Saturday, September 27, 2014

Intentional Discipleship II - Sep 27-28

This is the second of two homilies preached at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Benedict, MD, at the request of the pastor on the topic of intentional discipleship.  To see the first homily, click here.

Last week, we looked at the basis for intentional discipleship.  We discovered that it is founded upon a person, upon the greatest Person to ever live on this good earth.  We saw that our reason for being in this building is founded upon the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God become man.  In this we realized that our religion is not founded merely upon His actions and words, but also in our reaction to those same actions and words, to how our lives are impacted by them.  Now that we see what is the reason for being disciples, and furthermore for becoming intentional disciples, let us find out what it takes to do so.
It is Saint Paul who offers us a wonderful picture of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in his letter to the Philippians.  In directing the church at Philippi towards holiness, St Paul offers this reflection on what it means to be a member of the Church, to be conformed to Christ.  He gives three ways to live the Christian life, to be intentional disciples.  The first is unity.  We as Christians are called together into the one Body of Christ, into the one flock which is the Holy Catholic Church.  If we are one Body, then there must not be division within that Body, just as we cannot tolerate a division within our own bodies.  A group of cells that grows corrupt and poisons the human body is called a tumor, and is oftentimes fatal for the body and for the tumor.  It is the same within the Body of Christ: when Christians plot against the Lord and His chosen leaders (see Ps 2), they form a tumor within that mystical Body.  This is not the way of Christ, this is not the example of the saints.
Saint Paul encourages the Philippians to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.”  Why does ask this to be done so as to complete his joy?  Because it is the joy of every true pastor to see the flock united in one just as God desires it.  The Spirit of God does not sow dissension and disunity, but the seed of unity and cooperation.  The laity and the clergy are called to cooperate for the good of themselves and the good of the other.  The laity are called towards obedience to the Word of God and their pastors, supporting them in their labor in the fruitful fields of humanity, while the clergy are called to preach the full Word and distribute the life-giving sacraments to the laity.  There is no room for either of us, laity or clergy, to foment discord out of our own selfish interests or to promote ourselves.  We are all meant to be united in Christ, thinking upon the one thing necessary: what it takes to receive our eternal salvation.  Let us begin to work to do so.
Continuing in his encouragement, St Paul exhorts the Philippians to “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”  This is the mark of true charity: a concern that looks towards the needs of others and not merely to ourselves.  Why must we be always so focused upon our own needs and wants when there are so many who are in need of much worse?  Why do we seem leery of showing that charity towards others in our lives?  Did Christ desire only a few to know Him and all that He taught and worked or did He not bring about wondrous works before the eyes of the public?
Charity must begin at home, they always say.  And in this they are correct, for charity must begin among ourselves.  We are called to support one another, to pray for one another, to reconcile with one another.  This charity operates in accord with that unity which we looked at earlier, but the charity which Christ commands and which St Paul describes cannot end with our fellow parishioners.  We are called to be concerned for our fellow Christians around the world who are our brethren in the faith.  We are called also to love all who are our neighbor as ourselves, desiring the good for them, the ultimate good which is a fruitful relationship with Christ and with God.
In the early centuries of the Church’s life, the pagans marvelled at the way the Christians lived, how much they cared for all around them, not just their fellow Christians.  This was the way by which Christianity was spread throughout the world, by our demonstration of what Christ commanded, by our imitation of Christ’s love witnessed upon the Cross.  If we do not have love, then we cannot share it.  Where is your charity?  Where is your love?  How much have you cared for the Church, for your parish, for your pastor?  How much have you loved God and shown Him that love?  Indeed, until we begin to love God, we cannot begin to love our neighbor to the extent to which we have been called.
Concluding his remarks, St Paul offers up the third means to living as intentional disciples: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.”  What attitude is that?  It is humility, as we see from the magnificent description of Christ which follows:

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

Jesus Christ, being God, being a member of the divine Trinity, did not let that separate Him from His people, from us.  In obedience to the Father, He became like one of us, He who is above everything and far greater than everything.  He humbled Himself by willing to become like us in everything except sin: becoming a babe in the womb, becoming a child dependent on His parents, becoming a man dependent upon His own work to live.  All of this He did even to the point of the cruel death He suffered upon the Cross for the salvation of the world.
That is the example of humility we are to follow.  Not accounting ourselves to be anything great and important, but emptying ourselves of vanity and self-deceit so as to be obedient to our heavenly Father.  Not desiring the higher places and greater honors, but submitting ourselves to the lowest places and being nothing in the eyes of others so that the honor and the glory go to God.  Recognizing that we are indeed nothing next to God, yet knowing that God became one of us so that we might in turn become God-like ourselves; so that, just as Christ was exalted to the right hand of the Father and His name echoes triumphant even in the bowels of Hell, we too may be exalted in the halls of eternal life.
But how will all this come about?  How can we achieve this unity?  How can we grow in charity, towards God and towards others?  How can we become humble and Christ-like?  This is where the rubber meets the road for intentional discipleship.  It must echo in every facet of our lives.  Look into the lives of the saints and see how they lived, and you will see this echoed in every one of them.  They never lived the Christian life in halves or quarters or any other sort of division, separating what they believed from how they lived.  And it must be the same for us.  Our lives must echo with unity, charity, and humility if we are going to receive the reward that God desires for us.
But how?  As with all things in the Christian life, we must be a people of prayer, a people in conversation with God, which is the true heart of prayer.  How can we do anything if God is not there to help us?  How can we succeed without God?  We must pray, and in fact we must pray every day for God’s help and for His grace in order to accomplish what He wills for us.  It is primarily through prayer that we will succeed.  Without drawing nearer to God, most especially in the most central prayer that we have - the Holy Mass, without that we cannot gain our reward.
Yet prayer is useless if it is not tied to action, to works.  Just as Christ was obedient in every moment of His earthly life, striving to accomplish the will of the Father, so must each moment of our life be more united to the same divine will.  We cannot be saints on Sunday alone, piously praying and participating, and doing nothing else the rest of the week.  We cannot do that in any other facet of our lives, so why would it be the same as far as our religious life?  If we only cooked for one day, we would starve.  If we only showered for one day, we would be filthy and smelly.  If we only slept for one day, we would make ourselves crazy.  And it is the same in our relationship with God.
Flowing from our prayer must be an ever-increasing desire to obey what God has laid down for us.  This will certainly be different for each of us, since we each have a unique vocation from God, but there are certainly a few general principles to live by.  First, avoid sin.  How can we do that?  By knowing what is sinful, and working to remove the occasions of sins and temptation from our lives.  Second, do good.  We do this in the same way as avoiding sin, by learning what is good and increasing it in our lives.  Third, trust in God.  Without hope in God’s grace and God’s mercy to help us be intentional disciples, we cannot succeed.  He is there for us, just as Christ is near to all who call upon Him.  When in doubt, pray and ask for help, for guidance, for relief.  Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.
Fourth and finally, trust the Church.  Christ has not left us by ourselves to discern all this, but has given us an authority that we can trust to guide us in these matters.  This is probably the hardest for us, because we would rather trust ourselves rather than another.  But Christ did not trust Himself; He did everything in union with the will of His Father, and we must act in a similar way.  Listen to your pastor, your bishop, the Pope: these are the voices by which God speaks to us still.  Consult your pastor for guidance or need.  Read a catechism and learn what the Church proclaims.  Seek the aid of the Church where you can find it.
This is the heart of intentional discipleship - to become what we were meant to be from the beginning: the children of God, the sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, the brethren of Christ the Lord.  Let us not lose sight of this goal, but let us fly towards it.  Let us begin to be like the reformed son and do our yes even if we have said No before.  Let us live not for this world, but for everlasting life.  Let us not be held back, but instead race ahead so as to win.  Let us reach and grasp for the prize, so that we will not be sorrowful for having lost it.  And let us help one another to do the same and be the same, becoming the disciples we should be, so that we will become the saints that God wants us to be.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Intentional Discipleship I - Sep. 20-21

This homily was given as the first of two homilies for St. Francis de Sales Church in Benedict, MD.  The pastor has asked me to give these homilies concerning intentional discipleship.

I have been asked to preach and discuss about intentional discipleship while your pastor is away.  That’s not what I am going to do directly.  I want all of you for this weekend to focus on one question, on this one question: Why am I here?  I do not mean the great philosophical question about our existence and all that.  I am asking each of you to consider why you are here, why you are present in this church at this hour.  What leads to your decision to come here to worship?  Could you not be spending that time in a more useful pursuit rather than sitting here listening to me speak?
I’m sure quite a few of you have thought that at some point in your life, questioning why you need to grace the church with your presence.  Perhaps you have seen the results of that inquiry in your family and friends who are not now present here.  Perhaps you’ve come close to doing the same.  Yet something keeps you coming back, something poking at your heart or some small voice perhaps echoing inside telling you that you need to go, you need to be there.  And so you continue to come, you continue to be present, yet you probably feel ...
Is this how we are supposed to be in church?  Is this what this hour or our life is meant to be like?  Or is there meant to be more?  Are we called to be spectators, observing what is happening and not doing much more; or perhaps are we called to something more?  The prophet Isaiah declares “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near” (55:6), and in this message we can see our response.  Our lives are meant to be a pursuit after something: even better, our lives are meant to be a pursuit of some-ONE, an important distinction.  We are made for the Lord.
This is why we are meant to be here in this building.  This is why we are called to gather together, to gather as one.  We are meant to be discovering who this Lord is, and what it is that He desires from us.  We have been made for God, as Saint Augustine famously said in his autobiography, and our hearts are restless until we rest in Him.  Admit it: how little does this world satisfy?  And I mean truly, deeply, completely, without any emptiness, satisfy you?  It cannot!  It is incapable of doing so!  Everything that exists around us is not meant to be the be-all and end-all of our lives.  If you were to sit down and consider everything you hold as satisfying and truly consider the meaning of satisfaction, you would see that there is nothing that this world can offer which can satisfy that definition.
Things in general, and specifically money, cannot do it: we are always desirous of more, even when we have enough.  Honor or prestige are fleeting and can change from minute to minute: how respected was Ray Rice before the video emerged, or any major figure, be it sports or politics or entertainment.  And speaking of all those things, none of them can truly satisfy:  every sports game ends, leaving us desiring more action; every political fight either breaks us or makes us addicts, movies and television all have an end, a point when the credits roll and no more is to be seen.  None of these things can satisfy us, none of these things is enough.  Then where are we to quench this thirst, this desire for something in which our hearts can rest?
Our hearts are meant to rest in a person, in the greatest Person to ever live: Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the God-man.  This is the heart of the Christian religion, of the Catholic experience as passed down to us from Christ Himself: to approach this man who is more than He seems; whose wisdom is far beyond anything we have heard; who has power over everything, even death.  Our cry should be the cry of the people as recalled in the Gospel of Luke when they behold Jesus raise a young man from the dead:  “God has visited His people!” (7:16)  Indeed, God has visited His people, and continues to visit them every time the Holy Mass is celebrated.
Our hearts will continue to be restless until we meet Christ, until we encounter Him and engage in the relationship He has desired to have with each one of us from all eternity.  This is the fundamental message of the Church:  “Come and see!” (John 1:39)  Come and see the one who proclaims the Kingdom of God, that reign in which there is no pain, no sorrow, no loss, but there is found peace.  Come and see the one who brings about that kingdom by acting in obedience to His heavenly Father, even unto the death of the Cross (cf. Phil 2:5-8), that death which heals the world of sin.  Come and see the one who is truly King, victorious over sin and death by rising from the dead.  Come and see the King who is still with us, who is still present to us, and who desires to be with you.
But this cannot be done without our action.  Christ beckons to each and every one of us, calling to us, drawing near to us, wishing to fill us with His life-giving Spirit.  Yet we can turn Him away, either through indifference or through distraction.  We can ignore Him and remain as we are now,  but it will come at a cost.  In the parable of the workers found in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ says that the landowner came to gather men to work at various hours of the day, even at the last hour before dusk.  The landowner, upon the completion of the work, gives each worker the same reward.  Yet what about those who did not answer the call of the landowner?  What happened to them?  They were not rewarded, but were left out, without any reward, without any consolation.
This parable strikes at the heart of what I have been trying to tell you.  No matter your age, no matter how little you may know Christ, no matter how little you may relate to Him, it is not too late.  Jesus beckons to you to come to find the work that is the heart of our relationship with Him.  I do not shy away from saying that it will be work: consult the lives of the saints to see how hard it was for each of them to work so as to come to know Jesus better, love Him completely, and serve Him in everything.  God does not want to lose you, but you have only this life in which to find Him.  After this life, we will either enter into the joys of our reward, even the little that we have done, or we will sink into the oblivion of hatred and despair which plague those souls who chose on their own to abandon God, to ignore Christ, to despise the Holy Spirit.  What we do in this life indeed echoes for eternity, and it is completely in our control.
Our religion is not for bystanders or spectators or loungers; our religion, our faith is for soldiers who hear and answer the call, for pilgrims who rise up and wander towards that which should be truly sought, for lovers who discover one in whom their love can find rest.  Do not be settled in your faith, because faith does not beget complicity.  Saint Paul told the Galatians that “whilst we have time, let us work good to all men” (6:10), and he told the Philippians to “conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27).  Let us hear and respond, let us seek for the rest which our hearts have been yearning for, let us find the one who loves us and desires us to love Him before it is too late.  Indeed, let us discover the meaning of our faith, the purpose of our worship, and the goal of our religion: to know Christ Jesus and to know God and to live our lives conformed to what they desire for each of us.  Let us not wait for heaven, but let us reach for heaven, for only by reaching will we be able to grasp.