Sunday, September 30, 2018

God’s ‘Vantage Point’—and Ours

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 30, 2018, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 19:8-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-48.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2018]

Today’s readings brought to mind a Dennis Quaid movie that came out in 2008 called “Vantage Point.”  I’m sure some of you have seen it.  This fictitious story takes place in Salamanca, Spain, and concerns an assassination attempt that’s made there on President Henry Ashton of the United States (played by actor William Hurt).  The President goes to Spain to attend a summit on global terrorism—and he ends up being a victim of it.  As he’s giving his opening speech to a large crowd in Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, he’s shot.  Then a bomb goes off in the plaza a few seconds later.  As you might imagine, total chaos ensues, and the question immediately becomes, Who did this?  Who’s responsible for this horrible crime?   

The audience doesn’t find out the answer to that question until the end of the film, after the events are replayed several times—each time from a different person’s vantage point (hence the name of the film).  Dennis Quaid plays a secret service agent assigned to protect the president.  We see the assassination attempt first through his eyes—from his vantage point as one of the president’s bodyguards.  Then we see it through the eyes of other witnesses.  Not surprisingly, each person’s vantage point is a bit different, and as such each provides a different insight on who’s responsible for the attack.

I thought of this movie when I reflected on the three Scripture readings the Church presents us with this weekend, because in each of them there’s a contrast between God’s “vantage point” and the typical vantage point of human beings like you and me. 

In today’s first reading from Numbers 11, for example, Moses gets some help dealing with the Israelites in the desert after the Exodus, who are constantly complaining and driving him crazy!  God tells Moses to assemble seventy of the elders of the people—which he does. Then the Lord anoints these men with “some of the spirit” that Moses possessed, and they begin to act and speak prophetically.  Well two of the men who should have been there with the group—Eldad and Medad—weren’t, yet they were also blessed to receive this special anointing from the Lord.

Which infuriated Joshua when he heard about it!  From his VANTAGE POINT these two guys shouldn’t have been prophesying because they weren’t with the group.  I suppose you could say that Joshua had the attitude, “You snooze, you lose!  You gentlemen weren’t there with the others, so you don’t deserve to receive what they received.”

Moses then shares with Joshua GOD’S VANTAGE POINT on the matter, which basically is, “Leave them alone.  What they’re doing is good.  I would like it if everyone spoke and acted like a prophet.”

The Lord, of course, has that same desire today in 2018.  In fact, when we’re anointed with chrism at our baptism we’re actually given a share in the prophetic office of Christ—which means we’re called to witness to our faith publicly by our words and by our deeds.  That means it should be extremely easy for people to recognize the fact that we’re Catholic.  If they can’t—if we speak and act like everybody else—then we’re obviously not living prophetically.

That brings us to our second reading, where we have this lengthy diatribe against the rich, courtesy of St. James:  “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.  Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, etc.”

After reading this, it should be pretty clear that GOD’S VANTAGE POINT on money and wealth is a lot different than the typical human vantage point on those realities.  Although here we need to make the important distinction that’s made in Scripture.  Every once in a while you’ll hear someone say, “The Bible tells us that money is the root of all evil.”  That is not true.  What the Bible says is that the love of money is the root of all evil.

And it’s that love—which can very easily enter the human heart—that St. James is railing against in this passage.

Then we have this gospel text from Mark 9, which is filled with contrasts between God’s vantage point and the typical human one.  The vantage point of the Apostles concerning this man who was expelling demons in the name of Jesus is similar to the vantage point of Joshua with respect to Eldad and Medad.  The apostles say to our Lord, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Jesus then responds with the divine vantage point on the issue.  Our Lord says, “Do not prevent him … for whoever is not against us is for us.”

These words of Jesus should have a practical effect on our lives today.  They should affect how we look at—and how we treat—non-Catholic Christians.  Actually these words should affect how we look at—and how we treat—every other person who inhabits planet earth at the present time, regardless of what religion they are.

Then Jesus reminds his apostles (and us) that from God’s vantage point little things done out of love for him matter—a lot!  From the normal human vantage point, of course, little things matter much less than big things do.  That’s why so many people these days do outlandish things in public in order to draw attention to themselves and have their 15 minutes of fame.  They want to do something really big—that gets noticed!

Finally, Jesus makes the assertion that from God’s vantage point leading another person into sin knowingly and willingly is itself a serious sin: a sin that’s worthy of what you might call a “millstone necktie”: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Here I can’t help but think about those bad priests and others in our society who’ve sexually or physically abused young people.  That kind of behavior is definitely deserving of the kind of punishment that Jesus talks about here—which is why we need to pray for abusers as well as for the abused.  For the abused, we need to petition God for healing and peace.  But for the abusers we also need to pray.  We need to pray that they will feel remorse for what they’ve done, and sincerely repent of their sins, and do as much penance as they can for the rest of their lives—so that they don’t die with those millstones tied around their necks (spiritually speaking).  Because if they do, there’s only one place for them to go.

And it’s not good.

As I hopefully have made clear in this homily, God’s vantage point and our vantage point are not always the same.  One of the challenges of life, therefore, is to try to find God’s vantage point on things—all things—and to live our lives accordingly.  We do that, basically, by reading and getting to know the Bible and the Catechism.  In fact, that’s what the Bible and the Catechism are: they’re the written expression of God’s vantage point (his perspective) on all the important matters of this earthly life—and of eternity.

So don’t ignore them; don’t leave them on your bookshelves collecting dust.  Read them—often!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

What’s going on inside of us is ultimately more important than what’s going on outside of us.

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 23, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9: 30-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2018]

In early 2015, I made reference in a Sunday homily to a movie that I had just seen, entitled “Unbroken”.  The movie was about the late Louis Zamperini, who was a distance runner on the United States Olympic team of 1936.  But that was not the aspect of his life that the film focused on.  Zamperini also served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the Second World War as a bombardier.  Well on May 27, 1943, his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, where he spent the next 47 days on a life raft desperately trying to stay alive.  He was finally rescued.  Unfortunately it was by the Japanese, who promptly sent him to a prison camp until the end of the war in 1945.  There he was beaten and tortured mercilessly, especially by one particular guard, nicknamed “the Bird,” who eventually made it onto General Douglas MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.

The film focused on Zamperini’s experience on the ocean for 47 days, and then in the prison camp—and it ended with him being freed and coming home at the end of the war.

In that homily I gave in 2015 I said that “Unbroken” was a good movie—as far as it went.   But it definitely didn’t go far enough.  Just before the credits rolled at the end of the film a brief epilogue was posted, and in that epilogue it said that Louis Zamperini forgave those who had treated him so horribly during the war, and that he followed through on the promise he made to God when he was floating on that raft in the Pacific: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”

But the viewer was left wondering: How exactly did he do that?  Not only, ‘How did he serve God?’ but also, ‘How did he deal with his anger and with the other negative emotions he must have experienced after all those months in captivity?’  Zamperini’s captors treated him like an animal!  It couldn’t have been easy to forgive them.  It had to have been an incredible struggle.

The film unfortunately did not address any of that—and that was sad. 

But thankfully the sequel did!  The sequel, entitled “Unbroken: Path to Redemption” was released just over a week ago.  I saw it at Showcase Cinema in Warwick the other day.

It picked up, not surprisingly, where the first film ended, with Louis returning home from the war.  He came back, as so many of our soldiers do—as a hero, but a mentally and emotionally wounded one.  In trying to deal with the flashbacks and nightmares and anger that he experienced on his return (what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), Louis Zamperini turned to alcohol, which nearly destroyed his marriage and family.  For a long time he refused to get help, denying that he had a problem.  His wife finally persuaded him one night to attend a Billy Graham crusade with her—a crusade that was being held near their home in Los Angeles.  (By that time Louis had also completely turned away from God, despite the promise he had made to the Lord to serve him.)  

But he begrudgingly agreed to go.  And it was there that he had a conversion experience that changed his life—something like the experience the future St. Paul had on the road to Damascus 2,000 years ago.  At the end of the movie, they showed footage of an interview with the real Louis Zamperini, and during that interview he said that after he gave his life to Christ at the Billy Graham crusade he never had another nightmare about the war, and he never abused alcohol again.

He even was eventually able to forgive the Japanese soldiers who had tortured him during the war—including “the Bird”.

I mention Louis Zamperini’s story today because I think it illustrates a truth that we find in all three of our readings this weekend: What’s going on inside of us is ultimately more important than what’s going on outside of us.

On the outside, Louis Zamperini experienced many horrors during his time in that Japanese prison camp—no doubt about it.  And that was bad enough!  But what was even worse was what was happening to him at the same time on the inside.  As he was going through all these negative experiences, he was being filled with anger and bitterness and hatred (which is certainly understandable).  But those things wreaked all kinds of havoc in his life after he returned home at the end of the war.  Even when circumstances became good for him on the outside, he was still a mess on the inside.

It wasn’t until he dealt with that disorder within himself (in his mind, heart and soul) that he found peace.

Today’s readings remind us of sins and attitudes that can have the same destructive effects in our lives if we don’t deal with them properly.  Our first reading from Wisdom 2, for example, illustrates the destructive power of envy.  Envy, remember, is a lot worse than jealousy.  The envious person says, “I want what you have, and I’m prepared to destroy you to get it!”  Listen to these words again:
The wicked say: Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. … With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test … Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.

That’s envy.  Those words of course were written many years before the crucifixion and death of Jesus, but they express almost perfectly the attitude our Lord’s enemies had toward him. 

Well that very same attitude can also get inside of us, if we’re not careful.  And this is especially true in the United States right now, where envy is ingrained in our culture.  For example, many people run their businesses today on envy (with a desire to destroy the competition), and where envy has become the accepted norm in political campaigning.  Let’s be honest about it, if you’re running for public office these days against an incumbent, it’s no longer enough to tell voters your position on an issue, and how your position differs from your opponent’s.  Those days are long gone.  Now you’re expected to tear down the person you’re running against!  You want what your opponent has, and to get it you try to discredit and destroy your opponent in the eyes of as many voters as possible.  Some call that “the politics of personal destruction”.  I prefer to use a more theological term: “political envy”—because envy is really what’s at the root of it all.

And it operates in both parties.

Then we have St. James in our second reading reminding us of the dangers of jealousy and selfish ambition and emotions (what he calls “passions”) that are out of control.  When these things get inside of us, they almost always lead to conflicts and wars outside of us.  It reminds me of a famous quote of Bishop Sheen’s.  Sheen once wrote:
There can be no world peace unless there is soul peace.  World wars are only projections of the conflicts waged inside the souls of modern men, for nothing happens in the external world that has not first happened within a soul.
Which brings us to the gospel reading from Mark 9, where we hear about an argument the apostles were having amongst themselves one day about who was the greatest.  That argument, which manifested itself “on the outside,” was the result of pride (and maybe even a little envy) on the inside—on the inside of each one of them.  And it was that attitude of pride that Jesus addressed when he said to the Twelve, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

What’s going on inside of us is ultimately more important than what’s going on outside of us.

Today we should pray for the grace to recognize whatever is “going on” right now in us!  Whatever is going on in us that needs to be addressed—especially our sins and the hurts that are often at the root of those sins.  Recall that Louis Zamperini’s sins of anger and hatred, etc., were rooted in the hundreds of hurts he had experienced in that Japanese prison camp.  That kind of thing can happen to any one of us.

And once we recognize what’s going on in us, we need to pray for the grace to deal with it effectively: by getting the counsel, or the guidance, or the medical help we need—or simply by making a good confession.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Time to be Silent, and a Time to Speak

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 16, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 50: 5-9; Psalm 116: 1-9; James 2: 14-18; Mark 8: 27-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2018]

The rock group, the Byrds, recorded a song many years ago entitled “Turn, Turn, Turn”.  Some of you may remember it.  By the way, if you do remember it, that means you’re really old—like me (because it was released way back in 1965)!  It went to #1 on the Billboard chart that year—which was somewhat of a surprise, given the fact that the song is based on a passage from the Bible: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8.  The passage reads as follows:
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to give birth, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

Now I wanted to use the Byrds’ musical rendition of that passage to begin my homily today, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t do it because the line from Ecclesiastes 3 that I wanted to focus on in my homily was left out of the song.  The song begins (don’t worry I won’t sing it; I’ll spare you the penance and just read the words!):

To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn), and a time for every purpose under heaven:A time to be born, a time to die; A time to plant, a time to reap; A time to kill, a time to heal; A time to laugh, a time to weep …
And on and on it goes through all the different “times” Ecclesiastes mentions in the Bible passage, except these two: “A time to be silent, and a time to speak.”  That line was left out of the song’s lyrics. 

Why?  I don’t know.  I wish I could tell you.  Maybe it was left out for the very practical reason that it would have disrupted the rhythm of the song.  One line had to be left out for the song to flow properly, and perhaps they chose that one at random.  But regardless of what the reason was, I find meaning in the fact that it was eliminated.  To me it’s a sign of a big spiritual problem we have in our modern world (a problem that we’ve had at least since 1965 when this song came out):

We’ve forgotten the value, and the importance, and the necessity—of silence!

(I think that’s one of the reasons why Eucharistic adoration has become so popular.  People find refuge there from the insanity of their daily lives.)

Let’s face it, we live in a world of constant noise and almost endless chatter.  For many people, the time to talk is “almost all the time”—which leaves very little left for silence.  And social media has only aggravated the problem.  If certain people are not texting, or emailing, or tweeting, or talking on the phone, or surfing the internet, or listening to their radio or iPod, or watching TV or a movie—then they’re probably sleeping!  Perhaps the best modern examples of how little we value silence today are the 24-hour cable news channels.  All talk; all the time—and usually very loud!  Consequently very little dialogue and listening actually takes place on these networks, because the hosts and guests are usually too busy screaming at each other—and saying things that they will later regret (or at least should regret!).

Talk is sometimes necessary, of course—but at other times silence is just as necessary.  One person who learned this lesson—unfortunately in a very painful way—was Simon Peter.  And we see evidence of that in today’s gospel story from Mark 8.  As we heard a few moments ago,  as Jesus and his apostles were travelling one day to the city of Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel, our Lord decided to ask his 12 close friends what you might call the “bottom line question”—the question from Jesus that every human person eventually must answer: “Who do you say that I am?”—“You’ve just told me who everybody else says that I am; you’ve just told me what the current ‘polling data’ is concerning me and my identity.  But what about you?  Where do you gentlemen stand on the issue?  If someone said to you, ‘Who is Jesus of Nazareth?’ how would you respond?”

Peter immediately gives the answer that every Christian echoes in his or her heart: “You are the Christ.”  In other words, “You are the Messiah—the Anointed one of God—the one our people have been awaiting for centuries!”

There is a time to speak Ecclesiastes 3 tells us, and for Peter this was one of those times.

He couldn’t have done it any better; he couldn’t have stated it any more clearly than he did.

If only he had left it there.

Jesus then begins to tell Peter and the other apostles what kind of Messiah he will be—which was definitely NOT the kind of Messiah they were expecting!  The Jews thought that their Messiah would be a great earthly king like King David, who would bring back the glory days of Israel by restoring the nation to its former greatness.

They thought the Messiah was coming to establish an earthly kingdom for one small country.

But Jesus indicates to them that he’s come not just to save Israel; he’s come to save the whole world, by offering his life as a sacrifice for sin—all sin.

Peter didn’t understand that—which is completely understandable, given the common Jewish expectation of the time.  But instead of remaining silent and reflecting on it for a while, or taking Jesus aside and saying to him, “Lord, I don’t understand.  Please help me.”, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him: “No way, Jesus, this can’t happen to you!  You’re the Messiah; you’re the Son of David who’s going to rise to power, and assume your throne, and get rid of the Romans, and make us the number one nation in the world again!”

Jesus then turns on Peter—the man he would soon make the leader of his Church—and says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Why Satan?

Because at that moment, without realizing it, Peter was saying to Jesus exactly what Satan would have wanted him to say!

Satan knew that without the cross there would be no resurrection—and consequently no salvation for the human race!

He knew that without the death of Jesus we could not be forgiven for our sins; he knew that without the death of Jesus we could not be reconciled to God the Father. So he used the words of Peter at Caesarea Philippi to try to tempt Jesus to give up his mission of dying on the cross to save the world—which, by the way, is also what he had tried to do at the very beginning of our Lord’s ministry, with the 3 temptations he threw at Jesus in the desert.  Those 3 temptations were all attempts to get Jesus to avoid the cross.

Ecclesiastes 3 tells us there is a time to be silent—and for Peter this was definitely one of those times.  But he wasn’t silent.  I can imagine Peter walking away from Jesus that day and saying to himself, “Peter, why oh why didn’t you keep your mouth shut?  Why did you feel like you had to say that stuff to Jesus?”

Well the good news is that by the time the Gospel of Mark was written, Peter had learned the lesson about the importance of silence—and he was putting that lesson into practice.  This is something we also see in this story.

Did you notice that something was missing from Mark’s account?  In Mark we have Peter proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah followed immediately by our Lord’s prediction of his passion.  In Matthew’s version of this same story, after Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, our Lord says to him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.   Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

It’s very interesting—the part of the story in which Peter is extolled for his God-inspired insight; and given universal authority in the Church; and made, in effect, the very first pope—that section of the story which makes Peter look really good—is completely eliminated from Mark’s account!

Mark is totally silent about it, which probably means that Peter himself was silent about it. As those of you who took our Bible study class last year will remember, many Scripture scholars are convinced that St. Mark was actually St. Peter’s scribe—which means that the Gospel that bears Mark’s name is actually the Gospel that St. Peter preached in Rome.  He either dictated it directly to Mark, or he had Mark follow him around and take notes while he preached.

So apparently this is the way Peter told the story—or at least it’s the way he wanted the story to be told.

Now you might say, “But, Fr. Ray, that makes no sense.  Why would St. Peter be silent about that part—the part of the story that makes him look really, really good?”

To which I would respond, “That’s precisely the reason he left it out!”  At that later point in his life, Peter was a man of deep and profound humility, who wanted the focus to be always on Jesus Christ and his saving work, and not on himself.  So, in all likelihood, he either didn’t mention that part of the story when he preached about the event—consequently Mark never wrote it down in the first place; or Mark did write it down initially when he took notes, but Peter had him remove it from the final version of the text.  It was an event that God wanted Peter to be silent about—and he knew it.  No tweets; no emails; no Facebook posts!  It was Matthew’s call to share that other part of the story with the rest of the world.  And he did.

Today we pray to be like Peter in his later years: the Peter who had learned (sometimes painfully) the lesson of Ecclesiastes 3 about speaking at the right time and being silent at the right time.  In fact, I’ll give you a short prayer that you can say every day for that intention—and I’ll end my homily with this prayer:

“Lord, give me the grace to speak when you want me to speak, and the grace to be silent when you want me to be silent.  And give me the wisdom to know the difference.”