Sunday, August 30, 2015

"I'm Spiritual, but not Religious" - A Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

August 30, 2015

One of the great things about being a priest is that I get to meet many different people from many different walks of life. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals all bring the friends and relatives of our parishioners to church when they otherwise wouldn’t come, and it’s often the case that I’m afforded an opportunity to speak briefly to them about where they’re from, what they do, and all sorts of other things. And it’s often the case, without my ever having to ask, that they’ll tell me something about their faith background, like: “I’m a Methodist” or “I’m Jewish” or “I don’t go to church very often, even though I should.” But, by far, the most common thing I hear is, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” I hear this so often that it’s become cliché…and I’m sure you’ve heard it yourselves before. Now while, in some sense, I get what people are trying to say with this phrase, I can’t help but think that it’s completely off-base. It proposes as a given that spirituality and religion are separate realities that may coincide, but not necessarily or even usually. Spirituality is seen as freeing and open, whereas religion is seen as restricting and oppressive. Spirituality is seen as one’s private journey to God, whereas religion is seen as institutional. Spirituality is seen other-worldly and transcendent and mysterious, whereas religion is seen as cultic and immanent. These ideas have been so engrained in our culture and in society, and yet they have very little truth in them. And because the modern world itself espouses the values typically associated with spirituality rather than religion, it’s easy for the unthinking and unreflective person to simply go along with the crowd and cast aside the notion of religion altogether. But when we instead cast aside the rhetoric and semantics and the clichés that we so easily take for granted, when we get right down to it, as human beings we have to admit that we need both spirituality and religion. This is what St. James shows us in our second reading today and this is what our Lord shows us in the Gospel: spirituality without religion is formless and useless, and religion without spirituality is corrupt and dead. Let’s unfold this a bit.

St. James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The word that St. James uses here that we translate as ‘religion’ is “threskeia” – which means worship that is outwardly evident. In the ancient world, and certainly at the time of Christ, the worship of God required both an inward intention and an outward action: in other words, one had to ritualize his or her love of God. This was done through audible prayer, the singing of songs, and the offering of sacrifices. Now if we think about it, this is extremely intuitive to us…we know that the love we offer each other cannot simply be an inner disposition – it must be displayed in various and diverse ways. We don’t just think or feel love inwardly for our husbands or wives or children or friends…we show it to them. We give them gifts, we write them poems, we do good things for them, we tell them “I love you,” and we also engage in external rituals that continually communicate our love: a hug, a kiss, a smile. Love must be displayed and enfleshed…if it’s not, if it’s formless, then there’s a huge disconnect and objectively speaking no real love. This is essentially what St. James is getting at with the word “religion” – it means the inward love we have for God externalized and made visible. And because God has revealed Himself not just to individuals, but to “a people,” these outward acts of love, of worship, had to be communal. It wasn’t enough for someone to escape into the woods and worship God on his or her own…they had to do so with the community, with the people of God. This is what it means to be religious – to regularly and continuously offer to God an external and enfleshed sign of our adoration and love of Him, both individually and with others.

But we know that when people come together to do anything, chaos can easily develop. Different ideas, different values, and different ways of looking at things require that some kind of structure be utilized to bring order and harmony to the activity. Road construction, a restaurant kitchen, a courtroom, the family dinner table…anything that involves more than two people is going to require some kind of standardization. And when it comes to the public worship of God, there is no exception. God gave the Law to Moses to help bring structure to the inward worship and external worship of the people of Israel…and Christ gives us the Church to do the same in our day. Religion, in a secondary sense, can be used to refer to the way this structure is brought about: rules, regulations, liturgical calendars, hierarchy, etc. When people say, “I’m spiritual, not religious” they are usually reacting emotionally to something gone wrong – perceived or actual – with religion in this secondary sense. They rightly recognize that sometimes it seems like more emphasis can be placed on the structure and regulations of the right worship of God rather than on the deeper, spiritual significance of our love for Him. This is precisely what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel today. The Pharisees, who in a sense had become obsessed with the blind observance of external worship, had forgotten that external worship must be an expression of inward love of God. When our practice of religion is not infused with a true love of God, then it will soon become corrupt and lifeless. Jesus beckons them, and He beckons us, to guard against this.

Spirituality without religion is unhuman and dishonest, and religion without spirituality is hypocritical and dead. When the two are in tandem, however, they give rise to great holiness in a person. Because the body expresses what the spirit believes, a person can offer his or her whole self to God as an offering of love. This is exactly what St. James is getting at when he talks about religion that is pure and undefiled, and that is precisely what our Lord is getting at when he calls out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. We must fight the temptation, however, to regard our love for God as merely an internal or personal reality. It must be this, but it must also be external and communal.

Many times people have come up to me and said, “Father, why do I have to come to church…I can worship God in the forest or the golf course.” This is true…we can and we must worship God always and everywhere – but if we do not externalize this worship frequently and regularly, if we do not come together and put everything else aside to intentionally and deliberately offer our bodies and souls to God at Mass, then there is something essentially missing in our love for God. Likewise, if we come to every Mass and devotion and activity at church, but never inwardly and interiorly give ourselves over to God, then we’re lifeless puppets.

A friend of mine once put it this way. Being spiritual without being religious is like loving to eat without bothering to cook…you benefit from the hard work of others, loving the pleasure that food brings but never really learning to love food itself.  Being religious without being spiritual is like loving to cook without bothering to eat…you understand food and how ingredients work together, loving the balance and the harmony of flavor but also never really learning to love food itself. The good Catholic is spiritual because he is religious and religious because he is spiritual…the good Catholic never shortchanges himself, he has his cakes and eats it to, loving every minute of it, and shows others how to the do the same.

Friday, August 14, 2015

How Much do We Value the Holy Eucharist? - A Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
0th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

August 16, 2015

The teacher says, “Unless you bring up your grades, you won’t graduate from high school.” And so we work harder. The mechanic says, “Unless you change your tires and fix your breaks, you will not get an inspection sticker.” And so we have the repairs made. The electrical company says, “Unless you make your payments on time, your power will be shut off.” And so we pay up. The oncologist says, “Unless you undergo chemotherapy, you will die.” And so we endure the treatments. Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, says, “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you.” And what’s our response?

When we really want something, we’ll go to the ends of the earth to get it. We’ll cram for days in order to pass an important exam. We’ll shell out thousands of dollars to get the spiffy car to take us from place to place. We’ll pay a company hundreds of dollars a year to pump electricity into our homes so that we can power our iPhones and Smart TVs. We’ll even endure some of the most invasive and agonizing forms of medical treatment to ensure that we live longer. Our values directly influence our desires, and our desires directly influence our everyday choices. And when we really want something, when we really value something, nothing can stop us in our determination. But when was the last time you stopped to think about what it is that you value and desire? When was the last time you stopped to consider your priorities and the choices you make? The truth is, most of us are on automatic, and we don’t think about these things often. But today, in our Gospel, Jesus is calling us to more. He’s asking us to take a good honest look at ourselves in order to see where He falls in the midst of all our values and desires.

If you look around, you’ll see a lot of empty spaces in the pews. This wasn’t always the case…once upon a time, there would have been standing room only at Mass. Slowly, over time, people have been leaving, and for any number of reasons. For some, it’s because a priest said something that offended them. For others, it’s because they disagreed with the teachings of the Church or felt unwelcome or the Mass time was changed. And of course, for others it’s because of apathy and indifference on their part – they never planned on I, they just kind of stopped coming. Other things took precedence and Mass ceased to be a priority or something to be valued. Imagine if we did the same thing with school, or the doctor, or the dentist, or work…our bodies and our lives would fall apart. But when we stop coming to Mass, when we stop receiving Holy Communion regularly, we don’t get to see the visible consequences of our choices and so they seem less real to us. Jesus makes it pretty clear today, though, that there is indeed a consequence…and it is the most grave and most serious of consequences: “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you.” You could have all the things of this world: physical health and beauty, a loving family, a comfortable home, a great education, a good-paying job, and even a personal sense that you have a relationship with God…you could have all your earthly and temporal desires met and fulfilled, but if you do not have Christ in the Eucharist, you are lifeless.

Now I know very well that I’m preaching to the choir…most of you are here week after week; you go to confession regularly and receive Holy Communion very frequently. And I thank God for your faithfulness! But ask yourselves this question: what separates you from the person who would have been sitting next to you last year who is no longer coming to Mass? The answer is really very basic and simple: it’s a choice – you continue to make the choice to come to Mass whereas they have made the choice to stop coming. And as we know, our choices stem from our values. The problem here, however, is that we can value the wrong things…we can come to Mass for the sense of community, or the celebration, or the music, or the atmosphere. Eventually, however, all of these will fail us, and when they inevitably do, we too will make the choice to stop coming. Every person in this church today is a spoonful of grace and a choice away from walking out the doors and never coming back. So what keeps you here? If the answer to that question is something that could potentially go away – like the charming priest or the beautiful music – then it’s only a matter of time before you make the same choice to go away and never come back. But if the answer to that question is the one thing that cannot go away…if the answer to that question is supremely and ultimately the presence of Christ in the Eucharist that you hunger and thirst for, then you will always be able to make the choice to stay.

To this day, in our so-called modern and progressive world, there are Catholics who are showing us by their lives and even by their deaths what it means to value the Holy Eucharist above all things. In parts of China, Catholicism is so heavily persecuted that Chinese Catholics walk dozens of miles to go Mass, risking imprisonment or even death to do so. In Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East, Catholics face the daily threat of radical Islamic persecution – their churches are continuously bombed and they expose themselves to the threat of assassination simply by being at Mass. And in Uganda, Egypt, and other African countries, Catholics are being dragged from their churches and murdered in the streets. A soccer game or a relaxing vacation is enough to keep the average American Catholic family away from Mass…and yet the real and daily threat of death does not deter our brothers and sisters across the ocean from risking their lives to receive Christ in the Eucharist. They are willing to lose everything in order to gain what is most important, while we so often chose to gain everything and lose it all.

If we are not here in this church today because we have a passionate desire to receive Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, then sooner or later we will leave. We will leave just like the crowds who left Jesus in His own day. We will slip into lukewarmness and go wherever our earthly values are satisfied. But if we are here because we desire the Bread of Life more than anything…if we are here because we want the true food of Christ’s flesh and the true drink of His blood, then we hold within ourselves the true key to eternal life and happiness.

So, ask yourselves one more question: how much do you value the Holy Eucharist and how much are you willing to sacrifice in order to receive it? Would you be willing to take a bullet in the head like the Catholic man from Uganda? Would you be willing to travel all day on foot like the Catholic woman in China? Would you be willing to face imprisonment like the Catholic girl in Syria? If everybody in this Church today developed even a sliver of that kind of love for the Eucharist, this church would be packed because the witness would be irresistible and infectious.

Our Lord places in our own hands the magnificent freedom to value whatever we want, to desire whatever we want, and to choose whatever we want. What will we do with this freedom? Will we choose the difficult path that leads to life or the easy path that leads to destruction? Today let us pray for the grace to use our freedom to really and ultimately value, desire, and choose Jesus Christ, present in the Holy Eucharist, knowing full well that unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood we will not have life within us. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Holy Eucharist: Boring, but Extraordinary - A Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

August 9, 2015

I’m sure that many of us here today have heard someone say, at one time or another, “Mass is soooo boring.” Maybe we’ve even been guilty of saying this ourselves. I find this fascinating though, because on every level Mass is the exact opposite of boring. I mean, objectively speaking, the Mass truly and really makes the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary present to us in the here and now…decidedly not boring. And objectively speaking, Jesus joins us to His Sacrifice and offers us, along with Himself, to the Father, effecting the redemption and salvation of the human race…again, decidedly not boring. Now we can admit that if we’re not in-tune to these spiritual realities, if we’re not preparing ourselves for Mass and praying throughout the week, then these objective realities will be lost on us and we could – God forbid! – slip into boredom. But what baffles me is that the same generation of people who are entertained for hours by TV shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Real Housewives of New Jersey can be bored stiff when reading and listening to Scripture at Mass. I’ll go on record saying that Scripture, especially the Old Testament, is filled with more intrigue, juicy drama, and entertainment than anything you’ll find on TLC or HBO. And to prove it, all we have to do is look at our first reading today from the First Book of Kings.

So we start off by hearing that the Prophet Elijah is having a rough day…he’s thrown himself under a tree and starts huffing and puffing and bellyaching, telling God that he’s had enough, that he can’t go on, and that he just wants to die. After essentially crying himself to sleep, an angel wakes him up and gives him some food – a hearth cake and a jug of water. Nothing like a nap and a snack to chase grumpiness away, right? Well, not for Elijah. He’s still moping, so he just goes back to bed. The angel wakes him back up, gives him more food, and then tells him to snap out of it and that he better get his act together. Elijah acquiesces, and with a stomach full of hearth cakes, starts off to Horeb to get back to work doing prophet things. It’s a short little story, apparently pretty boring, but it’s what happened to Elijah right before that makes this all the more juicy and interesting. You see, Elijah has just come from the Kishon River where he had just finished slaughtering 450 prophets of the false god Baal. The King of Israel – Ahab – married a woman who dabbled with Baal worship – Jezebel – and needless to say she’s none-too-happy with Elijah. She sent a message to him that basically said, “You better run, because I’m coming after you.” Fearful for his life, Elijah fled Israel and headed south to Beer-sheba in Judah. Exhausted and frightened, he feels he can no longer continue, and this is where we find him in our first reading today. Once we know the rest of the story, we can garner up a little more pity and understanding for Elijah’s mental breakdown underneath the tree. But for me, the most interesting part of this whole story is one boring, seemingly insignificant thing: the hearth cake. When Elijah was at his worst, when he was in the midst of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion, it was the hearth cake that restored his strength and essentially brought him back to life. He didn’t have a long session with his therapist…he wasn’t given a convincing pep talk by someone…he literally just ate some hearth cakes. A seemingly boring, tasteless piece of bread – which anyone might turn their noses up to – became the source of new life for the devastated Elijah. Things are not always as they seem.

The bread that nourished Elijah underneath the broom tree should be a lesson for us. He could have easily told the angel who brought him the hearth cakes to get lost and to bring something that would actually help him in his distress. But he didn’t…he got up, ate the mundane bread, and it changed his life. If we’re looking for the spectacular and the obvious to give us life; if we’re looking for the fun and the exciting and the entertaining to make us whole…then, at the end of the day, we’re going to end up starving to death underneath our own broom trees. Until we dare to see that some of the simplest and most boring things in this life are so often used by God to accomplish the most amazing and extraordinary things, then we’re doomed to become victims of devastation as we wait for the spectacular to save us. Elijah shows us that sometimes, often times, the answer to life’s biggest problems can be found by just eating some bread.

Those of us here, however, have a leg up on Elijah. We know something that he did not know. The bread that he consumed and that gave him life is a wonderful foreshadowing of the true Bread of Life that Christ would give to us in the Holy Eucharist. In the most unassuming and unobvious way, under the appearance of boring bread and uninteresting wine, the God of the universe gives us His own Flesh and Blood. When we are fatigued, when we are lost, when we are devastated, when it seems as if we have lost it all, there rests before us the very means by which we can be restored, not just to fullness of life, but to eternal life. Like Elijah’s hearth cakes, the gift of the Eucharist is not flashy or mesmerizing or ostentatious…it is so beautifully simple, and for this reason it is so easy to overlook or even to deny.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is continuing to teach and to prepare the crowds for the gift of the Eucharist. He tells them that He is the Living Bread that has come down from Heaven and that everyone who eats this Bread will live forever. And the response? Unbelief…they don’t believe a word He’s saying. They murmur amongst themselves about the stupidity of such a thing – their eyes and their ears are closed…their hearts are hardened. They want an obvious and great Messiah who, with sword in hand, will free them from their Roman oppressors…they have no use for some sap Who will die on a Cross, free them from sin, and be their Living Bread. In the Gospel we’ll hear next week, Jesus will lay it all out for them one last time, and by the following week we will hear of their final rejection. Unable and unwilling to believe, they will reject Him and walk away. Much to their chagrin, the boring and uninteresting man from Nazareth that they would reject is the true and only salvation of the world...and if they had listened to His words and feasted upon the Bread He was offering them, they too could have shared in the extraordinary gift of eternal life.

So, is Mass boring? Compared to most other things in this life, yes; it won’t give you a physical thrill like a roller coaster or an emotional buzz like young love…it won’t excite you like the new car you bought and it won’t entertain you like Netflix. But the Mass can, like the bread Elijah ate, change your life unlike anything else. What appears to be a boring old ritual is really the most amazing thing this side of heaven…and what appears to be ordinary bread and wine is really God Himself. Today we have to ask ourselves: will we be the like crowds who move from spectacle to spectacle, waiting for the next great flashy thing to satisfy us…or will we be like Elijah and eat the simple hearth cake that has been placed before us?

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Childlike Faith and the Holy Eucharist: A Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou 
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

August 2, 2015
Childlike Faith and the Holy Eucharist

I’d like to share with you a beautiful and touching story about a Pope and a little boy. Mother Francis Alice Monica Forbes, a biographer and contemporary of Pope St. Pius X, tells the story of an Englishwoman who had the privilege of having a private audience with the Pope. Now Pius X had already earned for himself the reputation of being a great lover of children and so the woman brought her four year old son with her to receive the Pope’s special blessing. As the Pope and his mother were speaking, the little boy stood at a distance looking on – when the conversation was finished, the boy was brought over to the Pope to receive his blessing. Much to the horror of his mother, however, the boy went to the Pope, placed his hands on his knees, and looked up at him. Allaying the fears of the embarrassed woman, the Pope smiled at the boy, stroked his head, and then asked, “How old is he?” His mother said, “He is four, and in two or three years I hope he will be able to make his first Communion.” Just a short time earlier, the Pope had issued a decree lowering the age at which children could receive Holy Communion – he made it very clear that so long as children had reached the age of reason, which could be said to be around 7 years of age, they were to be permitted to receive the Holy Eucharist. The little boy expressed his own excitement about the prospect of receiving Holy Communion in just a few short years, and this sparked the interest of the Pope. He looked earnestly into the boy’s eyes and asked, “Whom do you receive in Holy Communion?” Without hesitating, the little boy answer, “Jesus Christ!” The Pope smiled and further asked, “And who is Jesus Christ?” Once more, without missing a beat, the boy responded, “He is God.” The Pope leaned back in his chair, looked over at the boy’s mother and said, “Bring him to me tomorrow – I will give him Holy Communion myself.”

This little boy, whose name has faded into the shadows of time, has so much to teach us. With the innocence and purity of a four year old, his understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist surpasses that of any scholar and his love for It rivals that of any saint. With eyes that have not been tainted by skepticism and doubt, and with a heart that has not known the darkness of sin, he looks upon the Eucharist with such holy simplicity and love. He literally throws himself on the lap of the Vicar of Christ on earth and articulates so plainly and beautifully what so many of us struggle to believe. For this little boy, there is no question…Christ is truly and really and simply present in the Holy Eucharist, and his little heart cannot help but desire so great a gift. The very next day, at the hands of the saintly Pope, his desires are realized. His Lord and His God comes to Him in Holy Communion, and, in an instant, the great miracle of God’s love is accomplished in yet another soul. Perhaps this is what our Lord is trying to convey to us when He says in Matthew’s Gospel, “Unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

So much of our life is centered on growing up. We value maturity, wisdom, and experience over and above many things. And while we should never negate the importance of these things, we must keep in mind that God’s ways are not our ways. The Mysteries of our faith, while they baffle the learned and confound even the most diligent of theologians, are so often grasped and loved effortlessly by children. In their innocence and purity, children never try to be something they are not. Unlike those of us who try to mine our way through this dog-eat-dog world, children know their own helplessness…they instinctively cry out to their parents for their every need, and when we introduce them to Jesus, they so easily abandon themselves to Him. Life, experience, and growing up bring many good things for us, but sometimes, often times, we will learn to trust more in the obvious, ourselves, and less in God. This is where we have so much to learn from our children.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is inviting the crowds to leave the world of the obvious and to enter into the world of children, the world of faith. Last week we heard of the great miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, where Christ filled the hungry bellies of the multitudes with an abundance of earthly food. This was, of course, a foreshadowing of the greater miracle of the Eucharist, where Christ would fill their hungry souls with a superabundance of heavenly food: His own Body and Blood, His own self. But today, the crowds just aren’t getting it. Like hungry animals, they are chasing after Jesus in the hopes that He’ll give them more bread. They are fixated on the obvious, on the temporal, and on the earthly, and they are content to use Jesus to have these needs met. But as they focus on their bellies, they have neglected to see that the bread they hunger for is none other than the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. To see this, though, requires simplicity and abandonment…it requires a heart that can see beyond appearances and superficialities…it requires the heart of a child.  

The Holy Eucharist is, as the Second Vatican Council articulates beautifully, the source and summit of the Christian life. Because it is the Sacrament that makes present to us Jesus Christ Himself, It is the source of all grace. The heart of God beats for love of us in all the tabernacles of the world, calling us to adore and to feast upon the gift of His Divine love. And yet it is so easy for us to take this wonderful and holy reality for granted. We can become so distracted by all of our earthly concerns, entrenched in the world of the obvious, that we completely miss that the answer to all of our hungers and desires rests wherever the little red light of the sanctuary lamp glows. We can be like the crowd that harps on Jesus to give them more of the things of this world, or we can be like the little boy who knows simply and beautifully that the Lord will fill him beyond all measure in the Holy Eucharist.

Today, during this Holy Mass, perhaps we could pray for the grace to put aside all of our grown-up problems and desires so that we can “grow-down,” becoming more and more like little children. As you come forward today to receive Holy Communion, run up with childlike faith and allow your Lord and God to fill you with Himself. Savor His sweetness and feast upon His goodness. May we learn to leave the world of the obvious….carelessly abandoning ourselves to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament all the days of our lives. When we learn to do this, we know that we will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.