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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I don't think it's a stretch to say that all of us have a selfish streak deep within us. In some way or another, we all want to be recognized for something we have or do. Whether it's for our talents, for the work that we do, or even for things that we own, we want to be noticed and affirmed.

In contrast to our selfish desires, we are called to “do nothing out of selfishness and vainglory,” as St. Paul tells us in today's second reading. As Christians, we are called to self-giving instead of self-centered. We are called to reach out to those around us instead of trying to draw others to us.

Ironically, by being self-giving, we can often become unappreciated. Many of us probably know someone who is self-centered, and has moved up the ranks of an organization, whether a corporation, a political structure, or a volunteer organization, based off of promoting himself to the exclusion and even detriment of those around him. Meanwhile, we may also know another member of the organization that has worked just as hard as the selfish member, but works to support and help the other members of the organization. This self-giving member may not receive the promotions and accolades of those who are willing to “toot their own horn”, but still continues to serve, day after day.

We are called to be like the self-giving member of an organization, even if it means giving to others to the detriment of ourselves. St. Paul tells us to “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” We must be willing to overlook our interests, our desires, even our needs to fulfill the needs and interests of others.

Why should we be willing to do this? After all, someone who is more selfish than us will more than happily take advantage of us. St. Paul answers this question by showing us the example of Jesus himself. As St. Paul states, Our Lord humbled himself by becoming human and was willing to give of himself so totally that he died on the Cross. Because of his self-sacrifice, He was highly exalted by the Father, and now we proclaim the name of Jesus with great honor and reverence.

We probably won't be as greatly revered as Jesus is, but those who are willing to give of themselves are often highly regarded by those they serve. As a new priest here, I've been hearing about those who were members of the parish before I arrived. Usually, and almost without exception, the people whose names are mentioned time and time again are those who went out of their way to serve others, regardless of their own issues or problems. They were there at every social event, usually helping put it together, at every volunteer opportunity, and every time someone was in need of help. I'm sure all of us could name someone who fits that description, and who is dearly missed. This is who we are called to be, and we are encouraged by the examples of those who have gone before us, especially Our Lord and the saints.

Those who are self-giving aren't often noticed here on Earth. There are those who graciously serve us every day, and we often don't pay attention to how someone has gone out of their way to help us. All too often, we're wrapped up in ourselves and our needs to recognize the needs of those around us. We must be more aware of how others serve us, and be more willing to express gratitude for their service.

As I am very much guilty of this, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who help out here in the Church, and all those who have helped Fr. Rob and myself in some way. I truly am grateful for everything you do, and appreciate the willingness of each of you to give your time and talent to helping us. It is greatly appreciated, even if I don't always take the time to say so.

St. Paul reminds us that we are all called to place others over ourselves. By doing so, we may not be recognized on Earth, but our reward will be great in Heaven.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Most of us seem to have an inherent sense of justice, even if it seems to get a bit skewed at times. How many have ever heard a child say, “That's not fair”? In fact, most children will say this on a regular basis, usually about the time they find out their bedtime is before their friends', or when they're not allowed to do something that their friends are allowed to do. Our sense of justice might even kick in when reading the parable in today's Gospel. We might feel that the workers who spent all day toiling in the hot sun were being unjustly treated by requiring them to accept the same wage as those who only worked an hour. To take this view, however, would miss that the point of the parable is to demonstrate the generosity of God towards all of us.

If this scenario occurred today, we would be rightly up in arms regarding the treatment of these workers. Justice would demand that those workers who were in the vineyard all day get far better pay than those who only worked for the last hour of the day. Special interest groups would probably be picketing the landowner. Lawyers would be lining up to sue on behalf of one worker or another. Advocates for vineyard workers would be petitioning Congress to pass a vineyard minimum hourly wage. From a human vantage, all these groups would be working to ensure equal treatment of each worker, making sure they get paid what they're due.

I don't want to belittle the fact that there are workers today who are not receiving a fair wage, even in our own country. Likewise, I don't want to belittle the efforts of those who struggle to ensure that all workers receive a just and livable wage. Their efforts are laudable and do good to improve the life of these underpaid and overworked workers, but to take this approach to Our Lord's parable misses the point.

In this parable, Jesus is demonstrating the incredible generosity that God has for us. God, our Heavenly Father, wants all of us to accept His gift of grace. Some of us have been followers of Our Lord from almost the moment of our births. Others came to Him after some time, say after high school. Still others came much later in life. Finally, there are some who came to believe in Our Lord on their death bed, receiving Baptism or Confession literally moments before their lives on earth ended.

On a human level, this might seem unfair, but the first reading reminds us that God's ways are not our ways. God wants all of us to be saved, not only those who have been “good” Christians. While we might be tempted to call out “Not fair!” when a notorious sinner gets to confess his sins and receive absolution on his death bed, while we struggle along trying to follow Our Lord's commands, we should instead rejoice that another sinner received God's gift of salvation.

We have all been given the same promise, and will receive the same reward of God's grace regardless of when we respond to Our Lord. Those of us who have been Christians longer will not receive a “special” grace merely for our longevity. Likewise, those who are new Christians will not receive a “probationary” grace, much like a new driver receives a probationary license. The graces we receive as Christians are the same, graces that will help us to receive the final gift of eternal life.

As Christians, we have received the benefit of God's generosity. May we rejoice every time we see someone else experience this generosity.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Homily for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

One of the most powerful symbols we have in Christianity is the Crucifix. You'll usually see one either on or behind the altar of Catholic churches throughout the world. Many Rosaries have one, and many of us have Crucifixes that we wear on a day-to-day basis. The Cross of Christ, which a Crucifix depicts, symbolizes the means by which we receive our salvation.

If I were to summarize the message of the Gospel of Christ, I would point to today's reading from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so he who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” This is the mission of Jesus, why he came into the world and why he was willing to hang on the Cross and die. This is why we venerate the Cross today, as it was how he sacrificed his life for our sake.

As Our Lord himself mentions in today's Gospel reading, his Crucifixion was prefigured in the Old Testament, with the Bronze Serpent made by Moses. When the Israelites looked at the Bronze Serpent after being bit by a snake, they would be healed from the snake's poison. Many of the early Church Fathers viewed the snakes as representing the sin which affects us, spreading its poison within us until we die. When we look upon Our Lord hung upon the Cross and believe in Him, that poison would be removed and we would live. Much as the Israelites would look at the Bronze Serpent and live, we look at the Cross of Christ and receive our eternal life.

An example of this is given in the good thief who was crucified along with Jesus. This thief, commonly known as Dismas, looked upon Our Lord hanging on the Cross and believed in Him. In return for the good thief's belief, Our Lord promised him that he would enter into Paradise. This thief was the first to receive the benefit of the saving power of the Cross.

Saying that we receive life through the Cross is very ironic. Crucifixion was the most painful and humiliating way in which a criminal could be put to death in the Roman Empire. It was so humiliating that it was reserved solely for non-Roman citizens. By Our Lord's death on the Cross, he transformed this instrument of death into the symbol of eternal life. By humiliating himself, allowing himself to be raised onto the Cross, he glorified himself and those who believe in him. Now, instead of the Cross being the sign of punishment and defeat, it is the sign of Our Lord's victory over death and our reward of eternal life.

While it would be humiliating for any one of us to undergo Crucifixion, it was more humiliating for Our Lord. As St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, Jesus was not merely human, but was both fully human and fully divine. As such, Jesus first humiliated himself by becoming one of us. Then, at the appointed time, he was obedient to the Father and allowed himself to be tortured and Crucified. Through his humiliation, Jesus received glorification beyond anything that he would receive here on earth.

If Our Lord, who is God, was willing to humble himself for our sake, what right do we have to be prideful over the things we have and do? This is all the more reason why the sin of pride is so deadly. Through pride, we make ourselves higher and more important than God, at least in our own eyes. If we feel that we're higher than God, we become unwilling to listen to His commands and His Church. We think we know more than He does and refuse to follow those teachings that we disagree with. Then, when our time for God's Judgment arrives, we will turn away from the saving power of the Cross, much like the bad thief who hung on the other side of Our Lord.

We must approach Our Lord with humility and accept the salvation which comes to us through the Cross of Christ. We must admit our sins and failings, and ask God's forgiveness through the Sacraments. If we do this, like the good thief, we will receive the salvation Our Lord promises us, and join Him one day in Paradise.

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Our readings today are very challenging for different groups of people. They're challenging for those who struggle with being selfish. They're challenging for those who do not wish to enter into a confrontation with those around them. In fact, they're challenging for all of us, as they challenge us to love our neighbor above ourselves.

In the second reading today, St. Paul gives us a very handy summary of most of the Ten Commandments. This summary, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” really sums up most of the moral law which we hold today, but it is not only a summary. This commandment is also an explanation for us on why we need to follow the commandments and moral law. We don't follow the commandments because we want to. We don't follow the moral law because it feels good. We are to follow the commandments and the moral law because God commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

How do we do that? How can we love our neighbors as ourselves? We must not allow ourselves to become self-centered, focused solely on ourselves and what we can get out of life, making others our servants. Instead, we have to open ourselves to our neighbors, reach out to them and assist them in their needs without any concern for our own selfish desires. Our selfish desires would have us turn inward, searching for what I want, when I want it, and how I want it. When we follow the commandment to love our neighbor, we focus outward, desiring what those around need before we get what we want. We also need to treat our neighbors with respect and true Christian love, even those around us who are unwilling to reciprocate.

Respecting our neighbors and loving them as ourselves does not mean that we are to be pushovers without a backbone, allowing those around us to do whatever they want whenever it suits them. As the first reading shows, sometimes we need to challenge our neighbors' actions in order to truly love them. It is not love to allow someone to remain in error, but love of neighbor includes a desire to share the truth with those we interact with on a daily basis.

This can be very difficult in a culture, such our own, which places individualism above anything else. In our culture, the individual is primary, those around him or her is secondary. Often, when someone is trying to correct another person who has fallen into sin, they are told that they have no business butting in when it doesn't hurt anyone else. The sad fact is that all sin affects the entire community by weakening the bonds between us and by changing how we view each other.

When one is obstinate in their sin, and refuses to change after being corrected, they can become confrontational. Fortunately, Our Lord gives us an outline to handle any confrontation that can come our way when sharing the truth. An important aspect of this outline is the position of the Church as final arbiter. After confronting the person directly, then bringing two or three others to support you, the Church is brought in with the final say.

If this person still refuses to change their position after hearing the Church's teaching, there is no choice but to declare the person excommunicated from the Church. Through the process of excommunication, the Church declares that a person has, through their own actions, separated themselves from the rest of the Church. By declaring someone excommunicated, the Church is trying to make them aware of their position outside of the community and bring them back into the fold.

Sadly, there are more than a few people who persist in a excommunicated state. This is especially worrisome, as the Church has been given the power to bind and loose in Heaven as it is on earth. This means that one who has been excommunicated is at risk of incurring eternal consequences. They may have not only separated themselves from the Church through their actions, they may have also turned away from God, focusing instead on themselves and placing their opinions over the revelation of God, protected and taught by the Church.

For those of us who are in communion with the Church, we need to first of all pray for those who have left the Church. Second, we need to encourage them to return and ask forgiveness, as we all need whenever we enter into sin. Finally, we need to open ourselves to our neighbors, and truly live the Gospel message in our lives.