Sunday, September 28, 2014

Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Imagine a man coming home to his wife and saying, "Honey, we have been married a long time, and I have been faithful to you all these years. Now, I think I've earned the right to cheat on you and have an affair."

How do you think the wife would take that? Do you think she'd agree that he had a right to cheat on her because he'd been a good husband for so long? What would she think about his commitment to their marriage?

Imagine, on the other hand, a man coming home to his wife in tears. They also have been married a long time, but he hasn't always been faithful. He tells her that he wants to change, that he wants to work at having a strong marriage. He asks her to forgive him and to take him back.

Which man do you think got a better reception from his wife? Which marriage do you think had the better chance of surviving?

In the first reading from the prophet Ezechiel, God is describing much the same situation. The man who has been good all his life and then decides to fall into sin will die because of it. And, the man who has lived an evil life and then decides to change will save his life. The good man cannot count on all his past deeds to save him when he sins. Neither will the sins of an evil man weigh him down when he approaches God for mercy and forgiveness.

To look at an example from our own lives, we can say to ourselves, "I have gone to so many Masses in my life, it's okay if I miss Mass this one time." Or we could just as easily say, "I have missed so many Masses, I could never start to go back now." None of us has been so good in our lives that we can afford to cheat on God by sinning. On the other hand, none of us has been so evil that we cannot change our ways and turn to God for mercy. God, more than anything else, wants to save us - both the good and the bad alike. We, for our part, must seek his will every day of our lives. Like a marriage, we must renew our commitment to God daily. Each day, we must be striving for holiness.

It is often said that in the life of faith there are no plateaus. We are either going forward or sliding back. We never get to a point at which we can just take it easy and coast. Rather, we must always strive to be faithful to Jesus and to his word. We can never say that we have done enough. We can never take a vacation from our vocation to live a holy life and be a light to others. Neither can we rely so much on our perfect Mass attendance and other religious observances that, like the Pharisees, we miss the reason that we have religion and spirituality in the first place - to help us to know, love and serve Jesus the Lord.

Jesus takes this idea to a deeper level in the gospel reading. In the parable, it is the son who actually does his father's will that is pleasing to him, not the one who pays him lip service saying "yes" but ignoring his father's wishes. The son who appears to be rebelling against his father has a change of heart and obeys. The son who appears to be obedient at first, later rebels. Jesus uses this parable both to criticize the Pharisees and to encourage those sinners in the crowd who were mesmerized by his words and wanted to follow him.

We hear Jesus criticize the Pharisees often in the gospel. They were not bad men. In fact, Jesus could find no fault with their observance of the law and their moral lives. They lived the law perfectly. The criticism Jesus had of them was that they simply failed to believe in him. They said "yes" to all the commandments of the law, to all the ordinances of Scripture, but they said "no" to Jesus who came to bring the law and prophets to fulfillment. Because they trusted in their own goodness and perfect religious observance, they missed the opportunity of salvation which God was offering them in the person of Jesus.

On the other hand, it was the tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners who came to Jesus in droves, drawn by his powerful words and the authority with which he cast out demons and healed the sick. Despite their past lives of debauchery, they were able to recognize God visiting his people in the person of Jesus. They were able to recognize the gift of salvation which came to them. They found the grace to change their lives and to believe in the good news of salvation. 

When it comes down to it, Christianity is not only about following rules and observing commandments. Rather, it is a living relationship with the Lord Jesus. Like a marriage, we can't boil it all down to rules that we must follow. Like parenting, there is never a time when it is over, when we punch the clock and go home for the day. Faith is a commitment of love between people, a commitment of love between ourselves and Jesus. When we are in love, we never just try to do what is expected of us. Rather, we are always going out of our way for the other person. We never just want to spend a few minutes with our loved one, but a whole day and even a whole lifetime. We never want to give our loved one just a candy bar for Valentine's Day, but a whole box of chocolates! Love always goes beyond what is necessary, beyond what is expected, to serve the other person.

That is the way Jesus loves us. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, Jesus did not cling to his likeness to God but rather emptied himself to become one of us so that he could save us. Jesus went above and beyond the call of duty and the call of justice. Jesus responded to us out of his abundant love. And so, Jesus deserves our love in return. Jesus deserves us to say both "yes" to him with our lips and "yes" to him with the gift of our very lives.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Not Fair! Not Fair! Not Fair!

It isn’t fair!

How many times have we heard those words on the lips of children after they have been punished? How many times have we seen those words on the placards of protesters marching for better conditions and equal treatment for workers? Or how many times have we said those words ourselves when we received a grade on a test that we did not believe we deserved or were passed over for a promotion at work?

The thought, “it isn’t fair”, may have also crossed our mind when we heard the parable of Jesus in today’s gospel.

How we hear Jesus’ words and how we react to them has much to tell us about how we understand ourselves and our relationship to God.

If we heard the parable thinking that the landowner treated his workers unfairly, it could be that we think that God has not been fair with us. We may think that we have just had too many obstacles placed in our way to ever experience true joy and happiness in life. Perhaps we have lost loved ones in tragic circumstances or experienced illness ourselves. God has seemed to be there to help other people, why has He not helped me? Other people credit their faith with helping them through tough times, why do I feel alone? Like the workers in the parable, we feel shortchanged and unappreciated.

However, there is another way to hear the parable. Instead of identifying with the workers who labored all day, we could sympathize with those who worked only part of the day. We realize that God has been exceedingly generous with us. Though we have made many bad choices in life, our Heavenly Father has always provided for us. Because of His great love, we have come to depend on His mercy and generosity. Though we experience the same difficulties and tragedies that others do, we face them with a sense of confidence knowing God will continue to provide for us. Rather than feel punished, ignored or unappreciated by Him, we feel uplifted, protected and strengthened. Like the workers who only labored part of the day, we understand that we are only humble servants who are happy with whatever God chooses to give us.

Which category of people do we most resemble? If we are honest, we are most likely a mixture of both attitudes.

As we reflect on Jesus’ parables, let us ask ourselves, “What can we do to be more like the second group of people?”

The first way is to cultivate a spirit of gratitude. God showers us with so many blessings and gifts that it is easy to take them all for granted. Beauty surrounds us  in nature and in other people. On top of that, we have the gift of sight to be able to enjoy them. When we take a second to appreciate it and thank God for it, we begin to realize how richly blessed we are. If we take it a step further, we can even thank God for the challenges we face. Rather than blame Him for everything difficult in our lives, we can turn to Him in trust saying, “Lord, I know that you will eventually provide for me” or, “Father, I trust you to bring good out of this bad situation.” Doing so will give us peace when we are feeling insecure.

Giving thanks in all circumstances combats a spirit of entitlement that is so common to our society. When we feel entitled, we believe that we deserve whatever we want. Every time we do some good work or put out the slightest effort, we believe that someone should give us a medal for it. Such an attitude can lead only to frustration, bitterness and conflict. When we are driven by an attitude of entitlement, we can never experience happiness because, like the workers in the parable, no matter what we have we will always feel cheated. We can never be the thankful and joyful people that Jesus challenges us to be in today’s parable.

The second attitude to cultivate is generosity. When we are thankful for all that God has given us, it is natural that we will want to share it with others. We will never understand why our Heavenly Father has given more of the earth’s goods to some people rather than others, but we can even things out by donating to charities or helping those in need. If we do not have many material blessings, then we can share our faith by praying for the sick, visiting prisoners or comforting those who are lonely. Faith is the greatest of God’s blessings and we never do so much good as when we share it with the lost, the lonely and the afraid.

In a particular way, we imitate God’s generosity when we share what we have with those who do not seem to deserve it. We do that when we forgive those who harm us even when they do not show any remorse. We reflect God’s mercy when we are kind to those who gossip about us behind our backs and refuse to say a bad word about them. When we help beggars on the street even though we do not know what they will do with what we give them, we are imitating God who showers His blessings on us even though we so often abuse them. Unlike God, we can never know what is going on in another person’s heart. We can never know what he or she is struggling with. However, like God, we can decide to always be generous even when we are unsure the person deserves it or even when the cost seems high.

It is true that there are many times we feel cheated by God. Sometimes the burdens of life seem to outweigh the blessings. However, everything we have comes from Him including our very life and being. So often we offend our Heavenly Father by not noticing the beauty and goodness all around us and daring to act as if it were not enough. By cultivating a spirit of gratitude and generosity we can be like the workers in the parable who were elated with the pay they received knowing that it was more than they deserved. We can also translate that gratitude and generosity into concrete action by sharing what we have with others and treating them gently and mercifully. Then the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to bring will be more of a reality in our lives and in our world.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Looking For A Handout

What do we mean when we say we deserve something? Don’t we mean that we have somehow earned it or that we are entitled to it because of our hard work and efforts?

And how do we feel when we do not get what we think we deserve? Don’t we feel angry and hurt? Don’t we feel as if our rights have been trampled on and that we have been disrespected?

Then we can completely understand the anger of the worker’s in Jesus’ parable. They felt they were entitled to more pay because they had worked longer hours. Unlike the laborers who had shown up at the last minute, they made an effort to show up early at the marketplace so that they would be hired first and be able to earn a whole day’s pay. They were not asking for a hand out. They simply wanted what they thought they deserved for the labor they put in.

All of us can feel sympathy with these workers. We have all been in situations in which we thought we were being taken advantage of or when we felt we had gotten the short end of the stick.

It is natural for us to get frustrated with others when we feel we have not received what we deserve. But are there ever times when we feel that same anger and frustration with God? Are there ever times when we think we deserved a better life than the one God gave us? Are there times when the burdens of life weigh so heavily upon us that we ask, “Why me, Lord? What did I ever do to deserve so much heartache?”

When it comes to our relationship with others, it is possible that we do not always receive what we are entitled to. But we can never make the same claim as regards our relationship with God. When it comes right down to it, God does not owe us anything. Who here today is so important that he or she deserved to even be born? Who here is so good that he or she deserves to go to heaven? Who here today has lived such a virtuous life and performed so many good deeds that he or she deserves a seat in the Kingdom of God? No one. If such a thing were possible, Jesus would not have had to die on the cross for us.

The fact is that we are all beggars before our Almighty God. Everything we have and everything we are is his gift to us. It may not always seem as though we have enough. It may be painfully clear to us how small and weak we are. But each of us has more than enough to accomplish God’s plan for our life. He never fails to provide us with whatever we need when we need it. It may seem that we could do better things for God if we had more resources or were more talented, but we have just what we need to live the life He has set out for us.

It is a very subtle trick of the Devil to try to convince us that we deserve more than God has given us. He succeeded in convincing Adam and Eve that all the delights of Paradise were not good enough. They had to have the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil. He also convinced the Israelites in the desert that they would have been better off if they had remained slaves in Egypt. So they rebelled against God by worshipping a golden calf. He tried to pull the same trick on Jesus telling Him to provide bread for Himself because God had abandoned Him. But Jesus saw through it proclaiming that what God gave Him was all that He needed, for it is not be bread alone that we live but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. The Devil works hard to do the same to us - to try to convince us that God somehow is holding back from us and that we cannot trust Him.

Brothers and sisters, if we are going to make any progress at all in the spiritual life we have to stop complaining, stop bickering and begin being grateful for what we have. Even if it does not seem like much, everything we have is a gift from a good and generous God. In all things, we need to thank our Heavenly Father. Even if it is just for the fact that we have lived to see one more day, we must praise God.

Life can be difficult and challenging. There are many times when our suffering gets the best of us and we lose hope. But God has a plan for our lives. He sees the big picture. What seems like a crushing humiliation for us today or an impossibly heavy burden is God’s way of preparing a great blessing for us. He knows what He is doing. It may not make sense to us now, but there will come a day in the not too distant future when we will look back and be able to see why things turned out the way they did in our lives. Then we will be grateful. For now we can only accept what God gives us - both the good and the bad - in complete trust that “His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways.” But He will make all things work for the good for those who love Him.

It is true that God does not treat us as we deserve. Because of our sins, we deserve judgement and punishment, but in His goodness He sent His only Son, the sinless One, to die in our place. We deserve to be imprisoned in slavery to sin, but He has opened the treasury in Heaven to shower us with grace upon grace so that we can know the truth and live it with joy. There is only one way that God knows how to treat us - with mercy, love and lavish generosity.

We gather here today to celebrate that love and to commit ourselves to work in His vineyard and to be grateful for however much He deigns to give us.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Come With Me Into The Fields

This is a difficult gospel reading to hear. We relate immediately with the workers who toiled all day in the hot sun. We relate to their disappointment and anger when they are paid no more than those who worked only an hour. It brings to mind all the times we have been short-changed, the times when we were denied our fair share. That Jesus would compare God and his kingdom to such an arbitrary landowner as the one in the gospel challenges our sense of fairness.

Let's take a few minutes, however, to look at the gospel in a different way. Instead of putting ourselves in the place of the laborers who worked all day, let's put ourselves in the place of the workers who were in the field only part of the day.

All these men were day-laborers. They would gather in the market place every morning in hopes that someone would hire them for the day. If they were called upon to work in the fields, they would be able to return to their families with some money. If, however, they were overlooked and not chosen, they would have to go home empty-handed.

When the landowner first arrives, all of them wanted to be in the first group picked to work in the vineyard. Imagine the disappointment of those men the landowner didn't choose as they saw the others jump on the back of the carriage to get carted off to their jobs. The fear that they would go another day without work would have been eating them up inside. They had no choice but to wait and hope that someone else would arrive with work for them.

Just when it looked as if the day would be a total waste, the landowner shows up again and hires the rest of the men to work the remaining hours of daylight. They go along happy to at least bring some money home to their families. And, at the end of the day, when they get in line to receive their pay, they must have expected to receive only a fraction of what they would normally make because of the few hours they worked. Imagine their surprise and delight when they are handed a full day's wage! The day is saved! They will not have to go home empty-handed. Their families will not have to go one more day without the food and clothing they need. Excited and thankful for the pay they received, they would have hurried home and probably had no idea that the laborers who worked a full day earned no more than they did. They were just happy to have something to bring home.

As much as we may tend to identify ourselves with the first group that worked all day, we are really much more similar to the group that is called last, especially when it comes to our relationship with God. 

All that we have and are is a gift from God.  From the moment we are born until the moment we die, we are utterly dependent on God. No matter how much or how little we have, it has all come from the generous hand of God. None of us can make a claim on God that we deserve more from him than we have. It is up to him to decide for he is our Creator and Lord. Like the landowner in the gospel, God will give to each one as he sees fit, according to his infinite generosity.

It is in our spiritual life, however, that we see just how generous God is to us. All of us, even if we were baptized as infants and raised in the faith, are late-comers to God's vineyard. There are many millions of believers who have gone before us. There are believers who have given their lives to preach the good news. There are those who spent their whole lives laboring to teach and live their faith. When we read the lives of the saints, we realize just how little we have contributed. Nonetheless, God holds out to us the same promise of salvation. God willing, we will stand in the same assembly of the saints in heaven, looking upon the same God with our holy mother, Mary, with Saint Peter, with Saint Mary Magdalene, with Saint Francis of Assisi and with Jesus himself. None of us can claim to have given as much as they gave in service of the gospel. Nonetheless, God desires that we enter into the same everlasting life. And we can expect a warm welcome from the saints when we enter into our heavenly homeland. They will not be like the laborers in the gospel who complained that they didn't receive more for their labors. Instead, they will rejoice that God in his infinite mercy was so generous to us poor sinners.

As we gather in this church today, we are all different. Some of us have great faith, and some of us are just beginning to grow in our faith. Some of us give of our time and talents regularly, and some of us are still learning how to use our talents in God's service. Some of us have been coming to church all our lives. Some of us are just coming back to church after a long absence. Some of us believe to the depth of our being. Some of us are struggling with confusion and doubts. No matter where we are on our journey, no matter how much we have been given, we will all be called to get in line to receive the same pay - the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. Jesus gives of himself to each of us in the same way. He comes to the sinner in the same humble form of bread and wine as he comes to the saint.

God is calling each of us to labor in his vineyard. Some of us will give more than others. Some will respond more generously than others. Nonetheless, all of us are called in the same way and by the same God. Let us pray that we will be generous when God calls upon us, no matter how early or how late in the day it is. And, let us pray that all of us will receive God's abundant gifts with gratitude and awe.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

By Your Holy Cross You Have Redeemed The World

Only once every six or seven years does today’s feast fall on a Sunday. We are blessed that 2014 is one of those years when we are called to reflect on and celebrate the Holy Cross on which Jesus won our salvation.

Today’s feast commemorates the finding of the true cross in Jerusalem and the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the site where they were found. In the fourth century, when Christianity was legally recognized by the Emperor Constantine, his mother, Saint Helen, made  a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the places where our Lord lived. Of particular interest to her was finding Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the empty tomb.

During her pilgrimage, she was led to a place which the local peoples had always identified as the site where Jesus had been crucified and buried. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Romans had previously filled the area in with dirt and built a pagan temple over it. Saint Helen ordered that the temple be torn down and the area around it excavated. In the course of digging up the site, three crosses were discovered which were taken to be the cross of Jesus and that of the two thieves crucified with Him. It was unclear which cross was the one Jesus died on until a woman who was at the point of death came to the spot, touched one of the crosses and was healed. Saint Helen then directed that a church be built there, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the true cross could be venerated.

We commemorate those events to this day as we celebrate the Holy Cross of Jesus as our source of salvation and healing.

In today’s first reading from the book of Numbers, the people, weary from travel and from lack of food, grumble against God. We can understand their fatigue after so long a journey. However, their sin is not so much that they are complaining about the conditions of their journey, but that they ask God, “...have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert...?” Such words show a mistrust in God’s goodness, a suspicion that He is up to no good. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they think that God is holding back something from them, that He is not being entirely truthful with them. Just as the serpent was the source of temptation for Adam and Eve, so in this story it is serpents which now attack the people. The point is clear - when we rebel against God, nature rebels against us.

However, God continues to be merciful and directs Moses to cast a serpent in bronze and mount it on a pole so that whoever looks upon it can be healed. As He so often does, our Heavenly Father looks past the sinfulness of His people and takes what was the cause of their suffering and turns it into the source of their healing and salvation.

In today’s gospel, Jesus refers to this story to describe His death on the cross. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Just as the people in the desert were healed by looking at the serpent mounted on a pole, so we find healing by looking upon and contemplating the Holy Cross of Jesus Christ.

Let us look at a few ways we can find healing in the cross.

First of all, the cross heals us of hatred. When we look upon Jesus’ nailed to the cross, we see the greatest expression of God’s love. As Jesus tells us, “...God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Though He was innocent, Jesus embraced all the tortures and suffering that went along with His death out of love for you and me. If God has loved us so much, what right do we have to hate another person? If Jesus could forgive those who crucified Him, what right do we have to hold a grudge against our brother and sister? As we contemplate the love Jesus had for us, hatred, bitterness and anger melt away. Our hardened hearts are healed.

Secondly, the cross heals us of temptation. As weak human beings, we are subject to so many temptations throughout the day. However, looking upon the cross can strengthen us. When we consider that it was for our sins that Jesus died, the resolve to not offend Him any more can carry us through when we feel weak. The simple prayer, “Passion of Christ, strengthen me”, can keep us determined not to fall. The cross of Christ can lift us up when we fear that we may fall.

Finally, the cross heals us of despair. Jesus’ death on the cross is the source of our hope. Because of His love, He transformed the most cruel and degrading of deaths into the source of salvation for the world. By following His example of love, we can transform our daily humiliations, difficulties and pains. They no longer have the power to break our spirits, make us miserable or cause us to live in fear. By contemplating the cross, we can find the strength to endure whatever life sends our way. We become hopeful, joyful and peaceful persons.

For those with faith, the cross is no longer a symbol of humiliation and defeat. Rather, it is a sign of victory, of salvation and healing. Just as the true cross healed the woman in Jerusalem, so by looking on the image of Jesus offering Himself on the cross for us we can find healing for our minds and souls. We find the courage to love, the resolve to confront evil and the strength to endure whatever trials may come. All this because, in the shadow of the cross, we see the dawn of the resurrection, Christ’s ultimate victory.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you. Because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Exaltation of the Cross!

(This article originally appeared in Connect! magazine)

In his recently released book, Jesus, A Pilgrimage, Fr. James Martin, S.J. tells the story of Doris, a hospital volunteer whom he met while serving as a Jesuit novice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During a discussion group that was being led by the hospital chaplains, Doris, who was confined to a wheelchair, shared about her experience. Rather than complain about the limitations her condition imposed on her or the difficulties of getting around the city in a wheelchair, she expressed gratitude. Though she had once seen her wheelchair as her cross, she now looked upon it as her resurrection. As Fr. Martin quotes her in his book, “My wheelchair helps me get around....Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Life would be so dull without it.”

Though she may not have realized it, Doris in her wisdom revealed a deep truth about the mystery of the cross. What appears in our lives as a punishment, a burden or an affliction, carries within it the seeds of new life. When we accept our suffering, bear it patiently and even embrace it, we find new meaning in it. Suffering borne in love transforms us.

The cross is at the center of everything we do as Christians. We begin all our prayers by marking ourselves with the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. A cross features prominently in every church. All our processions are led by a cross. It is the symbol of everything we believe and everything we are as followers of Christ.

Because the cross is such a part of our life, we can forget that it was originally used as a means of torture by ancient Rome. In fact, it was such a cruel form of punishment that it was reserved for foreigners and the worst of criminals. Often, the Romans would leave the bodies of their victims nailed to the cross for days to strike fear in the people. For the Jews of Jesus' day, the cross was a shameful way to die. There was nothing about it worthy of exaltation.

Jesus, however, has transformed the meaning of the cross. Because he accepted it with all its suffering out of obedience to the Father and love for sinful humanity, the cross went from being a shameful tool of execution to a means of salvation for all the world. When he was preparing his disciples for the violent death he would face, Jesus repeatedly told them that he would lay down his life willingly. Because he was the creator and the Lord of heaven, he could have called on a host of angels to save him. He could have silenced the taunts of the crowd by showing off his tremendous power. But, out of love, he surrendered his life to gain for us the hope of everlasting life.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can look on our own suffering differently. Certainly we want to relieve suffering in ourselves and in others whenever possible. However, there are circumstances in which modern medicine and psychology can only do so much. There are also some burdens such as loneliness, confusion and doubt that we can only bear alone. However, we no longer need to add despair to our burden of sorrow. Like Doris, and like Jesus, we can find the resurrection already shining forth through the cross. For each one of us, the experience of new life through the cross will be unique and personal. Nonetheless, the path of discovery will start with humble acceptance of suffering in faith.

We can find the strength to begin by looking on Jesus’ own cross.
Jesus, raised up from the earth on the wood of the cross, shows us the depth of God's love. He accepted its shame and pain out of love for you and me. No one is left outside of this all-embracing act of salvation. It is never too late to approach the cross to seek healing and forgiveness in our time of need. Because the sacrifice of Jesus is a bottomless treasury of grace and mercy, it can never run out. We can go to the wood of the cross every day and even every hour to find forgiveness again and again and again. We can never use up or exhaust God's infinite mercy.

In the gospel reading, Jesus explains why this is. God so loved the world he created that he could not bear to lose it to sin and death. At the same time, sin is so offensive to his majesty and goodness that it could not go unpunished. And so, God sent his son, Jesus - a man who never sinned - to take upon himself the punishment which we deserved for our disobedience. Now, no matter how we may have offended God in our lives, we may go to him without fear knowing that Jesus has taken upon himself the punishment we deserve.

All this is because God loved us so much. Like all love, it is not ours because we deserved it or because we earned it. It is simply a free gift of God.

Today's gospel reading contains some of the most popular verses in the Bible because it captures the whole mystery of God and his plan of salvation. Very simply, God loves us and wants to forgive us; not because we are nice and not because we deserve it. God loves us and forgives us because he created us and because he is good.

Knowing how much suffering our sins have caused Jesus, how could we not weep with sorrow for our disobedience? Knowing how generous God has been in forgiving us, how could we not shout with joy and gladness? And, knowing how ready God is to shower us with his mercy, how could we not resolve to meet him as frequently as possible in confession and in the Eucharist to access the treasury of grace flowing from the cross of Jesus Christ?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Speaking the Truth in Love

There was a man who, for much of his life, gave little thought to God or his faith. However, little by little, he felt in his heart that there was something missing and that he should start going back to church. He also knew that the first step would be to go to confession.

Though he hadn’t been in over twenty years, he found the courage to go before Mass one Sunday afternoon. At first, he felt awkward. After so long away from the sacrament, he couldn’t remember his prayers or what to do, but the priest kindly helped him through it.

In the course of their discussion, he admitted that he and his wife had not been married in the Church and that their children had not been baptized. The priest explained to him as gently as possible but firmly what a serious sin it is for a Catholic to be married outside of the Church. He urged him to do everything possible to do the right thing, and told him that until they were married in the Church, they would not be able to receive communion.

The man felt devastated. He had gone to confession in hopes of finding some peace, but instead was told that he was living in sin. He was outraged and decided that he would never go to church again.

As time passed, however, the man reflected more on what the priest had said and discussed it with his wife. He decided to set an appointment with the deacon at his parish to try to understand why the Church did not recognize their marriage and why he couldn’t receive communion. The deacon gently explained to him God’s plan for marriage and all the graces that come from being married in the Church. He explained how in receiving communion we are receiving Jesus Himself and that our lives must be in union with His word if we are to be in communion with His Body.

It made sense to him, and he knew in his heart it was what he wanted. He and his wife discussed it and prayed together about it. They took the necessary steps to be married in the Church and to have their children baptized. Eventually, as they learned more about the Church’s teaching on marriage, they stopped using contraceptives and welcomed more children into their family. Now they work together with the deacon in their parish preparing young couples for marriage.

At first, the truth was hard to swallow. But because their minds and hearts were open, they were able to accept the reality of their situation and change their lives. Now they are experiencing countless blessings all because they overcame their fears and said “yes” to God’s plan for their lives.

Now imagine if that priest did not have the courage to tell that young man the truth. Imagine if the deacon did not love him enough to spell out to him why their lifestyle was sinful. They would have continued living just as they always had and would have missed out on the blessings God had been preparing for them.

It is hard to hear the truth, but how much harder is it for us to speak the truth to one another, to point out one another’s errors and to call each other to live the gospel in its fullness. Yet the Bible clearly teaches us that, in love, we owe it to one another to speak the truth.

God tells the prophet Ezekiel very plainly that if he fails to warn sinners that they will die because of their sins then God will hold the sinner’s death against him. These are very strong words, and we should all take them to heart. In essence, God is telling us that if we know that our neighbor is sinning and we say nothing about it, then we are partially responsible. Because we haven’t warned them, we are allowing the sin to continue. By keeping silent, we become complicit in our neighbor’s sinfulness.

Now does that mean that we go up to everyone in our families or at our work and start pointing out their sins to them? Of course not. We need to be gentle and loving in the way we approach our neighbor. We need to have a great deal of humility knowing that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. And we have to pray very intensely before even thinking about having a discussion with someone about his or her sinful choices.

Jesus in the gospel gives us some very useful advice. He cautions us always to talk to the person alone. By speaking one on one, the person will feel less defensive and will be more open to our words. Also, it gives the person a chance to explain himself. It could be that we have misunderstood something he said or jumped to conclusions about something he had done. When the matter is cleared up, it could be that our neighbor has not sinned as we thought, and our conscience can be at peace.

However, if the person has sinned and does not want to change, Jesus tells us that we don’t have to deal with it alone. We should ask someone else to discuss it with him and then we should get the Church involved, typically by seeking help from a deacon, sister or priest. If he or she still will not listen after that, then our consciences can be in peace. We have done what we can. All that is left is to pray for the person that God will help him or her to change.

The truth very often hurts, but it can never harm us. When we accept it, we are set free to embrace all the blessings that God has in store for us. It is an act of mercy to admonish the sinner and instruct the ignorant because it gives them a chance to experience God’s mercy and all that blessings that come from living in the light of His love. And we will be helping to save our own souls in the process. Why would we want to deprive anyone of that just to be polite or out of fear of offending someone?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

In Our Midst

The legendary quarterback of the San Francisco '49'ers, Joe Montana, ended his football career in Kansas City playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. One Sunday, he attended Mass at a local parish. After the Mass, a parishioner breathlessly ran up to the pastor and asked him, "Father, Father, did you know that Joe Montana was here?!" The pastor wryly replied, "Well, did you know that Jesus was here?"

We are gathered here today for one reason - to meet Jesus. Jesus is here. We encounter Jesus here in a way that is more real and more profound than if we had stayed home to pray alone. Jesus promised us that whenever two or three are gathered in his name that he is present among them. And so, Jesus is present in this assembly of believers gathered here today.

Jesus is also present in the Scriptures we proclaim. The Bible is inspired by God to such a degree that we can rightly call God its author. Whenever the Scripture readings are proclaimed at Mass, it is God who is speaking to us. Likewise, whenever the gospel readings are proclaimed, it is Jesus who is speaking to us. We have heard God speak to us today in a real way through the Scriptures.

And, finally, the most real way - indeed the most miraculous way - that Jesus makes himself present to us today is through the Eucharist, the gift of his body and blood. The bread and wine we receive at communion is not just a symbol of Jesus' body and blood. Rather, it is actually his body and blood. When we receive the bread in our hands or on our tongue and when we bring the chalice to our lips, it is the very body and blood of Jesus our Savior who comes to meet us and to dwell in us.

If someone famous were to show up here today - like Joe Montana or some other sports personality - we would get very excited. We would be staring at him, taking note of what he was wearing, how he was praying and trying to see with whom he was sitting. We might even try to meet him and get his autograph. Can we be just as excited about Jesus' presence here today? Do we get a lump in our throat knowing that he is speaking to each of us personally? Does our heart start to race knowing that we will touch him in the Eucharist? Do we get short of breath when we realize that Jesus is sitting right next to us in the person of our neighbor?

As we grow in the awareness of the presence of Christ among us, it becomes obvious to us that we are called to mirror the love and mercy we have encountered in Jesus. Since Jesus is present when we gather together, we have to be more like him in our everyday lives. And, because of Jesus' presence in each of us, we must love each other. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading: "Owe no debt to anyone except the debt that binds us to love one another."

Brothers and sisters, we owe it to each other to love one another. Since we are the presence of Christ in the world, we must prove it through our willingness to love. When we love, Christ shines forth in us. When we love, Christ is real in us and in our world. And so, when we fail to love as we should - when we sin - it is never a personal failure. It is never just something between ourselves and God. When we fail to live up to the gospel message of love, we let each other down. When any one of us sins, all of us are affected because it makes it harder for us to show to the world the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. Because of this we begin every Mass by calling to mind our sins and praying: "I confess to Almighty God AND TO YOU MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS that I have sinned through my own fault." We can pray those words because we recognize that we are responsible to each other to live as Jesus taught us.

It is also for this reason that, in today's gospel, Jesus doesn't tell us to mind our own business when we see our brothers and sisters sinning. Rather, he tells us that we are to speak with them and to try to correct them. Jesus teaches us that we have a real responsibility to each other and for each other to ensure that we are all living the gospel message. It is not because anyone of us is better than another nor because any one of us is worthy to judge another. Rather, we correct each other precisely because of our love for our brothers and sisters and because we want each other to experience the presence of Christ. But, we must not only be willing to correct others, we must also be willing to be corrected. And, out of love, we must also be willing to forgive each other. No matter what the situation may be, we must always correct each other lovingly and respectfully because our goal is one and the same - to make the Church a place where Jesus is made present and where the love and mercy of Christ shine with a light which is as brilliant as the sun.

My brothers and sisters, the Risen Jesus is truly here today. We have heard him speak and met him in each other. We will touch him through the miracle of the Eucharist. And, we are each called to carry the light of Christ out into the world - to our families, to our workplaces and to our schools. It is by our love that we show the face of Christ to the world. It is through love that we will draw more people to this place so they too can meet and experience Jesus for themselves.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Jeremiah Was A Prophet; Was a Good Friend of God

The prophet Jeremiah is one of the most compelling figures in all the Old Testament.

He lived in a town just north of Jerusalem some five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. As a young man, he was called by God to be a prophet to the people of Israel. Though he protested because of his youth, God promised to be with him and to give him the words he should speak.

His basic message was that, unless the people repented of their sinfulness and turned back to God, the nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed. Needless to say, his preaching was not very popular, especially with the leaders of his day and he suffered greatly because of his prophetic ministry. One time he had been thrown in a cistern and left to die. In today’s first reading, he had been placed in stockades by the king. As people walked by they spit on him and ridiculed him.

Unfortunately, his prophecies came to pass. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and its inhabitants were marched into exile. Jeremiah himself was exiled to Egypt where tradition tells us he was stoned to death.

Jeremiah is sometimes called “the prophet of the passion of God”. Except for Jesus Himself, no other prophet suffered as much at the hands of his own people. In fact, perhaps no other prophet was most like Jesus in the way he lived, preached and, ultimately died.

In today’s first reading, we are given a glimpse into the mind of this great prophet. Because of all that he suffered, he felt “duped” by God. If he could, he would just as soon abandon his role as prophet to the people. But he cannot. As he writes, “ becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” The fire burning within him is so strong that he cannot ignore it. He must speak out. He cannot hold it in.

What is that fire if not his deep, burning love for God?

It was because of his love for God that Jeremiah had to warn the people of the disaster that would befall them if they did not change their ways. It was because of that love that he put up with rejection, harsh treatment, torture and, ultimately, death. In God, Jeremiah experienced the “love that is better than life” which we read about in today’s Responsorial Psalm. Love drove him to not keep the message of truth to himself but to proclaim it to the whole world without counting the cost.

In Jesus, we see the love of God made manifest. In Jesus, we meet a God we can see and touch. All those who throughout history have taken the words of today’s gospel to heart, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” did so because they fell in love with Jesus. It was not because they liked discipline or had more willpower than anyone else. They simply loved Jesus so much that no amount of difficulty, suffering, hardship or rejection could keep them from following Him.

When we love, we becoming willing and able to sacrifice.

This is an experience that all of us can understand. Parents willingly lose sleep to feed their babies in the middle of the night or comfort them when they are sick. Young people in love will do anything to spend time together. They are willing to move mountains to see each other. Older couples willingly care for each other when one of them becomes ill. Love does not make difficult situations easier. Rather, it gives us the strength to overcome obstacles, to pull down barriers and to work through difficulties for the sake of the ones we love.

Without love, Christianity makes no sense. From the outside, it looks like just a system of rules meant to deny us pleasure and fulfillment. Once we fall in love with Jesus, however, everything changes. The rules become ways that we can learn how to love God. They teach us how to please Him by doing His will. Our focus becomes not on ourselves and our own fulfillment, but on God and His glory. Our priorities shift from this world and its passing pleasures to the world to come where we will praise our Heavenly Father forever. The inconveniences, difficulties and rejection that come from following Jesus become more bearable because of the love that burns within us.

If your faith seems like nothing more than jumping through hoops, if you are here today merely to meet your Sunday obligation and not because you have a burning desire to be united with Jesus in the Eucharist, then God wants to touch your heart today. He wants you to know that He loves you. He wants you to know that truth down into the depths of your soul. He wants that love to be the driving force in your life. All you need to do is simply welcome God into your heart. It is a simple step that will change everything.

Without love, the cross is simply two pieces of wood meant to torture, kill and oppress people. Because of Jesus’ love, it has been transformed into the means of salvation for all the world. That love that drove Jeremiah to speak truth to power, that drove Jesus to give His life for the liberation of the world and that drove countless saints to feed the hungry, heal the sick and counsel the doubtful can be ours for the asking. It is the “love that is better than life” which God offers to all those who believe in Him and are willing to follow His Son. It is the love that is made manifest in the Body and Blood of Jesus which we will share. It is the love we are called to bring to a world which is pining for the Living God.

Monday, September 1, 2014

What's In It For ME?!

Why should I?

What’s in it for me?

What will I get out of it?

Have those questions ever run through your mind when someone has asked you for help? Our society teaches us that we should never do anything for free. There should always be something in it for us whether it be money, or influence or even just emotional satisfaction.

However, we can clearly see how this selfishness has damaged relationships and families. When we put our own comfort before the needs of others, society begins to break down. Families cannot function because spouses are so busy pursuing their own interests that they stop communicating with each other. And once that happens, they cannot meet the needs of their children. We only have to look at our schools, our prisons and even our parishes to see the toxic effects. It is a downward spiral that drags all of society down with it.

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul urges us not to be conformed to this world in its selfishness. We are instead to be transformed by the renewal of our mind so that we can look at life in a different way, not from the perspective of our own needs and wants but from the point of view first of God and then of our brothers and sisters. We are to put the interests of others before our own. We are to make sure that the needs of our brothers and sisters are met before we take care of our own needs.

This mindset is absolutely foreign to our present culture. We are taught to put ourselves first and to let others take care of themselves. But imagine what our world could be like if we started to live the self-sacrificing love shown to us by Jesus. Imagine a world in which everyone had enough to eat because neighbor shared with neighbor. Imagine families in which mothers and fathers could work out their differences and raise their children to care for others. Imagine neighborhoods transformed because people began watching out for one another. All this could be possible if, through the grace of God, we could begin to live the gospel message of self-sacrificing love.

If a world transformed by love is going to be a reality, then it must begin with you and me. We can only bring it about by making the conscious effort to put the needs of others before our own. But how do we even begin? As always, it is Jesus who shows us the way. In today’s gospel, He gives us the antidote for our selfishness by telling us that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.

First, we must learn to deny ourselves. We learn from an early age that if we are going to accomplish anything, we have to learn to say “no” to ourselves. We cannot get our homework done unless we turn off the television. We cannot learn how to play a sport without sweating through practices. The same is true in our life of faith. To break the selfishness that locks our world in destructive competitiveness, we must learn how to say “no”. It starts in small ways by going without desert at supper or by not buying an extra pair of shoes that we know we do not need. Then we begin donating the money we save to help the poor. Going a step further, we miss a meal so that we can volunteer at a homeless shelter. Or we lose a good night’s sleep because we are manning the phones at a suicide hot-line. Before we know it, our small acts of self-denial are transforming us into saints.

Second, we must take up our cross. Each of us has a burden to carry. It could be sickness, anxiety, a challenging job or family members who constantly hurt us. It is natural for us to want to avoid difficulties and suffering at all costs. But Jesus teaches us to look at our life’s burdens in a new way. They are not there to punish us but to help us on the way to holiness. By accepting the burdens of our daily lives and offering them up to God out of love for him, in atonement for our sins and for the conversion of sinners, we grow in patience and in love. By realizing that Jesus is carrying our cross with us, our burden does not seem as heavy. Then we are not so overwhelmed with our own problems that we cannot reach out and help others to carry their crosses.

Third, we must follow Jesus. Our eyes must always be fixed on our Lord and Savior. He walks ahead of us marking a sure pathway forward. We learn from Him that we do not have to be afraid. We do not have to hoard money because He will provide for us. We do not need to have a big house and lots of clothes to feel good about ourselves, because He gives us the dignity of being called sons and daughters of God. Knowing that Jesus is always by our side frees us to care for others because we know He will care for us.

There is much that is wrong with our world today. All the problems we are faced with can overwhelm us and make us want to give up. While there are no easy answers or quick fixes, there is something each of us can do. We can attend to the needs of those around us, the people God has placed in our lives. By denying ourselves, picking up our cross and following Jesus we can begin to make a difference. At first, it may not seem as if there is anything in it for us. But we will experience the joy of bringing a smile to a tired woman’s face, the satisfaction of helping a neighbor make it through another day and the peace that comes with doing God’s will.