The following is my homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

I’ll never forget the first time I held a sparkler. While they don’t interest me much now, they were so amazing when I was little. To see the bright light, the sparks going everywhere, the crackling sound; you could write your name or just stare at the light show right in front of you. I’ll never forget the first time I held a sparkler… because it did not go very well. You see, I was little, five or six, I don’t know, and when I saw all the older kids playing with one I begged my parents to hold it myself. Knowing it was dangerous, my mom made me promise that I would not touch the end. “You need to be very careful. Hold it like this,” she said. She must have told me three times. “Sure, sure, uh huh, I’ll be careful I promise. Can I have one, please please please??”

I’m sure you can see where this is going…

To be fair, I was very careful…. while it was lit. I didn’t touch the sparks, I didn’t put it in my pocket, didn’t attack anyone with it. In fact, I waited until it was completely out… to get distracted and grab the hot end with my other hand.

Yeah… not the greatest childhood memory.

But really, how many times did we do things like that when we were kids? We were told over and over to be careful—not to run in the house, not to drink juice in the living room, to be gentle with our younger siblings—only to have it end in an unfortunate way. How many times did we hear our parents say, “how many times have I told you?” As children, sometimes, we can be a bit foolish.

And now, I find that to be an interesting world, “foolish.” We hear it proclaimed today in both the first and second readings, a call not to be foolish but to be wise. I find it interesting because it says nothing about how smart we are, doesn’t imply malicious intent; it’s the sort of word that we use when someone knows the right thing to do, is able to do it, but gets so distracted by something unimportant that they end up doing something careless. Being foolish is being told over and over not to touch the end of a sparkler, not to run in the house, to be gentle… knowing that bad things can happen, and yet still getting get burned, knocking something over, or hurting someone.

Of course… being foolish is not limited to being a child, is it? Adults, sadly, can be just as foolish, and this is the danger that the people of the Gospel face today. You can almost hear Jesus’ frustration growing. Here he has been preaching all day about how he is the bread of life come down from heaven. Over and over he has said this—he even performed a miracle and fed five thousand people—and the people still do not believe. “How many times do I have to tell you? I am the bread of life. Unless you come to me, you will have no life within you.” I do not suspect that these were bad people; I don’t think that they were intentionally denying the divinity of Christ, the power of the Eucharist, the life-giving nature of the resurrection. No… they were just being foolish. The answer was right in front of them, but they were too focused on the wrong things—just too distracted—to accept what Jesus was saying and to do something about it.

And it makes me wonder. Here we are, having heard some variation of this Gospel for four straight weeks now, some variation of Jesus proclaiming that he is the bread of life, the life-giving food, the grace of God given to us in bodily form—how many times we have heard this message! And yet, I’m left wondering whether it’s truly sunk in. Having heard these words for four weeks now, I wonder if they have changed our lives… or if they haven’t just become like the words of our parents telling us to be careful, words that go in one ear and out the other without catching our attention or changing our actions, words that we hear but don’t actually lead us to act wisely. “Yeah, sure sure, bread of life, of course, Jesus from heaven.”

Some many find these readings a bit repetitious, maybe even a bit boring, but not me. I have to say… I actually love hearing it over and over again. I’m not sure about you, but I can be a bit hardheaded in my faith. Sometimes, I need to hear something over and over until it clicks, until I actually start to believe what I’m saying, until I actually start to live what I’m believing. Sometimes it takes two, three, even four times or more for me to do what’s right.

I think of how many times I went to mass over the years, heard the word proclaimed, ate the bread of life… but left the same way I came in. It was right in front of me, but I foolishly didn’t even notice it.

I think of how many times I’ve said yes to God, yes to following God’s will, being a good Christian, yes to turning my life around… only to forget the path I was on and fall short. The path was clear and easy to follow, but I foolishly took another path.

I think of how many times we as a Church have asked the world to trust us, proclaimed ourselves to be a people of truth and love… only to have more scandals, more coverups, more revelations of devastating systems of sin be brought to light. We were entrusted with such an amazing responsibility for the sake of the world, but now the world simple sees us as fools.

How frustrating this can be for us, feeling so foolish.

And yet, despite all of this, how many times has God continued to call our name?
How many times has God continued to give us everything we could ever need?
How many times has God continued to wait patiently while we were acting foolishly?

I tell you, I love these readings. I love being reminded over and over and over again of the power of Christ to give new life where there is nothing but death because it shows me how patient God is with us even when we’re foolish. It shows me that when something is important, God isn’t just going to give up on us and let us get away just because we weren’t listening. It gives me hope that even if I have fallen short before, even if I have let my friends, my Church, and even myself down, even if our Church has let the world down over and over again, there is still time to say yes today. There is still time to start again today and make things right. There is still time to accept Jesus as the bread of life come down from heaven and to let him live in and through us in everything that we do.

Because truly, with God, it doesn’t matter how many times we’ve been told not to touch the sparkler but did anyway.
It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve heard what was true and didn’t listen.
And in a way, it doesn’t even matter how many times we’ve let people down. We can’t change the past.

All that matters is that we have today, this very moment, to finally choose wisdom over foolishness, to begin to right what is wrong, and to say yes to God with all our heart.

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The Church’s Moral Standards Are Too High

“They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun
You know that only the good die young.”

Read any line of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and you’ll find the song’s simple message ringing through: The Church’s rules are stuffy and useless, so give in to carnal desires and have fun. By his own admission, “The point of the song wasn’t so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust,” but it’s also hard to see the difference in this case. Joel painted Catholicism (or maybe the Church in general) as an institution disconnected from the world, out of touch with people’s reality, and burdensome to normal living.

But this sentiment is not limited culturally Jewish New Yorkers with a lot of experience living around Catholics. No, this is an argument that even some Christians have made: The Church’s moral standards are too high. Setting up rules and regulations completely disconnected from the lived reality of people today, the Church, some say, expect what is impossible when what it should do is “lower the bar” a bit and set more attainable goals. Why set the ideal as the bar when everyone is going to fall short?

As you can imagine, I am not one of these people. For me, the Church’s moral standards are exactly where they need to be because they point us to exactly where we need to be going: the kingdom of heaven.

In many seminary classes and Bible studies, there is a standard way of reading the Gospels: pick a passage, compare it with similar stories in the other Gospels, and come to a conclusion about what it means. Like the lectionary of the liturgy, passages are isolated so to focus on one particular part of the Gospel.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with that approach. Seeing how a story in Matthew is different from the Mark and Luke versions is interesting and offers insight into Gospels, sort of “triangulating” our understanding of Jesus in the world; when we throw all of the stories into one mixing pot we’re able to come up with what we believe to be the most accurate depiction we can. Where there are holes in one Gospel, the others fill them in.

And yet, there is something tragically lost in the process. You see, each Gospel is a narrative. It’s a complete work of art and theology with a beginning, middle, and end. It may have similar components as the other Gospels, but the way it weaves them together tells something more. Just like any good story, there are details meant to set up the main point, foreshadowing at the beginning that reveal hidden details at the end, development of characters, and overriding themes that help influence the meaning of individual stories.

In a way, the medium and overall work are not insignificant; they are the message itself.

For this reason, many scholars have been pushing what is called the narrative approach to reading the Gospel. Rather than comparing and contrasting the four next to each other, each one should be read in isolation from the others and in its entirety. If you’re reading Mark, focus on Mark. What is he trying to say as a complete work? Who is the Jesus he is presenting? Don’t worry how Matthew tells the story. In fact, forget that there is even a Matthean gospel. Mixing in outside details will only serve to distract from the distinctly Marcan story being told.

When we do this, what we find is that each Gospel is not just a “different perspective” on the same historical events, they actually provide a beautiful work of art with distinct theologies and distinct depictions of who Jesus is.

That is the background for this week’s Catholicism in Focus. But sometimes seeing it for yourself and having concrete examples is much easier to understand than this sort of abstract explanation. If you would like to see exactly how this plays out and what the main themes in each Gospel are, I have provided two documents for your study, which you can click below to access.

Synoptic Gospels

Johannine Literature

Down through history, the Bible has been as much of a weapon as any manmade contraption. Used not to inflict a deadly blow but rather to entrap, oppress, or belittle, one could argue that it is the most powerful forces of violence the world has ever seen.

In fact, many do argue that.

And yet, we as Christians hold it as the most sacred of books. We hold that this controversial book is not just important, it is the Word of God, so divinely inspired and life-giving that it offers us a pathway to salvation.

How do we reconcile the two? How do we, as faithful Christians, respond to those who see genocide, slavery, and incest within its pages and dismiss its importance? Forget responding to others—how do we reconcile this within our own consciences?

Naturally, these are questions that would take hours to answer, and even still we mind find ourselves struggling with the paradoxes we find. But I would like to offer a start. It may not be a solution and it may not offer concrete answers, but I would like to offer a means by which we begin to answer the difficult questions of faith.

In this week’s vlog, I look to the Bible as a complicated and confusing book, but one that can offer us powerful truths if we know how to read it. My hope is that it begins a conversation, evokes a deeply hidden question, and inspires us to take seriously our call to know and live the Word of God in our lives.

For email subscribers, click here to watch the video. As a reminder, you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for exclusive content not found here on the blog.

Sometimes, life is hard.

Yeah. That’s the sort of amazing insights that keep people coming back to Breaking in the Habit.

Throughout our life, we face challenges, difficulties, frustrations, setbacks, and feelings of immense stress. At the midpoint of my first semester back in school, those words have a particular familiarity to me right now.

But what’s interesting about the situations that these words describe is that nothing ever starts out that way. No, normally, we begin a new project or stage in our life with excitement and joy. A fresh start. A new opportunity. We begin with idealism for what might come, for all that we can accomplish.

And maybe that’s what makes our frustrations that much more frustrating: we expected something very different than we got. Our idealism has been replaced with a disappointing reality.

That was the topic of my reflection this week, something that I found in the readings at Wednesday’s daily mass. For email subscribers, click here to watch the video.