Saturday, October 22, 2016

Homily 2016/10/23 - Re-ad-JUST

Before Mass:
Of all the people in here today, Who’s prayer does God listen to?  … is it Father Eugene’s prayers?  Is it the people sitting in the front row?  The people in the back row?  Is it the people who follow all the rules and DESERVE to be heard by God?  Is it people who kneel to pray – or those who stand with their hands in the air?  Who’s prayer does God hear best?  The answer to that question is in every reading – so listen to the answer…- AND listen for where YOU are in these readings….so you can answer the real question:  Does God hear MY prayer?

Before I get back to the question of whose prayers God hears, we need to talk about that one word at the end of the Gospel.  Jesus used a word here which may not mean anything to us:  He said the tax collector went home ‘JUSTIFIED’.  What’s that mean, and why is that important?  Justified means to be set right.  So in this case, it means his relationship with God was set right. 
Let me use an example:  Deer season is upon us – and all of us hunters take out our crossbows or guns and take a few practice shots aiming directly at the center of a target.  What do you do after you take a shot?  You check where you hit.  Then you take another shot to see where it hits – and once you realize how far off your shot is, you adjust your sights.  On the side of the scope is an adjustment where you can click it a couple of times to move the scope up or down or right or left… the goal of that is so when you take a shot with the scope pointed directly at the center of the target, the arrow or bullet hits that target.
So – what if you buy the best gun and the best ammo, even buy the best targets in the world… then took your practice shot, and didn’t even LOOK at where the arrow landed?  Or – what if you looked at it and said – yeah, I’m way off, but it doesn’t matter.  What’s gonna happen when you take a shot at that 22 point buck that swaggers up to your deer stand?  The arrow will fly past the target and the buck will get away.  If we don’t look at our shot and adjust our sights, then taking practice shots is a waste of time and ammunition…and we’ll go hungry this winter.
In our spiritual life, we do the same thing… it’s called prayer.  When we pray, it’s not about looking at everything that WE have done.  It’s not about what sacrifices WE made or how many prayers WE did… Prayer is about looking at our shots and honestly recognizing where we are off…where we need to adjust our sights.  For example, in my prayer I might walk through my day – thanking God for the blessings I received along the way – but also recognizing where I blew it.  Maybe I lost my temper and said some things I shouldn’t have.  Maybe I gave into temptation.  Maybe God put someone in my path who needed help, but I chose to look the other way.  When I see those points where my arrow missed the mark, then I need to adjust my scope.  Obviously, my scope must not be pointed directly at God.  Now – how do I adjust the scope?  Prayer:  I can’t do it alone… I must beg God for his mercy for missing the mark, then ask Him to help me readjust my sights. 
Notice I said – “readjust” my sights…. “Adjust” comes from the same word that Jesus used… “Justified”.  When my scope is pointed directly at God, then my scope is JUSTIFIED… it is set right… pointed in the right direction.  When it points away from God, even just a little, I miss the mark… and literally, the word ‘sin’ means ‘ missed the mark’.  Prayer is about adjusting our hearts to point to God.  If prayer doesn’t change us, it’s not really prayer!  If we’re not re-aiming our thoughts and hearts toward God, if we’re not justifying our sights… then God won’t hear our prayer because it’s not really a prayer!
Back to our question: Who’s prayer does God hear the best?  We heard several answers in the readings:  “he hears the cry of the oppressed”, He is “not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow”…”The one who serves God willingly is heard”, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds”, the one who humbles himself will be exalted, and of course, our psalm “the lord hears the cry of the poor”.
You could sum all of that up with the phrase that Jesus used in the Beatitudes… Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.  See, Jesus chose his words carefully – he could have chosen a word for poor which means – someone who has a home – but has trouble making ends meet.  Instead he chose the word for someone who is destitute… implying that they have no home – no job – no way to live - their only recourse is to beg.  So, we could reword the psalm to say “the Lord hears the cry of the Beggars”
Think about what that means to be a beggar:  you have no means to take care of yourself.  You are COMPLETELY at the mercy of the person to whom you are begging.  If they don’t feel gracious that day, you or your kids might go to bed hungry.  From that perspective, that makes it REALLY good news that “The lord hears the cry of the beggars.”
Which takes us to the Gospel – Jesus implies that the Tax Collector’s prayer was heard.  Why?  First look at the Pharisee:  what made his prayer NOT be heard?  Was it because he sat in the front row?  Because he dared to approach God without fear?  Was it his words?  Nothing he said was untrue… but they give us a view into his heart.  See – he thought that by doing all of these RELIGIOUS things, he could earn his own salvation.  That’s an important point, so don’t miss it:  He thought all of his fasting and tithing and outward religiousness made him RICH in spirit, so that he already possessed the mercy of God… because he deserved it.  The Pharisees were the goodest of the good people… in today’s terms, they went to church every day, they fasted twice a week (even though the requirement is only to fast on Fridays during Lent), they gave their full 10 percent to the church.  If anybody DESERVED the mercy of God, these guys did.  But Jesus says that his prayer wasn’t answered.  Now hopefully you’re feeling the same thing his hearers did that day, “What?  If THESE guys’ prayers aren’t heard, then there is NO hope for us!”
The Tax Collector, on the other hand.  In today’s terms, this guy is from ISIS… the baddest of the bad.  What made HIS prayer be heard?  Was it because he stood at a distance?  Was it because he wouldn’t raise his eyes to God?  Was it his words?  None of the above – although they all give us a clue about why he was heard:  it’s because he was poor in spirit.  He recognized that HE could do nothing to gain the favor of God.  He was destitute when it came to spiritual matters, and all he could do was BEG.  The lord hears the cry of the Beggar.
So each of us can enter into our own prayer every day in one of two ways – we can swagger in and list off for God all of OUR accomplishments in order to REMIND him that He OWES us something – or we can look honestly at where we’ve missed the target and recognize that we are destitute – that we are beggars… we don’t deserve our next breath!  Much less, do we deserve any mercy or other favors from God. 
Prayer that does not change us or re-set our sights is not prayer. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

2016/10/02 - Exercising Faith

Notice it was the apostles who asked to have their faith increased… the APOSTLES…the inner circle… if anybody in the world would have faith, surely it would be them.  They walked with Jesus – heard him speak – they SAW HIS MIRACLES.  They spent 24 hours a day in His presence….and yet, THEY asked for more faith???  If you and I sometimes doubt our faith, we can take comfort in the fact that these super-Christians, these first Bishops of the Church, were also having doubts.  Most of us would echo their request, “Lord, Increase our Faith”.

What’s confusing is Jesus’ response to that request.  First – he tells them that if you had just the smallest amount of faith, you would do the impossible.  In other words, he’s kinda telling them they don’t even have faith yet!  Then he jumps into that parable of the unprofitable servant…and if you’re like me, you wonder, what does THAT have to do with increasing our faith?!

If you learn nothing else, hear this definition of faith which I heard from Bishop Robert Barron:  “Faith is an attitude of Trust and confidence in God.”  (repeat)

How DO we get more faith…How do we learn to Trust God more?  Is faith something you get when you’re young and carry with you the rest of your life?  Or is it something you grow out of?  You don’t grow out of it – but like a muscle – if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.  I may have had good arm muscles in high school, but since I went into computers, they didn’t continue to get exercised…so they went back to the arms of a 90 pound weakling.

Faith is like a muscle – it only grows when it is fed and exercised.  Think about that metaphor, because I think it’s really a good one.

Like a muscle, Faith is something we originally receive from God when we’re first created.  God plants a homing device in each of us which guides us back to Him. But it’s our choice whether we want our Faith Muscle to grow.  We can’t just ask Jesus to “increase our faith”… WE have to exercise it.  Building our Faith is like building Muscle.

It might be easier to understand if we substitute Faith with the word Trust, as Bishop Barron pointed out.

How do we build trust in God – how do we exercise our own faith muscle?
- I can trust in my wealth, or I can choose to trust that God will provide.
- I can place my trust in my abilities. (strength, brain, understanding) – or I can trust that God make it happen
- I can trust my own life’s plan – so God doesn’t have a place to make His presence known.  If I don’t give him the chance to take credit, I’ll never recognize His presence …and only in recognizing His miracles will my trust in Him grow.

-Most of us fill our day with one thing after another and we fill-in any gaps with technology like phones, ipad, TV, video games – or I can schedule in time for God – time to pray – time to be silent - time to do something for someone – time to read a good Christian book… in short – schedule time for God to speak to me.

No matter what I do, I shouldn’t expect ‘thanks’ or some sort of payback…. That’s part of the entitlement mentality of our American culture of today… If I do ‘this’, I deserve ‘that’.  If I spend 10 minutes in prayer to God, he owes me more faith.  If I do a good job today working for the parish at the social, I deserve something in return from God.

That’s the point, I think, of the parable of the unprofitable servant.  We should concentrate on the job in front of us – doing what we are obliged to do – and not expect any special recognition or thanks.  I should just trust that in doing my job, I am fulfilling the will of God.

I’m sure every one of us has someone we can look up to that was a person of faith…someone who seemed to automatically put their trust in God.  For example, My mom was a woman of faith.  What’s that mean, she was a “woman of faith”?  It means She Trusted God.  How did she get to that point – and more importantly – how can we get the faith that she had?  Let’s look a little bit at her life.

She was born into a poor family with a dozen brothers and sisters.  Immediately, church was a central part of their lives – daily prayers – rosaries – going to Mass together.  These actions helped to build a foundation of Faith that would carry her through the rest of her life.

She married Dad when she was 19 and went on to have eleven kids herself.  Two of them died before age three, which had to make her heart heavy.  Money was tight and they lived in the bad part of town.  Many months they weren’t sure how they would make it to the next paycheck.  They learned to make do with what they had.  She could pinch a penny so tight it would squeeze out dimes.  She would cut coupons, run to every store to find bargains like double-coupon days.  The kids would wear the same clothes until they were thread-bare – then we’d get some “new” clothes either as hand-me-downs from cousins or from a yard sale.  People in the community recognized the need, and they would just drop-off clothes or food.  It never even occurred to me (until writing this homily) that this was charity… it was simply what people did… anybody who has excess of something would share it with somebody else.  Looking back, I can see how Mom had to swallow her pride to accept that charity…. But she never showed it.

She ran her kids everywhere, cooked meals, cleaned the house, did the shopping, cut hair, baked cakes to bring in some extra money, helped kids with homework, bathed them – all the things a stay-at-home Mom would do… and never expected a thanks.  As if that wasn’t enough, she took care of foster children for many years and even adopted my youngest sister… one more person to share the love with.  Mom’s only reward was watching her kids grow. 

Her greatest heart-ache was also her kids.  Somebody was always picking a fight over some silly thing. Like most kids….we all made some bad choices as we grew, and it would tear at her heart.  She prayed for us daily that God would show us the way, and I’m sure she cried herself to sleep at night wondering if God would ever intervene.  I learned yesterday that she actually carried a rosary in her pocket to pray for her kids, and she and Dad had a special parent’s prayer they’d pray daily.

In the end, every one of her kids grew into strong Christians –active in their Churches spread across the country.  Her lifelong mission was to get her kids to heaven – and it seems she successfully passed on the Faith to the next generation…. Which is remarkable in our society today.

What gave her such faith?  She was forced to exercise it.  I’m sure she asked God many times, “How Long, O Lord”.  But she continued to do the job in front of her.  That’s a key point:  when she couldn’t make sense of what was happening, she simply trusted that God would work it out – and she turned her attention to the job at hand:  raising her family.  She couldn’t place her trust in money, but had to trust that God would show her how to make it through or send angels would deliver hand-me-down clothes and day-old donuts to fill the gap in the budget.  She couldn’t plan her kids’ lives for them, but had to trust that the foundation of faith she had given them would one day carry them into an adult faith.

And when she approached the throne of God a year ago today, I’m sure God was smiling down at her for being the faithful servant – but – as with the servant in the Gospel, I’m sure her response was:
                          …“I merely did what I was obliged to do”