Sunday, August 25, 2019

Nothing Boring About the Kingdom (21.C)

I read an article on a terrific blog this week: it's headed "Seven Reasons Your Sermons Are Boring."

That's a bit mean. Surely three reasons would be more than enough?

But I humbly plowed through all seven--though if I talked about them all this morning my homily would be boring. So we'll take a look at only two of the criticisms that can help us think about our readings today.

The first says "you're answering questions no-one is asking." And the second is "you haven't described a gripping problem people want to solve."

I plead guilty to both charges. But today let's work together to get me off the hook.

This Sunday's Gospel, and the first reading from the prophet Isaiah that helps us understand what Jesus is teaching, is about the Kingdom of God. And in my 33 years of priesthood, no-one has ever asked me a question about the Kingdom of God.

So maybe I shouldn't preach about the Kingdom of God, for fear of boring you--or even for fear of boring myself, because the Kingdom of God is not exactly the first thing I think about in the morning. (Another one of the seven reasons sermons are boring is that the preacher himself is bored with the message.)

It wouldn't be hard to dodge the Kingdom of God this Sunday; after all, it's just three words from the Gospel, and Isaiah doesn't even use them in our first reading.

But what a mistake that would be! Because in Matthew's Gospel Jesus says this: "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

We know his words also in the famous King James version: "seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."

Can we be bored with what Jesus says should be our first priority?

If we are, perhaps it's connected to the second criticism I quoted: perhaps I haven't "described a gripping problem people want to solve." So let me do that now.

The gripping problem is how to answer these questions: what's the point of Christian life? What's the point of the Church? Where am I heading in life and, eventually, in death?

To all these the answer is "the Kingdom of God." And to make it a little easier, we can say "the Kingdom of Heaven," because that's what Matthew's Gospel calls it.

When I was writing this homily, I was struck by how close "a gripping problem" is to "a griping problem." Most of the time our lives are more concerned with griping about problems than wrestling with gripping ones. 

But what can be more gripping than entering the Kingdom of Heaven? 

What's more important than joining the procession of people from every time and place that is streaming to the holy mountain where God will reveal his glory?

And flipping that thought, what's worse than finding ourselves thrown out of the Kingdom while others enter it?

This is not boring. This is crucial. If we find it boring or secondary, it's just because of the human tendency to neglect the important for the urgent. So much harm comes from putting secondary things first. Exercise, diet, prayer, financial planning, quitting smoking-- these things are almost never urgent. But they're terribly important.

Entering the Kingdom of Heaven requires a series of choices. St. Ignatius has a famous meditation in his Spiritual Exercises where the Christian imagines himself standing in front of two vast armies, both flying a battle flag.

One of the two flags belongs to the army commanded by Christ; the other is Satan's.  Both commanders invite the soul to gather beneath his flag.

Rarely, of course, is our choice so stark. But we take our side in the battle--and march towards or away from the Kingdom--with countless small choices, by many daily decisions to put first things first.

The starting point is simple: ask the questions. Try to understand the gripping problem of where you're going to spend the rest of your life and then eternity. 

As one Jesuit has written about St. Ignatius's famous meditation, "All disciples have to choose where we are going to stand—with Jesus or with the world. No matter what life the Spirit has drawn us to, once we are baptized and confirmed we are called to stand in Jesus’ company under his flag."

And there's nothing boring about that.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Are we ready to take off in faith? (19.C)

Life in the rectory has sure changed. Now that Father Giovanni has left, there’s a lot less pasta, no more espresso at breakfast, no more wine at lunch. I’m already missing him!

But the arrival of Father Jeff has brought other consolations. For eight years I have been living with priests who didn’t know any of the music, TV shows, or news stories that I grew up with. Until Fr. Jeff came along, if I said, “that reminds me of a Beach Boys song,” our assistant pastors might ask me “what boys?” or “what beach?”

Now, Fr. Jeff will just start to sing the song!

Of course I have the same problem preaching to a congregation of different ages and backgrounds. From time to time I mention a TV character or popular song and the younger half of the congregation gives me a blank stare.

But this morning I think I can mention a song most of you have heard, called “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Although John Denver wrote it in 1966, it’s a catchy tune and you still hear it on the radio from time to time.

The song opens with the words “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go.” All three of today’s readings turn that into a question for each of us: “Are your bags packed? Are you ready to go?”

As the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says, all three of the readings at Mass today “require us to live in a state of departure.” Our bags are packed with faith, with what God has said to us, and we are ready to face the accounting God will require of us.

The second reading is probably the best passage about faith in the whole New Testament, but it’s a commentary on the best passage about faith in the whole Old Testament—the story of Abraham.

The author of The Letter to the Hebrews is writing for a community of Jewish Christians. They already know the whole story of Abraham, so the point of today’s text must go beyond that. The scripture scholar F.F. Bruce says that it points out that in Old Testament times “there were many men and women who had nothing but the promises of God” to rely on, “without any visible evidence that these promises would be fulfilled; yet so much did these promises mean to them” that they lived their whole lives in their light.

“Their faith,” writes Professor Bruce, “consisted simply in taking God at His word and directing their lives accordingly.”

The second reading gives us the famous stories of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, while the first reading turns to another chapter in the history of salvation, the Exodus from Egypt, the Passover. Here a promise was not fulfilled in the future but immediately, as the Chosen People were delivered from Pharaoh’s armies.

And the first reading reminds us that even the glorious victory of the Passover night was a fulfillment of earlier promises made to Israel by the Lord. Her escape from the slavery of the Egypt, the text begins, was made known beforehand.

One verse jumps out at us in this regard: “The deliverance of the righteous and the destruction of their enemies were expected by your people.”

In the two stories, the life of Abraham and the first Passover, we see the way our own faith plays out.

Sometimes, like Abraham, we do not see God’s promises to us fulfilled. He never saw, obviously, that his descendants would be as many as the stars of heaven and as the grains of sand on the seashore. But he believed the promise, and lived his life by it.

Sometimes, like the people Moses led to freedom, we get to see God’s promises in action. What we believed he would do, he did. We experienced what we hoped and prayed for.

But note two important points here: first, in both situations, we must have faith. Faith precedes the answer to prayer. The answers to prayer rarely if ever produce faith. If we pray without expectation, we’re really not engaging with God at all.

Second, when there’s no visible answer to prayer we cannot surrender our faith. It took centuries, perhaps millennia, for God to fulfill all his promises to Israel with the coming of the Messiah. His time is not our time any more than his ways are our ways.

It’s all summed up in the opening words of the second reading today: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

What does all this mean for our daily lives? Obviously, we’re being taught a lesson not only about faith, but also about trust and patience. But the Gospel goes one step further, and tells us that people of faith live by faith.

Faith guided Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and his people, each and every day. They were ready for whatever God wanted to do.

Faith must also move us to be ready for what God wants to do with us. We don’t know whether or lives will be long or short, peaceful or troubled. But we know in faith what he plans for us—a life lived with faith in his promises, a life on which we can be judged without fear.

Constancy is a word that sums up the Christian’s daily call. And faith in what God commands and promises is what makes it possible over the long haul.

So today we just ask ourselves: Are my bags packed? Am I ready to go?

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Be Rich Toward God (18.C)

Today's the feast of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests. It's also the 12th anniversary of my appointment as pastor of Christ the Redeemer parish.

Before I could become the pastor, Church law required that I make a profession of faith and promise to fulfill my office faithfully.  Since I was living in Rome when I got the Archbishop's letter of appointment, I made that profession at the tomb of the Apostle Peter beneath the high altar of the Vatican basilica named after him.

As if that weren't blessing enough, it was the anniversary of my priestly ordination.

Getting permission to say Mass at the tomb of the first Pope took some work. But that was nothing compared to the work it took for archaeologists to find the tomb: it was always believed to be somewhere underneath St. Peter's basilica, but no-one knew quite where.

Only in 1950 did Pope Pius XII announce that the tomb had been discovered, after a search that lasted more than a decade. And it took another 15 years to decide that bones discovered at the tomb belonged to St. Peter.

Although I've known this since I was a seminarian in Rome in the eighties,  I only learned the rest of the story last month when a priest friend from Texas gave me a copy of a book called The Fisherman's Tomb: The True Story of the Vatican's Secret Searchby John O'Neill.

The book recounts how a Texas oilman named George Strake actually helped Pius XII to finance the hunt for the tomb after a whole cemetery was discovered underneath St. Peter's during excavations for the burial place of Pope Pius XI in 1939.

The archaeological adventure is a great story, but it's not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is George Strake.

Strake became fabulously wealthy when he struck oil near Houston. He'd already made and lost a fortune more than once, so he was gambling everything on the Conroe oil field. His wife Susan said she'd accept the risk of poverty so long as George never again questioned her spending habits if he did get rich.

(Apparently he kept his promise, since O'Neill's book says that when Susan died people looked to see if the flags on Houston's department stores were flying at half-mast!)

Anyway, Strake's story relates to the Gospel story this Sunday. Which may seem odd: how can one of America's wealthiest men help us understand a parable about riches, especially one where the rich man comes off badly?

The answer is simple enough: what we know of George Strake suggests that, despite his fortune, he guarded himself against greed, and knew that his life was not defined by what he possessed.

Three things stand out from what the book tells us about this dedicated Catholic. First, that he saw his fortune through the eyes of faith. He didn't think of himself as the sole owner of the vast Conroe oilfield; he said he was part of a team of two. His wealth was a gift from God.

Second, Strake believed he was bound to use his wealth to serve worthy causes, particularly the Church. On his desk, he kept the saying of another oilman: "God doesn't care how much money you have when you die. God cares what you did with the money you had when you are alive."

And third, he followed the Gospel's teaching "do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing." He had one condition for the support he gave the search for St. Peter's tomb: anonymity. That was how he made all his contributions, anonymously. Which is why the only Wikipedia page dedicated to George Strake is about his son, a politician. 

Of course nowadays it can be hard to give anonymously, because major donors are often urged to let their donation be recognized so others will be encouraged to give. But even in such cases the gift must come from the heart, without any calculation of return.

Today's parable can sound rather stern: "You fool," God says to the rich man, "This very night your life is being demanded of you." But at its heart, the message of Jesus is positive and beautiful: "Be rich toward God," he says.

Can it be painful to show to God the generosity he has shown to us? Living as a steward of our possessions, and not as their absolute owner, makes us free, protecting us from greed, selfishness, and the corrosive effects of too much money.

To conclude, we should remember that today's Gospel is not only addressed to the rich. It reminds all of us that all the good things we have come from God and must lead us to God, be they many or few. Whether we're a pensioner or a student, a priest or a millionaire, we are able to use what we have to do the good that needs to be done, just like George Strake.

Being rich toward God means living in partnership with him, joining in his plan not only for our welfare, but for the good of the Church and society.