Sunday, June 28, 2020

Welcome Back Homily: Jesus is Our #1

This homily was given at our Outdoor Mass so sound quality maybe  bit different.

Homily for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, June 28, 2020. Matthew 10:37-42.  Theme: Jesus is Our #1

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us right off the bat that our relationship with him runs the risk of being in danger, of being broken, if he is not kept and cherished as our #1. And I think this is something we all know and for this reason each of us have developed ways of keeping him as our #1 such as a daily prayer, coming to Mass, reading the Gospels, serving the needy and other such things.

But many Catholics started feeling that their relationship with Christ was indeed in danger of being damaged when many of these things that we’ve always depended upon to nurture that relationship came a screeching, halt.  Almost overnight and without much warning, there was suddenly no Masses, no Confessions, no prayer meetings or Bible study groups.  And not knowing really what to say or do in such an unexpected situation, the leadership of the Church didn’t help to make matters any easier.  For example, trying to alleviate people’s sense of loss over being kept away from the Eucharist many started to talk about spiritual communion almost as if it was the same thing as the sacrament. Now, of course, it is true that Christ dwells in us spiritually by faith, but it’s not at all the same thing. If it was why in the world would Jesus have bothered to give us the gift of himself as the Bread of Life? And why in the world would have millions of Catholics in our history – and even today in some oppressive nations – risk discrimination, imprisonment and even their very lives in order to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion?

I think unintentionally and yet in actuality, a false message was relayed that the sacraments, the parish church, and other aspects of our Catholic Faith were non-essential. To be fair, there were some bright spots in the Church and not every minister closeted themselves out of fear for their lives. There were clergy, religious Sisters and Brothers and lay people in various places who continued to serve the needs of God’s people.  They sought to alleviate suffering and provide spiritual services in as safe conditions as possible and as best they could even if it meant risking their lives. But sadly, most people did not encounter this type of devotion.

(Here, in the audio version of this homily, I tell a story about a young man seeking solace from the church)

I know that I was very concerned about this possibility of a disappointed or even damaged faith happening among us and so I prayed daily for you and all of our parish. But looking out at all of you gathered here for Holy Mass today I can see that my fears of lost faith were unfounded.  Despite the requirements and restrictions laid upon you, you are here because through it all you have managed to keep Jesus as your #1. This desire of yours for the Eucharist shows that, like all relationships of love, you yearn for and seek union, togetherness, with the One who is Lord of your life.  And so, I congratulate you for cooperating with the grace of the Holy Spirit to come here and worship at our Eucharist.   

And seeing you all here today is also, I think, a testimony to the quiet undeterred dedication of our pastor, Fr. Bill. I hope you know, and if you don’t then I want you to know, that ever since March 16, he has done all that he could to help you keep Jesus as your #1 and to help St. Sebastian’s be one of those bright spots in the darkness of COVID-19.  While carefully walking a tightrope between civic and Archdiocesan rules he has kept our parish open and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament going, 7 days a week, from 10AM to 4PM.  This was a tremendous gift to us! Are you aware that many parishes in Marin were closed and locked? I even saw one myself that had signs on every door telling parishioners to stay home and not come to the parish church at all! How very sad!

And in addition to keeping the church open and making Eucharistic Adoration possible, our parish priests would not allow the physical health restrictions to compromise your spiritual health needs.  And so, they faithfully kept our regular schedule of Confessions going on Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons, drawing people from throughout the County because they made sure this sacrament was as accessible and as easy to receive as possible. Many parishes did not make Confession possible or if they did you had to jump thru hoops, make an appointment and meet with the priest in a parking lot.  

Now, I want to be clear that neither Fr. Bill nor Fr. Jerry knew what I was going to be saying about them this morning, but I think it’s something that has to be said, that needs to be said. Another person who doesn't know what I am going to say is Mike De Angelo. He has literally made our outdoor Mass possible by purchasing, building and jury-rigging everything you see here: altar, lectern, microphones, sound system. What a beautiful parish of marvelous people we have!

In various ways and forms, in person, online and through creative adaptations to bring Holy Communion to those who personally requested the sacrament, we did what we possibly could to help you keep Jesus as your #1. And many have told us “thank you”.  But truly, on behalf of all, I want to say thank you to each and every one of you.  Because, you see, you ministered to us every bit as much as or even more than we ministered to you:

Your faith that did not falter fed our faith. 
Your trust in Christ increased our confidence in him. 
And your love inflamed our love so that we, too,
could keep Jesus as our #1 throughout a very difficult time. 
God bless you!

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Leave Fear Behind and Step into Freedom!

Homily for the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, June 21, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 1026-33. Theme: Leave Fear Behind and Step into Freedom!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us three times to not be afraid. He cautions us to intentionally avoid the tendencies we have towards worry, anxiety, and fear. He knows the paralyzing effects these things have on our peace of mind and quality of life. He also knows how they slyly and gradually work against trusting in God as a Father who watches over us and loves us.  And I think it’s very appropriate that this Gospel passage that urges us to not live in fear is proclaimed to us as we navigate our way to resuming a more normal life in the era of COVID-19.

Fear – with its terrible twin off-springs of worry and anxiety -  is like a deadly emotional virus that some people are easily susceptible to as we move forward.  So, it’s important to be aware of what we do and do not mean by this word. First, let’s be clear, there is indeed a certain kind of fear that is normal and healthy for us humans. It keeps us safe from real dangers and directs us to act wisely and responsibly.  Healthy normal fear is a form of prudence, which is a practical awareness of one’s surroundings with a sound, rational and balanced judgement about how to act in a particular situation.  This is not the kind of fear Jesus is talking about. And this is not the kind of fear that threatens some of us today.

The kind of fear I am talking about is an imagined and obsessive fear that paralyzes and imprisons us.  It’s a fear that presumes the virus to be lurking on everything and everyone no matter who or where they are.  It’s a dark fear that can become so habitual that it gives birth to a compulsive-obsessive lifestyle that demands sanitization before every action and sees any venture beyond one’s own little cocoon as a potential threat. It’s a fear that doesn’t look for God’s image in your neighbor but instead sees the germ in your neighbor, making him or her a potential enemy to health and life.

And in these days, it is sadly not that uncommon to find.  As I go along my daily business – at work, while out and about, or when in ministry – I see some people, too many people, who not only exhibit this kind of worry, but seem to wallow in it. My heart goes out to them because it is an self-imposed dark view of life that condemns such people to live almost exclusively in the shadows. But God is not found in shadows of fear. That is the domain of the Evil One who with his minions works overtime to keep his victims in emotional and spiritual bondage. 

This habit of giving in to excessive imagined fear is very much like an addiction. Just like an addiction it is a destructive behavior pattern that compromises a person’s freedom.  It takes over one’s thoughts. It rules one’s life. It calls the shots as to where a person will go, or whom they will see, or what they will do on a given day. When people allow themselves to become driven by such unrealistic fear they begin to slide into a life that becomes bit by bit more unmanageable and bit by bit increasingly chaotic. And as with any and every destructive behavior, they lose serenity of mind and peace of heart. They can no longer sees reality clearly.

I firmly believe that the fastest and surest way out of this prison of fear is to follow the same pathway addicts take to leave behind their bondage and destruction.  This is the way of humble and honest surrender to God in trust. It’s not easy but it is effective. It begins by acknowledging our fear, naming it for the false threat that it really is, and then learning to intentionally hand this fear over to God, step by step, bit by bit, throughout one’s day. It is a surrender that is made to God in faith, that is, out of trust, confident that He watches over us and loves us.

This is precisely the antitode to fear, worry and anxiety that Jesus is giving us in today’s Gospel. We heard him say to us: “Do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” He reminds us that our heavenly Father watches over and protects even these smallest and seemingly most insignificant creatures, so why should we worry, we who are his children? Irrational fear and the infectious virus of anxiety can only grow within us when we begin to think and act as if we are in control of our lives.  And so, to consciously turn ourselves over the care of God is the perfect remedy, the perfect medicine, to cure this emotional infection.

As I mentioned earlier, not all fear is this imprisoning kind of dreadful darkness. And most of us will gradually return to normality just fine. But we do need to honestly ask ourselves if we are primarily walking in the light of life or in the shadows of death. Are our precautions normal and reasonable or are they excessive and over-magnified? Do we live in the reality that God is an ever-watchful Father who is control of our lives or are we acting under the assumption that we are in control and God is the bystander?

Those who discern that they struggle with harmful fear need to cultivate a deeply personal relationship with God, speaking heart-to-heart with the Father who loves them beyond all telling. They need to turn their wills and their thoughts over to God daily, even often throughout the day, remembering that they like the little sparrows, cupped safely in God’s provident hands. By faithfully doing this, day by day, bit by bit, trust will grow and anxiety will begin to dissipate, and the person who once suffered under the weight of darkness will come out into the light and experience the true joy and freedom of the children of God!

Saturday, June 13, 2020

What You See Isn't Always What You Get

HOMILY FOR CORPUS CHRISTI SUNDAY, June 14, 2020. Gospel of St. John 6: 51-58. Theme: What You See Isn’t Always What You Get

Today’s feast of Corpus Christi Sunday calls our attention to one of the most startling yet marvelous of all the Bible-based beliefs of Catholicism: the miraculous changing of bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ! If this sounds incredible and maybe even borderline ridiculous to some of you then you are not alone. Did you hear in today’s Gospel that many of those who first heard Jesus teach about it reacted with doubt and disgust saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

You see the problem wasn’t that they misunderstood Jesus. They heard clearly what he was saying. The problem was that they did not have faith in his word. They did not yet fully believe in who he was and what he could do. This was too much for many of them and the end of this story- which for some strange reason is not read at today’s liturgy – we find out that many of these disciples walked away from Jesus. But Peter and others remained with him.  Not that they totally got it, not that they understood the how or the why…but they knew Jesus and they trusted him. And here we are 2,000 years later doing the very same thing.

I have always been a bit flabbergasted by Christians who readily profess faith in Jesus as the Son of God become flesh, yet who find it so very difficult to have faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion.  I just don’t get their reasoning because I find that these two beliefs are so very similar. In both cases, that is, in both the Incarnation when the Word became flesh, and in the Eucharist where He becomes flesh yet again though in a different way, what we see is not what we get; external things hide the full reality of what is.

When people encountered Jesus of Nazareth what did they see? What did their senses perceive? That there before them stood a young strong man from the village of Nazareth, a man just like them. He dressed like them, he spoke like them, he ate like them, he smelled like them, and he worked like them. But their senses did not discern the full truth.  For standing right in front of them, hidden by the appearances of flesh and bone, was the eternal Son of God, the only begotten of the Father.  If someone was to have taken a biopsy from Jesus, not even the most state-of-the-art test we have today would have come up with the results of divinity because you cannot see, touch, taste or smell divinity on its own. It is a reality beyond our senses.

And it seems to me that the True Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is very much the same. What we see before us looks, tastes, feels and smells like bread and wine. If someone was to put a fraction of the consecrated host or a drop of the consecrated wine under a microscope, the only results they would get would be the physical characteristics of this food and drink. Yet the full truth, missed by the senses and undetectable by science, is that these Consecrated Gifts are indeed the flesh and blood, the glorified humanity and eternal divinity, of our Risen Lord, Brother and Savior, Jesus Christ.

You know, I think that contained within the theology and liturgy of Corpus Christi, there is life-lesson to be learned that readily applies the issues of interracial harmony and human dignity that are so fiercely present in our culture today.  And I see it this way: just as when the Nazarenes looked upon Jesus or when we ourselves look upon the small white consecrated host into our hands, in neither case is the inner reality seen. The truth of what is before us can only be comprehended by faith.  And in the same way, when we look upon another human being we may at first see someone who is “other”, whose inner reality is disguised from us by various shades and tones of skin but in every case, there stands before us a child of God, created by the Father and loved by the Father passionately and personally.  There stands before us a human being for whom the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

And when we encounter someone who is strangely different from us, we may be at first tempted to avoid them, ostracize them, or engage in gross generalizations about them.  Our eyes so often deceive us and so we do not perceive the truth of who it is who truly stands before us. But that hidden inner reality is this: that mystically present before us, hidden by human disguise, is the Risen Lord Jesus Christ who has explicitly said, “whatsoever you do to them, you do to me.”

To see these things clearly and perceive the inner reality around us accurately requires faith.  And it is only through such faith, through a personal encounter with Jesus, that hearts can be changed. And as Scripture tells us, society will never change, can never change, simply by means of enacting laws and mandating systemic reform.  Such things as these, even when socially necessary, can only coerce people into compliance but they do not go to the root of the problem.  They do not fix anything that is broken but only put a lid on the social pressure cooker, so to speak, and simply delay the next violent outbreak of injustice and unrest. 

It’s no coincidence that when St. Katherine Drexel, the American millionaire heiress of the 20th century, became a nun and started new religious order to seek justice and equality for African Americans and Native Americans, she chose to name the community “Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament”. She knew that the key to seeing and reverencing God’s image in every human being, of respecting all lives, and of changing society by changing hearts is found in the sacred power of the Eucharist. The more we are nourished by this Heavenly Food the more our hearts are changed, the stronger our faith becomes, and the clearer will our vision be to see the inner reality of people according to the truth.

Pope Francis never tires of repeating that the Blessed Sacrament is powerful medicine for us who are spiritually sick and supernatural strength for us who are morally weak.  He says that through our receiving of the Eucharist, Jesus lives within us, changes us and walks with us though the ups and downs of our everyday lives.  With those words in mind, I would like to close with a personal prayer of mine that I always recite in my heart immediately after receiving Holy Communion.  It was inspired by Pope Francis’ words and deep faith in the Eucharist:

O Jesus now living in me,
be medicine in my sickness,
be strength in my weakness,
be healing balm in my woundedness,
be power in my powerlessness,
be fire in my coldness,
be light in my darkness,
be everything in my nothingness.