Friday, February 25, 2011

Perfect Holiness

Homily From the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year A

On Wednesdays I often have lunch with Fr. Drew Curry, the associate pastor from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.  We’re good friends.  We attended seminary together and we both grew up in the same parish: Holy Family in South Bend.  Over these Wednesday lunches, we exchange ideas for our upcoming Sunday homilies.

Fr. Drew asked what I was going to preach on and I said, “holiness.”  In the first reading, God says to His people, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”  In the second reading, Paul tells the Corinthians, “the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”  And in the Gospel, Jesus implores us to ultimate holiness when he urges us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Fr. Drew then told me that when he asked Bishop D’Arcy a couple years ago if the seminarians could go on a walking pilgrimage from South Bend to Fort Wayne, Bishop D’Arcy asked him why we wanted to do that.  Fr. Drew told the Bishop, “To grow in holiness and pray for the holiness of the people of our diocese.”  To which, Bishop D’Arcy asked, “And what is holiness?”  And it made Fr. Drew think a bit. What is holiness?

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 So we finished our lunch and then we went to All Saints Catholic bookstore to look at some books.  And I spotted this book on the shelf, “The Fulfillment of All Desire" by Ralph Martin.  For about the last year and a half, I’ve seen this book again and again.  It was on the desk of my spiritual director in seminary. I’d spot it in the offices of priests. Recently, I’d see it on the desk of Dorothy Schuerman, our pastoral associate.  So, I decided to buy the book.  I didn’t read the summary on the back cover; didn’t look at the table of contents; didn’t even open the front cover.  I just pulled it off the shelf and bought it.

So, this past Wednesday night, I began reading it.  And the very first sentence of the very first chapter of the book says this: “Jesus summed up His teaching in a startling and unambiguous call to His followers: ‘You therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’”

And the title of the first chapter is “Called to Holiness.”

So thank you Holy Spirit for dropping this book in my lap.  So let's talk about holiness.  Let's talk about perfection. 

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 Bishop Rhoades gave us copies of Matthew Kelly’s book “Rediscovering Catholicism."  In it, Kelly says that holiness is surrendering to the will of God.  It is the desire to do His will.  Allowing God to fill every corner of your being.  It’s being set apart for God

“In any moment”, Kelly says, “when you surrender to the will of God and choose to be the-best-version-of-yourself, you are holy.”  “Striving for holiness, is to be continually answering God’s invitation to grasp the moments of our lives and allow God to use them to transform us into all he has created us to be.”

“The surest signs of holiness are not how often a person goes to Church, how many hours he spends in prayer, what good spiritual books he has read or even the number of good works he performs.

“The surest signs of holiness are an insatiable desire to become all God created us to be, an unwavering commitment to the will of God, and an unquenchable concern for unholy people.”

Perhaps you’re thinking, “That’s not for me. I’m not capable of that kind of holiness. I can’t surrender my will to God in that way. That’s only for people like priests, or nuns, or the Saints.”  Well, that’s not true.  Jesus addresses these words to all of his disciples.  All of us are called to holiness.  And Jesus calls all of us to be Saints.  It is God’s greatest desire for us to be in union with him in Heaven.  And that is the definition of Sainthood

As Ralph Martin points out, “if we want to enter heaven we must be made ready for the sight of God.  Holiness isn’t an “option.”  There are only Saints in heaven.

How do we become holy? How do we become perfect?  By cooperating with God’s will in the everyday encounters of our lives. 

How many of you have seen the movie “Remember the Titans”?  It’s a great movie; a true story about a high school football team that has tremendous success.  Denzel Washington plays the head coach, Hermann Boone, and all season long, he demands perfection from the team.  So they win every game leading up to the state championship. 

Well, in the championship, they get beat up pretty bad by their opponent throughout the first half and they go into the locker room at half time bruised and trailing.  Coach Boone then speaks to his team and tells them:  “You boys are doing all you can do, everyone can see that. Win or lose, we’re going to walk out of this stadium tonight with our heads held high. Do your best, that’s all anybody can ask for.”

Then one of the players speaks up:  “No it ain’t coach. With all due respect, you demanded more of us. You demanded perfection.”

“Now I ain’t sayin’ I’m perfect,” the player goes on, “cause I’m not. And I ain’t never gonna be, none of us are. But we have won every single game we have played, ‘til now. So this team is perfect. We stepped out on that field that way tonight, and if it’s all the same to you Coach Boone, that’s how we want to leave it.”

Just like Coach Boone, Jesus demands perfection from us.  And he demands perfection from us because perfection is possible.

Ralph Martin says in his book that “when we hear these words we can be understandably tempted to discouragement, thinking that perfection for us is impossible.  And indeed, left to our own resources, it certainly is.  But with God, all things are possible.”

Just like the football player said, “I’m not perfect. I ain’t never gonna be, none of us are.” But, “this team is perfect.  Alone, we are imperfect.  But, with God; with our team of the Holy Trinity, we can be made perfect.  We can be transformed.  That’s what holiness is.  Cooperating with God working in us.  Working as a team with God.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Raising the Bar

Homily from the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year A

Every time a track and field athlete clears the bar in the high jump, he pushes the bar up another notch and strives to make a higher jump.  This, of course, is where we get the phrase “raising the bar.”

You could say that Jesus is “raising the bar” for us in today’s Gospel.  We continue to hear the greatest speech of all time: the Sermon on the Mount.  And our reading today is the beginning of what scholars call “The Antitheses.”  So-called because Jesus cites a number of laws from the OT as theses statements that begin, “You have heard it said…” and immediately responds to each with his own antitheses that begin, “But I say to you…” each time, raising the bar.

You have heard it said you shall not kill.  But I say to you, do not even get angry with one another

You have heard it said you shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you, do not even look with lust at one another.

I have heard people ask, “Didn’t Jesus do away with the old law and make life easier?”  The answer is no.  The old law said, do not kill. Jesus said do not even get angry. Which law is more demanding?  The old law said, do not commit adultery. Jesus said do not lust. Is Jesus requiring more or less of us?

You might ask, “Why does Jesus demand more of us? Shouldn’t he make it easier?”  But it’s no different than graduating from one grade to the next.  The more knowledge we acquire, the more we’re expected to know.

The old law was given to us so we could first learn the difference between good and evil.  Now we are given a savior so we can learn to truly love one another.

Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.”  Jesus brings the old law to fulfillment by digging deep within our hearts and getting to the root of our sins.  He raises the bar and takes us to the next level; to the ultimate goal, to perfection.

The law and the prophets and the law of Jesus do not conflict with one another.  But they definitely differ in terms of quality.

Laws always deal in terms of limits.  Don’t drive over the speed limit.  Be home by 11.  Never wear white before Memorial Day.

Jesus however does not want us to be motivated by the limits of law.  Rather, he wants us to be motivated by love which has no limits.  Avoiding anger and lust require us not just to stay within certain boundaries.  They require us to let Jesus into our hearts and to love with his love.

Sometimes I’m asked, “Father, how far is too far?”  But this isn’t really the right question is it?  It’s a question that asks, “How much can I get away with before I really get into trouble?”  Rather, we should ask, “How do I grow in intimacy with someone and remain pure every step of the way?”

Many people use the Ten Commandments as a guide for their examination of conscience before going to confession.  And most people will consider the 5th commandment: “Thou shall not kill” and say, “I haven’t killed anyone. Haven’t broken that one.”  But today, Jesus tells us that when we use bitter speech towards one another, when we say “Raqa” which means “you idiot” to one another we tear at the fabric of that person.  When we gossip, do we not kill someone’s reputation?

People will consider the 6th commandment “Thou shall not commit adultery and say, “I haven’t broken that one.”  But Jesus tells us that to even look with lust at another is a failure to love as we should.  Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “It’s OK to look, but not touch.”  Well, if we believe Jesus, we know this is a huge lie.

Now there’s nothing wrong with normal, healthy human desire.  It’s a gift from God and how we bring new life into the world.  But let’s be honest about what lust is.  Lust is when we use another person for our own satisfaction.  It’s when we objectify another person for our own pleasure.  And love is always and forever about giving, not getting.

If lust is a struggle, one thing you can remind yourself of when you feel that temptation is to remember that that is someone’s daughter... that is someone’s son.

Yes, Jesus is challenging us.  He’s rooting out our root sins.  He’s placing greater demands on us.  And this process is not without its growing pains.  That’s because Jesus is dwelling within our hearts and he’s stretching our hearts, so that we will follow his law of love which knows no limits  He’s raising the bar.  Because with his grace we will clear the hurdles of our sins.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

High Praise - High Expectations

Homily from the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year A

This past week, was fantastic.  School was out Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; we had a 2 hour delay on Friday.  Monsignor’s gone and I have my run of the rectory.  As he was walking out the door, I told him, “You know I’m going to trash the place while you’re gone.”  “Please do!” he replied.

But the best thing that happened this week: the Notre Dame football team signed a top-10 class of incoming freshmen for next year, including St. Vincent’s own Tony Springman.  In fact, one of the recruiting sites (and clearly, the best one of them all) says that Notre Dame’s recruiting class is the best in the nation.  That’s pretty high praise for the Irish.  And of course that brings along pretty high expectations.

Jesus does the same thing in today’s Gospel.  Jesus heaps some pretty high praise on us, calling us “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.”  Likewise, such praise means Jesus has high expectations for us.

Salt is a sign of purity.  Romans said salt was the purest of all things, because it came from the purest of all things: the sun and the sea.  Salt was also added to Jewish sacrifices to make them pure.

Jesus praises us by saying, “You are pure.”  Therefore, Jesus has high expectations for us to become and remain pure.  Our language must be pure – especially around the home and our families.  That which we look upon must be pure.  We must look upon each other with pure eyes.

Salt is also a preservative.  It’s the primary ingredient in meat curing.  When it’s applied to meats and fish, it prevents the growth of bacteria and keeps food from going rancid.

Jesus praises us by calling us the “preservative of the earth."  Likewise, Jesus has high expectations for us to have an antiseptic influence on life.  We have to be agents of preservation of the moral standards and values given to us by God.  We must defend truths of the faith and human condition – the dignity of the human person, the meaning of marriage, justice for all.

Salt also brings out the flavor of foods.  You just can’t have popcorn without salt.  I’ve even see people salt their watermelon.

Jesus praises us by calling us the “flavor enhancers of the world."  Likewise, Jesus has high expectations for us to bring out that which is good in the world and make it better.

And Jesus calls us the “light of the world.”  Light is first and foremost something to be seen.  In a dark room, a lit candle is unmistakable and unavoidable. 

Jesus praises us by saying “you are the very thing I want people to see in the world.”  Likewise, Jesus has high expectations for our Christianity to be visible to others.  We cannot be secret disciples.  We have to be out there what we are in here.  Jesus doesn’t call us the light of the Church, he calls us “the light of the world.”  “So, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

Light is also something that serves as a guide.  Light makes clear the way ahead.  Can you imagine driving at night without headlights? 

Jesus praises us by calling us the example he wants others to follow.  Likewise, Jesus has high expectations for us to be good examples.  When people hear us speak and see us act, they should say to themselves either implicitly or explicitly, “Here is a person who listens to, and follows, Christ.”

And lastly, light serves as a warning; ;ike a lighthouse on a dark and rocky storm-swept shore that the ships at sea of the rocks and shoals.

Jesus praises us by calling us "lifeguards of the world."  Likewise, Jesus has high expectations for us to have the courage to offer fraternal correction to our brothers and sisters when they stray

You are salt and light.  You are God’s chosen instruments of good.  You are agents of purity and preservation.  You are the solicitors of righteousness and the illuminators of truth.  You are the voices of reason and warning.

And like salt and light, you cannot be contained.  The light of the earth must not put under a bushel basket.  Likewise, the salt of the earth cannot stay safe inside the salt shaker.  We must get out there into the world.  Like salt and light, we must penetrate every crevasse and corner of the world with the Gospel of Christ.