Sunday, February 22, 2004

Who’s Right—The People At MTV, Or The People Who Wrote The Bible?

David spares Saul's life but takes his spear and water jug.

(Seventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 22, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read 1 Samuel 26:2-23; 1 Corinthians 15: 45-49; Luke 6: 27-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday 2004]

Once upon a time—a couple of decades ago to be exact—Super Bowl halftime shows were simply about filling a time gap in the middle of the biggest football game of the season. In recent years, however, they seem to have taken on a life of their own. College marching bands with baton-twirling girls have been replaced by glitzy Hollywood productions, complete with pyrotechnics and every other “extra” you can possibly imagine.

And the producers of these flamboyant shows have clearly made a concerted effort to target the youth of America. Their purpose has been, first of all, to get young people to tune in to the Super Bowl (even if they’re not football fans)—and then to keep them glued to their seats at a moment when they might be tempted to leave the game and go do something else.

And so it was a few weeks ago, during the Patriots-Panthers game. I don’t think I need to go into great detail here. You all know the major players in that fiasco: Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. But let’s be fair and honest: his act of pulling part of her top off was definitely not the only assault on decency that took place during that performance! Justin and Janet were not alone! Some others who performed were dressed immodestly; still others made suggestive motions with their hands and bodies. And how about the commercials that were aired throughout the game? Morally speaking, several of them were just as bad as the halftime show, if not worse.

In my homily this morning I want to address the young people in particular, although my message has an application to everyone. You young men and women, after all, were the target audience of the show—and you were also the target audience of some of the most offensive commercials. Consequently, you need to know—and I think you deserve to know—what the producers of this trash really think of you!

Now I’m sure that if we questioned the people at MTV who were responsible for putting the program together, they would tell us that they have the greatest possible respect for young people—for teenagers and young adults alike. Those who designed the offensive commercials would no doubt say the same thing. My response to that is: What people say is far less important than what people do. As the old saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”

So, regardless of what they might tell you, based on what they DID that night, the people at MTV—along with Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, and some of the other performers and advertisers—actually gave you the following message:

You young people, in our estimation, are not subjects to be respected; you are objects to be used for our benefit—so that we can get rich; so that we can generate some much-needed publicity for ourselves.
In our opinion, you are no better than animals, no better than dogs in heat. And so, we will appeal to your base instincts. We will not appeal to your distinctively human qualities: your youthful idealism, your desire to give yourselves to others in service, your desire to make the world a better place. No way! We will appeal to your concupiscence, to your lust—because that’s the means by which we can manipulate you the easiest. How you’re affected by what we do is irrelevant to us. We don’t care if you do to your girlfriend what Justin did to Janet; we don’t care if you hurt one another emotionally or treat one another as playthings. When push comes to shove, we only care about ourselves.

That, my young friends, was the message they gave to you by their actions. They would probably never acknowledge it publicly, but it’s still the truth.

Now, in all fairness to these Super Bowl producers, performers, and advertisers, they are not the only ones in the world who look at other human beings in this way. This tendency to objectify and manipulate others is a phenomenon that’s found almost everywhere. But what we need to be clear about today is how incompatible this perspective is with the biblical understanding of the human person. Biblically speaking, human beings are not objects to be manipulated, they are subjects to be respected!

This, not coincidentally, is a lesson we learn from the 3 Scripture readings we just heard at this Mass. How providential it is that God has given them to us today. In the first, from 1 Samuel 26, David has the chance to kill King Saul, but he refuses to do so. Saul—without any justification—had been pursuing David for quite some time in order to kill him; but David refuses to retaliate against the king when he has the chance, because he recognizes that Saul is “the Lord’s anointed.” The truly Christian view is that every human being is “anointed” with the image of God from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. That’s why the Church opposes abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and every other attack on innocent human life. And that’s why we need to oppose those evils if we call ourselves Catholic Christians.

Our second reading from 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us of yet another reason why other people are to be respected: because Christ died for them, and wants to give them eternal life! That’s the implicit message of verse 49, where St. Paul writes, “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one [Jesus].”

This, by the way, is also the message of Mel Gibson’s movie on the Passion of Christ which debuts in theaters this Wednesday. Jesus died on the cross for EVERYONE—for Gentiles AND for Jews! (You mean Diane Sawyer doesn’t understand that?!!!) The Passion of Jesus Christ was NOT an anti-Semitic event! Quite oppositely, it was actually the most PRO-SEMITIC EVENT in the history of the world!

Finally, consider today’s Gospel text from Luke 6: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you . . . etc.” Let me tell you something, my brothers and sisters, if the people in Hollywood and at MTV are right, and human beings are simply objects to be used and manipulated, then it doesn’t matter what you do to others! You can hate your enemies as much as you want to; you can do to your girlfriend what Justin Timberlake did to Janet Jackson—and worse; you can take vengeance on others and curse your enemies, and do 1,001 other evils—it doesn’t matter!

On the other hand, if the biblical understanding of the human person is the right one, then we had better take these words of Jesus very seriously, as difficult as they might be to live out!

Every man and woman is created in the image of God and has an immortal soul, and we must treat them accordingly. We can’t let our raw emotions dictate our conduct toward them in difficult situations—as much as we might be tempted to. That’s what Jesus is telling us here.

All this having been said, you young people are now confronted with a very important question. It’s a question that all of us face, young and old—and it’s a question that we all answer, even if we’re not conscious of doing so. The answer we give ultimately determines the kind of person we become in this life. The question can be expressed in this way:

Who’s right—the people at MTV (and those who think as they do), or the people who wrote the Bible?

Which of those two groups has the proper understanding of the human person: the one that says human beings are objects to be manipulated for pleasure or profit, or the one that says human beings are subjects to be respected?

I take some encouragement from the fact that so many adults were upset with this year’s Super Bowl halftime show and with some of the commercials that aired during the course of the game. Perhaps more adults are finally realizing that there’s something radically wrong with MTV’s philosophy of the human person, and are ready to do something about it.

Well, better late than never.

May the young people of this parish—and this country—not wait so long.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

The Difference Between The Barren Bush And The Fruitful Tree

Ryan Hamilton; his wife Renee; his mother Sandra Hamilton; and Ryker on the day of the tragedy .

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 15, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Jeremiah 17: 5-8.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday 2004]

This past Christmas Day, 3-year-old Ryker Hamilton of Norfolk, Virginia got onto a boat in Honolulu, Hawaii—along with his parents, Ryan and Renee—to go on a whale-watching tour. It was supposed to be one of the highlights of a very special family vacation. And it was—until the boat they were on accidentally struck one of the whales they were observing. The force of the impact caused Ryan, who had Ryker in his arms at the time, to slip and fall backwards. Tragically, on the way down, Ryker’s head struck the rail of the ship, and the little boy died.

You might have seen this story on the news sometime during the week following Christmas. I know about the incident because a young couple originally from Westerly—Joe and Meghan—are close friends of the Hamilton family. They and the Hamiltons currently live in the same neighborhood in Virginia.

A few days after the accident, a distraught Meghan called me on the phone, looking for some spiritual comfort and guidance. Giving it, as you might imagine, was not easy. The death of a young child is a senseless, horrible tragedy, and those who have suffered the loss need to grieve deeply. I didn’t want to interfere with that process in Meghan. Grieving is painful and emotionally draining, but it’s also healthy. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.

The truths of faith are not meant to eliminate the grieving process. We need to be clear about that. But they can—and should—sustain us in the midst of our grief and help us to pass through it.

On that note, when Meghan called me the other day, she told me that Ryker had recently been baptized.

Knowing how important Baptism is, I began to speak to her about the power and meaning of this sacrament. I reminded Meghan that from the moment he was baptized, Ryker was an adopted son of God, a member of the Church—and an heir to the kingdom of heaven! And since he was obviously too young to have committed a mortal sin, I told her that we can trust, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he is now there, with Jesus his Savior, in eternal glory!

When baptized adults die, the Church speaks in terms of “hope”: we hope the person died in the state of grace.

We recognize the fact that they might not have, because they were beyond the age of reason and were capable of committing a mortal sin.

But infants like Ryker don’t have that capability. Consequently, when they die after baptism, the Church speaks in much more confident terms. Beyond any reasonable doubt, we are to trust that they are with the Lord.

For example, here’s one of the funeral prayers for a baptized child: “Lord in our grief we call upon your mercy: open your ears to our prayers, and one day unite us again with this child, who, we firmly trust, already enjoys eternal life in your kingdom.”

I also shared with Meghan some of the things I had said at the recent funeral of 2-year-old Travis Shawn from our parish (who died suddenly just a few weeks before Ryker), and I sent her a copy of the tape of Travis’ funeral Mass.

When she was finished listening to it, she sent me an e-mail. I received it a few days ago. In that letter, she made reference to what I had said at the Mass—and what I had said to her on the phone—about heaven. She wrote, “I can’t even begin to imagine heaven. These little children that have gone before us are in a place where they will never suffer, cry or feel pain. [That thought] is what helps me get through this. They will never be in harms way. [I believe] they are little saints. At least I know someone upstairs personally now who is watching over me and praying for me all the time.”

Meghan opened her heart to the truth—the deeper, spiritual truth; consequently, in the midst of her grief, she is now living as a fruitful tree and not as a barren bush. At least, that’s what her e-mail indicates.

Here, of course, I’m making reference to our first reading—that powerful text from Jeremiah 17: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth. [But] blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. He is like a tree planted beside the waters, that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”

Notice in this passage that both the bush and the tree are forced to deal with heat and drought. Outwardly, their experience is almost exactly the same. The decisive difference, of course, is that the tree has stretched out its roots to a nearby stream of water, where it finds nourishment and refreshment in the midst of the oppressive weather. The barren bush, on the other hand, has no water around it. Hence it gets no nourishment, and no relief.

Now every analogy breaks down somewhere along the line (no analogy, in other words, is perfect in every way); and such is the case with this one. I say that because neither the bush nor the tree “chooses” to be where it is. The bush does not make a personal decision to be in the desert; the tree does not choose to live near the stream. Bushes and trees do not have free will—they do not have the power of choice. But we do!

And there’s the difference!

That’s not to say that we can always control the “weather” of our lives (as much as we might like to!). As Meghan and the Hamiltons know, the heat and the drought can come upon us suddenly and unexpectedly.

But we do have the power to choose where we will experience those realities! We can choose to experience the heat and drought in the desert as barren bushes, or we can choose to experience the heat and drought by the stream as fruitful trees. We can even choose how close to the stream we’re planted.

Why is it, for example, that some people are better at dealing with temptation than other people are? Is it because they have better genes? Is it just good luck?

No! The spiritually strong are in that condition because they’ve planted themselves very close to the stream of God’s grace! They’ve made God and their Catholic faith the top priorities in their lives.

And so when the “heat” of temptation comes—be it the temptation to anger, or lust, or one of the other seven deadly sins—they immediately draw on that grace to overcome it. They draw it in through their spiritual “roots.” They’re not perfect at dealing with temptation—no one is; but they’re much better at it than they would otherwise be if they didn’t take their faith so seriously.

So obviously the crucial question of the day is this one: What am I doing to “plant” myself close to the stream? What am I doing to plant myself—and to keep myself—close to the river of God’s grace?

At the end of her letter, Meghan shared with me one of the things she has started doing: she’s begun to pray with her husband. Praying with others—or alone—is, of course, one of the primary ways of staying close to the stream of God’s grace. Meghan wrote, “[This tragic experience of losing Ryker] has transformed people around me. Joe and I have been trying to read a passage of the Bible every night before we go to bed. Sometimes I fall asleep too early—but the point is that I’m trying to show Joe who Jesus really is. He may even convert to Catholicism. That’s good news, isn’t it?!!!”

Yes, Meghan, it is good news. But that’s precisely the type of good fruit Jeremiah tells us we should expect to see when we make the effort to plant ourselves close to the stream: “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord . . . he is like a tree planted beside the waters . . . in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”

O Lord, our God, by the power of your grace, help Meghan and all of us to be fruitful trees in the many times of drought that we face during our lives. This we ask through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

'Cheaper By the Dozen': Not Your Typical Hollywood Movie

Cast of 'Cheaper by the Dozen'

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 1, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13.)

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

It’s definitely not your typical Hollywood movie.

That was the thought that crossed my mind the other day after I saw “Cheaper by the Dozen,” the new film starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt.

Martin plays a man named Tom Baker. Tom has 12 children (an even dozen)—and, amazingly, he has them all with the same wife! That is definitely noteworthy, since most couples in movies today don’t stay together long enough to have 2 children, let alone 12!)

When the story begins, Tom and Kate Baker, along with 11 of their 12 children, are living in a small town in Illinois. Their life together is understandably chaotic (with that many children, how could it not be?!), and this chaos makes for some very funny moments early in the movie. But in spite of the conflicts, the sibling rivalries and the other domestic disasters they have to deal with, the Bakers are happy. And their happiness is clearly rooted in the fact that Tom and Kate have made many personal, loving sacrifices for their children.

He’s a successful Division 3 football coach; she’s an aspiring writer who’s just finished her first book. But their careers take second place to their family—at least at the beginning of the film. And the amazing thing is, this quality of putting family first is portrayed as something positive!

Do you see why I found this movie refreshingly different?

In fact, it’s only when Tom and Kate begin to let their selfish desires control them: it’s only then that serious problems develop—problems which threaten to tear their family apart. Tom ends up taking a big coaching job at his old alma mater, against the wishes of most of his children. He does it for himself—because this is his “dream job.” So yes, he ends up making a lot more money and moving his family into a big house in a plush, suburban neighborhood—but no one under his roof is very happy. In fact, most of his children are miserable.

Kate, on the other hand, finishes her first book, and a company agrees to publish it. With one stipulation: they tell her she has to leave her family immediately and go on a two week promotional tour. She struggles with the decision, because she knows deep down inside that her children probably won’t behave very well if she’s away for that length of time. And yet, when all is said and done, she goes.

Not surprisingly, her worst fears become reality! And that’s when some of the funniest scenes in the movie occur, with poor Tom trying to keep the house and family in order while coaching his football team at the same time.

I won’t tell you how it’s all resolved (in case you haven’t seen the film), but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the ending. Suffice it to say, both Tom and Kate come back to their senses.

Now I’m not normally in the business of promoting movies from the pulpit, but I will recommend this one (except for very young children). I’ll recommend it for all the reasons I just mentioned, plus these 3:
First of all, “Cheaper by the Dozen” portrays children as a great blessing. And it casts a positive light on large families. That’s an extremely rare phenomenon these days! In the modern media couples who have more than 2 children are usually made out to be irresponsible oddballs (at best!). However, in this film, Tom and Kate Baker are good, generous, caring people, who find parenthood deeply rewarding.

Believe it or not, the oddballs of the movie are their 2 materialistic neighbors—a couple that has only one child for purely selfish reasons.

Secondly, the moral tone of this film, generally speaking, is very good—the one glaring exception being the reference to a vasectomy at the very beginning. I thought it was marvelous, for example, that Tom and Kate would not allow their oldest daughter Nora to stay in the same room with her boyfriend when the two of them visited. You see, Nora and her boyfriend were living together, and Tom and Kate did not approve. Well, hallelujah! As parents, their attitude was, “We can’t stop you from sleeping together when you’re back at your place, but you’re not going to do that here!”

Can you imagine this in a Hollywood movie?


And finally, it’s a question of love. This movie, you see, glorifies real love (which is why I’m focusing on the film in this homily): it glorifies the kind of love we heard about in today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians 13. And that’s such a shift from what we normally encounter in the modern media, where love is often used as a synonym for sex, selfishness and self-gratification.

For example, St. Paul says here that real love is patient. When the family frog jumped into the scrambled eggs at breakfast one day and caused a disaster in the kitchen, Tom and Kate Baker had to practice patience—and it wasn’t easy, as you might imagine!

Real love “does not seek its own interests,” St. Paul tells us in this text. Tom Baker forgot that when he took his dream coaching job at his old alma mater. Thankfully, for the sake of his family, he remembered it before the end of the movie, and he went back to seeking their interests first.

St. Paul says that real love “does not brood over injury” (which basically means that real love is a forgiving love). Tom and his oldest son Charlie (a high school teenager) were in conflict throughout the story—even before the family moved out of their old home. They said a number of unkind things to each other. And when Charlie wasn’t able to fit in at his new high school, his anger and resentment toward his dad grew even deeper.

For this relationship to be repaired, there needed to be forgiveness—lots of forgiveness—on both sides.

Neither Tom nor Charlie could brood over the injury the other had caused.

And how about this one: “[Love] does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth”? When Tom and Kate Baker refused to allow their daughter to sleep with her boyfriend at their house, their daughter didn’t “feel” like her parents loved her. But they did! They loved her enough to tell her the truth; they loved her enough to try to keep her from committing a serious sin. (Please remember that, young people, when your parents lovingly say, “No” to you after you ask for their permission to do something that’s wrong, or something they strongly disapprove of!)

Now if there is one negative aspect to this movie, it’s that we don’t find anything in it about the Source. Yes, we see real love exemplified and even glorified, but we’re not told anything about “where” this love comes from.

Of course, those of us who have read the four Gospels and the First Letter of John know the answer anyway. We know that the true Source of all genuine, real love is Jesus Christ! As it says in 1 John 4:8, “God is love.”

The love that St. Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 13 is actually the selfless, patient, forgiving, self-sacrificial love of Jesus. It’s the love our Lord showed us when he walked the face of this earth, and, most especially, when died on the Cross for our sins.

Consequently, if we want real love to fill our hearts, and to be present in our families and other relationships, then we need to work very hard at cultivating a deep, personal relationship with “the Source.” Once a week at Mass, although essential, will not be sufficient. Our personal communication and interaction with Jesus has to go far beyond that.

Is it worth the effort? I believe it is. And if you need further proof of that, just consider the core message of “Cheaper by the Dozen.” You see, when all is said and done, the core message of this film is that real love, when it’s put into practice, reaps tremendous rewards—even in this life!

When they practiced real love, the Bakers were a happy family, in spite of their difficult and sometimes chaotic lifestyle. On the other hand, when they failed to practice real love, their lives were depressing and miserable—even though they had lots more money, and lived in a beautiful house, in a ritzy, high-class neighborhood.

The presence of real love made all the difference.

May all of us make the daily decision to cultivate a deep, personal relationship with the Source of this love, Jesus Christ, so that real love will make a lasting, positive difference in our lives.