Sunday, September 12, 2004

Three Steps to Lasting Change

Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son"

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 12, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-Fourth Sunday 2004]

Today’s second reading and Gospel are about change—positive change: positive change in the life of St. Paul, positive change in the life of the so-called “prodigal son.”

There are 3 steps to achieving positive—and lasting—change in our lives (what the Bible calls “metanoia” or “conversion”). The first step is to recognize the fact that change is necessary. We must admit that we need to change. Sound simple? Not always. Consider St. Paul. In today’s second reading from 1 Timothy 1, Paul talks about his conversion to the Christian faith—which was obviously a major “change” in his life. He begins by saying, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant.”

Now I seriously doubt that Paul would have admitted that truth about himself in the days when he was dragging Christians out of their homes and throwing them into prison. In his arrogance, he would have said that he was a righteous man who had nothing to change. And then he would have arrested you!

When he was partying with his father’s money, the prodigal son would almost certainly have laughed in your face if you had told him that he needed to change and straighten out his life.

But he did need to change! And so did Paul. And so do we! Obviously, if we’ve committed serious sins, then we need to change in some major ways; but all of us have little sins and little imperfections that God wants us to deal with and overcome—so this message applies to everyone, not only to those in mortal sin!

By the way, if you’re ever having trouble with this step and for some reason can’t see your own need to change, there’s a very quick and easy solution to that difficulty: if you’re a married man, ask your wife—she’ll be more than happy to tell you what you need to change! If you’re a wife, ask your husband. If you’re a teenager, ask your parents—they’ll probably give you a list that will go to the floor! Or ask your siblings. Or even ask your friends. If they’re good friends, they won’t tell you you’re perfect. They’ll be honest with you, and tell you the truth in a loving way.

Once you recognize the need for change, then you can move on to step 2, which is: Make the change! This also can be a challenge at times. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this line in my 18 years of priesthood: “Father, I know I have to stop doing this, but it’s so hard to give it up.” To know you need to change is one thing; to actually make the change is something else entirely.

For the prodigal son, making the change meant he had to swallow his pride and humbly go back to his father—and that was not easy!

For Paul, making the change meant that he had to admit that he had been all wrong about Christianity; it meant that he had to face his sin square in the face: his sin of being an accomplice in the murder of St. Stephen, his sin of tearing apart innocent families!

Do you think that was easy for Paul? If you do, think again!

This is where we can thank God for certain sufferings that we experience, because sometimes those sufferings motivate us to change! I’m sure that Paul thanked God many times for knocking him to the ground on the road to Damascus, because that suffering—that sore posterior—motivated him to make the changes he needed to make in his life: changes he never would have otherwise made.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the prodigal son eventually went back to the pigsty to say thank you to Porky Pig and his friends for waking him up and motivating him to admit his sin and go back to his father.

Sometimes we may need help in making the changes we need to make. We should not be afraid to ask for that help. God often works through other people in the Body of Christ. If you read the Book of Acts, you see that Paul needed the help of Ananias and many other Christians after his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. Ananias baptized him and helped him regain his sight; others helped him to get firmly rooted in the Church.

This, by the way, is one reason why we take our young people to the Steubenville youth conference every year. That’s a place where they have the opportunity to recognize their need to change; and they also have the opportunity on that retreat to make changes with the help of others in the Body of Christ.

Which brings us to the final step: Staying changed! As difficult as the others are, this might just be the most challenging step of all. The teenagers who come to Steubenville every year know this as well as anyone. With all the great talks they hear on the weekend, it’s relatively easy for them to recognize their need to change; with the powerful Saturday night experience at adoration—and with the many opportunities they have to go to Confession—it’s pretty easy to let God in so that they can make (or at least begin to make) some much-needed changes in their lives. But then the retreat is over and they come back to Westerly. Can they stay changed?
That’s the real question.

Can the reformed alcoholic stay sober? Can the reformed drug addict stay clean? Can the reformed womanizer stay pure and faithful to his wife? Can the reformed gossiper hold his tongue?

The answer, of course, is Yes!—but it’s not magic!

To stay changed you need to take prayer and the sacraments seriously (especially the Eucharist and Confession). To stay changed you need support—the support of others who are also trying to live their faith and stay changed. Paul had Peter, James, John and the other apostles. The prodigal son had his family at home. Whom do you have? To stay changed you also need a good dose of common sense! You need to avoid bad influences—unhealthy friendships and situations; and you need to expose yourself to good influences (good people, good music, good reading, etc.).

Change is ultimately the work of God’s grace, but we must allow that grace to work within us. St. Paul allowed it to work in him in an awesome way: on the road to Damascus, he faced his need to change; in the days that followed, he actually did change; and—praise God—he stayed that way until the moment he left this earth.

St. Paul, please pray for us now and always, that we will follow your example and experience positive, lasting change in our lives.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Luke 14: 26—Put The Rock In The Jar First!

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 5, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 14: 25-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2004]

Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Dear Jesus, what are you talking about? I thought you told us to love one another as you have loved us?

Perhaps the story of the rock, the pebbles, and the sand will help us to understand what the Lord is actually saying to us in this difficult verse from Luke 14. Some of you may have heard this before. . . .

One day a theology professor at a Catholic university brought several special items into his classroom: a large, clear glass jar, a rock, a box of pebbles, and a box of sand.

He stood before his students, and, without saying a word, he put the rock inside the jar. Then he added the pebbles—as many as he could fit into the remaining space. Finally he poured in the sand, which filled in all the small areas between the rock and the pebbles.

Then he said to the students, “I’ve just given you a visual example of how God wants you to live on this earth. This jar represents your life; the rock represents Jesus Christ and your Catholic faith. These must always be your first priorities! You were made to know God, to love God and to serve God during the years the Lord gives you on this planet. Your Catholic faith teaches you how to do this; it teaches you how to know and follow God’s will.

“The pebbles represent the other important dimensions of your life: your marriage (if you’re married), your children, your family, your other interpersonal relationships, your daily responsibilities, your job, your works of charity, your physical health, etc.

“Finally, the sand represents all the ‘small stuff’—the trivialities that most of us, quite frankly, are much too concerned with: the clothes we wear, our social status, the car we drive, the number of ‘toys’ we have, whether people like us or not, etc.

“Notice I put the rock in the jar first. If I hadn’t done that—if I had started off by filling the jar with pebbles or sand or some combination of the two—there would not have been room for the rock. And that’s the way life is: If we fill it with sand and pebbles (as important as some of those pebbles might be!) we won’t have enough room for Christ. He must be first—our faith in him and in his truth must be primary. Then we can add the pebbles and the sand—in that order, of course! The pebbles must be put in before the sand!”

Listen again now to what Jesus said: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

To hate in this context means “to put into a subordinate place”; it doesn’t mean “to detest.” It couldn’t possibly mean that, because in other passages of Scripture Jesus forbids hatred—even of our enemies!

The message of our Lord in this verse could be paraphrased in this way: “If anyone comes to me without putting me first in his life and placing all his other human relationships in a secondary position, he cannot be my disciple.”

The Rock in other words, must be placed in our jar first! (Rock here has a capital “R.” The “Rock” is Christ!) He must occupy the central and primary position—regardless of who we are and what our state of life happens to be.

This involves more than just saying, “Jesus, I love you; you’re my Savior; you’re number 1!” Putting the Rock in the jar first also means making every effort to obey Jesus perfectly—the Jesus who speaks to us through his word, as taught authoritatively by his Church!

Is this easy? No, it is not! Consider, for example, the Catholic political figures in our nation right now who happily profess their love for Jesus, and then openly oppose our Lord’s Gospel through their public support of abortion, the gay lifestyle, embryonic stem cell research, and a host of other moral evils!

Most of them do this because they think it will get them votes from the members of NARAL and the National Organization for Women and every other radical, leftist group out there. But in compromising their faith in this way, these political figures are actually putting their human relationships with the members of these organizations above their relationship with Jesus Christ!

Do some of these same Catholic politicians support other causes which are noble and just? In many cases, the answer is yes! But that’s like putting pebbles in the jar and leaving out the Rock! Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me without putting me first in his life and placing all his other human relationships—and we might add all his ‘issues’—in a secondary position, he cannot be my disciple.”

And here’s the interesting irony for you to ponder during this election year: If a Catholic politician puts the Lord first in his life, and “hates” his constituents in the sense that Jesus uses the term here, he will end up becoming a better, stronger, more compassionate leader!

I don’t know about you, but I tend to trust a politician much more if he has respect for the commandments of God, and respect for the most innocent and vulnerable among us: the unborn, the elderly, the terminally ill, etc.

If a government official spurns God’s law and demonstrates a lack of respect for most innocent and vulnerable in our society, then I certainly don’t think he’ll respect me and my rights—because I’m not so “innocent and vulnerable”! And neither are most of you!

But let’s be clear about it, this truth applies to everyone, not just politicians! In her incredible life, for example, Blessed Mother Teresa clearly put Jesus Christ first; there’s little or no doubt about that. At the same time she “hated” the sick and dying souls of Calcutta—in the sense that they took second place in her heart. But because of that she loved them more! By making the daily decision to put Jesus first, she allowed her heart to be filled with his love continually—and it was that love which inspired her great acts of charity and mercy.

My mother, God rest her soul, always told my father, my sister and me that Jesus Christ was her first love. And she meant it! In that sense she “hated” us. But because she hated us in this way she loved us much more than she would have if her commitment to Jesus had been mediocre or non-existent.

My mother, like Blessed Mother Teresa, put the Rock in the jar first—and kept it there.

May the Lord help each of us—and every Catholic—to do the same.