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.

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time C

There is an important theological concept that you many of you I am sure are aware of.  It is called “Already, but not yet.”  What it means is that we already have all we need to make the kingdom of God a reality.  “Already” we have been redeemed and forgiven.  We have been cherished and loved by a God who suffered and died for us.  We have known ultimate love so there is nothing that stands in the way of our capability of making the kingdom of God alive in our midst.

On the other hand, “not yet” refers to the fact that we fail to appropriate all of the love and grace that is given to us at baptism.  We make choices contrary to the Gospel and this inevitably results in our failure to live in a society governed by divine justice and love.  Our sins are the cause of our failure to build the kingdom.

St. Paul’s bold statement to the Galatians is a powerful example of the “already, but not yet.”  He claims that in Christ Jesus, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female.”  Paul takes the opposite poles of his world and dares to say that in the immense love of Christ, they are brought together.  The Jews as the chosen people defined themselves specifically as being different than the Pagan Greeks.  What larger gap in life could there be other than slave or free?  And while the difference between men and women remains formidable, its intensity is not close to ancient times when women had neither rights nor status.  Yet, Paul was convinced that the love of Christ and his death and resurrection were enough to bridge the widest of chasms.  And surely we can dare to say that because of the love of God there is no Jew or Greek or slave or free person, male and female.  Because of the love of God there is no gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor.   That in the essence of the promise of the already, that we may see everything through eyes of Jesus.

Then sometimes, like this past week in Orlando, the “not yet” hits you like a punch to the gut.  And we recognize how far we are from the kingdom of God – that our differences have not melted away in love.  Indeed, when we gather among like, whether it is gays and lesbians in a nightclub, or one year ago, African-Americans at a bible study at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston, there is danger.  Even some who are doing this very act, going to mass, risked their lives this morning in Syria, Nigeria and Pakistan.  And when an entire great religion stands accused due to the actions of their worst members, we are far from the promised land.  We are simply more vulnerable when an unholy alliance of hate, bigotry and violence threatens to terminate anything that seems different or nonconforming.  Then we are in the very throes of the darkness of the “not yet,” far from the vision St. Paul promised.

I hope no one goes home today and thinks that Fr. Bob took a strong stance against hate today. We are all against that kind of hatred.  But ee must look at ourselves.  What we can do to ensure that we do not contribute to the kind of thinking we deplore?  For if the word “them” is in our vocabulary, we are not one in Christ Jesus.  If we dismiss or dislike people for the way they dress, or their politics or for their status in life, we are denying the basic principle that every person is endowed with the overwhelming dignity of God.  We may stop far short of hate in our attitudes and judgments, but we are still resisting being one in Christ Jesus.  We must change ourselves if we are to change the world, for I will not give up on the already.

I will not give up on the already because I will not give up on Jesus Christ, the one whom they pierced as was prophesized by Isaiah.  I understand now what the apostles could not have grasped at the time, why the Messiah “must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”  For if we are all to be one in Christ, his life had to reach all of our lives. There could be no pain where his suffering could not be felt, no darkness where his light could not penetrate.  So that in the horror of a nightclub in Florida, or in the midst of a bible study erupting in gunfire or in the most broken moments of our life, the suffering face of Christ on the cross comes to us as someone who has known and shared in our tears.  Why did he suffer and die like he did?  So that no person or place would be beyond his presence. No circumstance would be beyond his love.  He still have the power to bring us together.  I still believe in power of the “already” because I believe in Christ Jesus.

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Do you think that God keeps score?  I want to get back to that question.  But first, let’s get into this Gospel which I must admit is a little uncomfortable for me.  It might be the public display of affection for Jesus or the woman’s outlandish and very physical encounter with Christ, anointing his feet and wiping his feet with her hair.  All of that seems pretty discomforting especially given that it is being done to the Lord.  Besides, if you were giving a dinner party, who would want that scene to break out?

But that is not what is disquieting to the Pharisee who has invited Jesus over for dinner.  He is disturbed that Jesus allows himself to be touched by a sinful woman.  He can only conclude that if Jesus were really a prophet he would know better; a true Rabbi would not allow himself to be in this position.  Of course, Jesus knows exactly who this woman is and how sinful she has been.  It is the reason he allows it.  He can sense her need for change, for conversion and he will not deprive her of a moment that is full of grace.

You see the encounter of the sinful woman and Jesus is the encounter between great need and greater mercy.  Her past has given her a hunger to be restored, made whole and holy.  In light of all that Jesus is and offers, she cannot contain herself like a thirsting woman coming to a fresh oasis, she needs to drink in all that she can.  This is the essence of our relationship with Christ – to allow our need to be met by his mercy.   Every encounter with Christ should be like the sinful woman’s encounter – love and gratefulness with abandon.

I asked at the beginning, does God keep score.  Perhaps God does, but not in the way we expect.  We imagine God carefully taking note of our behavior – you were bad on Tuesday, good on Thursday and a disaster on Friday.  That is not how God keep score.  Yet, Christ does contrast the over the top greeting of the sinful woman with the cold greeting of his host who neglects the social rules of the time – neglecting to offer Jesus a drink or water to wash his feet from the pounding of those hard, dusty roads.  If God is keeping track, it is only of the question of who has loved the most.

To be honest, sometimes I love God more like the Pharisee than the sinful woman.  I want the relationship on my turf and on my terms.  I carefully select what I want to share or need forgiveness for.  I ask for what I need this day, for what I expect and what I want.  That is a lot of “I” in my prayer.  St. Paul said in the second reading it.  “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”  I must make space for God by making less allowance for me.

If we were really praying as we should, we would all pray like the forgiven woman.  Fully aware of our need, thirsting for mercy and overwhelmed by the love Christ offers us.  But my problem is I usually pray on my porch facing Union Street and I am not sure that my writhing on the ground in ecstasy is really good for the parish. It might cause accidents and I would feel badly because they have done such a great job working on the road. So I have started to do this instead.  I try toward the end of my prayer to empty my mind of my stuff –whatever I need or expect and simply ask the Lord to fill me up. Fill me with the light you want me to have for that will dispel any darkness that I face.  Fill me with the grace you want for me, for that will ensure that your will and not mine is done.  Fill me with your love, and I can bring all the people I meet that day to your beauty.  Christ fill me in such a way that those who see me really see you.  Lord Jesus, fil me.