Aug 20, 2016

21st Sunday: Let me in!

"Strive to enter through the narrow gate."

Is 66: 18-21
Heb 12: 5-7, 11-13
Lk 13: 22-30

The context of our Gospel this Sunday is Jesus’ answer to a question from an interested follower.  His answer is fundamental to understanding the heart of God as compared to our limited human vision. It concerns privilege and entitlement not as a social or economic condition but as one of faith.

So, someone from the crowd asks: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” We understand salvation to be right with God and with our neighbor; to put our faith in Jesus as savior and redeemer and to then be rewarded with eternal life – i.e. salvation.

Yet, the question of the bystander implies that some will not be saved.  Maybe the one who asked felt very justified in their right living or was concerned about his/her own possible salvation.  Am I among the few who will be saved? What if I’m not? I’m rich and comfortable so God must be blessing me – right?

Jesus’ answer takes us well beyond restrictions and it does cause us to question our sense of reward or even justice.  Our Lord says: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Does this imply that only the skinny and strong will make the mark?  What if I can’t fit through that “narrow” gate?  Obviously, Jesus speaks in analogy yet his implication is clear. The road to salvation is not about privilege or entitlement; it is about the mercy of God for those who will accept it – the call to conversion. You may want to imagine it this way.   

There is a popular game show on television in which contestants are asked to make a choice between three doors:  “Door #1, Door #2, Door #3” shouts the game host.  Behind only one of those doors is the grand prize.  Maybe a new car or complete bedroom furniture set or some such expensive prize. 

The obvious point of the game is to make the winning choice; to win the biggest prize.  Yet, Jesus’ analogy is not about having to choose between three equal doors with only different numbers as a distinction. It is about a specific gate that is distinctively narrow.  He tells us which one to choose. No worry about the prize behind – salvation – our only concern is about getting through. He implies that getting through it will not be easy: “many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”

Yet, aren’t the arms of Christ wide open for all like the statue of Christ the Redeemer above the city of Rio de Janeiro? Why not just walk in? What makes this door so “narrow?” In this case “narrow” is specific about choice.

God in sending his Son offers an invitation to humankind - a proposal as it were.  God invites everyone to come to know Jesus; to hear his call to forgiveness and mercy; to become like a child in our faith; to open our hearts to those on the margins and to become Christ-like in our way of living to love, forgive and show mercy ourselves with compassion and humble service to others.

Yet, such a call to conversion is not always our first choice.  We’d rather choose the larger more colorful door than to try and fit through the narrow gate.  Everyone is invited to follow the way Christ shows us but it means to put aside our own expectations and to think as God thinks.

So, I think anyone of us could justify ourselves based upon our behavior. I can hear myself asking the similar question of Jesus: “Lord, I’m doing my best, won’t I be saved?” In other words, where do I stand on the question of my own righteousness?  I’m a good Catholic. I treat others with charity.  I try to forgive rather than hold a grudge. I attend Mass regularly and know they place other flowers in Church besides poinsettias and lilies. As a priest, I do my best to remain faithful to what God has called me for his service. 

While doing our best is certainly not to be dismissed and we do know the mercy of God is abundant for all, yet our faith is not about privilege and is certainly not an automatic ticket to heaven.  If I accept the invitation to follow Christ then I place myself in the position of always having to choose him and the way of the Gospel above other ways – the “narrow gate.”

Faith is more than just showing up.  It is a full and active participation in the treasure Christ has given us.  All are invited and all are welcome but it’s not on our own terms, as the late Cardinal Francis George once said.  It is on God’s terms as revealed to us in Jesus the Christ. It might often demand taking the higher, less popular, lonelier and more narrow road in spite of what the general population may be walking.  Remember last week’s Gospel (Lk 12: 49-53) about the power of Christ’s way to divide even close family members? 

These are seemingly harsh and uncomfortable words from the one we usually picture is more gentle and inviting.  Yet, it reminds us that religion and our faith, if we really take it seriously, has that edgy side to it and carries a certain responsibility. 

Our first reading from Isaiah this Sunday reminds those returned from the Babylonian exile who are rebuilding the nation of Israel.  God has restored them but they must begin to see things in a new way.  God will add to them a greater population; to “gather nations of every language.” Those who have “never heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.”

This broad, universal inclusiveness of all nations clearly indicates the coming gift of salvation through Christ and the Church itself. 

So the answer to the initial question: “Lord will only a few be saved?”  Hears, “No, all are invited but those you may consider undeserving or not worth the time, may ultimately be the ones who embrace the invitation far more than the self-righteous or those who may feel they are entitled to it.”

“For behlod, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” No matter where we feel we stand in line, let’s get on about our Christian responsibility to do far more than just show up or rest on our spiritual laurels.  Sharing the Gospel is more than just words. It is faith in action with a humble and self-sacrificing heart after the example of Jesus himself. 


O God, who cause the minds of the faithful
to unite in a single purpose, 
grant your people to love what you command
and to desire what you promise, 
that, amid the uncertainties of this world, 
our hearts may be fixed on that place
where true gladness is found. 

(Collect of Mass)

Aug 13, 2016

20th Sunday - Come Lord, light your fire!

"I have come to set the earth on fire."

Jer 38: 4-6, 8-10
Hb 12: 1-4
Lk 12: 49-53

For those of us who grew up in the 1960’s, we well remember the turbulence of the time.  Then, the most controversial issue was the War in Vietnam and race relations between black and white in this country.  It was the time of President John Kennedy, of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.  It was a time of protest and demonstrations of outspoken civil leaders. Yet, in the background were musical artists like Peter, Paul and Mary and later Simon and Garfunkel, and others who would sing of peace and brotherhood and peaceful protest.  We spoke of Hippies and flower-power and held up our two fingers in the peace sign.

The culture of today is in its way not much different.  Maybe the deep emotions of people, particularly on politics and social issues such as the sanctity of human life and the understanding of marriage and family has reached more disturbing heights.  The Church itself has certainly gone through its own reinterpretation and divisions not just since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s but also over the last near 500 years since the Catholic Monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 objections on the door of a German Cathedral in 1517. Certainly, long before that event we saw the great Schism of the Christian world between east and west in the 11th century.   

Yet, we still see signs of unity, of peace and good will and generosity all around us.  Many are doing good especially for the poor and the forgotten. Over 2 million young people just closed another very impressive and hopeful World Youth Day in Poland and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta is nearing formal declaration of her saintly holiness in early September. And we have a Pope who has made such a powerful impact on the World by his example and words and his call to mercy and Christian generosity to those on the margins of society. We can still say God is producing much light in the midst of what may appear darkness. Like a fire that causes a profound change in the forest, so too can the message of the Gospel be life transforming.

Our Scriptures this weekend, particularly the Gospel from Luke 12, have Jesus speaking of that same fire: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” Woah! What happened to forgiveness, mercy, and the compassion for the poor and suffering?  That doesn’t sound like a blazing fire on the earth but rather a call to peace and dignity. 

Jesus further emphasizes: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division . . .” Again we may wonder what our Lord is getting at.  What is this “fire” and “division” he speaks of? So, we might be tempted to simply turn the page and find another less threatening passage like Jesus speaking of the “lilies in the field” or about the dignity of a child. Is the message and culture of the turbulent 60’s and the powerful emotion of today a reflection of Jesus’ own words?

Still, if we look throughout the Scriptures both Old and New Testaments, we may be surprised how often the image of fire is used.  In the Book of Genesis, we read that God’s creation began with a burst of energy: “Let there be light.” You can almost hear the “big bang” that scientists have spoken about how the universe began.

From a burning bush Moses heard the call of God to go and lead his people out of slavery.  There was a pillar of fire which stood as a kind of guard between the Hebrews and the oncoming army of Pharaoh before the famed crossing of the Red Sea. The prophet Elijah was taken up to heaven in a burning chariot. 

In Luke’s Gospel we hear of John the Baptist prediction that the Messiah will come to “baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit. “Later, after the resurrection God sends the Holy Spirit in wind and tongues of fire.  And there are certainly other examples when the image of fire was used to express the display of divine power and the effect of prophetic preaching.

In our beautiful Easter Vigil liturgy each year, we begin with the lighting of the new fire, the tall new Easter candle is lit and the fire from that candle spreads through the whole Church to smaller candles held by the congregation as the resurrection is proclaimed.

While the scriptural images are strong even more obvious is the power of Christ’s word both for unity and for division.  Jesus well knew that his message would create controversy; that people would ultimately have to make a choice whether to follow him or not and whether to stay in the Church or not. And we still today need to make that same choice.

One scholar mentions that Luke’s Gospel reflected the experience of early Christians who found themselves in the midst of a hostile environment.  Sometimes, those who chose to follow Christ caused division even within their own family members; those who gave their lives rather than compromise their Christian faith are designated martyrs of the Church and held in great honor. 

While there are many examples of how life giving and inspirational our faith may be there are also examples that for those who truly believe and follow the faith, they may well become a sign of contradiction and in some cases ridicule or even worse, may pay with their own lives as history is still showing us today. 

It seems the word of God today reminds us that the “fire” Jesus came to light on the earth is still burning brightly but that we are still called to make a choice – for Christ and his Church or not.  Renowned speaker Bishop Robert Baron of Los Angeles has coined the term “beige” Catholicism.  He states that the post Vatican II Church culture became what it was not intended to be and many today simply practice a more watered down and very comfortable version of our faith particularly through ignorance of its teachings.  I clearly remember singing pop folk music for liturgy, taking a much too long time for the sign of peace, and a one time experience of a priest celebrating "Mass" in his homemade leather vestments (yes leather) and using  a reading from Time magazine in place of the Gospel - weird!

He speaks of “balloons and banners” Catholicism in the immediate time after Vatican II rather than the full message of the Gospel’s challenging call to personal conversion. I don’t think that Jesus’ promotes beige Christianity when he says that his mission will bring division on those who follow him seriously. To choose Christ and his Way or not is our everyday opportunity for transformation. 

Our first reading from Jeremiah tells the story of Jeremiah’s own rejection and near death when he is left to die in a cistern because his message was to “demoralizing” to others. Jeremiah had spoken truth from God, the hearers found it too disturbing to their way of life, and they tried to eliminate him – but we still read Jeremiah’s word today.

To follow Christ and to live as a Christian and Catholic in the world has never been an easy ride.  It seems it isn’t meant to be but that we by our choice and our witness can spread that fire started by Jesus himself. Yet, that choice does not produce sadness and isolation but rather is ultimately a joyful one.  There is a good reason why Pope Francis chose to call his first official letter: “The Joy of the Gospel.”

When applied to everyday life and real situations Jesus’ proposal of conversion through God’s  forgiveness, mercy, love and reconciliation and the truth about the human person and God’s care for all humanity is often rejected in favor of a more self-centered, rather than Gospel centered, culture.  The “me first” and “throw away” culture of today that we hear about sorely needs an alternative.  The Eucharist each time calls us to not be beige Catholics and Christians but to see in Jesus’ own sacrifice a model for our lives; of how we are to live in this world.

The French theologian from the 1950’s Tielhard de Chardin once wrote: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” 

Made partakers of Christ through these Sacraments,
we humbly implore your mercy, Lord, 
that, conformed to his image on earth, 
we may merit also to be his coheirs in heaven. 
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

(closing prayer for Sunday) 

Aug 6, 2016

19th Sunday - Faith is . . .

Abraham obeyed when he was called to go . . .

Wis 18: 6-9
Heb 11: 1-3, 8-16
Lk 12: 32-48

(This homily essentially looks at the second reading alone for this Sunday)

It has been said that one of the best reasons to be either agnostic or an atheist is the existence of evil in the world, in particular great evil. Let’s face it, it is tough to proclaim a God of love and mercy in face of what appears to be a divine toleration or at worst allowance of the horrendous violence we see in our world today.  Or, often the question is asked how a God of love could have allowed the Holocaust; the inhumane and senseless death of millions? 

We could take that further and ask about the suffering of millions in poverty, disease, and the poor from natural disasters.  If God is love and mercy – where is love and mercy in all that horror and hatred?  Therefore the proclamation of the Christian God of love and mercy is only a myth – and God is a myth. 

So may go the reasoned argument of those who do not believe in a God, let alone a God of love.  On a purely intellectual level it may make sense and to many it does and they are at best indifferent about things of religion; many see no purpose to it. 

But what is the real problem here?  Is it the increasingly secular culture we live in?  Yes, of course our culture plays a role indeed.  The same is true with our circle of friends and coworkers.  If they have no religious affiliation or never speak of the divine, it is challenging to say the least to be the only one who does.  Many face criticism and far worse if they openly speak of their faith.  Faith cannot be measured in scientific ways.  There is no mathematical formula, measurement or verifiable proof.  Faith is not a thing.  It is a conviction. 

Our second reading this Sunday from Hebrews offers us the classic biblical definition of faith: Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see. To believe in a hope and to trust in something I cannot see and to form one’s life around that “faith” is both risky and rewarding. 

In the letter to the Hebrews we hear of the great man of faith – Abraham. What was it about Abraham that has caused his forever fame?  He was a man of true faith. His response to God’s open ended requests is a model for believers and in particular for anyone who suffers from a shaky faith.

For example, Hebrews tells us: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called . . .By faith he sojourned . . . not knowing where he was to go . . . by faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age – and Sarah herself was sterile . . . by faith Abraham was put to the test, offered up Isaac . . . he reasoned that God was able to even raise from the dead . . .” (Heb 11: 2, 8-19)

Still, how can I believe in something I either do not see or have never experienced? If, as Hebrews tells us, “Faith is confident assurance . . . what we hope for” then we must recognize it as a gift. It is grace from God. Faith is a seed planted in our hearts and nurtured through our life experience, strengthened by the support of others, the inspiration of others, personal prayer and participation in a faith centered community such as a parish, participation in a sacramental life, and a serious approach to the question of God in my life.

One thing faith is not is magic.  If we ignore it, never nurture it or “tend the soil” of God’s word in our hearts, then we put ourselves at some risk of simply loosing that gift of faith. Maybe stated in simple terms, “I have to show up.”  

The point is that the kind of faith we hear of today in our Scriptures is beyond proof.  It is God’s word alone that convinces us it is true.  It is faith that will trust that God’s word is reliable and the proof is in the scriptures and the countless lives of believers over the centuries. 

True faith in God’s love and mercy then is based not in verifiable scientific study but rather in the lives of people who have trusted the truth of the Lord’s word.  We may come to convince ourselves of God’s existence, for example, by the study of the universe or logical philosophical argument but that does not tell us what God is like. 

Abraham learned, through his obedience, as Mary did through hers, that though God’s will is often not clear, to follow it anyway brings great rewards and benefits.  We might think of the following example:

There is a true story told about Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.  A priest came to the “house of the dying” to ask Mother Teresa about his future.  One morning Mother Teresa met this priest after Mass at dawn.

She asked, “What can I do for you?”  The priest asked her to pray for him.  “What do you want me to pray for?” Mother Teresa asked him.  He said, “Pray that I have clarity.”

Mother Teresa curtly answered, “No.”

Confused the priest asked why she said “no.” She told him that clarity was the last thing he should cling to and had to let go of.  The priest then commented that she herself had always seemed to have the clarity he longed for.  She laughed, “I have never had clarity; what I’ve always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust.”

Her words are an example of what Hebrews tells us this Sunday.  While there may be no satisfying answer to the existence of evil, we still are convinced that God is love and mercy itself. In the face of the cross of Jesus we hear of resurrection and new life.  Our Eucharist has come to us through suffering but offers us the conviction found in trust that with God all will be well. 

Almighty ever-living God,
whom, taught by the Holy Spirit, 
we dare to call our Father,
bring, we pray, to perfection in our hearts
the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters,
that we may merit to enter into the inheritance 
which you have promised.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your  So, 
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Sunday)

Jul 30, 2016

18th Sunday: "Me" and "mine" - The danger of greed.

"To whom will this belong?" 

Eccl 1: 2, 2:21-23
Col 3: 1-5, 9-11
Lk 12: 13-21

Here’s a question to ponder in light of this Sunday’s readings: “If you knew the world was going to end one month from today, what would you do right now?” 

Well “right now” might mean, “You mean this minute?  How do I feel right now?  I’m incredulous and want to say, you can’t be serious.”  But I respond, “I’m very serious. So what will you do?” Still, I want to ask sarcastically, “Is that 30 or 31 days we have? Or maybe 28?”  I begin by making a bargain for more time.

Finally, after realizing this is true I might ask my neighbors what they will be doing to prepare for the end. Their answers are varied but many of them seem to be very concerned about their lives to say the least. Maybe it’s about time I ask for forgiveness.  I need to make peace with everyone.  But, what about all my stuff?  If the world is ending, what does it matter? Yet, why didn’t I think of that sooner?

The Gospel story this Sunday (Lk 12: 13-21) offers a fundamental lesson on how we must live according to Jesus’ own vision about life. He states: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Yet our consumer society constantly puts us at odds to a certain extent with Jesus’ own perspective.  Pope Francis has dubbed our culture today as a “throw away” culture.  That may imply that we tend to discard things well before their usefulness has reached an end. Out west here, we have shirts, jackets and blankets with the “Pendleton” brand.  They last forever!  They never seem to wear out so sometimes people just get tired of them and donate them to just get something new.  

Or, it could mean that we have so much that we throw it away rather than share it.  We become greedy people because there is so much we can have and sadly this attitude may even apply to how we treat other people in our life, particularly the poor and defenseless - the child in the womb for example.  We determine what is useful and not and discard what we consider useless. We find ourselves wanting more than we have or more than we really need. 

Now, that’s true in parts of the world where so much is available but in other parts, day to day subsistence gives “greed” another meaning.  So, what does this all say about wealth, something that Jesus warned against – or did he? While we all need money and shelter and food to exist, we still find ourselves in danger of greed.  

Where does the sin lay, in being wealthy or in being greedy? Jesus’ parable about the rich man in the Gospel and our first reading from Ecclesiastes seem to imply more in what we feel really matters, our treasure, than it does in how much money we have.

So we hear of a successful rich man who experiences a good crop at harvest time and is very concerned about where he stores this bounty. In what becomes a dialogue with his “self” he states: “What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest . . . this is what I shall do . . . build larger ones!” Then he rests on his success: “eat, drink, be merry!” Rather than sharing he hoards more for himself. This inner dialogue with his own self reveals a deeper truth, then, about greed. The rich man has lost touch with a right perspective as to where that abundance has come from and to whom it really belongs.

It was known in ancient times that the land did not belong to anyone in particular.  The land produced life and if one was lucky it produced an abundant harvest.  In other words, the land was part of creation; it belonged to God.  It was entrusted to us for our benefit but whatever success the land produced was meant not only for the farmer himself but was meant for all. The conversation with his inner ego, reveals the fact that this successful man thought differently. Everything centers for him on “me” and “mine.”

In the end, God calls him to task and points out the dead end that greed has led him to. God reminds him that wealth is a passing thing and that we should place our pursuits on that which does not pass away – on “what matters to God.” As he faces his own mortality, he is told that his greed has blinded him to the greater riches of God’s kingdom – the Gospel of Christ and its’ values.

As well as we know we can’t take it with us and that material things do pass away, the important lesson on the danger of greed is always timely.  As Ecclesiastes (1:2) reminds us this weekend: “Vanity of vanities . . . all things are vanity.”

What has your “land” produced?  Has the crop been sparse or abundant? If life was to end in one month I guess that most of us would want to say things like: “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you” or “I love you.” But in the end, what has been my level of generosity when compared to my desire to hold on tight?  Have I gone with much while I know others suffer with little?
Our gathering for the Holy Eucharist is a sign of God's overwhelming abundance.  The gift of himself poured out for us and then we in turn for each other.  Without Christ as food for our journey, we might well become the most selfish of all people. 

 Draw near to your servants, O Lord, 
and answer their prayers with unceasing kindness, 
that, for those who glory in you as their Creator and guide,
you may restore what you have created
and keep safe what you have restored. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, you Son, 
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Roman Missal: Collect of Sunday)