Sep 15, 2018

24th Sunday: "To Believe and to Act . . ."




(James Tissot: Jesus rebukes Peter)

"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself . . ."


Mark 8: 27-35

There is no doubt that our American culture places a great emphasis on the importance of work.  The evaluation of the economy is often made based upon how many jobs are available and what the unemployment rate is for that month.  We hear it all the time.  Working hard is a value that is much respected and we know that sometimes working too much can cause both health and personal problems as well.  Yet, we often will place value upon another based upon the job they have and the amount of work they do.  But, we are much more than our “work” or occupations.

Our second reading this Sunday from the very practical letter of James reminds us that: “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jas 2: 18).   So we see the essential connection between our faith in Jesus Christ and the concrete behaviors that flow from that faith. The work that James refers to, then, is not something that we are hired to perform.  We are not motivated by our paycheck or the promise of advancement in a job. While all that is valuable, James speaks of Christian discipleship as the “works” of faith.

To offer a suffering person: “the necessities of the body” is not just a nice thought; it is a sign of our faith.  As we say, talk is cheap, James implies. If our Christian faith is true, then it is lived out in concrete behaviors of self-sacrificing charity towards others, especially the suffering and poor. Just to say, “I believe in Jesus” is not enough if we go on living a life of luxury and greed.  Christian discipleship demands a certain conversion and a particular sense of the real value of things and the potential for their use to do good for others.  

In the Gospel, Jesus strongly reminds Peter that he must reconsider what his concept of the Messiah will be. Jesus told Peter: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly . . .” (Mk 8).  Although Peter identified the truth about Jesus’ identity, “You are the Christ!” his thought was measured by the expectations of this world; by an earthly understanding of power, prestige and wealth. Thus, the cross and suffering have no place in such things if we measure by this life alone.

I find it very compelling that Peter rebuked Jesus! It was as if he was saying to Jesus: “Look, you’ve got to get over this suffering and rejection line. You’ll never be successful with that story so you need to speak more of power and prestige as the one who will save our people.  That’s what we hope the Messiah will be for us.” In other words, he tried to give Jesus a real reality check; a dressing down as it were.

The result of that thinking is clear as Jesus turns the tables quite shockingly in response to Peter’s correction.  He rebukes Peter even more pointedly by referring to him as “Satan” and demanded that he get out of his way so that his true mission would be fulfilled.  Remember Jesus’ temptations in the desert by Satan.  One was clearly an invitation to abandon his mission as the devil showed him “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence.”  He pledged that he would give Jesus all the power and glory he could see if only he would worship the evil one.  A futile attempt at the least.

So, Peter’s rebuke, his bold correction or stumbling block as it were, was another temptation of the same, through Peter this time.  There is no doubt that Satan watched Jesus very carefully throughout his public ministry and continued to make efforts at blocking his mission for the world. Once again, Jesus rebukes the devil with another wasted attempt.

But Jesus invited his disciples and us of course, to think about heavenly things.  To see his mission, and our own, our good works in his name, as God intends. And because Jesus is the Christ (the anointed One), and we are his followers, faith in Jesus makes certain demands on us.  That “whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  (Mk 8:34).

And there’s the rub.  We can imagine Peter’s embarrassed and perplexed face as Jesus spoke those words, apparently quite forcefully – he “rebuked” Peter.  In no uncertain terms, he wanted to strongly clarify his mission and purpose in coming to humanity: to die and to rise. 

That the values we hold and assume are good – power, prestige, fame, fortune – are not always compatible with the Christian message and mission. Where is the cross in the life of those who pursue power for its own sake, or to lord it over others? For what the cross implies is self-sacrifice, obedience, humility, forgiveness, mercy, generosity and to think of the other before self.

So the works we do are an essential part of our faith. Yet, on the other side, it is more than just being nice to others.  Doing good for humanity, while a great value, for a Christian is only half complete.  The motivating force for doing good must be our faith in Jesus Christ.  Jesus speaks of his suffering and death; his submission to a force in which he lost his life.  The ultimate victory was of course the resurrection for it broke the dark power of death.

So too, in imitation of our Lord, we seek charity towards others in order to bring about a greater good.  To alleviate suffering and as Matthew tells us towards the end of his Gospel, the works of mercy on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty in what any way those needs come before us are done because Christ comes to us in that form. What we do for others we do for him. 

So it is the sense of Jesus turning the values of this world upside down and inside out.  Yet, if power if used wisely for the common good, and motivated by one’s Christian faith, then we are on the right track.

If prestige and position is used in order to make changes for the good and to relieve the suffering of others out of love for Christ, then we get it!

If wealth can be used to make things happen, to feed, clothe, educate, and heal out of imitation of Jesus’ own healing ministry, then the face of Christ is shown to the world.

We can’t all live as Mother Teresa or Francis of Assisi.  Such super-Saints have been called by God for powerful reasons.  Yet, we are all called to live lives that are not passive but active – as we are able according to our talent, resources, and situations.  James articulates this truth in the second reading about putting our faith into action.  We walk the talk as it were.  Actions first and words second.

In this celebration of the holy Eucharist, we know that God is not passive and uninvolved in our lives.  The stories and lessons of the Scriptures constantly reveal a God deeply involved in his creation and in particular inserted, through Jesus’ own coming, into human history.

As we break bread, we share in his very presence and life so that we may be intimately connected with him and energized by the Spirit to carry on his work.




Sep 8, 2018

23rd Sunday: "Can I hear?"




"Ephphatha!" - be opened


Mark 7: 3137

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where the other person was so convinced they are right, or at least wanted to drive their point home, that no matter how hard you tried, they would be constantly talking over you?  Think of our political debates as each candidate quickly tries to convince the audience their position is the best choice. It could be rapid fire speech or a rephrasing of the other candidates words in order to make others think differently about him/her.  Only through careful listening can we discern the best direction and the best choice.

Yet, we are not the best listeners at times. We might be deaf to the obvious or maybe so caught up in other distractions that we miss the basic point.  To listen carefully and to hear the right voice is both an art and an important spiritual skill to develop. If we don’t listen, we won’t understand. How important it is for us all to become better listeners so that we can follow in the way the Lord is leading us.

Today’s Gospel story in which Jesus restores the sense of hearing to a man who was deaf is a further example of his compassion for all.  The scene is not within Jewish territory.  Rather he is on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, among the Gentile villages. It appeared to be his second visit among this population, having worked an exorcism in their region in the past (Lk 8: 26-39).

Yet, as always, Jesus responds to the suffering of this man and restores joy to him.  Likewise, the man now can speak clearly.  No talking over.  No confusion.  No misunderstanding about who Jesus is and what he did for the man.  As always, our Lord is a “man of his word,” the divine command, and what he says happens.

Using Jesus own original Aramaic word, Ephphatha, , Mark notes how our Lord takes command of the situation:  “Be opened.”  Again, not being able to hear Jesus’ emphasis or tone of voice, I think it safe to say he spoke that word with force and conviction.  Mark states that Jesus “groaned.  From the depth of his gut as it were, he commanded the power of the physical disability to release itself.  It is no wonder that people were astonished.
Although Jesus ordered him to keep this quiet, filled with joy the man was unable to contain himself and proclaimed what God had done for him. The story fulfills what Isaiah the prophet writes in our first reading about the signs of the Messiah: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; . . .” (Is 35 4-7).  Jesus reputation as a wonder worker spread like wild fire. So what can we learn from this about our own deafness? We are invited to see ourselves in the miracle stories of Jesus and make important applications to our lives.

There is more to hear.  We could be lost in the details, as often the crowds did, and be deaf to the central purpose of what Jesus did for this man and for many others.  He brought them to faith.  A miracle is not an end in itself.  As wonderful as his healings were, the lives of those Jesus touched were forever changed. They could not contain their gratitude, they became Jesus’ followers, or they changed their life to a better path. But, we are always given the choice.

Haven’t we too been touched by God? Our faith did not come to us in a vacuum but was passed on by others. Think of the many today who simply are unaware of the power of the scriptures to change our lives.  Those who never attend Mass, receive the grace of the sacraments or experience their connection with a faith community, yet were raised in the life of the Church.  Rather than cast blame for the reasons why, it might be time for us to check our own example to them and to share the joy and beauty of our Catholic faith. Aren’t we too invited to “hear” his word both in the scriptures and in the events around us? Yet, how deaf we can be at times.

We hear a great deal these days about the changing culture of America and the millions of immigrants and refugees in this country. No doubt, this problem poses many other challenges to the economy, to housing, jobs, safety and all the other neuralgic issues touted in our present government and political discussions.

But in the end, what do we hear?  St. James in our second reading reminds us that the lives of Christians cannot have two standards: one for the rich and another for the poor. James reminds us to have no “partiality” and to not make “distinctions among yourselves” that create a separation and that would isolate one community from another.  It’s tough to live this way but we cannot forget that when we deal with such human issues, it is human beings which are at stake.  As Jesus reached across the social lines of his time, and responded with the higher value of human compassion, we too have to constantly remind ourselves that God is not partial to people and neither can we.

Are we able to hear and be conscious of the many needs around us?  To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked is not an optional choice or something we do because it soothes a guilty conscience or makes me feel good.  Our purpose as Christians, rooted in our baptism, is to carry on the same mission which Jesus brought.  We have to constantly fight against our tendency to judge based merely on outward appearances.  James makes that clear in our second reading when he speaks of behavior which responds to another person’s clothing and social status.  

The moral value which drives everything is love for our neighbor. So it’s always our task to create a society and a community of faith where this equality can be clearly seen.  Among the many values of parish life is that of welcome and hospitality.  Do we hear the cry of those who may feel estranged, lonely, judged, hungry or in any human need?  What sort of programs and priorities do we see in our parish bulletins?  Do we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, invite others and welcome those are on the margins of life?  Is this a gathering where people feel they can be fed both spiritually and find comfort and support from a loving community which truly cares about their neighbor.  And the best place to begin is right at home where we can find Christ where we are at and to serve him there.

There is no more diverse gathering than our weekend liturgies.  Jesus commanded the disability to release its’ hold on the man when he stated: “Be opened.”  We must open ourselves to hear God’s Word proclaimed, take the time to let it touch us in our need for conversion, and then open ourselves to Jesus presence in his Body and Blood.  The social justice and moral implications we are presented with in every Eucharistic gathering are many.

Grant that your faithful, O Lord, 
whom you nourish and endow with life
through the food of your Word and heavenly Sacrament,
may so benefit from your beloved Son's great gifts
that we may merit an eternal share in his life. 
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

(Prayer after Communion)

Sep 1, 2018

22nd Sunday - The heart of the law



(Tissot)

"You disregard God's commandments"

Mark 7: 1-8,14-15, 21-23


For most of this past week, without much effort, we have heard about a great American hero who recently died after a battle with brain cancer.  Senator John McCain was praised over and over again by past presidents, politicians and members of his own family on every side of the political spectrum.  Senator McCain’s human integrity and his heroism in war made him a much admired Senator of this Nation.  Many said in a variety of ways that what made his greatness so tangible was his dedication to a cause greater than himself.

In light of that truth, which we have seen many times over history, I could not help but think about the power that true religion has on our lives. Sadly, some have used this pursuit of a higher cause to turn it around for evil and destructive purposes.  I think we’ve seen that in the use of religion to justify the persecution of Jews and Christians over time.  Or maybe the higher cause becomes a slavish obedience to some self- anointed religious figure or social cause like Communism or a totalitarian government leader. 

Yet, true faith is meant, as St. James states in our second reading today: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls . . . Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

The faithful following of the higher cause of God’s care for us in his sacred law and the good news he brings us through his Son should lead us to become more like the cause we identify.  For us Christians our pursuit is always to be more like Jesus himself. It was said the John McCain’s suffering over five years in a prison camp made him greater rather than embittered. It formed him to greatness as a human being and he was able to identify the value of what is good over the evil he suffered. 

To see our pursuit of God’s law, for example, as given not to restrict and restrain us from freedom but rather to lead us to a more peaceful and joyful life.  We Americans seem to have both a love and hate relationship with law.  On the one had we resist it and push against it if we feel is restricts our freedom. And on the other we see it as a great value that can keep order and respect in society.  Law can be seen as opposing my inherent freedom to choose how I want to live my life or it can be seen as teaching me to appreciate the greater good we find in one another such as the legal protection of the
vulnerable and poor among us.

The point of all this is what we see in the Gospel this Sunday. Jesus once again finds himself at odds with the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his time among the Jews.  Their slavish demand for obedience to every “jot and tittle” of the law brings us to see how unrealistic, oppressive, and controlling this law had become.  The point is to discern between what is necessary and what is incidental. 

Their emphasis on dietary and cleanliness as an indication of inner purity is deeply challenged by Jesus.  He doesn’t speak to the hygienic property of washing ones hands.  That’s not the point here.  All of these washing rituals had become equated with religious purity before God and the “keeping of traditions” created  a heavy legalistic culture that placed human law on a par with divine law.  Human law became the guide and particularly the Pharisees presented themselves purely on appearance rather than conversion of heart and life.  Such guides and examples for the people were clearly seen as hypocritical by the Prophets and now by Jesus himself. 

Jesus quotes Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me . . .” and then continues in his own words: “You disregard God’s commandments but cling to human tradition.”

God’s law is given to us in simplicity with two demands: “To love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”  The love of God and neighbor summarize and, when lived out faithfully in all parts of our life, help to guard the integrity of the moral and spiritual life.  As our physicians take their oath to “do no harm” so we too are invited not to slavish obedience to a set of rules and regulations but to seek a relationship with a God who loves us in and through his own Son.  That is what God is seeking – a relationship of love with us.  This demands that I look within, as Jesus comments in the Gospel about the source of “evil” or sin and recognize my need for conversion.  I could follow all the laws but still miss the point.

Our nature is good for God has created all things to be good.  But we are flawed and in need of a way out.  Christ has shown us that way through his death and resurrection.  He didn’t die and rise for our sanitation, as important as that is for the general health of all of course.  But, redemption is about our spirit; our call to conversion of heart and mind so that we may be examples of Christ to others. 

Jesus hits this by reminding the “holier than thou” leaders that their obsessive rituals will not bring them closer to God.  They need to look within and not on the outside.  My behavior, my values, my passions and desires, my lack of care for others unselfishly, my thoughts, my desire for wealth, power, and attention from others, and all those things related to such is what makes me impure. To see the sin within us and know that God’s Law, which comes from without us, is there to lead us to a higher level of moral and spiritual growth.  The service we offer through humility and compassion to others, motivated by our true religious principles, will indeed bring us closer to our loving God. 

So, as Senator McCain was recognized for his integrity by his service to a cause greater than himself, what God brings us to through love for Him and for one another, is a relationship that is centered on the true source of all good.  If our lives are in proper balance – to seek the good and reject the evil; to worship with pure hearts and good intentions, that greater good of God himself will bring us a life of peace and order. 

As Jesus so eloquently reflected in the Beatitudes from his sermon on the mount (Mt 5), was the “pure of heart, the merciful, the lowly, the poor in spirit” are the indication of true goodness and holiness. 

May our Eucharist be the food we become, Christ himself.

----------------------------------------------

Renewed by this bread from the heavenly table, 
we beseech you, Lord, 
that, being the food of charity, 
it may confirm our hearts
and stir us to serve you in our neighbor.
Through Christ our Lord

(Prayer after Communion)

Aug 30, 2018

To whom shall we go?

Many of you may have already seen Bishop Barron's outstanding advice in the video above.  Being who he is and what he proposes, we hear the voice of a prophet I believe calling to us at this crucial time.  Our prayer is always for the suffering ones, the victims of predators who have exploited their positions, power, and prestige in order to gain advantage over the innocent.  We must pray for a renewal as God will certainly bring about through this darkness.

One commentator stated: "This is the worst crisis the Church has faced since the Reformation" (16th century.)  That challenge split Christianity into the many factions, denominations we see today.  It set up the Catholic Church to a near monolithic institution but it also clearly defined many of the doctrines, sacraments as we know them today for example, and set the Church in a direction that by the time Vatican II came around through the Spirit's inspiration of St. Pope John XXIII in 1962 a new renewal took place.  What will our future be for the Church of today and what form will it take?  What must be done and in which direction must we go? We can wring our hands forever over this and say "woe is us," or we can now be part of a solution, guided by the Spirit's wisdom.  Such questions are bantered about everywhere along with a plethora of varied opinions.

In the end, right now, no one clearly knows what will surface over time.  So, as Bishop Barron wisely states in his video:  Stay and fight for the Church!  This is the Church founded by Jesus but entrusted to sinful humans and we always know that he will never abandon his Church.

If we are truly Christians, then the victims and our assistance for their healing and welcome must be the focus of what we do and say at this time.  It is where Jesus would go, where he is, and where we must join him.

God's peace to all.  Do not leave the Church - Lead the Church.