Monday, July 25, 2016

Persistence in Prayer for Forgiveness

XVII Sunday of Ordinary Time—C
San Jose Parish
Austin, TX

Persistence. Pestering, pressuring, persevering, persistence.  Pestering, pressuring, persevering, persistence in prayer. Pestering, pressuring, persevering, persistence in prayer for purification from sin. 
Today we hear Jesus exhort us to persistence in prayer for the forgiveness of sins. From the “Our Father”—“forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us”—to the childlike Abraham—what if there are only 50; or 45; 40 maybe; 35; less 20; how about 10; would you spare the cities?—we are to beg, borrow, and barter our way in prayer for the forgiveness of our sins. To entice us, Jesus puts out before us a carrot, the good hope of answered prayers. “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”. “If you [fathers] then, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Lk 11:13). 
And yet, forgiveness evades us. It escapes us. Like a television series that is always “to be continued,” the struggle is never resolved; the plot only seems to thicken. Fleeting forgiveness. 
No matter how big or small, we keep committing the same sins. How many of us feel condemned to confess the same sins, over and over again? We make our examination of conscience, we are contrite and sorry for having done so, we go to confession, confess our sins (number and kind), resolve to do better, make our penance, and then…shortly, quickly we find ourselves back in the same situation. But, I say to you, do not let your hearts be troubled. Like the the friend in the parable, we must be persistent, nagging even, and keep asking. He will eventually give us those loaves of bread that we need. 
The virtue we need here is courage or fortitude, also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Admittedly, it takes quite a bit of courage to be forgiven and to ask for forgiveness, again and again. It takes courage to follow Jesus. The same kind of courage or gumption it takes to wake up a friend in the middle of the night for a favor, and even more, when he says “no,” to ask again. This courage is a sort of audacity that knows, almost presumes, the Father will always forgive us our sins as long as we are contrite. And if we wear this attitude well, we will notice a sort of smirking joy that will creep out, a sweet smell of joy that will drift through the air. You can see this clearly if you ever go to a monastery. Rising at 4:00 am, praying and working the whole day, the monks constantly ask and pray for forgiveness from the Father. Its almost nauseating and oppressive, but if you look closely, you see the smirks and grins throughout the day. And wait especially until the beer comes out during their common meal. Silent though they are, for they cannot speak, they grin from ear-to-ear like a child on Christmas. Their joy is a fruit of persistently asking the Father for forgiveness.  
This courage, though, does not stop at our efforts to beseech the Lord for forgiveness. Indeed, the “our Father” continues with two essential aspects of our search for forgiveness. “Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us and do not subject us to the final test” (Lk 11:4). While God’s love is unconditional, His forgiveness is connected with our ability and willingness to forgive others. Who wants to give to the stingy guy who never gives to others, anyways? Jesus pulls on this same logic in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Cf. Matt 18:21ff), and so tells Peter that he must forgive his brother “not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:22). If we are to forgive like the Father, constantly and without fatigue. Such forgiveness of other takes a great deal of courage, courage to overcome the fear of the consequences that may result. This does not mean we are to ignore the reality. Forgiving someone who is wrecking havoc in your life does not mean allowing them to continue to do so. Sometimes this courage will have to provide us the strength to end or avoid a situation that is causing sin.
This is the second aspect of our search for forgiveness, avoidance of sin. “Do not subject us to the final text” we pray at the end of the “Our Father.” The same prayer that Jesus exhorted Peter, James, and John to pray as they fell asleep that fate filled night in the garden. “Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test” (Lk 22:46). Here we mean the avoidance of the occasion of sin. You know that group of friends that always gets you in trouble on the weekends, or that coworker whose mere presence raises the hair on your neck. These are tests. Now, some are voluntary, meaning we could choose to avoid them (and we should) and others are involuntary, meaning we cannot avoid them without some grave loss or harm caused to us, such as loosing a job. It will require us a great deal of courage to avoid the temptations we ought, and remain steadfast amidst the temptations we cannot. It takes courage both to leave behind a bad influence and to continue working a necessary job for an oppressive boss. If we wish to be forgiven and desire our prayers for forgiveness to be answered, we must take courage and forgive others and pray that we avoid such occasions of sin and temptation.   
Sloth, or laziness, due to fear and anxiety is our greatest enemy here. This discouragement is felt as an oppressive weight upon our chest, causing us to be sort of depressed or to give-in to despair. But, again I say to you, do not let your hearts be troubled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Lk 6:21). Say with the psalmist, “why are you cast down my soul; why groan within me? Hope in God. I will praise Him still, my Savior and My God” (Ps 42:6). 
As St. Paul reminds us: “even when you were dead in transgressions…he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14). If God the Father can raise Jesus from the dead, how much more can He bring us back from the brink of sin. Indeed, “You were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him” (Col 2:12). When we were baptized we became sons and daughters of God the Father. And a son, always a son. If our mothers and fathers know this truth, how much more will our Father in heaven always see us as His sons and daughters no matter how far and many times we fall. And even if we tire of asking forgiveness, the Father never tires of forgiving us. Let His patience be your persistence in prayer for forgiveness. Seek the Lord in confession. Seek to encounter the risen Christ in the sacrament of confession. And persistently pray for forgiveness. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

"Martha, Martha, keep holy the Sabbath"

XVI Sunday of Ordinary Time—C
San Jose Parish & St. Vincent de Paul Parish
Austin, TX

Last week we heard the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Lk 10:25-37). There along with the scholar of the law we felt the call to go forth and to love our neighbor as the Samaritan had, by engaging in Christ’s works of mercy. Today, we begin our readings with the story of the “Hospitality of Abraham,” (Gen 18:1-10) when Abraham hosts the three angels (representing God Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Again, the message seems clear, we are called to take up the works of mercy—feeding the poor and granting drink to the thirsty—for in this way we play host to God Himself present among us in our neighbor. Again, love of God is now to be manifest in the love of our neighbor in whom we see and serve Christ Himself. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt 25: 40). 
And then, there is today’s gospel. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things…Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Lk 10:41-42). Does this not seem quite the contradiction? Go and serve, but now stop and rest. Busy yourselves in the love of neighbor, but now clear your mind and listen to my Word. And if the juxtaposition were not enough, this story of Martha and Mary directly follows the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” Has Jesus flip-flopped here? Or have we understood poorly the lesson of the parable? 
We are not the Good Samaritan. We are called to be, but we are not, not yet. We are the one who fell victim to the robbers. And until we experience the saving power of Christ, His love and mercy, by which he anoints the wounds of sin with the oil of salvation and washes them clean with the wine turned blood of His passion and death; until we have been brought to the inn which is the Church and had the price of our salvation payed, our lives redeemed, we simply cannot be the Good Samaritan. For if love of God is to be manifest as love of neighbor, then we must not forget that “We love, because He [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The parable of the “Good Samaritan” is the story of Christ not passing by, but choosing to save us who have fallen victim to sin and death. So if we are ever truly going to be able to love our neighbor, we must first receive that love and mercy from God Himself, though the reception of the sacraments. 
And what of Abraham? Undeniably, Abraham and his wife Sarah believe they are serving God by hosting these three angels. Yet, if he were to stop and consider the privilege being offered to him, that is, to communion with God by sharing in this banquet, he might think less of his works and more of the work God is doing—fulfilling the earlier promise that his 90 year old wife will bear a son who will be the father of a great nation as numerous as the stars in the sky. Indeed, what need have angels of some good BBQ? No, it is they, the angels, God Himself, who is serving Abraham. 
Unlike work, sports, games, community service, etc…the work we do matters less, not more, when it comes to our salvation; we cannot earn our salvation. It matters much more the works of God, than the works of men. Now, I do not want to say that we are passive in our salvation; that we simply receive it and have no part in its accomplishment. We do. But only by way of participation in the work God is already doing. That is by receiving His mercy and so being made bearers of God’s mercy into the world. Yet this requires this initial moment of encounter with Jesus Christ, a saving encounter in which through the reception of His mercy (much like the man who fell victim to the robber or Abraham and his wife with the angels) we are transformed and made capable of loving others. 
This moment of encounter, this time of receiving God’s mercy and love is precisely what Jesus is asking of Martha in our story today; that “one thing” is an encounter with the Risen Christ. Mary chose the better part for she chose this “one thing,” to encounter Christ. And it is time for Martha to do the same. 
Practically this means taking time to sit and listen to the Word of God, to rest in this transforming encounter with God’s mercy. Fortunately for us, this time is sort of preprogramed into our lives—Sunday: the third commandment to keep holy the Sabbath manifest in the Church’s precept to attend mass every Sunday. Thanks to our christianized society we are afforded (most of us) this day, Sunday, free of work and toil. Yet, even though we take this time off, Sunday, as a day of rest, do we really fulfill the commandment? Do we keep it holy? I know. There are a myriad of activities: the kids sports tournaments (multiple), the cowboys are playing, got to take a nap, catch up on your favorite TV show on Net flicks, go to the movies, get to Church, finish the final stage of that video game, visit or at least call grandma, read your favorite book, get some exercise, scratch one off the “Honey do list” or just go catching Pokemon. And while all of these things are good, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing” (Lk 10:41). As Pope St. John Paul the Great said, “Sunday recalls the day of Christ's Resurrection. It is Easter which returns week by week, celebrating Christ's victory over sin and death” (Dies Domini, 1). Unfortunately, Sunday can loose this fundamental meaning and simply become merely part of a “weekend.” Hence, “The disciples of Christ…are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord's Day holy, and the ‘weekend,’ understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation” (Dies Domini, 4). 
To do this, we must make Mass the center and high point of our Sunday. Everything orbits around this weekly appointment with the Risen Christ. We desire to communicate the importance of our faith to our kids. How this is done when nothing ever stands in the way of attending Mass, no tournament, social function, or busy weekend. We should also make time to pray and to share a meal as a family. For if the family is the “domestic church,” the Eucharistic table we gather around at Mass should extend into our homes through family prayer and a shared meal. I would also challenge those who help out at Church on Sundays. Make sure that you also make time for quiet prayer with the Lord. We all know how hectic serving in the Church can be. After a long week at work (sometimes over 50 hours) we need to make sure our desire to serve is not covering our fear of sitting quietly with the Lord. Again, it is less what we do, but more what God does for us in our Salvation that matters. 
There are innumerable other suggestions I could make, like going home and talking about the homily as a family—which is a personal favorite of mine—but I dare say that if Mass is a nonnegotiable and that there is time for family prayer and a shared meal, our Sundays will be quite holy indeed.