Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 49:14-15; 1 Cor 4:1-5; Mt 6:24-34

I suspect that one sentence of today’s Gospel would raise eyebrows on multitudes of Christians: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life." For most of the past ten years I’ve been living with several supreme worriers. One of them was Sr. Amelia. She worried about everything, which made her extremely observant and extremely good as a sacristan. She even worried about her worrying too much. We used to talk about it regularly back in the sacristy. She used to often say, "I wish I wouldn’t worry so much, but I can’t help it." I told her I would pray for her about it. To remind myself and her regularly I began to add a phrase to the daily text of the mass. In the prayer that follows the Lord’s Prayer this line occurs: "Protect us from all anxiety." I added the phrase, "and worry." It didn’t have much effect, but she knew I was praying for her every day. The other heavy worrier I live with is my mother. She’s even worse than Sr. Amelia. She even dreams up things to worry about. They say that worrying takes years off your life. Well, at age 97, I’m not sure when that’s going to kick in for her. But we don’t need to consider famous worriers. Most of us are at an age when we begin to worry about our bodies. We worry about that new bump or mole that appears on our skin. We worry about that ache or pain in our stomach. We worry if a headache is actually a sign of something much worse. At a certain age worrying becomes a natural component of life.

The question weighs upon us: what exactly did Jesus mean when he said: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life." We need to take this sentence in the context of the entire passage it is part of. Then we see that the primary intent of the passage is to build to its climax: "Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness...." Everything before that in the passage is overstated in order to lead to the climax and emphasize its importance. Seeking God is always of greatest importance in the life of the believer. And I have no doubt that such was the case with Sr. Amelia and is so with my mother. But they were and are still great worriers.

If we would look at the whole body of Jesus’ teaching, we see that he continually encourages his followers to be concerned about their brothers and sisters. And that concern includes worrying about them. There are very legitimate worries that faithful believers can have. That should be of some consolation to all of you who are worriers out there. A man who is laid off work or in danger of being laid off can have some honest worries about how he is going to provide for his family. And each of us should have some valid worries about the state of our health. We do need to look after that.

Our task is to distinguish between valid and inordinate worrying. Worry becomes inordinate when it begins to blind us to our true tasks and purposes. That can happen Hypochondriacs constantly worry about their health more than anything else. We had one priest at St. Meinrad—he’s now deceased—who worried all the time about his health. Supposedly he had a different doctor for each day of the week and he had to see each of them regularly. Each Christmas season we have a party for all the doctors who serve members of the St. Meinrad community. The monks would joke that after that priest died, the number at the doctors’ party decreased by half. We’ve had other worriers who were almost incapable of doing any job at all.

We aren’t talking about anything sinful here. Excessive worrying is a psychological disease and often not a matter of willfulness at all. But we are speaking about the importance of good mental health in a sound approach to the gospel message. Good mental health is important in being able to respond to Jesus call to the Kingdom of God. And each of us has a responsibility to check ourselves with regard to mental health. That too can be a part of Jesus’ message to make the Kingdom of God first in our lives.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Lev 19:1-18; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

In 1966, when I was a deacon at St. Meinrad, I had the opportunity of attending a conference for university students at the University of Chicago. Thousands of students from all over the mid-West attended. The topic was on the morality of the war growing in Vietnam. One of the featured speakers was John Howard Yoder, a world-famous Mennonite scholar. Yoder, in true Mennonite fashion, espoused a total pacifism as the only viable Christian response to the war. He took literally and radically the words of Jesus in today’s gospel passage: "offer no resistance to one who is evil." His presentation to the students followed that line of thinking; to him the only Christian response to the Vietnam war lay in total pacifism and non-violent resistance. In the question-and-answer session that followed a student rose and asked him: "if you were walking down the street with your wife and your young son in her arms, and a man came and attempted to grab the child from her, would you try to stop him?" Without a hesitation or a flinch Yoder said, "No." There followed a gigantic gasp through the whole audience. Yoder went on to explain that the radical pacifism of Jesus sometime demands radical actions from his followers. One of the other speakers at the conference was Henry Kissinger, who didn’t quite take the same view as Yoder. Kissinger focused more on the country’s responsibility toward international justice and the need to use force if necessary.

More than anything else the students came away from that conference with the sense that it’s really, really hard to balance the Christian (and political) issues of striving for peace on the one hand, and the responsibility of justice on the other. Those have always remained very, very difficult issues and balances throughout Christian history. At no time did Christians ever attain a perfect balance. In hindsight they weighted the scale in one direction or the other.

How do we find our way today? In our position on the wars being waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan? In the debate over capital punishment? In public issues like health care funding for the poor and the unemployed or immigration or the environment? There’s always that elusive balance between peace, love and justice. All need to be considered honestly and openly.

One direction might be given us by that terse line in the first reading from the book of Leviticus: "Be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy." We should remember that the original meaning of holy (KADOSH in Hebrew) is not being morally good. It’s true that a common interpretation of "holy" that developed through the centuries in Christian spirituality understood "holy" in a primarily moral sense. The holy person was someone who did every thing morally correct, who was always good. The images of saints on holy cards strongly fostered that view. But the original meaning of "holy" is unique, special, different. So the meaning should read: "You should be different and unique, because I am different and unique." The actions of Christians should be different from all others around them, from the prevailing societal norms. Christians and their moral positions should be clearly different from what most of society holds.

In that sense the Christian position on any moral and social issue is to be counter-cultural. But that’s still very vague. It means leaning more to the side of love and peace, while still recognizing the justice factor. I think the Catholic Christian positions on moral issues through the ages have always struggled with that difficult balance. They leaned sometimes toward love and peace, sometimes toward justice. If anything, this reflection ought to remind us to be respectful of people who are making difficult moral decisions. People can always use some encouragement rather than criticism. Let’s remember that when we are advising people who are making difficult moral decisions.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 15:15-20; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Mt 5:17-37

This past week a very fascinating article appeared in the February issue of U.S. Catholic about the relationship between science and religion. It really begins to stretch the mind when you start thinking about the immense vastness of space and time. "Scientists agree on these facts. The big bang occurred some 13.7 billion years ago and 4.6 billion years ago our solar system was formed. The sun is 93 million miles away. Light travels at over 186 thousand miles a second and a light year is the distance light travels in a (calendar) year. The Milky Way (our galaxy) is so big that at light speed it takes 100,000 years to leap from rim to rim. There are more than 100 billion galaxies in the known universe. .... If we can imagine all of cosmic history compressed into one (calendar) year, with the Big Bang as January 1st ... All of recorded human history occurs in the last three seconds of Dec. 31." (February, 2011, p. 18) The immensity of the numbers and the distances just blows your mind. And it all makes one have second thoughts about what we are referring to, when we say the word, "God." We should remember that later in this Eucharist when we will pray together, "We believe in one God....maker of heaven and earth."

It’s that same kind of mind-stretching that St. Paul challenges his readers to consider in the second reading we just heard from his First Letter to the Corinthians. We can presume that the great majority of Paul’s Corinthian readers were people who came from a Greco-Roman background, in which there was widespread belief in a multitude of gods—gods who influence just about every aspect of daily life, a multitude of gods who preside over every place in one’s house—the doorway, the windows, the fireplace, the kitchen. In response to that, Paul is saying that Christians worship only one god and this one god is bigger than we can possibly imagine. He even offers a quote which is one of the most famous passages of the New Testament: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it even entered into the human mind what God has prepared for those who love Him." God is much, much more than we can ever imagine.

One thing that has really puzzled New Testament scholars is: who exactly is Paul quoting? Nowhere else in the Ancient literature can that quotation be found. Now it’s possible that the document has simply been lost to historical record. But it’s also possible that Paul just made it up himself. He wouldn’t have been the first nor the last author to have done that. In the end it really doesn’t matter. It’s a wonderful passage and we know what Paul intends to convey by it. God is greater than anything we can possibly imagine or think.

It’s a lesson we have to learn over and over. In the generations before Vatican II there was often a tendency for many Catholics to have a very small view of God. God was constantly nosy—always looking over our shoulder for anything, anything we might do wrong. Thankfully the whole experience of the council replaced that with a much larger view of God, with a God who was always encouraging and inviting us to move forward, to enrich ourselves, to improve. That change was a blessing! Sometimes today it seems we are often failing in the opposite direction, again with a view of God that is too little. We imagine that God really doesn’t care that much what we do day to day. We really don’t think there’s any urgency about attending to the improvement of our spiritual lives—there’s plenty of time for that. That’s also a vision of God that’s too little. I’m always reminded of that whenever I pray the words of one of the Weekday Prefaces of the mass: "You have no need of our praise, and yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift." God is much larger than we can ever imagine, but this God has also placed within us that impulse to improve and enrich our faith. We should ever find inspiration in that closing line of St. Paul’s "quotation": "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it even entered into the human mind what God has prepared for those who love Him."

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 58:7-10; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16

Wow! It’s been quite a week. We certainly have had our fair share of natural adversity to deal with this past week. Already on Tuesday morning, when round one of the ice storm was upon us, I e-mailed Fr. Bede that this was the worst weather situation I had seen in the ten and a half years that I’ve been here. I suspect that a lot of you could say the same. When we are faced with severe adversity, our first goal is survival, just to make it through with as little damage as possible. Sometimes we have to summon and focus all of our strength and abilities to accomplish that. There’s nothing wrong with that, even if it takes away from some of our regular daily practices—including prayer. Survival is a human value, and it is a spiritual value.

I had the same reaction when I first read through today’s scripture selection from the prophet Isaiah: "Then you shall call and the Lord will answer, You shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’" Sometimes I think we forget just how much of the Bible was written in desperate times. Most of the prophetic literature was composed during threats of foreign invasions, the actual approach of armies, or the tremendous social conflict that took place in the land of Israel itself. The same applies to most of the historical works of the Old Testament. Even in the New Testament evidence of desperate times abounds. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John all reflect situations of peril that the early followers of Jesus were experiencing. Many of the New Testament letters also were composed during times of great social conflict and turmoil. Just having had to deal with impending adversities and possibly disasters as we recently did should give us an insight into their state of mind.

Now it’s true that the type of potential catastrophes differed considerably. They were facing human-made crises, while we were coping with natural phenomena. In spite of that difference the state of mind that a potential crisis evokes remains essentially the same---a survival state of mind. In such a state of mind one doesn’t react as one might in an ordinary day-to-day situation. Somewhere in society that state of mind is always around. A famous homiletics teacher once said to a group of seminarians: "Every Sunday when you stand up to deliver your homily, approximately ten percent of your congregation is currently in some crisis situation. They will understand anything you say through that particular lens."

What is a crisis state of mind? It means you use more of your time and energy dealing with matters that will help you to survive. Like we all were doing last Tuesday evening—making sure there was enough food and water, checking all our battery-powered appliances and flashlights, gathering extra blankets and heavy clothing, and so on. Even within my house I spent much of Tuesday attending to matters like that. And, oh yes, a lot more time watching weather reports on television, even though they were often repeating the same things said just a few minutes before. The ancient Israelites did the same things—gathering supplies, checking escape routes and just talking with neighbors and people in the market places about the chances of an invasion by the Assyrians.

I think one of the key things to remember is that when you are in a crisis state of mind (survival mode), you don’t attend to your regular responsibilities with the same mental sharpness that you ordinarily would. You miss things you would ordinarily notice. You are not as attentive to others as you usually are. Even spiritually your prayer life suffers. You don’t have the urgency of mind to bring to it. We need to give ourselves a little leeway in all this. We shouldn’t criticize ourselves too sharply for slips in these regards. It’s good for us to remember: Survival is a human value, and a spiritual value.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jesus' February Message

Dearest apostles, I am here, waiting to listen to your pleas. I hear your hearts as they groan in the loneliness of serving heaven when around you others do not serve heaven. You serve alongside those who either live according to the standards of the world or live serving out a call that is different from yours. Truly, I know that there are times when you wonder why I have placed you where I have placed you. I hope, dear apostles, that these times are brief. I hope that you will spend less time wondering why you are serving in a given role and more time wondering how to serve more completely in the role given to you. You see, comparisons to others will never bear fruit. You are unique. The work I have for you is unique and you must beware of the habit of dragging your vocation behind you as though it were something so heavy that it destroyed your joy. This is not how an apostle lives out a vocation. An apostle views his vocation as a prism through which opportunities for holiness and joy splash out in countless beautiful and varied ways. Truly, others should view you and your vocation as inseparable. You should become your vocation. Oh dear apostles, I know that you carry crosses associated with your holy vocations, but do you not see that these crosses, carried with dignity, illustrate My presence in your life and indeed in the world more than anything else? In every circumstance, I bless you and receive you into My heart where you find the direction and reassurance you require. In every moment there is grace available for you and for others through you. The more grace I flow through you, the more the world is blessed and the more you are sanctified. Move toward Me, closer and closer in your hearts and in your actions and, truly, the world will find the love it craves. Look at how God’s children drink in kindness, as though they were parched for want of it. Yes, you are sacrificing in order to answer My call but the plan is working and the world is being renewed through the efforts of all men of good will. Rejoice then, despite your cross. We are advancing the one righteous cause, that is, the cause of love.