Sunday, September 29, 2013

First World Decadence - Third World Destitution

Living in an industrialized nation as we do, it is easy to forget how much poverty there is in our world. With all the advances in technology over the past century, we might even be deluded into thinking that most people in the world lead relatively productive and comfortable lives.
Unfortunately, just the opposite is true.

According to the United Nations, ten percent of the world’s population subsists on just one dollar per day. An astounding eighty percent of human beings live on less than ten dollars per day.

An estimated twenty-four thousand children die everyday because of malnutrition or lack of health care. Almost one and a half million children die each year because they lack clean water. Over two million children die each year because they are not immunized. And fifteen million children are orphaned because their parents have died of AIDS.

As it turns out, most of the world lives in total and abject poverty.

The thought of billions of people starving to death and suffering because of untreated illnesses can be overwhelming to us. We might feel that it is beyond our power to do anything about it, or that we lack the resources to help all these poor people.

But, consider this. Every year, Americans spend eight billion dollars on cosmetics including lipstick, hair gel and deodorant. It would cost only six billion dollars to provide a basic education to all the children in the developing world. Also, in Europe and the United States, pet owners spend seventeen billion dollars annually on food for their dogs, cats and canaries. By contrast, it would cost only thirteen billion dollars to provide for the basic health and nutritional needs of people in poor countries.

The causes of poverty in our world are many and complex. Just sending money to the developing world is not the answer. Feeling guilty about the abundance of material blessings we enjoy will do no good either. Nonetheless, the reality of so many of our sisters and brothers suffering needlessly should challenge us to look at our lifestyles. Do we consider our money and possessions as gifts given to us by God to share with others? Or do we spend our money in whatever way we see fit with no thought about how it will help or harm others? Are we content to just make sure our needs and the needs of our loved ones are provided for? Or do we feel a sense of responsibility to provide for the needs of others?

The Bible makes it clear that we will be judged on how we treat the poor. In today’s first reading, the prophet Amos blasts the rich people of his land who hoard riches and enjoy lavish feasts all the while turning a blind eye to the needy. They use their wealth to isolate themselves from the poverty that surrounds them. Though these words were written some seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth, they could just as easily have been written about our own society. The woe that Amos predicts will fall upon the people of his day is the same that will fall upon any society that fails to care for the destitute.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus continues this theme. We are not told much about the rich man except that he is very wealthy and enjoyed the finer things in life. He very well may have been a decent person who was kind to others and religious. Yet every day he was content to step over Lazarus without a thought to helping him. He could not bring himself to acknowledge or care for the poor man at his door. For that reason, he suffered torment in the afterlife. If we are walking past panhandlers in the street or looking the other way when the needy turn to us for help, then we clearly have to take a hard look at how we are living our lives. God has set aside heaven for the poor. If we want to have any share in that everlasting life, then we must open our hands and hearts to any needy person we meet.

Preaching on last Sunday’s gospel, the Pope Benedict XVI once said: “It is Christ who teaches us the right use of money and worldly riches, and that is to share them with the poor, thus obtaining their friendship, in sight of the Kingdom of Heaven."

Instead of using our wealth to isolate ourselves from the poor, we must use it to make friends with them. Our goal should be to be so generous with the needy that they pray for us. God hears the prayers of the poor and answers them. If we can get them to pray for us, we can be sure that God will shower us with even more blessings. Not only would their prayers serve us well in this life, but they would prove to be powerful advocates for us when we stand before the throne of God at the hour of our death. Imagine standing naked before God, conscious of the many sins we have committed during our life, and someone coming forward to say, “He gave me food when I was hungry”, or “She gave me her coat when I was cold.” Then we could have confidence that God would treat us with mercy because we have treated the poor whom he loves with dignity and compassion.

At this Eucharist, we are about to come face to face with a poor person. We meet Jesus who makes himself poor so that we may receive Him. In receiving Him, we become rich. Just as surely, we meet Him in those who require our help. We have been blessed with such an abundance not to enrich ourselves, but to be instruments of God's generosity and providence in the world. The challenges of poverty and hunger are daunting. We might not be able to change the world, but we can make a difference in the life of someone we run into today. And if that person will be moved enough to pray for us, then we can be sure of continued blessings from the hand of God.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Christians and the Common Good

What is the surest way for a deacon or priest to get himself into trouble? By preaching about politics from the pulpit.

Whenever politics is the subject of a sermon most people will become offended or angered. Some people will take what is said as a condemnation of a certain politician or political party. Others will say that the preacher’s words were too strong while still others will claim that they were not strong enough. One or two people may even storm out of the church enraged that anyone would dare mix religion and politics.

In today’s society we have a tendency to want to separate politics and religion. We see religion as having to do with the after-life and politics with the here-and-now. Religion is private and politics is public. We do not want religious leaders to comment on public policy and we do not want politicians meddling in Church doctrine and discipline. We want to have a clear separation and even a towering wall between the two.

However, as with most issues in life, politics and religion are not always easy to keep apart. As followers of Christ, in particular, we are not only called to be saints in the Kingdom of God but good citizens of our country and of our planet. We bring our faith into everything we do - not only into our homes but into our communities as well. Faith for the Christian is never just a private matter. It touches upon every aspect of our lives including the choices we make as citizens of this great country.

Today’s readings help us reflect on why we are called as a Church to be involved in the political process of our country and how we are to do it.

First of all, our responsibility to stay in touch with current events, to vote our consciences and to lobby our politicians is founded on the commandment that we love our neighbor as ourselves. In the public sphere, our love for neighbor displays itself most keenly in our support for the poor and the needy. As followers of Christ, it is our duty to stand up for the most underprivileged members of society. It is our vocation to give a voice to the voiceless. Though they are the ones who most need the support of government, their concerns too often go unheard because they lack the money and influence to lobby politicians. Many like the unborn, children and immigrants cannot even vote. It is up to us, then, to use whatever influence we have to make sure that their needs are heard and acted upon.

Why should we care for the poor? Because God does. Our first reading from the prophet Amos makes it very clear that God takes note of any injustice that is visited upon the poor. Because they have no one else to defend them, our Heavenly Father promises that He will stand up for them. God will judge harshly those who have failed to see justice done for the powerless. When we stand before Him, we want to be sure that we did all we could in this life to be on the side of the little ones whom He cares so much about.

Concern for the poor is not only good religion, it is also sound politics. Government should be on the side of the needy. Wealthy people can take care of themselves. It is the poor who need government to defend them against those who would exploit them. Also, as the saying goes, “Everyone does better when everyone does better.” When the hungry are fed, when the homeless have shelter, when the penniless get an education there is less crime, less disease and less restlessness in society. We all benefit when the common good is served.

Secondly, today’s gospel teaches us that we are all called to be faithful stewards of the good things God has given us. This refers not only to the way we manage wealth, but to our use of this planet. As a society we have become increasingly aware of how our lifestyle affects the environment. In particular, as Christians, we should have an even greater concern for the planet as God’s creation and for nature as the revelation of His goodness and providence. We should be at the forefront of efforts to reduce pollution and preserve nature for everyone’s enjoyment especially for the generations to come.

Our involvement in environmental conservation is particularly important in our world today. Too often, environmental activism is used as a cover for population control. In much of Asia and Africa, we see the distribution of contraceptives, forced sterilization and coerced abortions promoted as a way to reduce the population in the name of cleaning up the planet as if human beings are another form of pollution. As followers of Jesus committed to the belief that every person is made in the image and likeness of God we have an obligation to influence the environmental movement. We must promote the dignity of human beings who are also part of the environment rather than treat them as pollutants to be exterminated for the supposed good of the planet.

Finally, our second reading teaches us that we should pray for politicians and all those who have authority over us. We too often have a disdain for those who enter politics. However, we should be praying for them, asking God to guide their hearts to do justice for the poor and to preserve our planet. Their actions have a tremendous influence over our lives so we should be raising our hands daily to our Heavenly Father asking Him to give us women and men of courage, insight and virtue to lead us as a country and as a world to be more peaceful and more just.

Well, it seems that not too many of you have walked out on me today. I thank you for opening your mind and heart to this message which can too often be seen as too controversial for the pulpit. However, as followers of Christ, we are called to bring the good news of God’s love wherever we go including into the public square and the voting booth. In particular, we are called to announce God’s love for the poor and to preserve His creation for the good of all. Then God’s Kingdom will increasingly influence the earthly city making His peace and justice more of a reality in our world today.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mind the Pennies

There is a rule of thumb that is helpful in managing our personal finances:  “Mind the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” In other words, if we are careful with our smaller purchases, we will have money in hand for big ticket items or for emergencies.

However, it is so easy for us to do just the opposite. We see something in the store we would like to have and tell ourselves, “It’s only five dollars. I can afford that.” Then we see something else we like and something else. Before we realize it, our wallets are empty. The purchases which seemed small and insignificant at the time, when added all together, turned out to be very expensive indeed.

The same principle - Mind the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves - is true of our spiritual lives. Jesus puts it this way in today’s gospel reading: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.” In other words, if we make good choices in the small details of our daily lives, it will add up to a good and holy life. On the other hand, if we fail to do good when we have the opportunity or if we make bad choices because the sins we commit seem small and insignificant, it will add up to a sinful life. Like those small purchases that turn out to be very costly, those sins which seem insignificant can have a deep, corrupting influence on our consciences and souls.

If God has seemed distant to us and if our hearts have not been inclined to pray, we should ask ourselves if we have failed to be faithful in the small matters of our day-to-day lives. This is when a detailed examination of conscience can be helpful. Have we failed to make time to pray? Have we talked about others behind their backs? Have we looked the other way when someone needed our help? If we find our hearts growing colder and our thoughts leading us away from God, it could be that we are failing to attend to the small details of our life, and those choices are costing us our peace of mind and friendship with Jesus.

The good news is that just as cutting corners can get us into a rut, small steps in the right direction can get us out. It is not always necessary to make big changes in our lives to get ourselves on the path to reconciliation with God. We can often fundamentally redirect the course  our lives are taking by committing ourselves to making good choices everyday. It could be as simple as making time to call a friend who is having a tough time. It could mean going out of our way to give some money to a panhandler. Or it could mean getting up a little earlier in the morning to spend some time with God in prayer. They are small gestures which do not always require much time or effort. But they can go a long way toward training our hearts to be more concerned with the needs of others and our minds to be more aware of the presence and action of God in our lives.

A good example of the spiritual principle we are discussing is provided by Saint Therese of Lisieux. She was a young nun living in France who felt as though she lacked the talents of the other sisters in her convent. She wanted to know what talents she had that could serve God. One day, while reading the Bible she came upon a passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which said: “If I have not love, then I have nothing.” It occurred to her that no talent or gift was as pleasing to God as the ability to love. She realized that love was her special calling. From that day forward she resolved that she would do small things with great love. Whether it was setting a table or sweeping the floor, if it was done with deep love, it would be considered a great work in the eyes of God.

Saint Therese’s “little way” teaches us something simple and yet profound about the life of faith. In the end, it is not really important what or how much we accomplish. Rather, what matters is how great the love we have shown to others is. We would all like our obituaries to be filled with the successes we had in life and the honors we have received. But the most important part of our obituary - what gives true meaning and dignity to our lives - will be the list of people we have loved and who have loved us. They will be the people for whom our lives made a difference. If we love, then we are living a meaningful and fulfilling life. And more often than not, our love is shown not in heroic deeds but in small, everyday acts of charity and kindness to those we meet.

Jesus has gathered us here today. He will show his love to us in a way that seems very small. In the form of bread, he will give us his body to nourish and sanctify us. It is a miracle of love that takes place on altars everyday all over the world. To those without faith, it seems to be an insignificant ritual. But to us who believe, it is the greatest expression of love the world has ever seen. And that love is directed to you and to me. We must now bring that love out into a world that has grown cold because it is only impressed with great honors and successes. We can begin to change that world through small tokens of kindness and generosity. It is possible if we give great importance to the small details and if we show great love in all things.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


It was one of the boldest robberies in the city’s history.

A book store in Nanjing, China began to notice that many books had been missing from its shelves. By the end of the day sometimes as many as thirty titles would be unaccounted for. At first they wondered whether there was confusion among the employees about how the books should be organized on the shelves. However, after taking an exhaustive inventory of their stock, it was clear that the store was the victim of theft. Because of the volume of books being stolen, they concluded that it had to have been the work of as many as fifteen thieves.

To put an end to it, plain clothes detectives began casing the store, walking up and down the aisles and keeping an eye out for any suspicious behavior. One day, they noticed a man who would park his electric bike at the entrance to the store, browse the shelves and walk out the front door with as many as twenty books in his satchel and take off down the street. They were shocked that the thief stole the books so brazenly. And, when they followed him down the street and caught up with him at his apartment, they were even more shocked at what they found inside.

The thief whom police identify simply as “Mr. Lee” admitted to having stolen as many as eight hundred books from the local store. Their subjects ranged from history to social science to biology. When the police asked him why he stole so many books, he admitted, “I could not comprehend the meaning of life. I was hoping to find the answer by reading those books.” Unfortunately Mr. Lee also admitted that despite all the reading he had done over those months, he was no closer to understanding what the purpose of life on this planet is. However, he will have plenty of time to reflect on it behind bars.

Unfortunately, of all the books Mr. Lee managed to make off with, the one he did not read was the Bible. In it, he would have learned that he was created by God and that he was good. He would have learned that all men have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God but have also been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. In those pages he would have discovered that he has an eternal destiny to live forever with God in heaven and that this life is a preparation for an eternity of bliss. He would have come to find out that the meaning of life is that we deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, our master.

Sadly, in our world today, there are many people like Mr. Lee. They might not steal hundreds of books, but their hunger for meaning and purpose in life manifests itself in different ways. They are the young who cannot seem to find their way in life. They are the addicts who try to escape the burdens of life but instead find themselves shackled to alcohol and drugs. They are the intellectuals who hope to find meaning in science but end up with more questions than answers. And, finally, they are the people who have just given up, who fail to expect anything at all out of life and are just trying to get by.

It was for these people that Jesus came to earth. As today’s gospel tells us, it was just such people that Jesus welcomed and ate with. He did not come to congratulate those who were already good, who thought they already had all the answers. Rather, he came precisely for those who were stumbling through life, going down one dead end after another, looking but not finding. He came to bring the light of faith and truth to just such people. And He rejoiced whenever they accepted His invitation to leave everything behind and follow him.

Jesus saw something in sinners and the lost that we often fail to notice. It is they who have the hunger within them, the burning desire, to know the truth.  It is they who have the courage to go out of their comfort zones and try new things. As the poet, T.S. Eliot wrote, “It is only those who are willing to go too far who discover how far one can actually go.” Jesus knew that it was just such people - people with a desire for truth and the courage to pursue it - that would make the kind of disciples he needed to transform the world. And it was just such people that He welcomed, ate with and challenged to follow Him.

As followers of Jesus ourselves, confronted with the challenge of today’s gospel to seek out and find those who are lost, we have a decision to make. Will we be like the Pharisees who were self-satisfied, who did not want to take risks, who were happy to sit back and criticize everyone else who did not meet the standards of righteousness they had set for themselves? Or will we be like Jesus and those who chose to follow Him? Will we have a hunger to know the truth and the courage to pursue it? Will we get up and go when Jesus calls us or will we tell Him that we are too comfortable where we are?

During his recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis said this to the three million young people gathered there:

Today, we need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey; a Church able to make sense of the “night” contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a Church which realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture.

If we are to be true followers of Jesus, then we have no choice than to seek out the lost sheep of His fold. We have no choice but to share His love for those who are seeking the meaning of life but have no idea where to find it. Then we can rejoice with Him, and with all the saints and angels in heaven, as the lost - ourselves included - begin to find their way home.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Welcome Home

Two sons. Their father is a landowner wealthy with cattle and teaming with servants. The sons labor on their father's property hoping that one day it will be theirs. But they both keep an eye over the fence surrounding the property wondering whether something better awaits them beyond it in the big city. Nonetheless, they are loyal to their father and faithful to his wishes.
Then the day comes when one of them can stand it no longer. Tired of working and tired of waiting, he demands his inheritance in full and storms off to that far away land and the pleasures it promises. The other son, perhaps shocked at his brother's boldness, stays behind to help his father. Maybe he feels stuck as though there are no other options for him now that he is the only one left to help the old man. Or maybe he rubs his hands together knowing that now all the property will be his without having to split it with his prodigal brother.
Then, after a long day laboring in the fields, he learns that his brother has returned. The older son is scandalized and offended by his father's forgiveness and mercy. How could he welcome him back so eagerly? How could he be so lavish in celebrating his return? We realize from the older son’s angry reaction that, though he never physically left his father's house, in his heart he was long gone. He lived and worked in his father's house but didn't really know his father. Maybe he thought that all his work and sacrifice would earn him his father's love. He couldn't understand that he had that love already, and that his work and sacrifice should be a generous and joyful response to his father’s love and goodness.

Now this good son who has always lived up to whatever his father has asked of him finds himself on the outside when the celebration takes place. Now he becomes the son who is lost because he cannot accept that his father has treated his prodigal brother with mercy and compassion.

The older brother embodies what happens to us when religion becomes a matter of following rules instead of loving our Father. We are doing what we are told, but all the while we are wondering when we will be rewarded for it. It becomes perfect Mass attendance without perfect conversion. Our body is in the pew, but our heart is looking over the fence at the world and its empty promises. Our sacrifices make us bitter rather than freeing us for service. Our faith life becomes about what we are doing for God rather than what God has done for us. And we begin to feel entitled to honors and recognition rather than open to being surprised by grace.

What the father in the story tells his son, God also says to us: “My son, my daughter, you are with me always and everything I have is yours.”

All of us who are baptized and have believed in the name of Jesus live in the house of our heavenly Father. The riches of his kingdom have been given to us in abundance. We feast on his word in the Sacred Scriptures. We have the sacraments to strengthen and nourish us in our time of need. We are part of a family of believers which stretches out over the whole world. And we have as our inheritance nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven. God has given us every type of spiritual blessing. How could we ever be ungrateful? How could we ever feel that God is holding out on us? How could we ever begin to think that, because of our hard work and dedication, we deserve more than we have already been given?

At the same time, we who have come home and experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness must extend that same mercy to sinners. It is not enough for us to gather here every Sunday and hope that our prodigal brothers and sisters will make their way back home. Like the father in the story, we have to run out to meet them. We have to see them from afar off, grasp their hands and lead them back. We have to welcome them with open arms and celebrate their return with lavish feasting.

If our Masses are not as lively as they could be, maybe it is because there are people missing. No family celebration is as joyful when some of the members have failed to show up. So we have to fill God’s house with all those who long for his forgiveness. We also have to be mindful that we are sinners who are in constant need of conversion and mercy. Then we will not be gathering here merely to meet an obligation but rather to celebrate the love of our heavenly Father. We will not be going through the motions but will be truly lifting our hearts to God in spirit-filled prayer and worship.

This man, Jesus, welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Whether we packed our bags and took off long ago or whether we have become blind to the riches of life in our Father's house, we can always return. This house is always here for us and a room is always prepared. We can always come home again to be restored to our dignity as sons and daughters of God. We just have to expect that the same mercy which our Father lavishes on us so undeservedly will be lavished on our brothers and sisters as well. If we are so ready and eager to accept it for ourselves, we must be just as ready to extend it to our neighbor. Then we will not find ourselves on the outside looking in when the celebration takes place as the older brother did, but we will be rejoicing with our brother, Jesus, who died to wash us of our sins and who has clothed us with love and mercy.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

What does it cost? Can I afford it? Is it worth it?

While He walked the earth, Jesus always spoke in language and images which the people of His day could understand. Most of the time that meant using examples from the world of farming. In first century Palestine, most people would have worked as farmers at one time or another or otherwise would have kept at least a small garden to provide them with fresh food. Describing the Kingdom of God, then, using images of seeds, harvest and growing seasons would make sense to most people back then.

However, in our day, we are mostly removed from the world of agriculture. For the majority of us, the closest we get to the farm is our weekly trip to the grocery store. We may be able to understand what Jesus means when He uses such examples, but they are not part of our everyday lives in the twenty-first century.

In today’s gospel, however, Jesus uses an example which all of us can understand even over two thousand years later. It is the image of making a major purchase or undertaking a major project. As Jesus puts it, “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion?” None of us may be planning to build a tower, but we have at one time or another made a major purchase or have undertaken a major project in our homes. There are three questions we need to ask ourselves before we begin: What will it cost? Can we afford it? and Will it be worth it?

These questions are important to ask not only for managing our household budgets but also for our walk of faith. There is a cost to following Jesus. It is not easy and requires sacrifice. As we walk this life alongside Him we must ask ourselves these questions along the way.

First of all, what will it cost to follow Jesus? Usually when we make a major purchase such as an automobile or kitchen appliance, the cost that the store advertises and the actual cost vary widely. The store will often display a lower price to draw us in and then hit us with all kinds of hidden fees once we are committed. However, it is very different with Jesus. He tells us upfront that following Him is difficult and He puts it in very blunt language - “You must hate your mother, your father and your own life.” “You must pick up your cross daily and follow me” “You must renounce all your possessions”. Whenever we read such bold words from Jesus we have to understand that He is exaggerating to make a point. Nonetheless He means what He says.

What is the cost of following Jesus? It is rejection. When we start living the gospel seriously, we will experience ridicule. People will talk about us behind our backs. Many people we thought were our friends will stop calling us. And even our family members will start distancing themselves from us. Why? Because we do not join in with their gossip, we have no interest in whatever foolish television shows they are following and we defend the Church when it is being criticized unfairly. All this makes us strange and unusual to most people who are steeped in this world’s crazy values. If Jesus says to us, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” it is because He is preparing us for the rejection we will face once we decide to live for Him.

Secondly, we must ask ourselves, can we afford it? Can we afford to face rejection for Jesus? It is difficult and painful to have the people we love turn their backs on us. However, when we decide to follow Jesus we do not do so alone. We become part of a community of believers who are ready to embrace us with their love and friendship. The decision to follow Jesus is one we make alone, but as soon as we do, we find that we are not traveling alone. Some of the most beautiful friendships we will make are with others who share our faith in the Risen Lord. They are friends who will not judge us, who will understand the struggles we face in living the good news and who will be by our side in good times and bad times. We can afford the cost because Jesus will replace whatever friends we do lose with even better friends, ones who share our values and who can give us real support.

Thirdly, we must ask ourselves if it is worth it. Is it worth it to face rejection, to give up old habits and to change our lives to follow Jesus? That is a question each of us must ask of ourselves. It is a question which each of us will have to answer in the silence of our hearts. Many will decide that the cost of following Jesus is too high. It is just too easy to follow the way of the world. On the other hand, many have and do say “yes” daily. Why? Because they have discovered that nothing this world can offer compares to having a personal relationship with Jesus. Like any good friendship, loving another person makes any sacrifices it may entail worthwhile. In just the same way, loving Jesus, being by His side, knowing the consolation of His presence in our lives makes rejection from our family members, ridicule from our friends and the sacrificing of pleasures worthwhile. Just as His closest apostles and disciples experienced, being with Jesus makes all the difference. There is nothing the world can offer that will compare with it.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. It is there that He will do the Father’s will and offer Himself up to death for the salvation of the world. There is a vast crowd following Him. However, He knows that once they get to Jerusalem the crowd will get smaller as the authorities begin to persecute Him. It will get smaller still when Jesus is arrested and finally put to death. Of the vast crowd which followed Him to Jerusalem, only three were left at the foot of the cross. For this reason, Jesus wanted to make it clear to them what it would cost to follow Him. Jesus turns to us today with the same questions - Do you know the cost of following me, can you afford it and is it worth it to you? These are questions we must ask ourselves everyday without losing sight of the fact that Jesus will be with us through it all and that He will give us whatever we need to stay faithful to Him until the end.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

There is no Fine Print in the Bible

Marketers are more clever at getting us to open and read junk mail. Worthless advertising used to be easy to identify and even easier to throw away. Now, however, envelopes are stamped with the words “urgent”, “open immediately”, or “time sensitive information.” They come disguised as government correspondence or as airline tickets. Or we are told that we must respond immediately to claim a prize that is waiting for us. More often than we would like to admit, we are tricked into opening the mail just in case it really is important. And, more often than not, we find out that it was exactly what we thought it was - junk.

However, there is a reason that marketers continue to send out such worthless mailings. Every year, millions of people are tricked into believing their false claims. They end up signing up for loans with low introductory rates or buying into time shares. Only later do they learn that their low rate of 3% will balloon up to 25% or that they can only use their new time share once every other year. They find out very quickly that the offer was too good to be true and now they are paying for it.

What mistake do these millions of people make every year? They fail to read the fine print. On the back of all these offers, in the smallest print possible, are all the restrictions, exclusions and limitations. The fine print spells out in no uncertain terms what the free prizes and introductory offers are really going to cost us. Until we read the fine print, we do not know what we are getting ourselves into.

By contrast, there is no fine print in the Bible. When we read the gospels Jesus tells us right upfront what the cost of following him will be. He does not sugar coat his message or wait until the end to tell us that what he is calling us to do is difficult. He lays it right on the table. The gospel does not come in pretty wrapping tied up in a bow. None of us can say that we did not know that living our faith would be so demanding. Jesus makes the sacrifices required of us very clear. We are reminded of it every time we look upon the cross.

If Jesus has seemed more pointed, more demanding or even more severe over the past few Sundays, we must remember that we have reached the section of Luke's gospel in which Jesus has "set his face toward Jerusalem." Jerusalem and Jesus' death there cast a shadow over all his words and actions. He is well aware of what will happen at the end of this road, and he wants his disciples to be aware of it as well. Like the man building the tower or the king who set out to face his enemy, they must be aware of and prepared for the cost of following him.

Jesus understood - and we must understand - that even though his cross was something he would have to shoulder alone, even to the point of feeling abandoned by God, his disciples would themselves have to have some share in that suffering if they were to grab hold of the salvation it offered. And the first step on that journey is dropping everything else and everyone else.

Jesus' words in this weekend's gospel, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” are so strong that they can leave us stunned. There seems to be no practical way of applying them to our lives. Jesus cannot mean that we must turn our back on our father and mother whom we are commanded by God to honor. Even worse, it would be a scandal to abandon our spouses and children!

But, if we were to look honestly at our lives in the light of Jesus' words, there is a truth we must recognize.

Our family may not always be around. Our parents will eventually die. We had a life before knowing our spouse, and it may happen that we will eventually lose our wife or husband. And our children will eventually grow up and move away.

No matter how many people we live with and no matter how many people are around us, we are ultimately alone.

The only friendship we can never lose is the one we have with Jesus. Though it seems the least tangible of our relationships, it is the most real. Any other relationship only has meaning if it deepens our friendship with him.

Jesus is challenging us to understand the cost of following him. We were created by God to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to take up our cross and join our suffering to his so that we may also rejoice in his victory over sin and death. That is the meaning of our lives. And everything else and everyone else has value in as much as they help us on that journey.

Once we grasp this, we do not become less attentive fathers, less loving mothers, dead beat husbands or distracted wives. When we order our relationships along the lines of Jesus' call to follow him, those relationships actually take on deeper meaning. When I see my marriage as a gift, I no longer take my spouse for granted. When I see my children as a mission, I no longer try to live vicariously through them. And instead of blaming my parents for all the dysfunction in my life, I am grateful that they did their best to give me life and to protect me.

Jesus makes it very clear to us what the cost of following him is. Each of us will live Jesus' words in a different way. But the road will lead to the same place - to the cross and to Jerusalem, the city of God and the place of our salvation.

Why do we continue to follow although the way is so difficult? Because Jesus walks with us. He promises to be with us always to help us carry our cross. And he tells us that he has already won the victory and that he is waiting to share it with us. We need only to trust him and to walk faithfully the path he has marked out for us.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Taking the Lowest Place

The whole world has fallen in love with our beloved Holy Father, Pope Francis.

From the moment he stepped out onto the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica to greet the world with a simple “Good Evening”, everyone was touched by his gentle manner and openness. It became clear to all that he would be a pope unlike any other we have seen probably since Saint Peter himself when, after his election, he insisted on personally paying the bill at the hotel he was staying at. Later on, the world looked on in amazement as he chose not to live in the papal apartment overlooking Saint Peter’s Square but decided instead to live in a sparse room in the Vatican’s guest house. At one of his first audiences, when the crowds were chanting his name, “Francesco! Francesco!”, he quieted them and told them instead to cry out, “Jesus! Jesus!”

In the time that he has served as Bishop of Rome, he has shown the Church and the whole world a new type of leadership. It is not based on pomp and ceremony but on simplicity and sincerity. It is not based on influence and power but on love and humility. No matter what one thinks of the Catholic Church and her teachings, everyone has taken notice of our Holy Father because he insists on being treated as no more than a brother and fellow traveler on this Earth.

The example of Pope Francis is a clear reflection of Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel. People are not inspired by pride and arrogance. They are not moved by displays of influence and opulent shows of power. Rather, society is most impressed with humility. It is the one who is comfortable around people, who is as attentive to the poor as he is to the rich, who inspires confidence and hope in others. As we read in today’s first reading, “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” Humility, above all else, is the mark of a great person and an effective leader.

What is humility and how can we display it in our attitudes and behavior? It is precisely this question which Jesus answers for us in today’s gospel.

First of all, humility is being willing to be content with a lower place at the table than we think we deserve. It is natural for us to want to be recognized for our hard work and accomplishments. We want everyone to know how important we are. Somehow we think that being esteemed by others will make us feel good about ourselves.

However, Jesus shows us another way. He asks us to be content with less than we think we deserve. He challenges us to forgo the pride that comes from being recognized by others and seek instead the lowest place at the table. It means not always insisting that our hard work be acknowledged. It means letting someone else take the credit for our accomplishments. And it means accepting criticism even when we feel it is undeserved.

Why would we want to do such a thing? Because we trust God. We trust that the truth will make itself known in due course. As Jesus teaches us, it is better for others to point out the good we do than for us to brag about it. When we choose humility, when we take a lower place at the table, others will notice and will call us to a higher place. Even if they do not, God will notice and reward us beyond anything the most powerful man or woman on earth could give us.

Secondly, humility means associating with those who are lowly. It means giving to those who cannot repay us and spending time with those who can sometimes drain us of our energy and resources. Because they do not give us anything in return, we can expect to be rewarded by God who is the Father of the poor and needy and who calls us to love all our brothers and sisters.

Our world can be a funny place. If someone rich and famous were to knock on our door, we would not hesitate to welcome him into our home, to treat him to the most sumptuous meal we could make and give him all the time they would ask of us. However, if someone truly needy were to knock on our door in search of even just a little comfort, we would probably not let him past the threshold of our home. We are so willing to give to those who have more than enough and refuse even the smallest amount of our time, energy and money to those who truly need it.

Jesus is calling us to act as He did. He was as much at home with the poor and with sinners as He was with the wealthy and the righteous. In fact, rather than seek out honors and recognition, He sought out the sick. Those who were cast out of respectable society were precisely the ones He was sent to save. If we want a seat at the table next to Jesus, then we will have to go to the lowest place. It we want to be among those whom Jesus seeks out and chooses to comfort and heal, then we must be among the poor, the outcast and the disabled.

Jesus teaches us that humility consists of being comfortable in the lowest place and associating with those who have nothing to give us. This is precisely how Jesus acted. Though His rightful place was in heaven, He was content to be born into poverty and walk among us as a man. Though He was the most powerful man who ever lived, He traveled among sinners, the poor and the sick. If Jesus can be humble, then what right do we have to be proud and arrogant? If Jesus can take the lowest place, then what right do we have to claim the highest place?

We gather today around this table, the altar where Jesus’ Body and Blood will be offered to us. We are saints and sinners, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak. All of us have the same place at the table no matter what the circumstances of our life are. Here we witness and celebrate the God who humbled Himself to save us. Here we are challenged to go out and do the same until all people are gathered together in the great banquet of our Father’s Heavenly Kingdom.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Falling Down

Life is good at humbling us.

Just when we think we are the best, someone better comes along. Just when we think we have mastered our jobs, an issue comes up that makes us look incompetent. Just when we think we are mature in our faith, we cave into a temptation which leaves us feeling empty and bewildered.

Many times when we have felt humiliated, we replace that wounded pride with bitterness. Envy of others fills the space left behind by our deflated egos. To make up for our feelings of inadequacy, we become more competitive and determined to see others fail as well.

However, Jesus teaches us to look at our past and present failures in a different way. Rather than let them be causes for shame and embarrassment, we should be thankful for them. Because of our mistakes, we can abandon the pretense of being perfect. We learn that the people who love us are willing to forgive and to continue to love us despite our imperfections. Most especially, our failures teach us to be patient with and compassionate toward those who are struggling.

Humility is at the root of what it means to be a mature, spiritual person. It means knowing that only God is all-powerful and all-knowing. Through humility, we break out of a view of life and the world that is centered on ourselves and our needs and begin to concern ourselves with the needs of others. It makes us capable of really listening to others and learning from them. Most especially, it makes us capable of listening to God. Humility is the soil in which God can plant the seed of faith.

The opposite of humility is pride. When we are ruled by pride, we want to be at the center of the universe. If someone calls into question something we have done or said, we say to ourselves, “How dare they!”. And when someone does not treat us the way we think we deserve to be, we say to ourselves, “Don’t you know who I am?!” Pride makes us look at others as pawns to be used to get our way or as obstacles to getting what we want. Pride blinds us to others and their feelings. Most especially, pride gives us a spirit of entitlement making it impossible for us to receive grace which comes to us as an undeserved gift.

We have to be careful when reading this Sunday's gospel not to interpret it as an etiquette lesson. It is not meant to teach us how we should act at a dinner party or how we should arrange tables when we invite others over. Rather, Luke calls Jesus' words a "parable" because they give us insight into how God acts. God lifts up those who are lowly. It is when we have hit bottom that God can finally meet us and reach out to us. It is when we are at our lowest that we finally realize that we do not have all the answers. At that point, we can finally reach up to take God’s hand which has been stretched out to us all along.

It is when we are at our lowest that we see how quickly we can lose the esteem of others. When we are down, we are surprised by how quickly people can turn on us and abandon us. At that point, we see how irreplaceable the love of God is. He is at our side whether we are winning or losing. His friendship is offered to us in good times and in bad. Whatever sins we have committed, he is ready to welcome us back and forgive us. No matter what we may have done, there is never a point at which God says he is tired of us and gives up on us. There is no limit to God’s loving care for us.

So at those times when we look like idiots in front of others or something happens to make us the subject of gossip, before we clench our fists in rage or bury our faces in shame, we have to first thank God for the opportunity to know what it is like to be humbled. We have to remember those who are humbled every day by their poverty or sickness. And we have to beg God that peace, joy and forgiveness may flood in where pride, self-assurance and contempt once held their ground in our hearts.

In that way, we can take our place at the banquet which is the Eucharist. This Sunday's second reading from the letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus' blood more eloquent than the blood of Abel. In the book of Genesis, Cain killed his brother, Abel, because he was jealous of him. Abel's blood called out to God for justice, and so Cain was cursed and ostracized. Jesus' blood, however, was shed on the cross out of love for us. It calls out to God for mercy so we may be forgiven and restored to intimacy with him. However, we cannot reach out for mercy if we think we have the power to be good on our own or if we have failed to be merciful with others.

Jesus is the greatest example of humility. Though he is the Son of God, he was willing to become a man like us. He was willing to experience the pain that goes along with being human. He was willing to be mocked and ridiculed. He was willing to give his life up so that we could live. If Jesus is so humble, then why can we also not be humble? At the cross, we can lay down our need to be the best, our need to know it all and our spirit of entitlement. When we can become as comfortable in the lowest seat as we would be at the highest place, then God can give us a place of honor. Then we can experience the power of God at work in our lives which far surpasses any honors or titles this world can bestow on us.