Sunday, October 30, 2005

Practice What You Preach

(31st Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 30 October, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

“What are you preaching on this week?” That is one of the most frequently asked questions whenever priests come together. We are always curious to hear what other priests will say about the Gospel on any particular Sunday.

Truth be told, we are often looking for some insight or new perspective that might help us with our own homily; and for good reason. One of the most serious obligations and also greatest joys of the priesthood is to proclaim the Gospel, to preach the saving message of God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ.

As you probably know, about a year before a priest is ordained to the priesthood, he is first ordained a deacon. On the day of his diaconate, the bishop hands him the Book of the Gospels and says:

Receive the Gospel of Christ,
whose herald you have become.
Believe what you read,
Teach what you believe, and
Practice what you teach.

It is indeed a serious obligation and tremendous joy, but preaching can also be an occupational hazard (especially when the preacher fails to accomplish that last part: Practice what you teach). All throughout history we have seen this, and each preacher or priest must struggle and wrestle with this in his own life. It’s not always easy to practice what you preach.

There is nothing new here. A long time ago, in the nation of Israel, the priests of the old covenant were under the same obligation. When they failed to live up to the message they were teaching, God sent the prophets to “remind” them. As He says this morning through the prophet Malachi:

“You have turned aside from the way and have caused many to falter by your instruction.” —Malachi 2:8

They were not practicing what they preached, and God was watching. He warns them to return to their faith, lest He should turn their blessing into a curse! It is a very strong message. The same holds true in the Gospel this morning. Christ, speaking about the religious leaders of His own day, says:

The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.
—Matthew 23:2-3

These are challenging readings, and I would like to think they make all of us a little uncomfortable, not just priests. For we are all called to know and live the Gospel message.

All of us, not just priests, are called to proclaim that message. What the bishop says to the deacon on the day of his ordination applies to every one of us as Christians. By virtue of our baptism, God, in a certain sense, says to us all:

Receive the Gospel of Christ,
whose herald you have become.
Believe what you read,
Teach what you believe, and
Practice what you teach.

And so I would like to ask you a question: What are you preaching on this week? Everyone in this Church this morning has been given a pulpit—either at home or in the workplace, among family and friends, or maybe even before perfect strangers; every Christian is called to preach the message of the Gospel. What is God asking you to share with the world we live in, and how is He calling you to live out that message?

Because there is an intimate connection between what we believe and profess and the way we live our lives. That’s the very thing Christ laments in the Gospel this morning: the scribes and Pharisees did not practice what they preached. There was a “disconnect” between their words and their actions. But when our words and actions are both working together, when both of them are united in procaliming God's meaasge of truth, it cannot but help to change and transform the lives of the people around us.

St. Francis of Assisi once said that we should proclaim the Gospel always, and use words when necessary. It is an often-misquoted line. He didn’t mean that we should never use words, but that the two of them should go together. Our actions speak every bit as loudly and clearly as our words when we preach the Gospel.

Everyone knows the great works of charity that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta performed in her time here on earth. But few people knew her concern was never just the bodies of the people she was caring for. She was also concerned with the care of their souls. She would often say to the dying, after she cared for their wounds and bandaged them, and comforted them: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe that He died to save you and to bring you to heaven?” She was preaching, using words to go with her actions.

One day a young man she was caring for responded, “Mother, I’ve never heard of Jesus before. Why should I believe in Him?” She replied, “Because He loves you and He wants to bring you to heaven. Do you believe?”

The man said, “Is He anything like you?” Mother Theresa was shocked. She said, “I try to be as much like Him as I can . . . I guess you could say that He is like me in that way.” The man said, “If Jesus is like you, then I believe in Jesus.”

Not everyone is called to preach the Gospel from the pulpit, and most of us won’t be called to preach it in the streets of Calcutta. But all of us are called to preach and teach the Gospel message of God’s forgiveness and mercy. And all of us are called to put into practice that saving message we preach.

Our lives might be the only homily the people around us will ever hear. If so, we should ask ourselves this morning, as well as each other: "What will you be preaching on this week?"

Sunday, October 23, 2005

God's Bumper Sticker

(30th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 23 October, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

You have seen them before, maybe even on your way into Church this morning. Those small plastic strips that we put on the backs of our cars; bumper stickers that reveal the most intimate and deepest secrets of the heart. Things like:
  • I Love New York.
  • I Love My Golden Retriever.
  • I Love My Parish Priest.

(If you don’t already have one, we will be selling these in the vestibule of the Church immediately after Mass this morning).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers us a bumper sticker that summarizes everything God wanted to say to the people of Israel, and to the rest of the world, as well: “Love God. Love Your Neighbor.”

Jesus says that “The whole law and the prophets depend upon these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40).

But what kind of love is Jesus talking about? Does he mean we should love God and neighbor the same way that we love New York, or as much as we love our Golden Retriever? Love can be a fairly ambiguous thing. A group of young children were asked to describe what love is, to give their own definition, and this is what some of them had to say:

Karen, age 7, said that, “When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you.”

Billy, age 5, had this to say: “Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.”

Now those are both definitions of love, but somehow I think what Jesus is calling us to in the Gospel involves a bit more than that. When we hear the word “love” in the Bible, we cannot automatically assume it means exactly what we think. God’s definition of love is often very different from our own.

There are several different words for love in the Greek language, the language that the New Testament is written in. The first one is called eros, and it is where we get the word erotic. It’s not a bad word; it is meant to describe the kind of love a husband and a wife share in their most intimate moments together.

Now, it becomes a bad word whenever we remove that kind of love from the relationship of a husband and wife. Pornography, extramarital sex, premarital sex, these are all abuses of the gift of love, eros, that God has given to a husband and wife.

But the word itself, eros, is a very good and holy thing. If we are going to love God and neighbor the way God calls us to, we need to have the right understanding of that kind of love, especially in the culture we live in.

The second word for love in the New Testament is philos, and essentially it is the kind of love we find in friendships; it’s where we get the word Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love) or philosophy (love of wisdom, wisdom as one’s friend or companion). It’s amazing that God comes to us in the Scriptures as a friend. Many times Christ refers to His disciples as friends. He Himself is the ultimate model of what a true friend should be.

But the word that Christ most often uses whenever he challenges us to love, whether it be God or neighbor, is almost always the word agape. Agape is that love which gives completely of itself in order to fill the other.

It is a selfless love, a self-giving love. St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, says that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” He emptied Himself on the cross, to give us the forgiveness of sins and to open the way to heaven. God loves us with the love that is agape.

That is also the same word that Jesus uses in the Gospel this morning when He says we must love God and love our neighbor. But how could we ever love the way God does? Where would we ever get the strength to love like that? In the Eucharist.

The early Christians, whenever they met to celebrate the Eucharist, would refer to that meal as the agape meal. It’s one of the first words used to describe the Mass. They didn’t call it the Mass; they called it the agape meal.

At the agape meal, they came together to remember the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. They celebrated that great love God has for us, and they were strengthened to love in the same way because they received the Body and Blood of Christ.

We gather together here this morning to share in that same agape meal, to remember the cross and the great love God has for us. As we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in this agape meal, may we be strengthened to live out Jesus’ command to love God and to love neighbor wherever we are called to do so this week—the way that God loves.

And may the world recognize that we belong to Christ, not just by our bumper stickers, but above all by the way we live and the way we love.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Church and State

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A; This homily was given 16 October, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

From the very foundation of the Church there has always been a kind of tension between the secular and the sacred, the Church and the State. People on both sides agree that there should be at least some kind of separation, even if they disagree about the nature of that separation.

But in the midst of all the debate on Church and State, we can sometimes forget that God is above all; He’s above the secular and the sacred. We can forget that God can—and does—use both to accomplish His will in this world. He uses both to bring glory to His name.

In the first reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel are in exile; they are longing for deliverance and for a leader who will bring them home and defend them against the nations who have treated them so poorly.

How surprising to find that God’s response to them—to their prayers and desires—is a king who knows not the God of Israel. God chooses for Himself a secular leader, King Cyrus from Persia, to deliver His people. As He says in Isaiah:

For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one, I have called you by your name . . . though you knew me not. —Isaiah 45:4

God goes so far as to call Cyrus His “anointed one”, literally His “Christ,” the one who He has chosen to be His instrument in the lives of the people of Israel. There is no separation of Church and State when it comes to God.

In the Gospel we have both the secular and the sacred united once again, but this time in an attempt to trip Jesus up, to trap Him in His words. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time, and the Herodians, the officials that King Herod had appointed—have teamed up to catch Jesus off guard. It’s a marriage of convenience—the Pharisees and the Herodians—united in a single effort to ensnare Him.

They ask, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” What a dilemma. Either Jesus is loyal to the oppressed people of Israel, or He is loyal to Caesar. And Jesus replies with that famous answer: “Whose image is [on the coin]?”


Then “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” It’s a great response! The short answer is, “Yes, it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar.” By no means does God advocate tax evasion. “Pay your taxes,” Jesus says.

But there is more going on here than just a clever response on the part of Jesus. Jesus is saying something more; He’s talking about the relationship between the secular and the sacred, politics and religion. We need to be careful that we do not misunderstand the relationship between these two. Each of them has it’s own legitimate dimension. The State cannot legislate religion. We know that. The Church, on the other hand, has no business determining the laws of the state. That would make it a theocracy; it’s what they have in Islam. God’s plan for us is different.

Yet there is—of necessity—a relationship between the two that does not allow a complete separation. Even the laws of the State have to be in line with the natural law, the law of God. The whole Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was based on this. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so successful in achieving equal rights precisely because he understood the connection between the Church and the State.

He was able to challenge the unjust laws of the State not because he was a great statesman, but because he was a man of God. He understood that racism and discrimination are not merely a legal problem; they cannot be eliminated by simply changing a few laws. Ultimately they are a moral problem, a spiritual sickness that requires a response from the State and the Church, as well.

That’s what Christ means when He says, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” As people of faith we have a responsibility to influence every aspect of life, not just the personal and private sphere. We should live our faith in such a way that it has an effect on all areas of life. We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, influencing everything around us. That’s what it means to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

There’s a great quote from C.S. Lewis that talks about this very need to prioritize our faith and the way we live our daily lives. He says that:

The men and women who did the most for this world, were the ones who thought mostly of the world to come. Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.

If you look at history, I think that you will find that nothing could be closer to the truth.

I was walking through Pawtucket City Hall the other day, and I passed by an alcove that had a display set up, and from the corner of my eye it looked like it could be a crèche scene, a manger scene. I thought to myself: “That’s impossible; there’s no way I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing here.

When I got closer I was shocked to find that it wasn’t a manger scene at all, but a memorial honoring Pope John Paul II . . . right there in the middle of Pawtucket City Hall! There was a bronze statue of the Pope, surrounded by hundreds of other statues of people from all over the world, from all walks of life. On the back wall there were dozens of magazine covers and newspapers with John Paul II on them, saying Mass, praying with people, addressing leaders of nations. It was remarkable.

A sign above the display said that they were observing Polish National Month, but if you think about it, it was really a testimony to the union of the sacred and the secular, a monument to a man who so lived out his faith in Christ and his vocation that it couldn’t help but spill over into all the areas of our world, both politics and religion, right into city hall itself. Pope John Paul II was a man who rendered
“to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

As we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist in this sacred place this morning, let us take a moment to acknowledge that all things are of God’s making, and He is able to bring glory to His name in both the Church and the State.

And may we also be aware of the fact that God desires to transform the world here in this place this morning, but also in the workplace and in the office on Monday morning and on Tuesday afternoon. We offer Him this morning every aspect of our lives, all that we are. And may we truly discover in our lives this week that we have repaid “to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Reclaiming the Vineyard

(27th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 2 October, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich R.I.)

I think that all of us by now are familiar with the images of the destruction left in the wake of the hurricanes that hit the gulf coast. We can only imagine what it would be like to return to a home that has been transformed, overnight, into ruins.

And that is the very picture we are given in the first reading this morning. Isaiah describes a vineyard which was carefully established by God, a vineyard that was built to bear fruit and new life, but instead it has yielded nothing but wild grapes. The owner of that vineyard returns to find it quite the opposite from what had intended all along.

This Sunday is Respect Life Sunday, a chance for all of us to thank God for the gift of life, but also an opportunity for us to look at our own backyard, our own vineyard—as a country or perhaps even more locally as a state—and to ask if it is everything that the Lord intended.

Ten years ago, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life. In that encyclical he spoke about two opposing forces that he called the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death.

It is easy to see that the second of those two is not at all what God had in mind when he created us. Taking just a couple of sentences from that encyclical, you can figure out whose vineyard John Paul II is talking about. He writes:

Broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom . . .

The fact that legislation in many countries, perhaps even departing from basic principles in their Constitutions, has determined not to punish these practices against life, and even to make them altogether legal, is both a disturbing symptom and significant cause of grave moral decline.

-Evangelium Vitae, #4

It is the vineyard described by the prophet Isaiah, something altogether different from the plan God began in the Garden of Eden.

And the numbers can be so daunting, the issues in biomedical ethics so complicated, the Culture of Death so nebulous and vast, that we can begin to wonder if anything that we do will make any difference whatsoever. We can easily feel helpless to change the vineyard around us into the Culture of Life that God intended from the beginning.

I used to pray the rosary, on Saturday mornings, outside the abortion clinic on Atwells Avenue. There were always dozens of people who would go and pray there, hoping to turn away at least one person, to possibly change one person’s mind. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it did not.

I remember one day in particular, as we prayed on the sidewalk of that clinic, I looked up into the large plate-glass window of the second floor and saw a young woman who had entered the clinic earlier that morning.

She was facing out, her hands pressed against the glass, as if she could leave that place just by wishing with all her might and all her will that she was someplace else; someplace far, far away. I felt so completely helpless and so terribly sad for that woman, who probably understood very little of what was taking place around her.

Not long after that I entered the seminary, and I was away studying when I learned about what happened to that clinic on Atwells Avenue. You may have heard of the Mother of Life Center. It is a building in Providence, directly across the street from that clinic on Atwells Avenue. It was built by several people of our diocese who were determined to do something to respond to the Culture of Death so evident in our own backyard.

They received permission from Bishop Mulvee to put a chapel in that Mother of Life Center, and to reserve the Blessed Sacrament there. Not long after that, they discovered that the abortion clinic across the street was closing down.

It might not sound like much and it doesn’t eliminate all the problems that still exist, but it’s something. It’s a ray of hope and a reminder to us all that the Culture of Life that God intended still has a place in this world.

In 1994, a doctor named Theresa Karminski Burke published a book called Rachel’s Vineyard; It described a support group model for counselors, that offered help for women who were grieving the loss of their aborted children. One year later, the same year that John Paul II wrote Evangelium Vitae, Dr. Burke began to organize retreats for women who had suffered that tragic loss.

Women from all over the country began to travel great distances to attend these retreats. Today they are available in almost every state, offering healing and hope to thousands of mothers who have suffered the loss of a child through abortion, and the tremendous pain, guilt and sorrow that goes along with that.

Again, it may not seem like much on the grand scale. It doesn’t solve everything. But it points to the reality that God has not yet given up on this vineyard. Through places like the Mother of Life Center, and programs like Rachel’s Vineyard, God is taking back the vineyard, one abortion clinic at a time, one woman at a time, one mind and heart at a time, for each and every one of us who will listen.

This morning we need to listen carefully to discover what exactly God is asking us to do. We won’t all be called to build a center for unwed mothers; most of us won’t write a book. But all of us can pray the rosary. We can all stand up and witness to the Culture of Life in some way, somehow, in the world we live in. Christ is counting on us to do exactly that.