Friday, July 15, 2016

Rest and the Liturgy: A Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 Homily for the
Sixteenth Sunday of the Year
Cycle C

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
July 17, 2016 

This past Thursday I spent the entire morning and the better part of the afternoon running around like a chicken with my head cut off. I got up very early to offer Mass and say my prayers, but then I was off like lightening…cleaning and packing like a mad man, making phone calls, tying up all kinds of loose ends in the parish before I leave, etc. But by 2:00 in the afternoon, the heat and humidity was finally getting to me, and I decided that it was time for a quick break. So I poured myself a big glass of iced tea, put on my headphones with my Gregorian chant station playing on Pandora, and sat in a big comfy chair outside the rectory on the patio. I was only going to stay out there long enough to have a drink, but the sun was so warm, the music so soothing, the tea so refreshing, that within minutes I was asleep. Despite the fact that I had a million things running through my head, and despite the fact that I still had so much to do, I was powerless at this moment. The beauty and comfort of a warm summer day enslaved me and lulled me into rest against my will. I woke up after about 20 minutes or so and found myself completely at peace. No more restless energy and no more anxiousness…I felt as though the only moment in my life that mattered was the present one. And so I decided to sit for a bit longer and to simply bask in the ordinary beauty of a perfect County day. There was a mourning dove in the area cooing away, the laughter of children off in the distance, the smell of fresh cut grass, the buzzing of bees around Father Labrie’s little flower garden…so many good things, so many simple things, so many things that I would have missed if I didn’t take the opportunity to rest.

For people like me, rest is so often just a necessary evil. We sleep and rest as little as possible, usually only so that we have the energy to do the real work of life. We like being busy…we like doing things…we like getting things done. We’re a lot like Martha in our Gospel today; we seem to thrive on stress – even though it can be a burden on us – because stress produces tangible results. When we work, work, work, we get a feeling of great satisfaction because we accomplish much, and this gives us a sense of worth and value. It’s not as if this were a bad thing – a good work ethic, a desire and drive to be active, is a necessary part of our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. But our Lord asks us today to reflect on the importance of what He calls “the better part” of our physical, emotional, and spiritual health: a lack of activity, a good rest.

We have to admit that, in reading Scripture, we see that work cannot constitute the fullness of our purpose on earth or even, more importantly, our relationship with God. We don’t work for the sake of working more…we work precisely so that we can eventually work less. That’s why our Lord tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28.) And this is why we say of the dead, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.” As evening draws near every day, and as the evening of our life draws near, we are reminded that eventually our work and activity must cease so that God’s work and activity in us can begin. The beautiful, but hidden work of God’s grace in our souls is so often hindered because we won’t stop long enough for Him to replenish us. Just as too much or inordinate physical work can become a burden to our bodies, too much or inordinate spiritual work can become deadly to our souls. Until we learn to regularly and often quiet the unrest and activity of our souls and allow ourselves to rest and be passive in the presence of God, there will be little holiness us.

People come to me often asking how they might begin to attain this passivity of spirit, this rest in the Lord, in a more genuine and authentic way. In our loud and flashy world, it’s difficult to calm our souls down long enough for the Lord to work in us. There are steps we can take, like cultivating silence, unplugging devices, trimming down our calendars, etc., but there is one supreme way in which we can learn, like Mary, to rest happily at the feet of the Lord…and that is by, paradoxically, actively entering into the Mystery of the Sacred Liturgy in a radically passive way.

Our Lord designated one day of the week for complete rest…the Sabbath. Prior to His death and resurrection, the Sabbath finished the week…but now it begins the week. We come to church on the day of rest to enter into what should be the most restful experience of our week: the liturgy. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia – which itself is derived from two words: laos, “the people”, and ergas, “a work.” Some scholars have mistranslated the word liturgy to mean, “the work of the people,” but this is not at all true to the historical use of the word or to its current theological use. In the ancient Greek world, leitourgialiturgy, was used as a word to describe an act of public service. A senator was engaged in leitourgia when going about his daily duties; a wealthy benefactor was engaged in leitourgia when constructing a temple or public building. Leitourgialiturgy is work that is done for the sake of the people. Thus the Church quickly adopted the word liturgy to describe its worship in order to emphasize that what happens at the altar is solely and completely the work of Christ Himself…a work offered to the Father on our behalf. At every Mass, Christ is the One Who is acting. He is like our “senator”, our “benefactor”…the One Who is working, the One Who is celebrating, the One Who is offering Himself – and us – to the Father as a perfect Sacrifice that brings life and redemption to the world. The Mystery of the Liturgy, then, is the Mystery of God’s work for us in, with, and through Jesus Christ. And the key to more actively participating in the Sacred Liturgy is not becoming more involved, or doing more things, or singing more loudly, or shaking more hands, or distributing Communion, or reading, or altar serving, or taking the collection, but rather – paradoxically and mysteriously – to becoming more and more passive. Our primary and really our only worth-while work in the sacred liturgy is to pour ourselves out onto the altar with Christ, to sacrifice all that we have, to make of ourselves nothing so that Christ can raise us to everything. The Liturgy, with all of its smells and bells and sounds and candles and vestments, is designed to take the burden off our minds so that we can let go and get lost in it. The beauty of the liturgy is designed to make us, in a sense, powerless…just as I was powerless as I slipped off to sleep in the warm summer sun, the liturgy helps to strip from us all the power and control we so desperately love so that we can be lulled into God’s rest.

As I slept ever-so-peacefully in the garden chair this past Thursday, there was something being accomplished in me with which I had nothing to do. All I had to do was put myself in the chair and nature did the rest. The same thing is true with God in our spiritual lives. Work and pray hard, certainly, but then come to Mass, plop yourself down in the pew, and allow the beauty of God’s liturgy – His work done for you – to take you captive. Empty all your distractions, worries, presuppositions, concerns, etc. onto the altar of sacrifice, and then slip off into the rest that Christ promises. When you awake, you will be at peace, and like Mary, it will not be taken from you.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

How to Handle Rejection - A Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
Fourteenth Sunday of the Year
Cycle C

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
July 3, 2016

One of the most crippling fears we face throughout our lives is the fear of rejection. It begins on the playground, follows us through the corridors of high school, seeps into the workplace, and even makes its way into our neighborhoods and churches and homes and families. We fear being ignored, or mocked, or condescended to, or unwanted because rejection contradicts our deep desire to be valued, and appreciated, and accepted, and ultimately loved. We fear rejection because it hurts…in fact, the emotional pain that rejection brings can often and easily exceed most forms of physical pain. But unlike most other kinds of pain, rejection is not subject to happenstance or bad luck or poor decisions on our part…it is completely dependent upon the free will of other people. And this is what makes rejection, and our fear of it, so dangerous – it makes us completely vulnerable to the whims and thoughts of others. If somebody hates us, if somebody bullies us, if somebody thinks poorly of us, we can’t do anything about it. We fear rejection because it robs us of our control…and so we’re taught from a young age that in order to protect ourselves from the pain of rejection we must do one of two things: either learn not to care about what others think about us or completely cave in and conform to what others want us to be. But each of these approaches has dire consequences. On the one hand, if we simply stop caring about what others think about us, we’re quickly going to become hardened and cold, and probably, eventually, cruel. We’ll combat rejection with an admixture of retaliation, passive aggression, and dismissiveness, protecting ourselves by becoming the rejecter rather than the rejected. And then on the other hand, if we cave in and placate people in order to be liked and loved, we run the very great risk of losing ourselves, our principles, and our dignity. We’ll fool ourselves into thinking that we’re being considerate and open-minded and accepting, but in reality we’re manipulating people so that they’ll want to be around us. The world really only knows how to put these two options before us, albeit in modified forms, when trying to help us deal with rejection…but neither of them are helpful and both of them, ultimately, will lead to more sadness and more rejection. The good news, however, is that where the world falls short, the grace of God abounds.

In our Gospel today, we hear about the commission of the seventy-two disciples. Jesus is readying them to go ahead of Him into all the various towns and villages that He’s planning to visit in order to prepare the people there to hear the message of salvation that He will bring. We know that the message of Christ is salvific and beautiful, but we also know that it can be difficult to hear and upsetting because it challenges us out of our complacency and our sin, and we’re not always happy to hear that we’re not perfect and wonderful. In other words, the message of Christ is not a popular message, it’s not a universally accepted message, and its proclamation will thus not always be received well by others. So while the Lord is preparing His disciples to go out and pave the way for Him, He lets them know that their commission is dangerous because it will inevitably involve rejection. They will go into towns were some people hang on every word they say, but they will also go into towns where they are laughed at for being fanatics, spit upon for being absurd, and ignored for being out-of-touch. Regardless of whether they will be accepted or rejected, however, the Lord commands them to go there in peace…to go lightly clad, attached to nothing of the world, and to proclaim with sincerity, simplicity, and conviction that the Kingdom of God is at hand. If they are accepted, they are to enjoy the people’s welcome…and if they are rejected, they are to shake the dust from their feet and move on.  

Now this was their command. But were they able to do it? Were they able to face the rejection that the Lord promised they would encounter with grace? There’s no overall answer to this question…each of the seventy-two disciples would have struggled with this personally. They might have been able to externally observe the Lord’s command, remaining calm and cool and collected in the midst of rejection…but what was going on inside them? Some were probably angry and were fighting the urge to retaliate or to “tell off” the naysayers. Others were probably deeply hurt and were beginning to wonder if they could withstand it all. But whether they realized it or not, the God of Heaven and Earth, incarnate before them in the flesh, knowing full well the human struggle and anguish with rejection, was supplying for them in their need. He was offering them His unconditional, total, complete, and infinite love. Through the grace of their experience of Him, and in the unseen work of His grace at work in their souls, the only-Begotten Son of God communicated to His disciples that He valued them, that He appreciated them, that He wanted them. No failure on their part, no hidden wound, no deficiency, no sin of theirs could change the mad love that He had for them…and by simply letting going of their need to control, they would slowly be able to bask in the freedom of being loved by a God Who loves not from compulsion, or guilt, or necessity, but from His own eternal freedom. And all of this would be completely realized when, again in His own freedom, the God-man hung on the Cross. Rejected, spurned, and despised as His broken body bled on the tree of death, He would show us that God’s love – a real, enfleshed, sacrificial love – is the only way to overcome our fear of rejection. He shows us by His own rejection and death, that even the greatest acts of rejection in this world not only can, but must lead to the greatest acts of love. This is what robs rejection of its power. When we learn to love as God loves, rejection no longer has any power over us.

We are here in this church today, offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, because we are the Lord’s disciples. And like the seventy-two in our Gospel today, we are sent from this place on mission to proclaim Christ and His salvation to all the world. It is a dangerous mission because we face the promise of rejection. People will think that we’re nuts when we proclaim that Jesus Christ is God, that He has died, that He is risen from the dead, and that He will return in glory. They will think that we are disillusioned fanatics when we say that He is present with us in the Holy Eucharist, that He offers us the forgiveness of our sins through the Sacrament of Penance, and that there is a Heaven to hope for and a Hell to avoid. They will call us bigots and haters when we invite them to turn away from sin, when we challenge them to use their freedom to love God above all things, and when we call them to change their lives. So what will we do? What will we do when this rejection comes our way? Will we harden our hearts so that this rejection doesn’t affect us, becoming Christian bullies? Will we cave in and preach a watered-down version of the Gospel so that people will like and accept us? Or will we look to the Cross and believe with all our hearts that ultimately God’s love for us has the power to overcome everything…our fear, our pain, our anxieties, and our failures. The key to living this Christian life well, to being the Lord’s disciples, is to learn not to simply fall back on this love when the going gets tough, but to start from it. May God’s love empower us this day and all our days. May our desire and thirst to be accepted, and wanted, and valued, and cherished and loved be found firstly and completely in Him…and then may we learn, as His disciples, to bring this love to all the world, even when it rejects us.