Sep 24, 2016

26th Sunday: "Who is outside my door?"

(James Tissot: Lazarus and the poor man)

"Lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus . . ."

We’ve all had the experience of coming to a red traffic signal, waiting patiently in a line of cars for the green light, while across from us stands a man with a sign pleading for money. The sign may say something like “Out of work” or “War Veteran, need help.” Whatever sort of plea is written there and whatever sad condition they may appear in, I think we all wrestle with the question, “Should I give him something?  What he do with the money anyway? Is he really in dire need or is this just a scam?” Or we can become somewhat critical and wish he would just go to some agency or temporary housing to find the assistance he needs. And then, we just drive away.

A while back I knew a priest who would never fail to pick up a hitchhiker along the road.  We would warn him of the danger of that but his answer was always something like, “He’s just a guy needing some help.”  I never did hear that he ever had a problem with anyone he gave a ride to but his stories were interesting. 

Our Gospel this Sunday (Luke 16: 19-31) is a well-known story by Jesus about the stark contrast between rich and poor.  If it sounds familiar you may imagine scenes from Charles Dicken’s famous tale “A Christmas Story” and the ghostly visit from Marley to the notoriously stingy Ebenezer Scrooge.  Marley was sent from the dead to warn his former employer about the ultimate outcome of his selfish behavior; his complacency and indifference towards the visibly poor in his time will lead to his lost soul.  So Marley was sent as a final warning to Scrooge to change his ways before it’s too late or he will end up like Marley himself, weighed down by the chains he forged in this life.  In fact, Dicken’s admitted today’s parable was an inspiration for his story. But in the end, this last warning came as a sign of mercy.  Who wouldn’t want a second chance to correct the wrong they have done?

So the overall theme of our readings this Sunday is both about warning and about mercy.  Jesus addressed this story in particular to the elite of his time.  To those who had every advantage to do good but used their position and privilege for their own advancement and flattered reputation he uses a story in which they may or may not have seen themselves.  Were they so blind and self-righteous they missed the point entirely?  Or, like Scrooge, did they use this story as an illustration where they had fallen short and begin to change before it was too late? The answer to that question is now to be answered by ourselves in regards to our behavior.

So our first reading from the prophet Amos (6: 1A, 4-7) takes a similar tone.  “Woe to the complacent in Zion . . . stretched comfortably on their couches . . . they drink wine from bowls . . . they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!” This is quite a description of lavish surroundings with the intoxicated lying back on soft cushions, eating grapes and chocolate truffles. They are so caught up in their luxurious life style they are blind and unmoved by the suffering of the unfortunate around them.  What they really do care about is trivial and meaningless.  I hear the French Queen Marie Antoinette commenting, “Let them eat cake!”

This basically sickening image mirrors the story of Jesus told in Luke of the rich man “dressed in purple garments and fine linen who dined sumptuously each day.” And daily outside his door was a poor beggar, starving who would have been willing to nibble even on the scraps of food the man likely just threw away. You can imagine the man either arrogantly walked by or stepped over the poor Lazarus or entered another way in order to avoid even seeing him. 

Then, “the poor man died” and “the rich man also died and was buried.” Death changed everything. The roles are reversed and the suffering Lazarus now sits in heavenly luxury by the “bosom of Abraham, “a sign of privileged position. While the rich man now begs for relief in a place of “torment, “separated by a vast chasm between himself, Abraham, and the now comforted Lazarus.  

It certainly answers the question as to whether the nameless rich man (who is us) ever noticed Lazarus outside his door.  Are we being too hard on him?  Well, the story indicates he very much knew Lazarus since he calls him by name as he now sees him after death.  All the while, he knew of Lazarus’ suffering but remained complacent to his fate.  He could have easily helped him but refused to do so.  His own comfort and reputation were far more important than to be bothered or inconvenienced by the wretched poor.  Like Scrooge he may have even wished the poor would “Die and reduce the surplus population!”

Now, we may somewhat be in shock over the stark lesson portrayed here which may exactly be Jesus’ intention.  Maybe we gasp trying to imagine such blatant complacency towards human suffering. We might see the Pharisees either with disgust or embarrassment on their face or squirming in their position.  Sometimes, the truth makes us uncomfortable yet that becomes the agent of change. 

While there are many among us, myself included, who have given some cash to those begging along the freeway ramps or city intersections, I think Jesus lesson is more significant.  Both the rich man and Lazarus are symbols of deeper social inequality and indifference.  The solution to poverty and human suffering in the world is truly complex.  Yet, our overall attitude is perhaps where we begin.

In fact we may even wonder if my small part really makes a significant difference.    Can we change the world and eliminate poverty and hunger? - Probably not. But we can certainly live a more compassionate and generous life.

The rich man wanted to send Lazarus as a warning to his brothers who were apparently living the life of leisure as well. Abraham’s comment that both Moses and the prophets have warned the ancients of their indifference to the suffering poor and that even someone from the dead (the risen Christ) would not change their hearts is disturbing.  We too have been given the call to mercy from Jesus.  We’ve been reminded about the abundant love that moved the Father to send his Son to us.  We well know that we have many opportunities to assist and do our part in sharing a portion of our comfort with the uncomfortable.

So in these readings, as they always do when Jesus speaks of great inequality and injustice between humanity, we are invited to see things as God does.  God sees potential for change.  He knows that he has created us to not be divided but to see each other as having equal value in his eyes. There is a special place for the poor and helpless in the heart of God and so there must be among ourselves as well. Pope Francis reminds us that no one escapes the responsibility to make a place for the poor at our tables. 

Compassion, mercy, selflessness, humility, generosity, and charity that promote human dignity are not some kind of new age social justice virtues. They are deeply rooted values we see enfleshed in the earthly life of Jesus and they become our way to ultimate salvation.

My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime . . .” Who is my Lazarus?

O God, who manifest your almighty power
above all by pardoning and showing mercy, 
bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us
and make those hastening to attain your promises
heirs to the treasures of heaven. 

(Collect of Sunday)

Sep 22, 2016

Prayer for Autumn

O God of creation, you have blessed us with the changing of the seasons
As we embrace these autumn months
May the earlier setting of the sun
remind us to take time to rest,
May the crunch of the leaves beneath our feet,
remind us of the brevity of this earthly life.
May the steam of our breath in the cool air
remind us that it is you who give us your breath of life.
May the scurrying of the squirrels and the migration of the birds,
remind us that you call us to follow your will.
We praise you for your goodness for ever and ever. 

(Teresa Burns: Catholic Family faith

Sep 17, 2016

25th Sunday: Two Masters

"No servant can serve two masters"

Amos 8: 4-7
I Tim 2: 1-8
Lk 16: 1-13

From the time of ancient civilizations since our day today, there has always been some method of barter and trade; some form of cost and spending.  We wouldn’t normally think that Jesus had much to say about financial matters but in truth he had much to say about the use of money; both its benefits and its dangers.  In keeping with Jewish rabbinic teaching he often taught through stories and examples in order to make his point.  Normally those examples reflected situations of everyday life in his time; things that people were very familiar with already such as agricultural methods; planting and harvesting.  Today’s Gospel is one of the most perplexing and difficult scriptural passages to understand but it does reflect familiar customs.

The story involves an astute and crafty estate manager who was skilled in the art of crooked business deals.  He found a way, when he was dismissed for “squandering” the property of a rich owner, both to provide for his own future and to bring praise upon the rich owner of the property who fired him for being dishonest. Although his intent was less than admirable, he was clever in creating a kind of “win-win” result.

The untrustworthy steward created a sense of admiration for the master who fired him – he went to his masters debtors and advised they reduce their indebtedness to him Assuming that recommendation came from the master himself, not knowing the steward was about to be fired, they then would praise the master for his mercy to them and be willing to take in the crafty steward for being the bearer of good news to them. 

But, what Jesus then says about this manager is shocking in one way: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Jesus’ recommendation is not all that clear here. Does he advise we use the same type of tactics as the steward in the parable?  Is he in praise of dishonest methods in order to gain success? Maybe a look at the first reading for this Sunday would put more in full perspective.

The prophet Amos in our first reading clearly warns his audience about the greedy: “Hear this you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!” Amos warned those who use power and wealth to their own advantage while they sacrifice the more basic needs of the poor who need assistance to attain their own security.  “The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob; never will I forget a thing they have done!” This is a warning to those who are governed by their own pride and personal security at the expense of the more fundamental needs of others. 

In light of that, we may see the Gospel parable as both one of praise for its clever methods but a warning as to how and where we spend our resources. Our Lord essentially is in praise of cleverness and knows that if one is as enterprising with the good use of money, much good can be done and one will win the praise not only of others but all the more importantly, the praise of God, the true owner of eternal wealth.

The road to discipleship is not an easy one yet is for those who pay attention to the words of Jesus and put those teachings, methods, to practical use: prayer, self-sacrifice, attention to the needs of others, to be charitable for the cause of others, not my own advantage, to live a life formed by the Gospel values and not those limitations of this world.

More, the relationship between the poor and the rich; the “haves and the have-nots” and the social conditions of our time in which so many are suffering from the greed of others is timely with this parable. The greatest sin Jesus railed against was that of greed and injustice.  To be blind to both the material and the spiritual needs of the disadvantaged is a grave injustice and sin.

Wealth in and of itself is morally neutral.  Yet, how we use that abundance either for ourselves or to adopt a more open and enterprising mind and consider the greater needs around us, then to devise ways to assist those who need our help, is I think what Jesus is getting at here. 

God looks upon the poor with special favor.  As Pope Francis reminds us, he came to us in the guise of the poor; as a poor man, and spent much of his time with the outcast and the forgotten. 

The Gospel closes with a prophetic warning: “No servant can serve two masters.  He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and espies the other.  You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  (Lk 16: 12-13).

We immediately consider that “mammon” is a reference to money.  Yet it is really understood as more a kind of life-style that one adopts.  If power, wealth, and the pursuit of success is measured by the “master” of this world that which the world offers becomes our god.  Or if we see the material resources we have as an opportunity to assist the needy or to spread the Gospel more completely in some way, then our “master” becomes God himself and his glory; his praise.  In the end, we must be as enterprising, as clever and intent about our ultimate fulfillment before God as the dishonest steward was about his own reputation and his security. 

So, we must decide who our “master” is.  To whom do we owe our stewardship?  How do I prioritize where I place my energy and my most valuable concerns?  Does God and the Gospel have a role anywhere in those priorities or is it down the list.  Five dollars a week to my parish may be more of a token to sooth my own guilt than a real way to participate in the spread of the Gospel for example.  Yet, if that’s the best I can do with my situation then it is more generous than those who have so much more yet give less proportionately. If only more would be as "on fire" about matters of faith as they are for political positions or candidates, or the latest technology, sports teams, fashion, or material success as a measure of self-worth, what might our culture be like? Who or what is my real god (God) ?

So, this complicated parable today deserves some reflection.  Yet the bottom line may be to consider not only my material life but my spiritual life as well.  Simply coming to Church on a weekend is a good and necessary witness.  Yet, if that’s all I do I may find I live more for myself than I do for the spread of the Gospel.  Jesus in short recommends today that we prepare for the future, as the steward did, but to build up not a treasure for greed but spiritual wealth for our eternal future. 

O God, who founded all the commands of your sacred Law
upon love of you and of our neighbor, 
grant that, by keeping your precepts, 
we may merit to attain eternal life.
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. 

(Roman Missal: Collect of Mass)

Sep 9, 2016

24th Sunday: Over-the-top mercy

"I have found my lost sheep."

The Word for Sunday:

Luke 15: 1 - 10

One of the most popular shows on the PBS station is called "Antiques Road Show."  Folks from all over the country bring all sorts of items, preferably those of "antique" quality in order to have them appraised.  Everything from art work, sculpture, tapestries, clothing, documents, and books, along with a host of other items, shows up.  Everyone dreams that maybe their item will bear good news and be appraised for some great value. What they bought at a yard sale for a few dollars may wind up being of far greater worth than they ever imagined. Everyone hopes to find that great treasure.  

Our Gospel this Sunday is the fifteenth chapter of Luke. It is rare that an entire chapter of any of the Evangelists would be quoted as the Gospel passage.  Yet, this unique and beautiful writing is priceless. It reveals a fundamental truth of God's nature - mercy and love.  In three very beautiful parables, the last one of the prodigal son, the longer version of our Gospel, Jesus speaks to a skeptical crowd of both those learned in the law (Scribes and Pharisees) and a mixed bag of tax collectors and sinners.

A lost coin, a wandering sheep and an ungrateful son all provide a fundamental lesson of who God is and of what he thinks of us; particularly how he views us when we are lost or wander away and squander the grace he offers to us daily. I can only imagine what the crowd around Jesus appeared like as part of them hung on his every word and drew near to him while the other part held back offering only a critical eye.  

In the end the two parables which open the chapter remind us that in the eyes and heart of God, every human person, regardless of their status or condition, is of priceless value.  Far more than anything that might be valued of costly antique quality. 

The lost sheep and the coin provide a symbolic image of ourselves. Sheep are notoriously not the brightest of animals.  They follow the herd and the voice of their shepherd with seemingly no forethought for their own safety.  This one sheep which Jesus refers to, had strayed away from the safety of the group.  Perhaps it was injured, overly curious or the like.  Yet, he had wandered into danger so the shepherd went in search.  Leaving the other 99 in harms way more or less, he considers this one valuable enough to rescue it - a good shepherd indeed.  Once found, he rejoices.

The coin was just a coin.  Perhaps it fell out of a bag or the owners pocket.  Nonetheless, the woman of the house notice it was missing.  She diligently searches and when finding it, she invites her friends and neighbors to a party for celebration.  That was some coin!  Either that or the town folk considered her a bit nuts to get so excited over one coin while she still had nine more.

Then, something of priceless value is introduced in a similar context.  The son of a father whose ingratitude is shocking by requesting his inheritance before his father's death, insults his father and thereby wished him dead, wanders away from his Father's house and lives a life in shame and self indulgence, Wasting all he was given, eating pig food, in desperation he decides to go back not knowing what kind of reception he will receive.

Like the shepherd who rejoiced and the woman who threw a party, this father behaves far more like a loving mother than a father of that culture.  He embraces, kisses, and calls for a town party to celebrate the new life his son has found. Such irrational behavior on the part of the shepherd, the woman and especially the father in our three parables is over the top of what we might expect.  But these are images of what God is like.  Jesus reminds those in his audience, as he points especially to the sinners in a bold manner, that they are being invited back to their Father's house. God loves them so much that he will rejoice along with the angels in heaven if only one of them turn back to his all embracing arms. We well know that we are among the sheep who wanders, the misplaced coin and certainly we find ourselves given to selfishness and rebellion before the God who has given us more than we deserve.

If we could just wrap our heads around that.  That's how much you are loved. That's how God views our sin and hopes we will turn back from it.  We will be welcomed not with condemnation but with grace. When we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation the worst that could happen is that your sin will be forgiven.  

We are given grace not because we deserve it or because we have some kind of special favor from God above others.  But because God's nature is to be love itself.  He will relentlessly pursue us whether we like it or not.  "Come back.  Come home."  He calls to us each day.  Jesus, his own Son, is the fleshly proof of that.

Our second reading from Timothy confirms this all the more.  We hear Paul state: "I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated . . . the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus."

Our gathering for Eucharist and who we receive is given not because of our good behavior but because of God's overflowing love for us.  This sacred food for the journey, Christ himself, provides that grace and strength that even if we do wander a distance, miss the mark through our sin, we will never forget where our true home lies.

Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, the Joy of the Gospel, beautifully puts it this way:

"Whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.  Now is the time to say to Jesus: 'Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you.  I need you.  Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.' How good it feels to come back to him, whenever we are lost!" (EG 3).

Think of this the next time you feel unappreciated, unloved, taken advantage of, or so far gone that God is simply too busy with the good people to care.  That's not thinking as God thinks.

Look upon us, O God, 
Creator and ruler of all things, 
and, that we may feel the working of your mercy, 
grant that we may serve you with all our heart.
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 Sunday)