Holy Family (December 30, 2016)

Choosing freely is part of the American way of life. We choose our friends, we choose our colleges, and we choose what we will do with our life. We may somehow come mistakenly to view ourselves as supreme rulers in the supermarket of free choice

We can easily assume that freedom of choice applies to all areas of life. But, reality sets in. We have physical limitations: I will never be the starting quarterback for the eagles. More sadly, I will not be chosen to replace a “hunk” on TV.

Our relational world has limits too. Freedom of choice does not extend to our family. We do not choose our parents. Children do not come with toe-tag guarantees that parents can read, then accept or reject. Brothers and sisters do not choose each another.

What we learn from the reality of our family is that the family is the place where we learn how to be - at times - “stuck with” others. We adjust to one another as circumstances and our ages change. We are determined to stick together and separate only if our relationship is no longer life giving, but becomes death dealing. Blessed, blessed are those who have the courage to move from a death-dealing relationship and move on.

Learning how to be “stuck with” the people whom we have not chosen is a very important lesson to learn in a society that assumes that real freedom is found only when we have choices available to us.

There is an odd case of “stuck-with-ness” in the holy family whom we celebrate today. What binds this family together is not the bonds of freedom of choice, romance, or sexuality. What binds this family is the bond of divine mission “the will of God.”

I used to have trouble preaching about the holy family as a model family because they are so radically different from us:

Mary - total freedom from sin, full of grace, a virgin-mother;
Joseph - guided by God in dreams when tough calls came.
Jesus - 100% God/100% man: unique - not your usual only child.

How can any family hope to imitate a family like that?

I’m afraid I missed the point - which is easy to do when I am immersed in “the American way.”

From another standpoint, the holy family is viewed differently:

Mary - “Let it be done to me according to your will.”

She did not know the consequences of that choice.

After raising Jesus, she would hear: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

Joseph - After the incredible story from Mary and a dream:

“Joseph took Mary as his wife . . .” The will of God!

Jesus - “I have come to do the will of the one who sent me.”

“Father, not my will, but yours be done.”

Jesus, Mary and joseph each had the overarching bond to the will of our father. That, we can emulate.

The holy family did not have it easy. After Jesus’ birth, they had to leave the country, relocate. Joseph had to find work in their “forced relocation” in Egypt while fleeing for Jesus’ life. They experienced family sickness; they experienced the death of parents / grandparents the same as all families. Joseph banged his thumb with his hammer. Mary got distracted and incinerated dinner. We can identify with those experiences of humanity.

Out of this blessed-as-no-other, yet human family, God fashioned a family -community united in their desire to follow the Father’s will.

Working at having a good family requires of us: mutual respect, affirming one another, sharing . . . “stuff” and the bathroom, patience with one another, and, most importantly, forgiving.

Healthy family living teaches us that free choice is not always possible. Family living is a great training ground for those places we have to be with others: in the work place and even in the Church-place.

Both our natural family and our church family have something in common: both families are like spokes of a wheel that center on the hub who is the Lord. Like a wheel, the closer we get to the center, the closer we get to one another.

Christmas (December 25, 2016)

His parents called him Yeshua, the Aramaic word for Jesus. The scriptures call him Emmanuel, Lord, Messiah, and Prince of Peace, the Christ, the Word of God made flesh.

Each of these wonderful titles gives an insight into the magnificence of Jesus whose birthday we are celebrating. But, there is one name that I think stands above all others. It is the name that comes from the tradition of St. John, the disciple who was closer to Jesus than the others, the one who would accompany him up the mountain of the transfiguration - when he shone like the sun; the one who accompanied him across the Kedron valley to the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, the one who stood loyally at the foot of the cross with his mother on Good Friday. He is the disciple whom Jesus loved.

From these experiences, we hear from the tradition of John, God’s final and finest title, the name given that not only names him, but, more importantly, describes his very nature: “God is love.” Jesus, as the word made flesh, is love enfleshed.

At Christmas we celebrate the astounding fact that, at a specific time in the history of humanity, love overflowed the infinite expanses of heaven and burst into our world in the form of a human being, Jesus. Jesus is the gift of the Father to us. He remains with us as we celebrate him here in Eucharist.

God who is love has gifted each of us with the gift of being loved and thereby lovable. There is one more step to take in the divine plan: that we share our gift of love with others. Then, God’s love will continue to overflow heaven and through you and me, in a ripple effect, to transform our world. All will be one as the Father and the Son are one in love. Jesus is the reason for the season. He encourages us to carry his love always in our hearts.

A gift is the giving of oneself to another. The gifts we give at Christmas - or any time - are an expression, a stand-in, for ourselves and a continuation of god’s sharing with us. Each gift to another person is another mini-chapter in the ongoing love story.

It may be the gift of our time for friends, family, another. It may be the gift of our talent, the work of our minds and hands - as so many of our forebears have given to us. It may be the gift of our treasure - what we spend of our hard-earned money for family, friends, for those who are dear to us and some whose names we do not even know.

There is a negative experience that makes our positive experience more poignant by contrast. We all feel annoyed at giving a “gift” that is not a real gift from our heart, but an insincere “gift” of obligation or an attempt at manipulation. These are corruptions of the beautiful notion of gift.

Each of us human beings has been shown the models for giving in our Father in heaven and in Jesus, his Son. The gift of Christmas is the gift of love, bestowed and accepted. Our gifts to one another are the ongoing love story we live.

Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 18, 2016)

John the Baptizer, aunt Elizabeth’s son, the wild one with the strange clothes and weird diet has left the stage of Advent liturgy. Enter another character: Joseph, the carpenter, the quiet man.

If you are confused by today’s Gospel, perhaps it would help to know that in the Jewish culture of that time, marriages were arranged by the parents of the couple or by the village elders, often when the kids were less that seven years old.

When the girl was about twelve, the marriage [today we would call it the formal engagement] took place in the home of the bride’s father to ratify what had been decided some years before. The couple was then considered to be husband and wife. If the husband died, she was considered a widow.

The final stage of the wedding took place a year or two later when the bride was formally taken to the groom’s home to share a bed with him for the first time. At this point she still had to be a virgin or the marriage could be easily nullified. So, annulments go back before Jesus’ day. Jewish law also provided for that adulterous woman to be stoned to death.

Imagine yourself in Joseph’s sandals. Your fiancée has just said: “Joseph, there is something I need to tell you. I’m pregnant. . . No, It is by the Holy Spirit…” When you recover from the shock, you have three choices:

1. Believe her: Joseph would need tremendous faith in Mary to do that. There is no evidence to prove he did have that faith.

2. Not believe her, that is, as a follower of the law, a rule keeper, and break off the engagement. Expose her. Mary could be stoned to death for adultery, her presumed sin, according to “the law.”

3. Not believe her but decide to step beyond strict justice. Joseph decides to be compassionate, put her away quietly. This was joseph’s first position. Joseph may have taken a strong nightcap before bed that night.

We learn in scripture that difficult situations are sometimes resolved by a visit from an angel. In a dream an angel comes to Joseph and says: “fear not.” [Which implies that Joseph was afraid. What normal person would not be?] The angel tells Joseph that the pregnancy is God’s doing.

When Joseph awoke, he did not decide that the strange dream could be attributed to his nightcap or bad olives at dinner. Although Joseph believed that keeping the law was doing the will of God, he bravely stepped out onto a higher road to discern God’s will. He neither conformed to the law –to expose - Mary nor compassionately “put her aside.” Rather, he more compassionately took her into his home as his wife.

It takes a special courage for rule-keepers to stretch as Joseph did. We need only look to bureaucrats in any current institution to see how difficult it is for them to get past the letter of the law. Rule-keepers fear that if life isn’t codified, then at best, superiors will be upset if one does not follow the rules; at worst, chaos will prevail.

Joseph the carpenter crafts a creative response of love in a world of law.

To fulfill the will of God we sometimes have to see the truth and go beyond “the law.”

Joseph was part of the divine plan in two instances:

  1. Joseph took Jesus as his foster son, establishing the prophesied lineage of David.

  2. Joseph humbly said “yes” to resolve the paradox of Jesus’ being both divine and human without comprehending it.

    Jesus learned more than carpentry from his foster father. He also learned about obedience as listening, about stepping out in faith - trust.

    Jesus learned openness to new possibilities, new ideas, from Joseph and later would understand that all the answers are not in the law.

    Jesus learned compassion from his foster father. Experiencing Joseph’s compassion helped Jesus to listen to people, to understand. Jesus would also act compassionately -- even act against “the law” in practicing compassion as an adult.

    Joseph does not have one, recorded word in scripture. Almost nothing is known about him. Yet, he is held up to us as a model during Advent: a model of obedience / listening, of openness to new ideas. Of compassion, Pope John XXIII initiated the first change in the mass in four hundred years by inserting St. Joseph’s name in the Eucharistic prayer.

    As the fourth Sunday of Advent passes, let us be aware of the two patron saints of advent who appear to be very different:

  • John the Baptizer: single-minded in his desire to do God’s will.

  • Joseph: a man who listened, who was open to new possibilities, who was compassionate.

If we become like John in becoming more single-minded, if we become like Joseph, more a listener to the father, being more open, more compassionate, we will have spent a wonderful Advent.

Third Sunday of Advent (December 11, 2016)

John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, called the baptizer in 3 gospels, came roaring out of the desert in last Sunday’s gospel. He was regarded as a holy man, a prophet. He told it like it was - a prophet tells not so much what will happen, but what is the unsugared truth.

Doing that got him in trouble; it usually does. He told king Herod it was wrong for him to take his brother’s wife. He was put in jail. That is where we find him in today’s Gospel

He has much time to think. He hears reports about Jesus’ ministry. His expectations of Jesus were not being fulfilled. He, like ourselves, expects others to be like us. Jesus was not the expected firebrand like himself. He didn’t understand. Doubts about Jesus crept in. He sent his disciples to Jesus to ask in his typically very direct way: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Jesus replies in his typically indirect way - quoting the same prophetic words we heard in today’s first reading from Isaiah [Chs 35 & 61]. The blind see; the deaf hear; the lame walk -- the fulfillment of the prophecies. Jesus let john draw his own logical conclusion.

A wonderful lesson for us! Jesus does not rebuke John for doubting. Having doubts about our faith can be spiritually healthy. There was a time when doubting our faith was tantamount to denying it. Doubting was thought to be serious enough to separate us from God.

Fortunately, the Church has progressed. There are reasons for our faith becoming shaky. I would like to look at three that are not uncommon.

First , doubting can come from sinning. It is well said: “If we do not act as we believe; we soon begin to believe as we act.” If we begin to act clearly contrary to god’s will for us, we can come to the point where we justify our behavior by believing we are right and God is wrong. So, we doubt him. Then, we avoid him - - as Adam and eve avoided God in the garden. Who of us cannot think of people we know who fall into this category including, perhaps, ourselves at some point?

Second, some doubt has no connection to sin of any kind, but comes from a deeply felt disappointment with God. We feel god should have stepped in or acted differently. God should have fulfilled my expectations. Who of us has not had trouble in this area? Probably, this area of expectations is the one with which john the baptizer was having trouble.

Third, some doubt because of the church that claims to represent god and in critical areas does not. We, and I mean we, need to realize that some members of the people of god do not represent God’s will. In fact, they represent god disgracefully poorly. For our part, we need to recall that the church is not god although many grew up thinking that the will of the church and the will of god were identical. John the baptizer did not have to contend with this issue. We do. We affirm our faith in Jesus, not the church as our messiah.

Some possible solutions:

  • The doubt that comes from seeking happiness in the wrong places can be fixed by seeking God’s will, not our own, and reconciling ourselves with our lord.

  • The doubt that comes from dashed expectations of god or the institutional church can be removed by renewed faith in Jesus, when I was a child, I remember being baffled by a sign in a donut shop. “As you amble on through life, brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, not upon the hole.” My father bent down and explained it to me. It was a lesson for life, including church-life. Keep our eye on what is there and good, not on the lack of what is good. The Holy Spirit is still alive and well. Like the farmer in the first reading, we are called to renewed patience with the people of god. The result is the gift of joy that comes from our newfound faith in the Lord.

The possibility of reconciling with God - if that is necessary, and/or of renewing our faith is the reason for today being called “rejoice Sunday” on this, the third Sunday in advent. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Lord allows us to be in situations like the above to give us the opportunity of expressing our trust in him -- because that is, after all, what faith is.

When we weather the storm of doubt and enter the safe harbor of childlike - not childish - faith in a loving God whom we know would not harm us, we experience joy.

Joy is not a cheap emotion. Joy does not come as easily as laughter or as spontaneously as happiness. Joy has qualities all its own. Joy may be experienced as an enduring sense of satisfaction or a sense of elation. Either way, joy comes only through struggle: the pain of childbirth, the victory of a championship, the completion of studies, and the attainment of a deep life-insight.

Joy is the word of Christmas. “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,” said the angel. God wants us to be joyful. We read in John’s Gospel: “Ask and you shall receive, so that your joy may be complete.”

I ask you to finish the homily. Think of the times in your life when you were joy-full. Rejoice!

Second Sunday of Advent (December 4, 2016)

Many of us have had the experience while listening to the radio or watching TV, a voice interrupts: “We interrupt this program to bring you this important announcement.” With all the shopping, the baking, the decorating, the card writing of this time - - it sounds strange to hear the prophets breaking into our pre-Christmas chaos that is almost routine.

Advent is the spiritual time when we turn our attention to meeting our Lord: either the meeting at the end of time or our meeting him at the time of our death . . . whichever comes first. And - although we never know for sure - the likelihood is that we will not be meeting him for the first time at his Second Coming.

Prophets - for many of us growing up - were persons who foretold the future. These were prophets in the tradition of Jeanne Dixon. In our maturity we come to understand that the prophets were people who help us look into rather than look ahead.

Prophets are introduced into the Advent readings because the dispositions that the prophets call us to are the dispositions we are to have when we meet our lord. In the first reading, we meet Isaiah, perhaps the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He was, at once, fearless and poetic. He describes the ideal leader who was not gifted with health, wealth, and popularity -- but the person who was gifted with wisdom and counsel, strength and knowledge. As time played out, that prophet was Jesus.

In our Gospel reading, we meet john the Baptizer, the cousin of our Lord - not to be confused with John, one of the sons of Zebedee, the beloved disciple, the one to whom is attributed the fourth Gospel authorship.

John the Baptizer is not the most pleasant person to hear about or visualize. His words are not pleasing to our ears. No one likes to hear about the chaff being burned out of our lives. He is a radical, absolutely, single-minded, ruthless in his pursuit of God’s reign in the lives of all. Advent is a time of looking into our hearts. It is a time of looking at what is present there and determining where we are to grow if we are to meet our lord without fear in our hearts.

Prophets exist in the New Testament, too. They are spiritual giants who give us insights into ourselves. Men and women who call us to grow and give us help in growing.

St. Francis de Sales was a prophet who gives us help to grow in a more positive way than some traditional, ascetic, punitive practices. Francis de Sales is a prophet who leads us along a positive approach. Unlike John the Baptizer and ascetics who follow in his tradition, Francis emphasizes the love God has for us and our personal goodness. He encourages us to build on that goodness and respond to God’s love by loving God back and loving God’s other children. In doing this, we spiritually grow.

He is the modern saint whose insight into relationship provides a sense of direction and a model for us. He sees the basic teaching of Jesus as love expressed in the two great commandments: love for God and love for neighbor. Advent is a time to look into ourselves prophetically. We need to look at two relationships: our God - our neighbor.

We know from experience - ourselves and others - that no relationship is maintained without communication. Certainly the same is true with Jesus. Are we taking the time to pray, to steal moments from our busy days - perhaps while driving, while doing dumb things that are “no brainers” [like folding wash, walking to our next required presence, driving familiar streets and roads] - spaces that provide time to be alone with our lord and express our frustrations, our joys, our sorrows? We need to take time to be present to him and allow him to be present to us.

Francis de Sales shows us how to become the person the Lord calls us to be by lovingly walking the path of life in a gentle-before-humans and a humble-before-God-manner.

It is not the manner of John the Baptizer, but it is at least equally effective without john’s diet of grasshoppers and wild honey and his fashion statement-loin cloth.

First Sunday of Advent (November 27, 2016)

Advent readings send us a confusing message. The readings at the beginning of Advent are about the second coming of Christ at the end of time. The readings at the end of Advent are about the first coming of Christ in Bethlehem.

The readings about Jesus’ birth present their own problem. We cannot pretend that Jesus has not already come. That would be:

  • A suspension in belief in the incarnation,

  • A suspension in belief in the life and ministry of Jesus,

  • A suspension in belief in what brings us together in this place today.
We cannot pretend that something historical has not happened. Jesus did arrive. We await his return.

Many years ago, there was a debate in Damascus between Jewish and Christian scholars as to whether a new covenant had occurred. The Jewish scholars pointed to the words of the first reading, saying that the swords have not been turned into plows, that the spears have not been turned into pruning hooks. Violence remains. The Jewish scholars remained convinced that the messiah did not come.

When we look at the world situation today: ethnic rivalries, the violence in our cities, the disparity between the rich and the poor, the homelessness that becomes “the top story” on the latest news, we can sympathize with that argument of the Jewish scholars.

It is true that much of the violence is at the hands of non-Christians, but it seems that many so-called Christians let the words of scripture fall on deaf ears. The first reading tells us: let’s get moving; the second reading tells us to wake up; the third reading advises us to stay awake - to turn off that spiritual snooze alarm that delays the inevitable reality of our lives. Remember when Jesus woke peter, James, and john in the garden of gethsemane’ he asked: “why are you sleeping?” Remember the sleeping maid-servants without oil for their lamps. Jesus made a teaching point of complaining about sleeping on the job.

Today’s readings look to the preparation for meeting Jesus. In spite of some recent, wonderful weather, those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are behind us. Many go “on the nod” in the summer, to be awakened in the chill of autumn to the reality of school, new beginnings in various organizations, and in our spiritual lives. Advent provides not a rude, but a pointed awakening.

We may not be able to change world violence, but we can wake up to our personal violence: the violence indifference, of violence brought on by not speaking to someone, the violence of holding a grudge, and not forgiving someone.

The city of Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. A recent book tells of archeologists’ unearthing people who were buried alive in the volcanic ash. I think an important spiritual lesson can be learned from this event. The people who were carrying heavier possessions were slowed by them and were found closer to Vesuvius overrun by the lava. The less they carried, the less they were in jeopardy.

Jesus spoke pointedly about people who carry grudges or bear unforgiving anger toward another. Their spiritual growth is slowed or even ceases.

If we listen to his words about having too many of this worlds good, we wake up and realize our need to drop extra baggage and live more simply.

If we wake up to his words about carrying grudges and dwelling on past injuries we can consciously work to drop them, so that we may get on with our spiritual progress.

Here, at the beginning of advent, our readings sound a wake-up call about our meeting Jesus at the end. We need to take the opportunity to see what we are carrying that holds us back, slows us from becoming the person Jesus calls us to become and enjoying the peace that only he can bring.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (November 20, 2016)

Kingship is off-putting in our democratic culture. And, authority has so often become such a soiled garment in our times that the idea of ultimate authority can seem strange. We need to interpret what this feast of Christ the king means.

King and kingdom imply power, authority over other people. There are two ways of moving people to do what we would like them to do: one is to force them to do it whether they want to or not: coercive power; the other is to attract them to do it because of the inherent goodness in doing it: persuasive power. Persuasive power is more difficult and usually takes more time.

Jesus was goaded to use coercive power three times in today’s Gospel: by the rulers, by the soldiers, by one of the thieves. He refused. Coercive power never accomplishes conversion of mind and heart. It accomplishes only “behavior modification” as in prison or the 50-pupil catholic classroom of yesteryear. “My way or the highway, do it or else…”

If you and I possess any genuine goodness, it was not pounded into us. When we came under the influence of truly good people, a thought took shape in our minds: “Wow – this makes sense.” We may not even remember the incidents. But, if we look at the finest qualities people say they see in you and me, we can trace how these qualities became part of your and my character. H
Jesus knew preeminently that we never accomplish real conversion except by persuasion. Persuasive power was at the heart of his teaching about his father’s kingdom. Jesus was invitational: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavily burdened, I will refresh you. Come, follow me. Zacchaeus, come down.

Jesus’ single, royal command is: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.”
In John’s 1st Letter, we read: “God is love.” “He who abides in love abides in God and God in him.” His kingdom is the inbreaking of God’s presence in us.

Our Gospel tells the story of the two thieves on the crosses beside Jesus. Both were faced with the same choice about Jesus. One is consumed with himself and his situation. The other recognizes the goodness in Jesus and the lack of good in his own life – he is drawn to Jesus and acts upon it. The good thief snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Fulton sheen said it well: “He remained a thief to the end. He stole heaven as his final caper.”
At the conclusion of our Eucharistic Prayer, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We pray: Thy kingdom come. We ask our father to fill our lives with himself, love. Each of us needs to determine where we say “thy kingdom come” and actually live “my kingdom come. “

The kingdom of God cannot be equated with the Catholic church although before Vatican II, we heard church leadership call the catholic church “the kingdom of god on earth” implying that if one were not a catholic one would have great trouble getting to heaven.

The kingdom of God is bigger than the Roman Catholic Church. Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus turns “ power” and “authority” inside out. The kingdom of God exists in the collective heart of the faithful who are open to divine and neighbor love.

The kingdom of God is a presence to the world of unbelief. We attempt to be a vibrant model that is persuasively visible and attractive to everyone. We stand behind Jesus as he says: “Here I stand, knocking at the door . . .”

The closing feast of the liturgical year addresses our spirituality. So, on this feast of Christ the King, we celebrate his persuasive love. May we look at Jesus and may we ask ourselves: what part of me still remains “my kingdom” and private. May we seek the goodness of God and allow the reign of God to thoroughly permeate us.

Next Sunday we begin the liturgical New Year. See you on the other side.

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 13, 2016)

About forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, a cataclysmic event occurred. The Roman Empire’s leaders became fed up with the Jews:

  • their whining opposition to roman taxation,

  • their constant complaining about roman rule and talk about a messiah,

  • their pitiful rebellion that took the lives of some roman soldiers.
The Romans had a long fuse with the Jews, but the sleeping giant awoke and marched on Jerusalem with merciless vengeance. They struck at the very heart of Judaism: the temple was destroyed so completely that all that remains to this day is what has come to be known as the “wailing wall.”

This event was more traumatic to Jews than the destruction of the World Trade Center is to us. This event was more devastating to Jews than nuking and evaporating Vatican City would be to Catholics. The Vatican is where the pope dwells; the temple’s holy of holies was where Jews believed God dwelled.

Some early Christians believed that this destruction heralded the end of the world; the second coming would soon follow. Luke wrote his gospel about twenty years after the devastation and assures his readers: not so. We find in scripture the temple destruction and the end of the world confusingly mixed together.

We recall the approach of the year 2000. Fundamentalist preachers and self-proclaimed prophets pointed to then current catastrophes as proof that we were in the last days. And nothing happened!

At another time, Jesus said that even he did not know the time that only the father knows the day and the hour. How in the world anyone presumes to know more than Jesus always baffles me.

After the destruction of the temple, the Jews called for a council at Jamnia. They wanted to clearly define their identity, to answer the question: “What makes an authentic Jew?” They decided that the followers of Jesus were not real Jews – and expelled the “Jesus-sect” from Judaism. We were “excommunicated” by the Jews.

Now, as we know, during the Roman Empire, Jews were the only nation permitted to worship their own God; every other nation had to worship the emperor of Rome. So, not only did the Jews, including Paul, denounce and begin to persecute the Christians in Israel, the Romans also began their persecution of these non-Jews. That drove the Christians into the catacombs. This ended only in the fourth century with the emperor Constantine.

We can learn several lessons from today’s liturgy.

From the Jews we learn that we must never think that we Catholics have it eternally all together. Our God is not limited by our opinion or by our viewpoint in our age.

From our insecurity we learn that we need to remember that God loves us, but we have no assurances of an always serene and secure life. The twelve step programs insist on living one day at a time to avoid the anxiety that the unknown future otherwise stirs up. We need to learn from their experience and our spiritual masters to live in the present moment that God has given us. As the saying goes: “The past is history, the future is mystery, the now is gift and that is why we call it the present.” Concern about “the end” is a distraction that diverts our attention from what is important – the present.

I think the insight of St. Francis de Sales is helpful here: ’”Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow when tomorrow becomes today.’’

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 6, 2016)

Questions played an important role in Jewish theological, religious, political and cultural life. The so-called “Rabbinical method” presumed that the best way to come to know the truth was to learn to raise the right questions.

Elie Wiesel –– author, scholar, and holocaust survivor –– notes this in the opening pages of his book Night. In it, Wiesel’s mentor explained to him “with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.” (Bantam Books, 1960)

There is power in a question. There is promise in a question. There is possibility in a question.

This understanding sets the context for today’s selection from Luke’s Gospel. The question of the Sadducees about marriage and the afterlife (not unlike the question posed by the chief priests and scribes in the verses immediately preceding these verses regarding paying taxes to Caesar) may not have been merely an attempt to trip up Jesus or to discredit him: it may also have been a legitimate desire to settle an ongoing dispute between the Sadducees and the Pharisees (both groups’ religious leaders in their own rite) who disagreed on a variety of issues.

As so many times before, however, they did not like, understand or accept Jesus’ answer.

Herein lies the tragedy.

The scribes, the priests, the Sadducees and the Pharisees were all raised in a culture that viewed questions as the path to mystical truth. Ironically, they may have had the most to gain from Jesus –– the embodiment of all mystical truth –– precisely because they had so many encounters with him, perhaps more than any other groups mentioned in the Gospel combined! Sad to say, it appears that they consistently asked the wrong questions: shortsighted questions, self-serving questions, disingenuous or insincere questions, all with a pre-determined answer in mind.

When asked why he prayed every day, Elie Wiesel’s (Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Prize Winner) mentor responded: “I pray to the God within me that God will give me the strength to ask the right questions.”

How often in our daily lives with Jesus and with one another do we ask for, desire, or even demand answers? How much energy do we invest wanting to know the bottom line? Yet, for all our efforts, are we any closer to knowing the things that really matter, the concerns of earth that lead to the things of heaven? Why does our understanding of Jesus’ will for us, desire for us, longing and love for us sometimes seem so elusive?

Could it be that we, too, are failing to ask the right questions?

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 30, 2016)

The Book of Wisdom, heard in the first reading, is the youngest book of the Jewish Bible and was written into excellent Greek at Alexandria in Egypt where the Torah was translated into Greek about 50 years before Jesus was born.

Wisdom attempts to promote service to the God of Israel as the most meaningful way of life. It speaks of eternal life and accentuates God’s loving patience -- and -- it introduces a new title for God: “Lover of souls.”

The title-phrase “lover of souls” is dramatically carried out in today’s Gospel with Zacchaeus. God would have to be a lover of souls to love Zacchaeus. His story is an ancient version of “Guess who’s coming to dinner.” Zacchaeus is one of the most curious “characters” in the Gospels. He lives in Jericho, a city located about 15 miles east of Jerusalem near where the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea. Jericho is recognized as the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. On this day, a visitor enters Jericho and it will forever be remembered not merely for its longevity.

Zacchaeus was, in our politically correct jargon, “vertically challenged.” He was short. Also, he was less than “cool.” We hear of him, as an adult, running ahead and shinnying up a tree to try to see a passing celebrity, Jesus. Zacchaeus climbed the tree to see Jesus, but it was Jesus who envisions Zacchaeus.

What was it about Jesus and his message that offered Zacchaeus something that all his money and power as chief tax collector could not supply? Zacchaeus wanted something more. What it was propelled him to run ahead and climb the sycamore tree?

Zacchaeus was all too aware of relentless rejection by his fellow Jews. Jewish people then and now are not bashful about saying what they think. Jesus had several options when he saw Zacchaeus in that tree. He could have berated him as he did the Pharisees. He could have pointed up at him and confronted his self-centered greed and dishonesty, his exploitation of his own people.

Instead, Jesus said, “Let’s do lunch.” A lot of things happened rapidly when Jesus invited himself to eat with Zacchaeus. Jesus went to eat in perhaps the finest house in Jericho. The Jews were astonished at Jesus eating with a sinner. His disciples may have tried to disappear, not knowing what to say after Jesus’ latest surprise. Jesus accepted Zacchaeus just as he was. This was precisely what Zacchaeus needed: acceptance from an obviously good person in spite of his sins. Zacchaeus means pure or righteous. He began to live up to his name that day.

Zacchaeus was amazingly moved, promising to give half his fortune to the poor and make quadruple amends for what he had taken unjustly. It was the power of Jesus’ acceptance that could work that miracle of conversion.

This is an important lesson for us followers of Jesus. If we do not associate with those called sinners and only condemn them, what hope is there for them? There is a standoff, not an opportunity for conversion. Someone “living Jesus” who accepts the sinner and does not dwell on the sin can dissolve the distance between them in Christian love.

Jesus said to Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house since he also is a son of Abraham. For the son of man is come to seek and to save the lost.”

What an inspiring example for us. To you who are still in school, there are kids in school who are -- to say the least “unpopular.” They are often the butt of jokes, the one’s not picked, the ones over whom you might be afraid to lose popularity-points if you treat them well.

We who are long-gone from school, may not be actively unkind, but we still may avoid the lesson of this Gospel and fail to show the compassion of Jesus toward everyone whom we encounter.

Jesus loves us to life in this Eucharist and every Eucharist, forgiving us, inviting us into an ongoing relationship of love that witnesses to the depths of his mercy.

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 23, 2016)

The “prayer” of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel is basically a monologue of self-congratulation. Four times he began with “I.” His ego blossoms into contempt for others. He speaks a word of thanks, but it is not for any gift that has been given. He congratulates himself for being better than others.

His words indicate that he believes it is his own deeds that make him righteous; that is, right-with-God. Insofar as he fails to give God any credit for his good deeds, he becomes self-righteous.

There is some Pharisee in us all. Like him, we consider ourselves religious people. Like him our motives for what we do and why we act are sometimes flawed. Ego enters. Pharisees endured flagrantly through the Inquisition in the Roman Catholic Church and through the Salem witch-hunts among Protestant Puritans. More currently, through killing us “infidels” among Muslim fundamentalists and through covering-up abusive clergy among our hierarchy. While my flaws may not be quite so extravagant, I still need to admit to them and work on them.

Pascal once observed, “People never do evil more completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”

On the other hand, the tax collector was a public sinner, a collaborating traitor to Israel and to Judaism. Reconciliation requires full restitution for what he took – impossible because he surely had spent some of it. He throws himself on God’s mercy. Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.

The tax collector’s humble confession of guilt is actually a profession of faith, for God alone is the source of mercy. The tax collector clearly believes in the God of mercy. He leaves the temple justified and righteous.

There is also some tax collector in us all. We recall some embarrassing things we have done that we cannot undo. We stand before God at the beginning of Mass and acknowledge our sinfulness both “for what we have done and what we have failed to do.”

Humility includes the spiritual maturity to correctly assess ourselves. Who am I? I am not God. I have no business playing God. On the other hand, I am not “junk.” Humility is truth: the awareness of both our limitations and our blessings; acceptance of who we are not as well as who we are.

I love the brief summary of today’s Gospel: two men went up to the temple to pray - one didn’t, one did.

Recognizing and acknowledging our shortfalls and asking for mercy somehow joins each of us with one another. Ten years of experience as a retreat director taught me a spiritual life lesson. When groups arrived, one of the first tasks was to help the retreatants to feel comfortable with one another so that we were able to share our thoughts. We employed “ice-breakers” – a perfect phrase for the task. Most groups who came were composed of people who were leaders: parish councils, faculties from grade school to university, cursillo groups and administrative groups. Icebreakers worked well.

However, I discovered – in a eureka moment - that one kind of group needed no icebreaker. The reason: they did not come as leaders. These were groups in alcohol and drug programs; they were in lifelong recovery. They freely admitted their weakness and inability to heal themselves. These were people who had been humbled by their disease and remained humble. Many were as talented and intelligent as anyone in this worship space. They recognized their common gift: sobriety. What they had in common was more valuable than their many and varied other gifts. They bonded as a result of that recognition and gratitude for sobriety and the 12 steps that led to it. They needed no icebreaker; they bonded immediately. I learned this important truth: we bond more easily in being united in our weakness than in our strength. Being in the same boat bonds. Being weak and vulnerable together results in bonding more closely than the bonding in being in a leadership group.

I shall never forget what a private retreatment, not part of the sobriety retreat, but was present, “observing” them – for the want of a better word - and lacked bonding in her own life - said to me in an air of admiration: “I almost wish I were an alcoholic.” No further comment is needed.

What a lesson for us all in our common sinfulness and the sure gift of divine mercy that we have available to us.

Just before we approach the table today, we will pray with the words of the Roman Centurion, “O Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” If there is to be a change in liturgy, I would suggest that the prayer of the tax collector in today’s Gospel be substituted: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is an attitude that Jesus himself tells us “makes us right” before God.

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 16, 2016)

Our Gospel begins: “Jesus told his disciples a parable…” The word “parable” is familiar to us. It is from two Greek words. “Para” as in “parallel” means “side by side” and “bal” as in “ballistic” means “throw”. So, parable means that two ideas are thrown down side by side and compared as similar or different. Usually, we hear Jesus speaking about the similarities of the two side by side items.

But today, we hear the difference between the dishonest judge who grudgingly hears this case and our honest father who enthusiastically listens to us. Today’s story is an echo of Chapter 11 where the inhospitable man would not get out of his bed out of compassion to help his friend, but did get up so he could get back to sleep. He is completely different from our Father who graciously answers the door when we knock. Jesus used a bit of humor to remind us of the difference between faulted human beings and our gracious Father.

Our understanding of God presupposes two things: first, God already knows our needs so we really cannot give him new information. Second, God is loving, willing and able to meet our needs. The point of prayer of petition is neither an attempt to enlighten God’s mind nor to change God’s will. After all, we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.”

So, why pray for things since God already knows what we need? We pray to help ourselves understand. We sometimes find that the answer to our prayer is “no,” not because our Father is mean-spirited, but because God sees the big picture and what we pray for may not really good for us. We, sometimes slowly, have to come to the realization of what is really good for us. Prayer helps. Persistent prayer gradually opens our eyes to what we actually need and what God wants to give us.

Realizing our real need may include insight into how we ourselves can achieve what we have been praying for. We invite the possibility that God has already given us the talent and the strength to bring about what we pray for without additional intervention by God.

Persistent prayer is not an option to cultivate; it is critical. Unless and until we pray persistently, there are some things that God cannot tell us, cannot provide for us. We need to quiet ourselves, so we can listen - most often, not to audible words from God, but to thoughts that come to us when we speak to him. Remember Elijah in the cave? He did not hear God in the earthquake or the wind or the fire - he heard god in the “gentle whisper”. [Kg.19; 12] God seldom – if ever - shouts.

In global, “big box” needs, it is helpful to realize that we may never see the final result of our prayer. Many cathedral builders of old did not live to see future generations worshiping in the cathedrals they were building back in the age of cathedrals. Olive tree growers did not see the fruit of their efforts, for an olive tree is not expected to bear fruit for the first eighty years. The cathedral builders and the olive growers inside each of us need faith and trust. We will use our persistent efforts to do our bit to benefit others yet unborn. Praying through discouraging setbacks gives us clearer vision.

In our persistent prayer we have no guarantee that we always shall see results. Peace and justice, right to life, needed institutional church changes are issues that are examples. Our Lord wants these needs to become realities infinitely more than we. Prayer keeps us going and enables us to see new opportunities for action. We should not lose heart for at the true heart of everything is God’s ever-lasting and loving will.

We are called to live a pattern of both public, Eucharistic prayer and individual prayer so as to maintain communication at the divine on both the community and the individual levels. Communication is the life-blood of our deepest need, relationship. It is precisely the same with ourselves in relationship with God.

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 9, 2016)

In the first reading from Kings, an unlikely person appears. It is an outcast, a non-Jew Syrian general by the name of Naaman. The story of Naaman shows humility as the key pre-requisite for gratitude - and the faith that flows from gratitude.

Naaman showed his humility in a drama of three scenes. In the first, Naaman admits his lack of self-sufficiency and seeks out the conquered, Jewish prophet Elisha to ask for help. In the second scene, Elisha did not even come out to meet Naaman but sent a prescription to him through one of his followers: bathe seven times in the Jordan River! (Almost sounds like saying, “Go, jump in a lake.”) Naaman needed to swallow his pride; he “knew” how foolish it sounded and that there were just as good or even better rivers in Syria. But he submitted his judgment . . . and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the third scene, Naaman came back to say thank you and more - he expresses faith in the God of the Jews: “Now I know that there is no god in all the earth except in Israel . . . Allow your servant to be given as much earth as two mules can carry, because I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any God except the Lord.” Naaman accepted God’s gift and responded with praise. He wanted to worship on Jewish soil. Faith.

The ten lepers in Luke’s Gospel called Jesus “master.” Perhaps, they sensed the power of God. Ten were cured; only one returned and fell at the feet of Jesus and “glorifying God in a loud voice thanked him.” He was a Samaritan, a Jewish outcast. And yet, and Jesus said: “Your faith has saved you.” Is praise and gratitude identified with faith?

So often we are like the nine lepers who were cured but did not return to give thanks. We, too, take good things for granted - the good test results, the accident avoided on the highway, the negative x-ray. So often we chalk up the good things that occur in our lives as being solely the result of our own efforts:

“The reason I do not have lung cancer is that I stopped smoking.”
“I am healthy; I eat healthfully; I avoid fats, salt, sugar, cholesterol.”
I exercise. It’s all about me; I made it happen.”

True, we cooperate, but “none of the above” guarantees good health.

Like the nine lepers do we simply want to get on with our lives instead of reflecting on the source of good gifts? After any of our various recoveries, do we move on immediately - without first giving thanks?

This second “good Samaritan” in the gospel, the tenth leper, surely wanted to get on with his life, too. Yet, there was a difference with him: he chose to glorify God and then thank Jesus. There is a character difference between the person of faith and others who do not return to express gratitude.

Jesus taught us the lesson of the connectedness of humility, gratitude and faith. At the last supper on the night before he died, Jesus washed the feet of his Apostles. Humility. He gave thanks to his Father and instituted Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” Gratitude. He went to Calvary and commended himself to the hands of our father. Faith.

Humility is the underpinning of gratitude. We recognize our insufficiency and our gratitude to God. Humility and gratitude makes us “soft-eyed.” Gratitude introduces us to faith - as Naaman and the Samaritan make clear. Humility and gratitude render it impossible to have the “hard-eyes” of the macho personality skeptic or the cynic.

For what are you thankful to God? When is the last time you’ve expressed your thanks?

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary time (October 2, 2016)

There is the story of the Irish woman, Deirdre, who looked out of her window after reading about faith moving a tree in Luke’s Gospel and a mountain in Matthew’s gospel. She saw in the distance the mountains of Mourne shouldering their way down to the sea. She decided to “give it a try.” She scrunched her eyes shut and spoke intently with God, seeing if she could get the mountains to move. After a minute, she wide-opened her eyes - everything was right where it had been before. She said: “I nivir taut he would do it!”

Today’s Gospel cannot be understood without reading the preceding verses. Jesus had just called his followers to forgive seven times. That is the context that needs to be understood. Vindictive revenge was the cultural norm of that time and, unfortunately, for some in our own day. To them, forgiveness seems like nonsense. There’s little wonder, then, they would ask for more faith to accept the teaching on forgiveness.

The Apostles indicate that they have faith, but need a booster or, as they say, an “increase.” Jesus’ response stunned them. It’s not the quantity of faith, but the quality that needs to change. A tiny bit, like a mustard seed, is enough to achieve the spectacular. They need an attitude adjustment to use the faith that they already have.

Perhaps we can learn from Jesus. Our effort to do such difficult things as forgive is never “enough;” we need to be open to God’s initiating call and respond to it. Doing the difficult “things” of following Jesus is not solely about our effort o our action - we act in union with God’s activity.

Our faith and god’s grace interact for us to grow. The good that we do is as much the fruit of god’s grace as it is our effort. We do the good things of the kingdom the same way that we pray: “through him, with him, in him.” humanity and divinity work together to bring about both our growth and the building of the kingdom ! The magnitude of moving a tree or a mountain speaks to the magnitude of what god can do with us. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back as though we did it all by ourselves.

Jesus’ parable requires us to put on our first century cultural ears. If we do not, we do not get it. In that day, slavery was a common and accepted practice. It was only later that civilization evolved to the point that we realized that slavery was evil - the parable has nothing to say about the morality of slavery. Jesus simply draws a lesson from their experience of slavery. Like slaves who did what is expected of them, we are to forgive without question.

Who of us does not need more confidence in our divine partnership? I think that the vitality of our confidence is rooted in self-discernment. Some questions may be helpful. What talents do I have? With what personal accomplishments am I pleased? On what do people compliment me? Yes, this is profiling – but some profiling, as it turns out, may actually be good! And it is helpful in discerning how we can progress in our personal faith and help others more creatively.

The self-discernment and self-identification of our talents provides the self-confidence to respond in faith to the inspirations that come to us in times of our God-awareness or from the suggestions of others.

We cannot wait for some sensed, divine empowerment that comes to us while tripping through the dewy grass in our bare feet. We recall that the Lord did not come in a powerful wind or in a lightning strike. The Lord came then - and comes now - in a whisper. This self-discernment is a hearing aide for the whisper that inspires you and me to work in our partnership with our Lord in both our personal, spiritual health and in the building of the kingdom.