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.

Some books I’d recommend (ages 13+)

I recently received an e-mail from a parent asking about book recommendations for their teenager. Never one to use a few words when hundreds are possible, I spent not one, not two, but three e-mails laying out some of my favorites, sharing my critiques of some of the more popular dross, and generally creating walls of enthusiastic text about some of my childhood favorites.

Not content to keep such treasures hidden and to avoid the risk of disappointing my faithful reader(s?), I thought I’d share that list here.

Unlisted because they’re a class above all others are The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

I mean really, what kind of list would this be if these weren’t the first book series that every man, woman, and child weren’t offered? But let’s be clear, the only order that the Narnia series should be read is the original publication order (A Horse and His Boy comes after The Silver Chair). Anyone who proposes otherwise is just wrong, so there.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy should be required reading for any high school student who wants to read the best fantasy literature out there. Despite being mostly wonderful, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are no replacement for the full four books.

We do not speak of Jackson’s The Hobbit movies. Ever.

5. The Giver by Lois Lowry

This is one of my favorite dystopian morality tales from early high school. A coming-of-age story, a cautionary tale, an expression of hope, mixed with a sense of wonder at the beauty of the diversity of individual gifts, it captured my imagination nearly from the onset and held it until the very end. Apparently they made a movie out of it recently, but everyone I’ve talked to (admittedly a biased sample) agrees that the movie didn’t do it justice. Skip the film and go straight to your local library.

4. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

A historical fiction of Jewish children in World War II. While it’s been a long time since I’ve read it personally, I remember it being both a very good yarn and quite affection – though perhaps the wise parent should review it personally before passing it on. As with any WWII story, the harsh realities of human sin and suffering are present, as well as the heroism that every person – especially teenagers – desires to embody.

3. Hatchet by Gary Paulson and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Why list these together? Because it’s my list, that’s why! And while these are two very different stories, they both hold to a theme of survivalism in the wild that so many (young and old) find fascinating. Whether it is being stranded after a plane crash (Hatchet) or striking out on one’s own (My Side of the Mountain), the survivalism is a means to an end: the growth of a boy into a young man.

2. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

A set of puns and witticisms loosely tied together into a story! This fits neatly into the library of anyone who likes to play with words but doesn’t want to admit that yes, they do in fact like all of those lame dad jokes. Light-hearted fun, though it does have some heartfelt messages. Perhaps not as broad appeal as other stories, but good nonetheless.

1. The Time Quintet (A Wrinkle in Time being the first) by Madelein L’Engle

Rooted in Biblical references but built in a fantasy world (aliens, technology, et cetera), it is a sort of Narnia for older children. A bit of wonder, a bit of responsibility, and lots of character growth. It deals with some suffering & loss, as well as consequences of a bad decision (much like Edmund in the first book of the Narnia series), but easily one of my favorites. Well worth reading as an adult before passing onto your child.

There are a great many wonderful stories out there – perhaps I’ll put together another list (or ten!) in the future. If you’ve got a great story that you’d like to recommend, by all means post it in the comments! I’m always looking for another story to dive into myself.

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.