Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I Am a Nasarani

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

                                      - Rev. Martin Niemoller

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Difference Between Wheat and Weeds

Many of us know who Alfred Nobel is. He is the man for whom the “Nobel Prize” is named. The Nobel Prize is awarded to men and women who have contributed to humanity in areas like science, literature, and, most notably, peace. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to such great folks as Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Blessed Mother Teresa, and the Dali Lama.

However, Alfred Nobel did not become “Alfred Nobel” for establishing a prize. Rather, he had to amass that wealth from something. Nobel is the man who invented dynamite, among other explosive compounds, and he was also quite the war profiteer. This was the case for most of his life – until he had the chance to read his obituary.

In 1888, when Alfred’s brother Ludvig passed away, a French newspaper mistakenly wrote up the obituary for the more famous Alfred. The obit read, “The merchant of death is dead. … Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Needless to say, Alfred was a little shaken up by that bit of news! He decided that, since we wasn’t dead yet, he would dedicate his life to providing some incentive for making the world a better place – even if he had not necessarily done that himself. The Nobel Peace Prize was born as a way to recognize men and women who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Wheat and weeds. The world is full of them. Jesus’ world was full of them too, and that’s where His parable gets its strength.

Here, the workers are distressed by the presence of the weeds among the good wheat that the Master had sown. He didn’t put them there; they don’t belong there; so the workers are naturally concerned. However, what is very interesting is the lack of surprise or worry on the part of the Master, who simply says, “An enemy has done this.”

He is not worried about their presence, and he even allows them to remain and grow until the harvest, where it will all be sorted out. Notice that it is concern for the good wheat that drives the Master to be tolerant and patient of the weeds – not happiness that the weeds are there.

The question that naturally arises for the self-reflective Christian is this: am I wheat or am I a weed? The obvious answer should be that I am wheat, and that the Master desires to harvest me at the proper time. However, we all probably have been weeds at some time in our lives. Better yet, we probably should say that we have a mixture of wheat and weeds in us right now. Nevertheless, God is patient; He sees the big picture, and He allows us to grow – with the opportunity to shed those weeds and grow as healthy and strong wheat.

Alfred Nobel, the dynamite creator, was seen by many as a weed. Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Peace Prize, will probably qualify as wheat; but that is only because he had the time to develop, to mature, and to grow. This is what the Master desires.

As pastor of Our Lady of Hope and St. Luke, I have about 1,900 registered families – maybe 4,000 people or so. However, as far as the geographic area of those two parishes are concerned, over 34,000 people live in that area. According to Canon Law, a parish is not the folks who have filled out the registration card; rather, it includes all the “Christian faithful of a certain territory” (Can. 518). Therefore, our parishes encompass, probably, at least 25,000 people. On a given weekend, however, we will usually see about 1000 of them.

Wheat and weeds. Who are they? Who decides? You? Me? This is God’s privilege, not ours. When the Master know that the weeds are present, he allows them, for now, to grow along with the wheat. But what is a weed? Moms, have your children ever brought you a dandelion as a gift?

Wheat and weeds. It is the difference between seeing a dandelion or a flower; it’s the difference between “those people” and potential fellow parishioners; it’s the difference between seeing others as “illegal immigrants” or refugees in need of love; it’s the difference between “us” and “them”; it’s the difference between a warmonger and a promoter of humanity and peace. Jesus takes that wheat now – as it has become our Bread – and He transforms it into the Body of Christ that nourishes us. In the Eucharist, we are fed and given a taste of God’s perspective; and we are called to put that perspective into action in our lives. Evangelization first requires that we see others as worthy of that life-giving Word, and that we share it with them wherever they may be – in our pews or at the 7-Eleven.

Wheat and weeds. The world is full of them; and God is looking for us to help transform them all.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Encounter of Seed and Soil

Over the next couple of weeks, we will hear several parables from Matthew’s Gospel. In them, Jesus will be explaining what the “kingdom of heaven” is like. That’s what parables do: they compare the heavenly reality to something easily accessible to the people. However, today, as the thirteenth chapter of Matthew opens, Jesus begins with a parable that is not exactly about the “kingdom of heaven.” It is a parable that is meant to prepare them for the others, though.

Rather than beginning, as He will, with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Jesus simply begins His story: “A sower went out to sow.” So … what is this parable about? In the longer version that we did not hear today, Jesus actually explains the entire thing: The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

The seed is that Word of God that Jesus proclaims, and He is the Sower. Therefore, this is a parable about hearing, listening, and producing. The sower is not so much interested in the simple act of sowing; if He were, then he would have been much more careful and deliberate about where He tossed those seeds. Rather, the Sower is interested in the harvest – the fruits of His work and the readiness of the soil.

Brothers and sisters, this is a parable about evangelization. Jesus is talking today about what we are called to do with that Word that is given to us. Each one of us is responsible for our own parcel of soil: rocky, thorny, or richly tilled, it doesn’t matter. We all receive that Word. It is up to us to prepare for that Word and cultivate it in our hearts – not only to receive it well ourselves, but also to produce a rich harvest that can be shared with others.

We must take our cue from the Gospel. Evangelization is not simply about the proclamation of the Word. If it were, then we could be content with just sowing and forgetting about the soil. Rather, evangelization in its fullest sense (in the Christian sense, as Jesus did it) is about the encounter with Jesus Christ. He is the Word. The point of this parable is not the spreading of seed far and wide. No. It is about the encounter of seed and soil – of the Word and the hearts of the hearers. It is about you and me.

In our lives there are folks who can identify with all of these sorts of ground that Jesus describes. There are those who have no frame of reference for the Gospel, who do not know any sense of spirituality or openness to God. These need to be opened to the possibility of that real encounter. There are those who are open but are more tied to the needs of this world, looking for meaning in what the world has to sell and offer. These need to see the life-changing love of Jesus shown through His people. There are those who have the best intentions but find themselves dragged down by hardships and trials and disappointments. These need to see the healing power of Jesus active in the lives of those who truly know Him.

Finally, there are those who allow that seed to take deep roots. These are the ones, as Jesus says, who bear fruit and yield a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. We can be that soil – we probably have been all types at one point or another. However, today, we are invited again to hear that Word and to allow it to find a home again in our hearts. When we do that, we become agents for the Sower – a Sower who is looking for that fruit. Jesus does not discount the possibility of any soil – compacted, rocky, thorny or rich. He shares Himself abundantly, as He does in the Eucharist.

Therefore, with heart tilled and ready, we are called to open our ears and hear; and in hearing, we are called to produce. The Encounter is the most important thing. Jesus is looking at that parcel of soil that you and I have been given; so should we. And in joyfully receiving that Word, we can then share the produce with others.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Slow Down

Last month there was a brilliant article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Why We Humblebrag About Being Busy.” The author, Greg McKeown, was writing about the unhealthy busy-ness that seems to be an epidemic in our society today. Everyone is busy – just ask them! McKeown calls it being trapped in a “bubble” that is a result of “the undisciplined pursuit of more.”
“This bubble is being enabled by an unholy alliance between three powerful trends: smart phones, social media, and extreme consumerism. The result is not just information overload, but opinion overload. We are more aware than at any time in history of what everyone else is doing and, therefore, what we ‘should’ be doing. In the process, we have been sold a bill of goods: that success means being supermen and superwomen who can get it all done. Of course, we back-door-brag about being busy: it’s code for being successful and important.”
Does this sound familiar? Do we get caught in this crazy rat race of doing and doing, leading to exhaustion and defeat? Why is this? Why do we always feel the need for “more?” We even foist it onto others, don’t we? If someone relates that they are simply spending the evening or weekend at home, “doing nothing,” we somehow feel an urge to help them fill in that obvious void – inviting them to some event with us or backhandedly insulting their laziness by saying, “I wish I could just do nothing!”

But the point is this: we don’t have to. Rest is a perfectly good idea and pursuit. Jesus understands this too. A Man whom we would think had His work cut out for Himself comes to us today and talks not about “getting out there and doing something,” but rather coming to Him and resting.

Too often, I think, we are drawn away from resting – lured into the illusion that being busy somehow means we are worthwhile, contributing. Our culture continually shows us the things we need to have, the places we need to go and the activities we need to do in order to be happy. But isn’t the idea of rest an attractive one? Jesus comes to us today, in the midst of our summer, and reminds us that His gift of peace is one that offers contentment and rest – and that this is a holy thing.

The world sells us what Paul calls living “according to the flesh.” It means satisfying all our appetites and doing whatever “feels good.” But where is the rest that the world offers? No matter how much of the world’s goods we amass, we are always wanting more. We are never happy.

However, when we live in the Spirit, we are giving ourselves to the peace that God offers. This is a peace that comes not from things but from our knowledge of being “in Jesus.” It’s His peace – a peaceful rest that is the result of knowing that God loves you and values you more than any “thing” in the world. We don’t need to occupy ourselves with worldly pursuits; we don’t need to fill our schedules with more stuff. We need to fill them with God.

The next time someone asks you how things are going, pay attention. Is your first response to say “Busy” – as if that is the “right answer”? What if you responded, “Peaceful” or “Restful”? Don’t you think someone would want to know more about the Source of that peace – the Source of that rest?

Often, we think that evangelizing needs to be a active thing – and exertion of effort to share God with others. However, just the opposite can be just as effective. Where does the peace and calm of a Christian come from? How do we get some of that?

Jesus never tried to overwhelm people with His presence. He triumphantly entered Jerusalem, not on a chariot but on a donkey – on a colt, the foal of an ass. He even comes to us now in the simply form of Bread and Wine. These are reminders to us that true Christian holiness is seen in those who take Jesus up on His invitation today: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

As we ease through our summers this year, I hope we can take advantage of the restful opportunities that we often get. Use this time to pare back on those things we really don’t need and to focus and enhance those things we do need. Pray a little more; spend real time with family and friends; simplify.

Sometimes, when we pursue less, we recognize how truly blessed we are; and we can rest in that knowledge that God gives us exactly what we need.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Peter & Paul: Three Things

Does anyone here have a birthday on or near Christmas? Do you feel like you somehow lose out, having to share your day with Someone else? That’s what I first thought of with today’s feast day: the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. After all, here are two of the giants of the early Church – of all time – and we mash them together as if there was not enough room in our calendar for them. By the way, we celebrate them individually as well: the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25; the Chair of Peter on February 22; and the dedication of each of their Roman basilicas in November. However, today, we get them both. But there’s a good reason – and evangelical reason. Peter and Paul share many things in common. I am going to outline three of them for you.

First, both men had big mouths.

Peter was famous for his big mouth. In fact, his mouth was much bigger than his brain most of the time, as he often spoke without thinking. This got him into trouble a lot – he wanted to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, at the Transfiguration; he told Jesus that He should go to Jerusalem to die; and he said he’d follow Christ to the Cross, but chickened out when questioned in the courtyard. However, today Peter gets it right. He recognizes Jesus for Who He really is: the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus blesses him for this profession of faith.

Paul also had a big mouth. As a Pharisee, he knew his religion inside and out, and he spoke about it with anyone who would listen (and even with those who wouldn’t). It was Paul’s skill as a “big mouth” that God used as he travelled the world preaching the Gospel after his conversion. You couldn’t shut Paul up!

Second, both men had their names (and lives) changed by Jesus.

Peter began life as Simon – Simon the fisherman; Simon, brother of Andrew; Simon, son of Jonah. However, through his relationship with Jesus – a real, personal relationship with Jesus – Simon would become “Peter,” from the Greek petros, meaning “rock.” Jesus recognizes in Simon’s confession of faith the solid rock on which His Church could be built. This relationship with Jesus is what taught Peter Who this Man was, and that he could place all his trust in Him.

Paul began his life as Saul – Saul, the Pharisee; Saul, the perfect Jew; Saul, the one who “breathed murderous threats against the disciples.” Then, after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul was transformed. He became the greatest advocate for the faith and for a relationship with Jesus Christ. From then on, he was Paul – not because of some ancient typo (there are no typos in Scripture!). This is no accident. Whenever there is a name change in Scripture it denotes a new mission, a new vocation – as Abram became Abraham, and Sarai became Sarah. Paul was new.

Lastly, both men gave their lives for their faith in Christ.

Peter travelled from Jerusalem to Antioch, and ultimately to Rome – probably out of the boldness of his faith and personality, to convert the Empire. There, he became the head of the church in Rome as their bishop (this is why the pope, the Successor to Peter, is the Bishop of Rome). However, in the year 64A.D., when a severe persecution arose, Peter reverted to his old ways. He got scared, legend says, and as he was high-tailing it out of the city, on the road, he met Jesus, carrying His Cross and entering Rome. “Lord, where are you going,” Peter asked. “I am going to Rome to suffer and die with My Church (because you won’t.” (Talk about a guilt trip!) Peter was justly convicted, and he returned to the city, where he was arrested, and put to death in the Circus of Nero, along side of a hill still called the Vatican.

After his death, the Christians took his body and laid it in a grave on the nearby Vatican Hill. Christians would bring lamps from home and lay them on the grave, and they would retrieve them the next morning. These were mementos, or relics, for their homes, recalling the witness of Peter and in hope for his intercession.

Interestingly, in the 1950s, archaeologists were excavating the necropolis (ancient graveyard) below St. Peter’s. They found ancient graffiti that read, “Peter, pray for me” and “Peter is here.” They found also a box of bones without a head or feet. Peter’s head would be in St. Paul’s basilica with Paul’s (we like breaking our saints’ bodies up, don’t we?). As for the feet, the easiest way to remove a person crucified upside-down, as Peter was said to be, was to cut them off at the ankles so the body would fall off. If one climbed directly up from that grave, they’d hit the altar of the ancient basilica of St. Peter’s, and then higher to the current altar. Literally, that church was built on the “rock” of Peter, as Christ said!

Paul was a Roman citizen, and would therefore not be subject to crucifixion; but he was beheaded, outside the city of Rome, in the year 67A.D. Ancient tradition held that the two were martyred on the same day, but historians doubt that.

So, three things shared in common: big mouths, name changes, and martyrdom in Rome. But the sharing of this feast day is more than those coincidences. Rather, we celebrate the faith of these two – a faith that we share today. We are called to have “big mouths” – to be bold in sharing our faith. We must speak about Jesus to others, not just acting. We too are called to witness like Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior, the Son of the living God, and then to live our lives according to that. We are to be transformed by that real personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus changes lives, and we must experience this change in our own lives. Finally, we are also to be consumed by Christ; consumed by this faith so that share it with everyone. While we may not be called to die for our faith like Peter and Paul, we are certainly called to live for it!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Big Smallness

Let me give you something to chew on.

Why do you think Jesus gives us Himself in a quarter-sized host and a sip from a chalice? How is that a feast?

I’ve been to my share of feasts in my life; I imagine you have as well. In my family, as with many, there are the traditional feast days: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, et cetera. However, in addition to the main meal, there is the pre-feast – in the living room, where the coffee table is covered with crackers, cheese, chips, pretzels, sliced fruits and veggies, and dips. My downfall is the cheese, and inevitably I end up filling up before dinner and can only enter so much into the delicious ham, turkey, prime rib, lamb, or whatever we are sharing. It’s a little embarrassing, and certainly disappointing!

Well, here we are for our feast – the Holy Eucharist. We come here often, and we are fed often – not with a massive smorgasbord, but with a quarter-sized host and a sip from a chalice.

Why? Why is this our “feast”?

Humanly speaking, it doesn’t seem like enough. Over time, meals consisting only of such fare would physically weaken us. However, spiritually speaking, our faith tells us that this is so much more than mere bread and wine. Faith – and only faith – tells us that we are encountering and consuming the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, which He left us as true food for the rest of time. This feast of Corpus Christi is meant to remind us of the sublime mystery of the Eucharist, and allow us the opportunity to re-evaluate our attitude toward the Blessed Sacrament.

This Feast is not simply about what we are handed on the surface. Rather, it is about our awareness of this great Gift. As Christ comes to us in our hand or on our tongue as a tiny Host and a sip from the Cup, we are forced to focus on that smallness – a smallness that contains all Bigness: the God of the Universe, placed in our midst so that He can have Communion with us.

Why so small? Two reasons come to my mind. First, there is always room for Jesus in this way. No matter how full you are, there is always space for a quarter-sized Host and a sip from the Cup. Jesus wants to be with us – in us – that badly!

The second reason has to do with that awareness that I mentioned. Think about a teach of young children. If she has to yell at the kids to control them, then she has already lost control. However, truly adept teachers can lower their voices, almost to a whisper, and the effect is remarkable. The children quiet down – they even hush each other – in order to hear what the teacher is saying. They are required to focus, to work to hear.

When our Lord comes to us in smallness, we too are forced to focus, to work, to become aware of what is actually happening. Without that focus, that awareness, we cannot hope to fully grasp the incredible beauty and mystery of the Eucharist. It is impossible.

Remember the Eucharistic fast? It used to be from midnight until you receive Communion that you wouldn’t eat. Now, it’s one hour prior. I know, we play games with that hour: “If Fr. Greg has Mass, I know I can eat up until about 20 after…” Well, let’s stop that! One hour prior to Mass: 11:30 Mass, 10:30 fast. Of course, exceptions apply to the infirm or for medical reasons; but the purpose of this fast is to help us prepare for Jesus Who comes to us as true food and true drink.

If we simply treat coming to Mass as another stop on our weekend routine, or look at the Eucharist as something we are “owed” for being here, then no wonder less than 40% of Catholics believe in the True Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament! We aren’t fostering awareness of Him; we aren’t building a personal relationship with Christ! No wonder the folks in the Gospel had such a hard time with His teaching on the Bread of Life. Imagine if you simply stumbled upon this Jesus of Nazareth and He started talking about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. No wonder they walked away!

But we must be like the disciples who remained. Sure, they struggled with Jesus’ teachings; but in the end, because of their real, personal relationship with the Lord, they ultimately said, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

So let’s quiet ourselves; let’s focus, because we will encounter God today. Not in extreme majesty with trumpets and noise, but in a quarter-sized Host and a sip from a chalice. And only faith can recognize Him.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"There is Evil in this World" - Structural Sin

I got to see "Maleficent" last week. I was wary of the movie, because "Sleeping Beauty" is my favorite Disney film, as I have described previously. I was worried that it would take this epitome of evil that haunted and captivated my childhood and make me try to sympathize with her ("Oh, it's OK that she did all that because of what happened to her"...). However, as with most things, I tried to take in the film in and of itself.

And that is how the movie "worked" for me. I liked it!

What "Maleficent" presents is a good illustration of the reality and nature of "structural sin." We first meet a good girl - a fairy - (whose name happens to mean "One-Who-Does-Evil," but let's ignore that!). She is wonderfully blessed and loves and cares for all in her realm of fairies and magical creatures. She is innocent. Trouble enters when "man" comes on the scene - first in the person of young Stefan, with whom Maleficent develops a great relationship, and then in the human king, who decides to attack the mysterious realm and make a name for himself.

The king's jealousy ultimately leads to his mortal wounding at the hands (or wings) of Maleficent, and he swears revenge and reward for anyone who can vanquish the fairy queen. Stefan, a young man now, filled with ambition, uses his relationship with Maleficent to trick her and he steals her wings - violently, nefariously. Maleficent, now understandably embittered, closes off her realm. The fairy folk also suffer under her woundedness. 

This is the aspect of "structural sin" that we see. Now, the two realms - human and fairy - live in complete suspicion and enmity with one another. It is "injustice" that we recognize in our own world but cannot point to any one point to say, "There it is. That's why." However, structural sin can only be overcome by first recognize the personal choices that deepen it and lead to it. Then, and only then, can we begin to address the roots of evil. We must decide to overcome sin in ourselves first; then we can start to build a world that pushes out these unjust structures.

Ultimately, in this film at least, Maleficent learns that lesson. The princess teaches her the pureness of love without prejudice, and that love is what undoes the curse of structural sin and enmity that was the source of conflict in the movie.

In our world there are plenty of examples of structural sin, and many modern Christians can only see that - and not personal sin. This is part of that loss of a sense of sin that has been characteristic of the postmodern world. However, when we recognize that our individual choices matter - and that they can effect real change - personal sin can lead to personal repentance, and then to personal redemption. And that, in turn, is the beginning of structural redemption.

"There is evil in this world," Maleficent tells Princess Aurora. But there is also love, and there is you and me. Those are the ingredients to a world reborn.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Online Toolkits

One of the beauties of our information age with social media and the Internet is that so much sharing can take place. Now, often this amounts to just so much noise, but for the person with discernment (and some patience) there is rich soil to draw good fruit from. Each person, I think, has their own cyberspace - crafted out of their interests and online responsibilities. For me, I have been blessed to share in a few resource forums that have helped shape my present ministry, and from which I draw much inspiration.

One of these is a Facebook forum centered on Sherry Weddell's Forming Intentional Disciples. This book is currently "hot stuff" among Catholic evangelizers, and it is truly helping to re-energize our efforts, particularly at the parish level, of sharing the message of Jesus' saving love. Sherry's wonderful book looks at the issue (problem?) of "cultural Catholicism" versus "intentional discipleship," wherein we have become complacent in our faith, accepting the label of Catholic but doing very little to live and share that life-giving faith. I highly recommend to pastors and pastoral leaders - or anyone, for that matter - that they read the book.

The other resource that I have grow a lot from reading has been the Disney Institutes's blog. Yes, I know, I tend to overdo the Disney thing, and I am unapologetic in that regard; but the Disney Institute has established a model for training people in leadership and service that is truly unrivaled. Developing the skills of administrators as well as those who serve under them is the main goal. A recent post illustrates this. Leadership is not something that needs to be hoarded or guarded amongst a few. It can be fostered in all employees, volunteers, staff, leadership, ministers, etc. And, this is a good thing!

Many times, when given a leadership position, there is the temptation to assert that authority, rather than to gratefully accept the responsibility of shepherding. This is something that is useful particularly in the Church. When confronted with the "problem" of "stray prophesiers," Moses rebuked Joshua, telling him, "If only all the people of the Lord were prophets! If only the Lord would bestow His Spirit on them!" (Num 11:29). This should be the prayer of a leader in the Church - a prayer for the gift of the Spirit to be stirred up in all our people.

There are many resources, as I have said, to this end. Weddell's book is a fantastic start. Michael White and Tom Corcoran's Rebuilt is another, as is Matthew Kelly's Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic. Try assembling your own resources in your "Bookmarks" online. The Internet has much more to offer than cat videos!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Jesus' "Elevator Pitch"

Does anyone here remember Rollen Stewart? Do any of you know who he is? Those of us of a certain age probably do – although I would bet no one would know him by name. However, if I told you to imagine a big sporting event, and then to picture a man in a rainbow wig, holding a sign that read, “John 3:16.” You’d all say, “Ohhhh – that guy!”

Stewart was a born-again Christian, who took it upon himself to share the Gospel in his own way, by getting seen on TV with his simple sign, referring to the Gospel that we just heard: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” It was Stewart’s mission of evangelization – and it wasn’t a bad one. (However, he eventually became even more fanatical and was arrested in Los Angeles for kidnapping and threatening to shoot at airplanes!) He, at least for a while, understood that to capture people’s attention and direct them toward the Lord, he needed a hook.

Salespeople talk about having an “elevator speech” or an “elevator pitch.” It means that if you have an important idea or something you want to sell, imagine being on an elevator with someone important and what you would say to impress them.

As Christians – as disciples called to evangelize – we also must have an “elevator pitch.” How could you capture someone’s attention and imagination so that they are excited about learning more about your faith and deepening theirs? This is the work of evangelization – it is how we make disciples, as Jesus charges us to do.

Today, we encounter Jesus meeting with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is curious about Christ and His teachings, but he is also afraid to talk to Him in public. So, Jesus goes to him by night – brief encounters in which Jesus shares God’s plan for the world. Here, we get that famous, “John 3:16” phrase – Jesus’ “elevator pitch” to Nicodemus.

First, God loves the world. This is great news that should hearten anyone. But not only that, He “so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” Not “sent” His only Son, or “introduced” His only Son; but “gave.” So, we learn that the Trinity that is God is a Giver, offering the graces of divine love to others.

This is the mystery that we celebrate with Trinity Sunday – the fact that our God is a Communion of Persons – a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and that the nature of God is to give: the Father gives the world the Son, and the Son, with the Father, gives the Holy Spirit. All three are God, united in divinity.

But we are involved in this mystery too. For God sent His Son into the world so that everyone who believes might not perish but have eternal life. And eternal life comes from faith and discipleship – from following Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus reveals: a way of life here on earth that reflects the communion shared by the Trinity – after all, we are made in God’s image and likeness. When we take upon ourselves that role of giving, of sending forth the best of ourselves for one another, we mirror that life of the Trinity.

This is what St. Paul is talking about when he exhorts us “Brothers and sisters, rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” Jesus has brought us back into communion with God through His saving work – the work He was sent by the Father to do. Now, through the Spirit, we have the power to share that life with God and with the world.

But we are called to share it – really. When we evangelize, when we make our faith in Jesus visible, when we are obviously “selling” the message of salvation, we are giving as God has given. What difference has your faith made in your life? In your marriage? In the life of your family? This is what we are called to share – this is our “elevator speech.”

Seeing and hearing the good things that God has done on our behalf, others should want to know more, to go deeper. That’s what the rest of the Gospel is for; that’s what our relationships are for. The relationships we share are part of our sharing in that divine image – we are made to be in communion. This is the image of God.

No rainbow wig necessary.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Gathering Has Begun

That which has been scattered has now been gathered once more.

Today, we celebrate the Gathering. Today, as the Holy Spirit is pour out upon the Apostles, the Early Church, and us, we are reminded of the grand plan that God has had for the entire world from the moment He set to creating it. Today is Pentecost, the completion of Easter grace and Christ’s work of salvation.

As we celebrate this Gathering, it is important to recognize how we have been scattered. The word “devil” comes ultimately from the Greek word “diabolos,” which carries with it implications of “tossing around,” slander, and scattering. It is the devil’s job, as the scatterer, to accuse and slander humanity and all of creation. Consider Adam and Eve: Man, created in God’s image as male and female, was in perfect harmony with God, one another, and creation, until the jealousy of the devil began to create a rift between Man and God.

Once Adam and Eve sinned, that division extended to them personally (“The woman You put here made me do it”, “The serpent…”). Genesis is filled with stories of alienation and division. Look at the tale of the Tower of Babel, where all people used to speak one language until the pride of men sought to outdo God, and they were sent into confusion and “babbling.” All of Israel’s history is one story after another of separation, division, and scattering. In fact, the presence of Jews in Jerusalem in the First Reading today reflects this scattering, as Jews of the “diaspora” came together to celebrate Pentecost.

Bring in the Holy Spirit!

As the Spirit fills the house where the Apostles were gathered and drives them out to proclaim the Gospel, all those people of different languages and cultures begin to gather together themselves and listen. They hear the saving message of Christ, animated by the Spirit, and it stirs them to wonder and awe. How is this possible?

In response to the devil, the “Acccuser,” the Slanderer, we receive the “Advocate.” The Holy Spirit is the Paraclete – a Greek word that means “one who stands with and speaks for another.” The Advocate brings to us the life of God, as the Spirit is the “Lord, the Giver of Life.”

As the Spirit is poured into the Church, we become the sign – the sacrament – of the unity that God has intended from the beginning. The work of redemption is now complete!

As we receive the gifts of the Spirit, we all receive unique ones. Paradoxically, the Spirit seems to bring so much diversity of gifts but unity of life. The Holy Father has commented several times about the Holy Spirit bringing all these diverse gifts into harmony. Harmony is the gathering of dissonant sounds into something beautiful for God.

So, as we recognize that we are the recipients of such a great Gift – the Holy Spirit – we cannot look upon this blessing as singular – isolated from the gifts of others. We do not receive the Holy Spirit as a personal possession, or as affirmation of our own consciences – whether they are properly formed or not. If we see it that way, we are falling back into that reign of the devil – of the Scatterer.

Jesus has won the victory over sin and death, over fear and division. We are now constituted as the Body of Christ – united in the Spirit, united in Love. No longer are we alienated from one another or from God. We are reconciled. Our Advocate has come to counter the lies of the Accuser.

The Gathering has begun, and we are part of it as we receive this Holy Spirit. God’s plan cannot be thwarted. That which has been scattered has been gathered once more. Alleluia!

Friday, June 6, 2014

"You Know I Love You"

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

Jesus asks Peter this question three times in the Gospel today. To us who listen to an English translation of this passage, it might seem odd that Jesus asks the exact same question three times - however, we also know that there can be a symbolic meaning behind it. The Fathers of the Church have pointed out that this threefold affirmation of love for Jesus was necessary for Peter, in particular, because he had denied Christ three times during His Passion. What he had bound by fear is now loosed by love.

However, there is a deeper significance still.

In the original Greek (in which the Gospels were all written), Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him using a form of the word "agape". This is a special sort of love - for the Christian it is the highest form of love. Agape is the very love of God for us, and as we have heard many times over this Easter season, Jesus calls His disciples to this sort of love: "As the Father loves me, so I also love you." "Remain in my love." "Love one another as I love you." This is a lesson in discipleship.

When Peter responds to Jesus the first two times, we hear "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." However, in the Greek, Peter uses the word "philo" which indicates more of a brotherly love (note: "Phila-delphia"). It's like Peter is saying, "Yeah, Jesus. I really love being with you. It's great, bud!"

But it's not sacrificial love. It's not the love that Jesus has shown nor what He asks of us.

The third time, Jesus accommodates Peter's lack of discipleship. He uses "philia" as well, and Peter is hurt. Yes, because Jesus asks a third time, but also, probably, because he realizes too that he is not where Jesus wants him to be yet. The good news is that Jesus does not give up on Peter. He meets him where he is now, and He prophesies that he will be there one day - offering his life for Jesus.

The lesson that I take from this is that love is primary in discipleship. Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, and then He gives a mission, a ministry. We cannot be effective minsters is we simply love the ministry. That is like "liking" Jesus - liking being around Him. Rather, we must be effective ministers by first loving Jesus - as He calls us to love Him - and all ministry flows from that love.

It is useful for me as a minister to occasionally walk with Jesus along that beach after breakfast and answer that question again: "Do you love Me?"

Jesus knows the answer - do I?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Up (and Att'em!) - Ascension of the Lord

Do you know what we celebrate when we celebrate the Ascension? This is the day when we recall that Jesus, after the Resurrection appearances to His disciples, returned to the Father in heaven. Is that reason to celebrate – Jesus leaving earth to dwell again in glory at the right hand of the Father?

Well, yes, it is. But … why couldn’t He just have stayed and guided the Church Himself here?

The Ascension is about more than that wonderful event, and our readings this weekend reveal it. First, the Ascension (and Pentecost) cannot be separated from the Paschal Mystery that we celebrated in Holy Week and Easter Sunday; they are all part of the same mystery: the Passion, death, resurrection, glorification and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we have been celebrating the Paschal Mystery all season long, and will continue to celebrate it until next Sunday at Pentecost.

Now, it is true that we celebrate this “mystery of our faith” every time we gather and share in the Eucharist, but liturgically, as far as these feasts go, there is special significance. Here, at the Ascension of the Lord, we are given some very meaningful realities upon which to reflect.

First, we encounter the Apostles in the Gospel. They are identified as “the eleven disciples.” This is important. They are not “the Twelve,” as they had often been called before. We know, as well as they, that they have lost one – Judas – and that they are, in a sense, a broken community, needing wholeness. We too, as a Church, can often be described by this brokenness. Maybe there is an empty space in the pew next to you that you know should be filled. We all have them. We are certainly not perfect. This is reflected in another description that Matthew gives: “When they saw [Jesus] they worshipped, but they doubted.”

How often have we been aware of God’s great work in and around us – been aware of His call for us to share the Good News with others – but also felt the hesitation of doubt? This is especially true when our relationship with Jesus is suffering, when we are not as attentive to that relationship as we should be. It takes the Lord’s comforting words and touch to set their (and our) minds at ease again.

Then, Jesus reminds them of the great gift that we celebrate in this Solemnity of the Ascension: “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me.” He is clearly Lord now! He has all the power. And yet, Jesus does not remain here; He departs, returning to the Father. Why?

With Jesus around and visible, it would be easy for the disciples to sit back and allow Him to do all the work – as He had in His ministry. It would be simple for them to lay it all on Him and take no responsibility for their faith in Him, just letting Jesus do all the work. After all, that’s His job, right?

Well, there’s the other part of this wonderful celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Jesus endured suffering and death, rose from the dead, and now returns to the Father with a very clear picture of what he wants His disciples to do (and this includes you and me!).

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” I have mentioned this before; it is our mission statement as a Church – every parish that calls itself Catholic – every person who calls themselves Christian – has this charge from Jesus Christ Himself: “Go … make disciples.” It’s remarkably simple, but are you ready and willing to do it?

The eleven didn’t know if they were up to it either. They gathered around Jesus (as we do now), and they worshipped (as we are), but they doubted, too (as we might sometimes). When I say things like, “You are called to be evangelizers” and “Your job is to share your faith with your family, friends, and neighbors,” you might balk. “Isn’t that your job, Father?” you might think – some have even said it! But it’s not. Every Christian has been charged by Christ to “Go [and] make disciples” and no one is exempt: not me, not you.

So what are we celebrating today? Yes, Jesus returns to the Father and brings our own humanity to share in the glory that we were all made for. Yes, the Paschal Mystery continues. However, just as much, we celebrate our beautiful task of sharing the Gospel with every creature, of teaching Christ’s law of love to the world, starting with those nearest to us.

As we responded to the Psalm, “God mounts His throne to shouts of joy; a blare of trumpets for the Lord!”

And we’re the ones with those trumpets. Blare, friends, blare!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Apostles of Where We Are

Our faith is "apostolic." This means that it has its foundations in the group of men who assembled around Christ and who went forth, sent by Him, to spread that faith around the world. Tradition has different Apostles going to different parts of the world: Thomas, it is said, went to India; Andrew went to Greece; James to Spain, and all the rest. Over time, this apostolic spirit of going forth, sent by the Gospel was taken up by others. St. Patrick is known as the "Apostle of Ireland," and St. Boniface is the "Apostle of Germany."

Today, we celebrate yet another apostle - St. Augustine of Canterbury, the "Apostle to England." Augustine was a Benedictine monk who was sent by his friend, Pope Gregory, to evangelize Britain. Augustine did not want to go, and he even tried to turn back once, but he ultimately made it to England and set to work converting King Ethebert and many of the Angles with him. Augustine's (whom the Angles called "Austin") apostolic zeal and passion for the Gospel was the product of his prayer life, fostered in his monastic roots.

We are no less apostles today. If our faith is apostolic, then we are called to be sent forth as evangelists, just like Thomas and Patrick and Augustine. We are not necessarily called to be the Apostle of some country, but we are called to be Apostles to Dundalk, or Edgemere, or Fells Point, or even Rolling Road or Elm Street. Apostles of where we are - that's what the Gospel charges us to be. As we are drawing toward the end of the Easter season, we are reminded that the work is not over - it continues through the Church, and we are that Church.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Anchored in the Moment - Hope

Have you ever had the experience of reaching the end of an exciting experience and then wishing that you were back at the beginning of it? Have you ever wanted to go back in time to a particular point? - the beginning of a vacation; the first day of school; the start of a relationship; the moment before she asked if the outfit made her look fat?

I have. There seems to be something safe in the past - where we know what happens next and where we see the outcome already. Why do we do that? Why do we constantly look back and pine for the "good old days"? What is it that we are trying to recapture?

Part of it, I think, is that safety. However, the true human longing that often takes us back is a desire to recapture something that we might not realize we have at this moment - something we may often forget.

It's hope - hope that things will turn out well for us, just like a great vacation of a first kiss or a wonderful experience. This is what we all want. Hope helps us appreciate this moment while looking forward to a wonderful future. Hope anchors us and helps us feel the intense significance of each and every moment we are blessed to live. When we have Hope, we live differently.

Jesus gives a reason to hope to His disciples today. As He prepares to go away from them, He reminds them that He will always be with them; that He will not leave you orphans; that He will come back to you. And, in the meantime, He will give them the Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen them.

This is good news! Even as the disciples might be pining back to those first days along the shores of the Jordan River, it is good for them to know that Jesus continues to care for them and is waiting to bring them along with Him.

We fall into this difficulty too. It's always safe to look back and rest on the familiar and the predictable. However, we go nowhere with that mindset. We end up wasting our life looking backward.

This month, we’ve been reflecting on the fact that “You Only Live Once.” For those reborn in Christ through Baptism, this once is forever. How are we spending this eternal life? I think that eternal life spent always looking back, with regret and “what ifs” is actually Hell. If we spend this life looking off to what might be or what could be better, that’s more like Purgatory. However, if we are able to look at this moment here – where God is present and active in our life – where God is blessing us with hope and joy – that’s Heaven.

Jesus’ words to His disciples are the same that He says to us. He does not leave us alone; He is with us. As we come toward the end of our Easter season, and we get ready to celebrate the Ascension next week, and Pentecost beyond that, we are reminded that the Spirit of truth is with us – sent by the Father. He is present among us, now and always, and this is cause for great joy and hope.

St. Peter tells us in the Second Reading today to always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks for a reason for your hope. This assumes, first of all, that you have this hope! Secondly, it assumes that your hope is so evident that others will want to know what it is all about.

You’re going to live forever, friends! If you haven’t heard any good news today yet, there it is! (You're welcome!) You’re going to live forever! Through our Baptism into Jesus Christ, we have received the gift of eternal life – a life that we live only once – because once is forever. How will we spend it? In regret? In starry-eyed dreaming? Or in hope that comes from the joy of this moment with God?

Jesus gives us a foretaste of the glory that we are to experience in Heaven when we receive the Eucharist. It is part of His promise to us. There’s no reason to want to start again or go back in time, because Jesus comes to us, now. Eternal life for us is real, and this is just the beginning!