Thursday, September 29, 2016

What We Are Obliged to Do

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

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Jesus speaks to us often in metaphor when He wants to convey a truth about our relationship with God. Sometimes they may be relatively easy to understand, like the story of the prodigal son, telling us of God's mercy and desire to forgiving. But then there are times, as in this week's gospel reading from Luke 17:5-10, when we may be left scratching our heads.  What is Jesus trying to tell us here?

He asks if a master would ever tell his servant, just in from doing his job tending the sheep or plowing the field, to sit and dine at the table?  The answer is no.  The master would tell the servant to prepare a meal for him and wait on him while he ate.  Only when the master was finished would the servant eat his meal.  Jesus asks whether we would expect the master to be grateful to the servant for simply doing his job.  The implied answer is no.

To understand what is going on here, we need to get past our modern day notions of equality and affirmation.  Today, there would be nothing unusual about a boss thanking an employee for a job well done.  In fact, we expect it.  We'd consider an ungrateful employer to be a poor excuse for a boss.  Likewise parents routinely thank their children for completing household chores.  Teachers thank their students for turning assignments in on time.  We routinely give thanks to others and expect thanks in return.  

But this mutual exchange of gratitude is only possible between equals.  An employer and an employee in a company may hold different ranks, but they share an equal human dignity.  Not so with us and God. He is farther above us than the stars are above the earth.  We are not His equal, and this is the key to unlocking the metaphor.  

The servant in the story doesn't expect thanks for simply following his master's commands. So should be our attitude toward God. Christ tells the Apostles, "So it should be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’” (Lk 17:10).

God is our master and we are His servants. Is Jesus just telling us that God is an ungrateful master?  No. He's telling us something true and important about our relationship with God. Even though we are called to serve Him, it is we who should have the attitude of gratitude, and not of entitlement.

This parable is told in response to the Apostles asking Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus is telling them that if they want to grow in faith, it cannot be because they expect recognition or reward.  If we serve God because we think it will earn us accolades, then we are not really serving God; we are serving ourselves.  No matter how faithfully you serve God, there is nothing you can ever do that will earn favor before Him.  At the end of our lives, at our Judgment, it will always be us who should give thanks to God, not the other way around.

So then why serve Him at all? Why toil away doing the work of God if it won't earn us even a simple "thank you?" Why bother following the commandments? Why bother spreading the good news of salvation? Why bother working for peace and justice?

The only answer is because it is right.  The word justice comes from the Latin word jus, which means "right."  To do justice is to do the right thing. To follow God's commands is to do the right thing. To serve God, our Master and our Maker, is to do the right thing. We serve Him because it is good and right to do so; not because we expect any reward.

If we can learn to do this -- if we can learn to love and serve God, and by extension love and serve our neighbor, not for any praise our good works may earn us, but simply because it is the right thing to do -- then we will have increased in faith, and increased in true holiness.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Compete Well For the Faith

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

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This past weekend I accompanied a group of twenty-one college students on a retreat about Spiritual Warfare. As this Sunday's reading from 1 Timothy reminds us, our spiritual life is a battle.
But you, man of God, pursue righteousness,
devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.
Compete well for the faith.
Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called... (1 Tim 6:11-12)
This eternal life to which we are called by God is not a given.  It is something we have to lay hold of.  It is something we must compete for.

Here are some key aspects to spiritual warfare that we need to keep in mind.

The Devil is Real
There are two mistakes we can make about the Devil.  One is to not believe in him at all.  This makes his job easy, because you won't be on guard against a threat you don't perceive.  The second is to see him everywhere.  There is a tendency to attribute every evil and temptation to the Devil, and this gives him too much power.  It also leads to fear, which is a victory for Satan.  God tells us, "Be not afraid!"

Spiritual warfare is fought on three fronts.  We battle against the world, against the flesh, and against the Devil.  By "world" and "flesh" I don't mean that these things are inherently bad.  God made the world and He made us, so the world and the people in it are inherently good.  But we are fallen, and the world has fallen with us.  We have a tendency to sin (the fancy word for that is concupiscence).  We don't know how to govern our passions well.  And the world is full of other people who also have these consequences of the fall.

We have desires and impulses that can lead us into sin, so we have to be disciplined and govern our passions.  There are worldly influences that can also tempt us away from God.  We must fight against these, as well.  These are very real aspects of spiritual warfare.  But these are passive threats. The Devil is actively out to get you.  He hates you.  He wants you to go to hell.  While we are capable of damning ourselves without the help of Satan, he wants to make it as easy as possible. We must be on guard against the Devil.  If we don't know who our enemy is, we can't effectively engage in the battle.

You Are Not Alone
If that sounds scary, remember this--just like the Devil and his demons hate you and want to steer you toward hell, God and all the angels and saints love you and want to bring you to heaven.

The saints and angels are your comrades and fellow soldiers in the battle for your soul.  Get to know them.  Read the lives of the saints and imitate their holiness of life.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  There are young saints and old saints.  There are saints who are priests, and saints who were married. There are saints who were scientists and poets.  All their stories are different, but they all share one thing in common.  They competed well for the faith and won the victory promised in Christ.  They can show you how to do the same.

And don't forget the angels!  The Catholic Church teaches that we each have a guardian angel assigned to us by God (Mt 18:10).  Your angel has one task -- to help you get to heaven.  He is your greatest ally in the fight against the Devil.  Get to know your guardian angel.

Use Your Weapons
Every warrior needs a weapon. The Church provides us with many spiritual weapons and we need to learn to use them effectively.  Some of those weapons are prayer, scripture and the sacraments. If you are not going to Mass, if you are not praying daily, if you are not reading the scriptures, then you are not in the fight.  These things are vitally important.  But don't discount sacramentals.  One of the cool things about being Catholic is all the "stuff."  We have rosaries and saint medals and holy water.  We have icons and statues and scapulars.  All of these things (especially when blessed by a member of the clergy) are wonderful tools to help us compete for the faith throughout our day to day lives.

Don't go unarmed into battle with the Devil. Take advantage of your weapons!

Keep Up Your Defenses
In a lot of vampire fiction, vampires cannot enter a person's home unless they are invited.  No one would willingly do that, so a lot of story lines involve the vampires cunningly tricking unsuspecting victims to invite them inside.

Satan is sneaky. No one is going to open the door to a big scary demon who comes knocking.  The Devil comes in disguise.  Think about Adam and Eve.  Satan didn't tempt our first parents to fall with an obvious evil.  He tempted them with fruit.  He tempted them with knowledge.  He tempted them with things that appear to be good. That's how he operates.  Don't fall for Satan's Trojan horses.  Very often he tempts us with things we think will make us happy, but actually go against God's love for us.

And by all means don't play around with the occult!  Things like Ouija boards and Tarot cards are not toys.  Necromancy (attempting to communicate with the dead), witchcraft, astrology and other occult practices are specifically forbidden in the scriptures (Deut 18:9-12).  You may be tempted to play around with these things "for fun" but Satan can use them as vehicles to enter into your life.  Don't give him that opportunity.

We also have to be wary of accepting the devil in small ways.  He can enter in through gaps in your defenses through small, venial sins.  St. Teresa of Avila, in her spiritual classic, The Interior Castle, likened these to little lizards who enter in through cracks in the castle wall.  I raise sheep, and our pasture is protected by a strong fence. But it's not enough for me to build the fence.  I have to walk the perimeter on a regular basis to inspect it and make repairs as needed.  We need to do the same thing in spiritual warfare by making a daily examination of conscience and regular confession to a priest.  A good spiritual director also helps!

The War Has Been Won
This is the most important point of all.  The good news about spiritual warfare is that this war has already been won for us.  It would be wrong to think about Satan and God as two equally matched opposing forces.  They are not.  Satan is a powerful creature, but he is a creature.  God is the Creator. Jesus Christ has defeated the Devil definitively on the Cross.  If we stay close to Him, we will share in His victory.

The Choice is Yours
If God loves us and wants us to be with Him in heaven, and if Christ has already won victory over the Devil, then why do we have to fight?  Why does God allow Satan to have any influence over us at all? God loves us, and because of that love He made us with free will.  This freedom to choose is what allows us to love God.  But that same freedom makes it possible for us to reject Him.  God won't force us into heaven, but neither will God allow Satan to force you into hell.

God will not permit Satan to violate your free will (read the book of Job).  You have the choice between God and Satan.

Keep Fighting!
If you feel like you are struggling at times, don't despair!  That's to be expected. It can feel frustrating to repent of your sins, go to confession, and continue to struggle with the same sin.  But that struggle is good!  It means you are still in the fight!  It's when you stop struggling against sin and the Devil that you need to worry.

As I said above, Jesus Christ has already won this war.  With Christ as our commander, the only way we can possibly lose it to give up. So don't give up!  When you take a spiritual hit and fall into sin, get to confession, and get back in the fight.  Compete well for the faith!

Friday, September 9, 2016

A Christ Without Forgiveness is No Christ at All


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Rembrandt's depiction of the Prodigal Son
All of the readings in this Sunday's Mass underscore one basic theme -- God forgives.  You'd have to be blind to miss the message.

In the reading from Exodus, we see the Israelites just after God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Almost immediately, they turn from God to worship false idols.  And God forgives them.

In the reading from St. Paul's first letter to Timothy, Paul recounts how he was a blasphemer and a persecutor, the foremost of sinners.  And yet in Christ he has been forgiven, even to the point of being one of His Apostles.

And in our gospel reading from Luke, we find perhaps the greatest story of forgiveness, the parable of the Prodigal Son.  In this story Jesus tells as a metaphor of how eager God is to forgive the repentant sinner, the father runs to his son, embraces him and kisses him.  He throws a huge party!  God doesn't just forgive, He forgives lavishly, and with abundance.

You'd have to be blind to miss the message.  Sadly, so many are blind.  So many present a Christianity without redemption, a God without mercy, a Christ without forgiveness.  Such a Christ is no Christ at all.

Earlier this week I had a brief exchange with a woman who had given Christianity a try and found it left a bad taste in her mouth.  She's not Catholic, and I did not ask the denomination of the church she attended.  But she didn't find Christ there, because she didn't find forgiveness.  

She is a single mother.  Her status as a single mother marked her as a sinner, and that is how the people in that church viewed her.  They condemned her and made her feel like a person beyond redemption.  As she put it, "They condemned me for what I had done. But I couldn't go back and not do it.  I couldn't ever not have my child. So I knew I'd never be accepted there."

I tried my best to assure this young woman that what she heard preached in that church was not Christianity, but something else.  Let's go ahead and call it what it is -- heresy.  Christ came for one reason and one reason only -- to reconcile sinners to the Father.  He offers forgiveness.  A Christ without forgiveness is no Christ at all.

What would be the Catholic response to such a young mother? “Yes, you have sinned in the past. So have I. So has everyone. Sex outside of marriage is a sin. It’s no doubt one of many you have committed. But having that baby is not a sin. Being a mother is not a sin. These are good things, and occasions for grace! God offers forgiveness and mercy for the sins of our past. He also offers us strength to help us avoid sins in the future. He loves you. He wants to heal you and help you. He wants to show you the beautiful saint He intends for you to be. The Church is where you will find God’s mercy. The Church is where you will grow in grace. The Church is your home.”

If you are staying away from the Church because you are afraid you will be condemned for the actions of your past, have no fear.  The Church is full of sinners -- some of them reformed, many still working on it.  The one thing every Christian has in common is the realization that we are sinners in need of forgiveness.

But we must also realize, and trust in the fact, that God is eager to forgive.  How many Catholics avoid the confessional because they are afraid to face condemnation?  In fact, what is offered in the sacrament is the opposite of condemnation -- it is redemption!  We go to confession in order to turn the sorrow we feel over our sins into rejoicing!  Jesus tells us, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance" (Lk 5:7).

The only way God won't forgive us if it we don't ask.  The only limit on His mercy is our free will.  He wants to bring us to Himself, but He will not force us.

So if you feel shame over your sin, let it draw you to the Church, not away from it!  For it is in the Catholic Church were you will encounter Christ -- the real Christ -- who longs to draw you up to Himself on the cross, where He bears each one of your sins, so that you may rise to a new and holy life in Him.  

Friday, September 2, 2016

Counter-Cultural Wisdom


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On September 4, the Church will officially add to the canon of saints the name of a tiny Albanian nun who lived a radically counter-cultural life, embracing poverty and caring for the most down-trodden in society.  Why would anyone do such a thing?

The wisdom of the world would say this is foolishness. The world says that we should pursue fame and fortune, or at least a good job, a nice house, a couple of cars in the garage and a vacation every year.  These are the hallmarks of success.  Then again, Mother Teresa (soon to be St. Teresa of Calcutta) once said, "God did not call me to be successful; He called me to be faithful."

Sometimes that's hard, especially when the faith runs counter to prevailing cultural wisdom.  Jesus says some very counter-cultural things in this Sunday's gospel (Lk 14:25-33).  He says to hate your father and mother, renounce all your possessions, and to take up your cross--the instrument of your own torture and execution. Who would choose to do any of that?

The wisdom of God can sound like foolishness to our ears.  But why would we expect otherwise? Our first reading from the book of Wisdom (Wis 9:13-18) basically says, we have a hard enough time understanding worldly things, and we live in this world.  So what makes us think we can ever understand heavenly things?  We can't. We have to trust God to show us the path to holiness.

Christianity has for several generations now been in decline in the western world. The silver lining to this is that we get to be counter-cultural again.  In the early days of the Church, to be a Christian was to be a rebel.  It was to thumb your nose at what the world said you should consider important so that you could pursue a holy life, often at great personal risk.   Today once more, to be a practicing Christian is to be a rebel.

I had a conversation with a young woman who was about to be married, and who knew the Church's teaching about contraception. We had talked often about it.  But her mother offered a different wisdom.  You should be on the pill.  If you don't use contraception, you will never finish grad school.  If you don't use contraception, you'll never get a good job.  You need to use contraception.  It would be foolish not to.  Don't listen to the Church.

How often does the world tell us that if we follow Christian teaching, we won't really be happy?  The world tries to tell us that the Church doesn't really know what it's talking about.  It's outdated, or unrealistic, or impractical.  Following the Church's teaching is foolish.  But Jesus calls us to be faithful fools. He smiles and says, "Just trust me."

Jesus called a little Albanian girl to enter religious life and renounce all her possessions.  He called her to start her own order, dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor.  She had no idea how she would do it.  Jesus called her to be faithful.  He said, "Just trust me."  So she did.

Jesus does the same thing for you and I any time the teachings of the Church seem to run counter to the wisdom of the world.  He calls us to be faithful.  He says, "Just trust me."

God loves you more than you will ever know.  He created you. He knows the best way to call you to Him.  Often that call will run counter to the call of the world.  Sometimes His ways may seem foolish.  It's OK.  Be a fool.  Be a rebel.  Be counter-cultural.  But be faithful.  Trust in Him.