Jul 4, 2020

14th Sunday - The lighter burden

"You have revealed them to little ones"

Matthew 11: 25 - 30

I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

When I first heard that statement I was struck by how bold it was.  After a long period of prayer, reflection, stories and teaching, those already baptized in another Christian faith now express their desire and willingness to embrace Catholic Christianity at the time of Easter to be formally accepted into the Church as Catholics.  Unlike the non-baptized, these folks have no need for another baptism.  They have already expressed their faith in Jesus Christ and are familiar with a Christian tradition – more or less.

Yet, they have come to examine more fully their call to embrace Catholicism and now are ready to express publically their new belief.  We joyfully celebrate that event, along with the newly baptized, every year.  What is “bold” about that statement are the words: “. . . ALL that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God” ALL of it?  Well, I’m not sure what the word “all” means other than everything. I find that not only beautiful but greatly challenging, particularly in light of our present day.

How many Catholics, baptized from infancy and raised in the faith, believe ALL the Church teaches? That can be answered only by each individual.  The Creed we profess on Sunday is one thing but how that teaching is applied and explained is another for many.  With the newly professed we too are asked to make that same statement as we live out our faith with all of its beauty and radical call for conversion - "love your enemies, forgive those who do you wrong, turn the other cheek, the last will come first and the first will come last" is among the most daring of Jesus' teaching.  So it is the morality which Jesus taught and the number of doctrines and dogmas held by the Church. 

In our Gospel this Sunday, Jesus prays in gratitude for those who have embraced his teaching and been consistent as his followers.  It strikes as a kind of come away and rest invitation from our Lord.  A kind of let’s take a “time out” and relax together.

In ear shot of his disciples he prays to his Father in heaven: “. . . for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones . . . for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”   Who are the “little ones” – children? Certainly Jesus showed tenderness toward children but more so consider the crowds who truly hung on his word, witnessed his miracles and came to him for healing as they expressed their faith in him – those on the borders, the “sinners,” the outcast, the rejected, the simple folks of the country side, those without any influence on society, the poor and forgotten.

The words of Jesus are more understandable in light of where Matthew places them in his Gospel.  The passage we hear this Sunday comes at the end of Jesus’ own rejection experience.  He strongly rebukes the cities around the Galilee region which rejected him. Although they had witnessed his great wonders, they rejected his teaching.  Even his own home town of Nazareth called him to task and drove him out of the town.  As a human being, despite his divine nature, Jesus must have felt the pain of rejection and personal judgement.

We also know that the “learned and clever,” the leaders of the Jewish faith as Pharisees and others, were hostile and resistant to him due to their stubborn and closed minds.  So, where does he go and to whom does he preach the good news with success? To the “little ones” who perhaps at first with some surprise on Jesus’ part, received him with great hope and gratitude.  To those who were learned in so much more, their minds and hearts were fixed on narrow things.

So, this brings us back to the original statement about embracing “all” that the Church teaches. If those who accepted Jesus’ teaching and responded with faith were among the lowly and simple what might this say about our own attitude?  In the case of our newly accepted in the faith, it is a moment of joy but also a time to continue the journey.  To “believe and profess” all the Church teaches is to embrace Christ and his Church in spite of our full lack of understanding.  Christianity is not a test we pass or fail but a call to conversion and a new way of life.

Paul in our second reading from Romans reminds us that we are in the spirit and that we must live not by the flesh (material world only) but by the Spirit that we have received from God in baptism and beyond.  That means that we open our hearts to a new reality, a new vision about who we are and who God is. We see life somewhat differently than purely secular values which basically expel God from its teaching and strongly present a clear morality based in what’s good for me rather than what is good for the whole.  I can be the sole determiner of my personal morality; there is no objective truth but rather each person determines according to their own vision, what is true for them: subjective morality.

That being said, rather than reject the teaching of the Church, we are invited to embrace it and question our own limitation and lack of understanding.  Why does the Church, for example, teach that artificial birth control is wrong?  Why does it so strongly speak out against a woman’s “right” to seek an abortion?  What about marriage?  Why does it clearly reject what our society has embraced and redefined in light of present day experience that a “marriage” is defined as between two loving persons regardless of gender?

This is the “all” that many find controversial. We don’t so much concern ourselves today with the two natures of Jesus Christ which so bound Christianity for its early centuries but it is the social things, those human experiences that our Church so radically touches and that a good number have either out right rejected it or not very enthusiastically embraced it at best.  

What the Church proposes to us is not the freedom to reject simply through disagreement which leaves us in ignorance but rather to explore, question, pray over, and seek understanding.  While I may not agree with the Church’s teaching on this or that issue yet I have not closed my mind to its’ truth – that I may be wrong.

If I can come to a point where I am willing to even accept what I don’t fully understand but am always open to more, to live by the Spirit of God who is the ultimate teacher of the faith in and through the Church, then my walk with the Lord is graced. Along the spectrum of understanding we also must know that to live with some mystery and walk the way of faith. The gradual acceptance of certain teachings and the willingness to not close off the possibility of grace is how we may accept “all” the Church proposes.   

There is a reason why our Lord reminded us that we must be like a child to understand the mysteries of God.  My academic degrees and skills and professional expertise all have great value of course.  And we should use them for the common good of all.

We have role models that can teach us much about the core of the Gospel message: St. Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of Calcutta come to mind.  Here are two radical Christians centuries apart but in the same spirit of the Gospel.  Mother Teresa and her present day Sisters who reach out without distinction to the suffering and rejected.  Francis whose radical life-style of simplicity and love may question our own sense of what we think will change society for the better.  It shows us, I think, that what will really change the world is love, compassion, mercy all after the example of Christ himself.  If we can take our knowledge and skill acquired through learning and important resources and apply that with the human spiritual force of God’s love, then I think we may indeed have an unbeatable team.

God in his Son has given us much; a treasure that we may not completely understand but even the most brilliant scientists live with a sense of mystery as they explore how things are.  Our Eucharist is likely the most mysterious of all our Sacraments yet we know by faith, and have most likely witnessed, the power it gives us to unite with Christ our head.

Sometimes we must just follow the lead of our Lord and his Church and trust that all will be well. “My yoke is easy, and my burden light.”  

O God, who in the abasement of your Son
have raised up a fallen world
fill your faithful with holy joy,
for on those you have rescued from slavery to sin
you bestow eternal gladness. 
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 for Sunday)

Jul 3, 2020

Sunday is still the Sabbath Day

In these strange time in which we are navigating a never before experience of both history and that of the Church, we all know how difficult it has been for many to attend Mass.  It has been four months since we've had the freedom to gather as a parish without restrictions and in some cases severe limitations on the numbers of people who can be present for Sunday Eucharist.  We've gone from "no one" to now, at least here, a maximum of 200 depending on the space available.  We've had to consider the environment, spacing between members, wearing face coverings, being careful of touching misalettes, making a "reservation for Mass" as you might do  in a restaurant, and being barraged with a constant mantra of "Covid 19 updates!."  It all can be very emotional and discouraging for many.  Most of us have wondered when this nightmare will be over. 

Despite all those challenges, I think the most challenging has been for all to keep holy the sabbath day.  Since Mass can now be viewed on TV screens around the world are many becoming very complacent about the Eucharist itself and the obligation to fulfill the third of the ten commandments of God? 

Many can hardly wait to return to Church; some would love to come back but they are very fearful despite all the cautions that have been made, some are enjoying staying at home and watching TV with a cup of coffee in your sweats or eating lunch and some have simply fallen out of practice.  While some of course are in a more vulnerable age group and have other conditions to be concerned about the majority of people must remind ourselves about the importance of Sunday Eucharist. 

This is how we as Catholics worship.  We must be together to welcome the Lord in our midst through through the signs of the sacraments and in particular for the Holy Eucharist.  While Mass on a TV screen or computer monitor is all right for now it is only meant to be a temporary substitute but not a replacement for.  Watching Mass on television is not the same as being present in the Church.  The prayer for spiritual communion is a beautiful way to connect with Jesus present in the Eucharist, and if that the best one can do that is wonderful, but again for most it is not the same as Jesus told us to "Take and eat" and "Take and drink." 

In the meantime we Catholics should be good and faithful citizens.  We should be an example to everyone of following just guidelines and caring for our bodies as for our souls.  But there should also be in us a desire, a hunger to return.  Attending Mas during the week is fine at this time.  The numbers are smaller and perhaps more comfortable.  But Tuesday or Friday is not Sunday.  If we're truly not able to come on a Sunday or Saturday evening, then we should be reminding ourselves that Sunday is still the Christian sabbath and not just another day of the week.

We will be entering a time in which the virus threat will be subsiding. When?  I wish I knew. But let's not be ruled by fear but by faith.  Jesus always came to take away our fear and to replace it with trust and joy. 

Let's check our selves at this time.  Is Sunday still the Sabbath for you?   

Jun 27, 2020

13th Sunday - What kind of disciple am I?

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me"

Matthew 10: 37-42

A principle of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We know this well and it is why we wear seat belts in a moving car.  If the car stops suddenly without a restraint holding us we won't stop!  We will continue to move forward with possible dire consequences.  If you leave a package on your front seat while driving and you hit the brakes, that package will continue to move forward while you stop.  We can thank Isaac Newton for this explanation of obvious motion as a universal principle. Science and sports know this well. 

In a similar fashion for every choice there is a consequence.  If I choose to marry or choose freely to enter religious life, the "consequence" is a more limited personal freedom for example.  As a married person I no longer have the freedom to go where I want or to be with who I want to be with.  I must think of the other I have married as my present and lifelong focus and the effects of my choices on my spouse and children.  Same is true in religious life.  My community, my parish is the focus of my energy and I have a responsibility to them that outweighs a certain level of my personal freedom.

The same principle I think can be applied to our Christian discipleship.  To follow Jesus demands a sacrificial level of personal freedom but also great rewards.  Jesus calls all of us as his disciples to recognize that Christianity, if we take it seriously, will demand of us a choice beyond our comfort level at times. 

In this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus makes a statement that is somewhat harsh and may seem dismissive of such important family connections: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me . . .” What about the importance of family life? Then he adds to the demand: “. . . whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me . . .” The audience to whom Jesus spoke would have been more than mildly disturbed for family was everything in ancient times.

One source (Sunday Web Site: University of St. Louis) states: "The ancient middle eastern family was very large and extended from father to all his married sons with all their families, living on one place. The ideal marriage partner was a first cousin . . . The resultant mentality was 'our family' against 'everyone else." That's a tight knit family structure indeed. This is why the parable of the prodigal son was so shocking since no Jewish son would ever betray his living father in that manner and so shamelessly bring dishonor on the entire family by doing so. 

Yet, while blood lines and family relationships are important the demands of discipleship are essentially at play here; likewise, the measure of our loyalty to Jesus.  Do we follow him only when things are easy and comfortable or can we remain loyal as we share in his cross and the personal sacrifices demanded by our Christian way of life? As he prepares his disciples for mission Jesus asks they weigh the level of their commitment to him and his Gospel. What holds you - family or my mission?

What we hear from our Lord this Sunday is that to be a true Christian, we must think beyond the limits which life imposes.  We would never be asked to renounce our family ties but the demand of Christian love and sacrifice go beyond the familiar and comfortable.  The mission of the Church may demand a re-prioritizing of our own lives.  The Gospel must be preached to all and not just to those who agree with us.  Called as missionary disciples we are challenged to become witnesses to Christ in this world and there may be times that even our own family members disagree with us.  Can we still be loyal to the truth which Christ has revealed to us?

It's interesting that we often hear from those in the RCIA process for example, that family members of those who seek to be baptized and in full communion with the Catholic Church do not understand their choice and in some cases may outright strongly disagree with their embrace of “those Catholics.”  It may even be a spouse who is uncomfortable or a son or daughter who wants nothing to do with Catholics.  It’s tough, of course, and somewhat hurtful.   Yet called to loyalty we are invited to seek the grace to be faithful members and followers of Christ and his Church.

In the end, as Catholic Christians, we are essentially agents of Jesus Christ and his Church. The Church we are born into by baptism, in which we gather for Mass, and the community of faith that inspires and supports us in our journey is the Body of Christ and he is the Head, we are his agents. When we decide on programs, ministries, how we do things collaboratively as a parish staff for example, we all keep in mind the same common purpose: to be agents of Christ in the world and to bring others to his Church: to announce the Gospel in a way that is welcoming and attractive. 

In addition, we all who were “baptized into Christ,” as St. Paul speaks today, live a new life in him. And the demands of that life mean that what he asks of his disciples today, he asks of us as well.  Will you be my agent in the world?  This is not a demand that we leave our families behind but rather a challenge to make our position as his agents in the world, the framework by which we measure what we do. This kind of commitment to Christ and the Gospel, and by that to his Church, is a very real thing for many. Sometimes, it is particularly difficult at first.

So the readings, particularly our Gospel this Sunday, are not to disturb us but to remind us that as a Christian I can’t be simply lukewarm or wishy washy.  Faith is more than a title only but a profound life changing choice to follow the Lord who should be the center of my spiritual life. That choice has its demands not for the short term but for eternity. But so does hospitality and kindness towards others who come as agents of the Lord.

Our first reading from Kings, shares the great blessing received by the woman who had consistently shown the prophet Elisha hospitality.  Elisha was the prophet of God, the agent of God for whom he spoke, the woman welcomed him, and received the blessing of a child in her future. 

So, I may ask myself about where I stand in the measure of importance with the things of God and my spiritual loyalties.  Do I treat my faith as if it was a hobby or a life time commitment? Is “Catholic” the Church I attend or the way I see myself in the world? Do I find myself behaving very “Christian” in public or when I attend Mass yet during the week I fall back into old patterns that are more harmful or certainly not productive for my faith life?  Am I simply a sunday Catholic or do I allow the Gospel to frame the kind of person I am?  When my faith is challenged do I really stand up and be counted or do I hide in the safety of the shadows?

Our Lord asks a great deal of those who believe in him.  We may feel at times that Catholicism and the Christian faith need to “loosen up” a bit.  Yet, Jesus’ words in the Gospel are still timely for us: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Our gathering to share in the Body and Blood of Christ is to receive a great act of love from the One who calls us to join his winning side as it were.  To follow Christ is to make a conscious decision which means that other priorities have to be measured against the Gospel. Still, after receiving so much from him how can we offer any less?

“Go, and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

O God, who through the grace of adoption
chose us to be children of light, 
grant, we pray, 
that we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error
but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth.
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)

Jun 20, 2020

12th Sunday: "Why be afraid?"

(Tissot: Jesus teaches in the Temple)

"Do not fear"

Matthew 10: 26 - 33

The Word: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/062120.cfm

In our liturgy this Sunday we officially, in liturgical terms, move into the long summer and fall season called Ordinary. The Lent/Easter/Pentecost feasts are completed and now we take a long journey with our Lord learning of his ways and forming our morals, behavior and lifestyle according to his Gospel ways.  It is a time for us to again examine the quality of our discipleship and our constant need for conversion. 

So, this Sunday we seem to break into a theme that demands a certain level of self-reflection, that is, the fears we usually carry. In light of our recent virus threat we may find much fear both within ourselves and from others. While much of that “fear” is fact based some may be an overreaction.  Wise, though, to err on the side of caution.

Yet, our daily fears often have names: we are afraid of someone or some thing; some event, some person who we feel poses a threat. We also fear losing our possessions, our property, our good health. We may be anxious after a nightmare or some other disturbing dream.  Such are the basic worries of everyday life. 

Yet, in the Gospel this Sunday we hear Jesus say to his own Apostles and by association to us: “Fear no one . . . do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” In other words, do not worry about what you worry about!  Do not be so anxious over those common everyday fears of people or some thing or all that stuff stored up in your homes or even your bank accounts.  God cares for what may seem the least important such as the tiny sparrows because the value of us is far greater. 

Then he launches into where our fear must really lay: in a healthy “fear” of God.  This fear of the Lord, actually a gift of the Holy Spirit received at Confirmation, is however, a call to find security. As parents teach their children to have a healthy respect for fire, water, situations we too learn to “fear” or to have a respect for the things of God.  We fear offending the one we love, the one who has created us and sustains us and who desires us to be with him eternally.  We respect God for who he is and design our lives according to this honor we give to God and the sacred having no substitute for all that God alone can give us.  The prophets of Israel knew this very well.

Our first reading, from the great prophet Jeremiah honestly shares his real anxiety with his readers: “I hear the whispers of many; terror on every side! . . . we can prevail and take vengeance upon him.” This is not the lament of a paranoid prophet but the real experience of rejection and misunderstanding this great prophet of the Babylonian exile shared intimately in his writings.  Does he fear the one who can kill his body?

Soon, though, Jeremiah turns it around in an inspiring response to the fear he experiences: “But the LORD is with me like a mighty champion . . . praise the LORD, for he has rescued the life of the poor . . .” Even though Jeremiah found the vocation of a prophet to be deeply challenging, he knew that good was on his side and God would be his rescuer in spite of what may have seemed insurmountable odds.  The point of Jeremiah’s honest sharing is that he never lost hope in the protection that God promised and neither should we. He had a healthy “fear” of God, a true respect for who God is and how much he truly cares for us.  In spite of real threats Jeremiah faced, he knew that “. . . the Lord is with me . . .” And in the Gospel our Lord states the same.

Jesus encourages his disciples to share the good news openly, to speak in “the light” of day for all to know.  No secrets, nothing hidden.  They are not being sent with a “good bye and good luck” attitude but rather the confidence of knowing that in spite of the hard times of rejection ahead, their loyalty to Christ and the power of the message they carry will prevail.  Jesus will remain with them so do not be afraid.  God knows everything intimately so have confidence since your worth is far more to God than any living thing.  As my spiritual director once told me: “Jesus runs to the train wreck.”

So it should be with the anxieties of life. If we fear too much, it may indicate that we lack faith.  If we find ourselves always worried about out welfare, our health, our safety then we need to confront those fears and judge how grounded they may or may not be. 
Pope Francis reminds us that we are “missionary disciples” sent out to change the world around us.  That may seem like a tall order and indeed it is for us since he world is either indifferent, hostile, politely dismissive, yet also hungry for a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

So, as the disciples by now had developed a closer relationship with Jesus, coming to know him more intimately, hearing of his message and a witness to his wonder works, so too are we reminded that we have heard the same, albeit in the Gospel stories, but also in our personal lives.

In the end, maybe taking to heart the promise of Jesus today to his disciples about letting go of their worry would do us well to reflect more on our lack of faith or may indicate to us that it is time we do something about the ungrounded fears we carry. This call to personal conversion is timeless and assuring.  

There is no magic in the grace of God and sometimes we are called to carry that cross patiently as we are strengthened in faith in times of testing.  But in the end our Lord reminds us as well, “do not fear.”  If we remain his loyal disciples we have confidence that we will not be overcome.

The Eucharist comes to us as a sign of God’s enduring love; as food for our journey in a broken world.  Through the Church we can find healing and reconciliation, the support of a community of other imperfect believers, and the grace necessary to walk without a fear that would paralyze us.  

Grant, O Lord,
that we may always revere and love your holy name, 
for you never deprive of your guidance
those you set firm on the foundation of your love.
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)