Producing Good Soil

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 16, 2017

Good SoilToday’s readings remind us that if the Word of God is going to grow within us and bear fruit, we need good spiritual soil – just like plants need good earthly soil to grow.

We hear this in our First Reading (Isaiah 55:10-11), where God’s word is compared to rain and snow that water the earth, making it fertile and fruitful.

We hear this in the refrain of today’s Psalm: “The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.” (Luke 8:8)

And we hear this in today’s Gospel (Matthew 13:1-23), The Parable of the Sower.

In this parable, the seed being sown is the Word of God trying to make its way into our heart and soul. Jesus uses this parable to teach us that there are obstacles that can prevent God’s word from taking seed and bearing fruit.

Jesus cautions us about:

  • Seed sown on the path: That can be stolen and taken away because we hear but don’t understand. That’s like hearing God’s word at Mass and then not giving it another thought.
  • Seed sown on rocky ground: That is initially received with joy, but does not have roots and can’t hold up to life’s trials. That’s like attending an inspirational retreat on the weekend, then falling back into old habits on Monday.
  • Seed sown among the thorns: We hear the Word and it takes root, but bears no fruit because, when we are pressed by life’s difficulties, we lack trust and allow earthly concerns to choke out God’s grace in our lives.

To take root and produce fruit, seed must be sown on rich soil.

Producing Good Soil

So, how do we produce good soil, capable of supporting strong roots and abundant fruit? It begins with growing in relationship with God. It requires an open heart and committed spirit; it requires patience, persistence, and a willingness to grow.

Good farmers (and good gardeners) appreciate the importance of building up good soil. So, they conduct soil tests before planting their crops. They want to check the pH of the soil and determine how the soil needs to be amended and improved to help assure an abundant harvest.

The same process works for those who want to assure that their spiritual soil is capable of supporting an abundant harvest of grace. Here are some questions you might contemplate to conduct your own spiritual soil test.

A Spiritual Soil Test

  1. Do I have a regular prayer life? This is the first step to building a relationship with God. Regular prayer must be a priority in our lives.
  2. Is my prayer a two-way conversation? Good relationships are loving and sharing. So, when I talk (pray) with God, is it prayer a conversation between two friends, or do I monopolize the conversation with an outpouring of my wants and needs?
  3. Do I take time to read and reflect on the Word of God? How can scripture or some other worthy spiritual help nourish me? Am I a committed learner?
  4. How am I growing in my understanding and practice of my Catholic faith? Am I “comfortable” in my faith, or am I committed to growth? Am I growing as a spiritual person, or am I living the same spiritual life I did when in high school?
  5. Where have I witnessed spiritual growth? (My spiritual director always challenges with this one!) Where have I recently seen God in my life? In what ways have ways I have grown spiritually in the last three, six or 12 months?

To create and maintain rich spiritual soil that is open to receiving the Word of God, we have to ask: How am I being fed? Who are the people, the activities, the resources in my life that help me replenish and improve my spiritual soil?

Being Patiently Persistent

We have to be patiently persistent in our faith. If you’ve ever had a garden, you know what I mean. After you’ve prepared the soil, planted and watered the seeds, it seems like all we are doing for the longest time is watering mud. You can’t see any top growth in your garden but you don’t stop watering and fertilizing. Then, one day you notice the tiniest of leaves peeking through the soil – you know that your seed has taken root!

All of your patience and persistence will pay off in time. This is what maintains good soil and leads to new growth.

Sowers of Seeds are Good Witnesses

With this good soil and new growth, we can become more like Jesus; we can be “sowers of seeds,” helping the Word of God grow in others as well. The best way to do this is through our witness.

The Rite of Baptism for Children begins with instructions to the parents and godparents, reminding them of their responsibility to:

  • Train the children in the practice of the Catholic faith
  • Teach them to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught, by loving God and our neighbor

This is the responsibility of all Christians, to be sowers of seeds, inviting others to develop their own rich spiritual soil that sustains us in faith.

The best way to sow these spiritual seeds is not by merely teaching or telling, but by demonstrating through our witness of how we love God and neighbor.

If you are a parent, you know full well that your children learn more from your actions than your words (both the bad things, and the good things). If you’ve survived teenagers, you know that only taking a hard stand (“My house, my rules!”) will have limited effect in teaching them. They learn better when they witness respect, courtesy and responsibility being exercised by their parents.

Here’s the bottom line: If you are a parent, don’t you want your children to witness you growing in faith? We want to be good witnesses for Christ. It is the best way to share our faith with others.

Pope Paul VI (who was pope from 1963 to 1978) said it this way:

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses”

As we prepare to gather around the Lord’s Table, we ask to be nourished by God’s grace. By that grace, may we become good witnesses, and share God’s abundant love.

Celebrating the Body and Blood of Jesus

Feast of Corpus Christi
Sunday, June 18, 2017

Pope Francis - MonstranceAs we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi – the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, there are two points we should emphasize from today’s readings. First, throughout salvation history, bread sent from heaven has been critical in helping us grow in relationship – relationship with God, and relationship with God’s people. Second, our faith teaches us that Christ is truly present (Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity) in the Eucharist we receive at Mass, even though the appearance remains as bread and wine.

Bread from Heaven

We are reminded in our First Reading today that while the tribes of Israel wandered through the dessert, God sent them bread from heaven (“manna” – something unknown to their ancestors) to satisfy their physical hunger. As a result of this gift of manna, the Israelites grew in relationship and learned:

  • To trust God to sustain them (i.e., to give them their daily bread);
  • To live as a covenant people, assured that God has a plan for them; and
  • To live as a holy community, committed to God.

The same is still true for us; we have to learn to trust God, to be assured that God has a plan for us, and live as a holy community of believers.

The difference between the Old Testament tribes and us (New Testament people) is that: We are not fed by bread from heaven that lasts only a day. Jesus, the living bread that came down from heaven, feeds us and sustains our spiritual hunger. The living bread we share in Eucharist offers us a different relationship with God; the Flesh we eat and the Blood we drink promises eternal life.

But listen to what else we hear in the First Reading: “Not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” The Israelites needed to be fed spiritually by the Word of God. And so do we!

Living Bread

In today’s Gospel, we hear God calling us to an even deeper relationship than the Israelites experienced. Jesus invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood – to remain in Christ and to continue to feed on him to attain everlasting life, for “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

You see, God isn’t interested in feeding us for only a day. Through the celebration of the Eucharist, God wants to feed us eternally. But to do this, we (like the Israelites) cannot be sustained by bread alone, but “by every words that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” The Word of God is critical in our understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

When Human Senses Fail

In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas preached that only one of our human senses allows us to understand the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Only one of our human senses helps us believe that what still appears to be bread and wine becomes Body and Blood of Christ through the Liturgy of the Eucharist we celebrate at this Mass today.

So, which of our senses helps us believe?

It isn’t the sense of sight – the consecrated bread and wine look no different than the gifts we place on the altar. It isn’t the sense of taste, the sense of touch or the sense of smell – it still tastes, feels and smells like bread and wine.

So, which of our human senses helps us to understand that Jesus is present in the Eucharist? It is our sense of hearing. “From every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”

It is no coincidence that we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word before we celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist when we gather for Mass. Our first feeding in our spiritual diet is the Word of God. We experience this in the reading of scripture and of other spiritual readings; in the teachings and Tradition of the Catholic Church, in the hope and fears we offer to God in prayer; an in the hopes and fears we share with each other.

For us to understand the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity), we have to listen to God and open our hearts and minds as we witness the Eucharistic miracle celebrated at each Mass. And that’s what I invite you to experience today.

Listen and Learn

The Feast of Corpus Christi is a great opportunity to re-calibrate our listening to the Word of God. So, as we continue to celebrate this Mass, as we move from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I invite you to listen closely to the words of today’s Eucharistic prayer:

  • Listen to the words of blessing as the priest, standing in the person of Christ, calls down to Holy Spirit to change our simple gifts of bread and wine in to the real Body and Blood of Christ.
  • Listen to the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. As He enters willingly into his Passion, Jesus prayers over the bread and wine and instructs his disciples to take and eat his body, and take and drink his blood

Jesus doesn’t invite his disciples to eat bread and drink wine as a symbolic gesture to remember him. No, Jesus invites his disciples to share in his true presence – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

And, finally, listen to Christ’s commandment to his disciples: “Do this in memory of me.” In doing so, Jesus commands his disciples to continue the celebration of the Eucharist, as we Catholics have been doing for over 2,000 years.

This mystery of our faith, this miracle we call “transubstantiation” (bread and wine becoming Body and Blood of Jesus) helps all of our human senses come alive in Christ. Remember this as you approach the Table of the Lord today. When we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, may our “Amen” help us come alive in Christ as the Word of God permeates our hearts and minds.

So, on this Feast of Corpus Christi, let us remember that Christ is the living bread sent down from heaven … for us!

And as we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, let us strive to become what we have received – the Body of Christ. That is the “one loaf” (Second Reading) that we, as individuals share together in God’s love.

Truly Loved and Never Alone

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Sunday, May 21, 2017

shapeimage_1-16Lately, I have been reflecting on how Jesus communicates with his disciples. Jesus uses an occasional parable to get his message across. Or, includes cultural or scriptural references to connect with his audience. But, for the most part, Jesus communicates in a pretty straightforward manner; you know exactly where he stands. That is true in today’s Gospel (John 14:15-21).

Today’s Gospel teaches us two things. First, to be disciples of Jesus, we have to keep his commandments. When Jesus says this, we can assume that he is referring to the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses to guide the Jewish people.

We can also assume he is referencing what we hear in Mathew’s Gospel (Mat 22:36-40) when Jesus was pressed by the Pharisees to tell them “which commandment of the law is the greatest?” Jesus responded:

“You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

LESSON ONE:

So, the first thing today’s Gospel teaches us is that loving Jesus is truly lived by being in a loving relationship. It’s all about love:

  • A loving relationship with the Blessed Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)
  • A loving relationship with others (spouse, co-workers, neighbors, friends – and, yes, even enemies)
  • A loving relationship with ourselves

This third point may need a little more discussion.

If we are to be loving disciples, keeping God’s commandments, we have to allow ourselves to receive love just as much as we strive to give love to God and others. Loving relationships are not one-way streets. If we are willing to give, we must be willing to receive (God wants both for us!).

I recently came across a quote from a man named Diadochus of Photice, a fifth century theologian, mystic and bishop, who puts this in perspective. He writes,

“Anyone who loves God in the depths of his heart has already been loved by God.”

The love we have for God is a response to God’s love for us (as we learn in the Catechism: God initiates, we respond). God started this loving relationship. He wants us to sustain and grow in relationship with him.

The quote continues:

“In fact, the measure of a man’s love for God depends upon how deeply aware he is of God’s love for him.”

How do we know God loves us? The measure is how deeply aware we are of how much God loves us. I found that to be a beautiful and reassuring thought. We should reflect on this and ask ourselves:

  • How aware am I of God’s love in my life?
  • How deeply does God’s love permeate my life?
  • Am I willing to receive God’s love as much as I am willing to share that love with others?

So, today, we learn that if you love God, you will keep his commandments by loving God and others. But, to truly love God, we must be deeply aware of his love for us.

LESSON TWO:

The second thing we learn in today’s Gospel is this: We don’t do this alone!

To strengthen that loving relationship, Jesus promises one additional thing to his disciples: He promises to ask his Father to send an Advocate (the Holy Spirit) to be with them always.

We hear about the Holy Spirit in our First Reading as well. The Holy Spirit is the gift that helped win the hearts and souls of the Samaritan people.

  • The crowds were attracted to Philip and his teaching (their hearts were filled with “great joy”)
  • The people of Samaria were on fire with emotion

But emotion alone is not enough; we need to receive the Holy Spirit into our life to guide us beyond emotion.

  • That’s what the disciples experienced at Pentecost
  • That’s what the Samaritans experienced when Peter and John lay hands on them
  • That’s what we experience in the Sacrament of Confirmation.

That’s what we need in our everyday life – the Holy Spirit guiding us.

Here is an example:

If you are married, think about the wonderful emotions you and your spouse shared on your wedding day. Was that emotion alone enough to sustain you throughout your marriage? Probably not. To sustain your marriage (to experience ongoing joy), you have to grow in relationship.

The Holy Spirit is present in the Sacrament of Matrimony to sustain married couples as they grow in relationship with each other (and, as a couple, in relationship with God). The Spirit is our advocate in this process.

Things are usually great during the honeymoon phase of marriage, but, after the honeymoon phase, when life gets real (and sometimes messy), we need to turn to the Spirit as our advocate and guide.

In fact, whether married or not, God should be the center of every part of our lives. That “center” is at the heart of a building and sustaining loving relationships.

CONCLUSION:

So, when we reflect on Jesus’ words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” we should think about relationship – with God, with our neighbors, with our enemies

We do this with the assurance that God is always present to guide us and sustain us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This should bring us great joy! To know (without a doubt) that we are never truly alone, and we are always truly loved!

Putting God First

Homily Fourth Sunday of Advent
stjoseph-dreamingToday’s Gospel from Matthew (Matthew 1:18-24) begins with this confident proclamation: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” The story goes on to describe the conception of Jesus – from Joseph’s perspective.

This reading reflects what we heard earlier today from the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-14) as he foretold the birth of Jesus: “… the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (Which means “God is with us.”)

But we know this is not the only story of the conception of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear the story from Mary’s perspective in the story of “The Annunciation.”

Both Mary and Joseph were visited by an angel who helped calm their fears (“Do not be afraid”) and then announced how God wanted them each to aid in bringing his Son into the world.

These stories are an interesting contrast in style. Mary’s encounter with the angel includes dialogue between Mary and the angel (the angel proclaiming what God wanted, and Mary asking: “how can this be?”). And we hear Mary’s beautiful proclamation of humility and faith, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

But, what words do we hear from Joseph during his encounter with his angel? None!

Surprisingly, there are no recorded words of Joseph in the Bible. But even without words, today’s story teaches us a lot about Joseph:

  • He was a righteous man – he obeyed the law
  • He was also a compassionate man – he didn’t want to expose Mary to shame

Joseph was ready to quietly end his relationship with Mary. But after the angel spoke and Joseph awoke from his dream, we discover one of the finest qualities of Joseph: He was obedient and was willing to do whatever the Lord commanded of him.

Neither Joseph nor Mary was looking to play the role God planned for them as a parent of Jesus. But (thankfully) they each put God first: before their personal wants or needs. I think that is a strong message of Christmas: Putting the wants and needs of God (and others) before our own.

SHARING OUR GIFTS WITH GOD

A few weeks ago, I was out of town for work. During some down time, the group I was with was discussing our family Christmas traditions. We talked about:

  • Which Christmas Mass our families attend, and why?
  • When and how do you decorate your home for Christmas?
  • How does your family exchange gifts?

That question about exchanging gifts was a particularly interesting one. One woman in the group shared that her family follows the tradition of giving their children four gifts each:=

  • Something they want
  • Something they need
  • Something to wear
  • Something to read

(The Internet tells me this is a “thing.”)

I asked the woman, “How does that work out – only those four gifts?” She went on to tell me that buying her children something they could read was easy. She loved to introduce them to her favorite authors and to literary classics, so that was always fun.

She admitted that shopping for clothes was one of her passions and that she loved to pick out special outfits for her children and grandchildren to wear, so that one was a no-brainer.

I asked how she handled giving her children what they want and what they need. “There,” she said, “Things can get a little tricky.” She went on to tell me about the challenge she was facing this year.

Her son and daughter-in law needed a new dishwasher; their old one had seen better days. But the dishwasher they wanted was a top-of-the-line model and cost more than she was willing to spend. So she had the dilemma of providing what her children needed versus wanted.

The woman’s story got me to thinking about how we, as parents and grandparents, would do whatever we can to support the wants and the needs of our children. It also got me thinking about how our give-and-receive relationship works with God.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this Advent, and that thought came to mind as I reflected on today’s readings.

Joseph, through his actions, and Mary, through her words, teach us that our relationship with God is more than simply asking God for what we want or what we need. A healthy, loving relationship exemplifies mutual giving and receiving.

What Joseph wanted was to be holy and righteous, and to avoid exposing Mary to shame. But fortunately, Joseph also listened to what God wanted and needed from him.

  • God wanted Joseph to take Mary as his wife into his home
  • God needed Joseph to play an important part in our salvation history as Jesus’ earthly father

PAY ATTENTION

From my experience, we don’t witness a lot of angels proclaiming heavenly messages from on high (they are rare occasions in the Bible). But that doesn’t mean we can’t hear God speaking.

To hear and to know what God wants and needs from us, we have to pay attention.

  • We have to take time to pray and reflect on the Word of God
  • We need to ask God for answers and direction in our life
  • We need to be open to all possibilities with God
  • We have to wait (patiently) and listen for his guidance

This type of relationship can give us strength, even in the most difficult and challenging times in our lives.

I invite you to reflect on these things for the remainder of Advent (and throughout the Christmas season):

  • What is it that God wants to do for you?
  • What is it that God needs you to do for him?
  • How will you cooperate with God?

It doesn’t have to be as grand as being the mother or father of God (thankfully, those jobs are already filled). But think about how the world is changed because of the simple cooperation of a faithful Mary and an obedient Joseph.

Ask yourself: What is the change in this world that God is calling me to be? And then, listen for “Angels” – they come in many forms.

BE NOT AFRAID

This Advent, I have been reading the book, “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life by John O’Leary. It’s an inspirational story of a local man who barely survived burns on 100 percent of his body when he was nine years old. (I highly recommend the book as a stocking stuffer this Christmas!)

One of the chapters in the book tells of several visits the author received from an “Angel” by the name of Jack Buck, who helped the frightened nine-year-old “Be not afraid” with words of hope and encouragement (“Kid, listen to me. You are going to live, got that? You are going to survive. And when you get out of here, we are going to celebrate …”)

O’Leary claims it was those visits and those words of encouragement from a man he could not touch, see, or speak to at the time – because of swollen eyes, a ventilator tube down his throat and head-to-toe bandages – that made all the difference in his ability to not only survive, but to eventually thrive in his life.

The chapter ends with these words of encouragement and challenge:

“My friend, we frequently cheapen our ability to influence radical change. We underestimate our personal ability to be a spark that ignites and influences the world in profoundly important ways. We possess the ability and opportunity to positively and permanently effect change around us. Simple action and ordinary people change the world. It starts with one. It starts with you. But you have to pay attention.”

I pray that in the busy-ness of this season, and throughout the year, we are able to “pay attention” to the joy that God brings into our world, and to the Spirit of God working in each of us.

As we proclaim Emmanuel (“God is with us”), let us focus on being with God: reflecting on what God wants and needs us to be.

The Narrow Gate

narrow-gate

Homily – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Most good stories contain three important parts: the Beginning, the Middle and the End. In the simplest of terms, the Beginning introduces the characters and events that shape the rest of the story; the Middle is where we witness the characters develop; and the End reflects the choices made by the characters throughout the story. Today’s readings, when viewed as a whole, are an example of a good story with a Beginning, Middle and End.

Our First Reading today (IS 66:18-21) is a story of God gathering his chosen people to himself and preparing them to go out and proclaim his glory to people who have never heard of Him before. This is the beginning of our Salvation Story – Our good, good Father calling us to share in His love and to “proclaim his glory to distant lands.”

Today’s Second Reading (HEB 12:5-7, 11-13) takes place in the middle of our Salvation Story. It is a story of how we are shaped and formed by the Father. The author of this Letter to the Hebrews reminds us to “not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when we are reproved by him.” That can be a difficult thing for our “modern” ears to hear, as the word “discipline” has so many definitions in the English language.

The word “discipline” can mean:

  • To punish (as you would someone for not obeying rules or laws)
  • To coach (as to help someone act or perform in a certain way)
  • To train (as to learn to do something)

In this reading, God’s discipline is about coaching and training, not to punish.

So why does God discipline us? Because he wants us to be what Matthew Kelly describes as “the best version of ourselves.”

The Olympic Challenge

For the last couple of weeks, the world has been following the Olympic competition. It is always fun to witness the fantastic athleticism of the competitors. It is a celebration of the God-given gifts these athletes received. But winners in athletic competitions don’t rely solely on their own natural abilities. To achieve “greatness” in their field, they must be disciplined. Olympic champions appreciate:

  • The important of practice
  • The value of coaching and learning
  • The benefits of growth and progress

The attributes of an Olympic champion are the same as for those who want to grow spiritually and to develop a deep relationship with God. It takes practice. It requires coaching and learning. It requires a willingness to grow. Not to be perfect, but to make progress (which is all that God asks of us).

Many Olympic competitions are decided by the smallest measure (fractions of time, millimeters of distance). Our Gospel story today (LK 13:22-30) teaches us that admittance into heaven may also be decided by a small measure (what Jesus describes as our ability to pass through the narrow gate).

Training for the Narrow Gate

What does it mean to “enter trough the narrow gate”? It means living a holy, God-focused life by following God’s commandments and the teachings of His Church. It means developing a strong, genuine relationship with God. And it means being strong – not just physically strong or mentally strong, but also spiritually strong.

So, how do we become spiritually strong?

A couple of years ago, the parish gave parishioners a copy of the book, “The Four Sings of a Dynamic Catholic,” written by Matthew Kelly. The premise of the book is that “Dynamic Catholics” (who Kelly describes as the top 7% of the Catholics he studied) demonstrated great signs of discipline. In his work Kelly identified four characteristics of Dynamic Catholics:

  1. They practiced their faith. They were a people of prayer, praying regularly and giving prayer a priority in their life. Some had a prayer ritual for the morning, some prayed a Rosary each day. Some attended daily Mass. Prayer was a discipline they developed and valued.
  2. They were continuous learners. They invested time each day to learn more about their faith (not great, prolonged amounts of time, just 14 minutes or so every day). They would read scripture or other spiritual writing. They listened to Catholic CDs, podcasts and radio programs. This continuous learning was a way for them to explore the Way of Jesus and the teachings of His Church.

The two remaining characteristics of Dynamic Catholics are:

  1. Generosity. They were filled with a spirit of service
  2. Evangelization. They invited others to share the love of God with them.

I know that regular prayer has made a big impact in my life. And even before I entered into formation to be a deacon I had a voracious appetite to learn about our faith. Listening to Catholic Answers Live and other programming on Catholic radio were a great help in building up my knowledge. Reading books about Catholic spirituality helped me put into words the longings I had in my heart. Practicing my faith through prayer and dedicating myself to a system of lifelong learning has been a great blessing in my spiritual life and in my service as a deacon.

Gut Check Time

So, how doe you measure up with Dynamic Catholics?

  • Do you give a priority to regular prayer?
  • Do you take time to read and learn about your faith?
  • Are you a person of service?
  • Are you willing to share your faith with others?

We all want to get to heaven. These are the type of things that will help us enter the narrow gate that leads to heaven. Our relationship with God, our openness to the Holy Spirit, and our willingness to grow in our faith will support us in that journey.

I pray that you will take time this week to reflect on these thoughts and to take action.

Ask yourself:

  • What is the ending to my salvation story that I want to write with God?
  • What am I being called to do to ensure that my story ends with the best ending possible …

And they all lived happily ever after!

Be at peace and know that you are loved,

Deacon Dan

Living Our Christian Identity

19392077Homily for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 19, 2016

We hear a lot about “identities” in today’s readings. Our identities are important; they help define who and what we are. They help us understand where we came from and what we have become.

Our identities can be quite complex. For example, I am a husband, father, grandfather, deacon, spiritual companion, manager, co-worker, neighbor, friend, etc. Our identities reflect how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.

Our Christian Identity

One of the lesson’s in today’s Second Reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that the identity that matters most in life (our primary identity) is that of “Christian.” Paul tells the Christians in Galatia that our primary identities are no longer defined by race, ethnicity, social status and gender. Instead, we “wear a common identity that is Christ.” So, stop focusing on what differentiates us and focus on what unites us: Christ. The same is true for us today. We still retain our unique, individual identities, but those identities take a back seat to our identity as Christian.

I would love to stand here today and proclaim that in the 2000 years since Paul addressed this issue that we  are fully living our Christian identity. Sure, we’ve made some good advancements in treating others in a Christ-like manner but still today, in our “modern world,” issues of race, ethnicity, social status, and gender often separate and divide us. You only have to connect with social media, the 24-hour news cycle, or political propaganda to understand that hatred and divisiveness is all around us. So, we have to remind ourselves often that it is love that truly unites us and allows us to recognize and use our unique, God-given gifts in service to others. That’s what it means to be a Christian.

Clothed in Christ

When we are baptized, a white garment is placed on us as a symbol of what St. Paul describes as having “clothed ourselves in Christ.” After placing the garment, the deacon or priest says this prayer:

“You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in the white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”

I think it would be a fruitful exercise to take some time to reflect on our lives and ask:

  • How do my words, my thoughts, and my actions reflect my identity as “Christian”?
  • In what ways do I use my unique, God-given gifts and talents in service to others?
  • For us fathers on this Father’s Day
    • Am I an outward sign of Christian dignity to my children and spouse?
    • Does my family witness love, compassion and mercy through me?
    • By my thoughts and words and actions, who would my family say that I am?

To Be a True Disciple

Jesus uses identity questions in today’s Gospel to help instruct his followers on what it means to be an authentic, true disciple. Jesus tells his friends: If anyone wishes to come after me (to be my disciple), they must:

  • Deny themselves
  • Take up their cross daily
  • Follow in Christ’s footsteps

This commandment to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily is about doing for others what Christ has done for us.

In Luke’s gospel, taking up one’s cross is presented as a daily requirement, which indicates our Christian calling is not a one-time event. It’s not about attending a Steubenville Conference and returning to life a usual. It’s not about making an ACTS retreat and silently stumbling down the mountain. It’s not about committing your life to Christian marriage on your wedding day and limiting Christ to a guest appearance now and then in your marriage. What Jesus is telling us is that our Christian calling and identity is a life-long commitment, an ongoing process.

Love is a Vocation

I have had the privilege this past year of working with a group of married couples in our parish to establish a small faith community known as TOOL (Teams of our Lady). These couples want to strengthen and grow their vocation as husband and wife. Some of the readings and discussion from this last month’s TOOL meeting centered on understanding what it means to “take up your cross daily.”

Parts of the readings reminded us that through our marital bond, love is a vocation. As with all vocations, we often experience suffering. We live in a sinful, broken world, so there is no way around it; we will all endure suffering in our life.

The readings suggested that married couples tend to experience suffering in three ways:

  1. Sometimes couples experience suffering together. For example, the couple may experience a miscarriage or other significant loss (They carry the cross together). What the couple learns by taking up their cross together is that their trials can help make their union closer and deeper.
  2. Sometimes couples experience suffering one for the other. For example, your spouse is diagnosed with cancer or some other debilitating illness and you help take up the cross for your ill spouse (One carries the cross for the other). Your helping and nurturing your spouse may entail great sacrifices on your part, but you gladly bear those sufferings for that person whom you love so dearly.
  3. Sometimes couples experience suffering caused by another. For example, through our human weakness one spouse is unfaithful to his or her marriage vows. The unfaithful spouse causes suffering for both spouses (Each carries the cross alone). This suffering can become an obstacle to love. Or, through mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation and counseling, this suffering may further the bond of marriage.

These are just some example of “taking up your cross daily.” You don’t have to be married to experience struggles in life. The cross of Christ is often heavy for each of us.

Following in the Footsteps of Christ

Following in Christ’s footsteps is not easy (those are some big sandals to fill!). We often stumble and fall along our spiritual journey. When we fall, we must also follow the example of Christ: Get back up again, as Christ did on His redemptive way of the cross.

If we look more closely at today’s Gospel, we will see that Jesus didn’t ask us to succeed in the spiritual life. He merely invited us to participate and follow Him (every day!). Beyond that, we must trust in His grace, love and mercy

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, one of the ways we continue to experience the identity of Jesus in our lives is in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.

Today, as we prepare to celebrate Eucharist, as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, may our “Amen” be our promise to remain faithful to Christ as we persevere through good times and bad. May our identity as Christians help invite and attract others to God’s eternal love.

You are loved,

Deacon Dan

Praying with the Good Shepherd

193915251.jpgHomily for the 4th Sunday of Easter
In today’s Gospel [John 10:27-30], we hear a very short passage from Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse. Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd and reveals two important traits of his sheep: 1) they hear his voice, and; 2) they follow him. We are his sheep. Jesus knows us and we need to know him better each day.

Cowboys and Cattle and Sheep (Oh, my!)

We are a country that is more familiar with cowboys and cattle than we are with shepherds and sheep. Hollywood has produced hundreds of movies about cowboys and cattle. Many of those movies depict cowboys driving a herd of cattle to market.

What we learn from those movies is that it takes a lot of cowboys to drive a herd of cattle. The cowboys drive the cattle from behind the herd; they whistle and shout, they poke and prod to get the cattle to move forward. And it requires other cowboys riding on the side of the herd to keep them together, and to gather up the strays.

Shepherding sheep is different. A shepherd leads his flock from the front. As he walks along, he sings, or whistles or talks to the sheep. As long as the sheep hear his voice, they follow him. If the sheep can’t hear the shepherd’s voice, they can get separated from the flock and get lost, or fall prey to wolves or other predators.

Jesus is not like the cowboy who pushes us from behind and drives us to where he wants us to go. He is a good and loving shepherd who wants us to hear his voice and follow him.

Jesus uses this image of the sheep and the shepherd to answer the ongoing question of the Jewish religious leaders: “Are you the messiah?” The answer is “yes.” He is not only the messiah (the promised deliverer of the Jewish people), but also the Son of God. Jesus tells us that he and the Father are one. He promises eternal life to those who hear his voice and follow him. This gives us great hope!

Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice

Like many, I have been focused on Cardinal baseball lately. It’s always fun to watch the season opener and home opener on television. It reminds me of the times, growing up, when I would go to Busch Stadium to watch a Cardinal baseball game. I’d often bring a little handheld transistor radio with me so I could listen to the play-by-play call of the game. It helped enhance my understanding of what was going on in the game. Listening to the announcers and commentators, I developed a better understanding of the game of baseball. It helped me develop a lifelong love for the game.

The funny thing about those tiny radios, however, is they didn’t work! They didn’t work unless you turned them on and tuned them in. Only then you could enjoy a richer, more connected relationship with the game.

And so it is in our relationship with God: To hear the Shepherd’s voice, to build a relationship with Jesus, we have to turn on and tune in on a regular basis – we have to pray daily!

  • We have to open our hearts, our ears, our eyes and our minds to God
  • We have to stay close to him and listen
  • We have to be willing to be led by the Good Shepherd

Whether alone, or in community, we have to pray daily.

The Serenity Prayer

So, what’s the best way to pray? That’s a good question. The answer is: The way that works best for you! You pick the style, the setting, the time, and the focus of your prayer. No type of prayer is better than the other. The key is to give prayer a priority, to make it a daily habit in your life.

One of my favorite prayers (the one I recommend to people wanting to incorporate prayer in their life) is the Serenity Prayer. The first part of this prayer is:

God, grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the thing I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Three simple words (serenity, courage and wisdom) can make a huge difference in your prayer life … and in your relationship with God.

Serenity

Serenity comes from letting go. It brings about a feeling calm and peace; of feeling unburdened and untroubled. We hear about this in our first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 13:14, 53-52].

Paul and Barnabas did their best to invite the Jewish people to the good news of Christ. Some of the Jews and converts to Judaism accepted the good news; others rejected the invitation. So Paul and Barnabas turned their focus to the Gentiles (the non-Jewish people in the region). The Jewish leaders, reacting poorly to this, had Paul and Barnabas run out of the city. In protest, Paul and Barnabas shook the dust from their feet and moved on. They let it go.

Did this letting go give the two disciples peace and serenity? You bet! When they left the city, “The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.” They simply let go of those things they could not change or control. They were unburdened.

So, what are the things in our life that need to be unburdened? What is the dust clinging to our feet we needs to shake off? Is it sin? Is it hatred or ill feelings? Is it lack of forgiving others … or the unwillingness to accept forgiveness? Take this to prayer. Talk about it with the Good Shepherd. Then let it go!

Courage

Courage comes from using our God-given gifts and strengths with confidence. It comes from trusting God to lead us like the Good Shepherd he is. It is courage that allows Paul and Barnabas to “speak out boldly for their faith.” They were willing to trust God and follow him wherever he led them. Take this to prayer as well. Ask God to help you acknowledge and use your gifts and strengths. Ask God for direction in your life and ask him: Lord, what would you have me do in my life, with my gifts, with my strengths?

Wisdom

Wisdom comes from experiencing life and learning from those experiences. It comes from prayer and reflection – from having a loving and open dialogue with God. It comes from times of meditation, reflection, examination, discernment and honest dialogue. If comes from being a sheep who is willing to listen and to follow the Good Shepherd.

Our Call to Action

Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” Today, as Jesus renews his commitment as our good shepherd, let’s renew our commitment to be his good sheep, to give daily prayer the priority it deserves in our lives.

Be at peace and know that you are loved!

Deacon Dan Donnelly

Being a Committed Pray-er

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Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2016

I recently listened to a podcast featuring the actor, Martin Sheen (The West Wing, Apocalypse Now, The Way). It was very interesting listening to him talk about his deep Catholic faith. (Click here to read the transcript or download the podcast).

The theme of the interview was “Spirituality of Imagination” and focused, in large part, on Sheen’s fascination with prayer. Two things struck me from his comments about prayer:

  1. He talked about how intimate prayer can be – just us and God in conversation, and
  2. He talked about how his style of prayer has changed over the years – how it has grown to be more conversational

Sheen also commented on the 11th chapter of Luke where the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray (Luke 11: 1-4). He found the disciples’ request interesting, saying “…they were devout Jews, and they had a very structured form of prayer, and worship, and sacrifice, and they asked him, ‘Teach us to pray,’ is a very curious question to me, that they wanted to go deeper. They wanted to go more personal, I guess.”

I think Mr. Sheen is correct. We all have this longing in our hearts to better know and love God. And God invites us to “go deeper” in our relationship. A crucial step in this relationship is making a commitment to regular (daily) prayer, which this season of Lent helps us remember.

Prayer in Today’s Readings

When we think about prayer, we often overlook one of the most remarkable pieces of evidence that shows us how important prayer really is. What is that evidence? Jesus prayed!

  • Last week we saw him go off into the desert to pray
  • In today’s Gospel, we see him go up the mountain to pray
  • In dozens of other Gospel passages we see the same thing

We read about Jesus getting up early or staying up late to make time for prayer. We hear about Jesus praying for guidance before major events in his life.

Jesus needed regular prayer in his life; and so do we!

Today’s readings remind us that prayer, the most effective way of growing in relationship with God, takes on many forms.

  • Today’s First Reading tells us that “The Lord God took Abram outside…” and had a conversation with him. That’s prayer.
  • The Psalm gives us an example of King David’s prayer in the face of danger, “Your presence, O Lord, I seek. Hide not your face from me…”
  • St Paul, in the Second Reading, reminds the Christians in Philippi that while most people occupy their minds “with earthy things… Our citizenship is in heaven.” Our attention is on God – that’s prayer.
  • Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus leads his three closest disciples away from the hustle and bustle of life, up to the top of a high mountain, where he can be alone with them, and give them a lesson in prayer.

Space and Time for Prayer and Reflection

So, we have to ask ourselves:

  • Is our prayer life in good shape? Do we make a commitment to prayer?
  • Has our prayer life improved in the last year, over the last 10 years?
  • Do we allow space and time in our prayer to reflect and to engage in dialogue with God (or are we just rattling off rote prayers)?

A business friend of mine once invited me to lunch. Before lunch, he suggested we stop at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis to pray the Rosary. I thought that was an outstanding idea. When we got there, my friend said he would lead the prayer. In my mind, that meant we would pause, gather our thoughts and take time to reflect on each of the Mysteries of the Rosary. My friend had a different idea.

He proceeded to rip through the Rosary prayers at lightning pace, barely taking a moment to breathe (much less reflect on the fruits of the mysteries we were praying). It made my head spin!

After he had finished (what he called) prayer. I asked him: “Did you ever consider slowing down and reflecting on the Mysteries of the Rosary?” “No,” he said, “I just want to get these prayers done so I am ‘good with God’.” Needless to say, we had much to talk about over lunch.

Our prayer is not merely a commitment or something we check off of our list to feel like we remain in God’s good grace.

If prayer is truly conversation with God, we need to remember what our mothers’ told us: You have two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion.

We need to speak to God in prayer, but we also need to listen.

If we continue today’s Second Reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we’ll hear one of my favorite Bible passages (Philippians 4:6-7).

“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God
.”

God wants us to make our requests known to him, but we also need to allow time and space to listen to God in our prayer. In doing so, we enjoy the gifts of God’s grace.

“Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus
.”

So, make your needs known; then listen for his response. Be persistently patient.

Prayer as a Priority

Matthew Kelly, in his book, “The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic” states that only 7% of Catholics have a daily commitment to prayer. (Click here to learn about Dynamic Catholics.)

About these committed pray-ers, Kelly notes that these people:

  • Have a routine for prayer
  • Have a structure for prayer
  • Many of them pray at the same time every day

For some this means going to Mass in the morning. For others, it means sitting down in a big, comfortable chair in a corner of their home or taking a walk, but they tend to abide by a structure.

Daily prayer, a daily conversation with God, can do great things for our spiritual nourishment and growth. It starts by making a commitment.

As you pray, don’t be afraid to try different styles of prayer or to use different Catholic texts for reading and reflection. Sometimes changing things up can help reinvigorate our prayer life. This season of Lent is an excellent time to try different forms of prayer. Just pick up this week’s Bulletin and look at all of the opportunities in our parish and in neighboring parishes to participate in prayer and spiritual formation programs this Lent.

Make prayer a daily priority in your life and allow time (and space) to reflect on the messages and insight God gives you in prayer. Be silent, be patient and listen!

This week, I encourage you heed the words of the Gospel and God’s voice that came from the cloud:

“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

Be at peace and know that you are loved!

Deacon Dan

Copyright © Daniel R. Donnelly. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.deacondan.com

The Carpenter’s Hands

begging handsIf you are a father, you know the awesome (and somewhat terrifying) feeling of holding your newborn child in your arms.

You love your child with all your heart. In spite of your imperfections and unworthiness, you are given a great gift to nurture, to protect, and to love (unconditionally). You strive to be the best father you can be for your child. I am certain Joseph had similar thoughts and feelings when he held his son, Jesus, in his arms.

The following are lyrics to  a song I penned a couple of years ago. I think about this every year when we hear the story of the birth of Jesus.

May we use this Christmas season to reflect on the love and mercy of the Newborn King and how, despite our unworthiness, God comes into our lives, meets us where we are and invites us to live with him in peace and love.

Merry Christmas!

The Carpenter’s Hands


Love lies resting in my arms tonight
This tiny blossom brings new hope in our lives
How is it that I should be a part of heaven’s plan
That this child should be entrusted to this carpenter’s hands?

Hush, my little one, be not afraid
Just close your eyes and sleep; I’ll keep you safe
Dream of bright tomorrow’s now, as only children can
For tonight you rest here safely in this carpenter’s hands

This carpenter’s hands are rough and calloused
But they are good and strong
They will guard you; they will guide you
And protect you from all harm
I will do my best to teach you as you grow to be a man
But tonight, my love, just rest here in this carpenter’s hands

Angel voices join as one and sing
“God is with us; praise the newborn king.”
Is this what the Lord had planned before all time began
That the Son of God is placed here in the carpenter’s hands?

This carpenter’s hands are rough and calloused
But they are good and strong
They will guard you; they will guide you
And protect you from all harm
I will do my best to teach you as you grow to be a man
But tonight, my love, just rest here in this carpenter’s hands

Love lies sleeping in my arms tonight
Heaven’s offspring brings great joy and light
One day they will proclaim your name in near and distant lands
But tonight, my love, just rest here
Go to sleep, my love, you’re safe here
Be at peace, for you are loved here in this carpenter’s hands


Copyright © Daniel R. Donnelly. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.deacondan.com

Learn from the Fig Tree

fig tree

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Apocalyptic stories, like we hear today, can be terrifying. But that is not the intent of today’s readings. Today’s readings teach us to be watchful and to live wisely.

Lessons from a Gravestone

There is a story of a priest who was preaching at a funeral and used a gravestone to illustrate what matters in life. He told the congregation, “You can learn a lot from a gravestone. For example, you can learn the person’s name and if it was a man or woman buried there. Sometimes, you learn what special quote or Bible verse was important to the deceased (or to the people grieving their loss). And you learn when the person was born, and when the person died. But the most important marking on the gravestone,” said the priest, “is the mark between the date of birth and date of death – the dash mark. Why? Because the dash mark reflects the story of how that person lived their life.”

We don’t have much control over when we are born, and we don’t always have control of when we will die. But we do have control over how we choose to live our lives. And what we learn from today’s readings is that we are called to live our lives being watchful and holy. But what does it mean to be “watchful and holy”?

I think it means three things:

  1. Making our personal relationship with God a true priority. As engaged parishioners of St. Joseph’s parish, we would describe that as “Participating actively in the sacramental lifeof the parish cultivating a personal prayer life.”
  2. It means sharing with others the good news that Jesus has shared with us. Again, engaged parishioners would describe that as: “Sharing our gifts generously in a spirit of service; embracing opportunities to participate in spiritual growthprograms and retreats; and inviting others to join in the life of the parish.
  3. It means following Christ’s example in our daily lives.

Jesus as Model

So what does it look like if we follow Christ’s example in our daily lives? The theme of my first ACTS retreat was from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John: “I have given a model to follow; so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” I often reflect on that quote and ask: What was the model Jesus gave us? It is a life characterized by: love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, obedience, prayer, relationship, servanthood, trust, faithfulness, … and on and on.

Jesus’ whole life in public ministry reflected this model of love and self-giving. And so should our lives. That model Jesus gave us has to be applied to our contemporary world. It’s as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. That’s where watchfulness combines with holiness.

Learn from the Fig Tree

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples a story. He tells them: “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” Remember that when Jesus instructs his disciples, he usually does so in a gentle, encouraging way that the disciples can understand and relate to. The disciples were familiar with fig trees – they were an important staple for nourishment in their region. The disciples also had a familiarity of the growth cycle of fig trees. They knew that when the branches sprouted leaves, summer was coming. They knew that the fruit of the fig tree would be harvested some time in summer or fall. Jesus was instructing his disciples that, just like they observed the growth cycle of the fig tree, so should they also be watchful in observing the signs of the coming end times. Not that they could do anything about it. Not that they could predict the day or time (As Jesus tells them: only God knows the day and the time). But because it serves a reminder to live a life of holiness – to be faithful to God!

Reading the Signs of the Times

Part of living a holy life is “reading the signs of the times” – being watchful and aware of what is happening in our world and discerning how we can participate in those happenings in a Christ-like way.

For example: the 20th century theologian, Karl Barth is attributed as saying “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” This reminds us that we need to remain firm in our faith while remaining attentive to the needs of an ever-changing world.

Another example of “reading the signs of the times” is Cardinal Donald Wuerl (Archdiocese of Washington, DC) and what he said earlier this month at the Synod of Bishops. The Cardinal was speaking about the concern of the bishops who want clarity about the church’s teachings. He told news reporters, “The church’s teaching is quite clear. But the church’s pastoral life is the application of the teaching to where people are. And that’s always been the pastoral challenge of the church.”

He went on to say, “You have to speak with clarity, but then knowing what the fullness of the teaching is, you go out and meet people where they are,” he continued. “And the Holy Father keeps saying to us, ‘Accompany them.’ You don’t go out to meet people where they are to scold them. You go out to bring them the truth but sometimes to be heard you have to let the person know you know their struggle if you’re going to accompany them at all.”

Think about that advice:

  • Teach the truth
  • Meet people where they are … with compassion
  • Accompany them on their journey

Sounds like a Christ-like model to me!

Reflection and Prayer

It might be good to take some time this week to reflect on the “lessons” God wants us to learn in our lives and ask ourselves:

  • Where is the Holy Spirit calling me to grow in my life?
  • How do I model Jesus’s teachings of love, mercy, and compassion?
  • Who are the people in my family, in my community, in my world who need my “accompaniment” – who need to know the truth, but also need to know compassion?

If we are going to allow today’s readings to touch our hearts and guide our lives, we have to be watchful, holy and open to growth.

As we journey in our life of faith, let us find comfort Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” His truth and his love are always with us!

And let us find strength in the Eucharist we share today to go forth as the watchful, holy people God calls us to be.