Ash Wednesday Homily (for students)

Blake Sheldon. Jennifer Hudson. Adam Levine. Miley Cyrus. The Voice. The judges. Last season. Even if you don’t watch the show, you’ve seen the commercials. Blind Auditions. A nervous singer on a dark stage, judges facing the opposite way, towards the audience.

Talk about stress. I bet it takes a lot of courage to be willing to be judged like that on national TV. Imagine how that must feel? If the judges like what they hear, they hit a red button, and the chair spins around in approval. A sign lights up beneath their seat. “I want you.” Wow.

We’ve all had anxious moments like those singers, haven’t we, when we wanted so badly to be chosen? Will the coaches choose me to start on varsity? What if my chemistry project doesn’t get chosen? Will I get accepted to my first choice of colleges? What if none of my friends show up after school?

Sometimes we are chosen. But sometimes we are not. Let’s face it: sometimes we are not at our best. Maybe we let ourselves down, took a few shortcuts, maybe started doubting ourselves. The mystics and psychologists tell us that if we dig deep enough, we’ll always find some stuff we are not proud of. That’s the core of what St. Ignatius refers to as a ‘loved sinner’ in the Spiritual Exercises. It sounds something like this….

How could anyone choose me? Why would any of those judges’ turn around for me?

When I was in high school, I used to think Lent was a sort of blind audition for God’s attention. A dark obstacle course, controlled by a God facing the other way. I used to think… if I pray, if I fast, if I abstain – just like what Jesus’ asks us to do in Matthew’s Gospel today – maybe God will judge me favorably. Love me a little more. Maybe bless me a little more.

But to paraphrase that great philosopher Dustin Henderson from Stranger Things, “Sometimes, my total obliviousness just blows God’s mind.”  No, it took a few years for God to teach me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. That there is nothing any of us can do during Lent – or any other time — that will get God to love us any more than He does right now. You can’t earn God’s favor. During the next 40 days, we’re all called to look with humility on our sinfulness… but the intent is to change our actions, our hearts, our minds — not God’s.

What am I saying?  It’s simply this: before you were born, before you even knew what an audition was, God had already hit the red button. His chair had already turned around. The creator of the universe is calling out your name, a smile ear to ear, despite your failures, your sins, your flaws. That’s what Jesus did, ransomed our sins through His death and resurrection. An economy of grace. Not an economy of merit.

You know, those Blind Auditions are only the first few episodes. The rest of the season continues with the Battle Rounds, the Knockout Rounds, the Playoffs. The real work begins after they singers have been chosen.  Just like us.

Imagine the bottom of God’s judging chair not saying “I want you”, but “I need you.”  To serve the poor, to go to confession, to defend the marginalized, to honestly repent,  to get involved in your parish, to help out with our school service programs, to go to Mass… these are the most important ‘acts’ you will ever perform.  That’s what the ashes mean. You are marked by God. To do great things.

But unlike The Voice, you’re not up on a stage all alone. As the Prophet Joel instructs the Israelites in our first reading, “call an assembly; gather the people, assemble the elders….”  So, too, with us. Just look around.

If the #Me Too movement has taught us anything, it’s that one courageous voice, multiplied by thousands – millions — can and does make a difference.

Just like the ocean of neon, our student cheering section, dressed so colorfully behind the basket at the Jesuit Cup. E Pluribus Unum. We all could feel the love. And win or lose, your cheers did not stop. And that’s the type of solidarity and support our world so desperately needs today. Are you up for the challenge?

C.S. Lewis said it best, of course.  He almost always does.

Even though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not. A love not wearied by our sins, or our indifference. A love quite relentless in its determination to heal us… at whatever cost to us… and at whatever cost to Christ.

The Day (by Peter Everwine)

The Day

We walked at the edge of the sea, the dog,
still young then, running ahead of us.

Few people. Gulls. A flock of pelicans
circled beyond the swells, then closed
their wings and dropped head-long
into the dazzle of light and sea. You clapped
your hands; the day grew brilliant.

Later we sat at a small table
with wine and food that tasted of the sea.

A perfect day, we said to one another,
so that even when the day ended
and the lights of houses among the hills
came on like a scattering of embers,
we watched it leave without regret.

That night, easing myself toward sleep,
I thought how blindly we stumble ahead
with such hope, a light flares briefly—Ah, Happiness!
then we turn and go on our way again.

But happiness, too, goes on its way,
and years from where we were, I lie awake
in the dark and suddenly it returns—
that day by the sea, that happiness,

though it is not the same happiness,
not the same darkness.

Peter Everwine lives in California, and his most recent book is Listening Long and Late from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

 

Christmas Eve Homily 2017

“How can this be?”

I can remember asking that same question when I first heard about on-line shopping. No cash needed. I remember asking that question when somebody explained to me what a GPS system was. And when I was told I could now adjust the thermostat in my house with an app. Or when I could lock my car from 20 feet away.

“How can this be?”

Now if you’re under 25, you’re probably thinking “What’s he talking about?” But for those of us who are a little older, all these things that we couldn’t even imagine a few years ago are now part of our daily lives, thanks to technology.  Like Charles Kettering quote about the Wright Brothers “They flew right through the smoke screen of impossibility.” Think of how different your life would be without MRI’s? They can see inside you now! Laser surgery? Even without e-mail?

So tell me,… why is it that when we think of all the other unquestioned impossibilities in our lives, we give up so easily?

We say, I just can’t forgive that person. I’ll never get rehired in my line of work. I’ll never lose that weight.  I won’t be able to beat my addiction. I’ll never get a good medical report. I’ll never get over the loss of my mother… my father… my son…  my daughter…  my wife…  my husband. That’s impossible.

But today’s Gospel has a different message for us.  One of the most amazing messages we will ever hear!

When the angel Gabriel tells Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” he’s talking to us as well. Nothing is impossible with God. Most people thought that God becoming man – the Incarnation – was impossible. They thought rising from the dead was impossible. Miracles were impossible. Unconditional love was impossible.

And they were wrong. We are wrong.

You know, that word “overshadow” in the original Greek means “to envelop in a haze of brilliancy.” Well, God has enveloped your life “in a haze a brilliancy,” too. Sound impossible? Think for a moment how many people are happy to see you, depend on you, who love you so much. You are a bright light to your friends and family, to all gathered here today. God has made your light possible, your life possible. You are living proof that miracles happen.

Winston Churchill thought many things in his life were impossible. He was held back a grade during elementary school. When he entered high school, he was placed in the lowest division of the lowest class. Later, he failed the entrance exam to the Royal Military Academy — twice. He was soundly defeated in his first effort to serve in Parliament. He finally began his political career as Prime Minister at the age of 62.

When asked if he ever doubted he could do the impossible, Churchill replied, “No. My attitude always was to never give up, never give in, never, never, never, never.” Shouldn’t we be even more trusting in God’s providence, knowing all the miracles Christ has woven into our lives?

Scripture tells us that when they lowered a paralyzed man down to Jesus through the roof on a stretcher, Jesus told him to rise because his sins were forgiven. When he did, the doubters were amazed. How could this be? They didn’t believe Jesus could do the impossible.

So why are we still doubting? If Christ can make the lame walk, imagine the miracles he can work in your life? Sometimes I think we are guilty of thinking God is too small. We are not dreaming enough.

Where do you need to start believing? In your ability to forgive someone from years ago? Physical healing? Getting straight “A”’s? Think about it: If technology can do so much, imagine how much more God can do for you when you ask in prayer, when you receive the Eucharist, when you follow Him, when you believe.

Today let’s not ask God “How can this be?” I mean, Mary has already asked that in her youthful insecurity and unknowing.

No, maybe let’s pray a new prayer this Christmas season…

“Lord, I know you can make the impossible possible. You’ve done it before. You can do it again. I know nothing in this life is perfect – starting with me – but you make all things new.  Give me the grace to face the uncomfortable situations, the harsh realities, the impossibilities in my life, knowing You are by my side. Help me to stop doubting, and start believing that You can change all things – because You have changed all things. I’m not asking for a perfect ending to my journeys. I’m asking to begin to learn to trust You as Mary did. And may my trust begin today.”

 

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Report Cards and New Resolutions.

Well, we made it — our Church year is over! That was fast one, wasn’t it? You might not have even realized it, of course, with Thanksgiving and Black Friday this week. Yes, this is the last Sunday of the Church year. It’s sort of like our New Year’s Day. It’s a chance to look forward, of course, but also an opportunity to look back. A chance to consider some questions like… was it a pretty good year in matters of faith, or not so good? Were we good disciples, or mediocre ones? Did we stay on the good path, or did we stray all over the place?

Think about it. If you had to give yourself a report card measuring how well you followed Jesus this past year, what grade would you give yourself? And maybe more importantly, what New Year’s resolution are you going to make in order to keep those grades up?

That’s a tall order, I know. But seeing as our Gospel today — one of the few places in the New Testament where Jesus tells us how we’ll be “graded” – is about evaluating our experience, maybe we should give it a try.

I mean, we get “graded” all the time, don’t we? Like at our jobs. About how well we work with co-workers who don’t do their fair share. Company policies that make little sense. Customers who act rudely or who are completely unreasonable. Bad hours. Low pay. Managers who don’t understand. Everyone agrees to be evaluated – that’s how we get better. I bet there are many people here this morning who evaluate others!

Now, business wisdom tells us that when we look out over our works places, we just need to focus on what is most important. And what’s most important? Well, many would say that your primary responsibility is to do what you can to make your boss happy.”

Don’t worry about all the other stuff going on — the office politics, cliques and gossip. Simply try to do what your boss expects of you. And nine times out of ten, your evaluation will take care of itself.

And maybe that’s what the Solemnity of Christ the King is all about. A day on which we are reminded to focus on what is most important. Indeed, that’s why Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 as a response to growing secularism and nationalism in the aftermath of World War I. But it’s not the same as the work place. For Jesus is not just some kind of “boss”. He’s not someone that we have to serve grudgingly. He’s not someone that gets to tell us what to do because we have no other options for income. He’s definitely not someone we simply “work” for nine-to-five and then forget about until the next day.

No, this solemnity celebrates a king who doesn’t tower over us, but loves us. Who doesn’t control us, but invites us into a deeper relationship with him. Who doesn’t rule through intimidation or fear, but through compassion and mercy. Who doesn’t seek to exact revenge, but forgives and forgives and forgives again.

In other words, our primary response to that kind of love, to that type of leadership from our King, is to love others in the same way. Everything else will take care of itself. To treat the poor, the orphaned, the widows, and the foreigners in the same way we would want to be treated. The way that God treat us.

That’s contagious, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to do the same? So, let’s get back to the report cards. How did we do this past year, based on what St. Matthew just explained to us?

“I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

Or, another way to ask that today might be — how kind were we? How compassionate? Did we show mercy? Were we as forgiving as with people in our lives as they were with our lives? Were we as generous and as loving as we could have been, as much as we appreciate generosity?

Now, I have a confession to make. I did not make the honor roll. I think I need to hit the books (that is, learn to love) a little better. My sinfulness took me away from God this past year, and in order to do better, I’m going to need some help. Maybe you can relate?

But there is no need to travel far to find assistance on this. Remember our first reading from Ezekiel, when God says “I myself will look after and tend my sheep?” That’s the consolation I need. When we are lost – when we are not getting good grades – God will find us. God will give you the strength to get all your homework done. He’ll be with you through every test. You will be a straight A student.

See, Ezekiel went around trying to change people during the Babylonian exile. He makes it clear that Yahweh himself will from now on take over the shepherding of this people. Not a conquering power. Yahweh will seek out the lost and bring back the strayed, just like Israel’s return from exile and resettlement in the Holy Land.

“The injured I will bind up; the sick I will heal.”

By finding the lost, by healing the sick, by saving them from the darkness, the cloudiness, by giving them rest, by bringing low the proud and the foolish who appear to be winning… this King will take care of them.

Shouldn’t we trust God do to the same? Starting this Advent, with a clean slate, looking ahead to the next twelve months?

I think I just found my New Year’s Resolution.

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Bees Were Better

The University of Minnesota Press has published a fine collection of bee poems, If Bees are Few. Here’s one by one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye, who lives in San Antonio. Her most recent book is Famous from Wings Press.  —Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate 2004-2006.

Bees Were Better 

In college, people were always breaking up.
We broke up in parking lots,
beside fountains.
Two people broke up
across a table from me
at the library.
I could not sit at that table again
though I did not know them.
I studied bees, who were able
to convey messages through dancing
and could find their ways
home to their hives
even if someone put up a blockade of sheets
and boards and wire.
Bees had radar in their wings and brains
that humans could barely understand.
I wrote a paper proclaiming
their brilliance and superiority
and revised it at a small café
featuring wooden hive-shaped honey-dippers
in silver honeypots
at every table.

Finding your keys.

Have you ever considered that everyone (well, almost everyone!) has some sort of key chain?  In this time of division in our world, I’d like to think of all our keys as a sort of common bond we all share. Whether that be at home, at work, as school, our keys allow us to function in the world, to complete our story.  Maybe that’s why we feel so lost when we lose them.  We’re all united on that point!

And if you really think about it, you’ll discover that as you grow older, as you grow wiser, when you work harder, as you get better at your job, maybe even a little luckier in life, your key ring fills up. But that’s not random chance. Maybe you worked hard to secure the loan, getting the down payment, maybe your parents trusting you with the key to the house, maybe your family’s safety deposit box, maybe your resume.

But here’ the bottom line: At some point along the way, despite your shortcomings, someone judged that you were ready for a key.

Do you remember how that felt? For me, every time I’ve received a key, even with the burden of responsibility, I felt both chosen and excited.  Chosen to be a good steward, and excited about all the possibilities.

It’s the same for all of us. Being chosen like that gives us the strength to become a fine homeowner. A great wife or husband. A great driver. A hard-working student who earned that locker. In a way, that fuels our identity to places we could not have imagined.

Like in our 1st reading today from Isaiah.  God is basically saying “Eli-a-kim, you thought you would remain a simple servant, but I have chosen you for greater things. I’m giving you the keys to this earthly kingdom. You will be the father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. You can do this.”

Same with Peter in our Gospel. Jesus is saying, “You thought you were simply going to follow me around as a faithful disciple, but I have chosen you for greater things. Here are the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”

Here’s my point: neither Eli-a-kim or Peter asked to be chosen. Scripture tells us there were times neither one acted like mature, responsible people, fit to be chosen. Just like us. Sinners in need of forgiveness.

But Jesus did chose Peter – impulsive, cowardly, unorganized, confused – as the “rock” our Church is built on. Metaphorically, Peter’s key chain just got a lot heavier.

Well, that’s all fine and well, you might ask. But what have I been given? Did Jesus leave me any keys?

Here’s the good news. He did. We have been given the keys to our salvation. Through the Sacraments.  Through the Eucharist.  Through Sacred Scripture. Through the Magisterium. And just as important, through everyone sitting around you. We can do nothing alone. We belong to a faith community – our source of grace and peace. Our keys. Nothing like the keys of St. Peter – or, his successor, Pope Francis – but an important set of keys nonetheless.

Through our faith, God is telling us we are ready. We are responsible enough to go forth and spread the good news. It’s why we come here – to celebrate the fact our Heavenly Father has chosen us, and to look ahead at what we can do together.

To feel confident and chosen to stand up to hatred, white supremacy, sexism. To work for immigration reform. To make our marriages work. To get through that job loss, that medical diagnosis, that first step to admit you need help with that addiction.  To do something for our brothers and sisters in Houston and southeast Texas as they continue to suffer the effects of the devastating flood.

God believes in you. Rejoice and be glad – we’ve been given the keys we need to build the kingdom of God.  That’s one thing we have in common this morning in this most fractured world – and it may well be the most important thing for us today.

Our opening Collect today sums it all up perfectly, I think. Perhaps we could sit with these words of our Liturgy in the days ahead, discerning our Catholic responsibilities, turning the keys that set us free.

O God, who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose,
grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise,
and that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

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