August 30, 2014

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

In the 1932 edition of the Rule of a certain religious order you find this statement: “The professed [= members with vows] cannot be denied anything that is necessary. However, the Superiors occasionally try their inferiors, by giving them an opportunity to feel some privation, and to be made aware of the fact that the poor cannot have everything they could wish for.”

How times have changed! The language of “superiors” and “inferiors” is gone from the latest edition (1982), and the very idea of those in charge deliberately depriving others of what they need is unthinkable, repugnant even.

Certain things made perfect sense in 1932; they made no sense at all fifty years later. That said, members of religious orders are still by definition different, counter-cultural. They still take the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, which makes them different from most people.

When St. Paul writes, “Do not conform yourselves to this age,” however, he is not speaking to a religious order, but to the Christians of Rome. He is telling them all to be counter-cultural. The word “conform” comes from the word “form;” it has to do with “fashion,” in the broad sense, with life-style. The phrase could just as easily read, “Do not adopt the fashion of this age.”

Paul’s point is that the Christian way of life ought not to be subject to the fickleness of fashion. A poet named William Cowper wrote in 1785, “Variety’s the very spice of life, / that gives it all its flavour.” The poem was a satire, and the poet understood full well that, as the saying goes, in fashion one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out. The following of Christ is not a fashion statement.

Jesus is even more forceful. We have to deny ourselves! In spiritual writings, this is often called “mortification,” a putting to death. Very unfashionable.

A partial list of “unfashionable behaviors,” or attitudes of mortification, that might be expected of us could include the following: I do not necessarily deserve everything I want. (Ever notice the number of ads that claim you “deserve” a particular product?) — It’s not enough for something to be legal to make it right. (Think about tax loopholes, for example.) — If I serve God that doesn't guarantee I’ll have an easy life, or even succeed in what I am trying to do for him. (Consult Jeremiah in today’s first reading.)

Here’s another: people who disagree with me are not necessarily idiots or demons. (Think of the level of much political discourse.)

Speaking of demons, Peter contradicts Jesus and Jesus calls him Satan, which means adversary or accuser. In last week’s Gospel, remember, Jesus gave him the name “Peter” (“Rock”). Simon Peter little realized in that moment that the day would come when, far from denying himself, he would be denying Jesus! That was his real “Satan” day.

There are many ways of denying Christ. Conforming to this age is one of them

We admire people who are able to make personal sacrifices for the sake of others, or for what they believe in. In this spirit, St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits, wrote this beautiful prayer:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty,
my memory, my understanding and my whole will.
All that I am and all that I possess You have given me.
I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace;
with these I will be rich enough,
and will desire nothing more.

Admirable, but hardly fashionable! Just the right thing for saints, but not for the rest of us, surely.

Guess again! Whether we like it or not (and most likely we don’t), Jesus and Paul are saying we have to choose between the world and Jesus or, more accurately, between ourselves and Jesus. This can take many forms—personal convenience vs. another’s need; personal opinion vs. Gospel teaching; easy Christianity vs. the call to Christian perfection; etc.—and it’s never easy. Never was. Never will be.

That’s why Jesus calls it a cross. 

August 23, 2014

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

(Click here for today’s readings)

Who was Shebna? Who was Eliakim? Why did Shebna lose his job to Eliakim? Why should we care? These questions are pretty irrelevant. Today’s reading from Isaiah was clearly selected only because of its reference to keys.

The questions in today’s Gospel, on the other hand, are far from irrelevant.

Can you imagine a head of state or a pope asking his closest associates, “Who do people say that I am?” The more normal question would be, “What are people saying about me?”

The disciples felt no need, apparently, to ask what Jesus meant, and they gave precisely the kind of answer he  was looking for: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (How anyone could think he was John the Baptist, whose death was so recent, is beyond me.)

When Jesus asked the disciples the more pointed question, “Who do you say that I am?” again they understood, and Simon responded accordingly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

It is amazing how many different answers are given today to this question. Over the years I have seen articles in print or on-line making some interesting claims.

Some argue that Jesus was a married man, because men in his day were expected to marry, and the Gospels never say that he was not married. (Mary Magdalen is usually the most like candidate as his wife.) My first encounter with this position was published by a former priest arguing for married clergy.

Or: Jesus was a vegetarian. This idea is supported, among others, by the scene of Jesus casting out the sellers, which is interpreted as showing that Jesus was opposed to animal sacrifice. This is from an author associated with a group called “Denver Vegans.” (I have seen a stained-glass window depicting the same Gospel scene, and on the ground, among the spilled coins, are Bingo cards! There was no doubt about that pastor’s position on fund-raising options.)

There is even a book, published in 2003 by the Law and Business Institute, with the following title: Judith Christ of Nazareth: The Gospels of the Bible, Corrected to Reflect that Christ was a Woman. Unlike the previously mentioned articles, the authors make no attempt to justify their claim from Scripture.

As you can imagine, there are similar positions taken by various other interest groups, each claiming Jesus as one of their own.

In a way, that is a compliment to him. It shows how important it is to believers to have Jesus “on their side.” One could even claim that Simon’s response was similar. Who was “the Christ,” after all? In Hebrew the word is “Messiah,” and the Messiah was the one who would ultimately “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). Who could be more desirable as “one of ours” for the Jewish people?

Simon’s statement could perhaps be seen as politically self-serving, except that Jesus says, “Blessed are you..., flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

In all of the above, I am not actually interested in getting involved in any controversies. I have neither the time nor the temperament for that. What I am fascinated by, today at least, is Jesus’ response to Simon.

After Simon, under divine inspiration, has named Jesus correctly as the Christ, Jesus repays the compliment. In effect he says, you have told me who I am, now I will tell you who you are: “You are Peter.” The name means Rock. The interpretation of this name varies, naturally, according to the presuppositions and/or desires of those interpreting it.

Shortly in the Creed we will profess our faith in Jesus: Lord, Son of God, born of a virgin, risen from the dead, etc.

Imagine Jesus saying to you after that, “Thank you for your expression of faith, and for recognizing me for who I am. Now let me tell you who you are.”

What does he say next?

August 16, 2014

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

(Click here for today’s readings)

The image is a familiar one: one or more dogs begging while you are at table, ready to pounce on whatever falls from the table, if not actively “demanding tribute,” as my brother’s Chihuahua “Rosy” does. Cute, if you like that sort of thing.

But there is nothing cute about the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in this Gospel. I once read an author, bent on finding humor in the Bible, who claimed that this was just a friendly little repartee, what Webster’s Dictionary describes as “amusing and usually light sparring with words.”  I couldn’t disagree more. The scene presented here by Matthew is no game of wits!

Let me digress briefly with a little trip down memory lane:

The point isn’t the music, the Gregorian chant or any other classic settings. The point isn’t the Latin Mass vs. English. It isn’t even that “Kyrie eleison” isn’t Latin at all, but Greek.

What is the point? It’s that we find those very same Greek words in today’s Gospel, and the point is especially what they mean.

The woman says “Eleison me kyrie.” This is translated in the Lectionary as “Have pity on me, Lord,” but it means equally well, “Have mercy on me, Lord.” Now leave out the middle word, change the order and there you have it: Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy.

She knows that as a foreigner she really has no claim on the one she calls “Son of David.” That doesn’t stop her.

Maybe she’s stubborn by nature. Maybe she’s had a hard life and is used to fighting for what she wants. Personally, I think the simple answer is the best: she’s a mother. And even if she has to accept being insulted by a famous teacher and healer, she accepts it, for her daughter’s sake.

But there is another reason why she doesn’t hold back. Jesus recognizes it, tests it, praises it, and rewards it. It is her “great faith”! (This woman, by the way, is one of the two foreigners I alluded to last week who are described as having “great” faith in the Gospels.)

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” we read in Isaiah. In this story we see a partial fulfillment of that prophecy. It’s no longer about a place, much less a single building situated in Jerusalem. It’s about Jesus and the community of believers gathered around him. It’s about the universal Church.

It seems everyone knows people who get in touch only when they need something. Often enough, however, that describes our prayer. The Canaanite woman might never have approached Jesus if her daughter hadn’t been sick. But in that moment, he saw her faith. and that was all that mattered. The same great faith that brought her to him in tears sent her back home to her daughter in grateful joy.

It is perfectly natural that we come to the Lord in our need. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:  “What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it?”

When we look at ourselves, and at our needs, and at what we actually deserve, and then we come to Jesus, what are we if not beggars at the Lord’s table?

No wonder we cry “Lord, have mercy!” at the beginning of every Mass! After that, however, reassured of his love, we are in a position to fulfill the other line in Isaiah’s prophecy where God predicts, “I will make them joyful in my house of prayer.”

August 9, 2014

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

(Click here for today’s readings

Let’s start today with an informal survey about Scripture. Of the following two prophecies from Isaiah, which one do you like better: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you;” or: “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil”?

Which of the following two verses from the Psalms do you prefer: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” or: “My only friend is darkness”?

What about the Gospels? “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest;” or: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.”

You see the trend? It is the most natural thing in the world that our favorite Scripture texts are those that comfort and encourage. (My personal favorite is Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”) Nobody’s favorite is a verse of condemnation, and rarely even one of challenge. We know those things are there, we accept them and respect them, but we don’t go looking for them.

As we saw in our little survey, the prophets have good news and bad news. Today we encounter Elijah. He is a little different from other prophets. There is no “Book of Elijah.” His story is told in the two Books of Kings, in about 10 episodes. There are few “oracles” of the kind we find in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He was more a doer than a speaker.

The prophet’s job description is given by Balaam in the Book of Numbers. The prophet is one “whose eye is true, ... one who hears what God says, and knows what the Most High knows, ...  who sees what the Almighty sees, in rapture and with eyes unveiled.” That’s why, in today’s reading, Elijah, although he knew that God certainly could be in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, recognized in this case that God was in the “tiny whispering sound”—a pleasant image, don’t you think?

The prophets couldn’t limit themselves to pleasant sayings, however, and were often looked on as troublemakers. This was certainly Elijah’s case, and he had powerful enemies.

Paul encountered a similar phenomenon. His preaching was met with unbelief by his own people. Every place he went he couldn’t wait to share with the Jews there the Good News that the Messiah had finally come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately, many of them took it as bad news. A crucified Messiah was a “stumbling block” to them, as Paul says earlier in this same letter to the Corinthians. Today we would say, a crucified Messiah “does not compute.”

From a very different perspective, it was good news for Peter that he had enough faith to get out of his boat and walk on the water with Jesus. He didn’t hesitate. The bad news was that he was a man of little faith, and allowed himself to be intimidated by the force of the wind, and down he went.

We can apply this easily enough to ourselves. With the Lord’s help maybe we have been able to deal with some major issue or overcome some serious temptation in our lives. Then, for whatever reason, our faith faltered, and we began to “sink.” Still, there’s some consolation in the fact that even “little faith” is true faith.

Only two persons in the Gospels are described as having great faith: not Apostles, not even disciples, but foreigners. We’ll meet one of them next week.

In the meantime, we can pray in the words we find in two other places in the Gospels. One is: “Increase our faith.” The other is: “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.”

August 5, 2014

Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Note from Fr.Butler: As you may have noticed, the homily I sent to Big C Catholics for this past weekend was the wrong one (from last year, actually). With due apologies, I now submit the homily I in fact preached on August 3.

(Click here for today’s readings)

Isaiah was surely an honest prophet, but he doesn’t seem to have grasped the economic principle of an honest profit. “You who have no money,” he says, “come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

Imagine if you owned a restaurant in town, and someone set up a local charity serving the same menu, or maybe even better, and offering it free of charge to one and all. At the very least, you would object that the charity was making a mess of the local economy.

Jesus wasn’t helping the local economy either. Surely local farmers and vendors were counting on a banner day when they saw the huge crowds gathered in the area. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel there is an account of Jesus’ casting out demons from two possessed persons into a large herd of swine. The entire herd ran down into the Sea of Galilee and drowned. When the locals arrived on the scene, they begged him to leave the area. He was not an asset to the local economy.

Pope Francis is immensely popular, but not all economists agree with his description of modern economy as “an economy of exclusion” and “idolatry of money” which lead to inequality and violence. Some months ago, when I walked into our church, I found Pope Francis’s picture covered over with a bulletin. I have no idea who did this, or why; but I speculate that it had something to do with the Pope’s persistent advocacy on behalf of the poor, which may have irritated someone who perhaps equates the poor with people living off entitlement programs. Be that as it may, Church teaching in such matters is rarely greeted with enthusiasm.

Now St. Paul tells us that not even famine can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But this doesn’t mean we can live on love. It’s true that we don’t live on bread alone, but we don’t live on love alone either.

It’s interesting that when the disciples suggested to Jesus to send the crowds away to get something to eat, he didn’t say, “Not to worry. I’ll take care of it.” Quite to the contrary. He said, “Give them some food yourselves.” In other words, You do it! It was only after they acknowledged their inability to do so with just five loaves and two fish that he said, “Bring them here to me.” After he blessed the food, then the disciples were in a position, after all, to feed the multitude.

Jesus didn’t have to do this. The crowds, at least in this account, are not fainting away and would presumably have been able to find food as the disciples suggested. Like so many of Jesus’ miracles, this was a sign.

To understand the sign, we need to return to the beginning of this scene in today’s Gospel. Jesus wanted to get away by boat to “a desert place,” but the crowd got there first, and when he saw them, “his heart was moved with pity for them.”

He then healed their sick. This is what his heart prompted him to do. And when evening came he fed them all. This was a symbol, a sign of the mission of the Messiah. In a very real way he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, a prophecy which was also symbolic, as we can see from the words, “Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.”

When we look at the world around us, there is so much suffering. We ask Jesus to do something about it. He responds, “Why don’t you take care of it?”

We respond in turn, “We don’t have nearly enough.” He says, “Bring me what you have,” and then he blesses it.

What happens next is up to us. A few of us may actually be able to do something in the “big picture,” on the “world stage.” Most of us will only be able to work behind the scenes.

What will ultimately matter is that, like Jesus, we allow our heart to be moved with pity—Pope Francis notes how difficult that can be—and then allow that heart to guide us.