Saturday, June 27, 2015

Don't Take the Bait! Pauline's Valedictory Message

The following is taken from the homily I preached at the Mass that ended the year for the students of St. Anthony’s Elementary School, at which we bade farewell to the grade seven students.  It is posted here with the kind permission of Pauline Correa, who generously shared her text with me.
Father Gary, Father Xavier, Mrs. Maravillas, parents and grandparents, teachers, staff, students, and most particularly our grade sevens:
How many of you know the expression “take a walk down memory lane”?
Maybe some of you are just too young for that walk!   But the grade sevens, at least, know what I am talking about. They’ll be taking that walk after lunch, as they watch a video that captures many memories of their time at St. Anthony’s School.
But last night I did something different—I was invited to take a swim down memory lane!
I was at the graduation ceremonies for St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Pauline Correa was the valedictorian for this year’s graduating class—a student chosen to speak to her classmates and on behalf of her classmates.
Pauline called it a “swim” down memory lane because “high school is very much like the ocean.  It is vast and intimidating and yet dauntingly beautiful. Shiny and bright on the surface, but even more beautiful when one dives into its depths.”
She remembered her first day in grade eight when she “said a little prayer and took the plunge.” 
Her speech said fascinating things about high school, using images of tides, and floating …. and keeping your head above water.
Pauline’s images were clever and interesting. Then all of a sudden the speech made us sit up straight in our chairs.  It turned into one of the simplest parables I’ve heard outside of the Bible.
“High school is like the ocean,” she repeated. It’s beautiful and wonderful, but you can also drown in it. You can get lost in the dark depths of it.
“And that is why we need God,” Pauline said.
“God is the sunlight.” He is the oxygen we long for and need to survive.
 What a fantastic idea, I thought. You need an air supply to swim under water, and God provides it.
But then Pauline really hooked me. “It is so easy for us to fall for the bait,” she said, “but we must focus on what is important.”
Fall for the bait! Isn’t that the greatest risk a Christian faces—the greatest risk a young Christian faces? The world’s bait of false fun, fake happiness, and conformity to the crowd?
If there is one prayer I have for this fine group of grade sevens, which I have watched grow and mature both in mind and spirit, it’s that you don’t take the bait—that you recognize the things that lure you away from God in whom all true happiness is found.
Pauline gave bold advice to her friends: go to the light. Swim towards the sun. It’s the sun that fuels the water, the sun that gives us strength.
“For without God,” she warned, “nothing is possible.”
What’s true at STA is true at SAS. He has taken you this far, and as high school looms you need to take a deep breath and trust in him.
          I leave you with the words St. Paul wrote to his student St. Timothy: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for believers in speech, in conduct, in love and in faith.”
          May your high schools be better places because St. Anthony students are swimming in their oceans, with Christian courage and commitment.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Peace in the Storm (Sunday 12B)

Father’s Day is a fine time to mention that my Dad taught me many things. Some of them were simple, like riding a bike. But others were more complicated, like rhetorical questions.

What? You don’t know what a rhetorical question is? Then your upbringing was quite different from mine. My father taught me rhetorical questions when I was still quite young.

Here’s an example: “Do you think I’m made of money?” (I heard that one fairly often.)

Another one was “Do you want to watch TV after dinner or not?” Which loosely translated meant “So are you going to load the dishwasher?”

You get the idea—rhetorical questions were the questions my father asked when he didn’t really expect an answer. Actually, my mother also used them sometimes, like “Who do you think is going to make your bed?”

Our first reading today reminds us that God is a Father, too, and he uses the occasional rhetorical question Himself. Did you notice what he asked Job? “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Do you think God is waiting for Job’s reply? Obviously not—and of course that’s exactly what a rhetorical question is—a question that’s asked to make a point, not to get an answer.

Just in case Job misses the point, God carries on with another rhetorical question. He asks Job who kept the sea behind closed doors—in other words, who decided the limits of the ocean, who stopped the world from being swept by one great tidal wave?

And if you think this puts Job on the spot, take a look at the rest of chapter 38. God asks no fewer than twenty such questions. Can you tell the clouds what to do? Have you visited the storehouses of the snow?

Of course I feel sorry for Job—how would you like to have a debate with God? But I don’t think God’s doing this to make Job feel small—God’s doing it so that we’ll know how big He is.

Do you remember hearing about the man who said “When I was seven, I thought my Dad knew everything. By the time I turned 16 I discovered he didn't know anything. Now I'm 30, and it's amazing how much he's learned.”

Well, that’s the way a lot of us are with God—only we get stuck at the adolescent stage. We don’t move on to appreciate God’s wisdom and his power, either because we’re too busy rebelling, or just too busy, period. Or maybe we’re just too scared to think straight.

Isn’t that what happened to the disciples in the boat that night?  They knew Jesus well—by this point in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has already cast out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue, healed Peter’s mother in law, cast out demons, cleansed a leper, made a paralyzed man walk, and healed a man with a withered hand. How could they still say “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”

Surely one answer is fear. The disciples knew better, but they were terrified. One of the founders of AA said that fear is the chief activator of our defects. It clouds our thinking—whether about ourselves, others or God Himself.

This incident in the Gospel is particularly dramatic, but the story is as old as humanity. Today’s Psalm tells the same story with a different cast of characters. The seafarers of the Middle East saw God at work as they sailed the seas; they were grateful to Him for the power of the wind that propelled their ships, and the rain that gave them fresh water. But when the waves started to pound and the ship began to toss, their courage melted.

However, like the disciples, the sailors had just enough energy left to cry out to the Lord. And He stilled the storm and hushed the waves, just as He did for the disciples.

So what is it that stops us from asking the Lord to calm the storm of our lives? I’ve already mentioned fear; Jesus mentions something else: a lack of faith. If we don’t believe that God cares, we’re not going to disturb his sleep. If we think he’s not interested in our cries for help, we’ll keep them to ourselves.

And yet our Christian faith teaches that it is normal for a Christian to experience peace in every circumstance. God’s inspired Word tells us so in two of St. Paul’s letters.  In the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”

And then comes the promise: “Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Phil 4:7, NAB)  To the Thessalonians he writes “may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in all ways.” (2 Thess 3:16).

One thing’s for sure: St. Paul believes Jesus cares that we’re perishing.

So far we’ve seen how fear makes us lose sight of Jesus, while a lack of faith stops us from even looking for Him. But there is another reason why we let life toss our boats around. We lose our peace because we don’t turn to Jesus; we forget he’s right beside us.

Prayer is the shortest path to peace. Not the kind of prayer where we ask God to change things, but the kind where we speak with him about our troubles.

This kind of prayer is a conversation. It helps us answer those two questions Jesus puts to his disciples in the boat:

“Why are you afraid?”

“Have you still no faith?”

As with all rhetorical questions, Jesus already knows the answers. The disciples don’t yet know Him well enough, for all his signs and wonders. That’s clear from what they say to one another. “Who is this man whom the wind and the sea obey?’

At least we know the answer to their question. We have seen the Lord’s ultimate deed of power in the Resurrection—a sign that makes calming the storm seem insignificant. But we still need to know Him better, in order to put our trust in Him. And we need to know ourselves better, too, if we’re to overcome our fears and receive the gift of peace in every circumstance.

Prayer helps us know and trust the Lord, and opens us to knowing our own hearts as well. It is the path to peace.

In church this morning there are young people heading out to the job market in an uncertain economy.  There are high school graduates waiting for the final word from universities and colleges. There are grade sevens looking nervously towards high school.

There are parishioners mourning the loss of a loved one, or facing serious illness. Some face unemployment, others worry about investments. And some of us even worry that things are going too well, and wonder when disaster will catch up with us.

We can start now—whatever our circumstances—to seek peace, in faith, by prayer.

For which one of us doesn’t want that peace that surpasses all understanding?

And that, in case you didn’t notice, is a rhetorical question. Thanks, Dad!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Growing Old Grace-fully (Sunday 11B)

Therese Sangster is a former parishioner in her nineties, blind and rather frail. She now lives in a care facility some distance away so I can no longer visit her regularly.

But when our seminarian Juan was visiting the sick on Friday, I asked him to make an extra trip and take Communion to Mrs. Sangster. When he got back, I asked how he found her.

“She was wonderful,” Juan answered. “She said ‘I may be blind, but I can still tell that you’re good looking!’”

I told him that it was clear Terry Sangster lives by faith and not by sight!

That humorous story captures the spirit of a great lady, but it also introduces the subject of my homily today: growing old gracefully. Terry Sangster is one of those people described in today’s psalm, which says that “the just will flourish like the palm tree, still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green…”

When was the last time you heard a homily on the Christian view of growing old?

I think it’s about time. In the first place, of course, most of us will grow old—older, for the most part, than a generation ago. Thinking about aging in terms of our faith is a very sensible thing.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul talks about the attitude a Christian should have to the passing years. While we are on earth, we need to keep one foot in heaven: “While we are in the body, we are away from the Lord.”

At no age, but especially in old age, we should not be overly attached to our earthly life. Paul says plainly that “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” In his letter to the Philippians he says that our citizenship is in heaven, our true homeland.

He doesn’t mean that Christians have no interest in this world, but that the source of their deepest identity and hope is their faith. You might compare it to the citizen of one country living in another.

All of us have to struggle to balance our daily duties and burdens with the need for prayer and reflection. Although retired people can become very busy, for some a slower place is just what they need to get their spiritual priorities straight. A wise monk has written that “being immersed in our everyday world is what very often prevents us from lifting our minds toward the realities of the life to come.”

Even ill health can be a hidden blessing if it slows us down enough to pray or makes us focus on the shortness of life.

But there’s more to growing old gracefully than just keeping the right balance between this world and the next. To grow old gracefully—that is, to grow old with God’s grace—is first of all to grow.

Sometimes we think that Christians emerge fully-formed from the baptismal font, or from their Confirmation. Or maybe it’s the sacrament of marriage that completes our character. Yet Ezekiel, in our first reading, shows how God worked slowly in restoring Israel: God plants a twig and waits for it to grow into a lofty cedar.

A chapter earlier, Ezekiel prophesies to Jerusalem about the covenant the Lord made with her when she was young—even the holy city needs to grow in accordance God’s plan and purpose.

Nothing about God’s plan seems to be all-or-nothing or all-right-now. The whole Bible is a story of God’s patience with sinful humanity, from Adam and Eve on. And Christians are called to imitate God’s patience even in dealing with themselves. The Letter of James calls us to be like the patient farmer, who waits though the autumn and spring rains before he sees the crop. And St. Paul tells the Galatians they must not grow weary in doing good, because eventually they will reap a harvest.

St. Francis de Sales says “have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them– every day begin the task anew.

Blessed John Henry Newman said “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Who knows this better than the elderly?

Let’s also look briefly at today’s Gospel, in which Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God.

There was an article in the paper this week about the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It described the establishment of this modern dynasty kingdom was established on a specific date by specific means. If you go to the royal website, there’s a timeline and if you click on it you lean that the kingdom dates to May 25, 1946.

There’s no such timeline for the Kingdom of God. This is one of the most complex terms in the New Testament, but there’s one thing quite certain about it: the Kingdom is a work in progress. Today, Jesus compares it to the seeds that grow slowly and produce a harvest, or to the mustard seed that becomes a great shrub.

Our Lord is speaking of his Church, now spread to the ends of the earth, fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophecy in our first reading. But he is also speaking to us about our own growth as Christians. Like the sower who scattered seed on the ground, we do not know precisely how God’s grace works to produce good fruit in our lives. The Kingdom of God becomes our true homeland only through years of discipleship and perseverance, as we await the final day when God brings in the harvest of our lives.

One of the blessings of life in a parish community is seeing how faithful Christians grow as they get older. I know some children in our parish who have all the qualities of the child saints of history; there are a few young adults living lives of great virtue; there are a number of middle-aged married couples whose lives are heroic in charity and fortitude. But if you were ever to calculate the statistics, the greatest number of saints in our parish are those who have run the race and fought the good fight—the elderly.

Parishioners of a certain age—I dare not name a figure—are the backbone of some ministries, disproportionately generous donors, and remarkably faithful to daily Mass. Some make it to Sunday Mass at great sacrifice. Others provide tireless assistance to their children and grandchildren. And many of them are models of charity and patience at home and in the parish.

Let’s thank God today that we have these women and men who so faithfully promote the coming of the Kingdom in our parish, especially since our world almost seems to have forgotten the virtues of perseverance and fidelity.

The current debate about euthanasia and assisted suicide is being driven by fear—fear of living and fear of dying. The serious Christian does not need to live in fear. As today’s psalm says, they bear fruit when they are old, because they live by God’s grace.

So let us all be inspired by the lasting faith and the good cheer of people like Terry Sangster, and by the prayerful devotion of the elderly parishioners right beside us in church. By imitating their perseverance, we can all grow old grace-fully.