23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time B

In Mark’s Gospel, miracles are often hard work.  That is not the case in other Gospels such as John’s where it appears Jesus’ mere thought can heal someone.  But in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is physical; he gets into the mud, he touches and transforms.  The difference is like the two stories of creation in Genesis.  In the first, the Lord speaks and light appears while in the second God makes mud and breathes into the man to create Adam.  Mark’s Jesus is more evocative of the second story and the result is a portrait of Jesus that is personal and intimate as in the tale we hear today.

Jesus is moving through gentile territory but the people are still aware of his power.  They bring before him a man who is deaf and suffers from a speech impediment.  Jesus takes him aside, away from the preening crowd, puts his fingers in his ears, spits and touches the man tongue and cries out “Ephphatha!” which means “Be opened.”  It is an interesting word choice and the fact that it is preserved in the Aramaic of Jesus means it must have seemed terribly important to his followers.  It is even a part of the baptismal rite when the child’s ears and mouth are crossed as we pray the Lord will touch the child’s ears to hear his word and his mouth to proclaim his faith.  That is how we are opened.

Be open.  That is pretty good advice for our Church, our nation and ourselves.  For its opposite, to be closed is a curse.  Some of the saddest people I know have the smallest, most closed worlds.  Their life is about surviving, not thriving, and the only measure of success is to go from one harrowing day to the next harrowing day.  They spend their time consumed with the fears and they isolate to preserve themselves from further disappointment.  It is as if they live in a crouch, limiting their field of vision and shortening their horizon.  When you stand up again, all that has changed.  We can see further and include more people.  That is the life of Ephphatha.

So I challenge you to follow the Lord’s command to be open.  Recently I was talking to Kris Rooney, and I mentioned this is the third crisis of the Church since I became a priest.  She asked me what I did the first two times and I said, “I put on 40 pounds.”  This time I would like to try something new.  I want to be open.  I want to check in on more people, encourage them and laugh with them. I want to be a better friend and not allow those quiet sighs of others go unnoticed.  How can you be more open? During this season of creation, can we immerse ourselves in the beauty of God’s creation and see our stewardship as gift?  Advocate for a more open politics of civility where one can disagree but not be shouted down; an open politics that includes everyone.  And let us pray for a new church, open to the sense of the faithful.  Most importantly, each of us can be more open –we can be more hopeful and shrug off the shroud of cynicism.  We can be a better friend and become more concerned with the joys, concerns and struggles and hopes of one another.  We can expand our definition of neighbor to include all.  We can simply love more willingly and urgently.

But don’t forget that Ephphatha is a hard working miracle.  Jesus had to groan as he said the word.  When we are opened and our ears are unplugged and our tongues loosened, we will hear the cry of the poor and know our responsibility to speak a word of justice for them.  We will accompany people in their lives, including their sorrows.  We will be more exposed standing than we would be crouching.  But we have no choice if we are to be a disciple of Jesus Christ for he was always open.  Those arms raised in welcoming to sinner and friend are the same arms extended on the cross.  They are how we are to meet the world.  And it is in those moments that we ultimately are open to beauty.  .  We were baptized for this.  We were made for this.  Ephphatha – Be Open.

Advertisements

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time B
Jesus answers the question what defiles us. What makes something designed to be good to produce something bad and sometimes even rotten? How does it happen with our bodies, the Law or the church? I have been spending a lot of time thinking about that question in the last couple of weeks as the crisis in our church had deepened. However complicit I might be as a member of the clergy, I believe I share your anger and frustration. And those feelings are not abstract or theoretical. They are close, personal and intimate. It feels like when you have been hurt by someone or something you love. And there is nothing that wounds quite as deeply than being hurt by love. It is a different experience when it is love. We feel a sense of betrayal. We recognize the potential and all the good that has occurred and it makes the pain more acute, more shocking. And what we love is meant to represent holiness, the highest good, it is even more horrifying.
What has been of comfort to me though are the readings we have heard over the last few weeks. They seem to be speaking directly to our current situation. But perhaps that is always how the word of God works, hitting us at sharp angles when we need it most. Jesus as a pious Jew knew the glory of religion of course, but was just as aware of its pitfalls. The scribes and Pharisees point out that the followers of Jesus are not strictly observing the “tradition of the elders.” But Jesus knew the law was meant to reflect what was happening interiorly. When the emphasis is on the external, people care more about appearance and perception than a conversion of heart. After all, you could keep every rule and still be mired in the muck that defiles.
It reminds me of the church’s problems. I don’t think our leaders who failed by and large were evil men protecting and promoting evil people. But they were concerned about buttressing the status and structure of the church more than protecting those who were grievously abused. George Weigel wrote a telling article reminding us that this is not a new crisis in the church; it is the only crisis the church ever faces. It happens whenever the church focuses on itself and not on Jesus Christ. The church is meant to be the vessel of Christ, not the object of faith. Then the church is like the Pharisee who can get everything “right” and fail in love and justice.
There are times when I wonder whether we should even bother being an evangelizing parish. How can we share the good news when all we ever hear is bad news? But we are baptized. Within each of us is an instilled hope and an ever present light. I believe this is the beginning of the new evangelization. You see, the enemy of evangelization is not bad headlines, but maintenance. When the church is turned inward, concerned more about its place than its mission, it becomes defensive, isolated and arrogant. But that church has failed. What if we were stripped of our power and pretense – what would be left? Just the works of mercy, the “pure religion” St. James speaks of that takes care of widows and orphans, the most vulnerable. What would be left? The word of God that still has the ability to sear us and the sacraments where Jesus still comes to us. What would be left? Nothing but the Gospel, nothing but Christ. It would be a new church.
Dream with me of this new church. What if we did not talk about suffering, but were willing to suffer? What if we did not just offer penance, but were penitential? What if we did not just preach mercy, but begged for it? What if we surrendered our status but never surrendered an inch on justice? What if we welcomed survivors, listened to them and let them show us a new way? What if the shepherds trusted the sheep and the sheep could in turn trust the shepherds? What if we were truly radical, meaning rooted, only in the Gospel and what if our only measure of success was how faithful we were to the Gospel? What if this Church was truly poor, truly holy, truly open and truly Christ’s?
To echo the words of Bishop Scharfenberger, don’t give up. As we always do with our loved ones who have hurt us, don’t give up. Remember and celebrate all the good we do, still support the work that changes lives every day and makes Christ present in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Don’t give up, but help transform us. Join us on September 13th as we host listening sessions and share suggestions as to what we should do now. Don’t give up, but be the reason we change. Make us stronger. Make us accountable. Make us better.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
This is the fourth part of my homily series on the Eucharist. The Bread of Life discourse continues for a fifth week, but my reflection next week will be restricted to going to mass and playing golf in Canada. What is left is to ask why the Eucharist so powerful that it can fill our hungers.
I started listing to the cast recording of the musical “Hamilton” and as tends to happen with “Hamilton,” I have become a little obsessed. And there is no better song than “Satisfied” which details the thought that Alexander Hamilton would never achieve satisfaction and it serves as a sub-theme throughout the musical. For all his endeavors, his writing, his success and his astounding career, there was never a moment when he knew contentment. But that is not unique to him. It is really the human condition. We have tremendous energy surging in us, we are roiled in energy. It is true clearly of the young but also true of those who older who tell me that what they regret about physical limitation is that they cannot do more. We will never be satisfied.
It is due to the astounding human capacity – one so great that even God could inhabit humanity. It seems there is no end to our ability to wonder, imagine, change and hope. This energy separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Actually, there is too much energy, far more than we need to eat, walk and breathe and how we spend that energy will define the happiness of our life.
Ron Rolheiser speaks brilliantly about all this in his great book The Holy Longing. He also makes this point: what is the opposite of disease? Not health, but ease. (I know, I cannot believe I had never noticed that before either.)
Dis-ease is not a new problem created by information overload and new technology. It is ancient. Indeed, it is original. It is dis-ease that caused Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. God gave them just about everything, literally building a paradise for them, and they still wanted more. They reached for the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. They wanted to know what God knows and live God’s life. When God discovered their sin, they hid establishing the pattern we follow today. It is why the sin is original. We either try to be God or flee from God. We either judge people or expect them to be as we perceive them as if we created them. We want people to act in a manner that fits our plan and any deviation is seen as an affront. We are trying to be God, although I imagine God’s expectations are more tempered than ours. Or we give up and simply try to spend our immense energy in any way possible, often as we see, with disastrous results. Being God or fleeing God are the two poles we tend toward. And though we may not live at those poles, most every sin can be plotted somewhere along these paths.
What is the third way to spend our energy between these poles? It must be to be fed by God, the story of the Eucharist. Our creator knows about our energy, knows we were created for wonder. Jesus in a sense came to teach us how to spend the energy in a life-giving and satisfied way. He filled every space provided by human energy and converted it into love.
And Jesus Christ is not done giving. By offering himself continually at the altar, he feeds us with food that continually moves us to the best ways to satisfy those never ending hungers. His food moves us toward compassion and mercy, reconciliation and forgiveness and, above all, love. It is only love’s inexhaustible depth that can match our ever present hunger. We were designed to need God, to need love and Eucharist is the food of love.
My friend Tim once asked me what is my favorite part of mass and I think I disappointed him. I said when I hold the body of Christ and say, “Behold the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are they who are called to the supper of the Lord.” I think he was surprised because there is no “magic” at that moment, and I do a lot of cool stuff at the altar. But that is such a complete statement of what we believe. Behold the Lamb of God who feeds us, gives us hope and joy and peace. Behold the Lamb of God who loves us.
To borrow from next week’s Gospel, the crowd that had first followed him to hear his word, were fed by him, then continued to follow him looking for more food and had asked how they can accomplish the works of God, are alarmed by what Jesus says. That Jesus says they must literally (correct usage) eat his body and drink his blood has left a poor taste in their mouth and they leave him. Soon he is surrounded only by his own disciples and Jesus asks, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter responds for the rest of them, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” In the words of Bishop Scharfenberger “Do not lose hope.” Christ is still asking us to stay, still entrusting the changing of the world and his church to the body of Christ, to be the hope and the difference our world is looking for. He is still feeding us, he is still present and we come to know him in the breaking of the bread.

This was a tough week to be a priest and a tough week to be a Catholic with the repercussions of the McCarrick scandal and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report. And I hate it when it is a tough week to be a priest because I love what I do and I am sure that you hate it when it is a tough week to be a Catholic because you love your faith. But we need to look at stark reality.
As for the situation in Pennsylvania, for me it was both expected and shocking. As someone who has lived with this for such a long time, the numbers as horrifying as they are seem to be comparable to most dioceses, ours included based on the priests who have been removed listed on our website. And it is gratifying that things have improved since the implementation of “Charter for Protection of Children” in 2002.” But it is impossible not to feel the shame of those stories of those who manipulated and violated so many. To feel the horror of what happened to those children. But what really angers me is the failure of leadership. It is embarrassing that at the end of the day, our church acted with no more morals or scruples than Hollywood.
It seems to me there is a crisis in leadership everywhere across the spectrum of our institutions and all boundaries of society. In theory, the leader is the most accountable in an organization for all that happens. In reality, it seems that leadership and power shields people from accountability. That is especially tragic for the church for we should be following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the ultimate leader. Jesus did not exploit the lost sheep; he rescued it, healed it and carried it home. We must have incarnational leaders, who are intimately bound to the people; leaders who as Pope Francis says,know the smell of the sheep, who are on the side of the powerless, the small and the victim.
Bishop Scharfenberger has responded brilliantly with a letter in this week’s bulletin and another we will hear from the pulpit next week and is available on the diocesan website. I am so honored to serve him. He tells us not to lost hope. You are our hope. You will need to lead us, make us accountable and transparent. The Church needs you. Just as we have betrayed the Spirit in sin and the Spirit does not betray us so our Church has betrayed the Spirit that leads and guides it, but the Spirit does not betray the Church. We can still feel it in the Eucharist, in our school which provides delight and hope for so many, in our outreach, our kindness, our charity and our love. Yes, we are bruised and shamed. But God is still present here.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
For the third part of our series on the Eucharist, let us look for see how Eucharist fills our need for justice and is at the goal of our never ending search for joy. But first let’s define these terms.
We all feel the need for justice in our lives. When we are wronged, we want it made right; when we are left out, we want to be included. And knowing we are one body, that sense of justice develops into social justice and is extended to all who are not treated fairly, whose dignity is impugned. Joy of course is that sense that is beyond and greater than happiness which we all know is fleeting. It is a sense of well-being and love that persists despite the circumstances that affect us. In Eucharist, we can have our fill of both.
To delve deeper into John 6 and the Bread of Life discourse, it helps to know we are witnessing that which is a common occurrence throughout John’s Gospel. It is what scholars call the Christological implosion. In other words, when the talk turns to light, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” If you were to say to Jesus, “You speak the truth,” he would correct you and say, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” So it is no surprise that when he is having a conversation about bread, he informs all those listening, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” It is literally all about him, which is o.k. if you are Jesus. But now, he goes even further. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” He will always be with us. He is promising more than to feed us, he is asking us to feed on him. And by that we shall live to eternal life.
That is why we flock to communion when we are broken, or maybe just a little chipped. Here we will know that we are not abandoned or forsaken. Here we are made whole in the love and acceptance of Jesus Christ. Here we are showered with a dignity far greater than we could imagine. Here our sins are forgiven. Here, we have our reconciliation.
That is why at any given hour, in places around the world where Christians are hated, they risk their lives to come to church and receive the bread and wine that heals, that tells them they matter. How much do those who suffer from the oppressions of war, poverty and violence need this medicine in a world that too often turns a blind eye to their needs? How much, a year after Charlottesville, when hatred and bigotry filled the streets of an American city, do we need to be reminded of each person’s inherent and awesome dignity? How much do we need the Eucharist when once again our church is rocked by scandal and a lack of transparency? We need the Eucharist to rise above and rescue our scarred and stumbling church. This is the bread of justice and the wine of equality which tilts our head to a new horizon where all live in peace with God and one another.
To make that new world ours, we must change Eucharist from a noun to a verb. We have to be Eucharist – a bread of life for others to feed on. To be bread for the life of the world. In my life, no one does that as well than my best friends Diana and Fred. They are the Albany Catholic Worker and they have chosen to live in voluntary poverty and in the same neighborhood as those whom God has called them to help. First off, they do a great job of caring for me and I am a handful. But they also take care of their neighbors and those who come to them for help. When they are hungry, they bring food. When they are sick, they bring them to the doctor’s and translate for them. When their neighborhood is imperiled by violence, they stand up. When immigrants need a voice, they speak up. They do it for people who are grateful and ungrateful. But what they really offer is friendship. All this is done in the midst of relationship, not a cold entity providing service, but a friend who sees Christ in the person they aid. After all, a sense of aloneness, that nobody cares, that is the greatest poverty. Fred and Diana put Eucharist into action. They are the bread of justice in the lives of so many.
And that is what we do when we are at our best. My greatest joy in the life is to be Eucharist for others, to be present as Christ is present and to feed whatever hunger I find as Christ would feed them. Isn’t that your greatest joy as well? And I could not do it without the nourishment of communion. Some happiness might come from living for yourself. Joy comes from living for others.
It seems to me that we live on a knife’s edge of selflessness and greed, friendship and alienation, despair and hope just as the world teeters between war and peace, justice and oppression, hate and love. It is the Eucharist that shifts the balance to the truth that ultimately satisfies. It is like a shaft of sunlight piercing clouds and in that light everything takes on a different hue, everything is directed toward beauty. When you approach the altar and receive communion, think of what you are receiving. Come and taste the goodness, the peace, the compassion, the forgiveness, the hope and the love of God. Come and receive Christ Jesus. Come to the sacrament of joy.

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
This is the second of our series on the Eucharist as we dive deeply into the sixth chapter of John. Last week we talked of our hungers and the bold proposition that in the gift of the Eucharist, Jesus has given us something that can satisfy those hungers and answer all our needs. Today, let’s look at two of the most prominent hungers in our life – our hunger to belong and our need to know we are beautiful.
They go closely together because both hungers are deeply connected to our security or more accurately, our insecurities. Belonging calms our great fear of being alone, of suffering isolation and not connecting with others. We need people we can identify as our own, a safe place. And we are always searching to know that we are beautiful, that we matter and thought of as precious.
So let’s start with a story but before I tell it, you have to imagine that I was not always the cool, suave person you see before you now. Let me take you back to eighth grade at Locust Valley Junior High School and the lunch room. The table my friends and I sat at had become too crowded. Now this was not the cool kid table or the jock table. This is the leftover table and it was crowded because almost everyone feels like a leftover in middle school. Something had to be done and there were some pretty obvious solutions – you could rotate who sat at the table or you could divide the group into two tables. Or you could be eighth grade boys and come up with this genius solution: have a vote of everyone at the table to kick out the least popular person. To be fair, I was all for it thinking another kid was going to lose. We unfolded each paper and counted the vote. And I “won”. I was devastated.
The next morning I took my paper bag lunch my Mom had made with a smiley face ironically shining back at me from the “o” in Bob. For some reason, we had these small tables that only fit two people by the window in the cafeteria so I dropped my bag on the table and prepared to have lunch, by myself, for the rest of my life. Then my friend Larry, one of the most popular boys at the table came over, sat down with me and said he would not return to the big table until they asked us both back. We are still best friends and I am the Godfather of his only son.
Table fellowship always matters. You know how much it matters when we try so hard to have our families gather for meals and we keenly feel its absence. It was even more true in Jesus’ time. No one came to the table by accident. Breaking bread with someone meant that you approved and accepted them. And Jesus invited everybody. Some say he was killed for eating with the wrong people – for eating with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. His enemies decried a holy man, a rabbi, should never eat with those of such low morals. But as long as they accepted and approved of him, Jesus accepted and approved them. All these meals culminated at the Last Supper when Jesus promised his apostles and all of us to truly be with all those “who do this in memory of me.”
When we say our Amen, we are saying yes to the invitation of table fellowship with Christ. He wants us to be by our side. We are not alone. We belong. We are not gathered around the altar by accident. And if we belong to God, then we belong anywhere. We belong everywhere.
Our need to belong is closely linked for our need to know we are beautiful. You are a very lucky person if you can wake up every morning look in the mirror and think, “I am really beautiful.” Usually, we come to know that we matter and are precious because those we belong to let us know we are beautiful. Knowing we are beautiful is a tremendous release of a kind of perpetual anxiety. It is the unbinding of our chains. And we come to know it in the Eucharist.
Last week we had Journey #70 and it was terrific (just like the first 69.) For me, the most distinctive aspect of this group is that they were really searching – for God or for some truth about themselves. And I always ask what I think of as a challenging question, “Are you beautiful?” For the most part the boys have never thought of that before and the girls have thought about it way too much. I choose to ask that because so many of our hang ups and disappointments touch the question from our physical beauty to our inner goodness. We have been so well trained to respond to ourselves in a negative manner. But something happens when you are confronted by the love of Jesus Christ. When you see yourself through the eyes of the creator you recognize that you must be beautiful for the creator of all beauty certainly did not fail in you. And once we accept that, once we see ourselves through the eyes of the divine, then we can see with God’s eyes and find the beauty in everything and everyone.
At communion, we come to know ourselves as chosen, desired and indeed irrevocably beautiful. Our Amen is a resounding yes to the stunning dignity we all possess. And that is why the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is so central in our belief. We do not need a merely symbolic representation of belonging. We do not need a ceremony that tells us what it would feel like to think we are beautiful. We need to really belong and really know. And Jesus Christ does not leave us wanting in hunger. He truly appears and makes our dreams a reality. He is really present. We really belong. We really are beautiful.

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time B
This is an exciting day. This will be the first of a four part homily series on the Eucharist. It will not be so much a test of my theology, but of your endurance. The truth is though that I cannot imagine devoting so much time to any subject other than the Eucharist. It is at the center of our life and the center of the life of the church. As a matter of fact, it is primary to the Church. The Church does make the Eucharist as much as the Eucharist makes the Church. It has always been central to my life. When I was discerning priesthood, my wise friend Alissa gave me a book from the German poet Rainer Marie Rilke and he wrote, “Think of what you would die for and then live for it.” Eucharist was my immediate answer. For the next month we will be hearing from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, the memorable bread of life discourse. But the true culmination of this time will be September 22nd at the Auriesville Shrine, when for the first time in over fifty years, we will have a Eucharistic Congress. Gathered around the Bishop, we will celebrate and rejoice that our God comes to us again, that Jesus Christ is truly alive in his body and blood. The Word of God, who took on flesh and lived among humanity now becomes flesh and lives within us. What a marvel. What a blessing.
The Gospel this week follows rather seamlessly from last week’s Gospel from Mark. You may recall that the crowd had approached Jesus despite the late hour and their hunger and Jesus took pity on them “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Similarly, in John 6 Jesus sees a large crowd coming at the time they should be eating. They have understood what Jesus has said earlier, “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. (Mt 4:4).” Their hunger for the truth now outweighs their physical pangs. In a world of confusion, they seek clarity. In a world of hurt, they seek soothing. In a world of violence, they seek peace. Their world is not that much different than ours and their needs mirror ours. Perhaps is it always such in the human condition. Of course this is Jesus, so he does not have to choose one kind of nourishment over another. He will teach them and feed them through a remarkable multiplication of the loaves and fish.
What are you hungering for? How will you be fed in such a way that you will be satisfied as the crowd on the hillside was? I have a theory about sin. There are only a few sins. There are many variations of these sins (believe me, I have heard them) but there are only a few things that truly move us to sin – lust for power, selfishness and greed for example. I think the same thing can be said of our hungers. We can imagine a thousand things we want, but only a few ideas that drive us. Ideas such as beauty and belonging; such as justice and joy. Ultimately, we are all simply hungering for God. The interesting thing about these hungers is that they have a light and a dark side. So great is the need to be fed of these basic needs that we will fill ourselves with whatever is available. So our desire for beauty can lead to exploitation or a true sense of awe of all that God has given. Justice can mean equality for all people, but our desire for revenge is also connected to justice. Our search of joy can lead to trying the next thing endlessly or it can fine true satisfaction in God. As Jesus the bread of life proved, he had answers for those desperate people whom he fed. Through the Eucharist, he is still responding to all our needs and feeding our hunger, but the bread of life always points to the light and the better angels of our nature.
How does Jesus feed us? I had a theology professor whose sister was very ill. Once he asked her, as only a liturgist could do, what do you think about at mass? She said, I take everything I have – my pain and my fear, my blessings and my love, and I plop it on the altar, trusting that the one who took simple gifts of bread and wine and made them into something holy and precious can take my life and transform all my stuff into something holy. What are you hungering for? How can the Eucharist feed it?