Fr. Michael's Sunday Homilies

November 26, 2017 (Christ the King)

Matthew 25:31-46

Just a couple months ago, I walked into the chemotherapy infusion area at the Coborn’s Cancer Center in St. Cloud. My sister was having her first chemo treatment. I walked past room after room of those receiving chemo treatment. I remember thinking, “Where is God in all this?” When I got to my sister’s room and as we were talking for a while, a Eucharistic Minister stopped in and asked, “Would you like to receive communion and may I pray for you?” How beautiful! I realized, Christ just entered the chemo room. But even more than that, the Eucharistic Minister was Christ also. And even more, Christ was in my sister. So, Christ came into the room carrying the Body of Christ to be given to Christ.

 It is with the awareness of the strong feelings of this experience, that I approach the gospel lesson for Christ the King.  Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

 I believe that today we’re at the very mystery of God, the mystery of the universe, the way of the mystery of love.  God chose to experience those places in our lives that are often the most difficult.  In Jesus, the heart of God with a human face, we are meeting with the very mystery of God. God chose not to avoid the suffering of this world.  We hear the statement, “Where suffering is, love is. And where love is, God is.”

We are at the very heart of the incomprehensible mystery of God whose kingship is not only as Lord of all Creation, but who is surprisingly experienced in those who are lonely, suffering, and whose lives, for whatever reason, is just not working.

Jesus Christ is the one who suffers — the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, the stranger, the one who mourns.  Jesus is not saying that you are to treat that person like you would treat Jesus, Jesus is saying, “I am that person.”

 It needs to be clearly said that the nature of God is not to avoid suffering; that the nature of love is not to avoid pain or the places of pain.  That’s the way love is. That’s the way God is. We all hope that. Intuitively, we trust that of God.  People who love, do not use their resources and connections to avoid the pain of their loved ones. If we love someone, we’ll do anything for that person.  And God?  Christ the King says to you and to me. “I love you. I am with you. I am your Shepherd. I will strengthen you. No matter what your situation, I will be with you in the middle of your pain. I am you!” No separation. As J.R.R. Tolkien has written, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.”

 Christ the King.  Is today’s celebration about Christ being a King who is robed in glory?  I suppose in a certain sense, yes. Living in a rural area we look up in the stars and marvel at God’s creation and even marvel more so of the Creator. There is so much that is more wonderful and wild than we could possibly imagine.  But Christ is nearer than the stars, Christ is nearer than the sky.  “Where is God in all this?” Christ is each one of us.  Christ is you.  Christ is me.

November 19, 2017

Proverbs 31, Matthew 25:14-30

“Well done, good and faithful servant.” That’s nice to hear! Recently, one of my brother monks said to me, “Michael. Thank you! Thank you for all you do here. Thank you for just being you!” I deflected the compliment saying, “I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I…I don’t need your…” My brother interjected, “Michael, you shush. Thank you!”

“Well done, good and faithful servant.” What a happy thing to hear from those around us – a friend, our family, a roommate, from God. What a happy thing to be acknowledged by another, to be given an authentic word of gratitude for what we do.

In the first reading from Proverbs we hear, “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting.” So often we look for validation from others from just our surface level -- how I look, what I wear, my body type. But Proverbs offers us the wisdom of what is of greater value. We hear, “she brings about good, and not evil, all the days of her life. She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.”

A person is praised not just because of surface appearance, but what they are able to do generously for the good of others. God praises the work of our hands. There’s our surface appearance, which is fleeting, and there is something deeper and more lasting -- unselfish, generous love. As Proverbs puts it, “Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.”

In the gospel, Jesus praises those who are able to be generative, making ten talents from five. In our American culture, we do praise productivity, hyper-activity, doing lots of things. However, we often can believe that quantity of activity is more important than quality of activity.

Saint Benedict, in addressing work, ministry, or service, is more concerned about how the work is done rather than what is done. To illustrate this, I recently heard a story told by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk. He was participating in an extended period of living at the Zen Mountain Center in California. All the participants were assigned work during this time, which included dish washing. At the end of this Zen experience, the participants were asked to leave written instructions for the successor on that job. Brother David dutifully wrote the instructions and added, “According to Saint Benedict, ‘the pots and pans are to be treated as reverently as the sacred vessels of the altar.’” Months later, he visited another Zen community in New York and was surprised by being asked, "Are you Brother David, the Dishwasher? We have your quotation from the Rule of Benedict above our sink...very practical advice."

So, the surface level of our appearance versus the deeper level of our good works. The surface level of quantity versus the deeper level of quality. The surface level of dishes in the sink versus the opportunity to reverence the ordinary.

Here at this Eucharist, God, like the Husband in Proverbs, “entrusts His heart to us.” Jesus gives his whole self to us in this Eucharist. On the surface level, we are given bread and wine -- the good work of God, the awesome generosity of God. In a profoundly deeper level, the bread and wine are truly his body and blood. “This is my body and blood given to you.” Eat and drink. Love others as I have loved you, so that when you see me face to face, I will take delight in saying to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy.”

October 1, 2017

Matthew 21:28-32

How unexpected is God? How unexpected is God!                   

Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you!”      

Who was Jesus speaking to?  Chief priests and elders of the people. These were people who studied scripture all their lives and who went to the Temple regularly (faithful church goers). How then could they not be entering the Kingdom before sinners?

I wonder if they just stopped growing? I wonder if they stopped being surprised by God? I wonder if they thought that they had God and religion all figured out? Were the chief priests and elders bad people? Perhaps not in the eyes of conventional religion, but the opposite of good is not necessarily evil, the opposite of good is often indifference. How unexpected is God?

Let’s come back to the tax collectors and prostitutes. These were shunned people -- the so called, sinners who were outside of proper, religious society. Righteous people kept away from them.  Why would sinners enter the Kingdom before the righteous?

Is it because they studied the scriptures more than the experts? No.

Is it because they went to church more?  Nope.  What was it?

I think it’s because of one simple word.  Need.  Need! They knew their need for God.

Pope Benedict, commenting on this very gospel has said, “Translated into the language of the present day, this statement might sound something like this: agnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart…are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is routine and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting it touch their hearts, or letting the faith touch their hearts.”

I love to go for walks. One of the places I love to walk is the Saint John’s monastic cemetery – it’s a beautiful and peaceful place.  The graves of the brother monks who have passed on are there.  And you know what’s also there?  Wisdom.  That place reminds me that if I ever think I have this God-stuff all figured out, then I’m sunk. I see the example of my brothers who went before me - those who were still in need of their God until the day they died.  I know my journey isn’t over yet! And if I have a lot more of God’s surprises in store for my life, then than makes life happier! I’m a person in need. And so, I ask their prayers for me. “Brothers, you graduated. Pray for me. I’m still in the school of the Lord’s service.”

The school of life can be frustrating! If you’re ever frustrated, then come back to the fact that each day is a new day, a day created and gifted by God. Each day is a new day. Each day is an opportunity to be compassionate. Compassionate to yourself, and to those you meet.

When you lose compassion for humanity, to be a person of need among others in who are in need, and when you lose the ability to love and honor and fully receive people as they are -- flawed, broken, evolving, all of us clawing our way to something we hope is better -- you have lost sight of why people seek spirituality and religion in the first place.

Jesus Christ, the human face of God, loves us. Each one of us. Everything about us, you and I, everything about us – our laughter, our dreams, our fears, our heart and mind – is eternally significant to God.  Few people have ever needed our heart…and God?!  The thought that God wants my heart seems too good to be true.  Yet, to discover that the needs of my heart does indeed matter to God, that it’s central really. God loves us. 

As were the prostitutes and sinners in today’s Gospel, are you in need? Then give to your heart that which satisfies the heart. And what will you find?  The Kingdom of God. How unexpected is God? Quite unexpected. And that’s wonderful!

September 24, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

 A man came across three stone-masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed irritated at her job, chipping away and frequently looking at her watch. When the man asked what she was doing, she responded, rather sharply, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til five o’clock when I can go home.”

The second stone-mason, seemingly more interested in her work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that she was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used to construct a wall. It’s ok work, but other people have better jobs than I do.”

The third stone-mason was hammering at her block happily, taking time to stand back and admire her work. She chipped off small pieces until she was satisfied that it was the best she could do. When she was questioned about her work she stopped, looked skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Just like these stone-masons and the vineyard workers in today’s gospel, we’re all trying to create a living. We need to work and we need to study. That’s what people do. But what’s our perspective towards what we do in life? Is life a hassle or is life about building a cathedral? Attitude is essential.

The workers, in the gospel, who started in the morning, grumbled and murmured after a hard day’s work, “It’s not fair, we endured the labor and the heat of the day.” They endured, rather than simply be happy working in the Master’s vineyard and grateful to have work in the first place.

In our life what does our mind and heart center on? If we focus on the “heat of the day,” that is, just the pain in the butt and burden of our work and study, then we’ll be less happy -- we’ll be unsatisfied in the present moment.

If, like in the gospel, we’re envious of other people (she gets all the breaks; I wish I had money like that person; I wish I had better grades like that person); we’ll be less happy -- we’ll be unsatisfied in the present moment.

Just enduring, just envious, that’s not what working in the vineyard in about. The Vineyard.

Jesus’ own words, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.” In the parables of Jesus, a vineyard is not just the place where people happen to work. Rather, the vineyard is a symbolic place of celebration, of God’s joy, of God’s eternal covenant with us. I mean, a vineyard produces wine!

Whatever vineyard God calls you and I to work in, we must remember what we’re doing – we’re making wine for the world. The “heat of the day” is worth the wine. If we have a vineyard perspective, then we can put up with a lot of difficulties in life.

How to gain a vineyard attitude? Saint Bernard writes, “Widen your hearts. The soul must grow and expand, let it be roomy enough for God.” I love that!

Finding room for God in our busyness is a common challenge.  Sometimes, though, we can start on the wrong foot. What I mean is that often we can obsess with the question, “What’s God’s will for me?”

However, let us seek God in a real relationship first, and the rest will follow more peacefully. In other words, trust the relationship. What comes next will be revealed in its own time and with discernment.  Be in the vineyard right now! “Seek first the Kingdom of God [now] and everything shall be added to you as well,” Jesus promises.

No matter what your work or study, let it be as if it were, in the Vineyard of the Lord. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like – being happy in the Vineyard of the Lord. Wine for the world!

September 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.

Johnnie dorm. Angry ‘F’-bomb. I prayed & +, “Lord, give him peace!”

Anger. Is a Christian allowed to get angry?  This comes up now and then in conversations and in confession.  We want to imitate Jesus, who tells us to, “turn the other cheek,” who loves his persecutors, and even excuses them. On the cross Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing." At great cost God has forgiven us our sins through the cross. What others do to us is very small compared to what we have done against God. We receive radical grace and forgiveness. We too, then can be very graceful to others. Anger can transform to mercy and reconciliation.

However, we don’t need to simply suppress our anger. Have I the right to be angry?  Yes, sometimes.  But am I so stuck in my anger, that I become an angry person? Does my anger take away my freedom, my happiness?  Anger is appropriate at times, but anger is also a heavy burden, too heavy to carry all the time.

In the Gospel, the master had a right to be angry with his servant for failing to pay back his loans, but the master completely forgave the debt. The master had mercy. The servant, however, had no right to be angry at his fellow servant’s unpaid loans (he even choked him). He should have been merciful, just as he received mercy.

Dorothy Day. One of my heroes! (Benedictine Oblate) When Dorothy Day died in 1980, many in the Christian world called her, "the most influential and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism.”  An extraordinary statement of someone who held no official position of authority in the Church. The Catholic Worker, a lay movement, she founded in 1933 and oversaw for 50 years, was an effort to show that the radical commandment of love of neighbor could be lived.  The Catholic Worker was thoroughly based on the Benedictine values of: intentional community; radical hospitality; liturgical prayer and social justice.

Dorothy Day understood Christian discipleship is a challenge not just in the personal works of charity, but in a political form as well, confronting and resisting the social forces which gave rise to such a need for charity.  She represented a new type of holiness -- a lay movement serving Jesus Christ not only through deep prayer, but through solidarity with the marginalized and in struggle along the path of peace and justice.  She could have been overcome by frustration and anger at those who opposed her, and at times, imprisoned her. But she was intentionally rooted in personal and communal prayer. She was a free woman, with the love of God and neighbor, shining through her life. Her holiness is relevant to our times.  Day has said, “We plant seeds that will flower as results in our lives, so it’s best to remove the weeds of anger, avarice, envy, and doubt, that peace and abundance may manifest for all.”

But, how? When a natural storm blows outside, we quickly shut our windows, lest the rain and strong winds comes in our house.  If the electricity goes out, we know to grab our flashlight, or light some candles.  If the weather is cold, we turn up the heat.  We create an area of safety and protection while the storms blow and rage outside.

The strong emotion of anger is very similar to storms.  We need to create a safe area within us that will protect us and others from these destructive powers.  We can’t keep saying, “Here’s that old anger again, I can’t do anything about it. I’ll just let it blaze.” Rather, we need to be more proactive.  We have safety options.

When anger arises, especially when another person or situation triggers my anger, it's best not to react irrationally, saying or doing something we'll later regret – “F” bombing for the world to hear. Nor is it helpful to suppress it, shoving it in some dark place where it will fester. It’s best to give our anger some gentleness.

A simple prayer is helpful here:

          Breathing in, I know I'm angry.

          Breathing out, I smile and I let go of anger’s power. Peace. Peace.

Another practice, ask yourself:

          Getting angry at another person or situation today,

          “What’s the real big deal?!”

           In a year, a month, a day from now?

           Where will that person or situation be? Where will I be?

This is the wisdom that nothing is permanent!  Everything changes.  When we get angry, we often do this to punish another person – “I’m going to get back at you!”  But, if you just take a moment and visualize everything a year, a month, a day, an hour from now, you get an insight that nothing is permanent.  Just one breath in, and one breath out. Smile. Pray for help, "Peace. Peace!"  When you really look at things, things that pass away so quickly, anger is replaced by a deep sense of patience.  Buddhist author, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “This is the only thing worth doing, to cherish the present moment because things change so quickly.”

Every storm will pass. There is no storm that will last forever.  Our anger will pass too if we realize that anger is not worth giving up our happiness, our peace.  We can find safety right in the middle of the storm.  We won’t let the storm harm ourselves or others. 

We all have received the mercy and forgiveness of God. It cost God, God’s blood, on the cross. Let us live as people who have received mercy, people who have been offered peace, from our Master, Jesus Christ.

September 10, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.

When I was received into Solemn Vows (life-long commitment) as a monk, there was the beautiful tradition of exchanging the sign of peace with each member of my community. During the sign of peace, many of my brothers said a word of encouragement. One monk said, “Welcome aboard!” (was I on a cruise liner?!). Then came my spiritual director, Fr. Julius. He got up from his wheelchair, shuffled over to me, embraced me, and said one word, “Persevere!” Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another. I believe loving one another is totally worth it, but as we know, it takes a lot of work. Persevere!

In this homily, I want to talk about commitment — especially in our relationship with God and one another. What does commitment look and feel like? Is it positive or negative?  Is it something we run from, or is it life giving to us?

Pope Francis, speaking to young adults, has said, “Love is a free gift which calls for an open heart. Love is a responsibility, but a noble responsibility which is life-long. It’s a daily task for those who can achieve great dreams! Woe to your people who do not know how to dream, who do not dare to dream! If a person of your age is not able to dream, if they have already gone into retirement -- this is not good. Love is nurtured by trust, respect and forgiveness. Love does not happen because we talk about it, but when we live it. It is not a sweet poem to study and memorize, but is a life choice to put into practice!” 

Real, valuable, human relationships. What could be more important in life! About a month ago, one of my brother monks and I went to visit his mom in New York. We got to swim in the Atlantic, get fed tons of traditional food from his Korean mom, and we just laughed a lot. That was really great!

Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another. How is love and friendship real to you? Jesus tells of God’s commitment, of love, to us all the time — especially in stories (people like stories), in his parables -- about a woman who loses a coin and lights a lamp to find it; a shepherd who loses a sheep and roams about the countryside until the shepherd finds it; and a father who loses a son and is always looking down the road for his return. These stories aren’t ultimately about things and people being lost; the stories are about things and people being found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever. God is persevering! God is our Good Teacher.

I believe loving one another is totally worth it, but as we know, it takes a lot of work. Coming to college, you had to leave behind many of those deep connections you once had – parents, siblings, high school friends. Perhaps it can be a bit lonely? You try to maintain those connections by texting, Facebook, or a phone call. That’s good. I would suggest, however, that you learn to love new people here at CSBSJU. Become friends with people here. We need face to face relationships. We need to love people where we are, right here, right now. That will be a happy thing. Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.