Sep 14, 2019

24th Sunday: God searches for you

(James Tissot)

" . . . searching carefully until she finds it."

" ... your brother was dead and has come back to life again."

Luke 15: 1-32

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 Sunday reading.  Yet, this unique and beautiful writing is priceless. It reveals a fundamental truth of God's nature – his never ending search for the lost and his overwhelming forgiveness.  In three very beautiful parables, the last one of the prodigal son, 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. 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 harm’s 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 or more likely was part of the dress common to women who wore them around their heads.  Nonetheless, the woman 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 Jewish 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.  God is searching for me even when I stray farthest away from him. That's how much you are valued in the eyes of God. 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 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 . . . 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 Mass)

Sep 12, 2019

A constant question:

Even though I was about 14 yrs old at the time I remember some of the discussion in the Church coming immediately after the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.  The 1960's was a turbulent time in this country with the Vietnam war, the assassination of President John Kennedy and a new era of expressive personal freedom.  So its no wonder that some of this turmoil and unsettledness affected the life of the Church.  In fact, historically, the Church has never really existed in a time of placid peace and harmony.

So the question of priestly celibacy as an optional choice in the priesthood loomed clearly on the horizon as an important issue to consider.  In fact, we still today hear the same in the sense that some thinking that if the Church allowed priests the option to be married or not before ordination, that would solve the priestly shortage crisis.  

Personally, after serving in the priesthood for enough years to be objective about this, I really never bought that argument.  Oh sure, I pondered its possibility.  A married priesthood is not by any means unprecedented.  Besides the Latin, Roman Catholic, rite priests and ministers elsewhere always have that option.  The Roman Church alone makes it mandatory for its priests.  

The above link is to an article by a Ukranian Archbishop who states that, "marriage doesn't solve the priest shortage . . ."  He would know since in that tradition, united with Rome, priests may be married before priestly ordination if they so choose.  It isn't about marriage as much as it is about the priesthood itself.  Read the article and reflect.  

I truly believe that marriage and holy orders are compatible sacraments in the sense that they run parallel to each other.  Having served in parishes for 40 years I have run side by side with numerous married couples and families.  We each have something to learn from each other and we find ourselves complimentary but not blended.  Each has its distinctive way of being, or serving the Lord in each vocation but the mixing of the two would dilute the purpose of each.  

When faced with a choice, who does the priest choose - the people he serves or the needs of his family.  If he chooses one over the other, the other suffers the result.  As priests we are called to love in an inclusive way.  As married couples you love in an exclusive way.  One is not better than the other but rather complimentary and both are necessary ways to witness to the Gospel.  Both learn the true meaning of self-sacrifice and generosity towards others after Jesus' own example.  We walk side by side in our distinct witness to the Gospel.  

There would be opinions pro and con for either of course but in the end I feel that the long held position of the Catholic Church is the best.  In the end, however, this will come to some ultimate resolution.  It doesn't appear that Pope Francis has any intention of changing this universal discipline of requiring priestly celibacy so who knows ultimately where it will go.  In the meantime we each carry on and seek to become a holy people each according to the way God has called us.  

Sep 7, 2019

23rd Sunday: Am I a follower or a disciple?

"Any of you who does not renounce all his possessions,
cannot be my follower"

Luke 14: 25 - 33

A Catholic school teacher once asked her eager 10 year old students to hold up their hands if they would give $1 million to the missionaries. All their hands went up immediately and they shouted “Yes.” She then pushed the point further and asked if they would give $1,000, then $100 and each time they eagerly all waved their hands in the air and shouted a firm “Yes.”

Then she asked a final time if they would give even $1 to the missionaries.  They once again shouted “Yes” except for one boy who did not raise his hand this time.  The teacher asked him “Why didn’t you say ‘Yes’ this time?” The boy said, “Well, I actually have a dollar.” When reality hits, can we really follow through?

What about Jesus’ own words about the true cost of being his disciple? He reminds us there is a price to pay for true followers.  That to follow him will not be the easy or necessarily the popular way. Masses of people followed him following for a variety of reasons: his teaching, healing, compassionate manner and his evident power for everyone wants to be on the winner’s side. To an oppressed and exploited people his presence was the longed for hope.

Yet, note the context.  He was traveling to where?  To Jerusalem according to Luke who places this scene along that way.  For Jesus, Jerusalem was not a place for a good R and R.  It was the battle scene, the train wreck he would enter where he would suffer and die on the cross.  His journey to Jerusalem is directly tied to the conditions for discipleship. 

Over the last several Sunday’s Jesus has been rather harsh in our choice of Gospels as he lays out for us his demands of Christian discipleship – and they have not been comfortable.  We’ve heard about divisiveness in families over matters of faith, about humility, and the narrow gate to salvation. This Sunday we hear Jesus speaking of hate towards family members and about renouncing all possessions.  These are tough words. Is he asking the impossible for the average person?

One point that can help is to remember that the original Scriptures were not written in American English.  Nor were they written in any other language except ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Later they were translated into Latin by St. Jerome and much later in the 16th century began translations into the language of the general population.  So every Bible we read is a translation of a translation.  While the Scripture scholars make great efforts to be faithful to original meanings, it doesn’t always translate exactly.  Yet, the true meaning remains.

So, when we read words such as ‘hate” in today’s context, we have to know it may not be a perfect mesh with its exact original implication.  Yet, the word is a strong one and Jesus’ demand is not wishy-washy.  The clincher is at the end of today’s Gospel passage: “Anyone who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. So Jesus words imply both a requirement and a certain attitude towards what I may consider is of great value in my life.  What or who can I not live without?  What or who is my most precious possession?  What or who might I consider irreplaceable?  Most of us would always choose people over possessions but is Jesus asking more?

For those families who may have experienced the loss of their home in a fire or most recently in the hurricane that pummeled the Bahamas. In addition to the basic needs for food and shelter, they would often say: “We may have lost the home but everyone is safe and unharmed. We are grateful because the rest is only stuff that can be replaced but we could never replace our children or spouse.”  How true.

But, today Jesus words about “hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, even his own life . . .” can really cause us to question Jesus.

The same may be true about the images he uses in the Gospel of a builder and a King who marches into battle.  They make great efforts to calculate and plan their next move.  They measure carefully in order to construct a building that will be strong and last many years and they calculate the size of the opposing army in relation to their own. All this takes a certain common sense and skill. Yet, is this some sort of backhanded approval of military action?

So putting this all together, and understanding that Jesus’ words may imply a different kind of “hate” in its original context we may find his call to discipleship may not be as heart wrenching in its implication as first impresses. Still, it is a serious challenge that demands an assessment of our priorities.

If hate implies an effort to reassess our priorities then we may understand what our Lord is asking of us. So, really the implication is not to “hate” family members in the sense of hostility but more to greatly prefer something else when faced with a choice.  That “something else” would be to follow the Lord; to live by his values and morals and to prefer nothing else that would be less than that. In the same way, to not be attached to people or possessions in a way that would distract me from the higher value of following the Lord.  I “hate” this particular thing or even this relationship because it is blocking the greater need to develop a relationship with Christ. Ultimately, to know that even when it comes to family and the “stuff” I have, when in conflict, I would always choose God above all others.  These are tough words to be sure but in the larger context of daily Christian living, they make sense if we take our discipleship seriously.

Christian history has provided many inspiring examples of those who took these words literally:  St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Moore, and St. Teresa of Calcutta among many others.  So, while it may seem daunting we know with the grace of God all is possible. These were not just followers of the Lord – they were true disciples of Jesus and that is where we are all called to go. Conversion is a daily process of prayer, reflection, common sense, and perseverance. Like the builder and the King in the Gospel, we must also be calculating in the overall value we place upon our life of faith and our relationship with God

So, maybe basic question to ask ourselves is “Am I a follower of Christ or am I his disciple?” 

A Prayer by Mother Teresa

Dear Jesus help us to spread your fragrance
everywhere we go
Flood our souls with your Spirit and life
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through us and be so in us
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus.
Stay with us and then and then we shall begin to shine as you shine,
so too shine as to be a light to others.

St. Teresa of Calcutta
Disciple of Mercy
Pray for us

Aug 31, 2019

22nd Sunday: "Kingdom behavior"

"Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind." 

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

This Gospel passage should be a favorite of most Catholics.  Why?  I can say to all those very humble people who always sit in the back of Church, “Come up higher my friends to all these empty pews in the front.” It teaches us a very valuable lesson on the spirit of discipleship in the kingdom of God.  That humility is valued as a way to seek honor.

Our readings this weekend teach us about seeking honor. Honor given not by our higher ups but honor bestowed upon us by God.  How does God honor us and ask us to behave? - To do all things with a true humble spirit. Our story in the Gospel this Sunday (Lk 14: 1, 7-14) uses once again a familiar image of Jesus, that of a community meal, a wedding feast.

The first reading from Sirach states: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” (Sir 3: 17-18). That seems crystal clear yet how best to achieve that without drawing attention to ourselves, going through the motions with no real inner conviction, or to put aside our natural desire to seek affirmation or honor is not always easy.

We may feel that humility includes some level of self-loathing or walking around with our head bowed and to speak in a soft and quiet voice.  Yet, humility is to know who we are in relationship to God and to carry out our mission as Christian men and women in selfless charity.  But, it isn’t just about table fellowship – it goes to the core of who are and how we live in this world.  This is the way that citizens of the kingdom of God of which Jesus speaks so often, behave towards one another. That being said the banquet Jesus describes in our Gospel is clear.  

Luke uses Jesus’ wedding banquet image to reveal an important moral lesson about table behavior which symbolizes our place before God.  In this case it is a lesson about pride and humility in place of viewing oneself as somehow entitled or privileged to sit “in a place of honor.” Who has a place at our “table” – our lives?

I love the commentary about how these Pharisees, who seemed to feel Jesus was worthy of their invitation, meaning that he was their equal in honor, did not just invite Jesus to the meal out of friendliness.  The passage states: “. . . they were observing him carefully.” That comment implies a hostile observation in order to catch him in something.  Imagine sitting at table with the Downton Abbey family and finding yourself inadvertently breaking some rule of table etiquette!  “O my,” they may say to you.  “One does not do that here.”  Well, all stuffiness aside, the intention of the Pharisees was anything but hospitable but another attempt at trapping Jesus and you can be sure he was not naive about that.

As places of honor at such table gatherings were coveted positions. It was expected in ancient times that if you were invited to a dinner, it was only right for you to invite your host to your dinner.  Favors were based on reciprocity:  you do me a favor then I do you a favor, back and forth. But, if our whole life is focused on honor, attention, surrounding ourselves only with others who can pay us back, “keeping up with the Jones’s, “or if our parish life is focused on only one class of parishioners or those who keep us comfortable, then we have a misguided sense of who belongs at our table. Yet, in the parable he tells, Jesus turns the priority elsewhere and teaches about kingdom behavior.

We hear our Lord advising:    “. . . do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors . . . invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . . for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  We can just hear, “The poor and crippled at my table? I think not!” Why them?  They can’t repay.

However, in Jesus’ view, “think yes.”  So it begins with the invitation to not just those in your own societal class but this invitation to the “wedding feast” is a feast for all, in particular to those on the margins.  They too are welcome and they too may enter the kingdom unexpectedly before those who assumed privilege due to status or even to their good behavior. In the end we know that humility should be a part of every disciple’s life. Pay back is not at all the issue but to offer charity to those who truly need it.  To not forget that they too have a very special place at God’s “wedding banquet.”

Further, Jesus advises, what can we say except that we must check our own pride; our own desire for recognition and attention; our own ego basically not to become simply a dish rag but to become Christ-like in our humility and selfless service to others.  Like the attraction of St. Teresa of Kolkota’s (Mother Teresa) humility so too will God honor anyone who practices the same. If we want to seek favor from anyone, it should at best be from God.  This, once again, is a further reminder of how we must be in this world of ours – how I choose to be Christian and show Christ Jesus to others around me.

In his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis writes:

God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself became poor (2Cor 8:9).  Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. (EG187). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salvation came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. (EG 197).

Our Eucharist gatherings can only be authentic as Jesus intended when we always scoot over and admit there is still room for more, for any who would like to join with us. To do otherwise, in our attitude or perception, is to be contrary to a Christian spirit.   

Renewed by the 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)