Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Lesson on Foolishness and Wisdom, Courtesy of King Solomon and Josh Hamilton

Josh Hamilton during this year's home run derby contest

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 27, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Kings 3: 5, 7-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventeenth Sunday 2008]

It’s so appropriate that King Solomon is the main character in our first reading on the very first Sunday after the Steubenville East Youth Conference.

Here, in this text from 1 Kings 3, we hear the story of a “Steubenville moment”—that is to say, a powerful moment of grace—in Solomon’s life.

The Lord appears to him in a dream, and asks the young ruler what he wants. Now from the way the story is written it appears that Solomon could have asked for anything good or morally neutral—even wealth or fame—and God would have given it to him. But Solomon made the choice to ask for something spiritual—something that would make him a better leader of his people, namely, wisdom.

And it didn’t take him very long to start utilizing the gift. Soon after he had this dream two prostitutes were brought before him because they were disputing over a little baby. Each claimed that the child was hers.

In his wisdom, Solomon decided that, since both of them were so adamant that the baby was theirs, the only reasonable solution would be to cut the child in half, and give one half to the first woman and the other half to the second.

Some of you are thinking, “Fr. Ray, that’s craziness, not wisdom!”

Ah, think again. As soon as the king made this proposal, one of the women cried out, “No! Please give the child to her. Don’t kill it.”

The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours. Divide it.”

Solomon said, “Give the child to the first woman; she’s the mother.”

In his great wisdom, Solomon knew that the real mother would want her child to live—even if it wasn’t with her.

It’s too bad that it didn’t last—Solomon’s wisdom, that is.

Now it would be easy to say that it was all his wives’ fault (that’s “wives” in the plural, because according to Scripture he had seven hundred of them), but that would not be true. Solomon went from being a wise man who wrote proverbs and built the Temple in Jerusalem, to a fool who sowed the seeds for the breakup of the nation of Israel, because HE MADE THE WRONG CHOICES AND DIDN’T REPENT WHEN HE SHOULD HAVE!

The Bible says that many of Solomon’s wives were foreigners who “turned his heart to strange gods” and away from the worship of Yahweh. But no one forced him to marry them, and no one forced him to turn away.

That was his decision.

I said at the beginning of my homily that it’s very appropriate that King Solomon is the main character in our first reading on the first Sunday after Steubenville East.

In his life, he went from great wisdom to great foolishness. The Steubenville retreat helps young people to move in the opposite direction: from great foolishness to great wisdom! The lies of the world are clearly exposed by the light and truth of the gospel.

And, thanks be to God, most young people who go respond favorably to what they hear. They humbly recognize whatever foolishness has been present in their lives in the past, and they say Yes to the Lord’s eternal wisdom.

At least for the weekend they do! The challenge, of course, is to avoid going back to the world’s foolishness once the retreat is over! But that can be difficult, because the temptations to foolishness and sin don’t disappear while you’re at the conference.

If you need some encouragement to stay wise and on the right track in life—whether you came to Steubenville East or not—I would ask you today to remember the story of Josh Hamilton.

Josh Hamilton is an outfielder for the Texas Rangers baseball team. He was also one of the participants in this year’s home run derby on July 14th (the night before the All Star Game). As many of you will recall, the 3 or 4 hitters who came to the plate before him that evening really struggled—none of them hit more than 8 home runs (which isn’t very many for a home run derby). I happened to be watching, and, in all honesty, I was about to turn the channel—out of sheer boredom—when I made the decision to watch one more batter.

Well I’m glad I did. Josh came to the plate and proceeded to hit 28 balls out of Yankee Stadium—some of them over 500 feet. He had the crowd in a frenzy; believe it or not, fans in Yankee Stadium were actually cheering wildly for a player from an opposing team!

The whole thing went on for quite sometime; which was good because it allowed the television commentators to tell the story of Josh’s battle with drug and alcohol addiction—a battle that almost cost him his very promising baseball career.

The “Readers’ Digest version of the story” goes like this: In 1999, he was the number 1 draft pick of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was then sent to one of their minor league teams, where he began to associate with the wrong group of people. One night, as he was hanging out with these new “friends” of his, he made the very foolish decision to abuse alcohol and try cocaine.

He says he was just curious about it all, but his curiosity quickly developed into an addiction. Over the next 3 years, he was in and out of rehab 8 times, and because of baseball’s drug policy it was doubtful that he would ever play again professionally. At the same time his drug abuse almost ruined his marriage.

What ultimately saved him was his faith in Jesus Christ—that’s the part you probably won’t hear on too many secular newscasts—but it’s true nonetheless.

His grandmother took him in when he was down-and-out, and while he was with her he began to pray and read the Bible again. I say “again” because when he was in high school he had a “Steubenville-like” experience and made the very wise decision to give his life to Christ.

But then he slipped away—as many do—making the foolish decision to let baseball become his god. That, of course, made him vulnerable to the temptations of the world.

And yet, at least at this point, his story has a happy ending, because he’s wisely come back to the Lord and has gotten rooted in a church where his faith is being nourished and supported. In an article I read the other day his wife Katie, who had a conversion of her own in the midst of all this, was quoted as saying, “Just watching the transformation that God has made in Josh’s life . . . I mean it’s just been so awesome and such a gift from the Lord to see what [God has] done in him.”

Josh himself added, “I was out of baseball [just a few years ago]. I didn’t have my family, my wife was going to leave me, and I was doing drugs. People think there are coincidences in life. There are no coincidences when God’s got a plan. It’s nothing I did except try to make the right choices and let God take over from there.”

He could have said, “It’s nothing I did except try to make the WISE CHOICES” and it would have meant the same thing.

Josh Hamilton has gone from foolish to wise (when had his initial conversion in high school) back to foolish; and now, thankfully, back to wise.

My prayer for him is that he will stay where he is—permanently. My prayer for the young people who “wised-up” this year at Steubenville East is that they will stay where they are—permanently. And, not surprisingly, my prayer is the same for every other person in the congregation this morning: everyone, that is, who has made the decision to give up their foolishness and embrace God’s wisdom.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Kingdom of God: It’s Present Whenever and Wherever Jesus Rules!

(Sixteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 20, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 13: 24-43.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixteenth Sunday 2008]

“The kingdom of God”—a biblical concept which is very important and VERY CONFUSING!

Let me illustrate the confusion with a couple of questions. Question #1: Is the kingdom of God something that is inside of us, or is it something that’s outside of us? I ask that because in Luke 17: 21 Jesus explicitly says, “The kingdom of God is within you”; but then in John 18: 36 he seems to contradict himself by saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Very confusing.

Question #2: Is the kingdom of God something that we can experience NOW on this earth, or is it something we can only experience AFTER WE DIE? The answer to that one is not immediately obvious, because in Matthew 10: 7 Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (as if it is something we can experience right now!); but then, in Matthew 25, in the scene of the Last Judgment, Jesus says to those who are saved, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world”—as if the kingdom is something totally different from what we experience here on earth.

Very confusing.

But in spite of all the confusion, this is a biblical concept that we need to try to understand—because according to Jesus Christ the kingdom of God (whatever it is!) is extremely important!

We know this simply because Jesus preached about the kingdom all the time! He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t want us to take it seriously. Believe it or not, in just the 4 canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) the expression “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” is used about 50 times (I know that because I made a quick count the other day!). In today’s Gospel alone, Jesus mentions it 3 times, using 3 analogies to drive home his message.

My purpose in this homily is to give you one key insight that can help you to make sense of this Gospel reading from Matthew 13 and every other passage of the New Testament where the kingdom of God is mentioned—including the ones that seem to contradict one another. The insight comes from our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and it can be found in chapter 3 of his new book, Jesus of Nazareth.

I’ll paraphrase it in this way (which should be fairly easy to remember): According to the Holy Father, the kingdom of God is present wherever and whenever Jesus is enthroned as Lord.

The kingdom of God is present, in other words, wherever and whenever Jesus rules!

Think back, now, to the questions I posed at the beginning of my homily.

Question #1: Is the kingdom of God something that is inside of us, or is it something that’s outside of us?

The pope would say “It’s not an either/or situation. Both can be true. The kingdom can be inside of us and outside of us at the same time!”—which is precisely why Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you,” and “My kingdom is not of this world.”

You see, whenever Jesus is ruling our inner thoughts and attitudes, the kingdom is present. Whenever we decide, by the grace of God, to forgive another person; whenever we choose to be patient or compassionate or pure; whenever we say no to sin and yes to what’s right, the kingdom of God is, in a very real sense, present within us!

But, of course, none of us is perfect. So even though the kingdom is present within us whenever we resist sin and practice virtue, it will never be fully present inside us—or outside us for that matter—as long as we’re in this world. That’s why Jesus’ second statement, “My kingdom is not of this world” is also true!

The fullness of the kingdom of God will only be experienced in heaven, simply because that’s the place where Jesus “rules” completely! In heaven, there is no sin. Jesus truly is the Lord of all that happens and the Lord of everyone who’s there.

So, is the kingdom of God something that we can experience NOW on this earth, or is it something we can only experience AFTER WE DIE?

That was the second question, and, once again the Holy Father would say to us, “It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. Because of the nature of the kingdom, both can be true. Whenever we make Jesus Lord of a particular situation in our lives and do what he wants us to do, we experience a little bit of his kingdom. Right here, right now. But, once again, the fullness of that kingdom will only become a reality for us in heaven, where there’s no sin or death, and where Jesus is Lord completely.”

All of this is implied, believe it or not, in that simple phrase “thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer. We’re saying, “Lord, may your kingdom be present inside of me—in my thoughts and in my heart; may it be present outside of me in my words and acts of love and service. Help me, through my attitudes and choices, to experience your kingdom right now to the extent that I can; and prepare me for that glorious moment when I will experience the fullness of your kingdom in heaven.” With those 3 little words—“thy kingdom come”—we’re implying all those things. Let’s keep that in mind when we pray the Our Father later at this Mass, and whenever we pray it publicly or privately in the future.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What Causes You To Delete the Truth From Your Computer?

(Fifteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 13, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 13: 1-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifteenth Sunday 2008]

Jesus was born into an agricultural society, so it’s not surprising that he used a story about the sowing of seed to teach the people of his time some important truths about God’s word. It made perfect sense.

Our society, of course, is much more technological than it is agricultural. And so I wonder: If the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity—the Eternal Word of God—had chosen to enter our world in the 21st century as opposed to the 1st, what modern analogy would he use to make his point?

I thought about that recently and the word that came to mind was “COMPUTERS”! If Jesus were to give this same teaching today in our western, industrialized culture, I think he might choose to use computers rather than seeds to put forth his message. And that’s fitting, because our minds are often compared to computers: our minds have memory and computers have memory; our minds process information and computers process information.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus challenged people to think about the many realities that could keep them from embracing and living the truth. To make the same point using computers, I think Jesus would ask us the question: What causes you to delete the truth from your operating system? What causes you to delete the truth from your inner computer?

Jesus presumes here—as he does in the parable—that we’ve heard the truth at least to some extent. And we all have: “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself”; “Forgive as you have been forgiven”; “Be holy as the Lord your God is holy”—these are things we’ve all heard before. Many times. They’re just a few of the many teachings of God’s holy word. You can find the rest of them outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

But the parable of the sower emphasizes the fact that HEARING these truths is not sufficient! Hearing them is one thing; living them consistently and perseveringly is something else.

Obviously the latter is what we should be striving for.

In the parable, Jesus mentions 3 situations where people hear the word, but don’t allow it to affect their lives in a lasting way.

He first mentions the seed that falls on the footpath and is immediately eaten up by the birds. He says that this is the person who hears the word, but then has it stolen away from his mind and heart by Satan.

Using the computer analogy, this is like allowing the devil to sit at your computer terminal and delete the truths of God’s word from your operating system.

And that can very easily happen; although Satan usually doesn’t do this directly. He normally deletes these truths with the help of other people. Sad to say, these “deleters” can even be friends and members of our families. Satan really doesn’t care; he’ll use anybody who will cooperate with him.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why we’ve told the teenagers who are coming to Steubenville East next weekend to leave their cell phones at home! They will be hearing the truths of God’s word proclaimed to them next Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the talks and through the music, and we don’t want those truths “deleted from their computers” (so to speak) by people they might talk to on the phone back home. I’m speaking here specifically about those who aren’t happy that they’re on the retreat—people who will say to them things like, “What did you go to that stupid conference for?” “You don’t know what fun you’re missing back here!” “Have they brainwashed you yet?” “What are you gonna be now, a religious fanatic?”

If he can, Satan will use even our close friends to try to get us to delete the word of God from our hearts. And how do I know that? Because he tried to destroy Jesus in the same way through his good friend, Simon Peter!

Satan is shameless; he’ll use anyone he can, even our best friend in the world!

The seed that fell on the rocky ground, sprouted quickly and then was scorched, represents those who give up the practice of their faith because of some trial and/or persecution. I suppose you could say that this is like the person who’s been sitting at his computer for hours trying to learn a new program without any success—and the temptation finally comes to delete the whole thing from his system!

That, of course, isn’t the answer—and neither is giving up on God in the midst of suffering and persecution. When you have trouble operating a computer program, the best way to handle it is to find someone who can give you good advice and get you through the glitches. (Deacon Fran is always a big help to me, since he builds computers for a living!)

Similarly, when we’re tempted to give up on our faith because we’re having difficulty coping with the death of a loved one or some other tragedy—or because we’re being persecuted at work or at home for what we believe—part of the answer is to get some good counsel.

As I said earlier, Satan can work negatively through other people to undermine our faith, but God can work even more powerfully through other people to strengthen our faith—if we seek those people out.

We’re told that the seed among the thorns represents those who allow “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches” to choke off God’s word and keep it from bearing fruit in their lives.

Going back to the computer analogy, this led me to think of the internet. As we all know, the internet is a great blessing and a great curse at the same time. There are lots of good web sites out there, with all kinds of great and helpful pieces of information; but there are also lots of very bad sites out there that can lead us into serious sin. To the extent that we access those sites—in other words, to the extent that we buy into the hedonistic messages of our culture—we give in to what Jesus called “worldly anxiety,” and we delete the word of God from our computer.

His remark about the “lure of riches” got me thinking about those who shop and gamble on line excessively. They symbolize all those possessed by the spirit of greed and materialism, who delete God’s message of charity from their computers in the midst of their selfishness.

But the good news is that none of these things has to happen! We don’t have to become like the seed that falls on the footpath, or the rocky ground, or among the thorns. We don’t have to give in to the many temptations of the culture we live in. That’s why Jesus ends this parable by speaking of the seed that falls on good soil and produces a superabundance of good fruit.

These are the faithful souls who receive the word of God into their computers and then do their best to resist the temptation to hit the delete button!

If you want to be one of those souls (and I hope you do!), I invite you to pray this short prayer for yourself in silence, as I pray it for myself out loud:

Dear Lord, fill my computer—the computer of my mind and heart—with the right data (the data of your word!), prevent me from ever deleting it, and help me to use it in every circumstance of my life—for your honor and glory and for the salvation of many souls (including the soul of the computer operator—me!).