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.

The following is a homily for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary time, year B. The readings for this Sunday can be found here

Does anyone here every get “hangry”? For those who don’t know, hangry is a combination of the words “hungry” and “angry,” and it’s the feeling some people get when they are so hungry they become irritable and impatient and just difficult to be around.

I am one of those people. 

With a full stomach, I’m a normal, polite, functioning human being. But as soon as my stomach begins to rumble… I become completely useless and impossible to be around. All I can focus on is food. I have no motivation, no focus, no patience. Yeah… it’s kind of embarrassing. Maybe you know someone else like that…

What I find really amazing about being “hangry,” though, is not so much how I act or feel when I’m without food, it’s how quickly I can change with it. One minute the world is ending—I’m dying of starvation, my brain doesn’t work, I want to yell at people for nothing and steal food right out of their hands—but get me a turkey sandwich, maybe just a bag of chips or some popcorn, and immediately I go from being the Hulk back to Bruce Banner like nothing happened. All is good now. The phenomenon is so commonly understood, in fact, that Snickers built an entire ad campaign around it: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

I think it’s because we understand this feeling so well on a visceral level that the experience of Elijah is so easy to relate to. Here you have a man who has been a fugitive on the run, nothing to eat, no snacks with him, and he is just famished. He is weak. So hungry that he’s decided to give up. He just can’t go on any more. The world seems impossible. Even taking another step seems too unbearable. 

But Elijah isn’t on this journey alone, is he? No, at his weakest moment, an angel of God comes to him and gives him bread—offers him a snack—provides him with the little bit of nourishment that he needs. And then, all of the sudden, he’s back to his old self and can continue on his journey. Just like us after getting an afternoon cookie.

God knows that without food, our bodies grow weak and eventually break down and so, in Elijah’s time of serious physical need, God provided what he needed to go on.

Of course, we know that we are not simply physical beings with physical needs. Holding us together, animating who we are and what we do are our souls and spirits, and it is because of this that Jesus reminds his people that they cannot live on just bread alone, that bread—or food of any kind—will not fill them. If all they have is physical food, they will be satisfied for a moment, but they will become hungry again. They will eat of it, but still die. No, what they need is spiritual food. What they need is the bread of life, the living bread from heaven. What they need, what we need, more than anything else, is Jesus Christ.

Hopefully this should not come as a new revelation to anyone. Hopefully we all know—hopefully the reason that we are all here—is because we seek the bread of life, the grace of salvation found in the Word spoken and the sacrifice offered on the altar. My guess is that we know that God pours God’s grace out on us in this sacrament and that is why we are here, to be spiritually nourished.

But here’s the million dollar question: Are we? Do we come to church weak and broken but get our turkey sandwich (so to speak) and find ourselves back to normal, ready to take on the world… or do we come to church weak and broken and leave just the same? Are we nourished by what we receive here, or might our lives reveal that in fact, we are quite spiritually “hangry” after all?

Even though this is truly the bread of life, the real presence of Jesus Christ offered to us, simply coming to communion doesn’t mean that we will be spiritually nourished. The reason for this, as far as I see it, comes down to a simple distinction: do we approach the grace we receive a “what” or a “who”?

You see, sometimes we talk about grace as if it were a “what,” a thing, a sort of supernatural substance from God with powerful properties. Maybe it’s the elixir of life, an energy force, a power that works on us, but what we know is that when we take the Eucharist or receive one of the other sacraments, we are given this special power that acts on us—making us stronger and better and holier.

And that’s a good thing, right? We want to be stronger and holier. But there’s also something a bit strange about this way of talking about grace, isn’t there? If grace is simply a “what,” a thing to be collected, we begin to treat it like something that acts upon us without our knowing and without any faith; it is something that “works,” like a magical weight-loss drug or allergy medicine that doesn’t require you to change your diet, you can eat anything you want and still lose weight!

And while this might sound appealing for diets and weight loss, it doesn’t sound too fulfilling for our spiritual lives, does it? In this view, there is no need for conversion, no need for free will, no need for us to do anything. It just “works.”

Instead of a “what,” something to be collected and administered, I want to suggest that we need to begin to see the grace that God gives us as a “who”: Grace is the gift, not of some created substance of God, but of God’s very self. In the Eucharist, in the Word, in the sacraments, in every moment of our lives, God does not give us some supernatural energy separate from God… No, God gives us God’s very self; we receive the real presence of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

And what a difference this makes on our part! Rather than passively sitting back as a force acts upon us without our knowing, what we receive is an invitation to a relationship, a relationship that calls us to be more like the one we receive, a relationship that gives us a measuring stick for what holiness looks like. When we receive Christ’s very self, living and breathing and radiating in us, we cannot just do nothing and hope things get better in us—we are not just ourselves with supernatural powers— we find ourselves as beacons of the real presence of Christ, called to go out into the world to live and share what we have become. That is spiritual fulfillment.

Unlike with our physical selves—unlike just eating a sandwich—nourishing ourselves spiritually takes more than just showing up and eating a meal, simply coming to mass and taking the Eucharist without any change, any commitment, any desire to be different. This is not going to ultimately satisfy us. We can eat all the Eucharist we want, come to every mass on Sunday, but we’re going to be left as spiritually hangry as when we walked in the door. Coming to the table is only the first part. To really fill ourselves up, to find the comfort and nourishment that we desire, it takes saying yes to God here at this table, but also saying yes every minute of our lives outside of these walls.

Because, ultimately, just like our physical selves, unless we feed our souls, we will have no life within us. Without nourishment, we will find ourselves hangry, like Elijah, ready to give up. And that is just a shame, because God is offering us all we ever need to stay full for the rest of eternity.

Say yes to God. Say yes to letting God grow in you and be known in you, and never be hangry again.

Last week I was in Raleigh, NC at The Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi. And really, to call it the “Catholic Community” is much more appropriate than to call it a church. This place not only has a giant worship space that serves thousands of people each weekend, it’s nearly 5000 families have access to an elementary and middle school, office space, recreational buildings (including a gymnasium, parish hall, library, and meeting spaces), a separate building for a daily mass and prayer chapel, and even two residential houses for special use. This is not your grandmother’s Catholic Church… (unless of course your grandmother lives in north Raleigh, then it might be.)

But beyond the opportunity to see one of the largest parish communities in the country, what made this stop interesting was the proximity to where I went to high school. Just a few minutes from the parish is my old house, high school, church, and a host of other places that offer a trip down memory lane. How did I feel going back? Well, my reaction was not exactly the same as what I felt in Greenville and Durham, we’ll say that.

All of that and more in this week’s vlog! I just arrived to Trinagle, VA where I’ll be preaching at St. Francis of Assisi Church. I hope everyone has a great weekend!


The following is my homily for this weekend, the 18th Sunday of Ordinary time, Year B.

I’m not sure about you, but I love movies with twist endings; you know, those types of movies that pull the rug out from under you at the last second and completely surprise you. Movies like The 6th sense, The Others, Fight Club, Shutter Island, Memento, Scream, even the new Pixar movie Coco has an element of this. Movies where the main character was bad all along, the trusted character turns out to be the murderer or was dead the whole time or maybe just a hallucination of another character. You’re just left at the end of the movie going… wow! How did I miss that!?

And I think that’s the best part of it, right? Because when you go back and watch it again, you just think, “Oh my gosh. It was so obvious! It was right there the whole time, staring me right in the face!” In one of my favorite movies, they give away the twist of the movie in the very first line. The writers and director want us to figure it out, but we miss it. Hidden in plain sight, we don’t see it. 

And while that might seem like a strange introduction to a homily, it’s that sort of feeling I get when I hear our readings proclaimed today. A sense that the very thing we’re looking for has been hidden in plain sight the whole time, yet the people don’t seem to see it.

In our first reading, the Israelites are wandering in the desert, complaining about their situation, and demand a miracle. They’re going to starve to death, they say. They would rather have stayed slaves than be out in the desert, that’s how hungry they are. Hearing their plea, God sends down manna from heaven, provides them with quail to eat. God provides them with an amazing miracle, showers them with grace and new life. And how do they respond? They look at one another and ask, “What is this?” God was in their midst and they didn’t even see it.

Eventually they catch on and realize what God is doing, and by the time of Jesus this is what they expect. They want God to send down manna from heaven, they want a sign from God that God is still with them, providing for them in their great hunger. And so they demand this from Jesus: “What sign can you perform so that we may believe in you?” they ask. They have seen no manna, no quails, and so they believe, once again, that God is not with them, that they are starving in the desert. 

And you can almost picture Jesus’ puzzled face, can’t you. His confusion at their demand for a sign. “So… let me get this straight. You don’t believe in me, but you would if God sent down nourishment from heaven, bread, flesh maybe, something that would feed you and keep you alive, an extraordinary miracle that shows God’s glory… Have you not be following me for months now? Have you not seen me heal people? Have you not heard me say that I have come from the Father, that the Father and I are one? Okay, let me make this clear to you: I am the bread of life. I am manna come down from heaven. My flesh is the flesh that will nourish you. Got it…?”

Now, I’m sure Jesus was probably tiny bit less snarky than I’m portraying him, but you can definitely imagine him being a bit annoyed or at the very least confused, right? There he was, revealing the Father’s glory, performing miracles in plain sight, placing salvation right in front of their noses, and they couldn’t see it. How could they not see what was right before them?

And it makes me wonder. Looking back 3500 years to the desert, 2000 years to Capernaum, it’s very easy for us to pick on the people of the Bible, to look down on them for not seeing the twist ending of the movie that seems so obvious to us. But are we any different today? For so many years I read the Bible and was amazed by the miracles in them. In awe of how God used to interact with God’s people. I wondered why my life was so ordinary, why God didn’t call me or others like he used to. I looked for signs, demanded miracles so that I would believe. “Send me manna from heaven so that I might believe,” I’d say. “Do something extraordinary so that I won’t have any more doubts.” And I imagine that Jesus was just left shaking his head. Smiling and loving, but shaking his head.

“Don’t you hear my word spoken to you every week, calling you to follow? Don’t you see the sacrifice I offer you on this altar, my very flesh and blood to give you nourishment and strength? Don’t you see my love and grace poured out for you, the mercy and forgiveness offered each and every day?” But I didn’t. Hidden in plain sight, God was all around me but I didn’t see.

And maybe this is the case for you. Maybe you find yourself asking the same questions and wonder what to do. If that’s the case, I think the answer is really simple: we have to look harder… or maybe start looking at all. Seriously. Just. Start. Looking. It’s like when people tell me that they’re struggling with their faith. I ask them what they’re doing, what are they struggling with that they can’t get, and they say, “Well, I don’t know, nothing really.” No, you’re not struggling! You’re just not trying. You’re hoping that everything will just be easy and right without doing any work! Sometimes we tell ourselves that God is hidden, that we can’t find God, that God doesn’t perform miracles like God used to… when what we really mean is that we really haven’t looked that hard.

That was the case for me until a few years ago. The friars in my house decided to meet each week for faith sharing. Once a week we would sit down, read a passage from scripture, and answer a simple question: how did we see God working in our lives this week. At first it was difficult. At first I didn’t know what to say. But as I heard others share their stories, as I thought about it all week, really focused so that I would have something to say—in fact, actually looked—what I realized was that God was there all along, right in front of my face, hidden in plain sight, waiting to be seen. 

And then it was like he was everywhere. After I saw God once, it was like watching a movie already knowing the ending. The evidence was there, so obvious, jumping right out at me, leaving me to wonder how I missed it for all these years.

God wants you to know him. God wants you to find him. Sometimes, as simple as it sounds, all we need to do is look. For one day, maybe all this week, look for God in everything you do—in your work, in your family life, in what you do for fun—make an active effort to see God right before you, reaching out to you… and you might just find that he was there all along, hidden in plain sight.

I’m in the midst of my summer vacation at my parents so I’ll keep this quick, but I have a great announcement that I would like to share with everyone about my ordination: it’s going to happen! Well, that’s not exactly news, but the date and location are set. On June 22, 2019, I will be ordained a priest at Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, NC by Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama.

At this point, that’s all I know, but I will certainly keep everyone updated as the process progresses.  For now, I’m enjoying a lazy and quite rainy Monday afternoon watching the Office on Netflix, so… I’m going to get back to that! I’ll be up and running again by the weekend where I’m headed to Raleigh, NC for stop number 8 on the Called Mission Tour! Catch you soon!