Wax on, Wax Off – Homily for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Karate Kid - Wax on Wax Off

Once upon a time there was a preacher
who was worried about his congregation.
They were good people,
people who loved Jesus,
people who had embraced the Christian way of life.

But there came a time
when they became exhausted.
They were tired—
tired of serving the world,
tired of worship,
tired of being seen as peculiar
and whispered about in society,
tired of the spiritual struggle,
tired of trying to keep their prayer life going.

Attendance at church was down,
the people were losing confidence,
and many of them were in danger of drifting away,
of leaving the community and falling away from the faith.

It’s a problem that can strike any faith community at any time.
Call it spiritual exhaustion or loss of will,
it can happen to individuals, to families, to parishes, to dioceses,
and even to entire nations.

Well, once upon a time
it had struck this one particular community,
and so the preacher
wanted to give his people a message of encouragement.
He wanted to deliver a sermon
that would wake them up,
give them strength,
give them hope,
encourage them to keep going
in their walk of faith.

What he produced was perhaps
the greatest Christian sermon ever preached or written.

And we don’t even know his name.
As a matter of fact, we don’t know where he lived,
or who his congregation was.

But we do have his sermon.
It’s called the Letter to the Hebrews.
We’ve been reading portions of it on Sundays
for the past three weeks,
and we’ll hear from it again next week.

The Letter to the Hebrews
is one of the more mysterious books in the Bible.
Despite its name,
it’s not really a letter, and it’s not really written to Hebrews.
What it is though, is the most beautiful of sermons,
meant to encourage an early Christian community
suffering from spiritual fatigue
to persevere in the faith.

That encouragement is for us, too,
when we feel the fatigue of our discipleship
and would just as soon drift away from our faith.
The Letter to the Hebrews is written to lift our hearts,
to pull us back together,
to renew our spirits.

We saw that encouragement last week
as the preacher of Hebrews
compared our spiritual journey to being on the race track in a stadium,
surrounded by thousands of spectators in the stands,
the great cloud of witnesses that have come before us.
As Monsignor Steiner said last weekend,
it’s like being in the Olympics,
where the roar of that cheering crowd
stirs our hearts and pushes us to do our best,
to be our best.
When we feel exhausted and weary of our Christian discipleship,
the great cloud of witnesses, the saints,
are cheering us on to keep running the race,
to not give up.

This week we get a different image,
that of a father teaching his son through discipline.
The preacher of Hebrews acknowledges the difficulties
of living our Christian faith.

But this is not a punishment, he says.
This is discipline.
“Endure your trials as ‘discipline,”
says the preacher,
“For what ‘son’ is there whom his father does not discipline?”

This is echoed in today’s gospel
where Jesus tells his disciples
“to strive to enter the narrow gate,”
that many “will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
It is no accident that the words discipline and disciple are related.
Being a disciple takes work, dedication, and trust.
It takes discipline.

You can really see this kind of discipline clearly
in the movie The Karate Kid.
There’s a section of that movie that wonderfully illustrates
what the preacher of Hebrews is saying today.

If you remember the movie,
Daniel is a teenage boy who moves with his mom
from New Jersey to an apartment in California.

He begins to get bullied by some boys who know karate,
and in one scene, as they are beating him up,
he is rescued by the maintenance man at his apartment,
old Mr. Miyagi.
Mr. Miyagi uses karate to defend Daniel and chase the bullies off.

Now, Daniel wants to be able to defend himself,
and eventually Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach him karate.
They even have a sort of covenant ceremony,
in which Mr. Miyagi ties a headband around Daniel’s head
and says,
“I promise to teach you karate,
and you promise to learn.
I say, you do, no question. Deal?”
And Daniel agrees.
It’s at this point that Daniel becomes, in a way, a disciple of Mr. Miyagi.

And the first thing Mr. Miyagi does is hand Daniel a bucket of water
and tell him to wash and wax all of his cars.
It’s the most famous scene in the movie, when Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel,
“Wax on with the right hand, wax off with the left.”
“Wax on, wax off. Breath in through the nose out through the mouth.”
Daniel doesn’t understand what this has to do with karate,
but he’s just promised to do as he is told,
so he picks up the bucket and begins.
There are a lot of cars, and it takes Daniel a long time.

After he’s done washing and waxing the cars,
Daniel comes back the next day ready to learn karate.
Mr. Miyagi gives him two Japanese sanding blocks
and tells him to sand the floor.
“The floor” is the huge wooden walkway in his backyard,
and Daniel has to get down on his knees
and make large circles with the blocks
sanding day after day.
Then after he finishes that,
Daniel has to paint the tall wooden fence
that surrounds Mr. Miyagi’s property
using long strokes, up and down,
painting the long boards with the right hand,
and the short boards with the left hand.

It’s exhausting work, especially in the California heat,
and with each task, Daniel’s patience wears thinner and thinner;
he wanted to learn karate.
Instead, he’s frustrated and sore,
and he feels like a slave.

This is how the preacher’s community feels in the Letter to the Hebrews:
exhausted, impatient, ready to give up.
This is how we can sometimes feel,
wondering when all our trials will bear fruit.

Daniel confronts Mr. Miyagi,
accusing him of not keeping up his part of the bargain,
of not teaching him karate.
Daniel starts to walk away, ready to give up his training, his discipleship,
when Mr. Miyagi calls him back,
and tells him that he has been learning karate all along.
He says, “Show me wax on, wax off.”
When Daniel makes the motion of waxing on and waxing off,
Mr. Miyagi shows him how that is a defensive karate move.
Mr. Miyagi goes on to show him how each of the tasks he’s done
has trained his body to do a different karate block.
Wax on, wax off,
sand the floor,
paint the fence,
these have all been building muscle memory,
and when Mr. Miyagi begins to throw punches and kicks at Daniel,
he is able to fend them off with the moves he has learned.

Mr. Miyagi has taught Daniel discipline, but also trust.
He has become like a father to Daniel, who has had no father.

We are all sons and daughters of our heavenly father,
and there come times when we weary of our Christian life,
when we feel like the burden of discipleship as a punishment,
when we, like Daniel, are ready to walk out and give up.

But the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us
that we become disciples through discipline,
the discipline of being patient with our families,
trying to live honest lives,
forgiving those who wrong us,
speaking well of others.

It’s also the discipline of serving the poor,
of making time to pray each day,
of coming here to worship with this community.

Each day we wake up with the tasks of being a disciple,
with our particular crosses to bear.
That is the discipline of being a disciple of Christ.

The discipline imposed by Mr. Miyagi
bore fruit for Daniel,
who was able to learn karate and defend himself;
and the discipline imposed on us by our baptism into Christ
will bear fruit for us,
who hope to pass through the narrow gate
and experience the joy of eternal life.

The Imperfect Rehearsal Dinner – Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wedding Cake

Today’s readings offer us a contrast
between two people visited by the Lord.
The Lord comes to their homes, and we see two different reactions;
I’m not speaking here of Martha and Mary,
but of Martha and Abraham.

Now, there are definitely differences
between the way Martha responds to her encounter with Jesus,
and the way Mary responds.
But if we focus only on Martha and Mary,
we may get the mistaken idea that Mary’s contemplation
is superior to Martha’s service.

But by comparing and contrasting Martha and Abraham,
we can see the value of active service for God,
but also how that service
can take two very different paths.

The first reading and the gospel parallel each other:
In the first reading, the three men, representing the the Lord,
visit Abraham and Sarah at their tent, their home.
In the gospel Jesus visits Martha and Mary at their home.
And both Abraham and Martha work hard
to be hospitable to their guests.

But there’s a big difference
in the way they each of them provide that hospitality.

Abraham is eager to serve his guests.
In the heat of the day,
he runs out from his tent to greet the strangers.
He says, “Do me a favor and stay here and let me serve you.”
Abraham is eager to demonstrate his hospitality.
It’s a favor to him to serve them.
It’s a favor to him to be able to bring them water,
to bathe their feet.
It’s a favor to him to bring them food.

He’s so eager he can’t contain himself.
He runs everywhere.
He runs to greet them,
he runs to Sarah
and says, “Quick! Make some rolls!”
He runs out to the field and finds a tender, choice steer
and gives it to a servant who prepares it quickly.
Everything in the story happens quickly.
And finally Abraham himself waits on the strangers.
For Abraham, this encounter with the Lord
is a gift, a favor,
an opportunity to eagerly serve.

The encounter between Martha and the Lord
is very different.
In the gospel we see Martha
burdened with much serving.
For Martha, being hospitable to Jesus is not a favor,
but a source of anxiety.

She feels pressure
to make sure things are just so.
She needs help to do things the way she wants them done,
but instead of directly asking Mary to get up and help,
the way Abraham asked Sarah,
she takes a passive-aggressive approach.
She keeps working and working,
hoping that Jesus will notice and say something.
You can almost see her shooting dirty looks to Mary
behind Jesus’ back.

What Martha is doing is passing judgment on Mary.
She judges that Mary ought to be helping her,
and she’s upset when Jesus doesn’t notice.
So she asks, “Lord, don’t you care?”

But if she wanted a sympathetic ear,
she’s not getting it from Jesus.
It’s not the fact that Martha is serving instead of sitting
that Jesus is concerned about;
it’s that Martha’s anxious and worried about many things.

What is she worried about?
The gospel doesn’t say,
but we can imagine:
Is the food prepared properly?
Does everyone have enough to eat?
Does it taste ok?
Is the table clean enough?

In other words,
she wants things to be perfect for Jesus.
Part of it may be pride,
part of if may be worry
about what Jesus will think of her
if the dinner doesn’t come off well.

Anyone who’s ever put on an important dinner
can relate to Martha’s anxieties.
Two weeks ago our oldest son got married,
and as the parents of the groom
Brenda and I were responsible for the rehearsal dinner.
This was the first wedding in our family,
and we wanted the dinner to go perfectly.
So, of course, we worked hard on it,
and we worried.
Will there be something on the menu for everyone?
Will the food turn out ok?
Should we have a toast?
When do we play the slide show?
Will the two families get along and get to know each other?

We could easily relate to Martha’s anxieties.

But we could also relate to Abraham.
We were eager and excited.
Putting on the rehearsal dinner didn’t feel like a burden,
but a favor,
a privilege to do something for people we love and care about.

But we were still worried and anxious.
We wanted the dinner to be perfect
for our son Ryan and his soon-to-be wife Teresa.

It wasn’t perfect.
And yet
it was perfect.

It wasn’t perfect in the sense that one of the entrees came out cold
for everyone who ordered it
and had to be sent back.
The amplifier for the slide show kept crackling, so the sound was bad,
and the timing of the music with the pictures
didn’t work the way it was supposed to.

But at the same time,
the rehearsal dinner was perfect.

Because there was need of only thing:
Ryan and Teresa, gathered together with their friends and family.
It was the encounter that mattered, the gathering together in love.

This is what Jesus is trying to tell Martha.
There is need of only one thing: encounter with Jesus.
Could Mary have helped Martha without asking?
Would that have made the dinner perfect?
Probably not.

But the dinner was perfect anyway
because of the presence of Jesus, the one thing needed.

As we think about our own encounters with Jesus,
Abraham and Martha help us look at how we respond
to Jesus’ presence in our lives.

Both Abraham and Martha worked hard for their guests.
For Martha it was a burden.
For Abraham it was a pleasure.

Do we, like Martha, feel Jesus’ presence as a burden?
Is our encounter with Jesus like a weight that we have to carry,
a weight that seems heavier to us
than to the people around us,
a jealous kind of burden?
Are we worried that we won’t be able to please God?
Do we judge others and complain to God
about those who don’t seem to be serving God
or living out the faith as much as we do?
Do we cry out,
“Lord, don’t you care?”

Or do we respond with eagerness as Abraham did,
recognizing that serving God is a privilege,
a joyful encounter with the One who loves us?

I suspect that for most of us
there are times when we respond like Abraham,
eager and happy to serve;
and there are times when we respond like Martha,
angry and judgmental;
there are even times when we respond in both ways at the same time.

Luke doesn’t say what happened after Jesus spoke to Martha.
But based on what we hear of Martha in John’s gospel,
it’s likely that she listened to what Jesus said and grew from it,
taking it to heart.
Maybe she put the dishes down, sat next to Mary,
and really engaged with Jesus.
Or maybe she kept working,
but with a lighter heart,
letting her anxieties go,
realizing that Jesus would always love her,
regardless of how hard she worked,
or how well things turned out.

The more important question is:
How are we being called to grow as we leave here today?
Some of us may feel the need to sit with Mary at the foot of Jesus
and spend more time listening to him.
Others may sense that they need to keep serving, like Martha,
but with a renewed eagerness and joy.
And still others may feel the call to jump up like Abraham,
and run out to meet Jesus, ready to serve him and his people.

Whatever we are called to do as we leave,
we can be certain that Jesus visits us in our homes,
in our workplaces, on our vacations, wherever we are;
and that despite all our worries and anxieties,
he is the one thing needed.

Castles in the Air: A Wedding Homily for My Son and His Bride

Ryan and Teresa Senger

Ryan and Teresa Senger

Yesterday I had the great honor to officiate the wedding of my son, Ryan, and his wife Teresa. Here is the homily from that ceremony:

Brenda and I have had the best time
watching Ryan and Teresa get ready for this day,
and we’ve enjoyed getting ready for it ourselves.

One of the things I had to do for the wedding
was pick up the dry cleaning a few days ago
from a place out in the valley, off Pines near Broadway.
After I picked it up,
instead of trying to make a left on Pines,
I went down a side street to get back on Broadway,
and as I turned the corner,
there, in the middle of a residential neighborhood,
was a castle.

I did not know that there was a castle in the Spokane Valley.

But it’s there, on Vercler Road.
You can tell by looking at it that it’s homemade,
that it’s been built slowly, over time,
with its leaning towers, and uneven brickwork.
Some of the towers look unfinished,
as if the builder is still working on it.
And as I drove by, I thought,
thank you, God, for the romantics of the world,
who give us castles
in the middle of the city.
To me, that castle is a sign of creativity, of idealism,
of something bigger.
Some might call it foolish, the work of a dreamer,
but I call it romantic.

I know there are some romantics here today,
and two of them are sitting right over there.
I don’t know if it surprises you to know that they’re romantics,
and maybe it surprises them.
But here’s how I know they’re romantics:
If any of you have seen the pictures that Teresa posts on Facebook,
you might have noticed
that whenever she posts a picture of herself and Ryan,
she adds it to a photo album that she calls
“My Knight in Shining Kevlar.”

Isn’t that romantic?

For Teresa, Ryan is the knight who rescued her
from a life of crime,
that night when they first met
and he found her parked illegally.
He is her knight in shining kevlar.

And if you’ve seen the pictures of the day they got engaged,
Ryan on one knee in the middle of a field of blueberries,
the knight keeling before his lady,
you know that there’s a romantic side to Ryan.

So there’s a bit of the romantic in each one of them.
This became even more clear to me
when I asked both of them
why they had chosen these particular Scripture readings for today.
They both pointed to the last line of the first reading,
where Tobiah and Sarah are praying on their wedding night,
and they end that prayer by asking God,
“allow us to live together to a happy old age.”

That line is important to Ryan and Teresa.
Ryan and Teresa want their story to end with
“and they lived happily ever after.”

It’s a romantic notion,
a notion that some might see as idealistic, unreachable,
like building castles in the air — or in the middle of Spokane.

But it was the American writer Henry David Thoreau who said,
“If you build your castles in the air…
that is where they should be.
Now put the foundations under them.”

Today, Ryan and Teresa begin building the foundation
under their castle in the air.

And like that castle in the Spokane Valley,
their wedding this day is something visible, something public.

Just as that castle in the middle of the city
is a sign of something bigger,
every marriage is to be a sign of something bigger.

The love that married couples have for each other
is to be a sacred sign of the way God loves us.

Whenever we see married couples holding hands in the park,
or out on a date,
worried about whether the kids are tying up the babysitter,
we get a tiny glimpse of God’s love for us.
When one spouse is sick and the other makes chicken noodle soup,
or when one has had a bad day and comes home to a sympathetic ear,
we get an echo of the great love God offers us
each and every moment.

Marriage is a sacred sign.
If we want to know how God loves us,
we are to look at couples like you, Ryan and Teresa,
and see your love.

You are called to be a castle in the middle of the city,
an ever-growing monument to God’s love for all to see.

That’s not an easy task.
In fact, it’s quite a challenge.

Like that castle over on Vercler Road,
every marriage needs constant building,
and continual tending.
Those of us who have been married for many years
can tell you all about love’s ups and downs.

But we can also tell you that you are not alone
in building your marriage.
Today as you commit yourselves to each other,
Jesus Christ also promises himself to you.
He promises to walk your journey with you.
He promises to be with you in good times and in bad,
in sickness and in health,
in the hope that you will live together to a happy old age.

There is another castle, now, in the Spokane Valley,
just off Dishman-Mica Road.
This is your castle,
the castle that the two of you will continually build, remodel, and expand on,
a castle to share with the world.

It’s not the house on the lot there,
or the shop, or the home theater, or the kitchen.

It is the interior castle of your hearts,
the place where a knight in shining kevlar and his lady
work together with Christ to live a life happily ever after.

In Your Own Words – Homily for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C


One of the most dreaded phrases
in classrooms everywhere is
“in your own words.”

“Explain the causes of the Civil War in your own words.”
“Describe the process of photosynthesis in your own words.”

Teachers love the phrase because it requires students
to do deep thinking;
and students dread the phrase,
because it requires them to do deep thinking.

It may seem cruel of me to be talking about school
so soon after summer vacation has begun,
but I only bring it up because of what happens in today’s gospel.

Jesus is ending one stage of his ministry,
and he’s giving his disciples a kind of oral mid-term.
This is a turning point in Luke’s gospel.
Jesus is about to begin his long journey
toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Before that happens,
he wants his disciples to be clear about who he is.

And so first Jesus prays in solitude.
In Luke’s gospel, this is always the signal
that something important is about to take place.
This is a key event,
not only for Jesus’ disciples in this gospel,
but also for us, Jesus’ disciples here and now.

And so for this mid-term test,
Jesus begins with an easy question:
“Who do the crowds say that I am?”

That’s just a matter of simple recall.
You can almost see the disciples raising their hands.
“John the Baptist, some say;
others say Elijah;
still others, one of the prophets.”

Maybe the disciples begin to feel a little proud of themselves:
“See, we’ve been paying attention.”

But then Jesus asks the tough question:
“But you, who do you say that I am?”

What he means is,
“You who walk with me and live with me,
you who know me,
Who do you say that I am? In your own words.”

Jesus asks the same question of each one of us.

We might reply
the Son of God,
the New Adam,
the Lamb of God,
my Lord and Savior.

Or maybe we would would borrow some of the great answers
that have come down through the ages
from saints, poets, theologians, and authors*:
In the Litany of the Sacred Heart
Jesus is the House of God and Gate of Heaven.
Fr. Eugene Boylan calls him This Tremendous Lover.
For poet Francis Thompson he is The Hound of Heaven.
To C.S. Lewis he is Aslan, the Lion of Narnia.
Bach called him The Joy of Man’s Desiring.
For Pope John Paul II he is a mirror in which we can see who we are.

Those are all excellent answers,
but they’re not in our own words.
That would be cheating.
Jesus wants the answer in our own words,
not repeated from memory or found in a book.

Peter didn’t read his answer in a catechism;
his answer came through his personal encounter with Jesus.
He saw Jesus work and heard him speak,
and so he was able to say,
“You are the Christ of God.”

Jesus wants our own answer
to be based on our personal relationship with him.

Our answer doesn’t have to be poetic.
It doesn’t even have to be completely right.
Peter’s answer was incomplete—
he correctly called Jesus the Christ,
but he had little idea that it meant Jesus would suffer
and then die on a cross.

We don’t need to worry about flowery language
or getting things just right.
We only need to be honest.

But it can be hard to come up with our own answer
especially since we’ve heard all the other answers so often.
When we start to think about who Jesus is,
the first thing that often comes to mind is what we hear at Mass,
what we’ve been taught by parents and catechists,
or what we’ve read in books.

The challenge of today’s liturgy, then,
is to get past those other answers,
and tell him in our own words who he is for us personally.

There are a couple of practices that can help us do this.

The first is a writing exercise,
and it’s a technique for helping students
who get stuck writing things from the surface,
unable to get at their own deeper thoughts.

The same thing can happen when we think about who Jesus is.
We can remain comfortably on the surface,
simply repeating the same phrases and titles we’ve heard before
without really challenging ourselves to go deeper
and really understand how Jesus wants to transform our lives.

The technique to get below the surface
is a little free writing exercise
that only takes ten minutes.

Get a piece of paper and a pen,
and set a timer for ten minutes.
Start the timer and begin writing an answer to Jesus’ question:
“Who do you say that I am?”
The key is to write for the entire ten minutes without stopping,
without picking the pen up from the paper,
not thinking about spelling or grammar,
not analyzing what you’re writing,
just letting your mind run where it will
while you write what goes through it.

At first, you’ll probably write down familiar words and phrases,
but after a while you’ll start to run out of ideas.
That’s when the deeper answers will start to come out.
It’s important not to stop when you run out of ideas,
but to keep the pen going.
If your mind goes blank, just keep writing the last word you wrote
until you get more words.

After the ten minutes is up,
you’ll have something authentic to think about,
something in your own words
to pray about
and to talk to Jesus about.

The other practice is for when we have a hard time
answering the question of who Jesus is
because we have lost touch with him.

We all lose touch with Jesus from time to time
as the busyness of the world creeps in
or as we get caught up in other pursuits.

One of the most honest answers we can give
to Jesus’ question of “Who do you say that I am?”
is “I don’t know.”

When we find ourselves in that situation
then we know it’s time to reconnect with Jesus.
It’s time to ask the Holy Spirit to help us encounter Jesus.
And here’s one way to do that:

This only takes about ten minutes, too, by the way.
Bring your Bible to a quiet spot where you can be alone.
Open your Bible,
and choose any single event from the Gospels—
Jesus walking on water, healing the blind man,
telling the parable of the Good Samaritan,
teaching his disciples to pray—it doesn’t matter which.
Choose just one,
and then briefly ask God for the grace
to encounter Jesus,
and read the Gospel story.

As you read, try to enter into the story imaginatively,
just daydream about it for five minutes or so.
In your imagination, observe what’s happening;
look, listen, walk around and pay attention to Jesus.
What is he doing, what is he saying?
When you’re done thank God for this time with his Son.

After you do this over the course of several days,
revisit Jesus’ question,
“Who do you say that I am?”

Chances are, you’ll have an answer in your own words.

This is what Jesus wants.
He wants us to know him,
to really know him,
and not just words about him;
to be in a personal relationship with him
and to speak to him
in our own words.


*Thanks to Fr. James Gilhooley for these references to Jesus.