Homily from the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Sorry about the lack of blogging last week.  We were having Stewardship Sunday last weekend, which meant that our holy pastor preached all the Masses at the parish.  I had a couple ideas of good topics to write on, so maybe I’ll get to that sometime this week.  Anyway, enjoy!

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I have to admit to you that I’m not the kind of guy that reads for fun very much.  I think I reached a point in my educational process when I got tired of reading, and tried to keep it to a minimum except for those things I had to read for school.  I enjoy a good Tom Clancy book or some good historical non-fiction, but as my parents can probably tell you, one book that I’m not a huge fan of is the DaVinci Code.  Now, I could preach an entire homily and more on that alone, but I think of all the silly things Dan Brown dreamed up for his book, the craziest – and the most misleading – is that up until the reign of the Emperor Constantine in the 300’s, people just saw Jesus as a regular guy, an enlightened prophet, a profound teacher, but certainly not God.  That divinity stuff was just brought in when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Now, I’m not going to preach about Dan Brown today, and of course these are simply works of fiction, as he sometimes hates to admit, but just so we can settle this…HE’S WRONG.

Today we have this wonderful passage from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians – not the Philippines.  And the passage that we read today is one of the most important for our faith – in fact, it essentially represents the central core of our faith.  This letter finds its origin around 50 or 60 AD, only 30 years after Jesus’s death at the latest!  And in fact, many scholars tell us that the second half of the passage we read today is actually from an ancient Christian hymn, one that St. Paul was aware of, and decided to quote for us and the Philippians, which means that may possibly date back to 40 AD.  That’s really early!

The hymn begins “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped at.”  So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Dan Brown!  Right away, even in the first line, we’re recalling the fact that Jesus is God!  He’s a teacher, yes.  He’s a holy man, yes.  He’s a prophet, yes.  But he’s more than that – Jesus Christ was in the form of God!  But he shows us this in a way we might not expect: to be God is to be one who lets go of godliness.  Jesus shows us he’s God not by huge signs and wonders.  Rather, as St. Paul relates, “He emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave.”  The Greek word here is kenosis.  Kenosis is a form of love, but it’s a self-emptying, self-giving love.  Again, God could have chosen to come and save the world any way he wished.  He could have come with lightning bolts and powerful storms like Zeus.  He could have come with tsunamis and the power of the oceans, like Poseidon.  He could have come with all the legions and power of the underworld, like Hades.  But instead, he saved us by emptying himself of everything which would seem to make him God.  All out of love.

So how did he empty himself?  By “humbling himself and becoming obedient to death.”  Death.  That’s pretty bad.  But even more than that, “death on a cross.”  Today, many of us look at the crosses, like the one here in church, and we see something beautiful, a piece of artwork.  But what do you think the Christians of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s (AD, not the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s…)  saw?  They saw a sign of public execution and humiliation – the worst death possible, humiliation to the extreme.  Yes, the Son of God came to die, and that’s bad enough, but even more than that, he did so in the most extreme and visible way possible – bruised, beaten, and nailed to a tree on the top of a hill.  Think about that.  So all the pains that we experience in our lives, like sickness, pain, like the pain of a bad back or the pain of losing a loved one, fear of death – with all these things, Jesus went there…and then he went a step further.  For us!  That’s how low the Son of God went for you and me.

Because of all of this, the divinity of Jesus is affirmed: Every knee should bend, and every tongue should proclaim to the glory of God the Father that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD!  It’s not some king who is Lord.  It’s not Caesar who is Lord.  It’s not some earthly prince or leader who is Lord.  Jesus Christ is Lord.  That same Jesus who did all these things for us.  Imagine St. Paul trying to proclaim this message throughout the entire known world, a world under the thumb of the rule and army of the Roman Emperors.  St. Paul was preaching to the people of the world that the Lord is not one who dominates us like any Roman leader, but the one who loves us more than anything, so much so that he would empty himself.

And then, the next step: then each of us who are his disciples are called to do the same.  This beautiful hymn that we have just read is more than just an affirmation of the divinity and power of Christ, it is a message that shows us what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  It means emptying ourselves of our self-interest.  Emptying ourselves of putting ourselves, our well-being, our comfort above others, whether it be having the greatest car in the garage, having your picture on every billboard, going to a place where everybody knows your name (like in Cheers)…  No, the Christian life is about putting aside that self-interest, and sharing the burdens of life with others, just as Jesus did for us.  Pope Benedict put it this way:

“To penetrate into Jesus’ sentiments means not to consider power, wealth and prestige as the highest values in life, as in the end, they do not respond to the deepest thirst of our spirit, but to open our heart to the Other, to bear with the Other the burden of life and to open ourselves to the Heavenly Father with a sense of obedience and trust, knowing, precisely, that if we are obedient to the Father, we will be free. To penetrate into Jesus’ sentiments — this should be the daily exercise of our life as Christians.”

This is the sum of our Catholic belief.  if you get this beautiful passage from Philippians that we read today, you get Christianity.  Jesus is more than just a holy man, a preacher, and a good example.  He is God, but a God that chooses not to lord his power over us, but to empty himself out of love.  And he calls each of us, to do the same.

 

*In justice, I have to note that frankly, I was drawing a blank on what to say up until Saturday.  Thankfully, one of my up-and-coming favorite people, Fr. Robert Barron, had a great reflection on the second reading, and I borrowed primarily from that.  Thanks, Fr. Barron!

By the way…

Speaking of Dolan, here’s a great quote from his 60 Minutes interview about being a “traditional right-wing conservative.”

“I would bristle at being termed right-wing, but if somebody means being enthusiastically committed and grateful for the timeless heritage of the Church and feeling that my best service is when I try to preserve that, and pass that on in its fullness and beauty and radiance, then I’m a conservative.  No doubt.”

Awesome.

Wearing Your Faith on Your Sleeve

One of the blogs that I follow quite frequently is that of Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and a son of St. Louis (and of my neighboring parish growing up!).  Archbishop Dolan, for those who aren’t too familiar, has a way with words, to say the least.  Whether he’s writing/speaking on the priesthood in Priests for the Third Millennium, giving homilies that enliven the People of God as with his installation homily, being interviewed on tough issues as with his 60 minutes interview, or lighting up the blogosphere with his reflection on Church teaching in The Gospel in the Digital Age, Archbishop Dolan reflects the best and most joyful parts of our faith.

Recently, Archbishop Dolan reflected on what he termed the “external markers of our faith”.  He points out that the essence of our faith is the interior life, what’s going on inside ourselves and how we connect with Christ on the inside, but that the interior also gives rise to the exterior – how our faith is manifested in acts of charity, virtue, and piety.  Lots of religions have these – skull caps in Orthodox Judaism, obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca in Islam.  Catholicism has a number of these as well.  For example, there is a practice, which is no longer required, of abstaining from meat every Friday (not just during Lent), but at the very least, we are asked to do something special on Fridays, such as praying the Stations of the Cross.  In the past, there have also been practices of Ember Days, days of penance and mortification for our good and the good of the souls in purgatory.  Probably the biggest external that most of us recognize today is the smudge of black ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.  When you show up to work, school, or even the grocery store on Ash Wednesday with your forehead covered in ashes, people probably stare blankly for a second, but then they realize that there is something different about you: you’re Catholic.

Unfortunately, it’s become a trend recent years to get rid of these practices for one reason or another.  Sometimes, these externals are dropped out of practicality or ease.  Other times, they are dropped on account of community life because of some sense that they will make us seem less open to others. But I wonder (along with Archbishop Dolan) what this does for our sense of Catholic identity.  There is something special, something glorious about being Catholic, but this has been eclipsed by some sense that we should just be like anyone else.  Not special, not different, just…normal.

But there is something in our Church today as well that cries out for some way to be more than normal.  For myself, and for many young Catholics, I would imagine, I had never heard of many of the ancient traditional practices of the Church.  I had never heard of fasting an hour before Mass.  I had never heard of fasting on Fridays throughout the year.  I never knew the richness of Catholic music and liturgy – filled with substance that is both beautiful and educational at the same time, teaching us who God is and helping us grow to love him.  I would venture to say (and I don’t think it would be unrealistic) that there are many young Catholics who have never been taught that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, because it’s too difficult, too impractical.  But the younger generation of Catholics doesn’t want things to be easy or practical.  We want to be challenged.  We want to belong to a Church community that takes itself, its doctrines, and its worship seriously.  Archbishop Dolan, in his latest blog post, pointed out that during World Youth Day, when he had Mass with the massive crowds of Catholic young adults and teenagers, they were invited to remain standing during the Eucharistic Prayer for ease and comfort with so many people present.  But there were thousands of youth who still knelt in adoration.  It was a challenge, sure, but those Catholics wanted the challenge.

Of course there are certain risks if the interior and exterior are not in balance.  If only the external is emphasized, we can tend to a meaningless and sometimes scrupulous practice of laws without really knowing or interiorizing what they mean.  But on the flip side, if the interior is the only thing that is emphasized, we can lose our sense of identity and solidarity, or find ourselves in a community based around the wrong thing.  This is a challenge.  But it’s something that Catholics deserve to be challenged with.  It isn’t fair to the youth nor to the elderly to let one of these aspects of our faith slide.

It’s a challenge, yes.  But it’s one that I think we’re up to.

Here are the links to the blog posts from Archbishop Dolan that I refer to here.
External Markers of Our Faith
Revisiting External Markers of Our Faith

Enjoy the weekend!

 

Archbishop Chaput on the Relationship of a Bishop to the Diocese

I was over at Archbishop Carlson’s residence last week for a little meeting, and he pointed out what an excellent homily Archbishop Chaput gave on his installation as bishop for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  I respect Archbishop Chaput quite a bit, so I figured I’d go and check it out.  Wow!  He hit the nail on the head, both in acknowledging the difficulty that the Archdiocese (and the Church as a whole, really) is undergoing, but also in calling the Church to unity with Christ in order to overcome these challenges.  This is an important reminder to me, and to all of us, that we cannot afford to be little islands in our dioceses, but that we should always remain in union with our bishop to continue the mission of Christ in the world.

Here is the homily in video form, and it’s about fifteen minutes, so grab some lunch and check it out!

If you don’t have the time to watch the whole video, here is the link to the text.  Enjoy!

Homily from 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Remembering 9/11

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 11, 2011
10th Anniversary of the Terrorist Attacks

I remember.  I remember sitting in my Spanish classroom at St. Louis U. High, and hearing the commotion outside in the hall.  The bell for class hadn’t rung yet, so we were just sitting there, but apparently, something had happened.  A plane had crashed into a building in New York.  We turned on the classroom TV to check it out, and were shocked to discover that it wasn’t just some small-wing plane, but a commercial jet, and had crashed into the World Trade Center.  This was followed shortly by the news that another plane had crashed.  I remember sitting in the room in shock, horror, anger.  Especially after the second plane had hit, it appeared as though someone, some thing, had done this in a way to make it as visible as possible, almost as if to taunt us.  And I remember thinking to myself, “Someone is going to pay for this.  I don’t care who it is, and what we have to do, but someone is going to get what they deserve.”

I wanted justice.  And I think when we experience something so graphic and so explicitly hateful in our lives, so much so that we vividly remember the hour, the minute, even the second of where we were and what we were doing when that event happened, we naturally have the inclination to seek justice.  Justice is a good thing!  It’s one of the cardinal virtues, and basically, means to give to others what they truly deserve.  That includes giving to those who lack things unjustly, like the poor, the homeless, the elderly.  But it also means giving to those who have transgressed the law of God what they deserve as well.  We are called to uphold justice in our world.  But often times, that justice ceases to be justice, and is corrupted and perverted into a desire for revenge.  As Christians, as Catholics, we are called to more than justice – we’re called to a life of charity, love, forgiveness, and mercy.  Why?  Because God is the same way.  He is a God of justice, certainly, giving to us what we truly deserve, but even more, he is a God of love.

God forgives us a debt that we can never repay: our sin.  When we sin, we commit terrible offenses against God.  Everything that we have – our homes, our well-being, our lives – we owe to God’s grace and love.  And so even small things that we do, like saying God’s name in vain, taking something that isn’t our own, talking about someone behind their back, are all rebellions against God – ingratitude for all that he has given us.  And yet, God never hesitates to show us his mercy and forgiveness.  He never hesitated to hand himself over, to undergo pain and torture, and ultimately to die a death that he didn’t deserve.  That is something impossible to wrap our minds around.  It is so overwhelmingly generous and gracious that we can’t understand how it’s even possible.  And so that’s the reason why when you walk out of the confessional, after telling God all the things that you know you deserve punishment for, you walk out with a lighter heart, one filled with joy, gratitude, and peace.

But it’s tough for us to do the same.  Sure, it’s easy when you’re talking about forgiving someone who just cut you off on Highway 70.  It’s easy to forgive someone who is snappy with you in the morning before either of you have had your cup of coffee.  But sooner or later, we’re forced to forgive something big, a major offense, a life shattering wound, possibly one even inflicted by someone we love dearly.  Or perhaps even a life-shattering wound that we ourselves have inflicted.  It’s hard to love others as graciously and as lovingly as Christ – but it’s not impossible.

One great example of this is the story of Cheryl McGuiness.  She was the widow of Tom McGuiness, the co-pilot of American Airlines flight 11, which was hijacked and smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  Her husband had been stolen from her by people who claimed to be doing the will of God.  She and her two teenage children wept that morning, but she remembered the words of her husband, who reminded her that piloting was a dangerous thing, and that “If anything happens, you have to trust God.  God will get you through it.”  Almost a year after the attack, Cheryl visited Ground Zero in New York to participate in the Victim’s Compensation Fund set up by the Department of Justice.  And as she looked at the crater that had once been the Twin Towers, she fixed her eyes on a steel beam in the rubble, one in the shape of a cross.  She knew she was called to forgive, to trust God, as her husband had asked her, but she prayed in the silence of her heart, “Lord, they killed my husband.”  She felt as though in standing there at the foot of that cross in the rubble that became her husband’s grave, she was herself also standing at the foot of another cross – the Cross of Christ on Calvary.  She could feel herself being invited to forgive those who had done this, but how could she?  How could she forgive the people who had committed this atrocity that had imprinted itself on the consciousness of the entire world.  How could she forgive the people who had taken her husband from her?  And the answer came, “Because I forgave you.”  She had a moment of grace and spiritual clarity standing at the ruins of the Twin Towers.  She had never committed any act of terrorism, and she had never done anything close to what had happened on September 11.  But she had done evil, and by justice, she deserved to pay for that.  But Christ had forgiven her.  And in that realization, she found the strength she needed to forgive.  Forgiveness is that decision to let go the desire for revenge, and give the offender to the hands of God.  It’s the decision to love that person as Christ has loved us.  We can’t always control the anger that we feel as a natural reaction to an injustice that has occurred, but God doesn’t ask us to forgive on the sheer strength of our will alone.  He gives us the strength to forgive by forgiving us first.

And so as we gather around this altar of the Eucharist, this altar of forgiveness at the foot of Calvary, and especially as we remember the events of September 11, let us ask for the grace to forgive.  To forgive those who committed those atrocities, but in our own lives also, to forgive those who have committed injustice against us.  Let us ask for the grace to love others, as Christ himself has loved us.

Hot Around the Collar

“Gosh, Father, you look so warm in that!”
“Black isn’t the best color to be wearing in the heat, eh, Father?”
“Wow, Father, you’re dressed so formal!”
“Why don’t you loosen up that collar a little?”

One of the things I’m really picking up in my first year of priesthood is the importance of wearing my clerical dress, namely, the Roman collar.  Sure, all of those statements above are true – it’s hot, it absorbs heat like crazy, it’s sometimes uncomfortable, and it makes people stare.  Sometimes, I even wonder whether as children, some peoples’ parents told them to stop staring, smacking them upside the head.  And yet, I’m called wear this thing anyway.

Sure, you could consider a legal thing.  The 1983 Code of Canon Law states that “clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb in accord with the norms issued by the conference of bishops and in accord with legitimate local custom.” (canon 284)  So yes, I guess I have to wear it according to the law.

But the collar means so much more than that.  We find ourselves in a very secularized, very materialistic society, one that longs for signs of the sacred and of something beyond itself.  The distinctive black shirt with the white Roman collar stands out as a beacon in this world, and is very recognizeable as a sign of what we stand for.  The man who wears that white piece of fabric or plastic around his neck is more than just the guy who lives at the church down the street.  He is a man of God, a dispenser of the great mysteries of our faith, and by virtue of his ordination to the priesthood, he is conformed to the image of Christ, consecrated and set apart from others.

This is where it gets tough.  In living at the parish, many priests have a pull within themselves between the things that they have to do as presiders – preach, lead the community in worship of Almighty God, stand in the person of Christ (for goodness sakes!) – and the things they have to do as spiritual fathers – get close to the families of the parish, be present in the best and worst times in their lives, etc.  In this way, a false humility almost gets the better of us.  Many priests don’t want to wear their clerics for fear of being set apart from solidarity with their people, but the reality is, the priest is called to be set apart, in the same way that Christ himself was set apart amongst his disciples – not to be their boss, but to lead them to the Father.

As I reflect on the meaning of the clerics in my own life, I see it as a challenge.  When I put on that collar (even when it keeps unbuttoning itself, i.e. I need new ones), I feel Christ calling me to something more.  He is calling me to truly be the pastor, the shepherd that my people need me to be.  And it is a reminder to me that I’m not here to do my own work, but the work of the one who sent me to this parish, this hospital room, this classroom, this confessional.  When people see me walk in with my collar, my prayer is that they don’t see Michael Joseph Grosch, some twerp kid from Ballwin, but Jesus of Nazareth coming to minister to their needs.

The ministerial priesthood is a vocation and a witness, not merely a job, and so the clerical shirt isn’t about what I do, but who I am.

So yes, it’s hot, and sometimes uncomfortable, but don’t worry, I’m fine.

FLASHBACK: Homily from the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Readings for the Sunday

 

So to start off my homily today, I’m going to ask you to play a little guessing game with me.  Now, don’t all shout out your answers, but wait until all the clues are there.

He’s a fan of classical music, especially Mozart.
He’s an accomplished pianist, and keeps a grand piano in his bedroom.
He loves cats, and used to look after stray cats where he lived for a number of years.
He was a university professor for a number of years.
He’s Catholic, so he has no qualms about a nice glass of wine or a stein of Franziskaner hefeweissen.
He was born in Marktl, Germany.
And has a large family, and is the dad of 1.18 billion kids.

I’m hoping you all got it by now, but if you didn’t, here’s a picture.  The answer was, Pope Benedict XVI!  And because I’m a good and loving associate pastor, and would never make something up at the pulpit, I have the picture of the pope with the Franziskaner.  Pope Benedict, the Vicar of Christ, the Bishop of Rome, the Supreme Roman Pontiff, the Servant of the Servants of God, and the Successor to Peter.  He picks up where JPII left off, and the guy before him, and the guy before him, all the way back to this gospel passage that we hear today.  The pope is essential to our lives as Catholics, but often times, we don’t really pay attention to that fact.

There are a lot of people out there today who hate the Church, and often times, the way they show that is by hating the Pope.  There are a great number of people who claim that the papacy was established by the Roman Emperor Constantine – 300 years after Christ!  They claim that until then there was no single leader, but that the Christian community was just a democratic gathering of the followers of Jesus who sat around the campfire singing Kum-bay-a.  Some in the Church even want to change the way that the Church works today.  They want to make the Church into a political organization.  They want opinion polls to determine doctrine, or popular votes to change Church teaching – as if truth were determined by a popular vote.  What a tragic misinterpretation of today’s gospel!  The Church is a family of believers – WE are a family of believers.  We are a kingdom that is ruled by God, with Christ himself as the head of the family and the King of the Kingdom!  But Christ chose to exercise that authority through a representative, a Master of the Palace, like Eliakim in the first reading.  Christ gave us the papacy as an instrument of unity and continuity in the Church, a community of believers brought together by the grace of God and destined to overthrow the evil rule of Satan.

So lets look at that Gospel.  Jesus uses two images today to describe the role of the papacy.  The first is a rock.  Here, Jesus is being kind of tricky, but we don’t really get that in the English translation.  He says that Simon is to be called Peter, in Greek, that’s Petros.  But the Greek word Petros is similar to the other Greek word, Petra, which means rock.  This is probably a lot clearer in Aramaic, Jesus’ own language (other than Latin, that is).  In Aramaic, both Peter and rock are the same word – Kephas.  But we’re not supposed to distinguish between the two.  So what kind of rock is Peter – a boulder, a pebble, what?  Well, the stone Jesus is referring to is the foundation stone, which in ancient Jerusalem, was the foundation of the great Temple itself, and it had been ever since the Israelites had arrive there!  In the first temple, it was the stone where they put the Ark of the Covenant.  In the second one, it was the stone where they sprinkled the blood of sacrifice.  The tradition held that the foundation stone was the cap, or a cork, of the underworld, and so the Temple literally held back all evil from the world.  In the same way, Jesus gives Peter, and to all of us, the Church, that charge that we are the only thing holding back the devil.  We do this by our prayers, by our celebration of every Mass, by our works of charity and love for others, and by the ministry of the Pope.

But Jesus also uses this symbol of the Keys.  He tells us that he gives the keys to Peter, to bind and loose the things of heaven and earth.  But this isn’t just a symbol, it goes back to our first reading.  Isaiah announces that God will pass the key of the house of David to Eliakim, his successor.  But Eliakim clearly isn’t the boss.  And in the same way, the Pope isn’t some government ruler or king.  Rather, he’s a servant, a steward, a vicar.  In fact, one of the titles of the Pope is the Vicar of Christ – he serves as a substitute for Christ, and holds the keys until the Lord comes again in glory.

So why should we care?  Sometimes, it feels like the pope is so far away.  Not just geographically, but spiritually, ideologically.  Sometimes we wonder if he really cares about what happens, even here at All Saints Parish.  And to be honest, the pope is a man, he’s weak, and he has a lot of responsibility for all the other 1.18 billion Catholics out there to help us grow in love of Christ.  But Pope Benedict isn’t some political leader or authoritarian patriarch who laughs maniacally as he imposes his will on us poor American Catholics.  He is the visible presence of Christ, the head of the Church, who keeps unity and stability among our large family.  He is our spiritual father, appointed by Christ and chosen by the Holy Spirit to keep the truth of the Gospel pure and to hand it on to us and to future generations.  He is our pope – a word that in itself comes from Greek meaning not “emperor” or “master”, but dad, papa.

So how do we support our spiritual father?  Of course, we do so every day by praying for him in the Eucharistic prayer, as you’ll hear shortly, but we can, and really should, do something in our own households as well.  One way we can do this is by taking an interest in what the Pope actually says and does!  There’s a news service you can get updates from through the internet called Zenit, and it gives you and I the opportunity to read the pope’s daily messages to the world – to you and me.  I mean, this guy gives us messages every day, but how many of us bother to read them?  Another thing we can do is take an interest in the stuff he’s teaching – go out there and learn about being Catholic, what we believe and profess!  Try also putting a picture of the pope in your home.  There are a million of them at Catholic Supply off Highway K, or you can go cheap and just print one from the internet.  I just suggest you find one more like my first picture, rather than the second.  But the most important thing we can do to support the Holy Father is to pray for him.  Often times, when I give penances during the sacrament of Confession, I’ll ask the penitent to pray an Our Father for Pope Benedict.  But you don’t have to wait to go to confession with me!  Try saying an Our Father for the pope every day.  Ask God to truly help him to be the shepherd we need.

St. Josemaria Escriva wrote that “Love for the Roman Pontiff (the pope) must be in us a delightful passion, for in him, we see Christ.”  So as we continue this celebration, as we approach this altar of sacrifice, let us pray for our Holy Father, and thank God for that great gift of Christ’s unifying presence among us.

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Here is a link to Zenit, as I mentioned in the homily.  Be sure to sign up for your e-mail service!
Zenit – The World as Seen from Rome

Also, here are some links to hi-def images of Pope Benedict XVI, so you can print one out and put it in your home!
Pope Benedict XVI Image 1
Pope Benedict XVI Image 2
Pope Benedict XVI Image 3
Pope Benedict XVI Image 4
Pope Benedict XVI Image 5

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Readings for the Sunday

By the way, I have to give credit to a deacon friend of mine for the idea I used as the hook in the homily.  Nobody ever said homilies had to be original, I guess!

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So here’s the situation.  You all know that you’ve been there.  You’re eating dinner with someone – family, friend, coworker – and everything is going well, but you say something funny, and the other person does a jolly, full-teeth-exposing smile, and – oh!  the horror! – they have a massive piece of lettuce stuck in their teeth.  So what do you do?  Do you tell them?  Do you hope their next glass of water will do the trick for you?  Do you just ignore it because, after all, don’t we all have a piece of spiritual lettuce stuck in our spiritual teeth?  What do we do?

Well, in short, Jesus is teaching us today – you tell them!  But it almost sounds so authoritarian to us when he says that.  I mean, is it my place to tell the person they’ve got lettuce in their teeth?  We’re taught that tolerance is a great value, and one of the highest we can have!  And indeed, Jesus seems to want us to care about tolerance quite a bit – but he wants even more for us to care about truth.  Because this is about a whole lot more than lettuce.  The reality is that some of the sins that Jesus and the disciples were concerned about, and the sins which you and I encounter every day out there, are real.  Sin is real.  It doesn’t sound nice, and makes us uncomfortable, but it’s real.  It’s destructive.  And it can truly, truly destroy people.  And so, Jesus is giving you and I the responsibility to do everything we can to bring these people back to Jesus.  This isn’t just to fulfill the demands of natural law, or to do what’s right to appease our conscience, but it’s out of concern for the other person.  You wouldn’t want the person with lettuce in their teeth to be humiliated or chastised later, would you?

The reality of sin is something that has been pretty clearly accepted for hundreds of years, but in our own day, this sense of sin which would make us want to avoid offending God or each other has been eclipsed by a sense of relativism, where telling someone the truth might be offensive.  Relativism is the belief that there is no right or wrong.  The only thing that matters is how you feel – what each person thinks or feels is right or wrong is right or wrong for that person.  And yes, this sounds like a good idea, it sounds tolerant, but there’s a couple things wrong with relativism.  First, it’s illogical!  Even the statement that nothing is universal is in itself a universal statement!  But it’s also impractical.  Imagine the things we might accept if we followed relativism.  Atheism is just as true as Catholicism.  The things that Hitler said were just as true as the things that Jesus said.  The Cubs are just as good as the Cardinals!!  Nobody in their right mind would accept these statements (at least nobody from St. Louis), but a person following relativism would have to.  These ideas are at the root of a society which would try to teach us that things like pre-marital sex, abortion, cloning, or same-sex marriage are ok.  These ideas are thrown out there in order to justify what some people have strong desires to do, and in the process, we throw out our moral standards.  But that’s like saying that there’s no such thing as poison.  Sure, it sounds great, and it puts us at ease, but it’s a dangerous statement that is ultimately wrong.  And so Jesus reminds us of the reality of sin and of how destructive it is, and he challenges us to fight against it.

So how do we do this?  Well, he gives us a few steps.  First you have to talk to whoever the person is one on one, and in private.  You patiently and caringly try to encourage the individuals to come back to Christ.  But if that doesn’t work, you might have to involve some other parties, like friends or family.  Only if the problem continues do you make it a public issue, and you only make it public so that others know not to follow the bad example.

Fraternal correction isn’t easy, especially when the issue is a little bigger than a piece of lettuce in the teeth.  And if we’re really going to help someone fix some aspect of their lives to come closer to Christ, it requires a few things from us.  First, we have to know the truth.  We have to have a well-formed conscience which is ultimately informed by the Church’s teaching.  It takes patience as well.  Sometimes solving big personal problems in other individuals takes time.  You might get yelled at a few times, or have the person not listen to you right away, but it’s important to be patient with the other person.  It takes courage too!  I was speaking with a young lady who goes to one of our local high schools, and she was telling me how afraid she was to present a project to her class about the truth of the Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception.  What kind of society do we live in where our youth have to be afraid for their reputations and friendships when they do reports for school?  It takes courage to speak the truth, especially when it is truth nobody wants to hear.  One big thing that we need when correcting others is charity – love.  One of my pastoral counseling professors used to say that you can only challenge someone to the degree to which you have supported them.  We are always called to preach the truth, but we do so in a way that has at its heart a love for the other person, and a concern for their well-being.  Of course, fraternal correction also requires prayer.  Many times, problems don’t get solved right away, especially when we have little control over how children or family members or friends live their lives, but we pray for others, that they might have a heart open to the truth that the Holy Spirit presents us with.

I’ll leave you to decide how you tell someone they have lettuce in their teeth, but it’s important that we take to heart Jesus’s words today, especially in speaking the truth to a society in such dire need of it.  May we have the courage, the patience, the understanding, and the wisdom, to always speak the truth in our world, but to do so with love, just as Christ has called each of us to do.