11th Sunday of Ordinary Time

This weekend’s homily:

We walk by faith and not by sight. That’s what Saint Paul says in today’s second reading. And, he’s right. And not just in the spiritual sense that you might be thinking. When we physically walk, when we put one foot in front of the other to get from here to there, we walk by faith. We have faith we won’t fall on our faces. We have faith we won’t get struck by lighting or hit by a car. Without faith we couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Faith is crucial to our existence.

Of course, Paul IS talking about spiritual faith. Our faith, which we call the Catholic faith, expects us to believe a lot of things that we can’t believe by sight. Last week we celebrated the Body and Blood of Christ as we receive them in the Eucharist. They look like bread and wine. They smell like bread and wine. They taste like bread and wine, but our faith tells us otherwise.

Two weeks ago we celebrated the Holy Trinity, one God, three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can’t understand that intellectually. We must have faith.

In just a little while I’ll be marrying a couple here at Saint John’s. I’ll remind them that a sacramental marriage isn’t just permission for them to live together. We believe that there will be an actual change in them, making them one. It’s another one of those things that we have to see through our faith. They won’t look any different. They’ll still be the same people, but there will be an actual change and the longer they’re together, the more obvious that will be. Those of us who have been married for a long time know it’s true.

There are some other things that our faith teaches. Some are hard to accept just using our puny human minds. Some are a little more obvious. Here are some things that our Church teaches us.

  • Abortion is ALWAYS wrong.
  • The use of artificial birth control is a sin.
  • Cohabitation outside of marriage is a sin.
  • Marriage is only to be between a man and a woman.
  • Homosexual acts are always sinful.
  • You’re supposed to go to mass every week.
  • You should receive the sacrament of reconciliation on a regular basis.
  • The Ten Commandments are not suggestions.

I could go on, but here’s the thing. You can attend mass every week at a lot of Catholic parishes and you would never know these things are part of the faith. Why not? Easy. A lot of priests and deacons don’t like to talk about sin. We don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. We don’t want to make anybody mad. God forbid you should stop giving to the church because the truth hits too close to home. Of course, we also don’t want to face our own sins.

All these things are like the mustard seeds that Jesus talks about in the Gospel. They can start small but they can grow very large. See, there’s this guy called Satan. You may remember him. You used to hear a lot about him. But he’s clever. He’s managed to convince a lot of us that he’s not around anymore. Trust me, he is. And like that little mustard seed, once he gets into your life, he’s hard to get rid of. A good public relations man will tell you that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but in Satan’s case he’s done an amazing job of keeping himself out of the limelight. Evidence of his work is all around us, but so many of us just don’t believe he exists. But, I digress.

Jesus didn’t tell this story to teach us about agriculture. He told it to teach us about faith. We have to have it. Everybody has it. Even atheists have faith. It may be misguided, but it’s THEIR faith. They have faith that this life is all there is. Lucky for them, God still loves them like He loves each one of us.

So these seeds we have can be good or bad. Whatever they are, by living our lives we sow these seeds. What we have to ask ourselves is whether we’re sowing good seeds or bad. What kind of faith are we showing to the people around us? It’s not an easy question to face and even harder to answer.

 

 

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1st Sunday of Lent

 

Temptation.  It’s everywhere.  We live in a secular world that goes out of its way to discourage us from living Christian lives.  Our kids see things on television, in movies, and even in video games that tempt them to sin.  Prime time television brings things into our living rooms that just a few years ago would have been scandalous and would have never gotten past the censors.  With very few exceptions it seems like anything goes.

 

Today’s Gospel is all about temptation.   Jesus has gone off by himself in the dessert.  Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit led Him into the dessert to be tempted by the devil.  Why in the world would the Holy Spirit do that?  Didn’t Jesus have enough problems already?  But there He was and the devil was waiting for Him.

 

He told Jesus to turn a stone into bread.  But He was fasting and refused to be tempted.  “One does not live on bread alone” Jesus said.  Think about that.  During Lent there are two days when we’re not supposed to eat between meals, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  Most of us, those of us 60 or older don’t even have to do that.  Some of you may give up snacking entirely during Lent.  We all know it’s not easy.  The devil tempts us just like he tempted Jesus.  The Holy Spirit will give us the strength to follow a fast if we let Him.

 

Then the devil “showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.”  “All this will be yours if you worship me”, a ridiculous statement if I ever heard one.  Who did Satan think he was kidding?  All these things were already Jesus’.  He had no need for the devil.  But Jesus’ refusal to go along with the evil one was meant as an example for you and me.  How often has he tempted us with things that have no lasting value?  Jesus said, “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”  His words are meant for us.  He knew the devil was never going to worship God.  He’d already been thrown out of paradise.

 

Then the devil led Jesus to Jerusalem and made him stand on the parapet of the temple.  “Throw yourself down from here for it is written, ‘He will command His angels to guard you and:  and with their hands they will support you lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”  Another stupid statement from the prince of lies.  Jesus already commanded the angels.  In fact, our responsorial Psalm today makes that exact promise to you and me.

 

“For to his angels he has given command about you,

that they guard you in all your ways.

Upon their hands they shall bear you up,

lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

 

In the first reading today from Deuteronomy Moses reminds the people that God has saved them from their Egyptian captivity and given them a land of milk and honey.  He saved them and He saves us!  In the Gospel Jesus shows us how to save ourselves, by refusing to be tempted by the devil.

 

But Satan is no fool.  He knows what he’s doing.  He’s taking over the world by flying under the radar.  His greatest achievement is convincing so many of us that he doesn’t exist.  How many of us REALLY believe that there’s an evil spirit who wants to take us away from God?  Isn’t it just human nature?  Aren’t we tempted because we’re just imperfect creatures?  No, we’re tempted because there’s a spirit that wants to tempt us.

 

I remember growing up that sometimes in Saturday morning cartoons, a character would be tempted to do something wrong.  Remember Sylvester the cat?  He would be tempted to eat Tweety Bird.  The devil sitting on one shoulder would try to convince him to go ahead and make Tweety his lunch.  The angel on his other shoulder would be begging him to be good and leave Tweety alone.  It was cute and it was funny and the angel would always win because otherwise, there wouldn’t be any more Sylvester and Tweety Bird cartoons.  It was a morality play aimed at five-year-olds.

 

If you really think about it, we’re all Sylvester the cat.  We’re all tempted.  And we all have angels, we may call them our conscience, telling us to do the right thing.  But we’re human and we’re all subject to the temptation to sin.  We have a natural tendency to sin which is called concupiscence. It’s a ten-dollar word that means we’re going to sin unless we call on the grace of Christ to strengthen us.  We need those angels to bear us up lest we dash our foot against the stone.

 

It’s no coincidence that the Church gives us this reading from Luke’s Gospel as we begin the season of Lent.  It’s a time of penance, but it’s also a time of spiritual renewal.  Jesus spent 40 days in the dessert.  He was tempted by the devil but He stood strong.  The last line tells us that “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him FOR A WHILE.”  Even Jesus, the Son of God, was never free from attacks by the evil one.

 

How many people have fallen for the devil’s promises?  He promises them power and glory and they go all in.

 

Just this week we’ve had a wonderful example of someone who is giving up power and glory for the good of his fellow man and for the good of our Church.  Pope Benedict XVI is one of the most powerful men on earth, maybe THE most powerful.  But as he’s gotten older and his body has begun to fail him, he’s going to give it all up to live a life of seclusion because he doesn’t think he has the strength to do the demanding job of leading a billion Catholics.  He didn’t have to retire.  It’s been hundreds of years since a Pope has given up his position.  He could have hung on to the job enjoying all the glory that comes from being the successor to Saint Peter but leaving the actual running of the Church to others.  But that wouldn’t be right.  I can’t even imagine how difficult a decision it must have been.  But here, at the beginning of Lent, he made his choice setting an example for all of us.

 

Imagine giving up a job where hundreds of thousands of the faithful show up to hear you speak; to cheer every word you say, to live a life of total seclusion.

 

Soon a younger man will take Benedict’s place and he’ll live out his life in peace and quiet, spending his days in prayer for you and me.

 

You and I will never have to make such a difficult decision, but we WILL be tempted and we will have to draw on the strength of the Holy Spirit.  Don’t be fooled by Satan who has done a great job of convincing us that he’s not around anymore.  He’s here just a surely and you and I are here.  God promises us an eternity of good things, but the really good things have to wait until we leave this life.  Satan promises us good things too, things that we can enjoy right away.  That’s the trouble with sin.  It’s always disguised as something good.  And it offers immediate gratification.  You and I have to be strong enough to forgo those things that will make us feel good today for a life of never ending bliss that is to come.

So, for the next 40 days we’ll exercise our will power.  We’ll do our penance to remind ourselves that sometimes we have to give up something now for something that is to come.  That’s when we rely on the Holy Spirit and those angels who will bear us up.  Man DOESN’T live by bread alone.  “It is written’ You shall worship the Lord, your God, and Him alone shall you serve.’”

“Fat” Tuesday

Listen to the Podcast.

You have to love Saint James.  He always lays it on the line in simple words that we can all understand.  In today’s first reading he says,

“No one experiencing temptation should say,’I am being tempted by God’; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.
Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire.  Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”

How many times have you heard someone say, or maybe you’ve said it yourself,  “God is testing me.”  As James tells us today, God doesn’t test us.  It’s just not His style.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  If we’re tested, it’s Satan who’s doing the testing, not God.

We’re about to enter the season of Lent.  Our faith tells us that Lent is a time of penance.  As faithful servants we make a promise to either give up something or to do something additional as a way of emulating Christ and to prepare ourselves for His death and resurrection.  Remember that Satan tempted Christ and He was up to the challenge.

But you and I aren’t Christ.  The evil one knows that we’re likely to give in to temptation, and so do we.  Like a modern-day terrorist, he works in the shadows, keeping his identity secret until he strikes.   No, temptation doesn’t come from God.  But temptation is very, very real.

So how does this apply to you and me and to our Lenten observance?  This past week was very busy for me with a wedding and a rehearsal and a baptism and baptism prep meeting.  I also had two communion services and preached at three masses over the weekend.  I jokingly said to my wife Sunday afternoon, “I think I’ll give up weddings and baptisms for Lent.”  Of course there are no baptisms or weddings during Lent, so my “sacrifice” wouldn’t mean much.

Our Lenten penance should be something that stretches us, makes us think about what we’re doing, and requires an actual sacrifice.  But what if we overestimate ourselves.  What if we just can’t make it for forty days?  That’s where Satan, and our humanity come in.

God knows what we can and can’t do.  He knows we’re not perfect.  He knows we may fail.  In fact, in failing we may just be showing God how much we love Him.  If you’re not tempted during Lent, if you don’t slip at all, maybe you haven’t chosen wisely. And if you do have a lapse, getting right back on track and not giving up is the greatest gift we can give God.

As Thomas Merton wrote in Thoughts on Solitude,

“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.”

So choose your penance wisely.  And don’t expect perfection.