Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (December 31, 2017)

Today we celebrate the feast of the holy family. I recall when I was a very young priest, preaching that the holy family was the model family. Now that I am not so young, I have to smile recalling some of those homilies. The mother of the family is a virgin wife and mother, full of grace. The father is one who does not seem to have a problem with that. Ah, that would be after he had a miraculous dream – as all fathers many not have: a son who is 100% God and 100% man -- at the same time. It may be called a model family, but it is not the family next door?

Christian models are supposed to be imitated, replicated somehow. Yet, it is impossible to replicate the holy family. Is that to say that there is nothing to be learned on this feast of the holy family?

Ours is an era when we hear much negativity: stories of children out of control, spouse abuse, child abuse, children calling 9-1-1 after being appropriately disciplined, destructive relationships, drug-afflicted families and/or disputes resolved by violence.

Today’s feast says that the holy family does have something to say to us in the readings we just heard. Our reading from Sirach teaches us that every marriage and family requires a basic respect by each member for all the others. Respect comes from the Latin verb respicio, meaning “to look again” – not simply “look, “ but look a second time. Lack of respect makes the atmosphere both unhealthy and unhappy – and, ultimately, destructive.

From Paul we learn that we need to cultivate all the virtues characteristic of a Christian, but above all. Love. Life in the Christian family is rooted in compassionate love.

The gospel teaches that no matter who we are - even Jesus – obedience must be a part of life. “Obedience,” we know comes from the Latin verb obaudire, meaning, “to listen carefully. “ There is military obedience that calls for following orders without question – tending toward blind obedience. Christian obedience is, on the other hand, is closer to the Latin; it means to listen attentively. [There are two credits in classical language for listening to this homily.]

All of us - children and parents - need to listen attentively. When we are compassionately loved and respected, we listen more easily to the other. Love and respect are the foundation of authentic obedience, real listening.

Jesus freely chose to submit himself in obedience to his parents. Jesus’ respect, love, and obedience are based on his respect, love, and obedience toward his father in heaven, which he showed throughout his life.

We hear so much about dysfunctional families these days. But, really, how many cleaver families have we ever known? No one, nothing is perfect. Every family is somehow dysfunctional, and concentrating on negatives depresses us.

Today, let’s look at the bright side. Let’s look at all the good things that happened on Christmas: the laughing, the caring, the helping, and the generosity, the being there for one another. Let’s concentrate on the positives as we celebrate the feast of the holy family.

As Christians, we have something very important to offer the present family situation in America. The example and message of Jesus and the values expressed in today’s readings: respect [looking again] - compassionate love – obedience [listening attentively]. All are lights that we can bring to a world that desperately needs light.

Nativity of the Lord (December 25, 2017)

Verbal communication may be our most precious gift. We have all been successful with it. We have all failed miserably with it. Sometimes, we are inspired; other times we put our foot in our mouths up to our knee: spouse to spouse, friend to friend, parent to children, children to parent. All, at times, become exasperated – and that is only within the circle of those closest to us. Imagine God’s problem in communicating with many diverse people in many, diverse cultures!

Communication depends upon the common experience of the two involved. Our God wanted to communicate with all of us so much more deeply than through Jewish prophets. Christmas celebrates a divine breakthrough in communication through a universal, common experience. Everyone loves a newborn baby. God, in his infinite genius, employed childbirth, a universal, celebratory experience to touch every one of us, to speak to every heart.

Today, we celebrate this miracle of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Our Father’s Son came to us. God became one of us. Our God inspired the writer John to call Jesus “the Word.” The word became flesh. Both God and we know that words are mere tools to communicate, to express ideas. Some word-tools have temporary use. Some last or change meaning. But, our greatest words achieve clarity and permanence when they are embodied in persons.

The word “justice,” when it is embodied, takes on flesh in a Moses who stood up to pharaoh in Egypt. Justice, when it is embodied, takes on flesh in a Lincoln when he published his Emancipation Proclamation. Justice, when it is embodied, takes on flesh in a martin Luther King when he delivered his “I have a dream” speech and marched in Montgomery. In those instances, the word “justice” took on flesh in the persons who embodied justice.

When a wise wordsmith was asked to define “prudence,” he paused thoughtfully and gave a definitive answer: “prudence is what the prudent man does.” The important words take on flesh and live in persons.

Love is surely a “many splendored” word. It has many meanings in the mouths of many, diverse people. John the evangelist told us in one of his letters, “God is love.” God’s love is the highest form of love. God/love is concerned totally with the other. It is completely unselfish. It is unconditional; God loves us no matter what we do. God’s love cannot be earned; it is freely given to us. Love took on flesh in the person who embodied love.

In John’s Gospel, we hear: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with god, and the word was God…The word became flesh and lived among us.” Love took on flesh, became incarnated when love became enfleshed in Jesus. Jesus lived a life that always modeled, enfleshed love.

Today we celebrate the one we have been given by our God. His generosity moves us to give gifts from our hearts as tokens of the love we have for him and for one another in a wonderful ripple effect of love of our neighbor.

In the same passage, John goes on to write the sad words, “He came to his own and his own did not receive him.” May each of us have the courage to accept Jesus in our hearts and follow the way of love he modeled for us.

May Jesus’ love be enfleshed in us. May we live Jesus this and every day of our lives with joy and gratitude.

Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2017)

The connection between the first reading and the Gospel is a question for every Sunday. The answer reveals the theme for the Mass. In today’s readings, the church has put David, the shepherd-king, and Mary, Jesus’ mother together. Why? Let’s look.

In the scene of the first reading we see David, alone and musing. He has conquered Jerusalem, built a safe wall around the city, built for himself a house of cedar - an upscale building material in Palestine. Now he thinks of the box that holds the tablets of stone, the Ten Commandments. Jews held the arc and stone tablets to be the place of the presence of God. David wishes to build a magnificent temple for God’s presence.

The prophet Nathan encouraged him in this. But, that night, god corrected Nathan [it is rare to have God correct a prophet]. Nathan returned to David and reminded him of blessings past: the victory over Goliath and many enemy armies, his becoming king . . . And a future blessing: God will establish a “house” for David. This works in English; we have the house of Dior, the house of Windsor. House denotes dynasty; here, the dynasty of David

God pointedly asks: “Do you build me a house?” In other words, “You have a lot to learn. Remember, you were the runt of the litter of your brothers. I made you the shepherd-king. Whose choice determines where I live - yours or mine?”

God - not humans - has the last word. It is wisely said: “Man proposes, but God disposes. David heard God and understood; he would later write in his Psalm 65, verse 5: “Happy the man you choose and bring to dwell in your courts.” David “got” it - finally. David wanted control; God did not allow that to happen.

Remember, this Gospel episode took place nine months before the nativity, Christmas. It is related today to make a point. The angel announced that Mary was God’s chosen one for a temporary dwelling place on earth. The angel told Mary that the reign of king David would likewise run right through her body in the conception of a child whose kingdom would have no end. Mary let God be God. She remained open - open to surprise -- and here she is called “blessed” among women, unlike David who tried to control.

In John’s Gospel, when Andrew met Jesus, he asked, “Where do you live?” Jesus answered: “Come and see.” Andrew went and learned that the “son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” No mailing address. Andrew would come to understand that Jesus’ dwelling place was within the hearts of his followers.

Also in John’s Gospel, the Samaritan woman says that the Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerizim, while Jews worship on Mount Sinai. Jesus replies that neither mountain will be the place for future worship. Worship will take place in one’s heart. The heart is where Jesus is found -- in “a house not built by human hands.”

The point? The theme? Jesus dwells within us. David and Mary are presented to us here as persons who said, “Yes” to Jesus’ call: David, with a detour; Mary, directly. She stands on the ledge of jeopardy and courageously leaps. Each came independently to deeper understanding about God. David tried to control, but eventually came to accept. Mary simply listened, accepted and committed.

St. Augustine thought that Mary conceived through her ear. This powerful image emphasizes the word that came through the ear, enters her heart and grows in her belly.

If we accept God into our hearts, God becomes incorporated within us, we then become more than someone with a personal life and a social life. We have a third dimension and share in the divine life. Theology has a name for this spiritual phenomenon “sanctifying grace.” We are also thereby equipped for a life of eternity -- a reality that begins now, not later.

In the still busy days between now and Christmas, let’s make the time to quiet ourselves and acknowledge that Emmanuel, God-with-us, is actually God within us - and listen and talk to him in an ongoing conversation that begins here and now and goes on forever. We may need to remind ourselves that eternity is already in place. A forever kingdom in God’s presence is much richer than merely the promise of a future time when we meet God face to face.

Third Sunday of Advent (December 17, 2017)

“Rejoice” is the high frequency word in today’s Mass. Today is Gaudete Sunday; the pink candle of our advent wreaths is lit. By God’s grace we do not have pink vestments, which I prefer not to wear - for reasons that have nothing to do with liturgy.

We hear “rejoice” in church, but when we walk in the mall, we see few smiling faces. Shoppers seem to be intent and tense.

As William Sloane Coffin remarked: “So why are Christians so often joyless? It is, I think, because too often Christians have only enough religion to make themselves miserable. Guilt, they know, but not forgiveness. Nietzsche correctly noted, ‘Christians should look more redeemed.’”

Perhaps we are experiencing increased stress, painful family memories, broken relationships, shattered dreams, unrealistic expectations - to name a few experiences that impact us in this season.

Does it not seem inappropriate, incongruous to hear about rejoicing? Not at all!! The reason for rejoicing is not finding the perfect gift for someone you really love or finding the adequate gift for someone you really don’t. The reason for rejoicing is not a shallow, temporary change from emotional “business as usual.”

Where is joy to be found? Today’s scripture readings teach us our source of rejoicing. Isaiah, in the first reading, speaks to the children of Israel who suffered so much for so long: “rejoice in the lord.”

In the responsorial psalm, we answered: “My soul rejoices in my God.”

Paul was shipwrecked, flogged to within an inch of his life several times, publicly mocked, run out of town. He said to those who were waiting for the second coming of Christ: “Rejoice always, render constant thanks.” This was surely more than urging a positive attitude toward life, more than a first-century, pop psychology of positive thinking.

Paul also says, “render constant thanks” for the forgiveness Jesus brought.” He deeply believes that real joy abides in the soul of the one who has absorbed this and has entrusted himself totally to the hands of God. It is anchored in something more stable than the shifting sands of life’s fortunes. It is rooted in god himself.

Joy is a resilient choice no matter what happens to us. Joy arises out of a contented heart where the contentment is based on the lasting presence of God.

Joy is a fundamental stance of the heart: a conviction, a gift of God. It is rooted in our enduring relationship with god, remembered during advent as we recall the coming of Jesus who made our relationship a reality.

Joy is a constant glimpse of eternity. It is a whisper in the night of difficulties that will become a resounding chorus of the full presence of God.

Jesus’ gift of joy is recalled in the holy card that portrays him in the scene described in the book of revelation: standing outside a door knocking. The door has no handle on his side; it has to be opened by you, by me on our side.

In the morning, preferably, before the day begins to roll like a snowball downhill, gathering chaos, we take the time to enter within ourselves. We picture our lord vividly before us. We look at the expression in his eyes. We “waste” time with him - first in total silence -- just looking at him with his loving eyes that encompasses forgiveness, acceptance, and value.

I acknowledge my total reliance on him.

The experience that follows is joy.

Second Sunday of Advent (December 10, 2017)

For some - to a tragic degree - and for most, to some degree, there is a let down when Christmas finally arrives.

There is a psychological explanation for this. Most of us, consciously or unconsciously, have the image of Christmas as a Norman Rockwell painting: a happy family surrounded by loving friends trimming a flawless tree, eating cookies and drinking our favorite beverage: a roaring fire in the hearth with snow seen through the window falling gently and piling in the corners of the windowpanes.

Well, the reality for most - there is more than the snow that is missing.

Spiritually, Christmas is also frequently a letdown. We hear the Advent imperatives urging us. We remember past Christmases and may recall little spiritual progress during our advents.

But, there is light at the end of this tunnel. Our readings this morning suggest some ways of being in the world. Advent is often long on the doing, but short on the being. That leads to the inevitable frustration. Of spiritually empty spirits on Christmas morning,

Perhaps this advent we might concentrate on why john the baptizer is chosen for this time of year. Isaiah, in the first reading, cries out to prepare the way of the lord. John the baptizer proclaims and lives the truth that preparing the way is not in doing, but in being, not in filling, but emptying our lives. He seems to tell us that the desert is the only place bare enough and quiet enough to mirror our lives, our motives, and our disguises.

We need quiet time in Advent, in the beginning of the church year. To get quiet time, we need to reschedule, to reprioritize, and to enable us to get inside ourselves for being with our Lord. That desert, quiet time gives us the opportunity for getting insight in our hearts. John got the insight to “decrease,” to allow Jesus to “increase” in his life. John got the insight to point to Jesus, not to himself. John got the insight to free himself from the system besides getting free from himself.

John called the Jews to the desert wilderness where God could find them. The desert is the perfect place to prepare. In desert isolation, we have no distractions of job, parenting, grand-parenting, even mindless religious practices that maintain our usual routine. When our minds are full of “stuff,” not even god himself can break in to us. John, in his stark lifestyle always had one foot in the desert.

To make this quiet time real for us [it is real without us!!] It helps some to picture Jesus, present, in front of us or present within our heart of hearts, Others use deep-breathing exercises to settle themselves.

We need to be with him . . . and pause to listen to what he has to say to us - what thoughts he plants in our minds. This even helps us to discover God’s presence in the people and events around us. We can see in others that presence/ manifestation of the holy. We can see their underlying goodness

Wonder of wonders!! The more attentive we are to God’s presence, the more we become God’s presence for others.

Finally, when we bask in the presence of God, we feel a quiet joy. We do not have to wait for Christmas there is already a residual joy within us.

What a relief! We do not have to be in a Norman Rockwell painting; we just smile at all that. All we need to do is live in the meantime - cultivating his presence.

We do not have to come to the night before Christmas and try to look like a perfect person who is perfectly ready to greet the Lord when he comes. He has already arrived. Our God loves us as we are - and comes to us in our opening the door when he knocks.

Oh . . . Did I mention that Norman Rockwell was married three times?

First Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017)

Mark, within a brief five verses, uses the injunction “watch” three times. Watch means that we are called to be alert, to wake up…and smell the incense.

Remember Jesus’ words: “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [MT 24:42] Remember Jesus’ words when he took Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane on the night before he died? “Remain here and watch with me.” Remember Jesus’ words to Peter when he returned from that prayer: “Could you not watch for even an hour?”

Today I would like to reflect on how to watch. I am going to talk about a topic rarely mentioned: hope, as in faith, hope and love.

I find that Christian hope is best defined as “being open to surprise,” a definition provided by the Benedictine brother, David Steindl-Rast. Hope is a virtue that can exist only when supported like a hammock at its two ends: faith in Abba at the one end and Abba’s unconditional love for us at the other. If you trust God and bask in God’s love, you can be open to surprise in life: hope.

We can be open to surprises that will come our way. Hope is not optimism sprinkled with holy water, as some would have it. Hope is often misunderstood and mistaken for hopes - with an “s”. A proportion with faith may be helpful. Faith is to the beliefs that we hold as hope is to hopes that we have. That is, just as saving-faith, trust, is the important underpinning to creedal-faith / beliefs [“I believe in one God, etc.}, so hope, openness to surprise, is the important underpinning for hopes we have. Both beliefs and hopes are distracting look-alikes for faith and hope.

Examples of hopes would be: that our team will win, that everyone will be healthy, that everyone in the family will get along. Hopes are always the direct object of a sentence that begins: “I hope that…” The common denominator for hopes is something I can imagine. Hope is far more profound than hopes

So, what is the relationship of hope to hopes? Question: when our hopes are shattered, what is left? Answer: hope! If a person has hopes without hope underpinning his hopes - and then has his hopes shattered, the person is shattered.

Hope is the seedbed of hopes; when one’s hopes are shattered, a new crop of hopes will spring up overnight, expressed, for example, “Wait ‘til next year.”

Dag Hamersjold said it so well about two important virtues, gratitude and hope: “For all that has been, thanks, lord, thanks [gratitude]; for all that will be, yes, lord, yes.” [Hope – openness to surprise].

Advent is the season for becoming more aware of hope and practicing hope, a season to arouse our watchfulness for the surprises that we experience daily, so that hope becomes an active attitude, like faith (trust), and unconditional love. Hope, with practice, can become as natural as breathing.

How do we “practice”? Faith in God or in another is deepened by trusting, isn’t it? Love for god or for another is deepened by loving, isn’t it? Being open . . . To surprise deepens hope in God or in another.

Hope provides a wonderful, God-given coping dynamic: in practical terms: we say, “Yes, lord, yes” before we say, “Oh, no.” This is key! Remember, hope can happen only when supported by faith and by love. It does not stand on its own. It has the needed support of faith and love.

We can learn something about hope from its opposite; the opposite of hope is not hopelessness, for hope thrives on hopelessness; the opposite of hope is despair - being shattered. Despair comes from giving God or another an ultimatum: “I’ve got it all figured out; there is no other solution than mine.” No possibilities for surprise.

We believe the Lord Jesus has already come; the kingdom of God is already in our midst! We also believe that the Lord will come again. There is tension in this notion of the “already, and the not yet.” In the now, the in-between time, God’s enduring grace and unending presence is always with us.

Advent reminds us that we need to be aware of this and to be open to the God of unimaginable surprises - in hope.

Christ the King (November 26, 2017)

On this last Sunday of the liturgical year, the church uses kingship as a metaphor to celebrate Christ’s universal lordship - a more elegant way of saying god must be absolutely our number one, overarching, priority - with no equal on earth.

What can we know about that final moment of judgment before God? This parable of sheep and goats sheds some light. I would like to make three points.

First, Jesus tells us that our decisions in life do matter. We have responsibility, and this parable warns us to accept it. Some think that all people will be eternally reconciled with God, that God’s love will over-power any human resistance. Wishful thinking in the light of today’s Gospel!

If God’s love is non-coercive, and it is, then we cannot be sure that some will not resist that love after a lifetime of rejecting god’s offer of love.

The Scriptures teach that it is not God’s desire that anyone should perish. Today’s Gospel makes clear that our daily decisions have lasting consequences.

Experience has shown us that our decisions in this life both unite and separate us from each another. The sum total of our decisions effectively unites or separates us from God.

Second, God, not by us, sets the criterion for judgment. Jesus suggests that when the sun sets on human history, God will separate us on the basis of our hearts. He gave us two commandments. We did not hear that his judgment will be based on the ten commandments on which so many folks base their sacramental confessions, but on the extent to which we listen to Jesus’ articulation of the love of God / neighbor spelled-out in today’s Gospel.

He looks to both our decisions and the motivations for our decisions in our care for the least powerful in society with whom he identifies himself. Doing or failing to do for them is doing or failing to do for him. If we have been motivated by personal recognition, we heard in another place, “They have already received their reward.” The one required motive is love.

It is significant that both the sheep and the goats were surprised at the criterion for judgment. Whether the sheep fed and clothed the poor, or the goats ignored them, they acted or failed to act from their loving or unloving hearts. Jesus is advocating genuine selflessness here. The “goats” ignored the poor, the “sheep’ cared for the poor, not knowing that they would receive any reward for their service. It was that attitude of loving concern that god rewarded.

Third, Jesus, like those who preceded him, offers this parable to help prevent a sad judgment. We heard in the first reading from Ezekiel: “I myself will look after you and tend my sheep.” Our responsorial was a prayer praising the tenderness of the divine shepherd toward us. Examples abound.

Through Moses, God warned pharaoh of the coming plagues - trying to help pharaoh avoid those plagues. Through Jonah, god threatened judgment on the wicked city of Nineveh - as a last effort to help the city avoid destruction. Through Jesus’ teaching on sheep and goats he tries to help us comprehend the consequences of our heart’s attitude.

Today’s Gospel is as if God is offering us a copy of the final exam early. He does this because it is his will that we should be with him forever.

If God gives us even the example of Jesus to model the way, how can any of us refuse to listen?

We do like closure, don’t we? We have all left a movie or finished a book with a sense of frustration because it did not end adequately. Perhaps, it just stopped without really ending, or left some scenes hanging. Scripture agrees with our frustration. It tells us that as surely as god called human history into being, God will bring it to conclusion. Time ends at the feet of Christ the king of our hearts.

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 16, 2014)

At this time of the church year, we hear Jesus’ stories about the end of time. Today, we hear about a giver of talents, who is about to become an absentee landlord.

The parable employs “the format of three.” We are familiar with it in jokes and in stories: “There was the Catholic, the Protestant and the Jew.” “There was the German, the Irishman, and the Italian.” Almost always, the first two set up the third for the punch line or the lesson line. It ends on a good note. But, today’s parable reverses the format; the first two are good news; the third is bad news, but a good lesson.

A “talent”, we are told, was originally an amount equal to 15 years’ wages for a laborer. Today, it means “giftedness.” The English word “talent” originated from this parable, as in “time, talent, and treasure”.

In the story, the first two imaged the master positively. They accepted the confidence the master had in them and doubled the talents.

Then, there was the third man. He was the fearful servant who calls his master “a hard man” and focuses on that negative label. Fear enters and does what fear does best, whether it is Peter walking on the water or a deer in your headlights: fear paralyzes. The man tried to “play it safe - be cool” -- so he thinks. He used the safety deposit box of his time: he buried it

“Hard man” is not an appropriate title for Jesus, but the label does have value in insofar as we come to acknowledge that we will have to account for our stewardship of our talents. Not using our talents renders us “worthless servants.”

Some, like the fearful servant, focus on “playing it safe”. Matthew’s Gospel is famous for its fearsome stories about those who do not respond appropriately to Jesus’ invitation to follow him: being tied hand and foot and thrown outside into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, or handed over to torturers until they pay off the entire debt, or they can be put to the sword, or can burn with unquenchable fire.

Does this sound like the God of unconditional love? How do we come to terms with God’s unconditional love and a state of fear of punishment? We have read: “Fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Just the beginning. And we also hear Paul say: “Perfect love drives out all fear.” The book God First Loved Us by Antony f. Campbell, SJ, offers some helpful observations on this subject.

Campbell says that the “widely held approach” is the “level playing field” theory. The images for god as fearsome judge on one side and god as unconditional lover on the other side are given equal value, but they actually cancel each other out, resulting in indifference about god. How can you deeply love another whom you deeply fear? The tension forms a mystery. Mystery is not “chickening out; “ it is facing fact. Let’s do what we always do when we face mystery: try to somewhat penetrate the mystery, remembering that it is mystery.

The “tilted playing field” gives priority to god as unconditional lover. Fear is subordinated. A loving God invites personal relationship and involvement. I firmly believe that and think it appropriate to take on much more in life than keeping my eyes on the rules. Hopefully, most of the time, our loving God’s will - as we understand it - and “the rules” rules are identical. I will constantly look to our Lord rather than rules. What matters more is how much we love, not what the rules dictate.

Does the unconditional lover image adequately reflect the Judeo-Christian tradition? I want to say it doesn’t. The teaching church, as far as I can see, does nothing to address this issue of love vs. fear at the institutional, teaching level. It leaves us with a conflicted, level playing field. In the tilted playing field, as I view the situation, if there is a little more fearing than loving or a little more loving than fearing, I see no big problem. People’s consciences and priorities are theirs, not mine. It is mystery. If there is a lot of fearing and little loving in someone, we have someone in the same boat as the fearful man in today’s Gospel. But, if there is a lot of loving and very little fearing in someone, I find a kindred spirit.

As our relationship with God grows toward mutual unconditional love, I hope that the God-the-judge image may disappear altogether. When unconditional love is the context for our living, we can be sure that appropriate behavior will be its hallmark.

Thirty-second Sunday in ordinary Time (November 12, 2017)

As the church year begins to draw to a close, the liturgy appropriately draws us to two basic spiritual realities: wisdom and the kingdom of God.

I like the homey definition of wisdom: “Wisdom is what you have left when you forgot all that you learned in school.” Wisdom is rightfully given a place of honor in the first reading. Wisdom does not impose herself, is gracious to all who desire her and reaches out to those who want her. Wisdom is not a gift to old sages but a gift to everyone who cares.

The Gospel reading is from Matthew 25, the fifth and final sermon of Jesus, “the final things.”

Jesus taught in his first discourse in chapter five, “the Sermon on the Mount,” that our light should shine so others might see the goodness of our acts (5:16). Here, there is a second image that joins chapter 25 with chapter 5: oil, which burns to make the light, indicates the same thing as light. Goodness cannot be irresponsibly ignored; it cannot be borrowed.

Praise of wisdom is a perfect introduction to address an understanding of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, I think, is best described by John Shea: “The kingdom of God is a state of inner consciousness and outer action that Jesus embodies and offers to his disciples. However, receiving this offering entails strenuous effort. The disciples must transform their own conventional consciousness into the consciousness of Jesus and have the courage and the creativity to act in accord with this new vision”. This is metanoia – change of mind – of heart. Shea clearly articulates “living Jesus,” the expression St. Francis de Sales used for becoming “a new person in Christ.” The Gospel tells us that we need to be alert to meet the call when we do not expect it. The parable of the virgins stresses the failure to develop this mind-set, heart-set.

No criticism is made of the women’s need for sleep or for the lack of sharing the oil. Two criticisms are made by Jesus; first, the thought-less and care-less attitude of part of the group; they have come without engaging in the process of preparation and expect the cooperation and sacrifice of those who have come to the festivities properly prepared.

Second, Jesus is telling us of the impossibility of borrowing spiritual riches from others. Do you ever hear: “My wife/mother does the praying/church-going in my house.” I surely have. Jesus is clear in saying that each of us, individually, is to take responsibility.

The foolish imagine that Jesus will open the door for them. They don’t understand that the kingdom has already been passed on to them. What opens the door is their having the lamp of their consciousness burning with the oil of their dedicated lives. Lacking this, they will hear, “I never knew you” in spite of their claims that they knew about him and somehow value him. They have failed to appreciate, to value themselves as the new bearers of his inner consciousness and outer actions.

Responsibility is our greatest burden; it is also our greatest gift. Jesus is telling us that he takes us seriously and wants us to take ourselves seriously. It is no small responsibility to be co-responsible with god in the forming of the kingdom of God.

Later in this chapter 25, Jesus will speak of sheep who will be separated from goats on the basis of working on our inner consciousness and outer actions that flow from our inner consciousness.

The days are growing shorter. The cold weather is beginning. The church year is drawing to a close. That is the mood for today’s readings: darkness descending on Jesus and coldness of hearts on those who do not listen to his call. Not exactly a warm parable for a chilled heart, but surely a warm invitation to a warm, bright banquet hall for a listening disciple.

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 5, 2017)

Today’s gospel sounds a bit strange: phylacteries, tassels, don’t call anyone teacher or father. It comes from Matthew’s Gospel, so we need to put on our Jewish ears to understand, for it was written for a Jewish audience.

The Jews were well aware of the continuity of their faith: God had revealed the law to Moses, who handed it on to Joshua, who handed it on to the elders, who handed it on to the scribes and Pharisees. [In football language, the Scribes and Pharisees missed the hand-off; they fumbled the tradition.]

What Jesus was saying equivalently is: “Insofar as the Scribes and Pharisees have taught you the great principles of the law which Moses received from God, you must obey them.”

What were the great principles? Think about it; you know them as well as I. The first three commandments . . . Regard reverence for God; the last seven . . . Regard respect for our fellow humans. The Ten Commandments are about two things: reverence for God and respect for others. Sounds like last Sunday’s Gospel: the primacy of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves was Jesus summary of the law and the prophets.

The religion of the Scribes and Pharisees became a religion of showiness because they took the Ten Commandments and spelled them out and out until they had 613 rules that were - in their words - fences around the commandments. For example, keep holy the Sabbath was a commandment, but the fences around it to make sure that no one “trespassed” included highly specified handling of food, footsteps allowed, etc. Etc. The love of God and neighbor became sidetracked with the “things of religion”.

We heard today some strange words that may be puzzling: phylacteries & tassels. In the book of Exodus, we read: [The Commandments] “shall be to you as a sign on your hand and a memorial between your eyes.” The idea, of course, was to pay attention to the commandments ready at hand, in the forefront of your consciousness. The Scribes and Pharisees wore at prayer - and still do - except on the Sabbath and special holy days - small leather boxes strapped to their wrists and forehead, called phylacteries. They each contain four important passages of the Hebrew bible. The scribes and Pharisees even increased the size of these to draw attention to themselves.

They wore tassels to remind them of god’s commandments; these are still worn today at the corners of the Jewish prayer shawl. They were enlarged to draw attention to themselves not to experience the will of God.

The design of the scribes and Pharisees was to draw attention to themselves. The design of Jesus was/is not to pay most attention to oneself. “He who loses himself finds himself.” “The greatest among you shall be the one who serves the rest.”

What are the lessons for us? Each of us has to examine our own situation. There are as many lessons as there are people in church this morning. I would suggest two questions for our consideration:

First, how do we focus too heavily on the things of religion and miss the reverence for God and the respect for our neighbor? It is easy to do. My reflection on this led to an insight. “Things” for me at this point in my journey are prayers “said” not prayed. Distractions during the prayer of the mass can lead to mass becoming a thing. The effort toward praying the Mass invites and involves relationship with our community and with our Lord.

Second, how do we draw attention to ourselves? Do we want to be the star, the center of attention? Football again provides an example about drawing attention. Who do we hear about? The key players! The starters. The coaches. Even the strong bench. The fans - “the 12th man.” Who does not get mentioned? The team servants! The squirters of Gatorade, the towel carriers. They are off-camera. Almost invisible. Nobody mentions them.

Doesn’t that remind us of Jesus’ words about the greatest being the servant? Doesn’t that remind us of Jesus’ actions? Taking a towel. Washing with water his disciples’ feet at the last supper.

Who is more Jesus-like in this Eucharist? I who preside and preach or the bread baker, the servers or the sacristan? Each plays a role in the celebration. This is community.

We will finish this sermon. I ask you to ask yourselves:

  • How do I lose sight of the great principles of reverence and respect and substitute practices that are not relational?

  • How do I - no finger pointing - draw attention to myself in the practice of religion?

All Saints (November 1, 2017)

The raising of individual saints was a hallmark of the papacy of John Paul II (who, just this year, was canonized himself). More saints - folks who have lived extraordinary lives - have been canonized, that is, put into the list of saints, during his pontificate than all the other canonized saints in 2000 years put together.

On this day, we celebrate another, much larger group of people. These are the ones who have lived ordinary lives, extraordinarily well. Each of us has his own list of those we have known and loved -- and whom we know to have lived their ordinary lives, extraordinarily well.

We gain direction for living our lives by gaining spiritual strength from the stories of their lives. When we stay firmly linked to those who have remained faithful to the Lord, we find ourselves blessed in abundance.

It was St. Francis de Sales who spoke of God’s call to each of us to do the best we can with what we have. At the Second Vatican Council, this became known as the universal call to holiness. It defines us as God’s own. Faith in our God gives rise to hope -- that openness to surprise that brings us light in the face of darkness.

The feast of all saints is not a feast about the accomplishments of any human being. It is the affirmation of the gratuitous activity of the Father.

Hello, World!

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 29, 2017)

Jesus had just silenced the Sadducees in their attempt to test and trap him on the issue of the resurrection of the body [MT 22:34f’]. In today’s reading, a scribe: that is, a Pharisee with a degree in canon law, “steps up” to take his shot at Jesus with a question. Which of the Ten Commandments plus the six hundred and thirteen rules [the Deuteronomic laws] that rabbis believed God orally gave Moses was the most important of all?

Some rabbis thought all were equally important -- a kind of early example of “the seamless garment “ notion. Most others used to dispute which ones were the greatest.

Jesus’ response is an acceptable one, quoting DT: 6:5 stressing that the love of God must involve the total person: heart, soul, and mind. Then, Jesus goes on to quote LV19: 18, which stresses that one, should love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Jesus combines these two commandments and declares that they are the foundation of God’s entire revelation; that is, the whole law and the prophets. Combining these two may not be unique to Jesus, but it clearly shows his position on these essentials of the Torah.

We have the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When one part fails, the entirety fails. This applies to love, too, in regard to the three-link chain of love: for ourselves, for our neighbor, for our God.

Love of self is the trickiest one. Today, let us look at that in more detail.

On the one hand, we sometimes revert to infantile behavior - life is all about me. We have trouble learning that I am not the center of the universe -- as a young child believes. If we fail to learn to admit that we are sinners, we are in for trouble. We all admit we are not perfect, but many have trouble admitting being wrong in any specific instance. We do anything to avoid admitting failure.

On the other hand, some may have been love-starved or abused when young, or authority figures may have put us down so heavily that our self-image is badly damaged. We have real trouble with loving ourselves

The romans said it well: in medio stat virtus - in the middle (between the extremes) stands virtue. A healthy self-image stands in the middle: I am neither a doormat - nor am I the center of the universe.

Perhaps we all need to check for need for balance on this first step in the progression from love for self, to love for our neighbor, to love for our God. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves - how do we love ourselves?

For those who are in the extreme mode of “life is all about me,” there is not much another can do for one in that extreme place. But, for those whose self-image has been injured, a helpful hint is to remember that a big part of faith growth for Christians is acting as if something were true. This neatly dovetails with one of those wonderful insights of the Alcoholics Anonymous program: “Fake it ‘till you make it.” “Fake” in the sense that you assume the attitude that you are lovable. Act as if you are a loveable person. Try to do something at least once daily that a person with a healthy sense of self-respect and self-worth would do.

A second and more spiritual effort that we can make during the same time is to internalize the truth from St. John’s letter: “God is love.” Love is who God is. Love is what God is. We come to the realization that we can love because God has loved us first. We are all lovable for that basic reason.

Then, act as if you feel loving toward a troublesome neighbor. At least once a day try exercising patience and understanding toward the other for behavior that would normally upset you.

Finally, we are able to bring love into our relation-ship with God. We come to recognize God as the “initiator” of love. We are created to love ourselves our neighbors, our God. That is what Jesus did. That is our call: Live Jesus.

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 22, 2017)

One of the current religious issues is also an ancient one: what is the proper relationship between God and Caesar? Between religion and the secular state?

Jesus cleverly avoided the trap of the Pharisees and Herodians. Giving to Caesar the things that is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s is not a direct answer to the question asked, but it is certainly a starting point for discussion. The discussion involves the mystery of who God really is.

Two examples come to mind: (1) In some Muslim countries, the law of the land is the Koran, and the civil rulers are also the religious leaders. For them, od and Caesar are one and the same. A theocracy. (2) Currently, in the United States, the religious, far right would like an evangelical-Christian president and government establishing their image of god and Caesar, as one and the same. Another theocracy.

Where are we in this? I suggest a reflection arising from two questions -- and two proposed answers for your thoughtful consideration. The questions:

  1. Are we to accept non-Christians’ right to other belief systems or do we recognize only our own?

  2. What practical lessons can we draw from Jesus’ answer to the Gospel question?

In regard to belief systems: the first and third readings are curiously linked. The prophet Isaiah was the first to go on record in declaring the God of Israel. Yahweh, as the one legitimate authority who is behind every power. In spite of the fact that Cyrus was in service to the god, Bel-Marduc, Isaiah saw Cyrus as being used by Yahweh, the God of Israel and our God, to achieve the deliverance of Israel.

Much later, the Magi, who probably adhered to Zoroastrianism, would be given places of honor in the Christian tradition. They were never maligned for their worship.

In accepting Isaiah’s understanding, we can broaden our notion of the one god and view the Judeo-Christian tradition as underlying other traditions and see that god can use folks who worship a different deity to his own purpose. That is progress in God-talk.

In regard to lessons drawn from today’s Gospel, the Herodians and the Pharisees hated each other but joined forces this day against their mutual enemy, Jesus. The Herodians were Jewish collaborators with Rome, sympathetic to King Herod [hence, “Herodians”]. Their trap: if Jesus says, “pay the taxes,” he will lose the support of his Jewish followers; if he says, “don’t pay,” he will be a treasonous rebel against Rome. It seemed like an airtight scheme, a win-win situation for Jesus’ enemies.

External politics is not a “kingdom issue” for Jesus. “The kingdom within hearts” is what concerns Jesus, that authority reigns only by personal relationship. You and I need to open the door and welcome the king of glory. We give God our hearts. We make God our first priority - above friends, above family, above country, even above a spouse.

Another lesson that we can draw from today’s Gospel is that the Caesar / God issue is not either / or – Caesar or God, but both / and. Jesus recognizes that where we live under a system of government that provides public services, economic stability, and the protection of the law, we have the obligation and need to be supportive of a government whose protections and benefits we accept, even if we are working to change / improve the system.

A final lesson is that Jesus said, “Render to God the things that are God’s;” he did not say as the second half of “render to Caesar.” Render to the church what is the Church’s. The church had not been formed when he spoke, this is not to say that the church has no role in “rendering,” but is a reminder to us all that Jesus did not proclaim this. And it needs to be said lest we allow our minds to morph church into god.

Americans have long seen the wisdom in separating the realms of church and state. The turf governed by both God and government sometimes overlap, causing ongoing problems for those who see competing values within our citizenry -- issues like euthanasia, capital punishment, stem-cell research, abortion, war, services to the disadvantaged and help for the poor.

We may and should give Caesar our money for the common good; we must not give Caesar the authority to determine our conscience. Our God renders to us the power and freedom to discern this choice and all our personal choices.

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 15, 2017)

The time of this parable was the week of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and before his arrest. Hearing the time of the parable helps us to understand the forcefulness of it. Jesus is so frustrated with those to whom his father sent him!

  • the a-list guests refuse the invitation

  • the invitees kill those bearing the invitation

  • the king then destroys the murderers and burns their city

  • the king next invites everyone to the wedding banquet

  • one of the recent invitees is ejected for not being properly dressed.

    Matthew’s gospel was written after the romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, so that is probably the reason for the segment about the destructive and vindictive king. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a banquet, an image difficult to perceive for Jewish leadership who saw the protection of tradition as their job. We understand the kingdom of God as banquet or, more abstractly, as a sphere of existence or a state of consciousness with required, consequent action.

    We who accept the invitation are surprised upon entering the banquet. We discover as we mature that the unnamed partner of Jesus is you and I – if we choose to wear the proper garment – enthusiasm to be with Jesus.

    As we mature from infancy to childhood to adulthood, we do so by taking responsibility, a word better understood if we take the time to say it slowly and reflect upon it: “response-ability.” Using our ability to respond.

    As infants and for a while after, we have almost no responsibility at all to the worldly attentions given us. At best, we offer a smile of contentment – before the next outcry for the satisfaction of a need.

    As young children we are taught to say “thank you” when people do good things for us. We are taught to share what we have been given. With the passing of the years towards adulthood we mature in our response-ability or we may think we are independent of God, and, as the poet Francis Thompson wrote, we avoid him - in one way or another. Thompson describes this:

“I fled him down the nights and down the days. I fled him down the arches of the years. I fled him in the labyrinthine ways of my own mind, and in the midst of tears I hid from him, and under ruining laughter.”

I wonder if anyone of us is totally free of avoidance of God, of avoiding openness to our lord who renews his invitation each day. The invitation – always initiated by our God – is ongoing as we mature, as we grow in the spiritual life.

One guest in today’s Gospel was evicted because his response was inappropriate. More was expected of him than simply showing up at the banquet. Jesus is telling us here that god expects an open response from us. Not any response will do. The response must be ongoing and fitting for our stage in life.

When we look at life in terms of response, we also get a good understanding of what it means to sin. Sin is failing to make the right response. It is failing to accept our “response-ability.” It is both a personal failure and an offense against the one who invites us to share the table with him.

In the light of today’s Gospel, let us once more accept “response-ability” for life at the banquet.

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 8, 2017)

We have often heard about the lethal fault in spiritual life; self- sufficiency. The pride that resides in each of us moves us from a healthy sense of independence toward the unhealthy extreme sense of self- sufficiency. When we think that we are sufficient unto ourselves, we do not need God. God becomes irrelevant. The traditional sources of self-sufficiency are wealth and intelligence. Very comfortable wealth tends to put us in a spiritual place where we tend not to pray for the things of this world; we just buy them. Being very intelligent or thinking we are, we tend to behave as though we know with the knowledge of God.

Gratitude tends to put us in right relationship with god: dependent, reverence toward one deserving of reverence. If we are stuck on ourselves, either through wealth or learning, we do not need to thank God. With hard work and further learning, who needs him?

“Eucharist” means thanksgiving. Gratitude to God is not held to be necessary each Sunday. We dispense ourselves.

Upon reflection, I would like to add a third source of self-sufficiency that seems to characterize many living in our age. It qualifies because it has the same basic ingredient as wealth and intelligence in diminishing our gratitude to god. The third source is: a sense of entitlement. It is spawned in and by our society. How often do we see indignant, fiery eyed faces, vein-bulging necks, on television, angry in being “deprived” of having something they “deserve” – something that others have worked for long and hard, but they patently deserve to be given at no cost to them.

In today’s Gospel, we hear about, not observe – so the passion is less strident - a group of tenant farmers. In the parable, God is the owner of the vineyard. The vineyard is Israel itself. The vineyard workers are those who plot to become the owners of the vineyard. The owner, we are told, did the basic work; he planted the vineyard, put a protective hedge around it, installed a wine press for producing wine, and built a tower for spotting would-be thieves.

The parable is clear: the tenants were the Jewish leaders. They did not see themselves as interdependent partners with the landowner, God. In their working in the vineyard, the people of Israel. Rather, they saw themselves as authorities over the people of Israel. They took on a sense of entitlement.

Jesus refers to them as the murderers of the prophets who would kill even the son of the landowner, Jesus himself in order to maintain the authority that they enjoyed. The image changes in the next parable from the image of a vineyard to the image of the building trade. As Jesus was rejected as a mason would reject a stone in building a structure. He was, in the new image, the building’s corner stone. What the Jewish leaders rejected will be selected as the cornerstone of a new “structure.” The old rejected him; he will be key to the new.

The temptation of supervisors who give direction to the project remains the same: acting like owners of the enterprise of God’s plan. Jesus calls us to faith. He calls us to love. Why would any “supervisor” propound any devotional practices that they guarantee would assure entitlement to eternal life?

Jesus asks us to put our trust, our faith, in him. We love the father, his son, the Holy Spirit in a prayerful, grateful way – best expressed in Eucharist – and carry this love of “all of the above” to our neighbor.

We know that it is by grace, gift without semblance of entitlement, that we stand humbly before our God.

Twenty-six Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 1, 2017)

“It is not the tongue in your mouth that tells the most truth about you, but the tongue in your shoe.” The saying poses the challenge sometimes heard from African-American pulpits: “You talk the talk, but you don’t walk the walk.”

Isn’t it true that many who confess the creeds and follow the rituals with their mouth-tongues have hearts and shoe-tongues that contradict the words from their mouths? Many do not act upon the faith they profess with their mouth tongues with real, personal responsibility.

Today’s readings are about conversion; that is, metanoia, changing ones mind and heart. We are sometimes inclined to avoid taking responsibility for what we say we will do. Ezekiel in the first reading insists that the Jewish people take responsibility.

The Gospel parable - a tale of two brothers, a parable found only in Matthew - relates one of the last encounters Jesus had with the Jewish leaders. It occurred just the week before he was killed.

The chief priests and the elders worked very closely with the roman officials to maintain peace and the status quo. This status quo mentality worked against their accepting the words of john the baptizer and Jesus. Both the chief priests and the elders prided themselves on their commitment - words - but they did not follow through with action and do what the commitment demanded. They did not change their minds; there was no metanoia.

In the parable, the son who spoke the words of disobedience was wrong, but he did repent. He changed his mind, and became the darling of the parable. The tax collectors and prostitutes who enter the kingdom of god ahead of the chief priests and elders enter because they repent; they changed their minds, their hearts as this first son did.

Jesus proposed this question to the chief priests and elders. They picked the first son as the one who did repent and did the will of the father, but in so doing they condemned themselves for they lived as the second son who said: he would “do,” but he did not. Both john the baptizer and Jesus called the Jewish leadership to a change of mind and heart, a “metanoia,” but they were stuck in their ways, “thinking only in their box.”

Do we make claims, make promises, pledges - but not follow through? Do we talk a better life than we live? What we do is important. Listening, accepting responsibility may be our greatest burden, but it is also our greatest gift. It is what is making us grow up, mature as human beings and as fully human Christians. God takes us seriously and calls us to take ourselves seriously.

It is no small thing to be co-responsible with our god in the building of the kingdom - and ourselves - in the process. Our readings call us to look at how we accept our responsibilities, to do, not simply talk. It is not the tongue in our mouth that tells the most truth about us, but the tongue in our shoe.”

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 24, 2017)

“It’s not fair,” a parent hears after dividing the cookie or the slices of pizza. “It’s not fair,” the professor hears from the best students when he generously puts the marks on a curve to benefit those who didn’t do well. “It’s not fair,” the flight attendant says when she hears from her supervisor that a first class passenger lodged a complaint after the attendant moved a coach passenger to an empty seat in first class.

How often have we heard it? How often have we said it? Someone tries to be generous and/or compassionate and they hear it from those who feel they earned what was generously donated to another. Worldly logic says that those who work more should get more. The rules say that it is priority for those who worked in the sun all day. With human wisdom, this employer’s behavior makes little sense to the workers.

We may argue as to which is the most popular parable of Jesus, but most would agree that today’s parable is a top contender for the most unpopular. We need to look more closely at it in order to understand it.

What can we learn from Jesus’ parable? First, as unpleasant as it may be to hear, we are all dependent. We may have the corner office, get tenure, get promoted with a raise, but we are more like the day-hires in the parable than unlike them. None of us is self-sufficient. Let’s face it, nearly everything we have is gift; our personal contributions pale by comparison or build on a foundation provided for us by others (namely, parents, family and friends).

The word “dependent” comes from a Latin word meaning “to hang from.” Like a chandelier, we may be Waterford and sparkling, but we are still utterly dependent on the ceiling that which holds us aloft. The good news is that the one who holds us - God - can be trusted. When we keep one eye on our dependence, we are less likely to resent god’s provision to another person suspended next to us.

Second, our sense of fairness and justice is very subjective. Those first-hired did not feel cheated when they were hired. They would receive a denarius, a day’s wage. It would provide their “daily bread.” We often do not think of a gift given to us as generosity, but as entitlement. For example, have you ever heard someone holding four aces call for a new hand? Do they feel unworthy? Trouble comes when we judge our bounty with a comparative glance at our neighbors’ hands. If their hands are better, envy may rush in and we quickly forget the hand we were dealt.

Comparison involves our ego. Ego-involvement means spiritual trouble. Here is a sure-fire formula for misery: decide you are happy only if no one receives more blessing in life than you. There will always be some one richer, more talented, or better looking than you and me. We never find happiness by comparing our lot in life with others who are better off. Comparison happened with the workers in Jesus’ parable. Isn’t that what has happened to professional baseball, basketball, and football players’ salaries? We shake our heads at that foolishness, but we realize that that can happen to you and me at another level?

We need to be simply grateful to our Lord for what we have: our work in the vineyard, our joys in this creative work with our Lord in the further growth of the vineyard, and equality in the kingdom of God. Our inheritance is the same for all.

Twenty-forth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 17, 2017)

The immensity of the subject, forgiveness, is too much for one homily. I have given the RCIA talk on forgiveness in other parishes, and the talk has to be longer than an hour. Let me share a few thoughts about dealing with the serious hurts every one of us has suffered.

Often we react in one of two ways: either we retaliate, however violently or subtly / passive-aggressively or we retreat into silence and self-pity and wait for the offender to apologize.

Unforgiveness has a health dimension, because gnawing consequences of unforgivensess can negatively affect the health of mind and body. It also has social consequences. It affects families and communities. Malachy McCourt, who grew up with his brothers in the home described in Angela’s Ashes, said he let go of the murderous rage he used to hold onto. “Resentment,” he wisely said “ is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Payback seems so natural, but it is not only ineffective; it is also counter-productive.

In weighty situations, forgiveness is not instantaneous; it is a process. Let’s look at approaching the problem from Peter’s viewpoint. He wants to know how many times he is expected to forgive. This approach simply entangles us in a numbers’ game, doling out forgiveness by the spoonful. That is ineffective, useless. It misses the point: reconciliation is the goal of the process.

First of all, we need to realize our own sinfulness. We are not perfect people. How can we hold another to perfection? We need to bring the situation to God, to pray during the process, this may sound like simplistic piety, but we who have been there and done this know its value.

To forgive serious hurts, we need to see the situation from God’s viewpoint. For God, forgiveness is total and is not measured. Let’s hear what Jesus taught, then what he modeled for us. In his first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus: “You have heard the commandment, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’” But what I say to you is forgive; he replaced this “law of talon” with the law of love.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes his point so strongly that he does something very unusual: he tells us the fearsome consequences of unforgiveness. He taught: “With the measure you measure, it will be measured to you.” And in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The tragedy in today’s Gospel is that the unforgiving servant never really experienced in his heart the forgiveness the king had granted him. If we do not experience in our heart; that is, really appreciate God’s forgiveness of us, we cannot extend forgiveness to others. In our heart we receive God’s mercy and offer that mercy to others. That is a heart-transforming dynamic. Forgiveness is a spiritual example of “use it or lose it” - God’s mercy. In the words of George Hebert [1593-1633], “He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.”

Having heard what Jesus taught, let’s listen to what Jesus modeled: From the cross, Jesus said of the Romans and Jews: “Father, forgive them they don’t know what they do.” Following the Resurrection, he entered the upper room saying, “Peace”. Instead of raging against the disciples for deserting him and/or denying him, he simply forgave them, reassuring them of right relationship: peace/shalom.

We need to acquire the habit of forgiveness, get to the place where it becomes a knee jerk reaction to forgive instead of a knee jerk reaction to lash out. If we were to dedicate the same amount of time we spend nursing our injuries on giving thanks for God’s mercy to us, the forgiveness habit would overtake us. We practice for big forgiveness by putting aside the small hurts and irritations that constantly come our way.

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 10, 2017)

I remember reading a greeting card with Lucy, the Peanuts cartoon character, announcing in bold print: “When you’re down and out, lift up your head and shout.” When you open the card, it read: “Somebody’s going to pay for this!”

Our readings provide alternative solutions to such “conflict non-resolution.” We are not dealing here with flagrant, violent or criminal wrongs such as murder, sexual abuse or grand larceny. Such destructive behavior must be reported promptly to proper authorities.

It may be helpful to recognize that there are two extremes for us to avoid in addressing wrongs: doing nothing and doing too much.

At one extreme, we, like Ezekiel, probably do not like confrontation. We try to avoid it, saying: “ I mind my own business,” or “It’s not my problem.” Jesus calls us to get up our courage and go and speak to the person, one-on-one. Love needs to be the motive, not trying to make ourselves seem wise by knowing what “you should, he should, she should do.” If we follow this Gospel, we will follow the maxim: “ I won’t should on you if you don’t should on me: -- a variation of “do unto others. “

At the other extreme, we cannot make everyone our responsibility. Garrison Keillor, who wrote about the mythical town of woebegone sensed that many Catholics feel responsibility for everyone and everything. So, he names the Roman Catholic parish Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. As always, we need to find a balance between not correcting at all and correcting too often. We can never forget that we are all connected in this body of Christ. As healthy parts of the body help ailing parts, so it is with the mystical body.

But, this New Testament passage does present a complication. Jesus seems to say that once we have followed procedure and all fails, get rid of the person. But, didn’t Jesus say: “I have come not to condemn the world, but to save it”?

Excommunication is problematic. Why? It is so foreign to Jesus. Jesus was notorious for doing just the opposite of what Matthew's Gospel asks here and elsewhere. Throwing someone out as you would a gentile or tax collector doesn’t square with Jesus’ dealing with the Gentiles: the Roman centurion, the Syro-Phoenician, and Samaritan women. It doesn’t square with Jesus and tax collectors either. Mt, the author of this gospel, is a tax collector. Then, there is Zacchaeus, another tax collector with whom Jesus ate before Zaccheus saw the light and reformed generously. Jesus sought out the lost sheep, not excommunicated them.

These harsh words of exclusion reflect what scripture scholars refer to as “early Matthew.” It comes from an earlier time in Matthew’s community when it was composed of strict Jewish converts who attributed to Jesus words about the narrow gate, separating the sheep and the goats, and other exclusionary sayings. About twenty-to-forty years later, we have “final Matthew” reflecting a community that was far more inclusive as to who was “in” and who was “out.”

God is love. That must be the prime interpratory verse for interpreting other verses. All must be interpreted in the light of that.

22nd Sunday in ordinary Time (September 3, 2017)

A curious duo of people talking back to god forms the vehicle for today’s message in this turning point of Matthew’s gospel.

Jeremiah was a young man with plans of his own; he wanted a career, a wife and family, a few good friends and some comforts. But, God called him to be a prophet. After fifty years he had so little to show for his effort: a few converts, only one disciple, many enemies. His family thought he was nuts, and the king wanted him dead.

Jeremiah was angry with God. Pashhur, chief officer of the Jerusalem temple had Jeremiah arrested and flogged. He was put in stocks overnight for proclaiming that the city would be destroyed for its lack of faith.

Jeremiah complains that God duped him. God’s call was somehow seductive. Jeremiah had determined to play it cool, not to speak the word of God. Now, he had done it and look what it cost him.

Centuries later, peter was shocked at Jesus’ speaking of being killed in Jerusalem. Peter had hoped that Jesus was to usher in the new kingdom, and that the disciples would be able to cash in on the victory -- like venture capitalists striking it rich on an investment of limited risks with their career change.

Jesus, a few moments earlier, called Peter the rock on which he would build his church. Then, Peter heard Jesus - almost in the next breath - foretell that he would die. Peter did not want to hear that.

Here is how Peter stands in god’s way. He makes far too many assumptions about god’s values -- one of humanity’s favorite maneuvers, if you think about it. Peter doesn’t like to suffer, so he can’t imagine that God might make use of human suffering for divine ends.

Jesus called Peter a stumbling block. He told him to get out of his face, to get behind him -- where a disciple belongs. Following the master is not standing in front, directing him. Jesus makes it clear that being faithful to God implies that personal plans and feelings do not count when they conflict with God’s will. He spoke elsewhere of the grain of wheat that has to fall into the ground and die before it can have new life, reach its potential.

Great Catholic-Christian heroes and heroines like Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero have lived this truth publicly and courageously in the past 50 years in extraordinary ways.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of building the kingdom, in more ordinary ways. Yet, we are an essential part of the evolution of the kingdom. There is a sense of liberation in realizing that. We are Minor Prophets in the magnificent enterprise.

Paul gets the final word today. Each generation is at risk of conforming to the present age. The present age is always passing, trapped in history and limited by the nearsightedness of us finite creatures. It is fashionable, today, to be “practical,” and see right and wrong identified with convenience:

- Worshiping God every weekend is inconvenient;

- Having a child instead of an abortion is sometimes very inconvenient.

When the calling of God is difficult, saints do not quit. What parent of small children has not fantasized about the day the children are grown, or perhaps even considered running away from the demands of parenthood? Exhausted as one might be, one returns to the family each day. Love and loyalty burn like a passionate fire in one’s heart.

What worker or spouse with a difficult situation of emotional or physical illness does not consider quitting when the person he or she works so hard to heal slides back into depression or addiction or worse disease. Yet, next day you are back on the job. Why not find something/someone easier to deal with? Because, yours is a calling that burns like a fire in your gut.

In the end, only those who answer that call change the world: to service, to sacrifice, to deny oneself for the greater good, for the glory of God. Jeremiah’s acceptance of his mission and Jesus’ acceptance of his mission are today’s examples of courage for us to continue living our “yes,” our acceptance of our mission: to stay the course.