Sunday, September 30, 2012

The What, How & Why of Sin

Homily From the 26th Week of Ordinary Time - Year B

When problems occur, it seems that three questions are automatically asked: What happened?”  How did this happen?”  and “Why did this happen?”

The first question assesses the situation.  What happened?”  Like when I was seven and we found my pet parakeet, Sam, lying dead on the bottom of his cage.  My father asked, “What happened?”  “Sam’s dead” I said.

Then my father asked the second question, “How did this happen to Sam?  How did Sam die?”  Looking at Sam’s empty food and water dishes (which, I think had been empty for a number of days) I said, “I think Sam starved to death.”

Then my father preceded to the third and final question, “Why did this happen to Sam?  Why did Sam starve to death?”  So I thought to myself, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure Sam’s food and water dishes had been empty for a number of days.  And it’s my job to fill his dishes” I responded, “Because I didn’t feed him.”

When we go to confession, we confess the “what” of our sins.  What happened?”
“I got angry.”  “I was impatient.”  “I stole $20 bucks from my brother.”

However, if we really want to work at solving the problem of sin, we should also ask how it happened and why it happened.  At the end of confession, when we pray our Act of Contrition, we make what’s called “a firm purpose of amendment.”  We pray to avoid sin as well as “the near occasion of sin.”  This “near occasion of sin” is often the how and why of the problem of sin.  In the Gospel, Jesus wishes to bring to light, the how and the why of our sin.

Sometimes, the near occasion of sin is a person.  Jesus says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin...” (Mk 9:42)  Now when Jesus uses the term “little ones” he doesn’t necessarily mean just children.  “Little ones” can mean all the children of God; all of us.

Who then, is the “whoever” that is the cause of sin?  Is it a drinking buddy?  Is it an enabler of some addiction?  Is it a boyfriend or girlfriend?

If there is a “whoever” in our life that causes us to commit grave sin rather than helping us grow in holiness, we need to separate ourselves from that person if they are unwilling to repent; for our sake as well as theirs.  As Jesus said, “it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mk 9:42)

And sometimes, the near occasion of sin is ourselves.  Jesus says, “If you hand causes you to sin... if your foot causes you to sin... if your eye causes you to sin...” (Mk 9:43-47)  If there is something within us that causes us to sin, we need to cut it out of our lives.

Now, I don’t believe Jesus is suggesting we literally pluck out an eye if we fall into the occasion of lust.  If so, we’d all be walking around blind. What Christ is saying, of course, is the absolute need to rid ourselves of the how and why of our sin that is within us.  Jesus uses extreme language to ask us the question, “Have you done absolutely everything to avoid the near occasion of sin?”

Jesus is asking us to consider the how and why behind the what of our sins.  Like an illness, if we want to treat the sickness of sin, we must get to the root of it.  Treating a symptom is reactive therapy.  Treating the cause of the symptom is the key to true eradication of sickness and the path to healing.

Confessing addiction to porn is one thing.  Discovering the reason for our attraction to porn is another.

Now, just one more word about cutting out the cause of sin.  As absolutely necessary as this is as one of the first steps to recovery, cutting out the cause of sin alone will never be enough.  It must replaced with some good.  We are created by God with a natural, built-in desire for Him and all that is good.  We all have, as is often said, a God-sized hole in our heart.  He has implanted within our hearts a space only He can occupy.  We sin when we try to fill the God-sized hole in our heart with created things.

If we want to eliminate a vice, we have to cultivate it’s opposite virtue.  If we want our hearts to be freed of evil, good must take evil’s place.  Otherwise, we’re just left with a heart with a hole in it and the temptation will grow stronger to fill it with vicious things.  We need to let God fill our hearts with virtuous things.

Confessing addiction to porn is one thing.  Discovering the reason for attraction to porn is another.  Turning our gaze away from porn towards a higher, Godly love is yet another.

Today, our parish celebrates our patronal feast day.  And perhaps better than any other Saint, the name of Vincent de Paul, is synonymous with the virtue of charity.  When he was first ordained a priest, St. Vincent formed close friendships with the very rich.  And in those early years, he grew comfortable with the hospitality the wealthy showed him.  He discovered the priest Christ was truly calling him to be by turning his attention toward the poor.

So, today, let us ask our patron, St. Vincent de Paul, to intercede for us that we may grow in the virtue of charity.  That the God-sized hole in our heart may be filled with this charity.  And that it may root out the cause of any sin that dwells in our heart.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

So Long Self

Homily From the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B

This past weekend, 70 7th & 8th grade girls took part in the annual Edge girls’ retreat.
They had a great time, grew stronger in their faith, and strengthened the bonds of friendship between them.

The theme of the retreat was “So Long Self.”  And the weekend was all about, putting away the our old self and putting on the new self of Jesus Christ.  Putting away sin and putting on holiness; putting away hatred and putting on charity; putting away ambition and putting on meekness; putting away pride and putting on humility.

In our Gospel today, we hear about the growing pains of the Apostles.  They are arguing among themselves about which one is the greatest and Jesus has to call them out on it.

My brother has a dog named Molly.  When Molly gets into trouble, my brother will give her a stern look, point his finger at her and sternly ask, “What did you do?!  What did you do?!”
And Molly always reacts the same way: she will stay where she is, but she will slowly turn her head away from the direction of my brother’s voice.

When Jesus and the Apostles arrive at the house, he asks them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  And you remember how the disciples react: they remained silent.

Jesus does that to us.  As we grow closer to Christ, we become more acutely aware of our own failings.  As we enter into his light more fully, he illuminates our sins all the more.  It’s ironic.  As we grow in holiness, we are made more aware of our sinfulness.  That’s because we are moving, as I said, into his light.

When you’re driving at night, and another car comes from the opposite direction, their headlights reveal the minute cracks in the windshield.  Every squashed mosquito is lit up.  We see all the defects, all the gunk.  When we drive away from the light, we don’t see anything.

If we’re on a course away from Christ, we will remain oblivious to our sin.  If we’re on a course toward him, he will reveal to us our defects in order to make us strong.

And he does so, not as my brother does with his dog Molly.  Jesus doesn’t wag his finger at us and shout “Bad dog!”  Rather, he says to us, “You are good.  The defect of sin is now who you truly are.”

It’s not that Jesus reveals to us how bad we are.  Rather, he reveals to us how good we are.  
So, of course, when we realize how good we are, we’re all the more ashamed of our sins.

That’s the difference between unhealthy and healthy shame.  Unhealthy shame is when we say to ourselves, “Bad dog!  You’re worthless.”  Healthy shame says, “I’m better than this.  I want Christ to make a change in me.”

And Christ is always there to move us to conversion.  To create in us, a heart more like his.

In the Gospel, Jesus gives the Apostles and us an instruction in conversion of heart.  As we heard, the Apostles were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  And Christ tells them, “If you want to be first, you must be last; and you must be a servant to all.” (c.f. Mk 9:35)

So he takes a child and says, “If you receive a child like this, you receive me and the One who sent me.” (c.f. Mk 9:37)  Why a child?  Well, you have to understand how the world regarded children 2,000 years ago.  It was very different from how we view children today.
Today, we regard children as precious.  Back then, children were considered, in a sense, to be on the lowest rung of society.  Children held no social status of any value.  They weren’t people of prestige or influence.  They didn’t bring anything to the table as it were.  Rather, quite the contrary, they were the neediest people in society.

Christ is saying, “If you wish to be great, you must embrace the neediest in society.”
Remember how he presents this child to the Apostles?  Jesus wraps his arms around the child.  And in doing so, Jesus is saying, “This child and I are one in the same.  The neediest in society and I are one in the same.”  “And if you want me to be concerned about you, you must me concerned about me in the neediest in society.”

This week, and next, our parish celebrates our patron St. Vincent de Paul, the patron Saint of the poor and needy.  Today, we had a bit of a party with VincentFest.  After this Mass, our teens will have a bonfire outside the Life House.  Next week, we’ll celebrate the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul at all our weekend Masses.  And we’ll be taking up a second collection for our St. Vincent de Paul society which works so generously to attend to the needs of the poor.  I want to thank you in advance for your generosity to the St. Vincent de Paul society, both financially and prayerfully.  Thank you for embracing the neediest in our community.  In doing so, you are embracing Christ, who has first embraced you and reveals to you how good you are.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Who is Jesus? Who is His Disciple?

Homily from the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah states that he did not shield his face from buffets.  One time, Fr. Mark pointed that verse out to me and then he pointed out to me something about myself.  He said, “Isaiah did not shield his face from buffets.  And you have not shielded your face from buffets!” (pronounced: buff-fays)

This is the year of the Gospel of Mark in our lectionary cycle and we’ve now made our way through the first half of the Gospel.  The Gospel of Mark is a Gospel divided up into two halves.  If you sit and read the entire Gospel in one sitting, you might notice the distinction of these two halves.  And each of these halves seeks to answer a huge question.

The first half of the Gospel of Mark seeks to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?”  As you read through the first half, you’ll notice that certain people know who this Jesus is very clearly.  First of all, there’s the author of the Gospel itself, St. Mark the Evangelist, who starts his tome with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mk 1:1)

Then, interestingly enough, it is demons and unclean spirits who know who Jesus truly is.  In the first chapter, there’s a man possessed, and the demon cries out to the Lord, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth... I know who you are - the Holy One of God!” (Mk 1:24)  In another place, Jesus “drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.” (Mk 1:34)  In chapter three, “whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, “You are the Son of God!” (Mk 3:11)  In the fifth chapter, another man with an unclean spirit runs up to Jesus, prostrates himself before the Lord and cries out in a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mk 5:7)

And at the same time, throughout the first half of the Gospel, there are a number of people who do not know who Jesus is.  Ironically, the one’s who fail to see Jesus’ true identity are those closest to him, his own disciples.  The disciples, who have heard time and again, these unclean spirits proclaim Jesus as the Son of God, are so dense, when they see Jesus miraculously calm the storm at sea, ask the question: “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” (Mk 4:41)  Later, when Jesus is walking on the water, “they thought it was a ghost.” (Mk 649)

Until we reach today’s reading, which is the halfway point of the Gospel of Mark.  Finally today, one of the disciples gets it right.  Peter confesses, “You are the Christ.”

Jesus is not just a powerful preacher of a good moral code.  Jesus is not just a wonder worker who wants to persuade us to follow him because he dazzles us with miracles.  Jesus is the Son of God.  He is the Christ.  He is the one, sent specifically by the Father specifically to us specifically to convert us from sin to righteousness.  And that fact demands a radical response from us.

Which leads us into the second half of the Gospel of Mark and the question it seeks to answer which is “Who is a disciple of Jesus?”

When Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Jews at that time were expecting something along the lines of a great military leader who would lead the Jews to victory over the Romans.  However, Jesus immediately reveals to them that he has quite a different mission.  He predicts his passion the first of three times.  “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected... and be killed, and rise after three days.” (Mk 8:31)  This is not at all what the Jews expect in a Messiah.  They expect him to conquer, not be killed, which is why Peter pulls him aside and tells him not to go to Jerusalem to be killed.

Jesus reveals to Peter, to the other disciples, and to us, that if we really want to be a disciple “whoever wishes to come after [him] must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow [him].  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Christ’s] sake and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8:35)

Then Jesus leads them in a new direction.  Up to this point, the disciples have been following Jesus north.  Until, as we heard in today’s Gospel, they reach Caesarea Phillipi, the northernmost point of Jesus’ missionary territory.  Now, that Peter has confessed Jesus as Messiah and the disciples know his true identity and mission, Jesus turns south in the direction of Jerusalem which will be the place of his death.  And to be a disciple of Jesus means to follow him to the same destiny.

As Jesus and the disciples make their way south towards Jerusalem, he tells them two more times that he must be handed over, condemned, mocked, spit upon, scourged and put to death.  You would think that the disciples would have remembered Jesus earlier command to take up their cross and follow him.  Surely one of them perhaps would have asked, “Lord, must I follow you to death?”  But no, they still don’t get it.  How do the disciples react after Jesus predicts his passion?  They argue about which one of them is the greatest (Mk 9:33-37)  and then James and John ask Jesus if they can have the seats on his right and left in the Kingdom. (Mk 10:35-45)

But Jesus reminds James and John, that if they want to be his disciples, they must drink the cup that he drinks and be baptized with his baptism.  Jesus’ cup and baptism is the cross.  And whoever wishes to follow Christ to the Kingdom must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.

It’s not enough to be an admirer of Jesus.  I admire Einstein.  But Einstein is not my salvation.  It’s not even enough to be a believer in Jesus.  The demons believe in Jesus.  They know he exists, so they believe... but they do not follow.  We must be followers of Jesus.  We must walk in his footsteps no matter the pain or the cost.  That’s what it means to be a disciple.

I used to think that taking up one’s cross meant bravely facing difficult challenges, enduring hardships and gracefully tolerating pain and suffering.  But I don’t think that’s what taking up one’s cross essentially means.  All those things, facing challenges, hardships and suffering, are consequences of taking up one’s cross.  But what taking up one’s cross essentially means is following Christ no matter what.

It means if we’re faced with the decision of following Christ or following someone who leads us away from Christ, we follow Christ.  It means if we’re faced with the decision of choosing to imitate Christ or choosing a behavior or habit that is un-Christlike, we imitate Christ.
It means if we’re faced with pleasing Christ or pleasing someone else instead, we please Christ.  It means if we’re faced with the decision of following Christ’s Gospel and His Church or following a competing philosophical ideology, or a competing erroneous theology, or a competing political platform, we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Because Jesus Christ is the Son of God and we are either his disciples or not.