29th Sunday in Ordinary Time A – Mental Health Awareness Week

Let me begin with a piece of advice.  If someone wants to ask you a question and they begin with something like, “We know you are wise and you never tell a lie and you don’t care how popular you are or whom you offend,” run the other way.  It is clearly a set-up.

That is what the Pharisees and Herodians do to Jesus.  He obviously knows it is a set-up and a pretty good one at that.  They ask, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If he says no, he will be in trouble with the Roman authorities, if yes he will be encouraging cooperation with the hated Romans.  Yet, Jesus disarms them immediately with his own question.  He has them produce the coin that pays the tax and asks, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”  Of course it is Caesar.  But by this stage of history, Caesar is not just a political leader; he is worshipped as a god.   These pious Jews just admitted they were carrying an image of a false God.  How is that for dirty money? He then, famously, goes on to say, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  Some have seen this an endorsement of a solely secular realm and a religious one.  Some see in this a Separation of Church and State but those ideas would not occur for centuries late.  Instead, I ask myself the question, “What did you think Jesus thought really belonged to Caesar?  And more importantly, what do you thing Jesus thought belonged to God?  Everyone and everything!

I am so proud that we are celebrating our first Mental Health Awareness week in our diocese.  It is of course, part of respect life month, in which we announce our belief that as God loves all, every person is bestowed with a dignity of life always and everywhere.  Those who struggle with mental illness belong to God.  From that we know three things.  If they belong to God, then they belong here.  And as members of the Body of Christ, we have a responsibility to identify and meet their needs.  And then one more thing I will talk about later.

As a people of God, we need all the faces of God represented to be truly whole.  That means that each person with a mental illness in any way should be accepted and welcomed in our parish.  Long ago you passed the baby test.  You know what the baby test is?  When a baby cries either everybody turns and scowls at the baby or everyone smiles.  I am proud to say that this a smiling, baby loving parish.  I am prouder to say in my ten years here, no one who struggles with mental issues of their family have once said that they were made to feel unwelcomed or unwanted.  Indeed, many times they have told me how warmly they have been made to feel and how blessed they feel to be here.  It is only as it should be, but sadly not always as it is.

And if you struggle with mental challenges and you feel uncomfortable or that you don’t belong, please tell me and we will fix it.  For you and for all if us, we want this place not to be just a church for all, but a home.

Secondly, we must meet the needs of the mental health community.  Jesus accomplished all that he did through relationships.  He did not just zap the nearest leper and healed them. He talked to them.  It might sound odd that when the blind man approached him, Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”  We all assume that it would be that his blindness be cured, but what if they needed forgiveness even more?  In the same ways, we must have ears to hear. We must not presume we are doing well, we must proactively ask if we are meeting the needs of the mentally ill.

And if we are not, please tell us.  Let us know what brings you life?  How can we better serve you?  What is missing in our parish?  What insights do you have of which can better frame our mission? Your voice is both needed and valued.

But we know that there is something else true of those who belong to God that goes beyond merely welcoming and ensuring that they are at home and heard.  As God’s creature, those with mental illness challenges are the desired of God.  They are beautiful and important.  And they have something to teach us.  Jesus knew that. It seems to me he planted the seeds of the Gospel among the outsiders, especially the mentally ill.  “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Biblical scholars believe that many of those from whom Jesus expelled demons suffered from mental illness; a feeling that many who struggle with mental illness can relate to.  He was always with those who had been dislocated from their communities, living in lonely anguish. Why did Jesus choose to bathe them into the light of the kingdom?  Because he sensed their nearness to God.  Because he could expose the divine light that shows so brightly among the poor, however their poverty is defined.  God has a marvelous way of giving each of us perfections and of perfecting our imperfections.

That describes my encounters with those who have mental illness.  They have made me a better priest, a better Christian and a better man.  We all know someone with depression.  They often have a world-soul.  They feel the pain of everyone with an empathy I cannot begin to approach.  For four years I worked with those with mental disabilities in Washington during seminary.  Their gift was to teach me that we do not say “I love you” too often and to too many, but not often and enough and to too few.  I have worked with those who suffer from compulsive disorders who struggle every day to be their best before God with a zeal I cannot imagine. Those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder fight it with a strength I can only marvel at.

This weekend, coincidentally, there is a conference for people with disabilities at the Vatican.  I think they heard about our Mental Health Awareness Week and decided to jump on our bandwagon.  On Saturday, a woman named Bridget Brown handed the Pope a letter saying she is likely among the last generation of people living with Down’s syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that causes intellectual disabilities among other things.  In Europe due to pre-natal screening, countries have upward of 90% abortion rates among those who have Down’s and Iceland is said to have “eradicated” it. I think of what my mentor at the group home Dee lamented as this trend began in the nineties, “Our friends are the prophets among us.”  What happens to a people when they no longer have their prophets? To whom do they listen?

So if you struggle with the darkness of depression and still seek the light of Christ; if you fight to make it here despite anxiety; if you know the burden of any mental illness and still turn to Christ lift it, I have but two words for you:  thank you.


27th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

My week certainly had a theme.  It started at a Girls’ soccer game on Monday.  Someone I knew but who does not belong to our parish, was staring out at the field after the game.  I caught her attention and she said she had been in deep thought in light of the tragedy in Las Vegas the night before.  Shen then asked me what I was going to do to get my flock stirred up to respond.  To which I said, “Back off.  It’s my flock.”  Not really.  Then, as never happens, there was an item on the School Board agenda that said “Open Forum.”  We got into a long and passionate discussion about violence, race and divisiveness in our country.  Finally, while eating dinner at a friend’s house, the same thing happened.  The Lord only needs to knock on my door three times to get my attention.

And it occurred to me that whether the people who perpetrate these horrible acts are politically motivated or not, they were all taking aim at one thing:  hope.  They were trying to tell us not to invest in one another, to see as enemy the ones who are different, to believe that reconciliation is impossible and that life is not precious.  They we making their statement loudly in racist chants and silently at the business end of a rifle.

Then came this week’s Gospel that seems to confirm the darkness we all share.  It represents the breakdown of cooperation, polarization and the reliance on violence we are all too familiar with from headlines and cable news.  We have seen this before and Jesus I believe is challenging to draw a new conclusion that is built on his values – peace, hope, blessedness and love.

Thank God for St. Paul’s beautiful word to the Philippians in the second reading.  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Our destiny is in “these things,” and not the horror of another.  We do not surrender hope because it has been planted deeply within us.  We do give up on reconciliation because we have already been reconciled by the cross.  We champion peace because our eternity is based upon it.

For this I believe is a Christian moment.  There are answers we possess in our heritage that are uniquely suited to this time and place.  Our hope is literally unassailable for it is not in a politics or a philosophy or even a point of view.  It is in a person, Jesus Christ, and the utter conviction that what he has promised cannot be taken away –that he has already triumphed over evil.

This I believe is a Christian moment.  For we have something to say about violence and inclusion and peacemaking because Jesus Christ had something to say about it.  This is not a Democratic moment or a Republican moment.  It is not a liberal moment or a conservative moment.  It is not a moment for a philosophy or a trend.  It is time for a people encased in the values of Christ.  It is time for the Body of Christ to express itself and shine light in the darkness and tell truth to power.  It is what we were made for and why we were called.

To be a Christian in these times, we must act like our Savior who listened patiently to the other and cared about their story.  Who took people where they were and did not wait for their perfection.  Who included sinners who then became saints.  Who asked questions and did not castigate his opponents.

But to simply say this is a Christian moment does not mean it will happen.  We are fully capable of letting the moment skip through our hands.  If we do not have the courage of our convictions, the faith to express ourselves and an understanding of discipleship, our truth, no matter how true, will not affect the world.  We must have the strength to invite people here so that the Body of Christ is built up.  Lacking that, we must have speak of the hope and the beauty we have discovered in the Gospel.  And if that too is impossible, at the very least we must act like Jesus Christ who never judged character, but built it.

It seems the very earth is crying out for the Prince of Peace.  But is he is to remain in our pocket, our own personal possession for holiness and then heaven, then his light is not allowed to shine on others.  If his voice is not heard, how will it soothe?  Jesus has already told us who we are. We are light of the world.  Darkness is growing and only light can expel it.  Will we dare to be Christ’s beacon for all the world?

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time A 2017

I have always loved the ancient hymn of Jesus we heard in the second reading from the Philippians.  Every Saturday night we read it in the Liturgy of the Hours and I am moved by the heroic nature of Jesus’ life, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  I find his humility astounding, his self-giving complete and I am in stunned admiration for the life he chose.  Then this week I asked myself a question I had never asked before about this humble, self-sacrificing man.  “Was Jesus happy?”

Now I don’t think that happiness was a very important value to Jesus.  Not as important as loving, caring and giving for sure.  But in a way that does not matter, for in our advertising culture, happiness is a priority.  If we are to take up St. Paul’s challenge to be of one mind and one heart; to have the same attitude of Christ, we will want to know if we would be happy.

Now there are some measures of happiness that we know Jesus would fail.  Some say that those who die with the most toys are happiest.  He ain’t going to win that contest.  Others suggest that those who managed to live like water, seeking the least resistance, are happiest.  Again, not his style.  And maybe more would insist that only a life without suffering and hurt would be happy. So how could it be that Jesus was happy?

I turn to the Beatitudes.  We know them for calling people “Blessed”.  But some translators believe the far less poetic “Happy” should be preferred.  It certainly leads to a jolt to say, “Happy are the poor in the spirit,” “Happy are they who mourn… or are persecuted.”   These seem to be the very opposite of happy.  Yet, for Jesus, those who are happiest know God is with them and that they are never abandoned.  They have no fear of ever being alone for God abides and God has promised.  This is the source of their happiness.

If he were happy then, what made him so?  Well they called him Rabbi which means teacher.  I know teachers and I taught.  It does not happen every moment or maybe not each day, but there is an indescribable feeling when someone gets it, when the light bulb goes on.  And he was teaching masterfully the most valuable lessons about the most valuable thing possible.  That must have made him happy.

And he was a forgiver.  If you have lived in a state of unforgiveness, you know the dark cloud that surrounds you, the burden you feel.  Jesus had the authority to lift that cloud and lighten that load.  He let the captive go free.  Imagine the liberation and relief that he provided, one sinner at a time.  If you have ever brought someone from to freedom, you know the rush of joy that comes upon you.

Finally, he was sharing what he himself called the good news.  His words were of liberty and joy and light.  He was able to tell the forgotten that God cherished them; to tell the despairing of a hope that cannot be defeated.  He made the lowly aware of how much they were loved by the God of all creation and he promised to the moribund a life that would not end.  He transferred our plane of understanding to a new horizon where there only exists in each of us beauty, holiness and blessing.

Trust me, if these were your tasks and these alone, you would be ecstatic.  To teach successfully the good things of God; to lift the burden of sin from others; to tell a story of good news where all discovered they were precious and unrepeatable in the eyes of God, you would be happy too.

I believe that even from the cross, when Jesus had seen the worst of it, he still knew he was happy.  He had knowledge enough to know that if he could forgive them for they did not know what they were doing or to whom they were doing it.  He could say in John’s Gospel where the cross is really a throne of glory, “It is done,” with a deep breath of completion and satisfaction.

For true happiness, we can still follow in his way.  For what can make us happier than sharing the light given us by our God.  Come and follow Jesus on the way to happiness.

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

There are two kinds of people who hear the Parable of the Servant in the Fields.  Those who are annoyed by it (and I can tell there are some of you out there) and those who love the parable and like to annoy those who are annoyed by it.  Guess which group I belong to?

I am going to try to convert you to my side, but first let’s set the situation.  The beauty of the story is that it is truly ancient and yet equally modern.  For in small towns and cities throughout the third world and in our state, trucks drive up to corners looking for workers for a daily wage.  Imagine that your task was the landowner’s.  Who would you choose?  I imagine you would choose the youngest, the strongest and the healthiest.  And if you came back at nine, noon and 3pm, you would do the same.  So who is left at 5pm? The oldest, the weakest and the ill.  That is why they have been standing there all day.  They are unwanted and not valued.

Sure they are going to get a break, but there’s was not an easy day.  It was a day of anxiety as they watched their chance of employment slipping away.  Then as now, those who work for daily wages are trying to meet daily expenses. They are not fretting about dipping into their kids’ college savings.  They are not about to run down to the local Palestinian Unemployment Office just as our day laborers have no access to benefits.  No by noon, they were thinking there will be no way to feed my whole family tonight.  At 3pm, they were thinking they were hired now, just maybe the kids could be fed.  When finally they begin working at 5pm, they are thinking I might just scrap together enough to get through another day.

But the Master knows their story.  The Master knows not only how to give what is deserved, but what is needed.  The Master is not limited to strict justice, but rejoices in a generous spirit.  Who could be angry with this?  Well the workers who were in the field all day, that is who.  Well, not at first actually.  When the see those who worked one hour receive the usual daily wage, they presume they will be paid more for they, “bore the day’s burden and the heat.”  When they complain the master argues his only sin is generosity.  He is keeping the deal he made at dawn with those workers who to will go home able to feed their families.  The youngest, strongest and healthiest may go away disappointed today, but you know what the youngest, strongest and healthiest become?  The oldest, the weakest and the ill.  They may very well want the largesse of the landowner one day for as we hear, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

How am I doing so far?  Are you convinced?  I have one more argument.
Most of the time when we hate on this Gospel we picture ourselves as the people working in the burning sun all day.  But that does not describe us all the time.  I know I have my five 0’clock days when I have not been as attentive, or caring or loving as I could be and yet the Lord forgives and still blesses me beyond reason.  God’s love and grace define my life.

Recently, I was doing a Vicar thing, blessing the Principals and Pastors of our Catholic schools.  Fr. John Bradley from Blessed Sacrament approached me for a blessing.  John has been Pastor there since I came to live in Albany as a college freshman.  He is a holy man and a model priest for me and so many others.  And here was coming for a blessing from me.  How embarrassing I thought for him.  (A thought I am sure never crossed his mind.)  I bowed and said I am not worthy before giving him the blessing.  You see compared to John Bradley, I feel like a five o’clock priest.

The truth is we should treat strangers with fairness, but not those we love.  Can you imagine saying to a loved one, “Well you did these things well today and these things poorly so I will love you only this amount?”  No, we are in the bag for those we love.  We give them the benefit of the doubt and more.  We want to heal their wounds and forgive their wrongs.  We want to give them our best all the time and in every way.  And that is who our God is for us.  God is the one madly in love with us.  God knows our story and cannot bear to see us without enough. God does not carefully measure love.  God gives salvation and peace and love the only way God knows how – by giving us everything.

So I have one last question for you:  do you want your God to carefully measure all that you have done and gives you only what you deserve?  Or do you want a God who knows our story, loves us and gives us beauty, hope and a love that never ends?

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

Do you think St. Peter thought he was being extremely generous when he suggested that forgiving someone even times was enough?  If so, he must have been disappointed by the answer.  Jesus says they must forgive seventy-seven times.  And it is not as if he means keep checking off offences until the 78th and then giving it to the other guy is an option.  No, as seven is a sign of completeness then 77 is kind of utter completeness as if that was possible.

Then Jesus, in a brilliant two part story, explains why it is always necessary to always forgive in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  In it, he presents two worlds, one of mercy and compassion and one of unforgiveness.  Both have a price to pay, but only one way offers freedom.

A desperate man is brought before his Master because he owes him a ridiculous amount:  ten thousand talents!  Clearly unable to pay it back, the Master is prepared to sell him, his wife and property.  The debtor begs, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.”  As our God often does, the Master gives than he asks for.  He forgives all his debts!

Now there is a price to pay for the Master.   To begin with, there are the ten-thousand talents the Master will never see.  There is a perception that he might be soft and his business associates might take advantage of him.  But all this he sacrifices so that other might be free. His mercy provides hope where there was only despair, new life where death was lurking. The world of mercy has its price but its rewards have the potential to be everlasting.

On the way home, the newly forgiven man meets someone who owes him a much smaller debt.  Rather than recalling the compassion he had been shown by the master, he gives into his fear and anger.  He has almost lost everything because of this guy and maybe many others like him.  He literally chokes him due to his rage and has him placed in jail.  Despite the mercy shown him, the unforgiving servant reacts without pity or humanity.  He will feed only his righteous anger and strict justice.  He will not pay forward the kindness shown to him.  The world of justice without mercy allows darkness and fear to rule over us.  When we seek the way of unforgiveness is to choose never to be moved by consolation, hope or light.  It seeks isolation, fear and is fueled by an anger that must always burn bright.

You know Jesus did not just say this stuff.  What he preached became his life.  He forgave Peter for dening him three times and invited him to lead the church.  He forgave those who killed him.  He understood forgiveness the best way possible – from a broken heart.

When we face the amazing stories of forgiveness in the readings, I often think that no one has ever hurt me so much that I cannot forgive. But I have seen those who have.  People hurt so deeply that I could not imagine wanting to wake up from their nightmare.  And some never do.  Some hold on to their hurt or as Sirach notes, the hug tight their wrath and anger.  They cultivate their injury and refuse to allow the light to heal it.  Instead, they merely count the darkness, as if it could be counted.

Then there are those who have chosen the light.  They have mourned and known their anger, but they would not dwell there.  They have never forgotten the compassion their God has shown them and they share it with others, insisting on life that is integral, caring and joyous.  And they are my heroes.

For those who know great hurt, forgiveness does not and should not come quickly.  It is a process; it is a labor.  But they recall God’s infinite mercy and they follow the path of Jesus and teach us what it really means to forgive.  One cannot follow Christ and not forgive.  To be a disciple is to forgive.


22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time A

This is the last weekend at Saratoga, so I thought I would share one of my favorite stories of my Dad.  He had one week off a year and spent it going with his friends to Saratoga and the races with his buddies.  He was never too proficient.  He use to claim that the escalator of the clubhouse was named after him because he lost so much there.

The guys all had rules and one of them was never to bet too much on a steeplechase race because you could never know what would happen during the jumps.  But one day they got a tip from the outrider for the horses on this one particular race.  They were told he was the most outstanding horse by far so they all bet a lot on him.  And sure enough, the horse leads after every jump.   He clears the last jump and is ten lengths in front of the field coming down the stretch, a clear winner, when suddenly, he jumps over the inside hedge of the track and proceeds to run into the lake at which point my father’s friend yelled, “That horse swims better than it runs!”

Now what does that have to do with the Gospel? Let’s see.

Today’s Gospel picks up the same scene as last week’s in which St. Peter was triumphant.  When Jesus had asked whom did they say he was, Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  A thrilled Jesus acknowledges his divine insight and makes him the rock upon which he will build his church.  Now Jesus unpacks for his disciples what it means to be the Messiah.  It means facing the religious and political leaders; it means torture and ridicule; it means the cross and death.  Newly empowered and newly emboldened, Peter does not like where this is headed.  He takes Jesus aside so that he may rethink all of this.  “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”  And Jesus rebukes this newly named rock mightily.  “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  At that moment, Peter realizes two things.  He has picked the right horse – Jesus is the Messiah – and that horse just jumped into a lake.

Peter was thinking along the lines of most of us – success entails winning.  As a culture, we are addicted to winning, to its spoils and to all that comes with it.  It is how we identify our heroes and Peter had wanted nothing less for Jesus.  He had pictured an unsoiled march of triumph through Jerusalem where everyone would acknowledge, admire and adore the Savior.  But that is not what Messiahship means to Jesus.  Being the Son of God did not separate him from his people.  It tied him to them. He would not be a Savior to stand in one spot and demand that everyone come to him, but he would meet us where we are.  He did not promise only sunny days, but to slog through the mud with us.  He did not say he would lift every burden, but told us to pick up our cross every day.   For the cross means love and that is the horse Jesus chose to ride.

Winning is a straight line with easily identified parameters and trappings.  Love is, of course, a more torturous route.  Love means rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep.   It means standing up for those who are put down and speaking out for those who are silenced.  It does not allow callousness in the face of pain so we must suffer with our brothers and sisters in Houston.  No one is ignored; everyone is precious.

With apologies to all my Green Bay Packer backers, Aaron Rodgers said something that upset me the other day.  He said that organized religion closes the mind and the heart.  Nothing has ever opened my mind and heart like trying to love like Jesus.  To see Christ in all people. To care for everyone.  To struggle and delight with my brothers and sisters. This is the path of Christ.  It is what it means to pick up your cross and follow a Savior.  Love is the way of our God.

Remarks on Charlottesville Riot on August 13, 2017

In the beautiful first reading of Isaiah waiting for God in the cave, God is not found in the powerful wind, the earthquake or the fire.  Instead, God comes intimately, in “a tiny whispering sound.”  Yesterday, in Charlottesville, we found that God can speak even more softly than that – in the sound of a tear hitting the ground.

That tear sets off an alert in us.  That forces of hatred and bigotry, white supremacists and neo Nazis must still be confronted.  That when such horrific forces are at work they are borne of ignorance, fear and isolation.  Predictably, they can only offer violence and hatred in support of their banal arguments. They must be challenged as they were yesterday with peace, creativity and love.  We can never let down our vigilance against the forces of hate until we are one nation, one people, one body of Christ.

Let us pray for the victims of the violence in Charlottesville, especially the three who died yesterday.  Let us pray for those who bear the burden of prejudice every day and let us work toward a conversion of hearts so that we might truly live as one.