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33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time C
This Gospel comes around every three years after election time and I always like to compare the promises of Jesus to those of the lofty ones of the candidates. Jesus promises if you follow him you will be seized, persecuted, put on trial, betrayed by family and killed. Yeah! Vote for Jesus.
You see Jesus’ problem is that he just can’t lie. He knows that if we really follow him we will have to endure what he endured. And what he had to go through was remarkable. He knew the sting of rejection of his hometown. He would share the full revelation of his religion only to be hunted by the leaders of his faith. He preached a message of perfect love and found himself hated for it. Besides, Jesus is now in Jerusalem and upon the horizon there are trials darker still. He is about to face unjust arrest, torture and even crucifixion.
Incredibly, he chose all this. He could have made one definitive, selfish miracle to convince all he was the Son of God, but that would rob of us our freedom. At every step of the way of the cross, he could have summoned a host of angels to attack those bringing him to his death, and they would have succumbed, but that would not prove his love, only his power.
When I think of it, Jesus was tough. That is not a character trait of Jesus I speak of enough. Toughness does not negate the other qualities of mercy, healing and love, but underlies all those traits. They would be impossible without Jesus’ internal fortitude. When you realize all that he endured out of love for us you realize our Lord was one tough dude.
With him at our side, we can be tough too. We have known disappointment, hurt and loss. We too have had to endure divisions in our family and rejection. We are all too aware that forgiveness and peacemaking is not easy. And what Jesus predicted of those who follow him did come true and continues today for people are still being persecuted because of his name. Today, people decided to come to mass as we did, but they risked their lives to do so. And this week, at least a dozen people were killed for believing in Christ.
There is a very telling instruction that Jesus gives his listeners. He says, “Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.” (Yes, I can hear the groans of lawyers throughout the congregation.) He insists that if we are totally reliant on him that will be enough for us.
Last week we had our priest convocation led by Fr. John O’Grady, as scripture scholar and priest of the diocese. He was discussing the word “Gospel,” usually thought of as “good news” but he gave a different tint to it. The word derives from when a king was seeking good news following a battle. So gospel also means victory. We tossed the thought around and decided the ultimate promise is that each of us will have enough victory in our lives. Let’s be clear about the promise of Jesus Christ. It is not that everything will go perfectly once you are baptized. It is not that the more you give to the collection, the more blessings you will receive despite what you might hear in other quarters. It is that we will have enough of the sinewy toughness of Christ to prevail over whatever challenges us.
Jesus speaks of perseverance. The word more commonly used these days is resiliency – the ability to rise up after you have been knocked down, the gift of never giving up. There is nothing I wish I could pray more into our young people or anyone more than resiliency. And Jesus says it is ours for the asking for he will not leave us orphaned, we will always have enough victory to love, bless and forgive. The more we open ourselves to his love, the more we will withstand and overcome that which threatens us, that which haunts us. After all, we follow one tough dude.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Zacchaeus awoke to the large ramble of his house.  He said his morning prayers and began his rituals.  He came to his empty dining room table, gruff with irony.  No one in town had a more lavish or larger table, but everyone had more people around theirs than he did.  Lately, Zacchaeus had ruminated on many ironies or better yet contradictions in his life.  He was a devout Jew but rejected by the Jews as a tax collector for the Roman Empire.  Everyone knew him yet he was almost always alone.  He was a man with money, but without a place in the world.

It was with these heavy thoughts that he plowed into another day of work in the surging, bustling city of Jericho.  Another day sure to be filled with taking from others, financial success and deeper scarring.  He was neither a fair nor a generous man.  The system was set up for him to take advantage and take advantage he did.  The rejection of the citizens made his plunder easier.  His actions sprung from bitterness and bitterness sprung from his actions, driving him further from his own people like repelling magnets.  Yet, he could not quite give up his religion.   He was a Jew.  The story of his people was his story and it created in him an inconvenient longing to be one with the people who uttered the same rich and ancient prayers, celebrated the same holidays and worshipped the one God.  To be a Jew was to be with other Jews.  He knew that, but that river of contradictions kept him from truly belonging.

However, the tough drudgery of the day was disrupted by an almost audible buzz in the air.  A rabbi of great power in word and deed was making his way through town.  He had heard of Jesus in the wide circles he traveled and he was intrigued.  Jesus seemed never to do or say quite what was expected and often was unaccepted.  Perhaps he was on an island too, but whereas Zacchaeus’ island left him alone, judging by the thickening crowd gathering to glimpse Jesus, people were clamoring to be on his island.  Zacchaeus decided to see him; he decided he must see him.

And therein lied the problem.  As the crowd along the road grew to three or four deep, Zacchaeus could not see for he was, to put it mildly, “short in stature.”  He was left with only one foolish option, a sycamore tree up ahead would give him a vantage point to spot Jesus.  He hesitated.  A man of his status and wealth climbing a tree would surely be ridiculed.  But there is a freedom in being despised – no one would think less of him because no one thought anything good about him anyway.  Besides the tree was a kind of refuge from a crowd that did not want him around and who wondered why such a loathed man wanted anything to do with this holy man.

From his perch he observed Jesus, walking with the crowd and they seemed to flow to his rhythm until it suddenly stopped as Jesus quickly conferred and pointed at him!  Zacchaeus realized there could be no better way to make a positive impression on the crowd, to gain more followers, than for Jesus to make fun of the most hated man in town now caught in an embarrassing position.  He braced himself for what was next, the tenuous thread that held his faith together seemed poised to snap.  In no world could he have imagined what Jesus would say next.  “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

If climbing up the tree had been childish, he climbed down like a child, swiftly and with abandon.  Yet, everything changed during his descent.  The chasm between his faith and his life was bridged by one simple gesture.  He knew what it was like to be singled out, but now he was singled in.   And for all his heavy pondering he had failed to realize one thing that Jesus’ words made crystal clear.  If you are believed in, you can change.  Bitterness could turn into charity, fraud to generosity, despair to hope.  And it all happened in a second and it happened because of Jesus. His heart pounded, his vison grew lighter.  This is conversion.  Not even the low roar of the grumble, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner,” would deter him.  H responded, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”  Twelve words from Jesus and his world had changed.  He belonged.

That night, the large table was filled with disciples and sinners and outsiders.  The air was cheered by laughter and wisdom and hope.  The words Jesus said at the base of the tree rang true to his ear.  “”Today salvation has come to this house.”  It certainly had for salvation has a moment and a definition:  salvation is meeting Jesus.

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
That is some prayer the Pharisee says. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.” Can you imagine if the opening prayer was like that? “O God, we thank you that we are not like the rest of humanity – mean, rotten and smelly. Or even like the fourth person in the third pew.” Nobody prays like that, at least I hope no one prays like that. The Pharisee even goes on to brag that he fasts twice a week and pays a tithe on all his income; doing more than the law requires of him. As if God would not already know that! The key to understanding the Pharisee’s prayer is that he, “spoke this prayer to himself.” The Greek, like the English, might mean that he prayed quietly to himself. Or perhaps he was the object of his own prayer, the one who receives the praise and glory because God seems rather ancillary. This prayer is about himself.
So what can we learn from this prayer? I do not think for a moment he lied in the prayer. I am sure he fasted and tithed as he claimed. I am confident he did not commit the sins he named. Certainly, he was glad not to be the tax collector. What is wrong is that it lacked humility. What is wrong is that is lacked need, and that is place for us to reflect for we are not comfortable being needy, to dwell on what we lack. We can name our sinful actions easily enough, but how often do we go to those deeper, darker places as to the motivations of our sins – the anger, hurt and fear that drives us. We are called to put our brokenness before God for our need is the space God uses to enter and change our lives. Once we place our brokenness and pain before the Lord, healing can begin and the light can dispel the darkness, hope emerges from the fear and peace overshadows our turmoil.
Of course we can do the opposite of the Pharisee and list all our ailings and shortcomings to God without any real hope our God can transform them. A litany of woes does little to alleviate the pain unless we trust that our God is a healer of our ills, the bringer of joy into our lives. Allow God to be merciful at mass. As the gifts of bread and wine are transformed into something so perfect as the body and blood of Christ, we can place our brokenness and pain, our failures and shortcomings, what we are not now and what we have never been on the same table and ask God to make these wounds beautiful as well.
That is why the prayer of the Pharisee is perfect. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” It admits the need – “I am a sinner,” but is still reliant and trusting in God’s mercy. As a matter of fact it is the basis of an option for the Act of Contrition. Did you even know there were options? Well it goes “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Just ten short words that is easily memorizable. I would not mind hearing that more often in the sacrament of reconciliation rather than stumbling through and trying to remember such a long prayer. After twenty years, I would like it if did not have to hear people say they are HARDLY sorry for having offended thee.
Instead, let us be as humble as the tax collector and place before the Lord all that is broken with faith in his mercy. For when our great need meets God’s power, we open the door for grace to flood in. So let us close with an Act of Contrition. “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  After a funny parable and an encouraging promise of God’s ability to respond to our needs, that line seems to come out of the blue.  I think it is the most haunting question in the New Testament.  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Why does Jesus ask the question in the context of this story?  It is a great story by the way.  The persistent widow, a woman with no status and power demands a just settlement in a case from a judge, “who neither feared God nor respected any human being.” All she has on her side is the demand of God that widows and the poor be treated fairly.  But that will not budge this wicked judge.  So she simply wears him down, nags him until he gives in.   He explains his relenting, “because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” (Actually, the Greek says she might give him a black eye.  Isn’t that great!)  Of course in comparison, God is anxious to hear our prayers and swiftly answer them.

Perhaps Jesus asks that haunting question because he knows what usually happens.  He knows the widow does not usually get her way. That when power is arrayed against the weak, they lose.  The system really is rigged and often we must surrender. When the wave comes in, we know it is easier to ride it.  And when the breeze stiffens, we can turn our back and walk with it.  We choose the easier, the more convenient.  But that is not the way of faith.

I would say the wind is blowing against us right now, wouldn’t you?  It is true of people of faith, those who love peace and certainly for Catholics.  Our faith is asking us to walk into the wind.  So many, with perfectly understandable reasons, have left.  They still have faith, but they try to go it alone.  The problem is, it does not appear it is meant to work that way.  Look at the first reading.  Moses needed help.   Jesus chose to have help – dim-witted, timid, and slow to comprehend help even.  Yet, he knew he had to show them every loving act for he placed his bet that these disciples would share his story and win the world for him.  He is counting on us to do the same.

Let’s go back the first reading.  Israel sends picked men to battle Amalek, but as always, it is God’s fight so as long as Moses raises his hands, Israel wins the battle.  But when his arms sag, Amalek has the better of the fight.  As a guy who has to raise his arms a lot each hour, I feel for Moses.  But eventually his friends find him a chair and support his arms until Israel routs their ememies .  When the Lord asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I don’t think he is asking if this person or that person will have faith.  I think he wants to know that we will be there for one another to lift wearied arms.  I think he is asking will we go after lost sheep and comfort the hurting and do other holy and inconvenient things.

That is why when I see someone’s faith slipping or fading away, I will never, never, never, never give up.  Just like you never, never, never, never give up on anyone you love.  I think we were made for this moment.  To lock arms and march into the wind.  To be strength for wearied arms and be breath for tired souls.  Then our care for each other will be the faith Jesus finds.

 

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Let me begin with something controversial.  The Yankees have no hope!  Now that might sound a little ridiculous given that they won 105 games in the regular season, clinched like in July and swept the Twins (a team that shrinks to the size of a mustard seed every time they see an interlocking NY.  Gospel allusion!)

But the Yankees have no hope.  They have something most would prefer.  They have got great baseball players.  The reason people like the Yankees’ chances is not something inherent in our souls; they believe because of Judge, Tanaka and Torres.  There is a reasonable expectation that they will succeed.  They have talent and tradition.  I, on the other hand, root for the New York Mets.  We have to have hope for we have so little else.

And that tells a tale.  Yankee fans are optimistic.  Optimism is the reasonable expectation of success.  Sometimes the reasons are clear and convincing.  Even if you like a longshot, you lay out the path of success.  If it takes a hundred strings tied together, you can plot your way to a win.  Now most people prefer optimism to hope for good reason.  Let me put it this way:  when you lead a football game by 35 with two minutes remaining, you are optimistic about winning.  If you are down 35, you only have hope.  Now which team would you rather root for?

But, there is a danger in aligning optimism with hope, for cut just one string, and optimism can no longer be sustained.  Optimism is a tender calculus; everything has to go right.  Hope strikes us a different angle.  As a Mets fan, I know there are saner ways to live.  And I have been told countless times to root for another team.  But I could never imagine doing that.  Something beyond reason, something inherent tells me this is who I am.  Hope is like that.

This is the story the prophet Habakkuk tells in the first reading.  Israel is enduring one of its darkest times.  Most have been exiled away from the Promised Land and the remnant that remains are suffering terrible deprivations.  All Habakkuk can see are violence, ruin, misery and discord.  He is crying out to God like an abandoned child. Yet, the Lord promises, “the vision still has its time,  presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;  if it delays, wait for it,  it will surely come, it will not be late.”  There is no justification for optimism at this time.  No reasonable expectation of things improving.  There is only God’s word.  This is hope.

Hope ultimately is a trust that God is good.  That the one who created in goodness will find a way to sustain it.  We who have been chosen and blessed by God are never abandoned; never forgotten.  God whose eye is on the sparrow will always have his gaze upon us.  This was instilled in us at our baptism and renewed in us when we receive the body and blood of the Lord.  We were made for hope, one of the three things that last.  Hope is the doorway to faith and love.  It is who we are.  It cannot be taken away from us by a bad break or an unforeseen circumstance for what belongs to God is forever.

Hope is not something out there to grab. It is already ours for it has already been won.  At Jesus’ darkest time, inundated by violence and ruin and misery he climbed Calvary to his crucifixion, he held onto something outrageous.  He believed that God could even overcome death.  No cheerful optimist could predict that.  Only one who deeply breathed in the faithfulness and goodness of God would risk his life when he did not have to.  And God kept the promise for that is what God does.

Perhaps these are dark times in your life.  Certainly, it is a dark time in the life of the Church and maybe for our world.  We cannot rely on optimism.  We need a light of hope to dispel the shadows.  And it will not disappoint.  It will not fail.  For our hope has a birthday- Easter Sunday; our hope has a name – Jesus Christ and our hope has a destiny –eternal life.  This is what we are made for. This is who we are.  We are Christians- we hope.

 

P.S. I know that the Yankees have had an injury plagued season, and it was remarkable and hopeful.  Please don’t feel the need to write back.

 

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

“You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  Mammon is a funny word.  You tell it is difficult because they did not try to translate it.  It is a Greek word adopted from a similar Hebrew and Aramaic word and then dropped into English as is.  We don’t have a word to express what it means.  It is that which you place your trust in or give allegiance to.  In other words, mammon wants to be treated like God.  That is why Jesus speaks of mammon as a false God.  You have to choose God or mammon.

Sometimes money is depicted as mammon, but that is not quite right.  It is rather a symptom of mammon.  Money demands our attention and its pursuit takes up much of our time.  It is very important, yet when it becomes our main priority, it becomes mammon.  As a matter of fact, the motto on our money, “In God we trust” is telling us to look somewhere else for your security.

We might all have different mammons:  money, loneliness, hurt, failure, but they all coalesce around one word – fear.  We are afraid that we will not have enough.  We are afraid that we cannot provide, protect or defend those we love.  We are afraid that no one will love us back.  We are afraid that we do not hold a place in the world or our lives have no meaning.  So our identity we choose is not as a child of the light, but as a son or daughter of fear.  But “perfect love drives out fear.”  (1John 4:18) The perfect love of God and fear cannot occupy the same space.

You are here because you have chosen God over mammon.  You might be glad to know that I have too.  I pay my bill to Jesus.  But I must admit that I too often leave my tip to mammon.

I think it is important that we name our mammon because it tends to sneak up on us until it predominates in our lives.  You can tell it is your mammon because it is the thing that stops you from sleeping at night, or which wakes you up with a start at let’s say exactly 2:48 in the morning.  My mammon is our parish right now.  It is the consistently lower collections, the empty seats, the faces I used to see all the time and now miss so much.  I can’t stand the idea that perhaps this place might not look the same as it does now.

But when my mind is clear and my prayer is right, I know better.  I know that no fear, no boogey man of my own creation, can match the words that come from the mouth of the Lord.  I know there is nothing so powerful as receiving the body and blood of Jesus.  I know of nothing more beautiful than seeing the reflection of God in every face whenever I have the grace to seek it.  I have been awed by the love shared in support of those who mourn, in the promise of two young people saying yes to a life together, in the baptism of a child given the startling promise to be one with Christ.  I have been saved by the love of the God who become human and gave his life for us and invested it with meaning.  Oh in those moment fear does not dare raise its head and mammon is defeated by the goodness, the holiness and love of God and God’s people.

We have a choice between God and fear, between Christ and mammon.  For the sake of beauty, truth and peace; for the sake of our humanity and our sanity, choose God.

 

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time C

Today I want to talk about two seats.  One is the one you are sitting in.  Jesus suggests that you could be called up to the more prominent place, and perhaps it is out of humility that the front row is always open.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that if I did invite you up here, I would not have that many takers.

Then again, you may already know that you are in a place of honor for you have taken a seat at the table of the Lord.  Right now, you are like an apostle at the Last Supper.  Jesus has desired to share with you his greatest gift.  As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness.”  No, we are invited to, “Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering.”  Isn’t that amazing?  Despite our failings and our sins, despite not being all we could or should be, we receive God.  We are given the body and blood of Christ from which we derive divine forgiveness, the peace of Christ and we are made one with one another and with God.  Indeed, your seat is hallowed; it is the epicenter of salvation.

Now, let me talk about another seat.  It is the empty one closest to you.  It is the person that would experience all these tremendous blessings if only they were here.  For I am convinced, filling that seat would mean clarity to the lost, light for those in darkness and comfort for those in turmoil.  And we need them in that seat for we are not a club for the worthy, but a place where our shared brokenness finds healing.  We welcome all and believe all need what Christ offers here.

So why is that seat empty?   Are they angry about the scandal?  You can assure them they would not be alone in this church, that attending mass is not an endorsement of the Church’s response to the scandals.  I can promise that Bishop Scharfenberger is determined to ensure that our diocese becomes a model of healing and justice.  If they fill that seat, they can be part of the healing.

The second reason the seat might be empty is that people do not feel welcomed.  I hope and think this does not happen too much here.  I always think of what Jesus was like when he spotted a new disciple. Couldn’t you see him push the apostles aside to get to know the new guy?  We should be that welcoming and interested in every new face.  Even if they are sitting in your holy seat and you have to move to the front uncomfortably close to me.

And that seat is empty because some feel they don’t belong or are unwanted.  They feel they do not fit in.  Well, if they do not fit, then we have to get larger.  Perhaps they feel they do not fit into our community economically, or due to race or a lifestyle they lead.  Those seem just the people that Jesus was always attracting or seeking out. This Gospel and so many others reminds us that the seats of honor are set aside for those who feel they do not belong.

And maybe the seat is empty because what happens here is not as important as it once was.  It is not as critical to come not that the kids have grown or priorities have changed.  I can’t tell you what to say to them.  All you can do is share the reason you keep coming back; the sense of peace and community you receive; the blessings of the word of God, the body of Christ and the blood which speaks eloquently of the love that saves us.

We will have some opportunities to share our story.  Our great parish picnic next Sunday will double as an open house where people can learn about we serve Christ and each other in addition to great food and fun. Soon, we will have another bring a friend to mass invitation, not for a specific day but as a reminder to share the good news all the time.  Let us fill that empty seat with a gracious and eager invitation.  Then the sign of peace will not just be something we do at mass. It will be who are and how we worship our God.