Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer 20:7-9; Rom 12:1-2; Mt 16:21-27

The first reading we heard today from the prophet Jeremiah is quite remarkable. I want you to focus on some of these lines. "You duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped." He is complaining, " You tricked me, God, and I let myself be deceived." "All day long I am an object of laughter." He’s saying, "I thought that as your prophet I would bring an important and serious message to the people, but all they do is laugh at me." "I said to myself, that I will speak in His name no more." Remarkably that means, "I’m done with you, God; I’ll have nothing more to do with you."

This passage occurs in a section of the prophet Jeremiah’s book that biblical scholars call "The Confessions of Jeremiah." There’s nothing else like it in any other section of the bible, except maybe some of St. Paul’s letters. It gives us a glimpse into the inner feelings of Jeremiah as a prophet. We discover that his inner life is pretty turbulent; it’s not all easy-going. Faith in God goes through some very rough times indeed. These include moments when Jeremiah decides to give up on God for good. In other words, he’s "had it" with religion.

I think these passages should give us a much broader view of what a life of faith includes. There are going to be those dark times when it seems like faith has deceived us, God has let us down. We have prayed and prayed, but the good we sought did not happen. The result is that we are ready to give up on religion. We should realize that there will likely be times like that for many of us. As a priest through the years I have listened to lots of stories of people who have prayed and prayed for a child to be healed, for an illness to be cured, for a personal hatred to be resolved. Oftentimes the people who have prayed so hard feel completely discouraged. They are a lot like Jeremiah. They too say, "You tricked me, Lord. I’m not going to have anything more to do with you. I’ve had it."

How does Jeremiah get out of this negative state of mind. Here’s the really remarkable part of this passage: "But then it (the Word of God) becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary of holding it in, I cannot endure it." So Jeremiah himself really doesn’t do anything to get himself out of it. He begins to be overcome with these feelings from within himself. He can’t let go of God in spite of himself. And so he goes on believing in God and serving as God’s prophet even at this terrible and empty low point in his life.

The real issue at the bottom of all this is anger at God, not an easy topic to bring up. People often have it in those low points in their life, but it also usually evokes some feelings of guilt and fear. It’s like you are angry at God, but you feel guilty for being that way. That’s why we should look carefully at Jeremiah’s experience and words. He is angry, but he doesn’t feel any guilt about it. In one of my favorite articles entitled, "God damn God: Expressing Anger in Prayer," Sr. Sheila Carney writes that the bible has an awful lot of anger being expressed, including anger at God. She gives lots of examples, especially from the Book of Psalms. Today’s Jeremiah reading fits right in with that. It’s an issue that, as I said before, all of us will probably have to face at some time. So it might be worth our while to spend a little time with Jeremiah this weekend.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 22:19-23; Rm 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

Barbara Reid, a Dominican sister and professor of the New Testament at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, writes a weekly homily column for America magazine. She has a very interesting commentary on today’s gospel passage. She first notes the cultural differences between Jesus’ times and our times. In our day there are constant calls to "know yourself," find out "who you really are," and get in touch with the "real you." But the preferred method of our culture is to go deep within yourself away from any outside influences, and grab a hold of that core of who you are. That method is preferred by almost all of our self-help gurus, and there are a lot of them. Just check the "Self-Help" or "Self-Improvement" section of any bookstore. But Sr. Barbara notes that in Jesus’ time the method of discovering yourself differed significantly. In Jesus’ day people discovered who they were by asking members of the groups they were embedded in. They asked family members, and friends and people they worked with. Who they were came from how people saw them. We could say that from this perspective their actions showed who they were and what values they pursued.

Following Sr. Barbara’s analysis, we could say that Jesus in his human nature was honestly asking his disciples how people evaluated his ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and how they themselves evaluated it and him. He was following the regular process that people in his day would have used.

We today could learn something from the process used in Jesus’ day. When I was working in the administration and faculty of the School of Theology at St. Meinrad, I never ceased to be amazed at how many students had absolutely no idea how other people saw them, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they had a very false impression of how other people saw them. They came to this false impression by going within themselves, asking who they were, and then automatically transferring those self-views to what they thought other people thought of them. And most of the time they were so wrong. And it didn’t make any different if they were introverts or extroverts. The introverts thought that people saw them as quiet, balanced, keep-to-themselves guys; but, in fact, oftentimes others saw them as mute, insecure loners. The extroverts thought that others saw them as talkative, friendly, life-of-the party types; but, in fact, oftentimes other people saw them as loud, intrusive, braggarts. In spiritual direction it was always a challenge to get students first to see, and then to accept how other people saw them and try to do something about it.

Jesus used both methods to "find himself." The gospels tell us that he spent time alone in personal prayer and reflection. In that personal depth he came to understand and accept that the God of Israel was his "abba," his Father. And he taught his disciples to understand and accept the very same thing. They were to pray to the God of Israel as "Our Father." Besides this introspective method Jesus also asked his trusted disciples questions about how they saw him. Peter answered directly: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

Like Jesus we also need to use a combination of both methods to find our own personal religious selves. The discovery of a religious sense of self is a life-long process. We are going to be at this search our whole lives. Let’s hope and pray that we all attend to it very well.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 56:1-7; Rm 11:13-32; Mt 15:21-28

The three readings today all bear upon one of the main religious issues that runs through the whole of the Old and the New Testaments: namely, the religious status of those peoples outside the People of Israel. All three of our readings take a favorable and positive attitude toward those peoples. Paul, being the strongest, says that God has extended mercy to all peoples, not just the Jews. God’s mercy knows no bounds. Yet we know from sources in and outside the scriptures that there were a lot of dissenting opinions, including those that rejected any possible salvation for gentiles. Paul’s views ultimately determined the main Christian viewpoint and the publication of the Talmud around the year 500AD became the major Jewish approach. The Talmud states that those people who followed the seven laws given to Noah (Genesis 9) would be favorable and acceptable to God.

Of course, we know that Christianity often strayed significantly from Paul’s perspective in later centuries, even at times becoming quite exclusivist about the possibility of salvation for anyone outside the Catholic Church. Many of us lived in a time like that before the Second Vatican Council. When I was growing up, it was the common Catholic opinion that it was exceedingly difficult for anyone outside the Catholic Church to be acceptable and favorable to God. Thank God, the Second Vatican Council brought us back to St. Paul’s viewpoint about the abundant mercy of God extended to all people. The Council changed the views of Catholics toward other Christians, toward people of other religions, and even toward those who are non-believers. The Council called Catholics to a tolerance and appreciation of all peoples and all faiths.

Alas, we are living now in times in this country of ours where the public mood may seriously erode those views. The public discussion in government often sets the tone for the mood and thinking in the country as a whole. Sadly, that mood in government is one of total partisanship. There is no thought of compromise or tolerance in the partisanship mood. To read the analyses of political writers about Washington’s recent failure to come to a workable resolution to the budget and debt crisis makes for depressing reading indeed. There is no mood of compromise; it’s "all us or all them." No wonder the whole world is losing confidence in the United States.

But I’m actually even more concerned about that "no compromise or tolerance" mood drifting into the Catholic Church. That’s the kind of mood that makes anyone who is different in belief into an automatic enemy. That’s very dangerous for the future of ecumenical and interfaith attitudes. Signs of that polarizing attitude are already present in the Church, especially in some of our younger priests. One detects that some of them have little aptitude for any ecumenical or interfaith relationships. From there it’s only a short step to an "all us or all them" attitude.

It’s part of our Catholic Christian responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. What happened at and after Vatican II in the development of real tolerance and appreciation between faiths was a pure gift of God. Centuries had shown that we certainly couldn’t get there on our own. It’s a gift of God that needs to be accepted, nurtured and developed. That’s part of our Catholic Christian challenge in these partisan cultural times.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 19:9-13; Rom 9:1-5; Mt 14:22-33

Our opening reading this morning, from the first Book of Kings, presents us with one of the most famous and controversial theophanies (or appearances of God) in the entire Old Testament. Famous, because it has been commented upon by so many Jewish and Catholic theologians and spiritual writers through the centuries. Controversial because, while it’s fairly clear what God does not appear in (a heavy wind, an earthquake or fire), there is no consensus among scholars about what God does appear in. Let me explain.

The text says, "After the fire, there was a ...... what?" The three Hebrew words that appear next can be translated in any number of different ways. The translation we heard today says "After the fire, there was a tiny whispering sound," which is probably one of the least preferred translations by the majority of theologians and spiritual writers. It’s least preferred because it’s simply too definite. The reader can understand or imagine exactly what it is that God appears in----a tiny whispering sound." No element of paradox is contained in that phrase, and paradox is what needs to be there. The translation that most Jewish scholars and spiritual writers would prefer is: "After the fire, there was the sound of silence," which, by the way, gives a whole new dimension to that old Simon and Garfunkel song. The sound of silence is surely a paradox. The majority of commentators think the text was deliberately left ambiguous by the scriptural writer to accent the impossibility of ever having an accurate image of God. The Mysteriousness of God must always be remembered.

I think most of us would agree that we generally would prefer to have things clearcut, that something is what it says it is. We all know well the frustration of walking away from a conversation, realizing that we really aren’t sure what the other person said or meant. And yet, so many writers and artists through the ages have been trying to get people to see "that’s just the way it is sometimes." Many times things are not clear cut, and eventually one has to accept that and move on. And, in a way, it’s always that way with God. The Mysteriousness must always be remembered.

Similar to that is another phenomenon, the changing perspective of accepted meanings. Again, let me explain. We can become so accustomed to meanings having a specific quality to them; we just assume that it means one thing, although it may not. Recently, I have been reading Maria Boulding’s last book, Gateway to Resurrection; it was only published after her death in 2009. She was a nun of Stanbrooke Abbey in England. For many years she was one of the most well-known and respected writers on Benedictine subjects in the world. In her last two years she had to deal with a case of terminal cancer. She wrote this book during that period. In one place she comments on how her struggle with cancer has made her see so many things in a new way, particularly some of her favorite passages in the bible. One she particularly liked was Paul’s description in 2 Cor. 12:7-10 about being given a "thorn in the flesh," and how he prayed heartily to be delivered from it. The only response he received was, "My grace will be sufficient for you." She had always taken "sufficient" to mean "an abundance of." But in her illness it seemed instead to mean "there will be just enough for you to get through." that’s quite a different slant.

These two examples show us the different ways that passages in scripture might be understood. We should always be open to be surprised by the scriptures.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Jesus' August Message

Each month, Anne, a lay apostle, receives a message from Jesus. This is the message for July. To read more about the locutions Anne receives from Jesus and His Blessed Mother click on this link: Direction For Our Times.

Dear apostles, you are friends of My heart. As such, please be patient with Me as I bring you along in holiness. Would you like to be holier? Perhaps you identify My teachings as good but you feel frustrated because you see that you fall short on some days. This is when you must be truly patient and trust that I am bringing you along as quickly as is needed. Remember that you may see very little progress on some days, but your decision to remain with Me in the process of becoming holier creates a disposition for heaven that keeps the light where it should be, that is, on the need to examine yourself for failure instead of examining others. How easy it is to see the flaws of another. How much more difficult it is to identify which pain in you creates the disposition for repeating a mistake, perhaps again and again. Yes, patience is necessary, both with oneself and with others. I, Jesus, am patient with you. And so you must be patient with yourself. And then you must be patient with others. Do not be distracted by events around you. Do not be drawn into thinking that many events or big events mean that you can take your eyes off of the process of becoming holier. No, dear apostles. I speak gravely when I say to you that you must concentrate seriously on becoming holier because your holiness and your commitment to holiness is a crucial part of My plan to bring comfort to others. Allow Me to see to the world. If you see daily to the condition of your soul and if you love others then you will have fulfilled My plan for you. Rejoice. You are committed to Me and I am eternally committed to you.