24th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

The Pharisees really ticked off Jesus.  They made one simple statement.  “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  It is a true statement as we have just heard from Luke, “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus.” It is a loaded statement, but a true one.  But it clearly strikes a nerve in Jesus.  He responds with three parables, a cascading response that does not defend himself from the charge, but explains why he has chosen this path.

First in the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus shows us a divine response.  “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”  God is not happy with a 99% retention rate.  God rescues the lost, not reluctantly, but with great joy, throwing the lamb over his shoulders in glee.  Such is the heavenly reaction to repentance and forgiveness.

The story of the one lost coin of ten reminds us that we can never mourn what we did not have, but we feel particularly the loss of what we once possessed.  When the woman lights her lamp and sweeps the floor and discovers the coin, she exults.  She knows the joy of restoration.  This is the human response to what God has done for us.  She is made whole as are made whole through divine forgiveness.

Then follows the most famous parable.  A younger son demands his inheritance rudely from his father despite his father inconveniently being still alive.  He inevitably squanders his money and comes back mostly because he is starving.  Yet, the Father sees him with compassion, hugs and kisses him and slaughters the fattened calf for great feast.  This exuberant welcome of a truly guilty party is the surest sign of the joy of redemption.

Why does Jesus react so virulently to the simple statement that he welcomes and eats with sinners?  Why this avalanche of a response?  Because for Jesus, welcoming sinners and even having table fellowship with them is at the heart of his mission.  If you don’t get this, you don’t get him.  As the perfect explainer of his Father, he needs people to know that God does not hate or exclude.  God is the forgiver.  God is the welcomer.  The world where one mistake forever severs your connection to God and community is a dark alternative.  It is a cold, bleak world the Pharisees are portraying.

Which brings us to the older brother.  In twenty years of preaching this Gospel, everyone loves the older brother.  And yes, it seems like an appendage to the story of the Prodigal Son, but it might be the point because the older brother is the Pharisee who will not eat with sinners.  He depicts a sad, lonely person whose only purpose is to obey orders, the very symbol of one who thinks the point of life is simply not to sin rather than to love.  He cannot be happy that his brother who once “was dead and has come to life again,” is now safe.  He does not even claim his relationship with his brother, referring to him only as his father’ son.  His desire to separate from his own brother removes him from the redemptive joy of the Father.

The life of the older brother is not the life I want. I want to live in the assurance that I am not one mistake away from banishment from God’s grace.  I want to believe in a God who pursues me, desires me.  I want to be invited to this table of the Lord as I am, a sinner. We have all strayed and come home.  We have known the great embrace of a forgiving father. Sinners, let us gather around the table of the Lord for he eats with and welcomes us.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time C
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This is no one’s favorite Gospel passage. No one has this quote on an inspirational poster in their bedroom. No one has ever chosen this for the Gospel at their wedding. (That would be awkward.) And we should be clear that Jesus does not want us to hate our family. If I am sure of anything, I am sure that Jesus loved his mother.
Yet, when we hear such jarring and harsh language, it is so that everyone gets the point. Jesus wants to be first in our lives. He wants to be the very center of our lives. It is not that he is jealous of others we love, but he knows for us to reach our true and astounding capabilities, we will only be our best when he comes first. Indeed, rather than trying to love God as much as we love our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives, husbands and children. We should love all those God has given us how God has loved us.
This has been brought to mind by the college admissions scandal where wealthy parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their kids into the right school. It made me think of something I have heard often from parents, and I know it comes from a good place, but they say, “I would do anything for my children.” Don’t do anything for your children. Only do what is right and good loving. That is what you owe your children.
Putting Christ first in our lives is the only way to guarantee we love in the best and most effective way possible. There are a few reasons why this is the best way to love. Actually, I am sure there are infinite reasons, but long blogs are boring blogs so we will stick with three.
First, by putting Jesus first you ensure that you will not be lost in love. Lost in love is a fine romantic term, but it is full of danger. We should not be lost in love, but we find who we are in love. When we lose ourselves to someone else and the relationship fails, we have no sense of dignity left. We heap shame and guilt upon ourselves until we feel unvalued and unlovable. Yet, when we begin with the love of Jesus, we bask in a light that never fades. We will still make mistakes and hurt and be hurt, but we will not give up on ourselves for we know that our God never gives up on us. God’s love indeed allows us to attempt repair whatever is broken.
Secondly, putting Jesus first means to cross will always be part of our love. At a time when suffering is discounted and when hurt does not seem compatible with love, we need the cross to remind us that love means suffering from the moment we say yes to love, we say yes to vulnerability and risk a broken heart. Real love, Christ love, understands and accepts this because Jesus understood and accepted it. Jesus did not go to the cross because he failed to love. He suffered because he loved perfectly and fully. It is the promise of our salvation, the witness of love perfect love. And so will our relationships be transformed by the cross when we accept of our suffering and sacrifices as the heart of love for every cross is the pathway of redemption.
And finally, well at least for this blog, putting the love of Jesus Christ first means our love is always good and genuine. Simply giving everyone what they want is not loving. It is indulgent; it is bribery. Real love is concerned about true growth and not taking advantage. Real Christ centered love touches not just the people in relationship, it is a gift to the community. To love as Christ loved is to us the word “No” or share a hard word in true friendship. True love point is not a broad path but a narrow way. It points to God.
We know what real love looks like because we have seen it perfected in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, The way I see it, I could love people in my life with Bob love, and that is not bad. Or I could love them with Christ’s love. Why not give the best?

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Every year when we go on vacation, my friend Fr. Tim and I hear the Gospel and think if we were glad or sad that we did not have to preach.  This Gospel makes me feel like I wish I had left yesterday and not today.  (Actually, this week left me feeling I wish I had become vicar general next week and not this one.)

It is jarring to hear Jesus say, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  Or “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”  And yes, and although the other fifteen times he speaks of peace in the Gospels, he claims to bring peace, it makes it all the more significant when he does not.  It reminds us of the remarkable capacity of Jesus to capture all our feelings for there are times when we righteously do not concede the peace or give in for the sake of unity.  There are times to stand for something or over and against something.

For Jesus, this is that time.  In Lukes’s Gospel, we are on the road to Jerusalem, and already the cross not yet erected on Calvary is casting its shadow.  He knows this will be a turning point in human history.  After the cross, the baptism in which he must be baptized, people will have to decide if that was just the ugly death of a nobody or the redemptive death of the savior.  It simply cannot be both.  It is a decision point for every person, a “for or against” moment; the fire that will shape the world.

Our Church is on fire.  Tis week we are reminded again of the terrible price of abuse, when the culture of preserving power and status appeared to be more important than justice and compassion.  And while many of these claims date back from forty to seventy years ago, and we must remember that everyone under civil and canon law is presumed innocent until proven guilty, it is a testament of how deep the hurt lingers and how tragic are the consequences.  It is call for us to be compassionate healers to all those wounded by abuse both inside and outside our Church.

Jesus speaks of fire as a purification.  Our Church must undergo a purification.  A purifying fire strips away everything until all that is left is the pure element.  The dross disappears for the pure gold to emerge.  What if the Church lost everything but the Eucharist, the word of God, the community and service to our brothers and sisters?  Would that be all bad?  Isn’t that what we started with?

Jesus speaks of a time when households are divided.  For how many of us is that true?  Mine is.  People ask us why we stay and increasingly our answers are more difficult to articulate.  Our answer comes from a deep sense of belonging and love.  It is tied up in what we feel about what we receive from the table and from this sacred word.  It is how we feel about each other and what binds us together.  Jesus refers to fire one other way besides purification – as the Holy Spirit.  It the Spirit of reconciliation, peace, healing and hope.  As each person must entrust themselves to the Holy Spirit, so must our Church travel by the lights of the Hoy Spirit and nothing else.

About a year ago, I started to thank people who are having their children baptized and couples getting married in the church for choosing us, for sticking with this bruised and beautiful Church that still has so much to give and can still bring peace to our struggling world.  But I have yet to thank you.  Thank you for your faithfulness.  Thank you for the hope you represent.  Thank you holding these values and your commitment to this truth.   Thank you for sustaining me with your love and support.  You are the reason this gets better.  You are the sign of the new Church that must emerge.  Thank you for being the face of Christ.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock.”  Isn’t that a beautiful sentiment Jesus shares with us?   Sometimes I just love these sweet, tender and intimate words – like a mother speaking to her children.  And sometimes, when fear increases and darkness approaches, I need these words.  I need them when in Dayton and El Paso there is the tragic confluence of hate and violence – at once mindless and frighteningly purposeful.   I need it when we are reminded of the sins of our Church and our failure to respond adequately, as well as the price we must now pay.  I need it, and we all need it, when the darkness in the world reminds us of our own hurt, of the times we were used and abused, of our loss.  I then NEED to hear from the Lord, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock.”

It seems to me that this fear grows as we drift away from Jesus personally and as a society.   It grows when his word is not at the center of our life.  Why does Jesus say we should not be afraid?  Because he desires to give us the kingdom.   Because we can put all our trust in him, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”  We should be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding and never give up on him, especially as times grow more challenging.  We do not take advantage when he appears to be absent. We still live kingdom values confident that justice and peace will prevail.  In the midst of the darkness, we place our hope in Christ, the dawn of salvation.

This a moment which calls for great faith, defined famously in the second reading’s Letter to the Hebrews as “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”  Like love, it cannot be pointed to, but its effects change the world.  If faith truly is “the realization of what is hoped for,” we are being told to live fiercely the kingdom of God in the way Jesus preached it.  If faith is the “evidence of things not seen,” then the only way to make it known is to live as Jesus lived, to make him come alive right now in our words and actions.

For faith promises an even greater gift – grace, the action of God in the world.  Faith always precedes miracles and we have all witnessed the miracle of grace and its power.  I see it when survivors of abuse by clergy, with every right to hold the church in utter disdain, dedicate their lives to healing it and making it more responsive to those whom we have hurt.  I saw pure grace on Saturday when a son eulogized his 50 year old mother with dignity and humor and love.  Grace in action can dispel the deepest darkness.

So let us show this faith.  Let us realize what is hoped for; let us be the evidence of things not seen.  Let us announce to the world, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,” for in the cross of Christ, good has triumphed over evil.  “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,” for we will never allow the beautiful face of Christ to be distorted into something so ugly as white supremacy.  “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,” for if gun violence would not be tolerated in your neighborhood, how can it be tolerated three miles away in a neighborhood that might look different from yours; but not so much for parents still love their children and kids should have the right to play.  “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,” for only when we cling to Jesus’ truth will our Church be the merciful and just vessel God has called it to be.  “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,” for we are the body of Christ, inseparable and bound by the Holy Spirit where the division of them and us dissolves into being brothers and sisters.

“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,” for fear and hate will only know its demise when met by faith and grace.  Let us be the dawn God has sent upon the world.  This dark night must end.

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

“Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  When things are going well, those words seem to perfectly depict our life with God.  But things do not always go well.  We know our prayers are not always answered.  Anyone who has had it rain every day of their vacation knows this.  There is not a fan of the New York Mets who believes that every prayer produces a positive result.

(Long aside.  People always think that I pray for the Mets.  That is inaccurate.  When I was ten years old, I told God that I would ask just once in my life for something for the Mets and I expected the correct response.  I waited until I was 21 years old and the sixteenth inning of the National Championship series.  The Mets had taken the lead in the top of the inning but looked like they were about to surrender it.  At the end of my rope and with a 3-2 count on Kevin Bass, I took my shot and prayed, “Lord make this a strike, or please just take me now.”[i])

Of course, of far greater concern is when we pray for those things that matter most:  a loved one’s illness, an addict’s disease, an issue of seemingly simple justice ignored by others.  When those prayers go unanswered, it hurts. We wonder, “Where is God?”   What happened to this promise to ask and receive, seek and find, knock and have the door opened when we have asked and been denied, sought and not found, knocked and had the door slammed in our face.

 I want to give you a few reasons why our prayers are not answered, or at least not answered the way we want them to.  But each reason is not an excuse to not pray, but to pray all the more.  The first reason we do get what we want in prayer is freedom.  God allows us to do our thing, even if our thing is bad or even evil.  Freedom is the price we pray to love, for we cannot love if we are controlled.  Love and fear can be placed side by side and often enough we will choose fear.  We can pray that the addict will not use anymore.  But God will not force them to stop.

Conversely, this challenges to pray all the more.  Because the only way for behavior to change is through love and prayer.  Prayer opens up the possibility of true freedom and true life, of better relationships and better health.  The choice cannot be forced, but without prayer there would be no choice at all.

Secondly, there is the challenge of perspective.  God sees more and knows more than we do.  We see what we want and focus on it.  God sees everything and knows what is best.  A wise person once said that we will spend all of eternity thanking God for prayers not answered!  We need the space to allow God to be God and do what is best for all.  But there is a need for prayer here as well so that we might align our perspective with God’s.  For how can we see with God’s eyes and hear with God’s ears without being in tune with God?  Isn’t that why we come to church, to hear more, to think of the other, to get away from ourselves?

Finally, we have a God wise enough to give us what we need, not what we want.  It is a lazy lover who only gives their beloved what they want.  What kind of parent gives their children everything they ask for other than parents whose kids are stuffed with chocolate and only know video games?  What kind of friend would you be if you never shared a challenging word of helped your friend to grow?  Giving people what they want all time is not love; it is bribery.  Doesn’t God know our needs better than we do?  Shouldn’t we trust God more than ourselves?

Still, we are left with the promise.  “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  For all the legitimate reasons God does not give us what we want in prayer, how can this still be true?  The last line of the Gospel gives us the answer.  “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”  God is never fails is giving God’s self in the Holy Spirit.  God dwells within us.  God might not give us everything, but God gives us enough.  I have seen the impossible happen through prayer – miracles of courage, strength and unbending hope.  People who should have been defeated rise up in faith.  Causes that had always been rejected but triumph by the will of God placed in a faithful people.  Here are prayers that when asked for in faith never fail.  “Lord, help me to love more.”  “Lord, let me trust in you.”  “Lord, make me a channel of your peace.”  When we ask God to change us, to give us what we need, to build the kingdom, to share divine love, we understand that what Jesus said is true.  “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

[i] Jesse Orosco threw a slider for a swing and a miss and the Mets went on the win the World Series in 1986.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

At my parish on Long Island, a new prayer group had started and it was greatly influenced by the charismatic movement.  My mother joined and heard of amazing spiritual experiences such as speaking in tongues.  Mom said she did not share in those experiences, but she felt closest to God in serving the poor.  A person in the group said, “Some of us are just Marthas.”  It was not a compliment.

Inevitably, the story of Martha and Mary plays out as a choice between two ways of life; as kind of a Catholic personality test.  You are either a Martha (practical and task driven) or a Mary (contemplative, spiritual and prayerful.)  The history of the interpretation of this passage has favored Mary.  However, for most of us, our sympathy flow toward Martha.  We have all felt we are doing all the work and someone else is reaping all the benefits.  When Martha makes her famous complaint, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” we want Jesus to say, “Of course.  Get up Mary and so some dishes so Martha has a turn.” However, Jesus says the contrary.  “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Now there would no “better part” for Mary unless Martha took the bold step to invite Jesus as a prestigious rabbi to a home led by a woman.  And if you are going to invite Jesus over for dinner, someone should make it for him. It is not that some are called to be Martha and others Mary.  We are all called to be Martha and Mary.

Combining Martha and Mary is the perfect depiction of the Christian life.  We need to welcome Jesus into our lives and into our homes as Martha did.  And as Martha literally served Jesus, we need to serve him by reaching out to him in the guise of others.  But we also need to sit at the feet of Jesus as Mary did and soak in his wisdom, truth and love.  The dichotomy reminds me of one of my favorite phrase about prayer. “Prayer without action is powerless.  Action without prayer is chaos.”  Prayer without action cannot open us to service and cannot bring us or others closer to Christ.  Action without prayer prevents our activity in the world with being informed, motivated and infused with the love of Christ. Our prayer should be grounded in our reality and our reality should be grounded in our prayer.

I will never forget the homily Bishop Hubbard gave at my ordination.  He said the prayer life of a parish priest rests in the lives of his people.  How true that has been. Today I have prayed for my friend Earl who passed away in thanksgiving for his life and for the family struggling with their loss.  Then my prayer was elevated with joy as I baptized four babies.  I have been experiencing Christ in the people God has given me.  Isn’t that true for you as well?  Isn’t your prayer about your family and your friends, the people God has given you in a special way?  Isn’t it about the problems you have and the issues you care about whether it be the unborn or migrants on the border?  I believe our prayer should be grounded in reality, in the lives of those around us and the circumstances that surround us.  This is the Martha and Mary way of prayer.

We need to pray.  God knows we think about things enough; we think them to death.  But there is a difference between prayer and thinking.  When we pray, we bring Christ.  We are connected by the body of Christ and the Holy Spirit brings us closer to Christ and the object of our prayer.  The prism through which we pray is the love that Jesus has for us, the faith he has shared with us and the peace he promises us.  Everything looks different and carries more hope when we pray.   And clear eyed and confident, we can know what to do next as our prayer leads our actions.

Take a moment to hold in your heart someone or something you would like to pray for.  Just close your eyes and bring that person or issue to your heart and to God.

 

Let Christ color that picture of that person or that concern so you can have more forgiveness, more power, more peace and more love. Let the love in which we are rooted lift up, console and bring hope for there is always hope in our God.  Feel the love that binds us to Christ.  Feel it bind us to others.  What a powerful gift we have in our prayer.  Don’t think. Pray.

If you drive on Union Street in the mornings in the nice weather, you will spot me at my favorite place for private prayer.  I have powerful experiences before the tabernacle. My favorite prayer is the mass, a wonderful blend of contemplation and action.  But I love to pray on my porch as cars go whizzing by and I sense the pulsating life of Christ whirling around me.  My life and my ministry are built on those prayers.  We can be Martha.  We can be Mary.  And we are both, we are Jesus Christ.

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time C
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” There is where I should and traditionally would launch into a plea for more priests, deacons and more men and women in religious life. And of course we should pray for that. But inevitably, whenever I hear this quote, my mind goes to the very honest St. Gregory the Great who, with this Gospel passage in mind, once wrote, “Indeed, see how full the world is of priests, but yet in God’s harvest a true laborer is rarely to be found.” Snap!
When Nathaniel first came to our parish, I would give him a weekly pep talk and the first one was, “The Church does not need more priests, it needs great priests.” The time of the mediocre priest is over. Can you imagine a worst job than being a mediocre priest? Giving up all manner of things for what? A status that does not exist anymore? It reminds me of something the great Rev. Lovejoy of the Simpsons once said, “There is a lot more to ministry than simply not caring about people.” The heart of a vocation of a priest is to know your people and to serve them. To know the smell of the sheep as Pope Francis is fond of saying. My vocation is not just a title of an ontological state. My vocation is to be found in the work of giving my life to yours, to journey with every high and low, to ensure that Christ is present in our lives. And it is beautiful work.
It occurs to me this is true of any vocation – the joy and the success is in the work. For example, it only takes a biological act to become a parent; it takes everything you have to become a Mom or Dad. That you have not achieved until your child is at the very center of your life and you would not hesitate to give everything over for your child – your happiness intrinsically is linked to theirs.
I decided to ask people what was the work of their vocation; the marrow of doing what God has called them to do. A single person pointed out something I had not thought of before. She has less support than others and the same responsibility, but she must continue on to serve. A lay minister wrote, “Being a lay minister is much more than joining a group. It means joining forces with God and taking action to serve the needs of others.” A married person resisted the idea of work and thought of it as an invitation to celebrate the sacrament in joy. She said the key to their vocation was to put the other absolutely first, (P.S. as a celibate that sounds like work to me!), setting aside time together and growing in faith.
The work of every vocation has the same starting point – our baptism. In those waters, we were given the assurance that we could love mightily and like Christ we could give everything for those we love. We were buried with Christ so we could do as he did and lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. Whoever God has given us through our vocation of spouse, friend, child, or leader deserves and must be given all that we have. We are called to be poured out for one another.
Jesus gave a mission to spread his name to seventy-two disciples who go out before him. They return amazed over the power of the name of Jesus had in the towns they visited. Jesus exclaims to them, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.” No one will be saved by a title or a position. It is only through sacrifice, compassion and presence that those whom God has given us in a special way will come to know the glory of God.  It is how we will build the kingdom of peace.