God or mammon?

Once there was an old Cherokee grandfather who was talking with his grandson about the battle that goes on inside all of us.

“It is a terrible fight. And it’s between two wolves.”

“Two wolves,” the boy said.

“Yes,” the grandfather replied, “One is all about evil – he is anger, envy, greed, arrogance, resentment, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “But the other brings out the good – he is joy, peace, hope, serenity, humility, generosity, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Which wolf is winning?”

The grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed the most.”

Which wolf am I feeding the most these days?

That’s the challenge Jesus poses for each of in today’s Gospel.

Let’s start with mammon, a word that no one can seem to translate.  When St Matthew uses it, he probably meant several things — “treasure”, “daily wages,” “money.” But somehow mixed in with that definition he means the abuse of these same things as well: “greed,” “possessiveness,” “misuse of power”.

In other words, mammon means not only all the things that we need to live, but — if we are not careful – allowing those same things to become the most important thing in our lives.

For me, it’s worrying about every ‘breaking news’ story on my smart phone, my constant companion. Maybe for you it’s golf clubs. Or a bank statement. Or a job title. A big house. Maybe a small business start-up – necessary as it is – which brings out the worst in us.  Being gone from the family 80 hours a week. Or maybe it’s the pressure of getting straight “A”’s in school. Or never, ever missing a day at the gym. Or an innocent hobby or sport that’s grown into something a little too time consuming, pulling us away from loved ones… every weekend.

All of us probably have something that started out good, but now pulls us away from God. In Catholic theology, St. Augustine planted the seeds of “fundamental option” theory within his City of God. Everyone gradually develops a basic orientation either for or against God.  We are for God if our life is fundamentally devoted to the love and service of others, and we are against God if we find ourselves devoted to our needs and our desires.

So, how do you choose God? It’s simple, really. If you are choosing to serve God, serve God. Build His kingdom, love your enemies, pray, fast, abstain, go the extra mile, share your gifts with the poor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If something isn’t right, fix it. If you are tired of the nightly news, the problems in our city, try to fix it. Walk the walk. For God.

Imagine if we all fed that wolf for a while? Imagine if we all were always confident God’s promise from our first reading from Isaiah, when God says: “I will never forget you?”

Because as a community of faith, we believe God will lift us up in our struggles. God will give us strength to do what we need to do this Lenten season. On Wednesday, we’ll hear “Repent, and hear the good news.” Let that be our reminder to stay the course, to affirm our choice of God over mammon. We are on the right path. There is no reason to be anxious. Today is a new day in Christ.

Through our quiet prayer, through our contrite heart, through our daily decision to look at our lives and say “I know which wolf is getting fed today!”

Through our simple “amen” may we always declare, in word and deed, again and again…

I choose the Lord.”

The Beatitudes

Have you ever had something happen that you thought was the worst thing that could have ever happened… but you survived? You found comfort? You found peace?

Maybe it was something simple, like getting on the highway and getting caught behind an accident? Or losing the bid on your dream house? Or, not getting promoted at work? Not getting into the school you wanted? Or, perhaps losing the person you thought you could never live without?

But guess what? Things always seem to work out. You survived. You’re OK.

In fact, after a while, you even started smiling again. And now you’re here.

Another point: have you ever noticed how that just keeps happening? Like a cycle, we see that good things happen, and then bad things happen, and then good things… and through it all, you just keep going. Again and again. We either celebrate, or dust ourselves off, stand up tall, and keep going.

That’s resilience. That’s the human spirit. That’s what Jesus is talking about. And that may well be God’s greatest gift to us.

Friedrich Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Some people say that God never gives us something we can’t handle. But today’s challenging Gospel from St. Matthew takes it a step further in pointing out that God delights in our resilience. We are blessed by hanging in, and hanging on. He knows what you’re going through. And in these Beatitudes, He lets us peek behind the curtain of our pain and suffering for just a moment, and reminds us the we are not alone.

Normally we could say our peace, our comfort flows from things like family, work, a passionate pursuit. But it can flow just as deep through sacrifice, through surviving.  When we pause and consider all that we are going through, and that we are going to move forward anyway, we are looking at life through God’s eyes. He’s right beside you.

Maybe that’s the hardest part about this Gospel for us: we don’t understand how God can be so close to us in our suffering. We don’t understand how we can be “blessed” in our tough times.

But maybe that’s the point: St. Matthew is reminding us that there is a greater purpose to your life. Suffering is real, but so peace and hope. You are not defined by your loss, by your challenges, but rather by the fact that you got out of bed this morning, faced your addiction, your bank statement, your loss, your broken relationship, whatever is not going well in your life… and did not turn away.

You are not far from the Kingdom of God.

Let’s keep in mind that Jesus is talking to the common people of his day… people who have good days and bad, people under the oppressive rule of Rome, people who have experienced loss, confusion, disappointment. And yet, He’s saying how “blessed” they are.

The Greek word that begins each beatitude is makarios, meaning “happy” in an ordinary sense, but it also means ‘one who is especially favored or fortunate’. That’s why it is translated “blessed.”

That’s who you are in the eyes of God.

St Paul says just the same in our second reading today, as well as in the Letter to the Romans:

“What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, we conquer these things overwhelmingly through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He who is broken in the Eucharist becomes for us the greatest force in the universe. Love. The source of our resilience, our perseverance, the reason we get out of bed in the morning.

“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

So, maybe the next time we are facing difficult times, we can tell ourselves…  “God’s in this somewhere.” Even if we don’t see how God could make things any better, He can. That’s the promise.

If God could turn Good Friday into Easter Sunday, He can surely turn our hungers, our loneliness, our loss, our poverty into a blessing. The worst that could have happen to God, happened in the Crucifixion. And in the end, it turned out magnificent.

Just imagine what God’s love can do for our broken hearts this morning.

396525383_9140cca7c0_o

This homily was inspired by the writings and homilies of Fr. Joe Robinson.

Christmas homily, 2016.

I was reminded of a story by Max Lucado as I sat down last week to pray about our Christmas readings. I’ve adapted it here.

Long ago, there was a tribe of people hiding out in a dark, cold cave.  They often found themselves huddled together against the chill of the outside world.  They cried out for help for a long time.  It was all they knew how to do. They had never known joy.

But then, one day, they heard someone entering the cave, but they could not see who it was. “I have heard your cries,” the voice announced. “I have felt your chill, and seen your darkness. I have come to help.”

The people in the cave grew quiet. They had never heard a voice as hopeful as this. But they were still suspicious. “How do we know you are telling the truth?”

Silence. The cave people peered through the darkness at the figure of the stranger. They realized he was building something.

“What are you doing?” one cried nervously.

The stranger didn’t answer.

“What are you making?” one shouted even louder.

The visitor stood tall now. “I have come to set you free.” With that he turned to the wood pile at his feet, lit a match, and dropped it.

The wood ignited, flames erupted, and light filled the darkness. But the cave people turned away in fear. “Put it out!” they cried. “Will this destroy us?”

“Just the opposite,” he answered.  “But you need to draw near to feel the heat and light.”

“Not I,” declared a voice.

“Nor I,” agreed a second.

“Only a fool would risk exposing his eyes to such light.”

The stranger stood next to the fire. “I know this is not what you are used to. Maybe it’s not how other cave dwellers live. But this will change your life forever.”

For a long time no one spoke. The people hovered in groups covering their eyes. The fire builder stood next to the fire, his lips moving in a silent prayer. Slowly, one of the cave people took the long walk toward the fire. “It’s so bright,” she proclaimed when she arrived. “I can see.”

The stranger said nothing.

“It so warm!” she extended her hands and smiled as her chill left her.

“Come, everyone! Feel the warmth,” she invited.

“Silence!” cried a voice from the distant darkness. “Dare you let this stranger lead us into a trap? He must leave us, and take this fire with him.”

She turned to the stranger. “Why won’t they come?”

“Some people chose the darkness, the cold. It’s all they know.”

“And so… will they always live in the dark?”

“I’m afraid so.” The woman, now warm… but not at peace, stood silent.

“You can return to your people,” he said softly.

She paused. “I cannot. I can’t bear the cold. But nor can I bear the thought of my people in darkness.”

The stranger thought for a moment, reached into the fire and removed a stick, still flaming. “Here, carry this to your people. Show them the light, and the warmth. Explain how it’s meant for everyone.” She took the light… and turned toward the shadows.

And that is how the flame sharing began.

Christmas is a time to remember our fire, our light, our warmth. The light that began not in a cave, but a manger.  To pause to consider the flame we carry within, and to ask ourselves how we have shared that which we have been given.

Christmas, in fact, is really a time we recall how God became one of us, to build a kingdom of hope, a kingdom free from suffering and fear. A kingdom of eternal joy.

It’s a time when we are reminded of the words of St. Luke,

“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you… who is Christ and Lord.” (Lk 2:10-11)

Wow. The Promise to David has been fulfilled in our hearing. Our salvation. I don’t know about you, but this is too big for only a one-day celebration. It’s bigger than Advent. It’s bigger than… just about anything. That is truly ‘joy to the world.’

And what that means is we are ‘on the hook’.

See, every day God is asking us to walk out of our “caves” – our fears, our anxieties, our burdens – and carry the fire of Christ to everyone in our lives – brothers, sisters, moms, dads, grandparents, friends, co-workers. Everyone in your life!

Every day God is grateful when we proclaim ‘peace on earth’, and practice good will to all men and women.  Is there no better message for our times?

Every day we are called to be humble and grateful for all our gifts. For the blessings of family and friends, good food and conversation. For life!

All of that is bigger than one day, isn’t?

So, today, let’s make a deal as a community of faith. Let’s agree to try to make every day Christmas Day.  Let’s follow the light and warmth, wherever it leads us. Let’s trust God, and not be afraid. Let’s celebrate new life, and new love. Let’s all trust that God will bless us, again and again, in 2017. Let us walk out of the shadows, and into the light.

The light we celebrate today. The light of Christ our Lord.

the2bflames2bof2bwood2bfire2buhd

 

 

Election Homily (2016)

Lost in all the wonderful news about the Chicago Cubs these days was this story from the Wall Street Journal: “An overwhelming majority of voters are disgusted with the state of American politics. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are seen by a majority of voters as unlikely to bring the country back together after this bitter election season. Eight in 10 voters say the campaign has left them repulsed rather than excited.”

I have to admit I am one of those people who can’t wait until Tuesday. As a person of faith, I’m not sure why or how this election has become so sad. But I’d like to think we can do something about it.

Journalists David Brooks and E.J. Dionne recently offered a pretty good analysis of what’s going on. They noted that when religious voices leave the public square, we are all worse off for it. There is so little conversation about the virtues of sacrifice and suffering, or what sin is, redemption in this election, in this society. And maybe that’s why we feel so empty. There’s no sustained talk about God. No theology. The other side is just bad and wrong. No dialogue, no listening, no trying to see another point of view.

E.J. Dione made a point that throughout the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s, Martin Luther King spoke in terms of praying for conversion of hearts, offering forgiveness to his oppressors, of the value of redemptive suffering.

David Brooks said this: “There is no uplift in this race. There is an entire absence in both campaigns of any effort to appeal to the higher angels of our nature. There is an assumption in both campaigns that we are self-seeking creatures rather than loving, serving, hoping, dreaming, cooperating creatures. There is a presumption in both candidates that the lowest motivations are the most real. At some point, there will have to be a new vocabulary and a restored worldview which emphasizes love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity, and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust.”

We know all about that vocabulary. For we, as a faith community, believe in love, friendship, solidarity, the value of community. Look at the Gospel today.  Sadducees are fixated on dying; Jesus is focused on living in solidarity. The Sadducees deny there is resurrection; Jesus will bring millions together by rising from the dead. The Sadducees are trapped by affairs of this life; Jesus speaks of “the children of God … who will rise.”

We know in our hearts that this type of election discourse is not what Jesus’ taught, or what our church teaches. That winning an election – presidency, congress, senate, or alderman – is not more important than treating your political opponent with respect and dignity. That negative ads, name-calling, and hatred are not of the good spirit.  For we believe we are all created – Democrats, Republicans and Independents — in the image and likeness of God. We are all brothers and sisters. That should always be our starting point.

Bruce Springsteen, who was raised a Catholic in the 50’s but – like some people we may know — left the faith later in life, knows well the language of our faith.  He has said that once a Catholic, you are always a Catholic. It’s how you think and speak. And for him, it’s the language – sin, grace, redemption, suffering, sorrow, salvation – that best describes what it means to be human.  We can hear it in his songs.

That language is how we make sense of the world as well. And my big insight these last few weeks was that I’m not hearing it enough. Perhaps you feel the same.

Imagine, then, if we all decide to be a voice of hope, to speak the language that is missing in our society these days.  That we are going to gently let others know that it’s OK to say that our faith is important to us. That we believe in grace, in forgiveness – and we can talk about it — even in a landscape that appears to have forgotten about religion, decency or morality. That after the elections on Tuesday, we can be a voice of healing on Wednesday — at school, at work, at the gym. Let’s tell everyone again about the Year of Mercy, and what it really means in our world.

On Tuesday your vote is important, but that shouldn’t determine your happiness. Vote with your conscience, but act like a disciple. We chose a president every four years, but we gather here once a week. We need to be reminded of that.

So, let us feel confident today – with the help of the Holy Spirit — to go forth and be the voice of God in a society which so desperately needs to hear about peace and hope.

Amen.

 

David Brooks & E. J. Dionne (COMPLETE EPISODE with Krista Tippett)

This is a strange, tumultuous political moment. With columnists David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, we step back from the immediate political gamesmanship. We take public theology as a lens on the challenge and promise we will all be living as citizens, whoever our next president might be. This public conversation was convened by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Graham Chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, the day before the second presidential debate on that campus.

Here’s the link:  http://bit.ly/2ex4ud0

Our plans are not God’s plans.

Today I want to talk to you about how God’s plans are not your plans… they are even better. That no matter how much preparation, good efforts and high hopes you have in life, God has even greater plans… greater than you ever could have ever imagined.

Let me explain….

How many of you have either had an addition put on your house, or you know someone who has put an addition on their house? I know many people, and have heard many other stories, of people who have decided to add an addition on their house, and things ended up taking far longer and far more expensive, than they had originally planned. When they are 75% percent of the way through, they usually throw up their hands in exasperation and say “If I knew it was going to cost this much time and money, I never would have done this!”

As any engineer or contractor will tell you, once you start tearing down walls or digging underground, you don’t know what you’ll find, or how long it will take to fix!

Our spiritual life is like that.  When we say “yes” to something, we agree to take on everything that comes with it. I can’t imagine the two examples Jesus uses the Gospel – building a tower and organizing an army – to go exactly as planned. Likewise, whether we are asked to be the president of a committee, a Girl Scout leader, or most importantly being a good Christian… there are often more responsibilities than we bargained for.

The first time someone ever asked me to speak in public I had a panic attack. It was years ago, at my older sister’s wedding. I couldn’t believe how people could stand up and talk in front of people. In church! I said “yes” to that, never realizing that was such an important step on my journey to be here, today. God went to work on my life.

It’s sort of like what C.S. Lewis describes so well in Mere Christianity:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. And God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He starts by fixing the gutters, and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But then He starts tearing walls down in wats that don’t seem to make any sense…. He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – adding a new wing, putting on an extra floor, building towers, making courtyards. You thought you were living in a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

We might enjoy our “a decent little cottage”, but God has bigger plans for us. God wants to live in your spectacular mansion, the one He is working on right now.

You might thing that someone like Mother Teresa, who is begin canonized in Rome today, understood this immediately. But she did not. She voluntarily lived a life of poverty in one of the worst places on earth. She heard Christ’s voice say to her in a prayerful vision – “Come, be my light”…. show the world what poverty and abandonment look like. How could she have known the struggles that lie ahead? Likewise, how could she have imagined the glory? Maybe that’s why our first reading from the Book of Wisdom begins “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?”

She did what God asked her to do, never realizing the impact her life would have. She never tried to be a saint. That was God’s plan.

What do you think are God’s plans for your life?

You know, almost everyone I know who gets an addition always ends up saying the same thing. After the contractors and the builders have gone, after all the blood, sweat and tears, when you go visit their home, it looks wonderful, doesn’t it?  It looks even better than what the owners could have imagined. They all say “It was worth it.”

So, too, with God and our lives. So, too, with our decent little cottage.

22083-large-mansion-exterior

 

Michelle and Charlie. August 20th, 2016.

Aren’t weddings wonderful? Think about all the hard work that’s been done to get us to this moment, and how much fun the reception will be. Times like these are great opportunities to pause for a moment and reflect on what this day is all about, don’t you think? And not just for Charlie and Michelle.

I’m reminded of the story about the middle-aged man who had a doctor’s appointment. He was getting agitated because the doctor was running late. Noticing that the man was getting agitated, the doctor asked him if he had another appointment. The man replied that his wife was waiting at home for him. The doctor asked, “Surely she won’t be angry if you’re a few minutes late.”  The man replied “You’re right. She’ll be fine. We had lunch together.”

The doctor nodded and said, “I thought so. Just give her a quick call and tell her your doctor was busy.”  “I could do that.” The man replied, “But you see, she’s in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. She wouldn’t remember I called. She doesn’t know where she is most of the time.”  The doctor said, “Does she have a caretaker?” “Oh, yes. I’ve provided the best.” Well, if she’s doing well now where she is, I think she’ll be fine until you get there.”

The man replied, “You don’t understand. I’m not rushing home to make sure she’s OK. I’m rushing back home because I love her, and I want to spend time with her.”

St Ignatius of Loyola said “Love always shows itself more in deeds than in words”. The husband in this story doesn’t want to talk to his wife about love. He just wants to love her. And it’s those actions that move our heart, fill us with joy, gives us hope.

We have another story, just like that one, starting today. Sure, the specifics are different, but the action is the same.

And maybe that’s why Michelle and Charlie chose these readings for us. They all talk about a love so powerful that people are willing to sacrifice everything for another person. What a wonderful road map for their marriage!

I mean, just look at the Beatitudes. Three of them ask us to bear a burden, a sacrifice. Being poor, being sad, being persecuted. Something we weren’t expecting.  And because we weren’t expecting them, we depend on love to get us through. It’s God blessing our reactions, our responses.

And in the other five – being meek, being a peacemaker, being merciful, fighting for what’s right, remaining clean of heart – those are things that we do. Things we do with our love. That’s when God blesses our pro-activity, our actions, as well.

In both instances, action is more important than words. And I’d like to suggest that they challenge to ask ourselves: how have I loved today? What actions have I done that show, and not tell, my love for God and creation?

Maybe it was choosing the perfect wedding gift. Or, you’ll be driving someone to the reception. Or, telling someone how lovely they look. Or maybe next weekend you’ll volunteer again at the soup kitchen, the nursing home, the homeless shelter.

In a way, these things we do are our answer to all the stories in the newspaper. Syria, ISIS, racism, the anger, the violence, the pain. Putting our love in action – no more evident than this public declaration of love — this is our antidote. These are the things that remind us that love is more powerful than hate.

In a moment, Charlie and Michelle will exchange their wedding vows. Like a white canvas before an artist, there will be so many different experiences, so many acts of love in their painting. But you know Michelle and Charlie will not be the only two people on that canvas. We will all be in the picture. Our Church will be in the picture. Christ will be in the picture. Our deeds, our presence, our support, will speak so much louder than best wishes or good intent. They need all of our actions to complete their masterpiece. All of our actions, together.

So, happy are those who rush home to their spouse from the doctor’s office. Happy are those who seek God in all things. Happy are those who are blessed to fall in love, and decide, together, to let their actions on August 20th, 2016 speak so much louder than their words.