Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Feast For The Poor

It was a call that left 27 year-old Quinn shocked and in disbelief.

Her fiancĂ©’ told her over the phone that he could not go through with their wedding. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to spend his life with her.

Feeling devastated, she was left with the embarrassing task of telling her family and friends that the wedding would not take place.

Adding to her pain was the realization that the $35,000 she had already spent on the 120 person banquet they had planned would not be refunded.

Rather than let it all go to waste, Quinn’s mother came up with the idea of still having the banquet but inviting the homeless of their city to enjoy it instead. So, what would have otherwise been a sad occasion and a waste of food became an opportunity to share their abundance with the less fortunate. People who were not used to having three meals a day or being waited on by professional staff were showing up to feast on sumptuous appetizers, salmon and sirloin.

While it was still painful for the family to have the wedding canceled, giving back to their community by feeding the poor brought some joy into what would otherwise have been an unbearable day. As Quinn’s mother put it, “I feel a lot of heartache and heartbreak for [my daughter], but I will take something good from this.”

In many ways, the story of Quinn’s canceled wedding is like the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel. However, it is not the groom who fails to show up to the banquet but the invited guests. The king decides to hold the feast anyway but shares his special day with the homeless, the poor and the sick. As in all His parables, Jesus is teaching us something about how God’s Kingdom operates in this world. Though everyone is invited, it is typically the needy who answer His call. The rich and the powerful, on the other hand, do not believe they need God and so turn their attention to the passing things of this world convinced that money, status and influence can save them.

That brings us to this gathering here today.

God is setting before us a sumptuous feast. The first course is His word taken from the Bible. He feeds our souls, hearts and minds with His wisdom. When we proclaim the Scriptures at Mass, it is God Himself who speaks to us. When we are feeling afraid, we are comforted by the words of today’s responsorial psalm - “Besides restful waters he leads me.” When we are feeling complacent and comfortable, we hear Jesus tell us in the gospel - “Many are invited but few are chosen.” And when we wonder how we will make ends meet, we hear Saint Paul tell us in today’s second reading - “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” When we pay attention to the Scriptures proclaimed at Mass and let them penetrate our being, we feel as satisfied as if we had just finished a delicious meal.

The second course of this banquet is served to us on this altar. Jesus Christ feeds us His very self - His Body and Blood - in the Eucharist. There is no other spiritual gift greater than what we receive every Sunday at this table. There is no food that is more satisfying than the Blessed Sacrament. Through it, we are united personally with Christ Himself who comes to dwell within us. Our souls are filled with light, peace and joy as we welcome Jesus into our hearts. Because of this incredible gift of God, we can echo the words of the responsorial psalm - “You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

And we are the ones blessed to have said “yes” to the invitation to take part in this feast. Like the parable in today’s gospel, many have refused that invitation. They have decided that sleeping in late, going out for brunch or working in their yard is a better use of their time than gathering with God’s people to hear His word and receive the Eucharist.

As a parish, all of us would like to see these pews filled with worshippers. However, like the woman whose fiancĂ©’ jilted her or the king whose subjects failed to show up at his son’s wedding, we need to turn our attention to the poor and the needy. Perhaps we need to invite the homeless, the migrant and the mentally ill into this banquet. After all, they are the ones who really are in need.

What if, when we pass someone panhandling on the street, we were to give him a copy of our parish bulletin and invite him to join us for Mass? What if, before coming to church, we were to go to every park bench and ask the homeless to share a pew with us? It wouldn’t take long for the word to go around that we are a community willing to welcome all God’s people no matter how poor or humble. And we would become, in short order, a living witness to the gospel message that Jesus came to bring good news to the poor.

At the same time, it would mean a big change in attitude for most of us. How comfortable would we feel sitting next to someone who smells? Could we resist the temptation to turn away when someone offers us a dirty hand at the sign of peace? And would we still be willing to worship here if we knew that, any given Sunday,  someone in the parking lot might hold a cup out to us and ask if we have any spare change? There is nothing sentimental or glamorous about being a Church that reflects the Kingdom of God by opening its doors to the poor and needy.

Nonetheless, if we could really live Jesus’ message in the gospel, we just might find that we who consider ourselves sophisticated, civilized and even devout have much to learn from our needy brothers and sisters. We might discover that, as we reach out to feed the hungry, we are fed in return by the rich banquet of God’s love and mercy. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Joy Of Saying "YES"

Our Heavenly Father is delighted that we are here today. He rejoices that we are taking time this day to gather as His people, hear His word and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

This great banquet of love has been centuries in the making. He first offered Himself to the people of Israel as a paschal lamb which they ate before fleeing from slavery in Egypt. As they traveled through the desert to the Promised Land, He fed them with manna to sustain their journey. The prophets continually foretold that the coming of the Messiah would be like a wedding banquet. It is just such a proclamation that we hear in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines...” Finally, when Jesus appeared, He gave us His body and blood in the form of bread and wine at the Last Supper. This Blessed Sacrament would be the way that we could continue to draw life from the saving power of His death and resurrection throughout the centuries.

Our gathering today is really a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in today’s first reading. Our Heavenly Father has prepared a banquet for us. The first course is His holy word which reveals to us His loving mercy and instructs us in how to live a good life. When we hear the scriptures proclaimed, we are hearing God’s own voice echoing down to us through the centuries. The second course is the Body and Blood of Jesus which is given to us in the form of bread and wine. When the priest prays the words of institution, that is, the very words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper, then the gifts we offer are no longer bread and wine but truly the Body and Blood of Jesus. Can you think of any finer food that could be given to us? Can you think of any greater feast we could celebrate?

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of a king who sends out invitations to his son’s wedding banquet. When the people rejected the invitation, he reached out to them again reminding them just what it was that they were missing. “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.” We can hear the sadness and hurt in his voice that no one had responded to his generous invitation. However, he did not call the banquet off, but reached out to others of lower social status to fill the banquet hall and join him in celebrating the marriage of his son.

That is why God is delighted with us today. We are among those who accepted the invitation to join in this banquet of love. Like the wedding feast in the parable, we are a mixture of good and bad. We have great saints among us and great sinners. We have those who live the faith everyday and those who are just going through the motions. Very often the great sinners and the great saints are the same people! However, despite our weakness, despite our failings, despite our doubt, we come to this feast. No matter where we are in our walk of faith, Jesus welcomes us and rejoices that we have said “Yes” to His invitation.
At the same time, we cannot help but carry a heavy heart for those who have rejected the invitation, for those who have found other things to do than join us for the celebration of the Eucharist today. There may be a thousand reasons why they chose to say “no”, and, of course, it is not our place to judge them. However, what often happens is that people make bad choices and fall into patterns of sin. Sin always makes us focus in on ourselves. Eventually, we get to a point at which we think that it is impossible for us to turn back. We imagine that God could never forgive us because of everything we have done. Other times, pride blinds us. We refuse to admit that we have done anything wrong, anything that we need to ask forgiveness for.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear - He came to call sinners. Whenever a sinner turns to Him, He rejoices. He never rejects anyone who comes to Him with a sincere heart. Even when He knows we will fail again, He always welcomes us with an open heart. He longs to show His mercy to us. The greater a sinner we are the more He rejoices in lavishing His mercy on us. There is no reason to stay away from the banquet that God has prepared for us, to turn away from Jesus’ mercy or to continue enslaved in patterns of hate, addiction or corruption.

It is up to us, then, who are enjoying this rich banquet and who have feasted on the Divine Mercy to extend the invitation to others. It is as simple as saying to a friend or family member, “Why don’t you join me at church this Sunday?” If that does not work, we can always share with others what we learned at Mass, what great programs are underway in our parish or diocese, or how faith in Christ has changed us. By sharing our faith, we give others something to think about which then opens a path for the Holy Spirit to work. Finally, we can always pray for those who have left the faith, that whatever hurts they have experienced will be healed and that whatever obstacle keeps them from joining us will be cleared away. In the end, it is God’s work to send out the invitation and to choose who will be welcome.

Soon we will hear the words, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.” We are truly blessed beyond measure to gather every Sunday to hear God’s word and receive Jesus’ Body and Blood. It is both a fulfillment of what the prophets foretold and a foretaste of the wedding feast of heaven when Jesus will unite Himself fully with His bride, the Church. Until that day, we strive to fill this church with those willing to accept the invitation, no matter their social status, income or race. This makes our Heavenly Father’s joy complete!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Hound Of Heaven

Poor Francis Thompson just could not find his way in life.

He was born in 1859 in Lancashire, England. Like his father, he studied to be a doctor but could never keep up with his classwork. After failing the medical examination three times, he decided to give everything up and move to London to be a writer.

However, the big city was not kind to young Francis. Unable to find work, he became homeless and was reduced to selling matches on the street corner. It was also during this time that he became addicted to opium and any money he managed to earn went to supporting his habit. Francis, finding himself in a state of utter destitution, cried out to God for help.

A prostitute noticed him in an alley close to death from starvation. She took him in, fed him and nursed him back to health. Off the streets, he decided to dedicate himself to his dream of writing poetry. After his first poem was published, he entered a monastery for two years to try to break his addiction to drugs. During this time, he wrote some of his most moving poetry and finally found the success he had hoped for.

However, the years on the street had taken their toll. He finally died of tuberculosis in 1907 at the age of 48.

Though he had lived a short life, his poems went on to inspire many other writers. His most famous poem is called “The Hound of Heaven”. In it, he describes God as a hound who relentlessly pursues him. No matter how hard he tries to flee from Him, God continues to chase after him. No matter how destitute he became as a drug addict, God never gave up on him. He finally has to stop and ask himself why he was trying so hard to escape from God’s love.

The poem is not easy to read, but it conveys a powerful and beautiful truth about our Heavenly Father. He loves each one of us with a burning passion. He cannot rest until He has found a way to reach us. No matter how hard we try to avoid Him, no matter what other choices in life we may make, He will not give up on us. There is nothing we can do to make Him love us any less or to keep Him from trying to convince us to love Him back.

The many parables that Jesus tells are all concerned with this great love of God for His people. In today’s gospel, He tells the story of a king who sends out invitations to his son’s wedding. Though the guests fail to respond to his invitation, he will not take no for an answer. If the invited guests fail to arrive, he insists on inviting others no matter how lowly they may be. He will have his son’s wedding banquet filled with people no matter the cost.

Like the king in the parable, God has sent an invitation to each of us, and He is waiting for our response.
It may often seem to us that we are the ones who are seeking God, but the opposite is in fact true. God is searching for us. No matter what it is we think we may want in life whether it be happiness or love or meaning, all of it can be found in our Heavenly Father. There is nothing we desire in life that God cannot provide for us. After all, He created us and everything in this wonderful world. If we would only stop and let Him catch up to us, we might just begin to realize it.

Why do we so often hide from God and not open the invitation we have received from him? Could it be that we are just so wrapped up with the concerns of daily life to answer His call? Is His invitation left on the table along with the junk mail and unpaid bills? Or are we afraid that if we  accept His invitation we will have to change? Are we afraid what God might ask of us if we do say yes to Him?

It is natural to be concerned about the cost of following Jesus. It is not easy to live the message He preached and to accept the invitation to live a life of total trust in Him. But we should never forget that there is also a high cost to saying no to that invitation. It means spending our lives chasing things that in the end can never satisfy us. It often means years of  feeling empty inside and wondering what is missing. It often means literally exhausting ourselves to earn success and accumulate possessions that fail to give us the security and status we thought they would. And, in the end, it could mean that we would have lived our whole lives on this planet without fulfilling the purpose for which we were created - to know, love and serve God.

God is seeking each of us out. He sent His Son to make clear to us how much He loves us and how desperately He wants us to love Him in return. We do not have to go looking for God because He is already looking for us. All we have to do is stop and let Him catch us. All we have to do is stop allowing fear to keep us on the run. Then we can accept the invitation to a personal relationship with the God who created us. We can know the joy and peace that our hearts were created to feel. We can stop running and start living.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The King Requests Your Presence

It has been several years now when the whole world was caught up in the wedding of England's Prince William to Kate Middleton.  Every detail of the ceremony was reported on the front page of newspapers throughout the world. It was the lead story of every news program. Imagine how honored those who were actually invited to the wedding must have felt. It would be impossible to believe that anyone would have declined to attend because they had something better to do.  No one would have missed what turned out to be one of the great social events of the century.

Those listening to Jesus' parable in today's gospel must have been asking themselves, "Who wouldn't accept an invitation from a king? Why would anyone refuse to go when it is the king himself requesting their presence?" Even if they hated the king, they would have wanted to show respect out of fear that he would hold it against them and punish them. But, the people in the parable not only refuse to show up, they maltreat and even kill the messengers. They act with no respect and no fear of the king's power, and so the king shows them no mercy. 

Who is the king if not God himself? And, who is invited to this great banquet if not all of humanity, all of us? We realize that it is our Creator - the maker of heaven and earth - who calls each of us to friendship with him. God himself honors each of us by inviting us to share in his very life. Such an invitation should fill us with awe and joy. But, so often, we decline to respond and even refuse to show up. For some unfathomable reason throughout all the world, God's invitation to know, love and serve him goes without a response or with an outright rejection.

Nonetheless, for a reason which is even more mysterious, God never tires of extending the invitation to us. As many times as we may refuse him, he turns back to us with another opportunity to fill ourselves with the riches of his banquet. Like the king in the parable, he will have his ballroom filled. One of the great saints of the Church, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, once wrote that God pursues us with intense love and devotion as if we were his god. The greatest example of this is the cross. God did not spare his own Son in his pursuit of us. And so we can be sure that God will not spare anything else to draw us into the life he has prepared for us in heaven.

Not only must we accept God's invitation for ourselves, but we must help God to extend that invitation to others. We are here today because we have said "yes". We have experienced the sumptuous banquet of God's life and love and have come back for seconds. Yet, so many in our world are unaware of the invitation which God has extended to them. They are busy with other concerns which seem more pressing. All the while, they are feeling the emptiness and pangs of a hunger they cannot identify. Their lives lack purpose and meaning, and they don't know what to do about it. We have the answer. We know what it is they are longing for because we have tasted God's goodness. For us not to tell them about the peace and joy we have found at the banquet of God's Word and at the table of the Eucharist would be like refusing food to someone who is starving. We must never fail to speak to everyone we meet about the hope and the peace we have discovered by saying "yes" to God's invitation to friendship with him.

In God's vast and infinite love, he has spread a rich banquet before us. For over two thousand years, saints have found inspiration and sinners forgiveness around this table. As we approach Jesus in the Eucharist, we cannot forget those who have failed to respond or have rejected God's love for some unknown reason. As we pray for ourselves that we never be separated from Christ, we must also pray for those who have yet to respond that they will say "yes" so that this banquet place may be full to honor God's Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Thoughts. Words. Deeds.

What thoughts have been crossing your mind lately?

Are you thinking about everything you need to do once you get home? Are you worrying about a situation at work or about completing a difficult homework assignment? Are you wondering how your favorite sports team will do this season? Or is the last song you heard on the radio playing in your head?

Wherever your mind may be wandering, I would ask you to gather your thoughts and listen to the following quote from Frank Outlaw:

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character for it becomes your destiny.

It is true that we have no control over what ideas float up from our subconscious into our consciousness. However, we can decide which thoughts we will give attention to and which we will dismiss. And we can be sure that whatever thoughts we choose to indulge will affect what choices we make, how we behave and, ultimately, what type of people we become.

For instance, consider the parable that Jesus tells us in today’s gospel. What thoughts were in the minds of the people who took control of the vineyard from the owner and then killed his son? Perhaps they harbored resentment against the owner. Why should he get the produce from the vineyard when they had been the ones laboring all summer? Perhaps they indulged envious thoughts, wishing they could have the vineyard all to themselves. Soon the greedy and malicious thoughts that they chose to mull over moved them to steal and, then, to murder.

What thoughts are we allowing to consume us? How are we behaving as a result? What kind of people are we becoming because of the choices we make? And, is there anything we can do about it?

As spiritual people, the first step we must take is to become aware of what we are thinking. Rather than allow ourselves to be carried away by the images and ideas that pop into our heads, we should take a step back and ask ourselves: Are these the type of thoughts I want to be filling my imagination with? Are there more wholesome and honorable thoughts that I can be focusing on? We can discipline our thoughts in much the same way as we discipline our body. Just as we make conscious choices about what we will eat and how much we will exercise, we can make conscious choices about what ideas deserve our attention and what thoughts we will push out of our minds because they will do us no good.

Consider this example. Most of us know someone who gets on our nerves. When thinking about this person, we could focus on his negative qualities and how much he irks us. We could daydream about how much we would like to see something bad happen to him. What would be the result of such thinking? Most likely, it will leave us feeling irritated and surly. If we stay in that state of mind, we will eventually act out by snapping at someone or saying something cruel.

However, what if we were to change our thinking? What if, instead of focusing on the negative qualities of the person who irritates us, we focused on his good qualities instead? For instance, we might say to ourselves: “Though Tom gets under my skin, he really is a hard worker.” Or, instead of concentrating on how the person’s behavior affects us, we might think to ourselves: “I wonder what is going on in Tom’s life to make him so angry all the time.” Everyone is struggling with problems that we have no idea about. By simply changing our thinking, we can eventually replace our hostility toward that person with compassion and understanding.

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul gives us another example of how we can replace negative thoughts with positive ones. He writes: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”

Much of our attention is given to worry. Our imagination conjures up every threat that is looming on the horizon and we fear that we will not be prepared when the worst happens. Indulging these worries only leaves us feeling anxious and afraid.

What does Saint Paul tell us to do instead? He tells us to replace our worry with gratitude. When I begin to worry about whether I have enough, I should reflect on how much God has given me already. When I begin to wonder whether I have what it takes to complete a project at school or at work, I should be thankful about how much I have already accomplished in my life. When I fear that I will never be able to conquer my bad habits, I can concentrate on God’s promise to always be with me and provide me with the strength I need. By focusing my attention on God and his power, I will not fall into the temptation of worrying that I have to face my difficulties alone. Making that simple choice to think about God and His goodness rather than on the negative situations in my life will help me live with less fear and more confidence.

Saint Paul goes on to tell us: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” A good first step to begin disciplining our thinking would be to go home and memorize these words. Then, when we are tempted to let our imagination carry us away, we can call this verse to mind and bring our attention to the things that matter. And if we think about what is true, honorable, just, pure and gracious, our actions will become true, honorable and just and we will find that we have become lovely, pure and gracious people.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Our Life Is On Loan To Us

Have you ever had someone entrust something precious to you? It could be a friend who asked you to watch his house while he was away on a trip, someone who let you borrow her car or a family member who lent you jewelry for a party you were going to.

How did you treat those precious articles which were entrusted to your care? Were you not even more careful with them than you would have been with your own property? When your friend came back from vacation, did you not make sure the house was even cleaner than when he left and the refrigerator was restocked with food? When you returned the car, did you not make sure it had a full tank of gas? And when you were done wearing the jewelry that you borrowed, did you not make sure to return it as soon as possible?

What would have happened if we did not take care of the things people lent us? What if the friend came home to find his house in disarray and furniture broken? What if we returned the car with dents in the fender and the gas needle on empty? What if we kept the expensive jewelry rather than return it? We would be showing our family and friends that we are not trustworthy. Not only would we ruin any possibility of being able to borrow those items again, but we would be damaging our relationships with those who are close to us. Our actions would show that we do not really value their friendship and have no respect for their property.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of some men who were given something precious to take care of - a vineyard. Jesus goes into great detail describing the lengths to which the owner went to build the vineyard - not only planting the vines but putting a hedge around it, digging out a wine press and building a tower. However, those he lent it to did not show as much care. Rather than appreciate that they were simply managing it until the owner returned, they began to see the vineyard as their own property. They believed they had a right to the produce and did not have to share anything with the one who sacrificed to build the vineyard in the first place. Even worse, they killed all those who came to claim the vineyard and its produce from them. The actions of the tenants were a  terrible insult to the landowner.

Jesus uses the parable to teach the religious leaders of His day a lesson. God had given them authority to teach the people the Law and to lead them in the ways of righteousness. However, they used that authority to create comfortable lives for themselves, to take advantage of others and to secure positions of power. Rather than serve the people, they served themselves. Now Jesus warns them that, unless they change, their authority will be taken away from them.

Jesus’ parable is not only meant for the religious leaders of His day, but for us who gather here to worship. What can we take away from His words? What has God entrusted to our care and how does He expect us to put it to use?

One gift we have all received from God is the gift of faith. We are here today because we believe. We have had an experience of the Heavenly Father’s love for us and His action in our lives. Faith is a pure gift. There is nothing we can do to earn it. All we can do is receive it with gratitude. However, this gift of faith is not given to us only so that we can have a comfortable life. Rather, it is given to us to share with others.

There are many in this world, including our family and friends, who do not have the light of faith to guide them. Rather than trust in God, they are consumed with fear and worry. Without the word of God to guide them, they are constantly making poor choices that ruin their relationships and their health. When they realize that they need to make a change in their lives, they have no idea whom to turn to for help. They are truly lost.

It is up to us who have this gift of faith to share it with others. We must always be willing to witness to them about what our faith means to us and how Jesus has changed our lives. It does not mean preaching to others about how wrong they are. Rather it is about showing through our kind words and actions that God has the power to change us for the better. It means putting away the fear that we will be judged or made fun of and sharing freely with others the power that comes when we put our lives in God’s hands.

Faith is a gift that God has entrusted to us, and He expects us to use it to help others.

Another gift we have received from our Heavenly Father is this parish community. Have you ever thought about our parish as a gift? We are here in this building today because of the sacrifices of generations of believers who came before us. They are the ones who donated their time to teach catechism. They are the people who sacrificed their savings to build this church brick by brick. We have inherited this beautiful parish from them. It has been entrusted to us to pass on to another generation of believers.

With this in mind we must ask ourselves, is our parish making a real and positive contribution to our neighborhood? Are we working hard to ensure that this vineyard which others have planted will continue to produce good fruit for years to come? Through our sacrifices, prayers and good works, will we be passing on a parish that is even more close knit, more faithful and stronger than the parish our parents entrusted to us? What can we do to make sure that happens?

We could go on and on describing all the gifts we have received from God and how He expects us to put them to use for His glory and for the good of those around us. God has given us the gift of faith and this parish community. He has entrusted them to our care. When He returns to collect them from us, what kind of shape will they be in? Will He find that we have put them to good use or will He find that we have neglected them? Will He find that we worked to serve others or that we used His gifts to make comfortable lives for ourselves? Those are questions we should be asking ourselves everyday if we want God’s continual blessings in our lives and if we want to be able to stand before Him on the day of our judgment secure that we will be returning in good shape what He lent to us.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Who Has The Son Has Everything

A very wealthy man and his son had one passion in life - collecting rare works of fine art. They traveled the world together seeking out art dealers to fill their collection with works by Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse. When they were not traveling, they were at home enjoying all the pieces they had collected.

When the son turned eighteen, he joined the army and was sent to war. Several months later, the father’s worst fears came true when he received the news that his son had been killed in the line of duty. He was distraught and even his vast art collection could not console him.

One day, a knock came to the door. It was a young man dressed in an army uniform and carrying a package. The man explained that he was with the wealthy man’s son when he was killed. In fact, he had risked his life to carry him to safety when he had been wounded. He assured the father that his son died bravely and that the soldier owed his life to him. He told the father how he and his son often talked about their love for art and the works they had collected. Being an amateur painter himself, the young soldier wanted to give the father a gift and handed the package to him. Unwrapping it, the father was delighted with what he saw. It was a painting of his son. He was impressed by how the young soldier had captured his son’s youth and vitality. Counting it as his most prized possession, he hung it over the mantel of his fireplace. Whenever he had visitors to the house, it was the first piece from his collection that he would show them.

Several years later, the father died, and his vast art collection would be sold at auction. Wealthy art collectors came from all over the world to bid on the rare and valuable paintings. However, the bidding was to begin with the painting of the son that the young man had given him.

The auctioneer opened up the bidding, but the room was silent. “The son. Who will bid on the painting of the son?”, the auctioneer asked.  “No one wants that painting!”, one man called out.  “Bring out the Picassos and the Rembrandts!” But the auctioneer insisted that the bidding begin with the man’s most cherished painting. “Will anyone give me one hundred dollars for the painting of the son?”, he asked.

Finally a man who had served the family as a gardener stood up. “I offer fifty dollars for the painting of the son.” The auctioneer looked around the room to see if anyone else would bid on the painting. The room was silent. “Going once, going twice...sold for fifty dollars to the gardener.”

The auctioneer put down his gavel and began to walk away. “Hey, where are you going?”, someone in the crowd shouted out. The auctioneer returned to the podium and explained that the wealthy man in his will left specific instructions for the auction. The whole collection would go to whomever bid on the painting of the son. No other works of art would be auctioned that day. Whoever got the son got everything.

This simple story teaches us a very basic yet profound truth about our life of faith. God the Father has sent us His Beloved Son. In sending us His Son, He has sent us His very self. He has given us all He has to give. And so, when we receive Jesus, we are receiving the Father. When we welcome Jesus into our lives, we are welcoming the Father. And, like the gardener in the story, whoever has the Son, has everything.

However, very often like the tenants in Jesus’ parable, we reject the Son. We do not want to give Him His rightful place at the center of our hearts. Rather, we want to live life on our own terms. We want to be the ones in control of where we go and what we do. We want to go on making believe that our life is our own and that we can do with it whatever we please.

The fact is that our lives are a gift from God. He has a plan for all of us. That plan is more wonderful than anything we could ever imagine for ourselves. When we welcome Jesus into our life, it is transformed. As Saint Paul describes in the second reading, we live with a new sense of peace because an almighty and all-loving God is in control of our lives. We no longer have to fend for ourselves, but we have a Father who will provide for all our needs. When we have the Son, we have everything.

We should never be afraid of welcoming Jesus into our hearts. Because He is love itself, He can never do us any harm. He will not take us anywhere without giving us first the desire to go there, and He will not ask us to do anything without first giving us the strength to do it. Whatever He may ask us to give up, He will replace with something even better. Nothing in this world can match what Christ is able to do for us.

Jesus the Son of God welcomes us here today. He never rejects anyone who comes to Him with faith and sincerity of heart. Let us also welcome Him into our hearts and into our homes. Let us stop resisting Him and stop trying to live life on our own terms. Rather let us open ourselves up to the love that knows no bounds and the life that knows no end. We will quickly learn that when we have Jesus, we have everything.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Stewards Of A Great Treasure

A man was dying. When he sensed that his life on earth was close to its end, he called his oldest son to his bedside. From a bag on the end table, he pulled out a simple wooden box with a carving of a rose on it. He handed it to his son explaining that it had been given to him by his father and that he wanted him now to keep it. He promised his son that, if he took good care of it, the box would change his life. The son wasn't quite sure what his father was talking about, but took the box anyway and brought it home.

In a few weeks, the father died. After the funeral, the son took the box intending to put it on the mantel above the fireplace in his living room. He cleared the pictures off the mantel and placed the box right in the middle. Standing back to look at it, he felt that something wasn't quite right. He noticed that the pictures hanging on the wall really didn't match the box on the mantel. So, he took down all the pictures and rearranged them. Things still didn't seem quite right. So, he decided to rearrange the furniture. He pushed the couch, the love seat and the recliner in different positions around the room until he found an arrangement that matched the box and the pictures on the wall. Looking back on all the work he had done, he thought about his father's words that, if he took good care of the box, it would change his life. He laughed to himself as he thought that, to make room for that little box, he had already changed his whole living room around. He wondered to himself in what other ways that little box which he had come to treasure would change his life.

We have all been given a gift by our God, a gift that will change us if we take good care of it. That gift is the gift of life. Each of us was created by God. Each of us belongs to him. And, God expects each of us to do great things with this gift of life.

Our life is the first gift that God gives us. Everything else God wants to give us depends on it. What good would all the treasures of earth be if we didn't have our life to enjoy it? What good would even faith, hope or love be if we weren't alive to receive them? Before God can give us anything else, he must first give us the gift of life.

That is why, as believers in Christ, we must always work to guarantee a right to life for all people from the time they are conceived until the time of their natural death. We never look at any human being - no matter how sick, no matter how deformed, no matter how needy - as a burden. Rather, we look at each person as a gift, a gift from God. And, if we take care of the most vulnerable among us - if we cherish their lives as a precious gift - it will surely change us for the better. Like the man in the story found out when he put the box in a prominent place in his home, we discover that caring for the lives of the needy will force us to clear away the things which don't really matter, like anxieties about our appearance or our status. It will help us to place the gift of life and the right to life at the center of our families and our society where it belongs.

In today's gospel, the people who are put in charge of the vineyard forget that it doesn't belong to them. They want to keep the vineyard and its produce for themselves. They want to do with it whatever they want without respecting the demands of its true owner. They eventually go so far as to kill the owner's son. They took the gift they were given - the vineyard - and forgot to whom it belonged. Instead of honoring and protecting the gift, they squandered it, and it resulted in their ruin.

Can we see a parallel with today's society? How have we treated the gift of life which has been entrusted to us? How have we taken care of the weak and needy in our society?  Every year on this day - Respect Life Sunday - we ask these hard questions of ourselves and of our country. In an election year, these questions become even more pressing. Once we recognize life as a gift of God and every human life as made in God's own image and likeness, we can no longer fool ourselves that whether the unborn live or die is a personal choice. We can no longer kid ourselves that the lives of the innocent are ours to do with as we please. Otherwise, as a society, we risk the calamity that befell the men in today's gospel.

Each of us knows how precious our own lives are. We treasure the lives of our family members, our children and our friends. We strive to make of our lives something worthwhile and beautiful. And, we want to help enrich the lives of those we love and make our world a better place. Like the man in the story, we have embraced the gift of life, and it has changed us. On this day - Respect Life Sunday - let us renew our commitment to life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Junkie Saint

On this day, seventeen years ago, Pope St John Paul II canonized one of the most unusual saints in Church history.

Saint Mark Ji Tianxiang was a doctor who lived in China during the late 1800’s. Compelled by his faith, he served the poor people of his community free of charge.

However, when he came down with a stomach ailment, he was given opium to soothe the symptoms. Within time, he became addicted to the powerful narcotic. And, for the rest of his life, he would struggle with this addiction.

At the time, not much was known about addiction. It was assumed that those who fell into its grips had weak wills or were simply unwilling to change. Because Saint Mark went to confession every time he got a “fix”, the priest came to believe that he was not sufficiently sorry for his sin and did not have a sincere enough desire to amend his life. Eventually his pastor told him to stop going to confession or to communion until he had finally kicked his habit for good.

A lesser person may have been offended by the priest’s words and given up practicing the faith all together. However, Saint Mark continued to go to Mass regularly even though he couldn’t receive communion. Though he never was freed from his addiction, despite his fervent prayers, he trusted in God’s mercy. Even though the people in his community looked down on him and though he no doubt carried a heavy burden of shame, he continued to believe in God’s love for him.

For thirty years Saint Mark continued to practice his faith without ever receiving the sacraments. Because he could not free himself from his addiction, he believed that his only hope of attaining heaven would be to die as a martyr. So, he began praying that, if God did not see fit to heal him of his addiction, that he would grant him the grace to give his life in witness to the faith.

During the 1890’s, a group of nationalists called “the Fists of Righteous Harmony” or “the Boxers” began a rebellion to drive foreigners out of China. The violent uprising also became a persecution against Christianity which was judged to be a foreign religion. In time, Saint Mark and his family were rounded up and told that they would be beheaded if they did not renounce their faith. Of course, after thirty years of being treated as an outcast, Saint Mark could have easily renounced Christianity. However, he stood firm to the end. His only request to the executioner was that he be killed last so that none of his family would have to die alone.

And so, on June 8, 1900, Saint Mark, an opium addict, joined the rank of martyrs.

The story of Saint Mark Ji Tianxiang teaches us that no one is beyond hope. No matter what cross we may bear in life - even drug addiction - God can make a saint of us. Though he was outcast by his Church and insulted by his fellow Christians, he did not make it an excuse to stop practicing his faith. Though he could never attain sobriety, he did not make it an excuse to stop seeking God and hoping in his mercy. He refused to give up and God rewarded him with sainthood. He was the good son who seemed to be saying “no” to God’s will but, in the end, said “yes” when it mattered most.

All of us have a personal, private struggle. For many of us, that struggle is hidden from others. We are wrestling with God, wanting to do His will but also feeling pulled by other desires. We carry a burden of shame and confusion that often makes us want to run and hide. Though we earnestly want to live our faith, we find ourselves falling so often that we want to give up. We try to put on a happy face so that everyone will think we are fine, but inside we are suffering.

Even though others may not be aware of our struggles, God is aware. He sees right into our soul. He knows us better than anyone ever can and He still loves us. God knows my pain and He knows your pain. It will not surprise or shock our Heavenly Father if we bring our struggles to Him in prayer. In fact, He is longing for us to entrust all our cares to Him so that we can learn to rely on His mercy.

Many times, we avoid going to confession because we think we are confessing the same old sins over and over again. We wonder what good it will do us to confess our sins when we know we will commit them again.

Though it is understandable why we might feel this way, we cannot allow such thinking to keep us from experiencing God’s love and mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is not a bad thing that we keep confessing the same sins over and over again. It means that we have not discovered new ways to sin! And, as long as we are truly sorry and desire to some degree to stop sinning, we have sufficient contrition to be forgiven. Finally, confessing our sins relieves us of the burden of guilt and shame and gives our hearts peace. With time, we will find ourselves becoming free of our destructive habits and making progress in our relationship with Jesus.

No matter how many times we have said “no” to God in the past and no matter how many times we may say “no” to Him in the future, one “yes” can wipe our slate clean and put us back on the path of righteousness. Everyone of us falls from time to time. We become saints not by never falling but by relying on God’s grace to pick us up each time and carry us forward. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

A Second Chance

What would you give for a second chance? What would you do to have a fresh start in which all the mistakes of your past were forgotten? What would it mean to you to have your slate wiped clean and be returned to innocence?

That is exactly what God offers us at the beginning of each day. With the rising of the sun, we have a chance to start over again, to learn from the mistakes of our past and make healthy, holy choices. Every minute of every day, we can turn to Him, ask for forgiveness and rely on Him for the strength to do good. When we repent, God forgives the wrong we have done, picks us up, cleans us off and sets us back on our feet. The fresh start we need is as simple as turning to our Heavenly Father with a sincerely sorrowful heart.

That is the promise of today’s readings.

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God teaches us that He does not want the sinner to die but to live. No matter what choices we have made in the past, no matter what sins we have committed, no matter what may have happened to us as a result, we can find forgiveness in our Heavenly Father. As a good and loving Father, He is not eager to punish us but desires to restore our friendship with Him and to give us all we need to live a full and abundant life.

In today’s gospel, Jesus carries the same message forward in the parable about the two sons. One said “no” but changed his mind and went into the vineyard. The other said “yes” but, then, did not obey his father. The meaning is clear. If we have failed in the past, if we have said “no” to God, we can still change our answer. Today we can decide to say “yes” and change the course of our lives. In fact, Jesus explains that even tax collectors and prostitutes - who were considered the greatest of sinners - were entering the Kingdom of God because they believed in Him. The same is true for us.

If you are looking for that fresh start, if you sincerely desire a new beginning, our Heavenly Father is offering it to you today. Simply turn to Him in your heart and let Him know that you are ready to change. Let Him know how tired and fed up you are with the choices you have made and the consequences of your sinfulness. Ask Him to be the center of your life and real change will begin to happen. Today can be the beginning of a whole new life for you.

The next step to take would be going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God offers confession to us not as a way for us to relive all the sinful choices of our past but as a means for us to be relieved of them. Jesus gave His apostles and those who would follow them the power to forgive sins in His name precisely for this reason. That is why we have understood the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be a “second baptism.” It cleanses us of our guilt and restores the innocence of our baptism. It also heals the wounds that sin has created within us and strengthens us to make good and holy choices going forward. No matter how firm our resolution to change may be, if we do not turn to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are bound to fail. We need the strength that is given to us in this beautiful sacrament to make any real and lasting renewal in our lives.

Our “yes” to God cannot only be a one time event. It is something which we have to renew on a daily basis. That way we can make progress not only in avoiding bad choices but in making good and holy ones. It can be as easy as saying to God, “I say ‘yes’ to you today, Lord.” By calling to mind our commitment every day and several times during the day, we are strengthened in our resolve to follow Jesus.

One great spiritual practice that helps us with this is called the “morning offering”. As soon as we wake up in the morning, we offer the day to God, commit ourselves to giving glory to Him and ask for the strength to make holy choices. Any good prayer book should have a morning offering in it or one can be found online. Along with daily prayer, reflection on Scripture and Mass, it is an indispensable way for us to remain firm in saying “yes” to our Heavenly Father.

Finally, it will happen from time to time that we will fall. We can be dragged down by the people around us or our old habits can return. Even the holiest of people can fail. When that happens, God does not want us wallowing in guilt or, even worse, giving up and returning to our old way of life. Instead, we should turn immediately to Him, ask for forgiveness and go to confession as soon as possible. As Pope Francis says continually, “God never tires of forgiving us”. We may feel frustrated that we are confessing the same sins over and over again, but God understands our weakness and willing offers us the chance to begin again.

Today is a new day filled with possibilities. This can be the day we say “yes” to God and experience all the graces and blessings He has to offer us. No matter how we may have responded in the past, no matter how often we may have said “no” to all that God was offering us, today can be the day all that changes. Today can be the day we say “yes”. And if we do say “yes” not only with our lips but with the choices we make, we can be sure that our lives will never be the same.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A New Start

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 Ezekiel, 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.