Monday, October 20, 2014

Remember: God Calls You

I don’t write many checks anymore; most of my bill paying is done online. However, when I do, I have yet to have an establishment deny the check. It’s amazing, really: here is a 3x6-inch piece of paper, with my name, my bank’s name, and my signature on it, and it is worth whatever amount I write on it (assuming that I have the funds in the bank). Basically, this check is worth $52.17 simply because I say it is (and the bank, of course, agrees).

Much of the value attached to things in our lives comes from what we assign to it – from our monetary system to a timeworn teddy bear. How much we cherish something dictates how we treat it. And, our care for someone guides how we love them and what we expect from them. This is true of us because it is true of God. This weekend, we are recalling another important truth of our relationship with God – who loves us, forgives us, and now calls us.

Our First Reading gives us the prophet speaking to King Cyrus of Persia – a non-believer – as the Lord’s anointed. This is significant, since the word "Messiah" means anointed. King David, Israel's hero, is "the Lord's anointed," as is Solomon. In Greek, it is translated as "Christ."  Cyrus has been chosen and called by God to be a special player in the salvation of Israel. After Cyrus and his forces conquered Babylon, the Persians allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland – God working again through those whom He calls.

This is our God – a God who loves us. He has created us all in His image – marked us with His seal, the very life of the Trinity – and through that image we come to know Him. Jesus, the Son of God, the Word-made-flesh, reveals God to us in a unique and final way. He also reveals to us our true selves. If we want to see who we are called to be, we must meet and know Christ; we must look to Him.

In the Gospel, as the Pharisees and others seek to trap Jesus in yet another conundrum, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach us something truly profound. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” He asks. The tax coin bore an image of Tiberius Caesar and an inscription that read “Tiberius Caesar, exalted son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” It was minted by and for Rome, and it was the only acceptable payment of the tax to which they were referring. They certainly wouldn't take a check!

While the leaders’ question was meant to trick Jesus into either favoring the occupying government or endorsing financial rebellion, He actually ignores the question at heart and changes the focus to images. In other words, if the coin bears Caesar’s image, then it belongs to Caesar. The tax is, in effect, Caesar "calling" his coins back to himself. However, other things - things that belong to God -  are meant to be given to God. So, if we bear that image of God, then we owe ourselves to Him!

But what do we owe? This is not something that we ourselves determine. We must listen to God to hear what it is that He calls us to be. When we were created, God had a beautiful plan in mind for our lives – a plan that is meant to see us be fully alive and happy with Him. Because of His great love for us, God has chosen us for great things – just like He did Cyrus, just like He did Paul and his companions. We are all made in God’s image in order to show that image to others in our world and to remind them of the great things to which they too are called.

We call this “calling” our vocations. It is what we were made to do, what we were made to be. At the very heart of it, however, we are called to reflect that image of God in each of us. “Repay … to God what belongs to God,” Jesus tells us. We bear His likeness when we resemble more closely that face of Christ.

Remember: God calls you. He calls you to a special purpose at this special time. Most of us assume we are doing what God has called us to do; however, we can strive to know that ever better if we focus on this person of Jesus – if we share a real, personal relationship with Him. He is the one, after all, who is calling us. Therefore, we should dedicate ourselves even more to time spent in prayer. Take time to talk with Jesus; ask Him what His will is for you; pray for the grace and courage to be able to do that will more boldly in your world.

Second, we must remember that we are above all called to be holy. Holiness is not a pursuit of the few, the “saintly.” It is the call of every one of the baptized. When we are more fully who God calls us to be we are that much closer to holiness; and that holiness becomes a sign to others.

Finally, we are called to be a community of faith. We are not simply loners on this road to holiness. We share in the communion of Saints, and we taste that most fully here on earth at the Eucharistic table. When we come here, we join our voices and spirits together in support of the Body of Christ, and we are all nourished to be strong in following the will of God – that special call that we’ve each received.

Don’t forget: God has called you. He continues to call you. He has placed His special mark on you because he cherishes you and values you above all other things. Open yourself to make good on your payment – because it is the most important investment you’ll ever make, and God will be happy to cash your check for you.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Remember: Mercy

How many people here remember when Prince Charles married Lady Diana in 1981? I remember watching it at home on TV (I was almost nine years old). I recall seeing Westminster Abbey and that long train on Di’s dress that stretched almost the entire aisle. Mostly, I remember all the people who were there; the place was packed. I don’t recall the same feeling when Prince William married Kate Middleton, but I know that it was also a huge event. Imagine being invited to that wedding. Who in their right mind would refuse an invitation to the wedding of the century?

Well, today Jesus tells a parable about just that situation. The king, no less, invited friends to his son’s wedding feast; and all of them – all of them! – declined the invitation. What’s more, some of them even mistreated and killed the servants who brought the invitations. Why? Why on earth would these people act this way?

We must first assume that those invited were considered friends of the king. As a parable meant to reveal the nature of God and the Kingdom, these are those who are called and welcomed by God. They have a “rightful” place at that banquet. However, they are not ready for the feast – they find excuses to engage in their own pursuits, their own business. When pressed (or, perhaps, when made to feel guilty) by the second invitation, they react angrily – even killing the messengers. What does this mean?

We are those called and invited to the feast. We all have a “rightful” place here; there are others who are not here who also have a rightful place here. However, do we take that place for granted – assuming that it will always be there, waiting for us, even after we finish our own pursuits? Have we placed a relationship with the King second (or third, or fourth…) to our “business”? In short, has what is easy and comfortable taken the place of what is right and just as far as our relationship with God is concerned? Have we sinned? These are questions that anyone who wishes to have a real personal relationship with Christ must ask himself or herself from time to time. 

n the end, those who were invited are finally excluded and punished, and others are invited and welcomed to the feast.

Our parable today reminds us of the dangers of taking a personal relationship with the Lord for granted – of slipping into complacency in the practice and celebration of our faith. We hear harsh words from Jesus about punishment, but at the same time encouraging words for those who might have felt left out before. These words point us to something very important to remember: God forgives us. But, how can we talk about this forgiveness when we hear so clearly of the punishment that befalls those who forget about God?

Well, let’s look at a very simple fact: God loves us all; and He invites us to the banquet of life and love that we celebrate. We have a rightful place here. When we fail, we have a remedy – one that doesn’t come from our own doing, but from that very love of God: His Mercy.

It is a mistake to assume that everything will be waiting for us after we’ve been able to “do our thing.” However, as Pope St. John XXIII said (on this day, 52 years ago!),
“The Church has always opposed these errors [of humanity]. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations” (St. John XXIII, Opening Speech for Second Vatican Council, 11 Oct 1962).
This "remedy of mercy" - the Mercy of God - welcomes us back to His table and reunites us with the Body of Christ. It is what we celebrate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Jesus is that Mercy of God made incarnate, and through Him we have the opportunity to personally encounter God’s Mercy as intimately as the embrace of a loved one.

We cannot take such love for granted. Through His love for us, Jesus has made available the gift of God’s Mercy, which conquers any sin. Pope St. John Paul II, in his second encyclical wrote:
No human sin can prevail over this power or even limit it. On the part of man only a lack of good will can limit it, a lack of readiness to be converted and to repent, in other words persistence in obstinacy [like that of those wedding guests in our parable], opposing grace and truth, especially in the face of the witness of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, the Church professes and proclaims conversion (St. John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, 13).
It is just this sort of conversion that God wants us to remember. We have the ability to turn again toward God and be welcomed back to the feast in the encounter with Jesus who is God’s Mercy. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is where this encounter happens most dramatically, and Fr. Greg and I want to make it available to you this week in a special way. On Wednesday, from 4 to 6pm, we will be hearing confessions in the chapel at Our Lady of Hope; and from 6:30 to 8:30pm, we will be at St. Luke’s. As always, confessions are heard an hour prior to Saturday evening Masses.

Remember: God forgives you! Take a moment this week to celebrate that beautiful fact, and realize that you are called and welcomed back to your rightful place and invited again to the banquet of the Lord. Don’t lose your invitation!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Remember: God Loves You!

Memory is a major element of who we are. In fact, some people would say that, as far as our self-perception is concerned, our memory is who we are. When people lose their memory, they have a looser grasp on their identity. In the movies, we see when people are stricken with amnesia, they often ask, “Where am I?” “Who am I?” Memory is an essential part of our identity. This is true on an individual, personal level, as well as on a communal level.

As Christians, so much of our celebrated life together centers on remembering. Our central celebration of the Eucharist calls us to reflect on the words “Do this in memory of Me.” In order to realize how blessed we are, we must remember what God has done for us – if we are to have any sort of hope for the future.

This month, we will reflect in our homilies on four things we should never forget as Christians: 1) God loves us; 2) God forgives us; 3) God calls us; and 4) God strengthens us. These four things should empower us and help us to live confidently and joyfully as disciples of Jesus. Keeping these things in mind will make us better evangelizers of our communities and world.

So let’s get to it.

The first and most basic thing that a Christian must remember is that God loves you. This might seem trite and cute – suitable for a bumper sticker or a nice crocheted plaque for a kid’s bedroom; however, it is immensely important and profound.

God doesn’t just love “humanity,” or “all people,” or even “us.” God loves you! He loves you personally, deeply, infinitely, and uniquely. This is not some general, blanket statement, or a generic premise (God loves human begins/I am a human being/Therefore, God loves me); it is a truth of the universe, and God always abides by this love. How many of us feel this way? How many of us know that God is thinking about me right now, and has always been thinking about me? Why? Because He loves me!

With this in mind, let’s look at the readings again. In both the First Reading and the Gospel, we are given an image of God creating His vineyard. Maybe, as we hear these two readings, we take away the image of the punishment that is wrought upon those who fail in caring for the vineyard. However, when I reflect in them, with the idea that God wholly and eternally loves me, I am drawn to see the tender care that the “friend” and “landowner” put into their vineyard. Imagine the love that was in their hearts as they laid the groundwork for the hedges and walls; the hope as they planted the first vines. This is God’s love for you. God smiles when He thinks of you and the good things for which he made you.

All around us, we see the evidence of God’s love for us – each one of us. All that we see: the sunlight that brings us joy; the crisp autumn air; the beautiful colors of the fall leaves; our loved ones’ laughter – it’s all evidence of God’s immense, personal love for each of us.

When we are truly aware of how much God loves us – and that this love is personal and unique – then we begin to see life differently. We recognize blessings where we have not seen them before. This allows us to live joyfully alert to the ways in which God is making Himself known to us and to others. It will allow us to share that love with the world – to evangelize. St. Paul is aware of this, and he wants his hearers to know it also when he writes, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

If we are calling ourselves Christians – followers and disciples of Jesus Christ – then we must live differently. This begins, however, with an awareness of some pretty awesome facts. The most basic of these facts is that God – the God of the universe, eternal, omnipotent – loves us beyond words. Remember this fact. Recall it often. With each sunrise, realize that God has placed you here and now for a reason, and that reason is His great love for you. Every breath is a gift of love, planned for all eternity and given to you at just this moment, because He loves you.

When we bring to mind these facts, we remember who we are: children of a loving God who calls us to share that love with everyone we meet.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Leaving "Drama-topia"

I once told a friend that I spend half my time looking for people’s “buttons,” and the other half of my time pushing them.

I’m bad. This is a flaw that I have that I am committed to working on with God’s grace, but sometimes, it is so entertaining to see people go off when their hot-buttons are pressed, isn’t it? How about you? Are there things that just set you off? If someone decides to start talking politics in Dunkin Donuts, does your blood pressure begin to spike? Is the quality of your week determined by what the Ravens do (or don’t do) on Sunday? If you see one more sock on the floor or toilet seat up will they be calling the men in the white coats?

Is someone wrong on Facebook right now?

If this is you – and it is me, and many others – then you live in “Drama-topia.” It’s a place where there are no “little things.” Everything is life and death; everything is infinitely significant; everything drives everyone else nuts. Drama-topia is a place where we cannot let a comment pass without a rebuttal; it’s a place where attention is the greatest currency; and it is a place in which not many of its citizens are happy.

Isn’t it time we said, “Goodbye” to Drama-topia?

In 1997, a book came out entitled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and It’s All Small Stuff. In it, the author tries to assist the reader to realize that focusing on the simple beauty of life –the basics – can lead us to greater happiness. At one point he writes: “When you take time, often to reflect on the miracle of life … the gift of sight, of love and all the rest, it can help to remind you that many of the things that you think as ‘big stuff’ are really just ‘small stuff’ that you are turning into big stuff.”

Turning small stuff into big stuff is what carries us off to Drama-topia. And this is nothing new. Even in the early Church, there was drama; there was conflict. Jesus gives His followers advice on how to deal with this difficulty. When the problem of someone misbehaving comes up, Jesus tells us, do not cry out and rage on CNN or FOX about it. Rather, “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” There is much more to be gained through that human and personal interaction than posting a rant on Facebook!

Even if that initial conversation does not convince the brother or sister of the right way, we are still not to draw attention to them and ourselves by screaming and shouting. Instead, we are to rely on the wisdom of our community of charity – the Church – and “take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”

Jesus understands our humanity; He shares our humanity. And yet, He does not wish to share in the drama that drags so many of us into negativity and criticism. Rather, our goal as a Christian community and as Christian individuals is to help one another in charity – even when we or they are wrong – to find the right path again.

This should not be complicated; however, we do make it complicated through drama – through making big stuff out of the small stuff. We need to hear St. Paul’s advice again today when he tells us, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments … are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

So, the road out of Drama-topia is paved with Love. In Drama-topia, nothing is more significant or important that what is happening to me right now. However, when we take on the Christ-like attitude of thinking of others first – of their good – then we begin to follow that road that leads us to freedom from negativity and criticism.

This week, let’s practice leaving Drama-topia. Let’s still our hearts with a commitment to regular prayer, and let’s assume that our brothers and sisters might actually have good intentions behind what they do our don’t do. Let’s love one another first and foremost and be channels for God’s peace in our homes, schools and workplaces. Over the next few weeks, together, we are going to work at eliminating the drama in our lives so that we can begin truly living for Jesus Christ, Who calls us to that fullness of life that we all deserve – and, honestly, isn’t that what we are all seeking?

As we receive the Eucharist, we encounter God’s greatest Drama – the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. In this great Drama, we have been freed from the pettiness that grips humanity. The Cross is the Way that we escape our own Drama-topias.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Puppies in the House

I consider myself to be relatively conservative in my own views. That is not to say that I am obstinate or even stubborn, as that label often connotes. However, once I have made up my mind, I tend to remain in that mindset. So, as I read and prayed over this weekend’s gospel I have been surprised by God’s revelation to me.

It is probably our view that Jesus was certain and resolute in His ministry – always knowing what He was doing and how He would do it. He even seems to give us indications that this is the case. Even today, as this Canaanite woman approaches Him, He is quite blunt about it: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When the distressed woman continues to plead with Him to heal her daughter, Jesus is even more blunt: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”


Did the Lord just insult that woman?

Yes, He did. She was an “outsider” – a woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon (non-Jewish territory). What on earth is this Jesus doing?

As I said, Jesus knew what His mission was as He began His ministry. He came to save the world; but He came specifically to remind God’s Chosen People, Israel, of the love that the Lord has for them. Therefore, He travelled from Galilee to Judea and back and forth spreading His message of the Reign of God.

And many of the Jews rejoiced in this message.

However, there were others who heard about Jesus. News like His could not be kept hidden. This Canaanite woman knew that Jesus of Nazareth was nearby, and she risked the scorn that here status as a foreigner would bring in order to see this wonder-worker from Galilee and get help for her daughter.

Even in the face of the apparent harshness of Jesus’ response to her, she continues to risk even more abuse for the sake of her daughter – for she knew that only in Jesus could she find the assistance and salvation that she needed. Her clever reply touches Christ: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

What a touching scene! This woman completely disregards herself, her pride, her ego, in order to continue to access Jesus. What is cute is that the word here for “dog” that both Jesus and the woman use is better translated as “puppies.” Further, these would not be wild, stray mutts, but housedogs or pets. They have a place in the home, even if they are dogs.

It is this woman’s response that gets to the Lord. He is amazed at her faith, surprised at how great it is. The Lord is shocked, even.

And Jesus changes His mind.

At the beginning of this gospel, Christ was certain that He was doing the right thing in sharing His message and healing ministry only with Israel. Now, in light of this woman’s beautiful and powerful faith, He now understands that even “outsiders” have a place at that table of the Lord. He allows His human mind to be opened and His human heart to be touched. Here, the prophecy of Isaiah that we hear in the First Reading:
The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, … them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
What do I learn from this gospel?

First, all are invited to the table of the Lord. This is the place where God speaks His loving and saving Word to us, through which we are saved, and this salvation is for all people – not just “insiders.”

Second, it’s okay to change your mind – provided it is done in faith and complete reliance on the grace of God at work in and around you. Jesus allowed the Father to speak to Him through the faith-filled pleading of this mother. It is the Lord’s human heart that allowed His human mind to open to the reality of the Reign of God embracing all people, even at that moment. The work of salvation was unfolding already, and here we see the joyful news of our own inclusion on that “holy mountain.”

Finally, I learn that each encounter – every moment lived with faith – every occasion of ministry – is a learning experience. God has not finished speaking to you and me. With this sort of divine open-mindedness we are sent into our world to recognize the gift of God to the world that will also be revealed through us.

The "puppies" finally rejoice to be part of the family – I will never feel guilty about sharing my dinner with them again!

Monday, August 4, 2014

What Are Your Loaves and Fishes?

Dóte autoís humeís phageín.

I’ve been praying over this gospel all week long, and these words of Jesus continue to come back to me … and they challenge me.

Dóte autoís humeís phageín. Our translation of the gospel words that we hear today is “Give them [some food] yourselves.” It’s a correct translation. However, the Greek, as usual, carries a richer meaning. In telling the disciples to give them something themselves, Jesus is emphasizing the fact that He wants them to be the agents of this great gift. It may also be translated, “Give them of yourselves to eat.”

In other words, “what have you got, guys? Share that.”

That’s when the complaining begins. The disciples’ first response to Jesus’ command to them is a complaint – whining: “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” There’s an apparent food shortage, and naïve Jesus cannot really hope that these few men can feed all those people, can He? They had already complained at seeing all the people in the first place. When Jesus’ heart is moved with pity, their response is “Send them away.”

The disciples are keenly aware of their shortcomings, and they don’t want them to affect their relationship with the crowd, so they simply want to send them away in the face of their lack. As your pastor, I understand this lack.

Tasked with the job of shepherding two parishes, I often look at my gifts and talents and see the same sort of shortage that the Apostles knew that day. I am not wise enough to make all the best decisions for you. I am not energetic enough to be as involved in everyone’s lives as I’d like. I am not talented enough to forge one community of faith out of two parishes.

But here’s where my prayer this week has borne tremendous fruit:

No pastor is.

No pastor is wise enough, smart enough, energetic enough, or talented enough! At least, none of us are on our own. And this is the danger of the loaves and fishes view that the disciples first take. When Jesus tells them to give them of themselves to eat, they automatically forget the One who feeds us all. They see their food shortage, and they fear and they complain.

However, Jesus continues to respond in love and generosity. Rather than saying, “Oh! I didn’t realize you only had that little bit!” Jesus simply tells them to bring those meager gifts to Him.

And He blesses, breaks, and shares the five loaves and two fish – first with the disciples, who in turn now share them with the crowd.

And they all ate and were satisfied. In fact, the word is really “super-satisfied” – they were filled to a point that they could’ve had more if they wanted – as evidenced by the twelve baskets full afterward. And here is the lesson of the loaves and fish for us. When we share what we have with Jesus, He blesses it, returns it to us, and bids us to share it with others.

Again, as pastor I am not the most gifted, most talented, or wisest part of our faith community. I do not have all the gifts necessary to make our parishes great. But the gifts are here! You have them too! When we look at what God calls us to do as a community, we should not start by complaining about our shortage of resources. Rather, we should remember that we are a community of faith gathered around Christ our Head, who asks us to give of ourselves to others so that they may also know His love and care.

On a social level, we see this opportunity amid the crisis of refugees on our southern border. While many call them “illegal immigrants,” they are also refugees, many of whom are children in need of love and simple food and housing. While they are among us, we have an opportunity to show the values that make us strong as a nation. This is not a political or a government thing, it is an American thing, it is a Christian thing, it is a human thing – the love and care of our brothers and sisters among us.

But we bring it back to our community. What are your loaves and fishes? What meager gifts to you possess that Jesus is calling you to share? To follow Him fully in this regard, it takes three things:

First, it takes awareness – awareness of what gifts we have (and what we do not have). When we know what we are working with, we can know what Jesus is calling us to share.

Second, it takes trust – trust that Jesus knows what He is doing and what He is asking us to do.

Finally, it takes generosity. The disciples could have said, “Well, we have fiv- four loaves. Yeah. And one fish.” And they could have held some back for themselves. But ultimately, the gift shared is always greater than that which is given. Remember this when we are serving our community!

So, "Dóte autoís humeís phageín" - Give to them of yourselves to eat. It’s a challenge – but it ultimately will become a great blessing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Martha, Martha, Martha!

Today is the feast of a popular saint - St. Martha. She was a friend of Jesus, whom He would visit when He was going to Jerusalem, and her sister, Mary, and bother Lazarus were also very close to the Lord.

Often, Martha is used as an example of the active life of the Christian, in contrast to her sister Mary, who is an example of the contemplative life. In one gospel account, Jesus chides Martha for being "concerned with many things" while only "one thing is necessary." "Mary," Jesus says, "has chosen the better part."

After that episode, many of us wish we could be like Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to Him intently, lovingly. We might shake our heads at the worrisome Martha who puts housekeeping above time with Jesus. However, Martha cannot be ignored. We must be careful about judging folks in the gospels too quickly and harshly - after all, we only really get "snapshots" of their lives, don't we? It would be like my opening your Facebook page, seeing a photo of a college party you regret, and deciding everything about you based on that.

Fortunately for Martha (and us!), we get another look at her. Later, and in John's Gospel, we encounter Martha after the death of her brother. Jesus, who has dallied, apparently, in coming to visit is now arriving at Bethany. Martha is the one who goes to Him (Mary stays at home, perhaps too grief-stricken).  Martha is the one who meets Jesus as He arrives and receives Him with a dig of her own: "If you had been here my brother would not have died." A very human response from Martha.  Jesus does not contradict her or say that Lazarus might have died anyway; rather, He uses the moment to remind Martha of her faith - which, by the way, she is quick to acknowledge: "I know he will rise."

Martha is a woman of deep faith; she is a woman of great trust in the Lord. She is not "concerned with many things" here. "Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you." And, in response to Jesus assertion that He is the resurrection and the life, when He asks her, "Do you believe this?" Martha not only responds yes, but she makes an astounding assertion of faith that is rare in John's Gospel (and in all of them, really). She acknowledges Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is to come into the world."

Martha might be busy, but that doesn't make her wrong. She is busy with the right stuff - she is serving Jesus in His Body and in His Body the Church. This is a lesson to us. Prayer is needed - it is the "better part," in fact. However, action on behalf of Jesus is also part of our faith. God bless Martha in her faith! And God bless us through St. Martha!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dig Deeper

In 1849, a Roman archaeologist, Giovanni Battista di Rossi, found pieces of a tombstone that he believed to have beloved to the grave of Pope St. Cornelius (who was Bishop of Rome in the middle of the 3rd century). Sadly, his desire to continue excavations was frustrated by the fact that the land was privately owned. Pope Blessed Pius IX assisted di Rossi by purchasing the land (at the time a vineyard) and allowing his work to continue – even if the pope didn’t really have much interest or concern for the work himself.

Di Rossi’s work eventually uncovered the tombs of many early martyrs, including Popes Pontius, Cornelius, Sixtus and Eusebius, along with the original tomb of St. Cecilia and St. Marcelinus, in addition to many carved sarcophagi and early images of the Good Shepherd. It was a Christian treasure trove. The archaeologist invited the pope to come and see the results of the excavation himself.

When Pius IX arrived at the newly unearthed catacombs, which had lain hidden for over 1,000 years, he knelt at the martyrs’ tombs and wept. Here, under the feet of untold millions of people – pilgrims, emperors, men and women – the earliest martyrs who gave their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ rested, unknown, unseen, un-honored. The Holy Father wept for his (and our) superficiality.

Today, we hear from Jesus about another “digger.” “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again…” This “treasure” is something important; it is the kingdom of heaven; it is out there to be discovered.

But it will take digging.

It will also take sacrifice; in fact, it will take complete commitment – total, all-in commitment – in order to unearth and enjoy the fruits of that kingdom in our own lives. The person in the parable goes, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. For this person that sacrifice is not a burden; it is not a sad thing. He does it out of joy!

This is the same joy that filled the hearts of those early martyrs – the joy of faith, the joy of a personal and real relationship with Jesus their Lord. This faith of the martyrs is the same faith that we celebrate today. How well do we know it? How deep have we dug to understand it? Do we know it well enough to love it? To suffer for it? To witness to it?

There are those, even today, who are suffering and dying for their faith in Jesus Christ. In Iraq, in particular, Christians – many of whom trace their faith back to the origins of Christianity – are being singled out and murdered for their faith. They have found the treasure, and they have sold everything to commit themselves to knowing Jesus. This is no superficial faith. It is real; it is witness (in Greek martyrion).

Too often, we might wander around on that field, completely unaware of the treasure that exists below. Like the many, many Christians who walked over the tombs of Cornelius, Sixtus and Cecilia, we are only on the surface of our faith. We can be what others have called "cultural Catholics" - Catholic by Baptism, Catholic by family history, Catholic by name, but not necessarily Catholic by commitment.  We are called by the Gospel today to be committed disciples – witnesses, martyrs, who share our faith and share it well. But first, we must know it.

Buy that field, friends! The treasure awaits!

This year, we will be offering our “Come & See” program. It’s designed to assist those who wish to become Catholic at Easter to learn about our faith, but it is just as helpful for those who need to go deeper – to begin digging anew and to discover the riches of our Catholic faith. Without such knowledge, we cannot make the commitment of faith that Jesus is calling us to through the Gospel. Call Deacon Herman or myself if you are interested in digging deeper this year.

When we know our faith, we can become companions of the martyrs, not just observers. We can visit the catacombs today and pray at the tombs; or, we can remember that our faith is living and life-giving. Nothing about our faith can be superficial. If it was, no one would give their life to spread it, no one would draw joy from their relationship with Christ, and the Host and Chalice would simply be to us bread and wine. However, with this faith – the treasure beyond price – we see with new eyes and we live lives that are transformed.

We are in that field already if we are here. Are we aware of the immense treasure that waits below the surface? It takes God’s grace to touch us and shake us out of superficiality. So, pick up your shovel and dig!

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.