Jul 13, 2018

15th Sunday - How much should I take?

(Christ sends his Apostles - James Tissot)

"They went off and preached repentance"

Our Gospel this Sunday brought up a travel adventure my parents once shared.  Several years before my Father took ill, he and my Mother had the chance, for the first time in their life, to travel to Eastern Europe and visit Lithuania, the country where their parents had come from.  They were very much looking forward to meeting relatives they had only heard about and so they did and had a great time.  They were met with great welcome and joined with our family over there as if they had always knew them. Despite the small farm towns, not unlike Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof, and the dirt floors in some locations, they enjoyed the whole experience. 

When they returned home they remarked how generous the relatives were when they were leaving.  The folks were struggling financially, the Soviet Union had not long before collapsed and the former Communist government had done a real hatchet job on the country. 

Nonetheless, when they were leaving one of the country towns where the relatives had gathered, everyone wanted to give them something to take back to America as a sign of their gratitude.  My parents both wondered how they would ever get everything back on the plane but they graciously brought back what they could, mostly heavy books and some personal items.

However, one of the most interesting was a very large set of deer antlers one of the folks wanted my Dad to take back!  How would they ever get these on the plane and even if they could put them in stored luggage what would they do with them on their return?  So, they laughed, explained the situation and graciously turned down the generous offer. 

We hear about travel this Sunday when Jesus tells his apostles as he sends them out, two by two, to take nothing with them:  no heavy books or deer antlers along the way; in fact, only the clothes on their backs, a walking stick and no money.

So our mission Gospel this Sunday seems an important insight into discipleship.  It's one indication that Jesus, who gives without cost, expects the same from those he sends in his name to preach, heal, and gather into the new journey of life he invites in to. Yet, the conditions he demands seem extreme: ". . . take nothing for the journey but a walking stick - no food, no sack, no money in their belts.  They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic . . ." The Scout motto of -"Be prepared" could simply not apply in this case. You don’t’ need all the stuff we worry about when bringing the lesson of the good news.  It just weighs you down and distracts you.  So, drop the deer antlers!

Yet, isn't that somewhat the point here?  Jesus is not calling these Twelve to an easy holiday and this is not a trip to the local Galilee Spa Resort. This is a radical call to Christian discipleship.  Along the way they are to move out two by two, wise for safety reasons, to exorcise, proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, anoint the sick with oil, the basis of our sacrament of Anointing the Sick, and rely on the charity and hospitality of others.This call to go out follows from last weeks Gospel where Jesus was rejected by his own family and townsfolk.  He couldn't work any miracles in Nazareth and these Apostles witnessed that.  So sending them out to do the very work he was rejected for must have seemed a lesson in frustration. But, its clear they went nonetheless.  

In addition, they should not worry about results or who might have had more "success" than others. It's not about competition or who got there first it's about faithfulness to the message of the Gospel.  Some will welcome it and others will reject it.  Don't waste time - move on. The message needs to be heard despite closed hearts and ears.

The essence of the Gospel of Christ is conversion and at times a radical indifference to the material world. We can have things, and we all do, but can you live without them? What would your life be like if you lost what you had?  Is that all I live for? It's a good fundamental question for us all.  It's not the kind of advice that would support a healthy economy, in a way.  In order to make things happen, we must spend money, circulate it, buy things, create jobs,compete for the best and achieve success.  This kind of template cannot be laid on the Christian message of discipleship. What about the clothes hanging in your closest?  When's the last time you wore them?  Do you really need them or might you be able to donate them to some cause so that others might benefit?

So, what are we to do?  Should we all live like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa of Calcutta or like Trappist Monks?  Each of us in our own way according to our means and our vocations are called to radical discipleship.

The message of the Gospel is priceless, it cannot be bought but only shared and given away.  If we find ourselves filled with the desire for success and wealth rather than some level of genuine service and sacrifice, and a desire to grow in Christ, it might be good to pause and reassess our values and priorities. For those who have much, much will be expected.  If I really enjoy and pursue to be noticed for my great charity towards others I might want to ask myself what am I really supporting - my own ego or the cause I choose to point to?

Wealthy, poor, middle class or wherever we fall on the spectrum of social order we all are invited to the same table and to follow the same Lord. It's not ultimately about how much I have or the size of my bank account but more about how open am I to this opportunity from our Lord. Only with this kind of radical conversion in my personal life can I go out on my Christian mission to be believable. It's always better to preach with actions.

Paul in the second reading from Ephesians this Sunday has a wonderful line that may be good to reflect upon:  "In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us . . ."  The lavishness of rich grace tells us that God will never be outdone by any one of us.

So as the Christian journey continues in our lives the daily walk of following the Lord expects us to focus on him, the mission at hand and share from the abundance of God's mercy.  The rest are details really so don't worry.  It's wise to be prepared not foolish as we set out. But, to fret, worry, obsess and compulsively plan for everything, for every possibility is to distract ourselves from the call to trust and faith. As our Eucharist assembly ends, we hear: "Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life."

If we follow the call of the Master in our lives, however we become aware of it, then we can believe that God will walk with us if we only trust.

Traveler's Prayer

Bless me, Lord, as I begin this adventure.
Open my eyes to see you in the people I will meet.
Open my ears to hear your word in new and surprising ways.
Open my hands to be your blessing
in whatever situation I find myself.
And open my hearts to receive you wherever I may go.
Protect me from harm as I travel
and give your wisdom to those I rely on for my safety. 
why my travel is ended and my journey complete,
bring me home again, renewed by your love.

(Diana Macalintal, The Work or Your Hands)

Jul 7, 2018

14th Sunday: Prophets and the truth

(Tissot: Jesus rejected at Nazareth)

"He was amazed at their lack of faith"

Mark 6: 1-6

We often find ourselves quoting famous lines from favorite movies. One of the most often quoted lines takes us back to a military movie entitled “A Few Good men” in which Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise are the main characters.  In one very passionate courtroom scene where Cruise is questioning the Colonel, played by Nicholson, Cruise strikes a nerve and challenges Nicholson on his testimony.  Nicholson explodes in anger and strikes back at Cruise with force as only he can do: “Truth?” Nicholson screams out, “You can’t handle the truth!” Everyone loves that line and we may have used it a number of times in other situations.

But, the point made is indeed true.  Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable, challenging, embarrassing, and certainly not always what we want to hear.  Often we would much rather live in our familiar: “same old/same old” world.  In fact, when it comes to change itself, it can be hard: “If things are working well, why change them?” 

In ancient Israel the life of the prophets found themselves called to the ever unattractive way of speaking the truth to a people who resisted with force. .  There is no doubt that the prophets have made their mark on Biblical history. Yet, they were among the most popular characters that inhabited that land.   

Prophets were the conscience of Israel and that conscience was constantly challenged and called to conversion; to change and penitence; away from the familiar to the new.  Those called knew they would be asked to lay their lives on the line and that they would find opposition to God’s voice speaking through them.  Yet, God did not abandon his prophets to their own; he remained with them in the power of his Spirit. In this Sunday’s readings we hear of this with both Ezekiel and Jesus himself

Ezekiel is told by God: “I’m sending you to rebels who have rebelled against me.” They are: “. . . hard of face and obstinate of heart.” Ezekiel was called to go and deliver this message and, as God said, “. . . they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” In other words, whether they listen or not, at least they will hear the message and be offered the choice to heed the words or reject them.  They will at least hear the truth. 

Then the Gospel hears of Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth.  By now his reputation had preceded him and one would think that many would be proud of his accomplishments.  This young man has done well.  We hear his eloquent words, his inspiring insights in to the Scriptures and we hear of wonders worked through him.  He makes us proud! 

Yet, the opposite was clearly true.  His very mission, now expanded far beyond his ordinary life in Nazareth, was a threat to his own townsfolk. Those who knew him growing up, who knew Joseph and Mary, now basically ask: Who does he think he is? Where did he get all this knowledge? His presence here upsets the same old/same old existence so let’s drive him out! 

Tough words indeed but essentially Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, a place he sadly most likely never returned to, for their “lack of faith” became an obstacle to their greater good, may be more familiar to us than we would want to admit. 

If the life of a prophet and the prophetic mission itself is to call others to conversion, then Jesus was right in line with the prophets long before him.  With one exception, he was the Prophet the prophets themselves spoke about – the savior, the voice of God himself living among the people.  That voice of challenge, mercy, forgiveness and conversion of life that our Lord indeed has been for all was offered in ancient times and the same continues today.   

To go from the familiar to the new and away from an ordinary rut in our life is tough. Moving, leaving family and familiar surroundings is one thing but recognizing something in my life that may be unhealthy or missing is another.   Sometimes we have to face the truth about our need for change; a truth that we need to hear not necessarily that we want to hear. Can I handle the truth? 

The people of Nazareth may be a good symbol of a skeptical age.  We know the facts about things and we order our lives in a particular pattern of behavior.  They knew the facts about Jesus early life: who his relatives were, where he lived, what he did (carpenter trade), and so they were saying, you’re no better than us; you’re like the rest of us and how dare you become more than that.  You’re not the expert! Of course he was far more than they assumed yet they rejected their own way out. “Don’t upset the apple cart,” as the saying goes.  Don’t insert “God talk” in my life or remind me of what I know I should be doing but am not. 

Where can we prophecy?  Religious polls and studies tell us that among Catholics today for example, approximately 30% of Catholics regularly attend Church.  This means that 70% of Catholics simply never show up at Sunday services or only rarely do so.  Yet, we were all baptized into Christ Jesus as “priest, prophets, and kings.” The very nature of our Christian mission is to be prophetic.  To live by the truth and call it when we see it. 

There are multiple reasons given why so many have become lax in their sacramental practice of the faith.  Yet, this alone lays out a mission prophetic in nature for that faithful 30%.  Who here does not know someone who falls in that 70%? If you raise your hand, I frankly doubt your sincerity.  We all do.  Often, most often, they are family members: children, spouses, relatives and neighbors, brothers or sisters.

Don’t we then have a mission to somehow be prophetic to our brothers and sisters in the faith? Not in a way that beats people over the head or lays the guilt trip.  But to show how attractive and beautiful the Church can be. To uncover some of the false assumptions and to say that we are all “sinners trying to be saints.” To show the importance and benefits of the Eucharist and the shared Word in the community of faith.  To call others to a mission which lives out the need to evangelize the world by our lives and to offer ourselves in selfless service to others. 

The prophets were called to live by the truth; to share the truth and to call others to see what they’re missing.  In this way they hear the invitation of Jesus to embrace something better; more in line with God’s desire that we live full lives. 

We have the Holy Spirit with us.  We all do and through our personal prayer and personal witness to the truth of the faith, we can provide an example of something better than empty pursuits or limited satisfaction. 

The fact that we are not perfect and flawed ourselves helps us to understand the human experience.  We hear Paul reflecting on his “thorn in the flesh” as a grace rather than a curse for it leads us all to dependence on God’s grace rather than our own power.  This is at the heart of a prophet.  He takes God’s voice, not his own, to others. 

The celebration of the Eucharist is our key to touch the divine in the midst of the ordinary: bread and wine and word.  Here Christ comes as our food, calling us beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary, his will and his way. 

The truth is that God loves us beyond what we can totally comprehend.  That he has sent the greatest Prophet of all, his own Son, who shows us a way out and a way forward.  That Son reveals the truth of God and the truth of opportunity in our life.  Despite our sin he always shows us the open door: his mercy and forgiveness.

Why would anyone fear that truth? 

For by your Word you created the world
and you govern all things in harmony.
You gave us the same Word made flesh as Mediator,
and he has spoken your words to us
and called us to follow him. 
He is the way that leads us to you,
the truth that sets us free,
the life that fill us with gladness. 

(Preface: Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs III)

Jun 30, 2018

13th Sunday, Year B: "Sacred Touch"

(Jesus raises Jarius Daughter: Ilya Respin)

"Little girl, I say to you arise!"

Mark 5: 21 - 43

Sunday Word:  http://usccb.org/bible/readings/070118.cfm

Here at our school and other schools as well, the children quickly learn the difference between good touching and bad touching.  Parents should instill in all their children the same basic lesson of course.  Studies have been done on new born infants and it has been established how essential human touch is to a new born child.  Without regular physical affection through holding and touching, the human child will quickly become sick. We also use expressions as: “reach out and touch someone,” “I was touched by that song or movie,” and if we’ve encountered a somewhat overly emotional situation we may even remark about all that “touchy feely stuff.”  The point is that we human beings respond to physical contact and the touch of another can convey support, love, protection, communication, and even healing when done appropriately. 

Our Gospel this Sunday contains two very moving experiences in which the touch of Jesus brought about restoration and new life.  Our Lord is asked by a desperate synagogue official, a man well known and influential in his community, for Jesus to come do something to save his daughter: “My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come and lay your hands on her . . .” This official obviously had respect for Jesus, had perhaps heard of or witnessed a healing miracle and now he comes pleading with Jesus to do the same for his child.  We can almost hear him say, “If you just touch her, she will recover.” 

Along the way, a woman suffering for many years with a serious condition, secretly touches Jesus’ garment and is instantly healed.  So large was the crowd around him, that she reached out and touched his garment as he passed in the crowd.  Our Lord apparently recognized this contact, turns and proclaims that her faith in him has brought the healing.  Through a simple touch, healing became. 

Finally, Jesus arrives at Jarius house and despite the din of mourners who assumed the child had died, he approaches the girl: “. . . took the child by the hand and said “Talitha koum,” (Aramaic) and the little girl arose and walked around . . .”  We can only imagine that Jesus likely offered her an embrace as the girl rose from the bed. 

All this tactile, touchable, physical contact between laying of hands, touch of a garment, and the hold of a hand brings us to see God reaches to humanity and the result is life and healing. 

Yet the words of Jesus to the woman, “your faith has saved you,” remind us that these healings are essentially stories of faith and resurrection.  As the woman is healed, she begins a new life as if coming from the darkness of desperation. As the child is healed she “arose immediately and walked around.” So they may have been healed physically but even more importantly, healed within and restored to life. 

These events touch us all deeply because we know of the connection and the power of relationship. In this case, we see the divine/human connection and how God reaches to humanity in moments of darkness, when trust is established. These miracles and others we hear of in the Gospels, bring us to see what our God continues to offer the Church through the Spirit of Christ present among us. 

Think of the sacraments for a moment.  All of them involve some sort of physical connection: anointing in Baptism, Confirmation, and the Anointing of the Sick.  The hand of the priest imposed over the penitent in Reconciliation for the forgiveness of sin, the hands of the priest over the bread and wine during Mass; a calling down of the Holy Spirit.  The hands of the Bishop imposed on the head of the Deacon during the Rite of Priestly Ordination and the couple in Marriage who hold hands as their vows are offered. 

These are not just symbolic gestures that look nice.  Rather the Church sees them as signs of communication and a transfer of the power of God to the person, as the woman simply touched his cloak.

Think of the many generous ministers of our Church who reach out to feed the hungry, defend a position such as the sanctity of life, those who bring Eucharist to the shut in, stand in prayer at abortion clinics and make contact with their neighbors in need or in personal loss and sorrow. 

All of this should be seen in God’s plan.  We encounter this sacred touch and once we’ve been touched by God, received life from him, we are called to offer that same life to others. 

The Eucharist we celebrate is God’s transmission of his life, his own body and blood poured out for us, and should energize us to “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

For you have given us Jesus Christ, your Son, 
as our Lord and Redeemer.
He always showed compassion
for children and for the poor,
for the sick and for sinners, 
and he became a neighbor 
to the oppressed and the afflicted.

(Preface: Masses for Various Needs IV)


Jun 23, 2018

The Birth of John the Baptist: "Read the signs of the time"

"John is his name"

Lk 1: 57-66, 80

In the time before the general population was educated and technology was not even close to electronic means of communication, the “town crier” served a specific purpose as a way to spread the news both good and bad, among the town’s folk.  With a bell ringing in his hand or the beat of a drum he carried, the crier would cry out for attention and the people would gather to hear the latest news from the Royal Monarch or even catch the local news of the day in the city where they lived.  This crier was even protected by law because any harm done to him was seen as an attack on the King himself.  The phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger” held real meaning here.

The point is that the position of the crier was to announce whatever information he was given and to prepare the populace for a change in their lifestyle, payment of new taxes, where to go to attend the funeral of a citizen who just died, and many other things.  His message was crucial to how and where people would live their lives. 

In this Sunday’s celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, held always on June 24th a Sunday this year, we are reminded of the one who was to come after him.  With John’s birth a new age was begun.  The One he would cry out for, the message he would deliver, was not one just for one generation or location but would forever be heard for all humankind.  For without his cry, without the message he would deliver, the coming of Jesus on the scene would have not been framed well. 

John is that voice calling us to wake up, to pay attention, to take seriously this time and to prepare to welcome the one greater than he who would realign the social order and the human relationship with God.  All this we understand from our Christian perspective.  But the very celebration of this pivotal biblical figure, if we think for a moment, may bring us pause. 

We call him a Saint, a Christian word in our tradition.  Yet, John was not a Christian.  In fact, as far as the Scriptures and tradition imply, John never even was a follower of Jesus.  After Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John, John clearly fades into the background. 

John was not present for the crucifixion, resurrection or Pentecost, those very central Jesus events which established the faith.  By then, he had already been imprisoned and executed by the ruthless King Herod.  So, on one sense he has no Christian connection. Yet his life and role as the one who would prepare the way for the imminent appearance of Jesus on the scene forever ties him to the good news of the New Testament and the fulfillment of the Covenant God had made with his chosen people, now expanded to include all humanity in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

John the Baptist, then, held a specific purpose and in his birth we see him as a transitional figure who reminds us that with his coming the Old Testament was ended and a new one was to begin.  The prophets of ancient Israel were masters at interpreting the signs of their time.  They called out like criers bringing people to attention and presenting a message of both God’s mercy and warning.  In essence, telling the people of their time that God has seen what’s happening.  That God has a plan, a way out of their sin and unfaithfulness.  That God is inviting them to repentance and in return he would renew their lives and restore for them a new beginning. 

But they killed the prophets and rejected the message they brought them.  Yet, God did not give up.  He sent John as the last and final voice in the desert to tell us that despite our rejection of earlier prophets, this one would finally turn us to listen to the greatest of them all: Jesus who would fulfill all that God was originally calling humanity to embrace with a new direction and a renewed relationship with God (forgiveness of sin and good news) that would forever reestablish a broken covenant that now would be fulfilled and fleshed out in Christ Jesus. 

So, the feast today might call us to read the signs of the times.  The place of this remembrance in June may even teach us something about reading the signs of the times in the spirit of John. As the Church has placed this feast of John’s birth six months before that of Jesus in December, we see light in the northern hemisphere has slowly begun to decrease.  Once John’s mission was completed, his light began to wane, and the true light of Jesus, born in December then begins to shine more prominently.  John proclaimed in reference to Jesus:  I must decrease while he must increase.”  So, nature herself reminds us today of the work of God. 

Do we see this?  Do we approach life with eyes wide open, searching for the action of the Spirit in my life, or do I have them shut, distracted, seeking something or someone else to fulfill my greatest need? What is the light I stand in - the way of Christ or do I walk in search for another?

John’s birth was surrounded by those who recognized the action of God:  Elizabeth, Zachariah, Mary, Joseph and others who found themselves caught up in the plan of God, in spite of great odds against them: Elizabeth’s old age and Zachariah’s as well, Mary’s youthful state in life. 

Although Christ may be hidden from us under ordinary signs, as in the Holy Eucharist each week, nonetheless his presence in our midst urges us to weigh all things in light of this truth.  Like John’s birth, may we find ourselves more trusting.

O God, who raised up St. John the Baptist
to make ready a nation fit for Christ the Lord, 
give your people, we pray, 
the grace of spiritual joys
and direct the hearts of all the faithful
into the way of salvation and peace. 
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. 

(Collect of Mass)