Saturday, February 23, 2008

Consumerism, Desire, and Freedom

(3rd Sunday of Lent, A)

Consumerism is one of the great spiritual dangers of our culture. We are surrounded night and day by advertising and salespeople trying to sell us something. Often their promises are empty. We are supposed to be tricked into thinking that the latest drug will make us feel better than we ever felt before, that buying some appliance will make our family happy, or that a new car will solve all our problems.

>But there is a something good we can learn from the consumerism of our culture. It shows us that we, in fact, desire something. There is something we all want. If there weren’t, there wouldn’t be any way for advertisements to play on our desires. So what do we really want? What is it that our hearts are always reaching for? Well, first of all we want a happy and peaceful life—that’s why people in commercials are always having a good time. We want a meaningful connection with another person—intimacy—and that’s why commercials always sell sex or at least employ physically attractive people, because our sexuality is the simplest way to get at our desire to connect with others.

It comes down to life. That’s what we want: to be alive, fully—happy, peaceful, and with life-giving connections to others. And this core of our human desire is what Jesus is talking about when he promises eternal life­—not eternal life in the sense of some future we don’t even know about, but eternal life now, filling our hearts with the love and peace that we really want.

Our basic problem is that we try to reach out and grab the eternal life, love, and satisfaction in all the wrong places. We get fooled into thinking that money or stuff or security can satisfy our hearts, but at the end of day we realize in our depression that they can’t. The way our culture is plagued by sexual exploitation and pornography just shows how desperate people are to reach out and connect with another human being—and how many of us have no idea how to do that in a fulfilling and healthy way.

The Samaritan woman in the Gospel today was looking for the desire of her heart just like we are. Her history of failed relationships and her eagerness for the living water Jesus’ promised—even though she interpreted his words in a physical way—show that she had spent her life looking for love and was at least a little bit weary of daily life.

Jesus’ promises her what she really wants and what we really want, eternal life. And it’s not something you have to go buy, or something you have to reach out and grab, because it’s something that comes from within. As Jesus says, the water that he will give becomes in us “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” It’s the great tragedy of our lives that we are always trying to buy or to reach out and grasp happiness and fulfillment, when our God has promised that everything our heart desires he himself will make to well up from within.

Once we realize that God has already put within us everything we truly desire, and that all we have to do is consent to his presence in our hearts and minds in order to be happy, then we will be free, because we will no longer be susceptible to being fooled by our culture of advertisements, false promises, and empty prejudices.

When we surrender to the presence of God within us—and what else does it mean to approach and receive Holy Communion—then we will be able to imitate the Lord in his behavior in today’s Gospel. As we heard, Judeans weren’t supposed to have anything to do with Samaritans. Much less was the great teacher supposed to talk casually with a woman. But none of that matters to Jesus. He breaks through all of that man-made boundary and prejudice without bother or even making a big deal about it. And once we accept the living water that wells up in us to eternal life, we will be free from prejudice and fear, and we too will be able to walk effortlessly through all the walls that are set up only by human fear and prejudice.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

This Preview Approved for All Audiences

(2nd Sunday of Lent, A)

Anybody here ever go to the movies? Good. Now when you go to the movies, first you have to watch the previews, right? And in a preview, they show you a couple of minutes of a film not yet released. What usually happens is that they show you pieces of different scenes, all mixed up and cut together in a way that makes the movie look better than it actually is. The purpose of this is to make you want to see the movie, and to say yourself, after seeing the preview, ‘wow, that looks good, I want to see that.’ The preview is there to try to make you commit to going to see the whole movie.

Now I suggest to you today that in this Gospel we just heard, Jesus is providing his disciples with a sort of preview of the Resurrection. He takes Peter, James, and John, the three of his apostles who will be most responsible for preaching the Gospel and leading the churches after his Ascension, and he shows them a preview of the glory of his Resurrection. His face “shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light,” Matthew tells us. Even more miraculously, for a moment Jesus enters into eternity itself, and is thus able to commune with Moses and Elijah.

This Transfiguration of the Lord is like a preview of the glory of the Resurrection. Just as a movie preview is designed to encourage to see the whole movie, the Lord gives his apostles the Transfiguration as a way to encourage them through all the terror and trouble that is on the way: Jesus’ arrest, his trial, and finally his execution on the Cross—the great events we will recall more fully in Holy Week.

Brothers and sisters, as the Lord’s Transfiguration provided encouragement to his first disciples, so this Eucharist is meant to do for us. We are pilgrims in this world, people who are journeying on their way to fullness of the Kingdom of God. Often it’s not an easy road. There are many obstacles and many opportunities for discouragement in this life. Life has its misfortunes. We make ourselves miserable with our own sins and suffer because of the sins of others. Many times in life things go wrong or just don’t work out. The final mysteries of sickness and death hang over us, taking those we love.

That’s why we gather here each week for this Eucharist, so we too can be encouraged on our pilgrim way through life. Everything about what we are doing here right now is meant to be a preview and a foretaste of our destination—our personal destination in the God we will all return to at our own death as well as the final destination of all creation in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

That we gather here in this beautiful church is not just so we can enjoy something beautiful—it’s meant to encourage us in the knowledge that we are on the way to a beautiful destiny in God. The Wisdom of the Word of God we hear at Mass is meant to encourage us to believe in the peaceful Kingdom to which we are traveling. That we sing together in harmony reminds us of the peace and harmony and unity God so desires to give to the world. Most of all, the Body and Blood of the Lord that we receive as our spiritual food helps us to know and believe that God will fulfill every desire and hope, every longing of our hearts. Everything we do here at Mass is meant to be a weekly encouragement and preview of “the life of the world to come” we proclaim at the end of the Creed. And we always need encouragement when we are on a long and sometimes difficult journey.

Our God is an inviting God. Just as God invited Abraham to leave home and journey to a land that God would show him, God invites us to commit ourselves to the journey of faith that has its destination in God himself, in his Kingdom. Abraham didn’t know exactly where he was going, but he went because he trusted God. So it has to be with us and the invitation we receive to the journey of faith. And just as Jesus invited Peter, James, and John up the mountain to be transfigured before them and give them the encouragement of a preview of the Resurrection, so the Risen Lord invites all of us to climb the mountain of faith each week to be fed and encouraged by this Eucharist.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Sin and Salvation

(1st Sunday of Lent, A)

On this first Sunday of our journey of Lent, the sacred Scriptures focus on temptation and sin. In a lot of ways this is an easy topic to reflect on and preach about, because we’ve all sinned and we all know what it’s like to feel like sinners or to suffer on account of the sins of others.

In the first reading from the book of Genesis we heard the archetypal story about sin, of the “original sin” of our first parents. And what was their sin? God had given them the infinite dignity of being created in God’s own image and likeness, but it wasn’t good enough. They believed the serpent who told them that they should want more, that they could “be like gods” if they ate from the Tree in the middle of the garden. They were already like God! That’s how we were created. But their greed for more made them disobedient.

That’s the anatomy of all sin. We try to set ourselves up as gods instead of recognizing that only God is God. We reach out for what is forbidden—and even things we know will make us unhappy and miserable—because we decide in our hearts that we know better what we need than God does. We hurt each other because we take the judgment that belongs to God to ourselves, setting ourselves up as those who know best. And in all these sins, we only reap the same thing our first parents did: shame, misery, anxiety, and depression.

Driving a car provides a simple example of this pattern of our tendency to sin. When someone is ahead of us going slower than we are, we call him a pain—or worse. And if someone passes us going faster than we are, well, he’s a maniac. So the only correct way to drive, the only correct speed is exactly what we ourselves are doing. We are the measure of all things. We ourselves are the standard by which everything else is measured. That’s taking the role of God and appropriating it to ourselves, and that’s the root of sin.

Sin has coursed through human history from our first parents down to us here today. From the little ways we hurt and betray each other with gossip and lies all the way up to the cycles of violence and hate that break out in wars and poverty and scar the whole history of the world, we are all plagued by sin. Because we do not trust and we try over and over to set ourselves up as little gods, we keep hurting ourselves, each other, and the world.

How can we be saved from this vicious cycle of sin? The good news is that God has applied, and is applying, the remedy. To us who are stuck in this sinful pattern of making little gods out of ourselves, God does the opposite—God makes himself one of us. In Jesus Christ the Almighty God becomes one with us and fights our tendency to sin on our behalf, from within our humanity, and thus creates a path out of the cycles of sin.

This is what’s going in the Lord’s temptations in the desert! Remember the Israelites in the desert on their journey after they were freed from Egypt? Remember how they complained to God and to Moses, continually demanding things and putting God to the test? Jesus, in these forty days he spends being tempted in the desert, is re-living the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. But instead of failing the way the Israelites did and the way we too continue to fail, Jesus succeeds on our behalf. He defeats the temptations and remains faithful to God.

And Jesus’ faithfulness, his righteousness, and his victory over temptation and sin is freely available to all of us, as soon as we get sick and tired of being sick and tired with our sins. All we have is let his divine humanity enter into our humanity. And this is the meaning of our baptism into Christ, and our Holy Communion with his Body and Precious Blood.

This is the greatest of gifts. Jesus defeats sin on our behalf and heals the injury that our first parents brought into creation through their disobedience. But Jesus does more than just fix the situation. As Paul says, the “gift is not like the transgression.” The gift of salvation and freedom from sin in Jesus Christ goes far beyond just putting creation back together. It lifts all of creation into the divine life of God. And so, because of the work of God in Jesus Christ on our behalf, we are even more blessed than our first parents were before they sinned. We are not only created in the image and likeness of God as they were, but we are re-created according to the image of God’s only begotten Son.

The gift, this salvation, comes to us in our Baptism into Christ. At Easter we will renew the vows of our Baptism as new Christians are themselves baptized. And this is a gift so great that we spend these forty days of Lent preparing ourselves to receive it anew.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Citizens of the Kingdom

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

Last week we heard the beginning and central message of Jesus’ preaching: Jesus appears with the message, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The Kingdom of God, which is the destiny of all creation, us included, and is mysteriously present among us now, is the heart of the Gospel.

Today, in Matthew’s Beatitudes, we hear a description of the citizens of this Kingdom. In these proclamations of who is blessed, we hear about what someone who lives in the Kingdom of God looks and acts like, and thus we hear about the attitudes to which all of us Christians must aspire.

First of all, the citizens of the Kingdom of God are “blessed.” The word in the original Greek is makarios, and it’s just as easily translated as “happy.” My dictionary defined makarios as “blessed, happy, or fortunate.” That’s the first thing to know about being a Christian, a citizen of the kingdom of God: we are blessed, happy, and fortunate for the call we have received to Holy Communion with God in Christ. And that’s why the primary attitude of the Christian is always gratitude.

The Christian is “poor in spirit.” That is, before God we have the stance and attitude of poor people, who do not have what they need and who have to beg necessities from others. We know that only the grace of God saves us, and it is only his Sacred Heart that offers the rest that our hearts desire. We do not worship the false God of security, whether it be financial security, personal security, or national security, this false God that tells us we can make ourselves safe and fortunate in this world.

No, only God. Only God has what we truly desire, and we are all poor before God. So instead of the arrogance, the self-righteousness, and the insanity of peace through war that the children of the kingdom of this world offer us, we Christians are poor in spirit. We strive for this attitude through prayer, begging the grace from God to be “clean of heart,” so that we may be those who are blessed by our “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” rather than the hunger and thirst to protect and please ourselves that the world recommends.

The citizens of the Kingdom of God mourn and are merciful. They are those who allow their hearts to break when they see and hear of the suffering of others. If we are to be true Christians we need to let the suffering and misery of others affect us. We need to let ourselves be hurt by all of the poverty and suffering and misery present in our world, because this is the first step to compassion, to praying for the suffering, and to seeking ways to give them the peace and salvation God desires for them.

Finally, the citizens of the Kingdom of God are meek, and are peacemakers. They are those who look for opportunities to not return evil for evil, hurt for hurt. Christians seek to break cycles of violence and hurt in their families, their communities, and among nations. If we are to call ourselves Christians we must recognize that the peace the world talks about isn’t real peace, but just the absence of conflict. The peace that God gives is so much more; it is a positive force for ending violence and producing gentleness and kindness.

These Beatitudes are a tall order. They challenge us to change our minds about how we look at ourselves and at the world. And if we follow them, we can be sure that we will share in some of the misunderstanding and persecution that the Lord himself experienced among us. Maybe we won’t be martyrs for the faith, but if we take being disciples of the Lord seriously, we can be sure that some people will mock us, some will insult us, and many, many just won’t get it. And when this happens, we know we are especially fortunate, most happy, and blessed by the Lord more than ever.