered from the past and from those victims who are newly emboldened to speak out now – whether their particular abuse happened in the past or more recently. This from Hell.

There is also no room for pretending that this is not here or for assuming a defensive posture. It does no one any good to say ‘it’s just a minority of priests’ or ‘it just happened back in the past’ or ‘it’s not that much’. Frankly, that kind of excusing or diminishing is also from Hell. Do not participate in it. We need to acknowledge that we are in an awful state: the brokenness of the Church exposed for us to see.

I find it very interesting to hear the readings today, how the Lord allowed for all of this to unfold and for this particular Sunday and these particular readings to be at hand. Joshua gathers the people of Israel and when they’re in front of him he says:

If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

We’re standing in front of prophets right now – the unlikeliest of prophets. The jurors on that Pennsylvania report, believers or not. And if you read the first pages, you may see for yourselves that they do not have an ax to grind or an agenda to drive forward. They’re looking for the truth: they’re prophets. Those who have come forward about former-cardinal McCarrick, those who speak about their own experience – unwilling though they may be, pained as they are – they are prophets. And we stand before them.

And the question is being asked of us: ‘who will you serve? Decide, now’. Will you follow the whims and the idols of culture or will you re-dedicate yourself to Jesus Christ, your Savior and your God?

Don’t be quick to answer – don’t be quick to say ‘I’m on the side of righteousness, I’m got this, I’m following the Lord.’

The second reading today is also a striking one. You’ll notice that the long form version is that rather infamous one among Catholic circles. It starts like this:

Brothers and sisters:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body.
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.

Oh, couples love this reading – they’re sooooo happy when it comes up… So let me just address the elephant in the room right off the bat. Any spouse who uses this passage as a ‘bash passage’, as a way of domineering over their spouse, recall that you too will stand before God to account for your life. When you pull out this passage – perhaps even recalling chapter and verse – good luck with that. We don’t have time to argue that any further, because that isn’t what Paul was even talking about.

The very end of this reading speaks to his intention: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” And what does He say about Christ and the Church? “The church is subordinate to Christ”. Subordinate.

When you decide to follow God, you embrace humility. ‘I will follow Christ and His Church’ – even in times when that Church is fraught with sickness and sin. Nonetheless the faith that has been passed down, that is from Christ.

How many of us find ourselves struggling with our faith! Not just with personalities of the Church or the sins of the Church – terrible though as that may be at times. And I do not mean to diminish in any way how difficult in can be when you have a clergy member you dislike, someone has fallen from grace, or has abused terribly as we see in example after example after example laid out in the news.

Yet how many of look at our faith and respond like the disciples of Jesus who walked away? “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” How many of us, in our hearts at least, have answered with that to the call of Christ: ‘Be perfect as My heavenly Father is perfect’, ‘give up everything and follow me’, ‘be subordinate to Me’.

I wonder at the posture of the disciples who left. As Christ is talking in this passage, you may recognize that we are continuing His ‘Bread of Life’ discourse that we have been reading through from last Sunday and the Sunday before. Last Sunday we heard Christ say not once, not twice, but five times ‘If you do not eat My Body and drink My Blood, you will not have life within you – if you do chew My Flesh and swallow My Blood, you will not have eternal life – if you will not receive this gift, you will not be received into heaven’. That’s what they’re responding to.

I wonder if they got more and more tense, their arms crossed in front of them, their shoulders tensing up, their eyes cast down and then finally, they’ve had enough: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” And they left.

How many times do we see this reflected in our own hearts? ‘It’s too hard to follow our faith – it’s too hard to be humble – its too hard to admit that I am part of the problem in my parish, in my community, in my family – it’s too hard to admit that I am attached more to my sin than I am to following Christ’.

I remember a conversation with someone in some sort of irregular marriage. As you might expect, we ended up talking about the consistent teaching of the Church – as given to us by Christ Himself – about marriage and purity. The person looked me in the eye and said “Father, you don’t know how hard it is not to have sex.”

‘…..really? Tell me more about this thing called ‘celibacy’ – I’d like to learn about that!’

Now I don’t want to pretend that it’s easier for priests or easier for married people. We’ve all got our struggles. But let’s be honest – we all have our favorite sins. Contraception, pornography, masturbation are among the top three of our culture. But those aren’t all:

‘I don’t want to get married in the Church; it’s too much effort to go through marriage prep or have to deal with annulment work – and in the meantime you want me to be continent, to be celibate?’

‘You want me to worship in a certain way, to follow the guidance of the Church in how to offer sacrifice to the Lord?’

‘You want me to donate money?’

‘You want me to volunteer?’

‘You expect me to pray every day?’

‘You expect me to give to the poor and talk to those who make me uncomfortable?’

‘You want me to give up everything?’

Not me, no. I’m no better than anyone else – these questions ring in my heart and at times from my lips as well. But Jesus does want all of this, and more. Jesus has consistently asked not for ten percent, not for thirty or fifty or even ninety percent. He asks for everything.

“This saying is hard; who can accept it”

We can accept it. We are called to accept it. And it starts with first confessing our sins. There is a reason I pound on this sacrament so often: we have to confess our weakness, we have to confess our brokenness. This is what happened to these abusing clerics: they so grew in pride until they were so blind that they could commit the most terrible atrocities, cover it up…and then sacrilegious celebrate Mass, sometimes just minutes after the fact.

If we think our own sins will not lead to terrible acts, we only have to look to the example of those who have done these things to see the kind of path that we could fall into. Maybe not those sins – God forbid! – but certainly terrible sins. We will wound ourselves and we will devastate others.

This saying is hard, but we are called to accept it. And the very first thing we do is confess our need: ‘I need a Savior, I need someone who will redeem me. I need someone who will see my petty desires, my grasping for power or authority or possessions or wealth or status or acclaim – and still accept me, and give me something work all of those things, worth more. Someone who has the power to forgive my sins, Who is willing to give me His very Body and Blood to nourish me, Who is preparing a better place than this messed up and broken world.’

That person is Jesus Christ. That is where our faith lies.

We are hearing calls afar and in our own community – perhaps you yourself have considered or even made this invitation – to prayer, to acts of reparation, to fasting and abstinence. You might have doubts right now and sleepless nights, sorrowful and angry, wondering why you’re here and listening to a priest after so many priests have violated their sacred trust. We do these things not because of earthly examples, but because of the example of Christ.

If we are willing to subordinate ourselves to Jesus, to declare ourselves and our households to God, we will be able to fulfill the commandment of Christ: to receive His Body and Blood – worthily! – and to present Him to the world.

It’s an interesting thing that this should all come to pass around this weekend, with these readings. Moreover, Monday and Tuesday are special memorials in the life of the Church. The power of prayer on display in the lives of two particular saints.

Monday is the memorial of Saint Monica – you’ll recognize her as the mother of Augustine. She suffered greatly as she witnessed the sins of her son, watching him embrace a life of debauchery and abuse – abusing his own body and those of others as he sought after every single vice. You can read all about it in his book ‘Confessions’ – because one day, after years of prayer on her part, Augustine asked to be baptized. Recognizing his own weakness, he confessed is sins. And therefore, on Tuesday, we celebrate Saint Augustine, bishop and doctor of the Church.

I don’t know what role we’re in, honestly – are we Saint Monica or Saint Augustine? I guess at times we’re either of them. Sometimes we look at the sins of others and we weep, we mourn as we see how much others have destroyed lives, including their own. And sometimes we’re Saint Augustine, participating in those very sins and blind to the fact that we’re the source of our own pain and that of those around us.

What changed their lives? Jesus Christ – renewed dedication to Him in prayer and acts of reparation as we join our sacrifices to His.

In a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist, and as I mentioned before Mass starting this weekend every Sunday vigil Mass for the foreseeable future will be offered for the victims of clergy sexual abuse. We also need to offer ourselves and ask for the conversion of ourselves.

That cross-armed posture of the disciples who walked away – I see it every Sunday. People come up to the front of the church, arms crossed. Communion has been replaced with a blessing. I don’t mean to judge anyone and I know that children also often come up this way because they haven’t yet received their first holy Communion. But I can’t help but wonder: how many of us in this room have not received Communion for weeks, or months, or years, because we have not yet let go of the sins to which we are so attached.

The saints and Christ Himself are proof that this way that is hard can be accepted and can effect change in our lives. Do we want to fix all these problems, do we want to bring about conversion – even in those in the high places of the hierarchy, do we want to restore trust in Christ’s Church in a world that not only looks at us with skepticism for our faith but now anger for our hypocrisy?

It starts with our holiness. We must be ones who say ‘I will submit my own life for conversion – because I am a sinner too. Because I like sin….even some that are grave sins. And yet I need to receive the Bread of Life, I need eternal life.’

Saint Peter makes that amazing testimony of faith at the end of the Gospel. Jesus, having watched some of His disciples walk away, turns to His Apostles. I’ve always imagined Him with a sad look on His face, His voice low and soft: “Do you also want to leave?”

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

This is Christ’s promise to us: ‘I give you My Body and Blood. I give you My very Self, so that you will have eternal life.’ It will not be easy! It is the hard way, and when you dedicate yourself and your household to the Lord, you will be confronted with all of the ways that you need to be converted. One by one or all at once, Jesus Christ will reveal to you the ways that you have not yet given yourself to Him.

And yet, when you do, when you honestly present your sins forgiveness, you will become a saint. What a great gift it would be to be able to celebrate your feast day, to tell the story of your conversion – if not here on earth, one day in heaven. Saint Augustine has a whole book full of his sins – not because he is trying to excuse or glorify them, but because his conversion from those sins shows God’s glory even over the darkest of deeds.

God can overcome these sins as well: God can overcome the brokenness of our Church. And as He said to Peter – ‘On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it’. But they’re sure trying hard! And it won’t help if we cooperate through our sins.

And so we celebrate Mass and we come forward for communion. And I’d like to encourage you: only come forward for communion. If you’re not receiving communion today, stay seated. This is what the Church teaches us to do when we are not able to receive communion, for whatever reason. We’re not called to receive a blessing at this time – which is why I don’t offer them at communion – because it replaces communion with something lesser. And what do we call that when we replace the Lord with something that is not the Lord? Idolatry. We don’t want to make that our practice.

Stay seated if you’re not receiving communion – not out of shame or fear of judgment, but in anticipation. In these moments we recognize our need for God’s gratuity and commit to making a good confession, changing our lives – and returning to reconciliation any time we fall – so that we can look forward to that time when we are ready to worthily receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Because it is at Mass, at communion, that Jesus gives us eternal life. He has promised to do just that.

We’re feeling pretty bruised and broken right now. But we are not lost. Christ loves His Church – even we sinners. Especially sinners! Christ has special care for those who are victims. And especially now – if we are to offer that care for victims – we must purify ourselves so that we are found ready to offer what they truly deserve: a Church that can turn to them and say ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry that this has been done to you, I’m that my Church did this to you, I’m sorry that we ignored it for so long or covered it up. And I stand ready to help you.’

If we are going to do that well, we must be united with Christ – especially through confession and the Eucharist. Christ is hope, He is the center of our faith, He is the reason the Church exists, and the only foundation that will stand firm. Trying to build our faith on anything else – including bishops or priests – will only produce something weak and fragile. But if we return to Christ, if we declare ourselves for the Lord, if we turn to Him and accept even His hard sayings, subordinating ourselves to Him, Christ who climbed on the cross and accepted our sins – sins that He had no culpability for – Christ who rose from the dead and promised us new life, He will restore us, bring us to health. And through us, He will bring life to our fallen world.

This Sunday is the last Sunday that we repeat the psalm 34 – “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”. We’ve sung that psalm three Sunday in a row. Today, may we ask the Lord to prepare us if we’re not ready and to bring us if we are so that we may taste and see His goodness here at this altar. And may He help us to own our sins, to proclaim His forgiveness, and to be agents of healing especially to those who most need. Christ is our faith. Christ is our center. He will not abandon us.

Let us stay close to Him, trusting that He truly has the words of eternal life.

When all seems lost, food for the journey (August 12, 2018)

I have long admired the prophet Elijah from the Old Testament, but never felt any particular connection to him. We are all baptized priest, prophet, and king and share in these charisms as have so many who have gone before us. But I’ve found Elijah to be an enigmatic figure until recently – particularly in this reading today.

So Elijah goes days into the desert and there, sitting beneath a broom tree, he says the most extraordinary thing. The book of Kings has him praying for death saying “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

I don’t think he’s saying this to be dramatic or that he is being sarcastic – I think he was serious. ‘This is it, I’m done – let’s get this over with’. I have to admit that over the past couple of weeks, and perhaps you have shared in this, I have felt a similar sentiment in my own heart.

We don’t have to look far to see the overwhelming brokenness of the world. We read the news and see violence, poverty, illness and natural disaster. People just being mean –sometimes of those people have great power while sometimes they just have a platform of some sort, but they just say awful things about each other. We see whole countries or cultures that are falling apart. One example is in Ireland – once a bastion of Catholic culture (or so we thought) – which recently legalized abortion. A move that most of us would have assumed unthinkable, right up until it happened.

We see it in our own country, watching the divide of political sides and ideological groups grow with folks becoming more entrenched against those on the opposite end. People who are otherwise generally of good will are drawn in or even jump in eagerly.

Even here locally we see signs of brokenness, or things that are worrisome. In the announcement last week of the closure of one of our parishes – Sacred Heart parish in Morton.

We also see it in our faith: seeing our bishops and cardinals fail us – again – abusing their power. We see a former cardinal who abused his power in terrible ways. And it seems that there may be bishops who knew of this and turned a blind eye at best, possibly even actively covering it up.

“This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

It’s not sinful to feel these things, to look around, feel the pressure and weight of all of this – wanting to respond simply ‘I’m out of here, I don’t want anything to do with this, what could I possibly can do?’.

No one here is necessarily a citizen of Ireland. None of us necessarily have great political influence. Most of us don’t have great sway in the Church and sometimes there are even decisions – like the closure of a parish – that are hard, if necessary. We might wonder ‘what am I supposed to do now?’.

Saint Paul warns us of what we’re not supposed to do: that we should not allow ourselves to be filled with bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling, or malice. We certainly have enough of that already in the world. Yet we certainly feel that temptation, certainly in the injustice of things that are wrong, against those who have betrayed us, in the face of those things that are just sorrowful. Are response is both sorrow and anger.

If you’ll pardon me for taking a quote from outside of the Catholic tradition, there’s a quote from someone – I think it’s the Buddha1 – it says that “bitterness is liking drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die”. It doesn’t work, and usually rebounds back on us. So where do we go, what do we do?

I think we can take solace in God’s response to Elijah’s exclamation. Elijah, who is God’s chosen prophet, who is to proclaim God’s will. He’s had enough, and it seems apparent that he’s gone there to die, telling God as much. And God, who has previously shown Himself in fire and thunder and fury…doesn’t do any of that in response.

Instead, He sends an angel to Elijah, who gives him bread while telling him ‘you need to eat, or you won’t have strength for the journey’. So Elijah does, and then he goes back to sleep. And the angel comes back a second time, repeating the message and offering more food. Elijah eats a second time – and then walks through the desert for forty days until he reaches the mountain of God.

We see something similar going on in the Gospel today, with Jesus. You might recall last week’s Gospel, which we pick up from today. Jesus has gone off and the people chase after Him. When they finally find Him, He calls them out for their motivation: ‘you’re not here because you want signs or miracles; you’re here because you saw the five thousand fed … and you’re simply looking to be fed again’.

But Jesus isn’t scolding them, He’s raising the ante. The Father has sent an angel in the past – now He’s sending His Son. And where He gave regular bread in the past, He gives eternal sustenance: the bread of life. Because the journey is long, and we will not make it if we are not fed.

We may truly and genuinely feel powerless in the face of the brokenness of the world, of our own communities, in the brokenness of our own Church – and it’s leaders. But we are not powerless. Not that we’re somehow powerful in our own right, not because we’re especially strong or wise or well-spoken – but because we are fed with the bread of life.

We too are here – who may have come for a variety of reasons, maybe because we’re ‘supposed to’, or because we have to, or because we like the music (or the donuts), or maybe we just don’t know why we are here. And the Lord does not spurn our motivation, whatever it may be, nor judge our very human feelings – He responds by making Himself present, at this altar, in this Mass. He gives us spiritual food.

The journey is long, and we will not make it unless we receive His Precious Body and His Precious Blood.

But what do we do from here? I’m not suggesting that you walk into the desert – but the tasks in front of us are no less burdensome. They will be fruitful, however, if we take seriously our responsibility to both walk and invite others to the mountain of God.

It is our responsibility to preach the Gospel of Life, even if we don’t live in Ireland. It is our responsibility even in the face of parishes to closing, even to community members we may not know, to reach out to parishioners from Morton and let them know that we are united with them, to invite them to join us in worship and service and to walk with them as they prepare to say goodbye to what they have come to love.

And even with our bishops, though we may not have power over them, we all can write letters – in charity, in kindness – to say ‘I want to support you bishop, who I believe is good, but also I want to ask you to hold accountable those who have failed in or abused their authority.’ And believe it or not, you can in fact write letters to the pope! If you include your phone number, he’s been known from time to time to call.

We are not powerless. Not because we are powerful in ourselves, but because we are fed by the Bread of Life. The Lord sees our desperation, He sees our sorrow – and He does not reject it or punish it but instead sends His only Son so that we might receive the food we need to make the journey. And we need to make that journey, calling people to accountability – even people of power – and inviting them to make come to the mountain of God.

I’ll say one other thing, and you can probably see it coming. Before we can worthily receive the Bread of Life, what do you need to do? Go to confession and make a good confession, especially if it’s been a long time (and we have a new priest here to whom you can make a confession without fear of him knowing you!). But make that good confession – because we need to be purified!

We all have our own imperfections, and we need to be cleansed of any anger or bitterness or malice – because those will not serve the Lord. It may come from a place of wounded-ness or betrayal, but that too must be purified. When we make our stand, when make our call to accountability, even to those in authority, we do it with trust and faith in God without any malice in our hearts.

We are God’s chosen people. He is calling us, and not to just stay here in Church. The final exhortation at the end of Mass – ‘go forth’ – means that we go out and convert the world, inviting others to share in this spiritual food, proclaiming the truth that is even where it is still proclaimed badly or lived poorly. But this is our opportunity at this Mass, to be refreshed so that we can do just that, telling the world that this is the food, this is the bread that will give us eternal life.

Footnotes:

1. Well, that turned out to be wrong! Apparently the origin of this saying is a mystery


Post script (a commentary I offered after all the Masses this weekend):

This may be a moment in history when the faithful are called to exhort the clergy, especially our bishops. You may be discerning if and how to write a letter to our archbishop or your local ordinary. I admit that I am fearful of having a parishioner write some sort of nastygram to a bishop with the justification of ‘Father Maurer said to give you a piece of my mind, so here I go!’. Not so fast, please.

If you write a letter, recall that it is another human being who is going to open it and read it – a human being with needs and feelings much like your own. Write with charity, with gentleness even (especially!) if you have hard things that you need to express. Kindness strengthens both your credibility and your message.

And do not ask for the impossible. Bishops do not have the power to investigate other bishops – this is written into Church law and has been done so for many good reasons. But bishops can hold each other accountable in other ways, and they can together request that pope take a more active and authoritative role in situations like these (such as empowering an independent review on his authority as pope). Support and exhortation for bishops to take this step is something we all can offer, though again, in charity and without malice.

Whether we reach out to a bishop or not, all of us can make a difference in simply reaching out in prayer. Foremost, pray for the victims of abuse, for their healing and for the support that they deserve & need. Pray for those members of the Church who are hurting – laity and clergy alike – who need support in the face of all of this. And let us take up fasting! All of us can make sacrifices, whether it be in food or some other form of abstinence. Each of us has the ability to call on God’s grace today and every day. Let’s be sure that we do just that, so that our Church may be purified and we might truly be a conduit of grace for a broken world.

For all peoples (August 20, 2017)

There’s a phrase that’s been running through my head for the last two weeks: ‘those people’. You know the people I’m talking about – those people who drive too fast, those people who drive too slow, those people who make me uncomfortable, who when I see them coming I think ‘oh boy, here we go again…’, those people who talk to much – or are too quiet. The list goes on and on.

There can be whole professions who are ‘those people’. Police officers, judges, who all must be corrupt in some way. Those people who are clearly too lazy get a respectable job and instead end up working in one of those jobs I look down on. Those people from another country who don’t bother to learn my language. Those people who cross the border illegal. Those people whose culture is so alien to me that I just don’t like being around them.

Those people who voted for Trump. Those people who voted for Clinton. Those people who voted for Obama. Those people who voted for Bush. Those people who wasted their vote on a third-party vote.

Those people.

We’ve seen that phrase in the last couple of weeks. It doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum – we all have some group, some professions, even some cultures that we label as ‘those people’. And we saw where it ended up – one group of people streaming out from their anger against another group, both of whom took up the battle cry against their version of ‘those people’. And it wasn’t just protest, it was violence, it was the claim that ‘those people’ were not worthy of care, of respect.

And here’s an ugly word: racism. Because that’s something undergirding this movement of our hearts, that lies beneath the label of ‘those people’.

If we want to claim that this is only a problem for other people, we’re lying to ourselves. The fact of the matter is that when I look into my own heart, when we look inward, we use that phrase ‘those people’. And there are whole swaths of people who we just don’t want to be around, who make us uncomfortable.

And it isn’t just here in the United States, not just in Charlottesville. There was an report this week trumpeting the end of Downs Syndrome in another country. At first glance, this seemed worthy of celebration, until you start reading and realize that the method to eliminate Downs Syndrome is abortion, the ending of the lives of ‘those people’ before they’ve even been born. Because ‘those people’ couldn’t possibly add anything to the world or live lives of worth, right?

We see in Scriptures today the Canaanite woman who comes before Jesus. She is one of ‘those people’ – who don’t worship properly, apart from the people of Israel. And she wants help from the miracle worker whose fame has spread across land – ‘please help my daughter.’

The disciples try to send her away but she won’t go– she persists. And in the midst of all this, Jesus puts to words the sentiment that is hidden in the hearts of the disciples: ‘you’re one of those people – we don’t give the things reserved to the children of Israel to your kind’. And she responds, gives this amazing statement of faith: ‘even the dogs deserve some scraps’.

I imagine that Jesus, having laid bare the thoughts of the Apostles, now turns to her. He’s received her statement – made for her sake and for the hearing of the Apostles – and He affirms both her faith and His mission to offer healing and salvation to all peoples. ‘How great is your faith!’ – and her daughter is healed.

Behind the phrase ‘those people’, those whom we’ve labeled, separated ourselves from – there is a hidden temptation of contempt. ‘Those people’ aren’t worthy of my presence, of my love. They just need to go away. And Christ calls that out today, to His disciples then and to us now.

In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah speaks the words of the Lord that ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’. And we see written elsewhere from Saint Paul that there is no longer slave, freeman, Greek, Jew, man or woman. Of course, we all fall into these kinds of categories – but they are no longer to be sources of division.

What do we do about this? How do I respond to the reality that in my heart lies this evil, that in my life I have participated in these activities, I have spoken these words, or I have simply stood silently by while others do so? What can I do to break down the power of the phrase ‘those people’?

First in foremost, we need to recognize that we ourselves are ‘those people’. This is most evident in the sacrament of Confession – where we walk in, saying “bless me Father for I have sinned…. I’m one of ‘those people’”. And the Lord responds as He did for the Canaanite woman: ‘welcome! My healing is for you too – in the amount you need, with abundance and given in joy’.

We need to go to the sacrament and admit ‘I have been one of those people, I have been one who has caused division, who has let it fester in my presence, who has not spoken out against it.’ We need to confess this sin, for it is present not just in our country, not just in our state. It is present in this very room, in our parishes, in our very families. We need to confess our contempt for our brothers and sisters.

We need to lay this on the altar, admit our powerlessness to change ourselves or others – but with confidence in God, ask Him to come down and bless us, our families, our parishes, our world. We need to beg God to heal us, to make this house a house for all peoples.

One of the great things we celebrate in our faith, most especially in baptism, is that we are not ‘those people’ but rather we are His people. And that’s an invitation made for all – that we may be joined to Christ. And Saint Paul’s exhortation against division is no more evident that when we look at the saints across history – we see a rainbow of colors, a plethora of languages, and representation of so many cultures and countries. We see this even in the people gathered at an average parish Mass.

Christ reminds us that He wants to offer His love to all, regardless of skin color, culture, language, history, or sins. We are no longer ‘those people’, we are His!

As we celebrate Mass, as we see a country full of people yelling and shouting – unable to hear ourselves for all the anger that is festering and being brought to the surface – may we ask the Lord to make us that voice in the wilderness, a wilderness yet devoid of grace but thirsting for it nonetheless. May we be given the grace to offer a better way, even as we repent of the times when we have participated in contempt and division, in separation from others. May we proclaim the goodness we have received, the goodness that has been bestowed on us.

Today we celebrate what we see in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, we celebrate our part in that – because we too have been labeled by others as ‘those people’. And yet God has called us out of that vicious cycle, making us His own. Let us proclaim that Good News, that we are His people, that this offer is made for all through baptism into the Body of Christ – that this house may be a house of prayer, for all peoples.

A worthy gift for our newborn King (homily – Dec. 25, 2016)

Merry Christmas! After passing through the four weeks of Advent, we’ve finally arrived. How good it is to finally celebrate Christ’s birthday.

As you can see, we’ve got all the trimmings of a grand celebration – Christmas music, poinsettias (80 of them!), a manger scene, Christmas trees, lights, and incense. But is that enough? One wonders.

A couple weeks ago I had an interesting conversation online about car repairs. Now I want you to appreciate just how unusual this is, and my history with cars starts with my first. It was a 1988 Chevy S-10 and I bought it from my grandfather shortly after my fifteenth birthday. It was a V6, 2.8 liter engine – which sounds impressive but truth to tell Bessie couldn’t move quickly, carry much, or tow. The hint is in the name ‘Bessie’ – like your prize cow, she was oversized, underpowered, and moody.

But she was mine, and I loved her!

My father is an engineer and my brother takes after him – both of them have an aptitude for fixing things, and they did their best to make sure I was comfortable in some basics. I learned enough to do simple maintenance – minor repairs and changing the oil. (And if you’re wincing at that second one, you should!)

Fortunately, your average car – even an older one – has sensors and warning lights when things start to go wrong. For example, say you change the oil in your beloved old truck and upon installing the new oil filter, you mis-thread it so that the seal isn’t quite right. You’ll start leaking oil slowly and eventually a little red light will light up on your dash to let you know. No problem, right?

In theory, this system will get your attention and you’ll consult someone to get things fixed. …or you can just keep driving. And you know what, it’ll drive pretty well. Ah, eventually you’ll lose enough oil that the engine will start ticking – that’s the sound of things grinding because there’s not enough lubricant. No problem! Just add more oil until the ticking stops. Hey – if you overfill, the excess will get pushed out of the engine and burn off from the heat!

I’d like to pause here to point out to anyone who is taking notes on car repair…well, don’t. This worked for all of 300 miles of driving – and then my truck wouldn’t start. Something in the engine cracked, the heads fused, and Bessie wouldn’t start. It cost me $2,000 to replace the engine – and no small amount of flack from those same family members who had done their best to warn me about the dangers of driving with this problem.

Nowadays, I have no problem taking my car into a shop and having a professional change my oil – or any other maintenance and repair work that needs to be done. I learned my lesson: if there’s a warning light, don’t be afraid to find someone who can help.

But we are afraid, aren’t we, and not just in matters related to vehicles. We’ve been given a vehicle of sorts – the very life we were born into, our body & soul, meant to take us from here to eternity. In the gift of the Scriptures and the Church, we’ve got an instruction manual of sorts – and plenty of people who are there to help guide us. Between the saints, our family & friends, our parish community, and God Himself, we’re all set!

No problem, right?

And then a warning light comes on. Something’s not quite right – we need to stop in for service. And maybe we even know it! ….but we’re afraid. We know that odds are good that even though it wasn’t entirely intentional, we’ve contributed to the problems in our lives. Something got mis-threaded and the consequences sort of spiraled beyond our control. What if we get blamed? How will other’s respond to my mistakes? Will God really help me, or will I be condemned for my part in the mess I find myself in?

So we push on. We substitute anything we can – that extra oil – to avoid putting ourselves in front of the Divine Mechanic.

I mentioned a couple of mechanics at the beginning – my dad and my brother. Especially when it comes to cars, my brother is a genius. Since he discovered tools and vehicles, he’s had a car that he’s working on. His favorite is a 1970-something VW Rabbit – he’s restored three of them and they’re each lovely stripped to the frame and then brought to a point where you’d think they had just rolled off of the lot. Admittedly, a VW Rabbit is not exactly a luxury ride – but to hear him talk about it, you’d never know the difference.

What if the Divine Mechanic looks at us similarly? We have this fear that if we go before Him, if we show him the mess we’ve made, if He sees the sins we’ve committed along the way, that’ll be it! He’ll chastise us, rebuke us, send us away for having destroyed this amazing life He’s given us.

But what if that’s exactly wrong? I submit that it is – I imagine it a little differently. Our heavenly Father – that Divine Fixer – delights in us. And when we roll into His garage, ticking, dripping oil, barely moving at all, that’s when He starts to get excited. I have this image of God popping the hood, rubbing His hands happily together saying “let’s get in here and fix this thing!”. And maybe He’ll have to strip things down to the frame – but He’ll lovely restore us as we were meant to be.

The sad thing is, most of us – myself included – we struggle to really trust the Lord. Could it be possible that He really wants to do this for me? And the Father saw that doubt, that fear – He looked down on us pouring the garbage of the world into our souls to try to make it another mile, and He decided that this was the time to put our hearts at ease. So He sent His Son – trained in the healing of souls, but in the most un-intimidating way possible: as a baby. The infant who would make us whole.

Maybe you come here every Sunday, maybe you’re here only because grandma asked you to be – but you’re here! And this baby, Jesus, He wants you to know that you are beloved, you are the Father’s delight. Nothing in your past, not one of your sins, none of your mistakes will ever undo that love.

All of this – all these trimmings & trappings, all the food & gifts, the music, even our Mass here today – it’s all geared towards one thing: giving the Divine Mechanic permission to heal our souls. How do we celebrate? How do we welcome him? This is the key: taking this opportunity, on the birthday of Jesus, to offer Him the one gift – the only gift – that He desires: ourselves. And with great joy, the One who loves us receives us, welcomes us as His brothers & sisters, and will make us whole.

Merry Christmas to us all.

 

Sodom & Gomorrah, ‘Our Father’ and mercy (homily – July 24, 2016)

Thanks to the generosity of many generous donors, my seminary has a pilgrimage program for seminarians in their third year. So about ten years ago when I was in my third year, I was able to spend about two and a half months in the Holy Land – a month in Bethlehem, a month in Jerusalem and about two weeks in Nazareth.

Among many neat places was the Dead Sea. The salt content of the Dead Sea is so high that it is toxic to all life. There is so much salt that the floor of the sea is covered in rocks of salt, the size of your fist. Our guide warned us that staying in the water overlong wasn’t advisable, and that we should be especially cautious of getting the water in our eyes. Too much and our vision could be damaged – to the point of blindness even.

Happy swimming!

But swim we did, because there is another, neat thing about the Dead Sea: buoyancy! You practically can’t drown, as even a person with the lowest possible body fat will float with ease. I have a picture of one of my classmates sitting in the water, feet up, with a newspaper in his hands looking for all the world as if he was in a recliner.

Though interesting, these are just details. See, the most significant thing about the Dead Sea is it’s location: it is the site of Sodom and Gomorrah.

If you know a bit about the history of warfare, you might have heard about a particularly thorough method of wiping out one’s enemies. After conquering their soldiers, after burning their villages and farms to the ground, armies would then salt the earth. In this way, they made even their enemy’s land useless: nothing would grow for quite some time after.

This is what has happened at the Dead Sea, and for thousands of years!

Knowing that this is the site of Sodom & Gomorrah, it seems wise to find out what prompted God to deal out such a serious and lasting statement. What were the actions that cried out to God for a response?

If you were to continue to read Genesis past the passage of our reading today, you’d quickly see the nature of the sins – they’re sexual sins. When Abraham and his companions (later revealed to be angels) arrive in Sodom, the entire town accosts them. That’s not hyperbole, by the way: the Scriptures are careful to highlight that every townsman was guilty.

These are the sins that still exist today. So often we dance around sexual sin, so let’s take a moment to name some of the more prevalent sexual sins in the world:

  • pornography
  • masturbation
  • fornication
  • adultery
  • contraception
  • sodomy

These are the sins of Sodom & Gomorrah, and the sins of our time. And they cry out from earth to God for a response.

What is God’s response? We know how Abraham thought God was going to respond – with a blind vengeance that would strike down both innocent & guilty.

There’s a real temptation in that presumption, one that we’ve seen played out over & over. People have heard this story and come to the conclusion that they are empowered, sent forth even, to go out and strike down, to condemn, to vilify anyone who has been part of, anyone who has participated, anyone who has even been tempted by sexual sin.

I know that there are people in our parishes, perhaps who sat next to us at Mass today, who struggle with sexual sins, for whom the sins named above or other sins are an ongoing battle, who are enmeshed in temptation, in a relationship outside of marriage, in a lifestyle that on one hand is clearly sinful and yet on the other hand seems inescapable.

To you first I want to speak. Because it is an undeniable fact that many within the Body of Christ, perhaps even in positions of authority, have made you to feel condemned, have told you that you are not welcome, that you are ‘other’. To you I want to say – on behalf of the Church, on behalf of Her clergy, and on behalf of Her members: I am sorry. For every time that you have been made to feel less than fully welcomed  and at home here in this community, I apologize. This is not the message God has for you, or for anyone.

 

So what is to be our response to grave sin – to the sins that call out for a response? We can look to today’s Gospel, at this moment of Christ’s disciples petition Him to teach them how to pray. And so He teaches them the ‘Our Father’.

Take a moment to consider just those first two words: “Our Father”. How could God bestow His fatherhood on us? We, who are guilty of so many sins – grave sins, no less? The betrayal of misusing God’s gifts, of perverting the treasures He has entrusted to us – these deserve castigation and punishment.

This is the goodness of God on display. In the face of terrible, grave, awful sin – sin that calls from the earth to the heavens for a response from the Creator, His response is ‘I choose you to be my beloved child. I choose to adopt you.’

How do we reconcile this assertion, implicit in the ‘Our Father’, with the reality of Sodom & Gomorrah, with the salted, ruined earth that even when covered in the Dead Sea still now stands lifeless?

I suggest two things for our consideration. The first is this: grave sin doesn’t just destroy our earthly lives – though we can see that it does indeed do that as we observe the rampant depression, suicide rates and ruined families that sexual sin leaves in its wake. But more than that, grave sin destroys souls. God, seeing that grave sin was eating away at the very essence of His beloved children, takes away their earthly lives so that their eternal souls might be saved.

But that isn’t the end! Because we must also consider the prayer that we pray with every rosary – the Apostles Creed. Recall the part where we talk about Christ descending into Hell. We believe that! We truly believe that Christ went into the depths of that inferno, and offered to all who had preceded the Word becoming flesh the chance for salvation.

Those same townsmen who attempted to molest Abraham’s companions, who were destroyed by God, we also chosen as His adopted sons.

This is the response of the Lord. This is what we assert, affirm and celebrate each time we pray the ‘Our Father’.

I’d like to offer three invitations. The first is directed especially to anyone steeped in grave sin, especially sexual sin. To anyone who has wondered if they’re lovable, to anyone who has questioned if God would really forgive the terrible things of their past. To  you especially, I invite you to come to confession.

People at my parishes know that this is my favorite invitation to make, and that I make it often. As a priest it is a special privilege and a particular joy to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. But even before I was a priest, I was – am –  a sinner. I too know what it is like to question God’s love for me, to carry the secret shame and sorrow of grave sin, and live in a shadow of doubt. Because of confession, I also know the great joy and peace of having those doubts – along with my sins! – washed away. This gift is available to us all.

The second is to those who are living in an irregular situation, in a relationship that is contrary to God’s call. To you I want to extend the invitation to come talk to a priest. Find a priest, your pastor, the parochial vicar, the priest you’ve heard good things about – any priest! – but find one and go speak with him about how the Church can help you, can support you, can assist in making the irregular regular.

And finally to all, the invitation is to pray. Whatever your situation is – whether you’re struggling with sexual sin, whether you’ve never been tempted or you find yourself no longer tempted – the invitation to prayer is universal. Pray that we overcome the temptation and the scandal of divisions against each other. Pray that we may never make anyone ‘other’, that we may never say ‘You aren’t welcome here’ to another person. Pray that those suffering in our very midst may never doubt that God’s love and our love is available to them.

May we reflect the Father’s adoption of us as His by claiming each other as our brothers & sisters. God does hear the cry of the poor, and as we call upon Him as our Father, may we support each other in receiving & rejoicing in His mercy.