Sermon – Be Perfect

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When we think of commandments of God, we always think of the top ten: I am the Lord thy God, Thou shalt have no other gods, Thou shalt not kill, steal, covet, etc.  The Jews considered these to be the first ten of 613 commandments – laws – that can be found in the Old Testament.  To break any of them was a sin and required that some sort of offering be made for atonement, anything from sacrificing a bull to waving a sheaf of grain.

Jesus, in his teachings, summed up the law for us when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  These are also commandments, and for us, just as important as that Top Ten list found in the Old Testament.

In our Gospel reading today, we have another commandment.  It was the last sentence, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus has commanded us to be perfect.  Can I get a show of hands from those who have reached perfection?  Anybody?  Here is the kicker, if it is commanded – it is possible.  Be perfect – it is commanded by God, therefore it is possible.  To say that it is not is to be disobedient to the command.  So, what’s it going to be?

Would you believe me if I said that you are perfect? The truth is: You are.  St. Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”  For by one sacrifice – that is Christ death upon the Cross – he has made perfect forever those – that would be you – who are being made holy.

Through Christ, you have been made perfect, but note what Paul also said, “who are being made holy.”  You are perfect and you are being made holy.  St. Francis de Sale summed this up when he said that we are “Perfection seeking perfection.”  We are made perfect in Christ and each day, we seek to be made more perfect.

You may not believe this and believe me, you wouldn’t be the first, but be encouraged.  Think of it this way, expressed by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, “Cast away that despair produced by the realization of your weakness. It’s true: financially you are a zero, and socially another zero, and another in virtues, and another in talent… But to the left of those zeros is Christ… And what an immeasurable figure it turns out to be!”

You may not believe that being perfect is possible, but you are perfect.  You are made perfect because Christ died for you and is in you.  You are perfect.  Your job as a follower of Christ is to seek to be made more perfect.  How do we do this?  My good friend Thomas a Kempis said, “If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect.”  Perhaps today, though, we’ll stick with the words of Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  Most hear that verse and think of the cross they must bear and they are correct, but don’t miss that one important word “daily.”  To seek to me made more perfect in Christ is not something we practice only on Sunday.  It is a daily exercise.

You are perfect.  Seek to be made more perfect.

Sermon: Matthew 5:21-37

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Foxes’ Book of Martyrs tells us the story of Telemachus, a Christian monk who, in 391 AD, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. While there he noticed crowds flocking to the Coliseum to see gladiators do battle. He followed them in, only to witness a sight that repulsed him.

Emperor Honorius was celebrating his triumph over the Goths. Gladiators armed with spears and swords reenacted the battle.  After their reenactment the bodies of the dead were dragged from the arena and its bloodied surface covered with a fresh layer of sand.

In came a new series of gladiators. Some were armed with swords and spears, others with nets. The crowd watched with excitement as they sought to outdo each other. When a gladiator was wounded, his opponent would loom over him, waiting for the crowds verdict on whether to slay him or let him live. So great was the bloodlust that at times wealthier spectators would climb down to get a better view of the execution.

Telemachus watched with horror as people died, battles raged and the crowds cheered. Prompted into action this bald headed, robed figure found his way onto the arena floor. He ran toward two gladiators locked in battle, grabbed one of them and pulled him away. He exhorted the two gladiators to abandon their murderous sport. He appealed to the crowd to not break God’s law by murdering.

The response was anything but favorable. Angry voices drowned out Telemachus’, demanding that the spectacle continue. The gladiators prepared to do battle again, but Telemachus stood between them, holding them apart, urging them to reconsider. Driven by the anger of the crowd and their rage at Telemachus’ interference, the gladiators cut Telemachus to the ground, as the crowd threw missiles at him. Telemachus was killed.

Legend holds that when the crowd saw the little monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent and then began leaving the stadium, one by one.  Because of Telemachus’ death, three days later, the Emperor by decree ended the Games.

In this brief history we can see the work of a saint, but what struck me today was the crowd.  Most, I would hope, were opposed to the violence of war and murder.  However, having entered into the arena they were swept up in the event.  They cheered on the violence and encouraged the murder of the innocent monk.  They voluntarily subjected themselves to witness these horrors, they engaged a temptation, and in the process became complicit in then sin.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus makes several statements where he ups the standard, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  He speaks in a similar manner with regard to adultery, lust, swearing and more.  Like the crowd in the arena, these are offenses that we voluntarily subject ourselves to.  We walk into them knowing full well what we are doing.  Someone might anger us, but they don’t cause that anger to swell into a rage.  I may see a pretty girl walking down the street, but she is not the cause of lust rising up in me.  However, like those in the crowd, when we engage with a temptation instead of immediately walking away, then we may fall into sin.

St. Josemaria Escriva put it this way, “Do not enter into dialogue with temptation.  Allow me to repeat: have the courage to run away and the moral strength not to dally with your weakness or wonder how far you can go.  Break off, with no concession!”

When temptations arise in your life, do not entertain them.  Do not consider the “what ifs.”  Immediately set the temptation aside, not giving it the slightest edge.  In this way we can all live holier lives.

Sermon: New Year’s Day

CHThe following quote was the inspiration behind this sermon, but – in the end – the quote did not make it into the sermon: “Pray that I may never be satisfied with what is easy,” you say.  I’ve already prayed.  Now it is up to you to carry out that fine resolution.   St. Josemaria Esciva, The Way #39

I’m also going to get a bit of mileage out of this one as it will appear as an article in the Billings Gazette on January 11th.

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Legend has it that one day Socrates and Plato were walking down the beach, deep in conversation and Plato had expressed to Socrates his desire to gain the wisdom and knowledge that Socrates had.  Socrates didn’t answer him, but instead said, “Walk with me into the ocean.”  So, they turned and walked into the sea together.

Now, in your imagination, picture that happening: Student and teacher, two of the greatest philosophers of history, striding into the surf side by side.

The water started out around their ankles, then rose up to their knees. As the water got higher Plato wondered to himself, “What is the lesson my master is trying to teach me?”

When the water was shoulder height, Socrates asked Plato, “What is it exactly you want from me?” “Knowledge,” Plato answered, at which point Socrates abruptly grabbed Plato’s head and pushed him down under the water. After a half a minute or so Socrates let Plato up and asked him again, “What is it you want?” “Knowledge,” was again Plato’s answer, at which point Socrates shoved him back down under the water.

After a time, when Plato ran out of air, he began to struggle to get his head above the surface. He punched and kicked and grabbed to get free, but Socrates was a strong man and held him down. At the last moment before Plato blacked out, Socrates let him up and asked that same simple question, “What is it you want?” Plato coughed and spluttered finally responding, “Air! I need air!” Socrates calmly stated, “When you desire knowledge as much as you desired a breath of air, then you shall have it.”

Each year, we make our New Year’s resolutions, but really, how seriously are we about fulfilling them? I suppose that Plato could have made a resolution, “Be it resolved that I will gain true knowledge this year,” but as Socrates so politely pointed out to him, resolving to do something is quite a bit more than simply saying you want it. Truthfully, it’s really not a matter of wanting, who doesn’t want to lose weight or be a better a person? Perhaps the question should be, “What are you willing to sacrifice?” In the case of Plato, in order to truly have knowledge, Socrates said that he had to want it as much as he wanted air to breathe, as much as he wanted life itself. So what are you willing to sacrifice in order to fulfill your resolutions?

And I wonder, if you make a resolution to live healthier, regularly balance the checkbook, quit swearing and all that, have you ever made a resolution to God?  “Be it resolved that I will love the Lord my God more deeply.”  “Be it resolved that my life will be a witness to His love.”  “Be it resolved that I will work to fulfill my Baptismal Covenant.”  “Be it resolved that I will accept His forgiveness.” And if you make these resolutions to God, then how badly do you want them? What are you willing to sacrifice of yourself in order to fulfill them?

I resolve to love God as long as it’s convenient?  As long as it doesn’t really cost me anything?  I resolve to forgive others as I have been forgiven, except… except you know who!  I will seek to serve Christ in all persons, as long as they are like me.  I resolve to faithfully continue in the fellowship and the breaking of bread, as long as it fits in with my schedule. Or do you want these things as much as you want air to breathe? As much as you desire your very life?

You’ve made your resolutions to lose weight and all that, now make your resolutions to God and desire to fulfill them as much as you desire air to breathe? As much as Jesus desires you.

Sermon: St. Thomas

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A football game has been described as eleven men in desperate need of a rest being criticized by thousands in need of some exercise.

In a similar fashion, as we sit in the comfort of our homes or in the pews and read through Holy Scripture, it is almost impossible not to find fault with the biblical characters and to criticize them.  Take for example poor old Thomas.  It is easy to understand why grade schoolers think his last name is Thomas and his first name is “Doubting.”  He gets a bad wrap, but is he really deserving of one?

Thomas is mentioned in all four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, but it is John’s gospel where he receives the most attention.  In John’s gospel he is first mentioned as Jesus is making plans to return to Judea where he would later raise Lazarus from the dead.  However, the disciples are concerned because it was in Judea that the Jews had tried to stone Jesus just a short time earlier.  Despite their concerns Jesus says, “Let us go to Judea.”  Then Thomas said to the rest of the disciples,  “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

If you can find a friend like this, don’t let them go.  Thomas in this situation is brave, loyal, and dedicated.  When the rest are “doubting,” Thomas is prepared to lay down his life for the Lord.

Later Jesus would cryptically explain to the disciples that he would be killed and be going to the Father.  He goes on to tell them that they know the way, yet Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Jesus goes on to explain that he is “the way and the truth and the Life.”

Thomas, in this case, by admitting that he did not know the way is demonstrating simple honesty in that he did not understand what Jesus was trying to tell them.  So, brave, loyal, dedicated honest, and now from today’s text… doubting.

When Jesus first appeared to the disciples, ten were there who saw and believed.  Thomas was not.  Thomas doubts.  The Lord appears again and Thomas is there and it is at this appearance that I believe Thomas redeems himself, because after laying eyes and possibly even his hands on the Risen Lord he makes a confession of faith regarding Jesus.  This confession is greater than what all the rest have said to this point.  Thomas declares, “My Lord and my God.”

Thomas doubted because he wanted to be certain of the facts.  He needed the truth for himself, not secondhand.  However,  once this certainty is established, Thomas commits himself fully to Jesus, declaring him to be Lord and God.

J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, received 12 rejection letters before she was picked up by Bloomsbury publishers and then only at the insistence of the CEO’s eight year old daughter.  Because of these perceived failures, should we forever refer to her as a hack?  Probably not.  By the same token, Thomas may have doubted, but to reduce him to the moniker “doubting” just doesn’t seem fitting.  However, if we must, let’s also include his other character traits as well: Brave.  Loyal.  Dedicated.  Honest.  Fully committed.  That’s more accurate than simply “doubting.”