Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:5-17; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

One of my favorite scriptural passages is in today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence." I suppose it was because it seemed to me that defined the whole purpose of my career as a professor of theology. My task was ultimately to help others come to the ability to give an explanation for their faith. In teaching seminarians I was instructing those who would later pass it on to their parishioners. In talks to parishes and various diocesan groups I was assisting them directly with the deeper grasp of their faith, "a reason for their hope."

I can still remember vividly my very first teaching experience. I was returning from Rome with my Masters degree in Systematic Theology in the summer of 1969, the year the School of Theology was having its first summer session. The session was open to seminarians, diocesan and religious priests, religious sisters and laity. Since classes in Rome finish later than in the United States, I was barely going to make it for the beginning of classes. I would arrive late one Saturday evening, have Sunday to get my first class ready, and begin on Monday morning. I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the classroom. When I finally did that Monday morning, I quickly looked over my class of around 25 participants and realized.....that I was the youngest person in the classroom. So I said: "Look at it this way. I have a lot of theoretical knowledge and you have a lot of pastoral experience. If we put those together, we can have a wonderful summer." And, indeed, we did.

It also didn’t take me very long to realize that learning the craft of teaching is a project in itself. My first years of theological education were blessed with a wonderful group of professors at St. Meinrad School of Theology. They gave stimulating lectures (most of them), encouraged class discussion and wanted students to think creatively. They were wonderful role models. But when I went to Rome to begin my Master’s degree studies, I encountered an entirely different system of education. There the professors read their lectures from prepared texts. There was no classroom discussion. Moreover, you could buy copies of the teacher’s lectures. Your final test questions were going to be taken directly from the material in the lectures. No creative thinking was encouraged. I was really puzzled by this educational system. It seemed so pedantic. Gradually I learned the reason for it. At various times in history when professors argued different points with each other, one of the tactics that was often employed was to get copies of the students’ notes that they had taken in class. In one case the professor’s opponents found evidence of over one hundred heresies in the students’ class notes. You begin to wonder just how much the students learn of what you actually intended to teach. Sometimes not a whole lot despite the best of your intentions.

When you go back to that scriptural passage I began with ("Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence)." you realize that the task of accomplishing that ultimately devolves on the individual believer himself or herself. The teacher is only a part-time guide. When I began teaching, I tried to set out to give the students an exact blueprint of directions to the desired goal. Somewhere along the way I realized that the most a teacher can do is point students in the general direction. And to encourage them to do their own hard work in being able to "give a reason for their hope." Let’s pray that all of us may work hard to be able to "give a reason for our hope."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 6:1-7; 1 Pet 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

Over the years I have returned often to the first five chapters of the Book of Acts for inspiration; they provide an admittedly ideal glimpse into the life of the early Christian community—how they lived together in unity, harmony, sharing all things in common, praying and supporting one another. One passage says it all: "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and simple hearts, praising God and having the good will of the people." (2:46-47) These same chapters, by the way, were very instrumental in the formation of early monasticism. The first monks felt they were trying to imitate that idyllic life together.

However, when we turn to chapter six in the Book of Acts, the tone changes considerably. The beginning of chapter six forms the first reading of today’s liturgy. In it the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of goods. The apostolic leaders respond by appointing seven individuals to take care of this task. But this episode only forms the beginning of a whole series of difficulties, internal and external, that the early Christian community had to deal with. A good part of the remaining chapters of Acts shows how they struggled with those difficulties, the biggest of them being the full acceptance of Gentiles into the Christian movement. That struggle takes a long, long time.

In these Sundays after Easter we have been exploring how we can manifest a "living hope" in the Resurrection of Jesus. On previous sundays we examined actions of mutual respect, reverent behavior, and being perceptive to the gates of God’s presence in our lives. This episode of the neglected widows shows another way: by a commitment to work patiently, patiently for something that you deeply believe is good. If you know that there’s a good end to your desires, you will try and try again to achieve it. You will put up with temporary failures, snags and your own inner discouragement to keep going and try again. In so doing we witness to a living hope in the Resurrection of Jesus.

A book that I’m currently reading provides an excellent example of that determination. It’s by a young man, Kyle Kramer, and is titled A Time to Plant. By the way, he’s the assistant academic dean at St. Meinrad. In the book he tells his life story. It begins to get interesting when he’s in graduate school, studying to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Slowly a vision of life forms in him of becoming an organic farmer. He had no experience of this outside of growing a small vegetable garden. But he eventually gives up his academic and ministry career to buy a small farm plot near his parents in southern Indiana. He learns farming by trial and error (lots of errors). He marries a wife with a similar ecological mindset. Knowing little about construction he sets out to build a house for himself, his wife and the twins that surprised them both. At times in building this house his discouragement is overwhelming. Often frustrated, he sits and cries for long periods of time in the winter while he’s trying to put the wiring and plumbing into the shell of a house. Battling again and again against discouragement and depression and the strains it puts on his marriage and family, he eventually manages to succeed in the task. But it takes a lot longer than he expected. He kept at it because he believed it was a good end and worthy of enduring effort.

If you know the end you seek is good, you will work at it patiently over and over. And in so doing, we do witness to a living hope in the Resurrection of Jesus.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 4thSunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 2:14,36-42; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10

In today’s gospel passage Jesus uses two images to describe himself, the Good Shepherd and the Gate. Both of them are symbols that contain overlapping realms of meaning. I personally find myself taken by the image of "Gate." But most of the significance of that term for me comes from my study of Jewish mysticism.

In Jewish mystical literature the image of "gate" possesses a highly charged meaning. A "gate" can be anything (a thing, a person, an event, a sensory perception) that opens you suddenly to the Divine Presence, the Presence of the Holy One. Gates can appear anywhere at any time. A particular event may on one occasion serve a gate and then never again. The whole purpose of spirituality is to teach a person to be always on the lookout for "gates to the Holy."

The modern Jewish spiritual writer, Lawrence Kushner, writes often about "gates" in his own experience. He writes: "Gates to holiness are everywhere. The possibility of ascent is all the time. Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places. There is no place on earth without the Presence. ... In a wilderness. Through a bush. From a circle. Nothing is beneath the dignity of being selected as a gate.

"One day I visited my daughter’s first grade class.... The air hung with a November chill. The children were working/playing in four or five groups. Someone shouted, ‘Look! It’s snowing outside.’ The groups crumbled as their members ran to the windows. No need for daily prayers here. Or on the proper blessing for seeing nature’s wonders for the first time. The cycle alternates between grand cathedrals and meditation amidst the trees of the forest. And we rediscover the fundamental truth. Gates to holiness are everywhere and all the time." (Honey from the Rock, p. 56)

I think we can make a valid application of this meaning of "gate" to Jesus. Jesus in many different ways serves as a gate to the divine. He reveals the hiddenness and depth of the Father. One aspect that really struck me during Holy Week was that the Passion of Jesus reveals a God who suffers with us. How profoundly that image can strike us. And how many people have been influenced by the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to come to believe in the compassion and mercy of God! There are so many images of Jesus that serve as gates or doorways to shape an understanding of God. One of my fellow students from San Anselmo in Rome, Anselm Grun (from the monastery Munsterschwarzach) recently wrote a spirituality book on Images of Jesus. He offers fifty different images of Jesus that have all been used as gates to better understand the Mystery of God. Some of them are really interesting: Jesus the dropout; Jesus the friend of women; Jesus the wild man; Jesus the clown; Jesus the glutton and drunkard; the Jesus who doesn’t let us rest. There’s much food for thought here.

Lastly, I’d like to connect this homily with the previous two Sundays after Easter. The main themes of those homilies developed the importance of mutual trust and reverent behavior as two ways of showing how we express a "living hope" in the Resurrection. In another sense both of them help us to be more prepared to be aware of "gates." Having respect for others and showing reverent behavior makes us more open and receptive to perceive "gates" where suddenly the presence of God happens. Let’s pray that each of us may find our "gates."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 2:2-33; 1 Pet 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35

Last Sunday I mentioned how the challenge that these Sundays after Easter present to us is the question: how do we live as a Resurrection people? How do we express a living hope in our lives? Last week’s readings told us that we do this by a love for our community that’s based on mutual respect. In today’s second reading, from the first letter of Peter, that gets drawn out a bit further. If we truly have respect for others in our lives, we will show it in reverent behavior: St. Peter writes "conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning...." Reverent behavior means that one deals with other people, always acknowledging the value they have as a person. That can be done in a lot of different ways.

Today’s gospel passage about the two disciples on the way to Emmaus provides an excellent example of reverent behavior through the virtue of hospitality. A stranger comes along and joins these two disciples, talking with them and betraying ignorance about recent events in Jerusalem. They had to think the guy was pretty dense. But that didn’t stop them from extending hospitality for the night; theirs was a reverent behavior. And, of course, Jesus is revealed in the midst of all that in the breaking of bread.

Another place where reverent behavior is often shown comes from an unusual television show, Undercover Boss. Now I’m not a usual watcher of the show. I’m really interested in the show which comes on after it at 10:00pm on CBS Sunday nights; that’s what I set my DVR for. However, CBS usually has some sports program on in the afternoon, which inevitably runs overtime. That means that the next day on my treadmill I wind up watching the last ten or fifteen minutes of Undercover Boss before my program comes on. If you don’t know what Undercover Boss is about, it concerns the president or CEO of a company going to work undercover as a new employee just hired by the company. It shows the mistakes he makes and how the other workers and his immediate bosses deal with him (or her). The last ten or fifteen minutes of the show—the part I am forced to watch—the truth comes out. The Boss is revealed and has individual evaluation sessions with those who were in charge of introducing him as a new employee into the company. Those people who are both praised and rewarded are those who dealt with the newcomer reverently, patiently putting up with mistakes and trying to teach improvement step by step. It’s really a very good example of reverent behavior.

That’s what should characterize all of us disciples of Jesus in our life together. It should be a hallmark of how we live in community. And yet it can so easily slip away. We fall into routines of how we deal with people. We gradually take them for granted—after all we see and interact with them everyday. We come to assume we know what their intentions are. Slowly we come to think the worst.

There are times we need to re-examine our daily behaviors and see if they are still characterized by reverence. The Sundays after Easter are a good time for that. Take some time to look carefully at how you deal with the people you interact with everyday: the people in your hall, the people you work with, the people you find yourself sitting with at table, especially the people who may be below you in your worksite. St. Peter says again: "Conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning." Let’s pray that it may be so for all of us!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; 1 Pet 1:3-9; Jn 20:19-31

On Easter Sunday we celebrated the great event of Jesus’ Resurrection—that moment when His Heavenly Father vindicated his life work and ministry by receiving him into the fullness of Divine Glory. This Sunday and those which immediately follow consider how we are to assimilate and live that message in our lives. The question for these Sundays is: how are we a Resurrection People?

Today’s scriptural readings give us three widely differing responses to that question. The first, from the Acts of the Apostles, presents an ideal picture of the happy and harmonious life of the first followers of Jesus. "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles, to the common life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. .... They ate their meals with glad and joyful hearts." It’s the kind of description you read in vocation literature today. The second reading, from 1 Peter, gives a quite different response to the Resurrection message. It says the Resurrection has given us "a living hope" that will sustain us in the midst of the sufferings of life. That’s a much more modest and believable assessment. That would be a road we could follow. But then the third reading, the gospel story of the Doubting Thomas, causes us again to pause. It tells us that even to get to that "living hope" will require a struggling with doubt and uncertainty. In sum, these three readings tell us that "believing in the Resurrection of Jesus" has a great goal but that it’s no picnic in the park getting there.

I suppose the question that these readings raise for all of us is: how do we become and remain men and women of "living hope?" Whenever the subject of hope comes up, I’m always taken back to my first real introduction to that virtue in the life story of Fr. William Lynch. William Lynch was a Jesuit priest who taught the classics at Fordham University in New York City. While he was in the full stature of a professor, he experienced a nervous breakdown, falling into a debilitating depression that required extensive hospitalization. During his lengthy stay in the psychiatric hospital he slowly and painfully regained a hope in life. He later told of his regaining hope in one of his most famous books, Images of Hope. He describes vividly the painful little steps by which he could once again see a future in life. His first step was trusting someone else to assist him in the task: first, the psychiatrist, then some of the other patients in the hospital. This experience convinced Fr. Lynch that true hope—true Christian hope—is only gained and experienced communally.

And I think that’s one of the reasons we hear that idealistic description of community life in the first reading today. It’s to highlight the assertion that Resurrection-faith is really an action of community hope, a "living hope" that will sustain us in the struggles of life. And we do it together. And we do it together.

The real message of these scriptural readings is how much we need each other. That’s the essence of a real religious community. I was amazed when I read in Fr. Matthew Kelty’s Gethsemani Homilies his reflections on 50 years as a monk in the monastery of Gethsemani. He said in all that time there wasn’t a single person he met in the house that he would personally choose as a friend. He continued "but we are all brothers and there’s a lot of love in this place." It’s a love that based on respect, not necessarily "liking" people. The hope that sustains us springs up in our midst and we all contribute something to it. That’s one of the miracles of Easter.

Jesus' May Message

Dearest apostles, I speak to you today with a heart filled with love. I am grateful for your steady service. I am grateful for your fidelity to My plan for Renewal. If there is something that is keeping you from total abandonment to My cause, I will show you. Will you accept My light? Will you allow Me to direct you to even greater holiness? I want this for you. I want you to make additional gains in holiness. Perhaps you are afraid of this because you fear I will ask you to give more than you can give. I assure you, dear apostles, I will not ask you for anything you cannot give to Me. I will ask you to serve Me in a reasonable manner that is consistent with the gifts I have given to you. What I am urging you toward is greater intimacy with Me and with My heart. My heart beats with love for humanity in an uninterrupted beat. The rhythm of My beating heart provides you with a steady source of zeal for the spread of the gospel message. Too many of God’s children are without hope. This lack of hope brings them to actions that hurt themselves and others. There is no need for this, dear apostles, and you can change the experience of many if you do as I ask. You will have to be alert in order to hear My instructions, though, and it is for this reason I call you to concentrate on what is good about your life. I call you to concentrate on what I am seeking to do through you. Be at peace. I will help you in everything and, together, we will offer the Father the gift of your ongoing conversion.