28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Why was it so important to Jesus that he be thanked by the lepers he cured?  He is obviously upset that only one of the ten, a Samaritan at that, returned to thank him. “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?”  Did he perform the miracle so that he would be thanked?  That would be pretty shallow.  (I never understood when you thank someone for something that they feel compelled to tell you that they did not do it for thanks.  I had not thought so, but it does not change your need to thank them.)  Did he use thanks as a test for faithfulness?  If it were me, I might have been tempted to give the other nine their leprosy back.  (Imagine the other nine lepers on their way home having been cured and then looking down, “Ooops, what is that on my arm.  Darn.”)  But I know the Lord of mercy is better than I am. 

And it cannot be that Jesus is in need of the credit.  He is the all-powerful son of God.  He does not need like we need.  That is sometimes the most challenging aspect of our relationship with God.  We cannot do for God what God does for us.  It is not as if we could say to Jesus, “Thanks.   When you get leprosy, stop by and I will cure you.” 

With our perfect, non-needy God however, the only thing we can do is be grateful.  Thanksgiving puts us in right relationship with God.  Gratefulness completes the circle of mercy where we name how and for what we are thankful for to our God, not for God’s sake but for our own.  We discover the indefinable beauty and generosity of God in thanksgiving.   Our thanks might seem very little compared to God’s blessings, but in a phrase from St. Bernard that I have come to love, “Where everything is given, nothing is lacking.”  At the end of the day, all we can do for God is to give thanks, creatures aware of the blessings of their creator.

And if that is how we are to relate to God, it must mean something about how we relate to one another.  Often this is an uncomfortable position for us.  We often “repair” our debts by paying them back.  If you have me over for dinner, I will have you.  If you do some kindness for me, I do one for you.  That is not thanksgiving.   That is economics – a way to balance the books.  When you give thanks, we admit that we are in debt to the kindness of another.  We are fine at politeness, saying, “Thank you” as a door is held open.  But what of the greatest gifts of our lives?  How are we thankful for the people who have made us who we are?

A priest was giving a talk to the eighth grade Confirmation class on Long Island and he told the story of how a family “saved” a girl from an orphanage in China by adopting her.  I am sure that no malice was meant but my friend’s daughter who had been adopted from China started getting nervous and resenting the fact that she felt all eyes had fallen on her.  Her mother noticed as Moms always notice and texted her in the middle of the session, “I did not save you.  You saved me.”

We need to say thank you for the ones who have transformed our lives.  It can mean even more than saying, “I love you.”  After all, it seems we cannot choose who we love.  It comes upon us like a wave.  But when we thank someone, we choose to do so and we must give a reason for why they are a blessing in our lives.  This Holy Year of Mercy ends on November 20th.  Perhaps we can find occasion by that time to show our gratitude for the ones who have loved us and name the revolution they are in our lives.

And when we do that, undoubtedly, we will be flooded with a spirit of thanksgiving to the God who has given us such astounding gifts in our lives.  In giving thanks, we stand in silent awe of how deeply, completely and ridiculously we have been blessed by our God.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  An astonishing accomplishment for so little faith.  Yet, is the uprooting of mulberry trees and their repositioning in the sea really the superpower we really crave?  It is not as cool or useful as invisibility or flying for instance.  But that said, if that were my superpower I would have used it all the time just to show I could.  I would have planted mulberry trees just to prove I could uproot them and send them to their new home in the ocean.

I say would have because I am not sure that would be a priority for me now.  When you are younger, or when just beginning a new ministry or job which you have been dying to do for years, you do the type of things that establish identity; making sure everyone knows what you are capable of.  Now, those things seem less important to me.  I am more aware of Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees who love to be acknowledged in public (and I am deeply shamed by how many people I waved hello to at the Fall Festival).  I want to experience true humility.

I don’t know where we got the idea that humility meant lying.  For example, if you have made a great meal there is no need to dismiss a compliment or if you have a great singing voice, do not insist that it is nothing special. To do so is not to neglect your gift; it makes nothing of the gift of God that is you.  Instead those are the moments to be aware of how blessed we are. When we honor each other, we are actually acknowledging the Spirit of God within the other.  True humility is not denying our talents and gifts.  True humility is acknowledging who has given us these gifts.  It is defined by St. John the Baptist.  “I must decrease while he [Christ} must increase.”

Now it is more important for me that people hear Christ’s words and not mine. That my best actions are nothing but a witness of the grace Christ gave to me and that my only loving is Christ’s love.  If they see anything else, I have not succeeded.  For ultimately, we are nothing more than a sacrament, a symbol pointing toward the God who allowed us to bless, cherish and love.  To the God who blesses, cherishes and loves us.

For when we lift people up, it is only through the strength of Jesus Christ that we can.  When we console one another and help to heal their wounds, the soothing comes from the heart of Christ.  And when we promise to forgive, to sacrifice and give ourselves in love, it is only possible because we have been forgiven, sacrificed for and given totally in love by the Son if God who died and rose for us.  Let us point our lives to God.  It is only way to show the way to true beauty.

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

This is a curious Gospel because unlike most parables like the Good Samaritan, the protagonist is not a heroic figure.  In fact, he is a fairly pathetic one. The dishonest steward, the name gives away the story, is about to be sacked by his master “for squandering his property.”  He is in desperate straits.  He memorably says, “I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.”  (I think I might adopt that as my motto.)  He has only one plan at his disposal.   He goes back to all the master’s creditors he has dealt with and has them lessen what they owe the Master.  Whether it comes out of the steward’s take or the master’s is unclear.  What is obvious is his motivation – trying to curry favor with the creditors so they will take him in after he is fired.  Remarkably, the Master applauds the dishonest steward because “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  He gets credit for knowing how to play the game.

We all have to play the game to some degree.  We all have to get along, to massage a system or do what is necessary to provide for our families.  Yet, we should not confuse that with what is truly precious:  relationships, peace and the truth.  Pope Francis quotes St. John of the Cross in saying, “In the evening of our life, we will be judged on how we love.”

We need to determine what is mammon (the game) and what is true wealth.    Mammon is often a substitute for money, but Jesus suggests in this Gospel that mammon may take the form of anything we serve other than God.  How do we negotiate the difference between dishonest wealth (mammon) and true wealth (life and love)?  I would suggest that we are not dealing with two different worlds unconnected and unaware of each other.  Instead I believe we are looking at strata that lay over each other, each demanding our attention.  We must always ask ourselves if the mammon is serving true wealth or is true wealth sacrificed in pursuit of the mammon.

Some examples of mammon versus true wealth might help illustrate the point.  I would say that competition is mammon and cooperation is true wealth.  The existence of the other always influences our lives.  In a competitive world, the other’s success is a threat to us.  If they get a better grade and the gaining of a promotion, something has been denied us and we are pitted or angry with the other.  This makes us look at the other as an object, an obstacle rather than a brother or sister.  The true wealth of cooperation is moving forward together as one people brought together by God.  Delighting in one another’s successes and despairing of someone else’s loss rather than the other way around.  True wealth lifts everyone and hopes for their best because those are the very elements of love.

Another example might be the values of popularity versus friendship.  Popularity is often based on the idea of being perceived in the right way.  And if that is your goal, you will make every effort to be thought of as correct, polished and calculated.  But sometimes that is not what true friendship requires; in fact it calls us for us to get into the trenches, become involved intimately and put something at risk in every friendship that we have.  The measure of friendship is not how many “friends” you have on Facebook (WHERE I AM KILLING IT) but who are you willing to sacrifice for, give to or as Jesus defined friendship, who will you lay down your life for.  Friendship is a close and intimate business. It is not for the polished and calculating.

Even our spiritual life can become an arena for mammon and true wealth.  I fall victim to that.  I try to pray a certain amount of time each day.  It is a good goal.  But if something keep me from that goal, even if it is the stuff of ministry, I become extremely frustrated.  That is because even our best aspirations can become mammon and the prayer is in service to my goals and not to the Lord.  If you are frustrated by your prayer life, ask yourself whose expectations are you disappointing?

How can you tell if you are carrying the mantle of mammon or true wealth?  I think freedom is the best way to know.  If you are free to be the self that God called you to be; if you are free to be the best friend you can be; if you are free to love and serve God, then you are basking in true wealth.  And what else will matter, what is worth measuring than how we have befriended, served and loved?  Choose true wealth.  Choose salvation in this life and the world to come.

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

I have a notoriously bad relationship with the Prodigal Son.  He has always rubbed me the wrong way.  It is not so much what he did to his father or how a young man wasted money.  That is a story that has been going on for literally thousands of years.  What I have always resented was the lack of quality in his repentance.  After all, he did not return because he was sorry.  He came home because he way “dying from hunger.”  He did as anyone would when approaching an awkward situation, as you did when you broke curfew – he practiced a speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”  I imagine him the whole way home, saying over and over again, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”

And then the father sees him, his hungering eyes peering to the horizon.  The Father runs towards him and embraces him with a holy hug, a moment of unforgettable reconciliation.  He has been fully welcomed home.  And how does this kid respond?  With same canned speech he had been practicing the whole time.  “Duh, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”  It appears the Father’s love has not moved or changed him at all.

Yet, I am being as judgmental about the quality of his confession as the older brother is about the sins the Prodigal Son committed.  If I do not find him worthy of the Father’s acceptance, than I am electing not to celebrate God’s gift of mercy.   The older brother and I stay outside the party together in our bitterness over the Father’s forgiveness.

Is the Father’s welcome more that the Prodigal Son deserves because of his actions or his desultory repentance?  Absolutely. And that is the point.  There is word for allowing mercy only to those who deserve it – justice.  In order for there to be true mercy, we must extend the cover of God’s grace over those whom we think might still not be worthy of it.

Do you remember the show “Extreme Makeover – Home Edition”?  They would establish this narrative of a family that had gone through trauma after trauma and then all these people would come together and build them a mansion.  My best friend Fred hated the show while his ten year old son loved it.  Fred said to his son, “Who deserves a home?’  His son said, “Everyone.  Now can I please just watch the show?”   Shelter belongs to everyone, worthy or not.  So too does mercy.

Let us be thankful that God gives us more than we deserve.  With all our sins, failings and omissions, God still forgives us, loves us and chooses us for salvation.   While I might be stuck on the justice with the Prodigal Son, I want to be embraced in mercy by the Father despite all my faults.  After all, Christ called us to love our enemy and the reason is fascinating. He remarks that even pagans know how to love those who love them.  Grace allows us to love even those who hate us.

Mercy is not a miserly gift.  We are meant to share it freely as it has been freely given to us.  For us to exercise a ministry of mercy, we must extend ourselves in forgiveness and service to those whom it is difficult to forgive or care for.  September 11th is a day that challenges us to show mercy and forgiveness to those whom have offended deeply.  We all shared a national and indeed worldwide wound that day; for some, that hurt was searingly personal.  Can we forgive? Should we forgive?  Fr. Ken Doyle, and there is no one’s opinion I respect more, in an admittedly controversial column in the Evangelist suggested that the lack of remorse of the terrorists makes it not compulsory to forgive. There may be some things that are unforgiveable.  But that seems to me the reason every war begins.

What I am sure of though is that in your life and mine, there is some unworthy person whom we can forgive, but have not.  There are some we have found beyond the pale, but who can be loved only because we know God loves them.  Think of whom you have not forgiven.  Is the knowledge of God’s mercy in your life, or the prison of holding onto hate when we are called to love, enough for you to cover that person in mercy?  What would a year of mercy mean if we were not able to forgive one person whom we have never forgiven before?

If you can you will know the joy of the Forgiving Father.  As Pope Francis constantly urges priests, look for the smallest reason to forgive and do so.  Search the horizon for the smallest figure taking the most tentative steps towards a home they have forsaken and rush to welcome them and you will be sharing in God’s face.  Forgive the “unforgivable” and it will be like brushing the face of God.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time C


The second reading got my thinking of heaven and an interesting conversation I had with a friend.  She said that the idea of heaven was not that important to her on a day to day basis.  It was not her motivation for doing good or caring for others.  She did not do the good she does in order to get eternal life.  And I have to admit that is probably true for me and many of you.  We tend to do the right thing simply because it is right and doing things well just to get into heaven seems like cheating.  We are more likely to do something for goodness’ sake rather than for heaven’s sake.

I thought why this might be.  First off, when we do things as not motivated by heaven, we can act the same as non-believers.  We can be moved to the right thing just like secular humanists.  It is good because it good.  Secondly, I think hopefully that many of us have moved away from the Santa Claus model of God.  You know, God is making a list, checking it twice with the only difference being that if you are on the naughty list you go straight to hell.  Finally, as we have dwelt on all this holy year, our merciful God is looking to save us, not condemn us so we feel fairly certain that eternal damnation is a longshot.

I would dismiss the notion of heaven as a motivating factor altogether, except that Jesus thought of heaven as very important and we don’t get to dismiss what Jesus found important.  It seemed that heaven was always on his mind.  It is deeply embedded in our prayers and our liturgy. We say it without thinking about it all the time.  “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Think of all the beatitudes, our moral guide, which promise, “Yours is the kingdom of heaven,” and “Your reward will be great in heaven.”  Even in today’s Gospel, people who invite to their home those who cannot repay “will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  You can actually say the Jesus movement is a heaven movement. He spoke about the kingdom to come as the answer and the joy he brought into the world.   Why was heaven so important to Jesus as a motivating force for all of us?

Perhaps because you cannot understand what Jesus did for us without focusing on heaven.  Grace had dripped down from heaven though creation and God’s gifts to humanity.  But something different happened with the incarnation.  The most solid divide in all reality, the wall between heaven and earth, had been burst through.  In the life of Jesus Christ, heaven invaded earth.  Jesus showed us how to live and love in a heavenly and perfect way.  The depth of our capability is revealed, the way to the Father is shown.  The heavenly life of Jesus calls us to a new level of responsibility for ourselves and others.  It lifts our game and our sights.  It is not enough to settle for doing our earthly best.  We are challenged and ready to be heavenly.  As we travel to the light, we can be light for others.  As we prepare for perfect peace, we share the peace we have been given through the promise of eternal life.  And as we seek eternal life, we already possess the spirit of Christ.

For we “have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.” It is not fear and trepidation we approach as we come to judgment.  No, we have approached “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect.”

What traveler sets out without knowing where they are heading?  This journey is not only our destiny, the destiny is our journey.  What a promise!  What joy awaits us!  How can something so beautiful in the future not affect how we see ourselves and others right now?  If this is where what we are inheriting, how precious we must already be.  When we think of ourselves as made for heaven, the peace that is promised becomes our peace right now.  The light we will bask in can be shared with those who live in the darkness of despair.  The perfect justice of heaven will call us to a more just earth.

So let us be like Jesus with heaven on our minds.  And let us be good for heaven’s sake.

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

The parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son are likely the two most famous parables of all, perhaps because they best both encapsulate the mercifulness that Jesus calls us to. The story of the Good Samaritan has been told and resonated with audiences for centuries, and it is easy to see why.

A man is beaten and robbed on the road to Jericho, a dangerous one that he should have never traveled alone. A priest and a Levite see him and pass him on the other side in order to remain ritually pure as they prepare to serve at the Temple. (I remember my first mass 18 years ago back at my home parish and this was the Gospel.  I thought did we have to have the Gospel in which the priest is the bad guy?)  Finally, a Samaritan, the hated enemy of the Jews, treats the victim with tremendous generosity.  He cleans and binds his wounds, puts him on his own animal and takes him to an inn where gives the innkeeper an exorbitant amount of money to care for him with the promise of more if it is needed. Even the self-justifying scribe who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” must admit it is the one who treated a stranger like a brother.

It is a powerful story. It is kind of a perfect story with twists and a strong moral message.  But in a week like this, I wonder if it has lost its meaning.  Does it seem quaint and antiquated?   Is it responsive at all to our era?  This was my forlorn thought as I prayed over the parable in the midst of two more young African-Americans killed tragically.  When I heard of the horror in Dallas where the five officers were murdered, I went out to my porch to pray and immediately I saw a man leaning his entire upper body out of the car to yell at the driver in front of him.  There is so much anger and what people consider a right to be angry for their own reason, by their own lights, uninterrupted by civility or even the rule of law.  It is reflected in our political discourse (and trust me I do not single out any person or party) where the rhetoric grows sharper and more divisive.  The word neighbor is not becoming more inclusive, but is narrowed to the people who look like me, think like me and believe like me.  How can this old story still inspire?  Has it lost its value, its sway in our world?

But a closer look reveals that the parable of the Good Samaritan, still packs a punch, still answers our needs. For it is a story about racism.   How did the Samaritan feel about helping someone who likely hated him; more importantly, how did the Jew feel about a Samaritan saving him?  And it is about authority as the two religious figures pass the victim on the side of the road.  And in the embroiled cultural and governance disputes of Roman occupied first century, it is also clearly a political statement.

I was invited recently for a meeting at the Niskayuna school district about our schools. Someone said that we need to promote tolerance, but a member of the Sikh community said that tolerance is a bare minimum; what we need is love and harmony.  If we give up on the parable of the Good Samaritan, we have given up everything.  We have given up on the idea of the tremendous dignity of every person, that we are truly God’s children and Christ is truly our brother.  We would have given up on the idea that we are not to judge and continually assign blame when we are called to be a people of reconciliation.  We would have given up on the idea that we were commanded by Christ to love one another.  We would have given up on the idea that Jesus told us to do but one thing with to our enemies – to love them.  I will not give up on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

I do not want a namby pamby political correctness where we cannot discuss our ideas and differences, where we cannot truly address what ails our country and neighborhoods. But if we are to heal our discourse and relationships it must begin with three simple words, “I love you.”  Only then can we treat each other as neighbor.  I don’t expect that at the first Presidential debate that Donald and Hillary are going to begin with “I love you.”  But treating each other with respect would be for me a sign of leadership that is desperately needed.  We too must embrace the role of Christian neighbor.  What is it like in someone else’s shoes, be it a cop or a young black male?  How can I learn to respect what I do not understand?  How can we ignore those who are hurting by blaming them?  If we don’t try to understand, we are simply passing by on the other side of the road.

Only love and harmony and understanding can heal us. Only generosity and care for the stranger can make us whole.  Reluctantly, the scribe recognized the Samaritan was neighbor to the victim.  We must follow the command that Jesus gave him.  “Go and do likewise.”

Baccalaureate Mass 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

St. Paul                 speaks about freedom in the second reading and that is a word that is I am sure on a lot of your minds for at this crossroads of life, you are about to come into more freedom.  You will have your own way space and your time to manage.  You will be free of curfews and easily enforced rules.  You are given more responsibility then you ever had before.  And even as your smile grows in excitement at the prospect, so your parents eyes grow wider in concern.

Yet, I imagine no one grows without freedom. We use that newly created space to stretch ourselves, to challenge ourselves and even to make the mistakes we all need to make.  Use this freedom to edge your mind to new horizons.   Learn from the sciences how intricately and carefully God created everything.  Be dazzled at the arts as in word and in the visual arts we dare to fly so close to the beauty of God.  Have your faith challenged – and that will only help it to grow.

You are entering a privileged time of self-discovery. Don’t waste that freedom by copying the foolish behaviors of others just because you can.  It is just another kin of slavery.  Instead, understand what Paul meant when he said, “For freedom Christ set us free.”  Only in freedom, when we can consciously reject all that would distract us, can we finally embark on the mission that was and is always before us – to become whom God made us to be.  Deep in our DNA , God planted within us something of unrepeatable beauty.  Each of us is a unique gift to the world.  No one can love, befriend and care in precisely the way that you do.  Find exactly what makes you you, the power you have within you, that original beauty that is only yours and share it.  Then you will truly be free for you will truly be as God made you to “serve one another through love.”

Use all the tools that are available to you. Pray, for God is constantly whispering a word of confidence and hope.  Go to mass, get involved in campus ministry, and, as I say each year, meet your second favorite priest of all time.  Find your vocation.  There is a difference between ambition, an internal engine that moves you forward and a vocation, the external voice of God leading to where you are needed.  Choose mission over ambition and you will not regret it.  And trust that God who has begun this good work in you will bring it to completion.

You might have noticed that Jesus seemed a little cranky in the Gospel. It is because he has come to an important moment as you have.  He has “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”  From here on in Luke’s Gospel literally every step takes him closer to his destiny.  He is ready to fulfill his mission.  In order to do so, you cannot stay where you were before.  Missions always move forward.  But you don’t leave home behind for there is too much of value.  You bring it with you.  You bring the love of your family, the support of your friends, the prayers of your faith community and a priest who has grown quite fond of you over the years.  This is how you will find beauty.  This is how you will spread the love of God.  This is how you will show the face of Christ.