Oct 17, 2017

Lord God, who chose Saint Luke
to reveal by his preaching and writings
the mystery of your love for the poor,
grant that those who already glory in your name
may persevere as one heart and one soul
and that all nations may merit to see your salvation. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 

(Opening Prayer of Mass)

Oct 14, 2017

28th Sunday: Are you dressed well?

"The Feast is ready"

Is 25: 6-10a
Phil 4: 12-14, 19-20
Mt 22: 1-14

Weddings are happy events.  In our present American culture the wedding industry has become a billion dollar business.  For some it’s all about the presentation, the venue, the clothing, the flowers, the food, the photographer, the guest list, the music.  Exorbitant amounts of money, in excess of $20,000 is not unheard of.

Now we priests could easily write a book about the weirdness and the beauty of what we have all seen in Church weddings. One wedding I had a number of years ago was a beautiful, very Catholic nuptial Mass with about 300 guests.  All was planned well, the bride and groom and the parents were proud and all the guests felt welcome.

You would think that everything would be as perfect as possible.  Until, you met the Best Man.  Without telling anyone, including myself, he had secretly planned a surprise to happen during the ceremony. As I moved to the blessing of rings, he pointed, I looked up and here comes an Elvis impersonator, swaying down the middle isle, shiny pants, thick hair and all, who presented the rings right into my hand! Without a word, he was gone and I stood there with my mouth open as the Church broke into uncomfortable laughter.  However, if looks could kill I hope the best man got a good look at the Bride and her parents. What happened after the wedding? Use your imagination on this one

Still, of all the details that go into creating a wedding celebration, the one which seems to cause the most stress is who to invite. Invitations are sent hoping that everyone is included and no one suffers hurt feelings. Where to hold the actual nuptials is also a serious consideration and it is sad that the number of Church weddings are clearly down these days.  There is still a very good reason why Catholic weddings are held only in the sacred space of the Church even if Elvis decides to visit.    

Where, who comes and what to eat and drink are basic to a memorable wedding celebration whether it is over the top in its planning or simple and meaningful.

In our readings this Sunday the prophet Isaiah speaks of a “feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy rich foods and pure, choice wines . . .” It is God himself, the Lord of hosts, who has prepared this banquet for us.  God is the center of the banquet. He is the one who has prepared the meal and the one who extends his invitation to anyone who would accept it.  This Feast is a foretaste of heaven.  Clearly not a place where we will recline on clouds strumming a harp as angels float by for eternity. 

In the Gospel from Matthew Jesus once again shares a story with the chief priests and elders of the people. “The kingdom of heaven” is likened to a king who prepares a sumptuous wedding feast.  All sounds delightful, delicious and merry.

Like any wedding the guest list is very important and in this story it changes over time.  One would think that anyone would be honored to be invited to a royal wedding feast.  Some people would do anything for such an honor.  Yet, those first invited refused to come. Despite the royal invitation some refused other found themselves just too busy to come. How unusual that sounds indeed.

So, the king sent servants into the by ways and highways to invite everyone both the bad and the good. The wedding hall was filled, the party began, and the very generous king arrived.  One would think that wedding attire would not be an issue considering where the servants went to fill the hall with guests but the king spots a guest “without a wedding garment.” That person is treated harshly and eventually thrown out of the banquet! Like all the parables of Jesus they are meant to have a twist or to pull the rug out from us to think about a deeper implication.

Yet, that garment is somewhat key to understanding that although the invitation offered by God (the King) is not only generous and merciful there is still a caveat about our willingness to embrace and to live by the Gospel. The call to the kingdom of God includes a reassessment of our lives. We are invited to conversion; to set ourselves in a new direction and to return to the mark the Gospel shows us. In a real sense the “wedding garment” is a symbol of the white baptismal garment and the virtues we have acquired in our lifetime. It is the moment to “put on Christ” as Paul reminds us and to acquire a life of virtue: love, forgiveness, compassion, selflessness.  To put on Christ and to conform our lives to his is how we must be clothed to enter the Feast of heaven.  So, we can’t just show up – it’s more than that.

The color white represents cleanliness, the washing away of the stain of original sin, and more than anything else the new direction of our lives and the call to holiness that we are all invited to share in. Although the invitation, not the obligation, falls to everyone what is expected is to conform ourselves to the king's offer. 

In a way, in telling this parable, Jesus has stated that all along the way he walked this earth, the invitation to the kingdom of God was not a future event.  Through his preaching, miracles, his person he constantly extended the invitation yet many refused and many accused him of siding with the sinners and outcast.  It was the poor and fringe population that embraced his call.  Like those invited to the parable at the end, those Jesus received were among the forgotten, the fringe, the poor and powerless.  

Maybe an interesting question that we must all ask is why we are here.  The readings both from Isaiah and from Matthew about this feast carry a clear mood of great joy.  The king has prepared a feast for everyone and wants to share his joy with those who accept the invitation. Yet, to know the RSVP is called for now and not later is the key to understanding.  We can find an excuse for anything but why would we refuse the invitation that God himself is offering us? 

That feast is a sign of both our Christian faith and the joy of sharing in the Eucharist.  Are we joyful Christians?  Are we here just out of obligation or do we come because we truly want to keep our lives directed in the ways of the Gospel? 

So, if we want to be dressed well, put on Christ and enjoy the party!

May your grace, O lord, we pray,
at all times go before us and follow after
and make us always determined
to carry out good works. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 

(Opening Prayer of Mass) 

Oct 7, 2017

27th Sunday - "Take Care"

"He sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce"

Is 5: 1-7
Phil 4: 6-9
Mt 21: 33-43

We have certain phrases we use in everyday conversation that I would call either throw away statements or throw out comments.  Things like “Hey, have a good day!” or “God bless,” or “Watch yourself now.”  Maybe you’re from the south and might say, “Y’all have a good day now!.”

One that I think is very common and I use it as well is, “Take care.”  It’s thrown out in casual conversation at the end of a conversation – “Take care, now” we say in a friendly tone.  Or maybe the same in texting someone, “take care now.”  These phrases are handy and seemingly just friendly commentary but they can also imply much more than just a quick way to end a conversation.

Our readings this Sunday, in particular the first from Isaiah and the Gospel passage from Matthew speak of a vineyard.  In fact the Gospel has Jesus making comment on the specific passage we hear today from Isaiah.  Yet, the images are tough.  They begin with a vineyard owner who very lovingly prepared his vineyard: on a fertile hillside, spaded it, cleared the ground of stones, planted the finest vines he could find and then built a watchtower in the vineyard to guard it carefully. 

But the best laid plans went sour.  He went to harvest the fresh, juicy grapes and found they were wild and tasteless.  He is angry and disappointed so he abandons it to become a ruin filled with thorns and briers.  How sad.  Such care and love had been given to it in the beginning but for some reason it was wasted. 

This is where Jesus fleshes out further commentary.  Tenants in the vineyard had squandered its riches on their own selfish pursuits.  Any servants sent to the vineyard were welcomed with a violent end and even the son of the landowner was killed there.  It’s a tough story for sure.  Historically, we might see the servants in the vineyard as the prophets of Israel who were rejected and killed.  The son of the landowner is of course Jesus, who died outside the city walls of Jerusalem.  And the vineyard taken away may identify the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and God who then handed over the care of the new vineyard, the Church, to the Gentile community. Yet, that is a dangerous way to view this.  For it isn’t about Jews and Gentiles but rather about all of us called to the vineyard of the Lord. 

So, if we see this for what it is meant it challenges all of us who have been given all as gift from God.  Our task, by reason of our Baptism, is to take care of that vineyard in which we live: the vineyard of our faith community and the values by which we live here and in this world as missionary disciples of the Lord.  Yet, this history of humanity since the creation of Adam and Eve and the journey through the Old Testament is a patchwork of fidelity and of rejection of God by humankind.  Yet, it is also a story of God’s eternal faithfulness and mercy offered to everyone who would accept it.  

Remember the parables on the kingdom of heaven that Jesus often speaks of and that we heard not too many Sunday’s ago.  The kingdom of heaven is a way in which we live together in a new relationship not based on my own selfish desires but rather on virtues that are centered on the other: those in need, the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the suffering.  That my life is guided by knowing that I’ve been placed in the Lord’s vineyard with many gifts given from him that are not meant for me alone but meant to be shared for the good of all.  In other words, to take care of one another, to nurture our faith in the Lord, and to guard God’s creation around me for example and not exploit it for my own selfish pursuits. 

As I’ve been given the charge and the gift from God to carefully till the soil of my faith and to grow in imitation of Jesus himself, I can see all as gift and all as an invitation for me to be a good servant. 

Our second reading from Philippians drives this home beautifully for us.  After a poetic reflection on truth, honor, justice, and beauty, Paul writes: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.  Then the God of peace will be with you.”

As we gather at the Eucharist each Sunday we see this played out as well.  The very word “eucharist” means to give thanks to God.  We gather not to decide what’s in this for me but more to recognize our unity in the Lord and our care for one another in Christ.  Baptized into Christ we have been placed in the vineyard of the Lord. 

Take care to tend it carefully. 

Almighty ever-living God, 
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those 
who entreat you, 
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 

(Opening prayer of Sunday)

Sep 30, 2017

26th Sunday - "Welcome to my vineyard!"

"Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you . . ."

Ez: 18: 25-28
Phil 2: 1-11
Mt 21: 28-32

A number of years ago Pope St. John Paul II coined a phrase about the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.”  He was describing the tragedies of abortion and euthanasia so tolerated in our modern society and its effect on our culture.  To preserve a culture of life is to uphold the dignity of every human person no matter what their stage or condition in life; to see this as a primary cultural value that all would uphold.

Alternatively, the culture of death promotes or tolerates the violation of the human person since life is no longer seen as a sacred value; life is considered dispensable and as Pope Francis termed it encourages a “throw away culture.” The moral imperative is clear for every one of us to be people of life.

Likewise what if we imagined a “culture of forgiveness.” Maybe Pope Francis’ image of the Church as a field hospital where the wounded go to be healed and reconciled would be more the norm. A culture of forgiveness might be one in which everyone has multiple chances to get things right. They are more loved than judged. There is always a time, a never too late opportunity, to seek reconciliation and healing and to change my life direction.  While personal responsibility is upheld, the opportunity to receive compassion and mercy is always available.

Such a culture should not be imaginary and it seems that our Gospel this Sunday promotes that “culture of forgiveness.”

The Gospel parable is addressed to the self-righteous religious leaders in the time of Jesus.  It is simple and straightforward in its message.  Two sons are asked by their Father to go work in the vineyard (remember last Sunday: Mt 20: 1-16). One says “no” but later changes his mind and does his Father’s will. The other says “yes” but never follows through.  “Which of the two did his Father’s will?” Jesus asks - obviously the first son.

Then the clincher which insulted the chief priests and elders of the people: Jesus states: “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”  Wow!  How could such shameful sinners, such public immoral behavior by “those kind” walk ahead of the righteous leaders?  Because God’s culture of forgiveness is more concerned about our present lives than he is about our past. We are invited every day of our life to get things right; to come back on the mark Jesus shows us. 

In order to press his point further Jesus reminds the leaders about the preaching of John the Baptist and his call to a conversion.  In the same vein the preaching of Jesus and his call to embrace a new understanding and direction as well as the prophet Ezekiel’s words in the first reading today all imply the constant and never failing invitation to conversion from a God who longs to welcome his people.  As Jesus stated: “When John came to you in the ways of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds . . .” Ouch!  The truth can sting when it finds its mark.

Those consumed by their own vain pursuits are responsible for their choices.  The same is true when the good is chosen regardless at what time.  Conversion, a change of heart, a time to reconsider the “no” I may have said always finds a welcome forgiveness when we choose the Way that Christ shows us.

In a culture of forgiveness we would know that change is not an optional choice.  That change of heart, turning back to God and leaving behind sin and selfishness is God’s invitation to the right way.  God’s mercy is just waiting to be extended to everyone.  A culture of forgiveness makes that choice clear and supports the importance of changing the direction of our lives to always aim at that of Christ.

If we choose to be a people of forgiveness and mercy rather than judgment and separation then we grow in both holiness and virtue.  Virtuous behavior completes us and deepens our sense of purpose for we are all sinners and we are all in need of mercy. Every human being is invited to this process but God respects our choice to say yes or no as we hear in the Gospel this Sunday.  

In the first reading the prophet Ezekiel spares no words: "When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness . . . and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life . . . he shall surely live."

So, think about your marriage, your personal life, your family life, your association with friends and strangers, your place of work, and myself in priestly service. Is there in place a culture of forgiveness found towards others? God touches us primarily in community life.  While the sacraments of forgiveness (Reconciliation, Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick) for example are intimate moments they are offered in and through the community of the faithful.

What can we do to institute a more forgiving, more merciful, less judgmental culture? Our parishes should be ideal models of what the larger culture can be.  If there is division, competition, judgment, selective membership or cliques that is not the work of God.

If a large group of non-practicing Catholics suddenly showed up at the Church door after living lives that were sinful or scandalous how would they be met?  With indifference, avoidance or with open arms and mercy? Where would they be invited to sit in the Church?  In the back pews or welcomed home to sit in the front?  

If we stand above others and consider that the words of the Gospel “are not for me but for them” then today’s readings must call us to task.

“God help us to create a culture of forgiveness, to inspire each other to change the direction of our lives and to always be grateful for God’s never failing mercy.”    

O God, who manifest your almighty power
above all by pardoning and showing mercy, 
bestow your grace abundantly upon us
and make those hastening to attain your promises
heirs to the treasures of heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, 
your Son, who lives and reigns
with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever.