Monday, February 13, 2023

The Sermon on the Mount: Radical Inclusion for Radical Conversion

 This is my homily at St. John's Seminary on Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time February 13, 2023

“If you trust in God, you too shall live.”  

Before Jesus delivered his magnificent Sermon on the Mount, St. Matthew tells us that Jesus first saw the crowds. Then he climbed the mountain and sat down. His disciples came to him and then he began to teach them. As we read through this sermon—which takes up three entire chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel—we should always keep in mind how it began. Jesus saw the crowd. He saw them truly. He saw the complications of their lives, their sins, their struggles. He saw their fears. He saw their hearts. He saw all of this, and so He climbed the mountain and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them. 

They came to him. They all came to him. This is what you might call the radical inclusivity of Jesus. He invites everyone to live a new life. He invites everyone to ascend the mountain and to experience radical conversion. He is radically inclusive because no one is excluded from the possibility of radical conversion. The radical inclusivity of Jesus is always ordered to the Universal Call to Holiness. 

Jesus invites everyone up into a world previously unimaginable. He invites us into a life of beatitude. The radical inclusion of Jesus is that the life of grace can reach and can transform every situation, every vice, every sin, no matter how deeply rooted or impossible the situation might seem. When Jesus saw the crowd, he saw everyone. Jesus excludes no one from the opportunity to have a radical conversion because he wills all men to be saved. 

A perpetual danger to the Christian life is the attempt to reduce it through, what St. Paul calls today, “the wisdom of this age;” a worldly wisdom that would empty the Cross of its power. Worldly wisdom—the wisdom of this age—reduces Christianity to a club instead of a new way of life. The Sermon on the Mount invites usinvites everyone—to become part of something new. The Sermon on the Mount invites us to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Worldly wisdom—the wisdom of this age—will always reject and dismiss as impossible, such a noble calling. It will see the Sermon on the Mount as too demanding, too impossible, and too cruel. Worldly wisdom—in its version of total inclusivity—will always wind up excluding some from ascending the mountain with Jesus.  

Worldly wisdom will conclude that one person’s anger or another person’s lust runs too deep for them to be converted. Worldly wisdom concludes that some situations are too complicated for grace to work. Worldly wisdom will teach that depending solely upon God is too risky a proposition. The radical inclusion of worldly wisdom only invites people to be more worldly, more distant from God, and, ultimately, more excluded. The radical inclusion of the Gospel is that of radical conversion. To be converted from the old world of sin and death into the new world of beatitude. 

If we read through the Sermon of the Mount from beginning to end (which I recommend we all do regularly), we will immediately think of complicated pastoral situations. What about the divorced and remarried? What about the person living an unchaste life? What about the person deeply wounded by someone—how can she possibly forgive? How am I not going to be anxious about tomorrow, or seek first the Kingdom of God? 

These complicated situations—and there have always been complicated situations—can seem like insurmountable objections to the Sermon on the Mount. How will a new generation of priests preach the Gospel into these situations? It seems that two pitfalls should be avoided. They both arise from a deadly worldly wisdom.  

The first would be to underestimate the life of grace. The priest of our time must be convinced of the transforming power of grace. No situation is so complicated, no temptation so strong, no sin so deeply implanted that grace cannot radically transform it. This, of course, begins with the priest himself becoming more and more radically transformed by grace.  

The second pitfall would be to live our preaching as though it were merely a sort of trench warfare, a debate about issues, but detached from any sort of love for the people to whom we are sent. This kind of preaching makes us sound as though we are concerned only with winning debates rather than winning souls; with showing people how clever we are rather than showing them something beautiful to love. When Jesus saw the crowds, he climbed the mountain. He drew people up to show them something better. He drew them up to show them what is possible. Priestly preaching shows others that there is a better way; shows others that the life of beatitude is open to them. Priestly preaching helps others to discover the splendor of truth and helps them to be set free by that truth. Priests must have hearts like the Good Shepherd. When our Good Shepherd saw the crowds, he went up the mountain to show them something beautiful so that they could be radically converted by what they saw and heard.  

The priest must always have that same joyful, patient, confident, and tranquil trust in the Truth. There is nothing confronting us today that Jesus did not see on the day he saw that crowd. In any battle, the advantage belongs to the one who holds the high ground. Therefore, we should always draw people up to the lofty heights of the Sermon on the Mount. 

Recently, as I read through the Sermon on the Mount, something I never noticed before struck me. At the conclusion of the sermon, Matthew tells us that Jesus came back down the mountain. Immediately, a leper approached Jesus. If anyone felt excluded in society, it would have been this man. But somehow, he is moved to go to Jesus. The man says to Jesus, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” And, as we all know, Jesus says, “I do will it. Be made clean.” And immediately, the man was cured. 

This man becomes like a key to understanding the entire Sermon on the Mount. No matter what our affliction, no matter what our sin, no matter what complicated situations we find ourselves in, Jesus can be trusted. If we go to him, he will change our life for the better. He will include us . . . by changing us. He will heal. He will forgive. He will give what is needed for a totally new way of life. All we need to do is trust him. The man with leprosy approached Jesus with confidence, and he was given new life. No one is excluded from the invitation to the life of beatitude. And the life of beatitude is found only in Jesus Christ. There is no beatitude apart from Jesus Christ. 

The greatest challenge confronting the Church at this particular moment in time is not about one particular moral issue or about particular pastoral approaches. The great challenge is lack of faith. Is Jesus Christ trustworthy? The great challenge is whether we trust him enough to build our house upon the rock of his word or whether we will build on the changing sands of worldly wisdom. Do we trust him? Do we believe him? Do we? 

Beatitude is bestowed upon those who trust Jesus. The Eucharist is given to those who trust Jesus. New life is given to those who trust Jesus. The leper’s situation seemed impossible. His condition seemed beyond healing. He seemed destined to isolation, shame, and death. But he trusted Jesus and was saved. The priest must be a man who looks with sympathy on every person—and through his preaching and teaching—leads them up the mountain so that they can see beautiful things, be converted, and become blessed. The world needs priests who can look with love at the crowds and announce to them the same good news that the leper discovered.  A good news that is so simple, beautiful, and filled with grace. A good news that is good news for all the people.  A good news that—when accepted—brings about radical conversion and new life. All we have to do is trust it. This good news is the Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And as Sirach concisely put it: If you trust God, you [too] shall live.” Put your trust in Jesus Christ. That is what the whole world—everyone included—needs to hear. And that is what her future priests need to preach.  

Monday, November 28, 2022

Advent: To See Ourselves and Others with Mercy and with Hope

Homily on the First Monday of Advent

I don't post very much these days, but here is a homily for the First Monday of Advent that I preached at Mass today at the seminary. Hope it is helpful to someone.

The other evening, I was watching a World Cup match with a priest friend of mine who is 80 years old. He leaned in towards the TV to read aloud a quote that appeared on the screen. “You Can Be Anything .”  He said, “That’s a lie.”  

Even though it is a lie, marketing experts are bright enough to know something about the human heart. They know that the human heart has infinite desires. Every human heart desires to be more, to possess more, to live more.  And every human heart feels deep within itself the incapacity to fulfill those desires 

The world, the flesh and the devil all try to capitalize upon these desires of oursThey tell us that “You can be anythingor, you can do whatever you want.” It goes right back to the Garden: “You can be just like God.” As we all know, we cannot be anything we want to be.  

But the desires of the heart are still relentless and restless. Advent affords us an opportunity to turn our attention to the crying out of our heart. To pay attention to that ache that exists within each one of us. The ache that comes from longing for fulfillment, but always feeling incapable of achieving it.  

Advent does not tell us we can be anything. But it reminds us that we CAN be what we were made to be. Advent is a season of memory. It invites us—once again—to remember that we were made to be the friends of God. We were made to have union with Him. The Devil, the World, and the Flesh all do their best to distract us from this truth. They cloud our memory and leave us grasping at straws. Advent begs us to remember. To remember that the answer to our heart’s infinite desires is none other than the infinite God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. And that Christ alone can heal the human heart so that it can attain the fulfillment of its desires. 

We all begin Advent wondering, “What should I do?” “What should I do to make this Advent a good Advent?” I’d like to propose one possibility. It is to imitate the centurion in today’s Gospel. He had a look upon reality that was true. He felt things deeply and he acted boldly. 

He looked upon his servant and was moved with pity for him. He didn’t gloss over the situation. Instead, he looked at this man with sympathy. He saw the pain of a man who was made to walk, but was prevented from doing so. This man is an image of every person. We all are made for more, but struggle to move forward. The centurion feels this tension deeply. And see, what he does. He goes to Christ. He does not tell the servant to try harder to walk. He does not give up on the servant. He does not become angry at the servant’s incapacities. He goes to Christ. He puts all of his hope in Christ. 

The gospels are filled with examples of people who seemed incapable of becoming what they were made to be. The woman caught in adultery, the man left for dead by robbers on the side of the road, and Zaccheus. But Jesus entered their lives and healed what was broken.  

Advent is a time to feel once again these infinite and glorious desires that God has placed in our heart. And to feel again the anguish of our incapacity to fulfill these desires. And to renew our confident hope in the coming of the One who alone makes us able to walk towards our Destiny. 

When we live Advent in this way, it transforms us to become bearers of hope for others. It makes us able to look at others with this intense sympathy. Everyone desires more. Everyone desires to be more. Everyone desires to live more. And everyone feels a certain hopelessness. Everyone feels incapable of ever satisfying these desires. 

 Advent affords us an opportunity to look upon everyone we encounter with the eyes of sympathy, with eyes filled with hope. When we look upon someone in this way, we awaken hope within them. Our gaze reminds them that they are not merely an accumulation of their faults, weaknesses, and incapacities, but rather a person called to greatness. Our gaze upon them can awaken within them the hope that Christ will bring to fulfillment the desire of their heart.  

And of course, this all is possible because Christ does this for us. Every day, we come to the altar and we feel deeply our incapacities, our failures, our weaknesses, our sins, our faults. We echo the words of the centurion, “Lord, I am not worthy.” And from this altar, Christ looks at us with sympathy and with love. In the Eucharist he comes under our roof, he brings us healing remedies that make us able to walk again . . . to walk amid the passing things of this world, so as to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures.