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7th Sunday of Easter C
This week we hear some wonderful and indeed startling things from Jesus in the Gospel as we “listen in” on his prayer to the Father. To begin with, Jesus is praying for us with all his soul. We are absolutely central in his life. No parent could pray with more fervency for their children than Jesus does for us. And what he says is remarkable. Jesus prays, “so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you.” Jesus promises to be as close to us as he is with his heavenly Father! “And I have given them the glory you gave me.” Ours is not a diminished grace of Christ for God does not know how to give in half measures. Jesus has given us everything he has received from God. And finally, Jesus says, “Father, they are your gift to me.” Jesus delights in this unruly people of God. He literally glories in his relationship with us.
If we know and understand the depth of God’s love for us, we will not doubt God or ourselves. We are stronger, braver and more joyful than we could ever imagine. This is the best of the good news. But I have a frightening question. What is no one knew about how God loves us? What if the story of God’s grace went silent? For if the story is not shared, how will it transform lives?
That is the point of “Reigniting our Faith,” a $43 million dollar campaign to spark evangelization in the diocese of Albany about which you will be receive mail this week. Our goal is $1.127 million. (If any of you would like to give $1million, we can cover the rest.) When Bishop Scharfenberger proposed this campaign, he wanted something different. He wanted every aspect of it to touch the lives of people and the mission of the Church. Every penny spent must be related to welcoming people and inviting them to a closer relationship with God. Thirty percent of the money raised will go to the diocese for priorities that are important to all of us. We have a great influx of seminarians like our own Nathaniel who will hopefully sustain the Church for years to come, but they are expensive. At the other end of the spectrum, our “retired priests” are doing so much of the work. They deserve a decent pension to honor their service. And there is money set aside for Catholic Schools and faith formation, which is very dear to my heart. We need these funds to develop new ways of growing the faith so that our young people and adults are formed into the best of disciples.
This campaign is different from the Bishop’s Appeal as it funds new priorities. The Bishop’s Appeal supports the ongoing day to day work of the diocese, the people I work with a Vicar for Catholic Faith Formation and Education, who pour out their lives to bring our people closer to Christ. Your contribution to the Bishop’s Appeal allows this critical work to continue.
But I am most excited by the 70% coming to our parish. It will be a game changer. We will update our worship space with our first priority being our struggling sound system. The precious words we heard today do little good if they are not heard. We have enlisted the help of the man who does the sound systems when the Pope comes to the United States. And you can always hear the Pope! A new system will also enable us to have devices to enable the hard of hearing to participate fully in mass. We will also add screens to our church. I do not want everything word uttered written on those screens. We pray enough to screens in our daily lives. But how great would it have been to add an image of The Ascension last Thursday? It would be like adding a new stained glass window every week. We could also place new music up there and have announcement and birthday greetings before and after mass. We do not intend to make our worship space a rock venue. Our goal is to retain the feel of our church while have a look a newer generation might expect.
Another great priority is our school. When I die and am met by St. Peter at the gates of heaven, he will ask me why I should be allowed in. I will say. “Well, I was a priest.” And he will tell me that is not enough. Then I will share the story of our little miracle of our school. We take it seriously when Jesus said “Let the children come to me,” and he never asked if they were rich or poor. You can feel the difference when you walk in the door for our mission is not just to educate, but to love. Our school has a poverty rate of nearly 80%. Your generosity now and in the future ensures these kids will have a safe, loving and faith filled community. And if you can give a $1000 a year over the five year commitment period, you will have the opportunity to adopt a student, who will write you and let you know what is going on in school and their life. You can even meet them for they just don’t need your financial support, they need you.
Also, we want the things that make us feel like family. Wouldn’t it be great to have comfortable spaces to gather, talk about your week, and complain about the homily? Wouldn’t it be great if teens went to our lounge after school rather than Starbucks because it is cheaper and this is where they know they belong? A pavilion could be a great place for our families to meet and maybe even have outdoor weddings. And a van would be great for field trips, service excursions and best of all to provide a ride to church for those who want to be here but can no longer drive. Don’t they deserve that for all they have done for us?
Finally, we can make this word come alive. I have been blessed to hear some of the greatest speakers on our faith and it always moves me and opens a new window on God’s love. If we can bring those people here, it will touch and transform lives. And we have the best staff in the diocese. They should have the training and the professional opportunities to serve you better.
Imagine this gift of faith echoing for generations and new people hearing these words of grace anew. Imagine this light not fading away but dispelling the darkness. Imagine the peace of Christ enveloping his world and the forces of hate and violence forever banished. We can renew the mission. We can reignite our faith.

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6th Sunday of Easter C
There is a rivalry, a contest that spans throughout the Gospels. It is between Jesus Christ and Caesar, the emperor of Rome. The two figures could not be more different, but both desire the same thing – the allegiance and devotion of all the world. If they were introduced as boxers coming into the arena, Caesar would be carried by his followers and the announcer would thunder, “Now entering, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, the dominator, ruler of an empire that stretches from sea to sea, Caesar! And in the other corner, a scrappy young carpenter’s son from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.” It looks like a mismatch. All the power of Caesar is manifest in power, money and armies. So we are left with the question: how did Jesus win?
Jesus and the early church were very intentional in boldly setting up this contrast. He said, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” (Matthew 22:21) believing that all things belong to God. His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday imitates a Roman general coming into a city that he has conquered. (A symbol sure to pique the interest of the Roman authorities.) And we recall Jesus’ warning, “No one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24) The Church insisted that their members know their primary loyalty lies with the Lord and not the Emperor.
Two titles tell the story of the rivalry. The Roman Emperor was known at the Son of God because they proclaimed the previous emperor was elevated to divine status romping among the other pagan gods. This of course gave Caesar greater authority on earth because he would someday have power beyond it. Jesus too claimed to be the Son of God because he actually was, citing that unique relationship with the Father. His status allowed everyone to know and be like God. In the Roman religion, the Emperor became god. In Christ, we were all raised up to God.
The other title is “Prince of Peace.” The Emperor claimed the title because he enforced the “Pax Romana,”the brutal peace that suppressed any challenge to Roman power whether an uprising at the edge of the Empire or a poor Galilean peasant who posed a vague threat. The cross is a taste of the peace of Caesar, a peace only defined by what was best for Rome.
Jesus offers a different kind of peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Not as Caesar offers peace. Jesus peace allows our hearts not to be troubled or afraid. It is the guarantee of God for if we keep his word the Father and the Son “will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” The peace of Christ is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the very spirit that animated Christ and surges within us. This is done for us, not to us. This is the peace of promise, not the threat of violence. This is the peace that allows us to become our best selves; the peace that makes us free; the peace that will last forever. Rome would fall. The peace of Christ never fails. It can never be taken away.
Yet, there are times when I want the peace of Caesar. When I want everyone to bow to my will and simply know it would be better for everyone, especially for me. There are times when I want the elusive peace of Caesar which is control and nothing else will satisfy me. My heart then is always troubled and afraid for any loss of control threatens my peace. I am always anxious because my peace is so vulnerable.
The peace of Christ cedes control to God and we say, “I trust in you.” It reminds us that we are beautiful and strong. It is a promise that we are never alone or forgotten. It is the truest peace of all, knowing we can live forever. In the end, there is only one peace. Let us choose the peace of Christ.

5th Sunday of Easter C
Have you ever thought about what heaven would be like? Have you planned it out in your head? I would have every day be Niska Day (our great community celebration in Niskayuna) with everyone coming together and people calling out my name. The weather would be in the high sixties with just a bit of a breeze. And of course the Mets would win every game. It all sounds perfect except for one thing. If I had my perfect heaven, I would be all alone because it would be nobody else’s idea of perfection. After all, what would poor Rotterdamians and Glenvillites think if every day was Niska Day? And the other priests would be annoyed by all the attention I was getting. Some people like the weather a little hotter than I do. Although if you would like it much hotter, there is an alternative eternal reality you can choose. And if the Mets won every day, Phillies fans would be upset which would be theoretically troubling. In fact, my heaven might be someone else’s hell. When I think of it, my heaven seems a little selfish, which does not seem to be the point of the Jesus project. Maybe heaven is not where you get everything you want. Maybe heaven is where you want everything you get.
My picture of heaven has been greatly altered by the work of the wonderful scripture scholar N.T. Wright who has inspired me to look at heaven in a new way. Our goal is not merely to live a good life and end up somewhere else altogether. No, we are part of the remaking of the new heaven and new earth as we heard in the second reading. Salvation includes transformation of this place for and by God. We hear this in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans where he says “creation is groaning,” awaiting the redemption of God. (Romans 8:22) This view literally grounds us in our reality and our responsibility to “make all things new.” It is the project of tomorrow and the project of today as Jesus has already begun the formation of this new heaven and earth for when Christ came to earth, he “heavened” it up. We now have all the tools we need to make this new world through Christ for his love, mercy and compassion are available to us here. We are working on our salvation now by building the kingdom of God.
So if heaven is not the place where you get everything you want and it is not some far off place, what is it? I think we just heard it in the Gospel. Heaven is the place that is defined by Christ’s final and most compelling command to his apostles. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” In our final disposition, perhaps this is the sole rule of existence. Heaven is the place of selfless and gracious love. Laying down your life in love has brought us the greatest happiness here, and might be the key our ultimate and eternal happiness. In such a place, our arms are extended not to be filled with what we want, but by the embrace of another. In such a place, my personal bliss is the happiness of the other and their joy is my happiness. In such a place, service is not my burden, but my delight. In such a place, Jesus-like love reigns.
And do you know what the best part of thinking about heaven in this way is? I do not have to die to start. I can live more heavenly right now in this place in which God is preparing a new paradise free from death and suffering. The better I love, the more heaven will be familiar and the more people I will have familiarized it to. Let us live now as we ultimately hope to be. Let us love one another as Jesus Christ has loved us.

4th Sunday of Easter C

There is not a lot in this Gospel but what is there matters.  Jesus says his sheep know his voice.  And I imagine sheep should know the voice of their shepherd.   Otherwise, how do they get to where they need to go?  We all know the voices of our shepherds for they have shaped us and made us who we are.  I could never forget the voice of my mother or the sound of her laughter.  Most of us are blessed by the voices of our shepherds, not just parents, but friends, teachers and coaches.  Their voice makes an indelible impression hopefully of caring, generosity and life.  But all voices have an impact and we know all too well that some cut, hurt, bully and bludgeon.  What is the sound of our voice in the world?  How is it heard?

When I was in seminary we had to choose a pastoral assignment and I ended up at Bethlehem House, a home for intellectually disabled adults.  When I met my supervisor Dee, who became a mentor to me, she asked how I had ended up there.  I told her I chose last and she said, “That’s how everyone ends up here.  But you will never regret it.”  She cold not have been more right.  I volunteered there for three years after my course and the members were the gift bearers at my first mass.  I would come after a night at Bethlehem House and ask the other seminarians, who all had hospital assignments, how was their day.  They would say it was o.k.   Then I would ask them, “Did everyone hug you and tell you they loved you?”  They would say no and I would conclude, “I must be much better at my job than you are at yours.”

I have been thinking about Bethlehem House this week because it was inspired by Jean Vanier who passed away this week.  His is a remarkable story. He was born to a devoutly Catholic, prominent Canadian family and his father was Governor General of Canada.  Some who have told his story say it is as if the Kennedy family had brought forth Mother Theresa. He was in the midst of a successful naval career, but felt something was missing.  He sought it by earning his doctorate in Philosophy in France and was teaching at the University of Toronto, but had still not found the answer to his ultimate question.  A French Dominican priest suggested he tour the asylums of France for the disabled people taken in by the government.  He saw people “cared for” in way that animals could not be treated in our day.  He saw basic needs ignored and grown men chained to walls. He could not shake the sound of their screams.  He opened a dilapidated house and lived with Raphael and Phillipe, determined to do something for them.  But he would never use that kind of language again.  He soon realized that this new community was his place of healing.

He called the home L’Arche, for the Ark, that place of salvation.  There are now 147 houses in 35 countries where the abled and disabled live together in community and equality.  A place where people are listened to and cared for, encouraged and told a story of their own beauty they might never have heard.  All members of the community are one family dwelling in God’s goodness.  They witness to each other’s brokenness, find redemption in relationship and healing in community and the abled are as transformed as the disabled.  Jean Vanier was a witness that not only should every life be protected and valued.  He showed every life is beautiful.

I heard him speak once at World Youth Day in Toronto.  I had come to see two future saints, St. John Paul II and St. Jean Vanier.  He spoke about our capacity, barely utilized, to be compassionate, to be healed through love, to be stronger through community.  I told my students whom I brought that I believed everything he said and if he did not say it, I was suspicious of it.  I wondered why the voice of this gentle, thin and elegant man moved me so and then I got it.  In his voice was the timbre of Christ’s voice.  For it was a voice that drew people together, that healed, lifted up and gave a sense of our beauty.  Just as Jesus did.  The voice of Christ may come from many angles, but it strikes only at the place where we know we are loved and are called to love.

Hundreds of people will hear and be shaped by our voice – family, friends, colleagues and parishioners.  It will be heard at work, at the dinner table and in the cafeteria.  We can speak many different ways, but we know they only yearning for one voice – the voice of the good shepherd.  It is the voice that has been breathed deeply into us at baptism, nourished at the table of Eucharist and confirmed in the Holy Spirit. We need only to speak it and the world will be changed.

Jean Vanier was also a prolific author.  My first bool of his was Community and Growth if you want to check it out.

2nd Sunday of Easter

Lent obviously culminates in Easter.  But this Lent, we heard so much of mercy with the stories of the Prodigal Sin and the Woman Caught in Adultery, it seems there is a double culmination with our celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday.  Indeed, the paschal mystery Jesus giving his life on the cross in love and his rising from the dead which proves that mercy can conquer even death.  Mercy is more than kindness or forgiveness or compassion.   Mercy is ultimately a person, Jesus Christ.

The German theologian Walter Kasper wrote a book entitled, The Name of God s Mercy for no other word can better describe the actions of God in this world.  God did not need to create; it was an act of mercy.  God mercifully gave us every beautiful things and adopted Israel to be the example and bearer of divine mercy to the world.  Finally, in Jesus, all the mercy shown in the world was compacted into a nucleus.  When that energy was released in the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection, it would cover all the world and echo through the generations.  Jesus Christ is mercy.

Look at the Gospel for today.  In its short span Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” three times.  It is not a mere greeting; it is a statement of fact.  Jesus is the peace that is with us.  It is the true new world order for love has defeated death.  And God knows we have messed it up, but peace reigns through the mercy of God. We need only live out this promise more vigilantly and wholeheartedly.  He then breathes on the disciples and announces, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  But it is not a random spirit Jesus gives them.  It is His own Spirit that seemed to forgive everything and retain very little.

Yet, less we begin to see mercy as a theological stance or a lifestyle choice, the Gospel gives us the story of doubting Thomas who was absent when the risen Jesus first came through the locked doors.  (I guess Thomas chose a bad time to get the groceries.)  Thomas refuses to believe the good news of the resurrection.  He does not believe for the same reasons we do not believe.  He has been hurt; had his hopes raised and then dashed.  He would not allow himself to believe “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side.”  Jesus handles it well.  I would have been like “So Thomas, you did not believe. Well look at me now.”  Instead, Jesus extends his hands and offers his side.  He shows his vulnerability, the signs of his suffering, even in his glorified state and invites him to not be “unbelieving but believe.”   Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God.”  Then Jesus graces us as well.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”  We will have life in his name.

We should not leave out the other night of the Holy Triduum.  For on the night before he died Jesus performed another act of mercy.  He gave us his body and blood so that we might be transformed into Jesus Christ, the one who is mercy.  And once he breathed on his apostles that gift of his spirit now belongs to the people of God.  We have all we need to fulfill our vocation of mercy.  Mercy is our mission, our greatest aspiration.

We assign many positive attributes to people:  kind, sweet and good. We rarely say, “Hey that Joe is so merciful.”  But think of the most merciful person you know.   Hold them in mind.  Are you inspired when you think of them?  Is thinking of that person making you a better person?  Wouldn’t you want to be the person someone else is thinking of?

Let’s make being merciful a life goal.  It is what we are made for.  Seek mercy out where it may be found; celebrate it when you see it.  When mercy is missing, fill the void and when it is violated, call it out in the name of justice.  Then we can answer the call of Christ. We will be the bastion into which the mercy of God flows.  We will be evidence of the infinite and divine mercy of God.

5th Sunday of Lent C

When they caught the woman “in the very act of committing adultery,” what made the Pharisees think they had the perfect plan to ensnare Jesus?  This is clearly not about the law.  If it had been, they could have enforced their brutal punishment on the spot when they first apprehended her. (By the way, the guy got away scot free.  Not shocking.)   No, this was a trap to get Jesus to deny the Law of Moses right in the Temple, at the heart of what it means to be Jewish.

You see, the Pharisees had been studying Jesus for a long time, following him and asking questions.  They believe they had found his weakness.  He was too merciful.  They knew he had claimed the authority to forgive sins.  They had heard him say to his disciples they should forgive others seventy times seven.  They had witnessed his astonishing and scandalizing fair and open treatment of women.  They had heard stories like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and know that Jesus would choose mercy every time.  Now was their opportunity.  With this woman caught in adultery, they had the clear law on their side, Moses on their side and the Temple on their side.  After all, the Pharisees lived for the law and its enforcement.  They were not interested in making exceptions to the law.  They hated the way Jesus practiced mercy.  It threatened them.

It seems that Jesus had only two choices.  Show mercy and defiantly deny the Law of Moses which he followed and treasured or pick up a stone himself and start hurling.  Of course, it always seems that when Jesus has only two choices, he does the third thing.  So first, he chooses time.  Don’t you wish you had the wisdom when confronted with the overwhelming to choose time as well?  He bends down and writes on the ground as they demand an answer from him.  When he straightens up, he responds with an idea so creative, it reminds us creativity is that the only remedy for violence.  Jesus asks a bloodthirsty, plotting and angry mob to reflect as he challenges them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, with great courage, he gives them time and resumes, all Clint Eastwood like, writing on the ground.  They go “away one by one.”

For my whole life, I had assumed they had left because of their guilt.  But with this reading, I paid attention to the elders leaving first, the wisest and most respected among them.  Maybe there is more than guilt going on here.  Maybe they reflected on and appreciated the mercy they had received in life.  The many times God had forgiven them.  The times their life was spared. The moments they knew the love of God.  Their reflection led to the recognition that mercy is the ultimate law of God.  They understood they could not take a breath without the mercy of God.

Many people have a fine habit of doing an examination of conscience at night.  They look back on their day and think of when they might have sinned, hurt someone or not paid enough attention.  They ask God for forgiveness and go to sleep with a clear conscience.  But I suggest one more strategy for sleeping even better.  Have an examination of mercy.  Consider all the ways that you loved and were loved that day and let it wash over you.  This weekend, I could recall how happy I was to have breakfast with a friend I had not seen for months; I was in awe of a rush of former students anxious to honor our own Melanie Anchukaitis as they sang their hearts out for her at Notre Dame Bishop Gibbons and the contentment in her face.  My examination would include spending time with another friend after the show as we got something to eat.  (The mercy thing is not always good for my diet or my sleep.)  And finally, the wedding of John and Jaclyn, who I have known and treasured for all ten years of their relationship.  I will never forget their heads bowed in prayer, the light in their eyes as they laughed and cried and the hope that radiated from their union.

What will be part of your examination of mercy tonight?  Besides this great homily, what will you marvel at from among God’s gifts?  Did your child say that they loved you?  Did you touch someone and they let you know?  Did someone touch you and you let them know?  Did you look outside and see a color you had never quite seen before?  All these are among a hundred moments of beauty which brush by us each day.

Back to our story though, for it is not quite done.  After everyone has left, Jesus is left alone with the woman and we suddenly remember that he can condemn the woman for Jesus is without sin.  He has the right to exact punishment, but he is full of mercy.  He lets her go saying, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”  He is convinced that the reason she will change is not because of her guilt, or her getting caught or the harrowing experience of nearly dying.  No, it is this act of mercy that will change her life.  Isn’t that what changes our lives as well?  Shouldn’t that be the way we change the lives of others?

4th Sunday of Lent C

What is it about the Prodigal Son that makes it so beloved?   Sure, we want to hear a story of forgiveness and mercy and know that we can always come home again.  But other stories share these same traits.  I think we are attracted to the distinct characters in this perfect parable. We feel we know the forgiving Father, the older brother and of course, the younger, prodigal son.  We identify with them, we root for them and defend our favorites.

I more admire the forgiving Father than identify with him.  I am not sure I would choose to be him for his is a difficult path.  We should all want his patience, mercy, generosity, and compassion even if in the back of our minds perhaps we think he might be a little naïve, or weak or even enabling. Yet, who would not want to be known for that of kindness and humility?

Then there is the older brother.  I identify with him because I am an older brother.  Actually, because I am the older brother.  I doubt my brother would argue that he was the more difficult child to raise.  The older brother is upset by the lavish treatment of his wayward sibling receives and refuses to enter the celebration.  I have heard many people express sympathy for the older brother. (Is the support of the older brother reveal our reservations about the Father?)  Yet, I always point out that there is a great party going on celebrating mercy and love, and the brother is out in the cold.  Ultimately, the story points to his jealousy and arrogance.  I was proud to be with the older brother.  Now I recognize that pride is what I share with him.

The younger son is a mess; just ridiculously bad.  Imagine asking your parents for your share of the inheritance while they are still alive then splitting for a faraway place.  Luke wonderfully says, “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.”  Before I understood what the words even meant, you could sense the emptiness, the waste.  After a famine struck, he hires himself out to take care of pigs and is actually jealous of them.  And that is really funny in a kosher society.  His return is hardly nobler.  He does not come back because he realizes how much his Father loves him.  He returns because he is desperate and hungry.  He even develops a canned 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.”  While he is still a long way off, his Father spots him as if he were looking for him every night, runs out to meet him and cuts off the planned speech.  He insists that he put on the finest robe, a ring on his finger and slaughters a fattened calf to celebrate for his child, “was lost, and has been found.”

I don’t identify with the younger son because I do not want to.  I don’t want to admit to my own darkness, my own sin.  I don’t want to dwell on my selfishness, whom I have hurt and when I have not acted as Christ.  A man once leaving church told me his greatest regret and said, “The greatest thing about our faith is that we can be forgiven for anything.”  When I don’t want to admit that I can be the younger son, I am missing out on the Father’s mercy.  I am away from that loving embrace the Father extends to me.

Pope Francis has a wonderful line.  “We may weary of asking God for mercy, but God never wearies in giving it.”  To know the compassion of God, we must admit of our sins.  So take a while and think of your greatest regret or your worst sin.  Stay with it for a moment…

 

Now picture God running to embrace you.  Not an angry God, not a disappointed Father, a reluctant forgiver, but one anxious to celebrate our return.  Imagine now the peace, the freedom and the love God lavishes upon you.  Know you are forgiven, loved and healed.

On April 12th, I will be sharing the sacrament of Reconciliation for 24 straight hours again.  And all we will be doing is enacting the story of the Prodigal Son by wrestling demons and celebrating the mercy of God.  Come and be forgiven.  Enter the feast.