Read this if you want to give up

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A warm welcome to the St. Louis Life Runners who are worshiping with us this morning. The goal of the Life Runners is to engage in a public pro-life witness through running at various events around town. I plan on putting on my Life Runner jersey to try and win the Rosary Run later this fall. I’ve been promised that everyone is going to encouraged to gamble on whether I can defeat some Dominican priest. All for a good cause.

We also welcome our Gloria In Excelsis choir campers who are in the choir loft singing their hearts out for the glory of God.

It’s only fair that our guests get to hear a vintage homiletic tactic from me, which is to quote an obscure passage from Shakespeare and then go on and on about it while your eyes glaze over.

Near the beginning of Twelfth Night – Yes I was serious about that – Near the beginning of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare writes that, “Music is the food of love.”

Music is the food of love. In the 16th century, when that play was written, the Puritans were eliminating Church music for various reasons that defy explanation. But when that happens, so much beauty is lost!

As Christians, we are encouraged not only to sing at Mass, but to actually sing the Mass, because God deserves beauty. St. Augustine says, “Cantare Amantis est/Singing is for lovers.” When we want to express love, or happiness, or sorrow, it’s natural that we sing. You don’t just want to tell your beloved of your undying love, you want to sing her a song, to pour out your heart. We sing the Mass because we love Jesus.

These children have been working hard all week to learn how to sing the Mass today. No doubt, you’re amazed at the beauty and skill with which they are singing, but more importantly, their music is not a performance but is an offering of devotion to God.

We have a diverse selection of music for today, but what you might most notice is the very difficult plainchant. It isn’t like the hymns that we sing, not at all. Hymns are rhythmic whereas chant is, and I think this is the technical term, “sing-songy.” What has always intrigued me, though, is that whenever the Catholic Church is portrayed in a movie, the soundtrack always switches to chant. This is because, instinctually, the two together fit together.

The Missa de Angelis that we’re singing this morning is challenging. As we try to follow along, we may, in fact, sound like a bunch of drunken sailors. That’s okay. It’s also okay to appreciate the fact that it is truly different. It is uniquely Catholic and it leads us into a sacred space and time. To step out of the banality of the everyday world and into something transcendent is sublime, and is a stark reminder that we don’t voluntarily give up our Sunday mornings to take part in anything ordinary. God is here. It does not speak to us in common language, and music seems to drift to us directly from the throne room of God. It demands something from us. It demands our full, conscious, and active participation.

I have to admit that at first I was hesitant, because the Gloria In Excelsis camp was a big undertaking. But here is what I have learned in my life – we can do hard things.

Here’s a story for you Life Runners.

Back in June, we had our annual missionary appeal and I had a rare Sunday off. So, because I’m an odd guy, I decided it would be fun on my day off to get up early and do a combination running/bicycling race. We ran 4 miles, then we transitioned as fast as possible and rode our bikes 20 miles. The first thing I said when the race was over as I tumbled off my bike dripping with sweat, cramps rolling down legs, and bleary eyes was that I was never doing that again. I’m sure I’ll try it again next year, because, again, I’m a bit off. The point is, in bicycling culture, they call those type of races Time Trials, and a Time Trial is called the Race of Truth. This is because a race like that reveals a lot about yourself. As you’re digging deep and pouring everything you have into this endeavor, you desperately want to quit, to simply make it stop. Enduring to the finish reveals what sort of person you are and how you bear up under adversity.

I’m not going to lie, As a priest I get anxious about money and taking care of the Church and the budget, I worry about if I’ve offended anyone, if my homily was terrible, if the advice I gave in confession is about to ruin someone’s life because they’re doing what I said and it was just so wrong…God calls us all at various times in our lives to tasks that it’s very easy to want to give up on. It is so easy to quit, to quit on that friendship, that relationship, that dream.

God isn’t like that. He is eternally positive. He gives everything he has for our redemption, simply on the possibility that we might one day, maybe accept his mercy and be made saints. Why? Because he loves us. He knows what is inside of us.

What is God calling you to do? What destiny is in store for you? Will you rise to the challenge?

Our Gospel reading is kind of amazing. Think about it. Our Lord gets his guys together and he says, okay, you’re my guys, now get out there and exorcise demons. What? And then, instead of telling them how to accomplish this incredibly scary task, he tells them what not to pack. Don’t take anything, basically. And you know what, they go out and they do it! They drive out demons, they anoint people, they preach the Gospel.

Don’t underestimate the power of God’s vision for your life. Don’t neglect the opportunity he offers through his grace to be transformed if you just hang in there and seize his gifts. Don’t be lied to by Satan that you are less than you are, that you are anything less than a hero on a mission to heaven. Don’t ignore the opportunities he gives you to draw closer to him, to make a positive impact in someone else’s life, to do something beautiful. Don’t give up.

There is a way that you can act in the world that will make a permanent change for the better, because God is with you. When you want to give up, remind yourself how much God believes in you, that he sends you out into the world confident that you will surpass every expectation. The question that each of us can ask ourselves every day is, what is God going to do in my life today?

God loves us. Our faith isn’t a business arrangement or a quid pro quo, it is a relationship. Through the sacraments we are brought into the life of God himself, we are united with him by the grace of Jesus Christ. St. Paul writes that we are chosen, even before the foundation of the world, for this majestic vocation, and we are being made perfect for this purpose. This, I think, is a love worth singing about.

May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of our hearts, that we may know what is the hope that belongs to our call.

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How to become unpopular

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Year B Ordinary 14

Ever since high school, we’ve all wanted to be popular, right? (I never was) I’ve always been a big believer that Catholic Christianity is winsome, meaning that the Church and the culture of being Catholic exerts a mysterious, strong pull on outsiders. There’s something fascinating about how serious and yet how joyful the Church is. For instance, when I was a little protestant kid in St. Charles I was always fascinated by the St. Cletus parish picnic and the rides and how Catholics are totally cool with gambling right in front of Church.

And it is true that the Church is highly attractive to those who are seeking the truth. This isn’t because of our rules, or our own personal holiness, certainly not because of the priests – or at least this priest. People aren’t here for me, they’re here because this is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It isn’t because we have a ton of money, or the best parties – although we do have fun. The Church is attractive because she is spiritually wedded to Christ, and through the Church each and every person can encounter him in his fullness. His grace is splashed out on his people and we are called to a totally different sort of life. We no longer seek the limited things of this world but are set free to seek heavenly things. To a lost and hurting world, this is a comforting message. To us who are already here, we know our flaws, we know our hidden secrets, this is also a comforting message, to know that we are held in the arms of the divine, that we are not stuck but have vast, untapped potential. That God has not and will not give up on us.

That is good news, it’s the heart of the Gospel that God forgives us sinners. The more difficult to accept news is that the new life offered by Jesus requires repentance and it is very much at odds with the old life. In fact, you might say that the new entirely destroys the old, because in baptism the old self is washed away and we are dead to sin. When it seems as though the world around us is spinning out of control, the Church is the Ark of salvation, offering safety and security. To those who climb on board, that’s great, but to those who refuse, to those who don’t get it, it’s all the more reason to dislike the Church.

This is why the Catholic Church always has been and always will be profoundly unpopular.

We have an example of that this morning in our gospel reading. Even Jesus is rejected and his message is offensive to many. He will not and cannot change it. I suppose it would be easy for us all to be all-inclusive and say you’re alright and I’m alright just the way we are, but that isn’t true. There’s this moment in the scriptures where Jesus eats with sinners because they’re the ones in need of him. For a long time I thought, yeah, I should hang out with sinners too, just like Jesus. Well, I seem to have profoundly misunderstood the lesson. I’m the sinner. I need Jesus. We are the ones he comes to spend time with. That isn’t popular to say, that sin is still a problem for us, but it is the truth, and it is the truth that sets us free.

St. Mark wrote his Gospel to rescue people from falling into the trap of being offended by Jesus for all the wrong reasons. He wants to show the true source of his power, and by extension this applies to the Church – it’s all about the power of God. Jesus is offensive only to sin, only to those who refuse to admit that they are in need of grace. We must pass through this seeming scandal in order to see with the eyes of faith.

This means the Church will never be popular. Sure, our bowling alley rules and everyone loves it, but what about when we talk about sin and repentance, social justice, immigration, abortion, marriage, and the idea that we really, truly owe God our thanksgiving and gratitude once a week on Sunday? Not so popular.

St. Mark accentuates this problem. He doesn’t brag about Jesus or make up a family history of nobility and wealth for him. This guy, the savior of the world? He’s a carpenter. He grew up around the corner. He does miracles but doesn’t charge any money, he hangs out with the rejects, he says he’s a king but doesn’t seek any power. The Romans mocked this. They thought the Church was absurd. It was weak.

And they are right. We are weak. At least we’re weak in the sense that the goal of the Church isn’t to dominate. The goal of the Church is to preach the gospel and set people free.

Freedom will not compromise with slavery. The Church will not compromise with the world. This may makes us unpopular with certain folks, but that is because they know we stand for something and that our lives are arranged by a different set of priorities. In the end, this is precisely what is so attractive about our faith, that everything we do, everything we are is about Jesus. So to those who are ready to seek an authentic human existence, the Church is here. Keep up your Christian witness, and don’t worry if it isn’t the most popular choice. It never will be, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right choice.

May we make every effort to recognize the presence of God in our lives, to hear him speaking to us, and to be bold in following him.

Does religion need to be serious and sad?

midsummer night dreamToday is the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. He, along with the Blessed Virgin, is the only saint whose actual birthday we celebrate. The other saints are all celebrated on the anniversary of their death. John’s birth was miraculous, though, and closely connected with that of Christ. The Scriptures tell us that John was six months older than his cousin Jesus, so you always know that on the Nativity of St. John, Christmas is only six months away. Start making your wish list for all the toys you want.

This day also occurs very near the summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year. It’s the subject of Shakespeare’s great play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the events of that play occur on the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John. The plot for that play is fairly simple: a group of normal, sane young friends enter a wood and meet some fairies, things get funny, and the dreamworld and the real world end up becoming impossibly entwined.

G.K. Chesterton says it’s a study of a spirit that unites mankind. “The sentiment of such a play,” he says, “can be summed up in one sentence. It is the mysticism of happiness.” What he means is that, in life, we should never forget that we live in a borderland in which we may find ourselves very quickly and easily in a heavenly atmosphere, not only through being serious and profound but also by being extravagantly happy.

In the Catholic Church, one of the things I appreciate is that do know how to talk about sorrow, and how to find God through suffering. Let me tell you, I have visited people in the nursing home, and I encounter them when they’re in a very difficult phase of life. In the midst of physical weakness and limitation, they are struggling to recollect their lives, to remember who they once were but understand that they are losing with each passing day, and they know they are leaving pieces of themselves behind and as we talk they cry. These moments are profoundly heartbreaking, and I don’t know how anyone could handle them if we didn’t know that Christ suffers right along with us, and that through suffering the spirit can be strengthened. It is very important that we see how God is at work even in our darkest moments.

But what about happiness? We all want to be happy, but it’s almost as if, when we are we can’t help but feel guilty about it. Like we’re doing something wrong, or we don’t deserve it, or it isn’t the most spiritual way to live. This may sound way too simple, but God wants you to be happy. The saints are happy, and even when the Church is penitential and serious, she is happy.

Chesterton claims that people misunderstand Shakespeare’s comedies because they are themselves so profoundly unhappy. They believe that religion must be dour and serious and puritan. But happiness, true happiness, points us to a very important fact. The happiness of this life is a participation in the happiness of the life to come.

That is perhaps where the misunderstanding comes from. Happiness is not a frivolity that distracts us from heaven. It is a gift from God to lead us to heaven. Take joy in your life, your children, your family, your friends, your hobbies. Take a vacation, drink good coffee, go to a play, this is the joy of the saints. St. Francis de Sales says, “A sad saint would be a sorry saint.”

Because happiness comes from heaven, we find it by diving deeper and deeper into the life of faith. This is Shakespeare’s whole point with Midsummer Night’s Dream, that when heavenly happiness overtakes us we are drawn more and more into the life of the world to come. I think that, when we look at American society right now, we see a lot of sad people who have rejected God. They are bitter, and depressed, and lost. Our celebrities seem profoundly unhappy, our politicians spend all their time bickering, suicide rates are epidemic, divorce and loneliness are destroying the lives of so many. In chasing a false happiness that pulls them away from heaven, they have been misled and cheated out of the joyful life that every person deserves.

For us to be happy, we must re-integrate our faith with our daily lives, to see that both the natural world and the supernatural world are intertwined, that both are real.

John the Baptist says, “I must decrease and God must increase.” John is the waning of the old light, Jesus is the rising sun. From here on the days grow shorter as John decreases until right at Christmas and the birth of Christ when the light begins to increase. This eclipse of his own personality made John profoundly happy, because in it he was able to leave behind earthly concerns and seek out a heavenly reality. The only way to discover your purpose in life is to reflect the light of your creator. This is how we are drawn into the communion of saints and find that each one of us is a lamp burning brightly.

At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s the sound of little feet and elves peek into a normal, human house. “Suppose we are the realities and they the shadows,” they wonder. When it comes to earth or heaven, which is real? Maybe it’s both. This is the sacramental reality, to inhabit the borderland where God’s grace infuses every part of our lives and draws us steadily onwards to true happiness.

The mystery of a Father’s love

Michelangelo-Sistine-Chapel-GodA lot of us like to pride ourselves on how open-hearted we are, how we get along with everybody, how we give everyone a fair chance. But look closer and cracks appear in the facade – Well, no I’m not nice to that guy, but that’s because he’s terrible. No, I don’t talk to that person anymore, but she deserves it. In the end, it turns out that we live by the mantra Treat me well and I’ll treat you well, but cross me and we’re gonna have a serious problem – We’re all guilty of it to some degree at least.

The Kingdom of God operates a bit differently. It’s as if a man is scattering seed on the earth and then it mysteriously grows. The Kingdom of God is a living reality, the inclusion of human beings into his divine life. It is an extension of his love. Amazingly, God doesn’t really seem to care where the seed goes. He just scatters it.

I occasionally convince myself that I can make the landscaping look nice. Usually I’m pretty content to let the grass turn brown and die so I don’t have to mow anything and I don’t mind letting some weeds grow here and there, but occasionally I get motivated and try to clean things up and plant something nice, so I go out and get some bags of good compost, I choose the perfect spot, dig a perfect hole, put mulch around the plant, and I water it carefully. That’s not how God would garden. He would go out toss a bunch of seeds around, pray it rains, and go back inside for a cold drink.

It doesn’t matter if a person seems good, or holy, or if they dress the right way, or know enough from the Catechism, or if the are likeable or not. The Kingdom of God is for you, and if you allow heaven to take root in your heart, you will be welcomed and transformed from within. Grace is silent and we often don’t even know when it is at work. To all outward appearances, nothing may be happening. It’s like a seed germinating in soil. For instance, I often go to confession, pour out my wounded little heart…and feel nothing in return. I often say Mass and my feelings are vaguely conventional, I feel neither close nor far from God. Sometimes during adoration, I admit, I’m simply waiting quietly for the hour to be over. This isn’t how it is all the time, but it is enough of the time that I’ve come to realize that grace is beyond my ability to comprehend, because so often we feel so ordinary, and yet at the exact same time God’s grace is working miracles in us. It’s funny, we go around saying “God loves you,” all the time. Very true, and yet, sometimes I think, well okay, that’s not such a big deal because God loves everybody. As the Christian musician Rich Mullins once said about God loving him, “That don’t make me special! That just proves that God has got no taste.” And that’s exactly right! God doesn’t discriminate at all, he scatters the seeds of the Kingdom everywhere.

Or perhaps more accurately, this prodigality of God’s love proves a pretty amazing fact about us. It proves that even at our worst, our most ordinary, we are still pretty special. And we don’t need to compare ourselves to anyone else for that to be true.

I think a lot about that conundrum of how we treat other people. We do tend to treat those we like a lot better. We extend them more benefit of the doubt, do them more favors, forgive them more quickly. But God doesn’t do that, because that’s only halfway towards love. The challenge is to spread it out everywhere, to people who are not grateful, to people who do not like you, people who have made your life harder.

This being Fathers day we have a perfect example. Fathers are men who, and I’m stereotyping you guys but just go with it, here, Fathers often quietly go about their business without a whole lot of emotion or a whole lot of introspection. They have these kids, these messy, crazy, time-consuming little whirlwinds. They live in a mental asylum surrounded by inmates that they have created themselves. Dads don’t worry too much about what they’re receiving in return from their children. They simply love them, whether they’re behaving good or bad. They protect them, and provide for them. Those children may never be able to repay him, but Dad doesn’t care. Maybe this is why God chooses to reveal himself to us as Father. He doesn’t love us because we deserve it. He loves us because we are his children.

Heavenly Father, may we grow into your image.

The Eucharist is a true sacrifice

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The oldest prison camp in Nazi Germany was Dachau. Over the course of World War II, 2,579 priests and seminarians were imprisoned there in starvation conditions and exposed to infectious diseases. The priests managed with the help of the Vatican to pressure the guards into allowing them a chapel to celebrate Mass, but the guards weren’t happy about it. They would come in during Mass and yell at everyone to line up, eat the bread, and get out already. They would target the priests for special torture and persecution. The camps were monitored by the SS but they actually put certain prisoners in charge. These men, called kapos, were all criminals and they would steal food from the priests and abuse them. Out of all the prisoners, though, it was the priests who never fought back, never cheated or took advantage of other prisoners, and always kept their dignity. Why? Because they had the Eucharist.

Two fellow prisoners describe the experience of going to Mass in Dachau.

Joseph Rovan says, “No longer could I recall the world of the concentration camp. Each one, for a precious moment, was restored to his original, fragile, and indestructible dignity…”

Marcel Dejean says, “We went to meet [Our Lord]…who held our lives in his hands; we rediscovered the idea of Love in the midst of suffering, hunger, egoism, hatred or indifference, and also a palpable sense of calm…the SS were no longer anything but a sad nothingness beside the splendid, immortal reality of Christ.”

Many of those men never saw the outside world again. They died in horrible conditions behind barbed wire fences while the war raged on. Their circumstances were desperate, but they had hope and they had joy.

What is it about the Eucharist that would make such a huge difference? Here is what we sometimes forget, or that us priests forget to remind you about – the Eucharist is a true sacrifice. There’s a Benedictine monk who wrote a series of reflections in front of the blessed sacrament and those reflections are gathered up into a book called In Sinu Jesu. He records Jesus telling him, “I want you to speak to the faithful of the Holy Mass as a true sacrifice…no one thinks any more to tell them that the action of the Eucharist renews My sacrifice upon the Cross, and that I am present upon the altar as upon the Cross, as both Priest and Victim. It is the whole of My sacrifice of love that unfolds before their eyes. You must tell them this.”

The Eucharist is a true sacrifice. This means that those men at Dachau who were in the midst of the greatest and final sacrifice of their lives knew that they were not alone. The Cross loomed before their eyes and was etched into the fabric of their being.

In my life as a priest, I encounter many people who are in the midst of sacrifice. Those who are in hospice feeling the end of life fast approaching, those who are in marriage difficulty and cannot figure out how to follow church teaching anymore, parents and single parents who feel the weight of responsibility, money issues, betrayal, doubts. At night, I walk and say my evening prayers inside the Church, trying to focus on praying for the people who sit in these pews, and I cannot get out of the way of my own thoughts. The Cross looms before our eyes.

We must turn to the Eucharist, and finding Jesus here, to truly understand what is happening on our altar. It is the death of God. It is the resurrection of God. Both of these realities are folded into one and are re-presented before our very eyes. It is not a symbol. It is not a reference to a previous event. It is the event.

The is the foundational event of the universe, and written into creation is the principle that suffering and redemption are flip sides of the same coin. When we are in the grip of one, we are also in the grip of the other.

Everything starts from the heart of Christ, who as Pope Benedict XVI points out, praises God in the midst of his own suffering, and through that action he changes the world. Every time you receive Christ in the Eucharist, you receive his Cross and his Resurrection, suffering and redemption, and you cannot emerge from the experience unchanged. The priests at Dachau were different than those who did not receive the Eucharist. They suffered with joyful dignity. Our Lord did not die as people expected him to, and at the moment he gave up the ghost he was glorified beyond compare.

On the feast of Corpus Christi, we recognize this true sacrifice. Today, give to God whatever it is that is in your heart and meet him in the Eucharist. He will transform you from within. This is the logic of Christianity, that we will be renewed from within and, having been changed ourselves, will become agents of change in the world. It is the logic of a grain of wheat that must be broken in order to grow. It isn’t the easiest way, but it is the way that accords with our human dignity and joins us to the splendid, immortal reality of Christ.