Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 27, 2019)

The “prayer” of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel is basically a monologue of self-congratulation. Four times he began with “I.” His ego blossoms into contempt for others. He speaks a word of thanks, but it is not for any gift that has been given. He congratulates himself for being better than others.

His words indicate that he believes it is his own deeds that make him righteous; that is, right-with-God. Insofar as he fails to give God any credit for his good deeds, he becomes self-righteous.

There is some Pharisee in us all. Like him, we consider ourselves religious people. Like him our motives for what we do and why we act are sometimes flawed. Ego enters. Pharisees endured flagrantly through the Inquisition in the Roman Catholic Church and through the Salem witch-hunts among Protestant Puritans. More currently, through killing us “infidels” among Muslim fundamentalists and through covering-up abusive clergy among our hierarchy. While my flaws may not be quite so extravagant, I still need to admit to them and work on them.

Pascal once observed, “People never do evil more completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”

On the other hand, the tax collector was a public sinner, a collaborating traitor to Israel and to Judaism. Reconciliation requires full restitution for what he took – impossible because he surely had spent some of it. He throws himself on God’s mercy. Lord be merciful to me a sinner.

The tax collector’s humble confession of guilt is a profession of faith, for God alone is the source of mercy. The tax collector clearly believes in the God of mercy. He leaves the temple justified and righteous.

There is also some tax collector in us all. We recall some embarrassing things we have done that we cannot undo. We stand before God at the beginning of Mass and acknowledge our sinfulness both “for what we have done and what we have failed to do.”

Humility includes the spiritual maturity to correctly assess ourselves. Who am I? I am not God. I have no business playing God. On the other hand, I am not “junk.” Humility is truth: the awareness of both our limitations and our blessings; acceptance of who we are not as well as who we are.

I love the brief summary of today’s Gospel: two men went up to the temple to pray - one didn’t, one did.

Recognizing and acknowledging our shortfalls and asking for mercy somehow joins each of us with one another. Ten years of experience as a retreat director taught me a spiritual life lesson. When groups arrived, one of the first tasks was to help the retreatants to feel comfortable with one another so that we were able to share our thoughts. We employed “ice-breakers” – a perfect phrase for the task. Most groups who came were composed of people who were leaders: parish councils, faculties from grade school to university, cursillo groups and administrative groups. Icebreakers worked well.

However, I discovered – in a eureka moment - that one kind of group needed no icebreaker. The reason: they did not come as leaders. These were groups in alcohol and drug programs; they were in lifelong recovery. They freely admitted their weakness and inability to heal themselves. These were people who had been humbled by their disease and remained humble. Many were as talented and intelligent as anyone in this worship space. They recognized their common gift: sobriety. What they had in common was more valuable than their many and varied other gifts. They bonded as a result of that recognition and gratitude for sobriety and the 12 steps that led to it. They needed no icebreaker; they bonded immediately. I learned this important truth: we bond more easily in being united in our weakness than in our strength. Being in the same boat bonds. Being weak and vulnerable together results in bonding more closely than the bonding in being in a leadership group.

I shall never forget what a private retreatment, not part of the sobriety retreat, but was present, “observing” them – for the want of a better word - and lacked bonding in her own life - said to me in an air of admiration: “I almost wish I were an alcoholic.” No further comment is needed.

What a lesson for us all in our common sinfulness and the sure gift of divine mercy that we have available to us.

Just before we approach the table today, we will pray with the words of the Roman Centurion, “O Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” If there is to be a change in liturgy, I would suggest that the prayer of the tax collector in today’s Gospel be substituted: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is an attitude that Jesus himself tells us “makes us right” before God.

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 20, 2016)

Our Gospel begins: “Jesus told his disciples a parable…” The word “parable” is familiar to us. It is from two Greek words. “Para” as in “parallel” means “side by side” and “bal” as in “ballistic” means “throw”. So, parable means that two ideas are thrown down side by side and compared as similar or different. Usually, we hear Jesus speaking about the similarities of the two side by side items.

But today, we hear the difference between the dishonest judge who grudgingly hears this case and our honest father who enthusiastically listens to us. Today’s story is an echo of Chapter 11 where the inhospitable man would not get out of his bed out of compassion to help his friend but did get up so he could get back to sleep. He is completely different from our Father who graciously answers the door when we knock. Jesus used a bit of humor to remind us of the difference between faulted human beings and our gracious Father.

Our understanding of God presupposes two things: first, God already knows our needs so we really cannot give him new information. Second, God is loving, willing and able to meet our needs. The point of prayer of petition is neither an attempt to enlighten God’s mind nor to change God’s will. After all, we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.”

So, why pray for things since God already knows what we need? We pray to help ourselves understand. We sometimes find that the answer to our prayer is “no,” not because our Father is mean-spirited, but because God sees the big picture and what we pray for may not good for us. We, sometimes slowly, must come to the realization of what is good for us. Prayer helps. Persistent prayer gradually opens our eyes to what we need and what God wants to give us.

Realizing our real need may include insight into how we ourselves can achieve what we have been praying for. We invite the possibility that God has already given us the talent and the strength to bring about what we pray for without additional intervention by God.

Persistent prayer is not an option to cultivate; it is critical. Unless and until we pray persistently, there are some things that God cannot tell us, cannot provide for us. We need to quiet ourselves, so we can listen - most often, not to audible words from God, but to thoughts that come to us when we speak to him. Remember Elijah in the cave? He did not hear God in the earthquake or the wind or the fire - he heard god in the “gentle whisper”. [Kg.19; 12] God seldom – if ever - shouts.

In global, “big box” needs, it is helpful to realize that we may never see the result of our prayer. Many cathedral builders of old did not live to see future generations worshiping in the cathedrals they were building back in the age of cathedrals. Olive tree growers did not see the fruit of their efforts, for an olive tree is not expected to bear fruit for the first eighty years. The cathedral builders and the olive growers inside each of us need faith and trust. We will use our persistent efforts to do our bit to benefit others yet unborn. Praying through discouraging setbacks gives us clearer vision.

In our persistent prayer we have no guarantee that we always shall see results. Peace and justice, right to life, needed institutional church changes are issues that are examples. Our Lord wants these needs to become realities infinitely more than we. Prayer keeps us going and enables us to see new opportunities for action. We should not lose heart for at the true heart of everything is God’s ever-lasting and loving will.

We are called to live a pattern of both public, Eucharistic prayer and individual prayer to maintain communication at the divine on both the community and the individual levels. Communication is the life-blood of our deepest need, relationship. It is precisely the same with us in relationship with God.

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 13, 2019)

In the first reading from Kings, an unlikely person appears. It is an outcast, a non-Jew Syrian general by the name of Naaman. The story of Naaman shows humility as the key pre-requisite for gratitude - and the faith that flows from gratitude.

Naaman showed his humility in a drama of three scenes. In the first, Naaman admits his lack of self-sufficiency and seeks out the conquered, Jewish prophet Elisha to ask for help. In the second scene, Elisha did not even come out to meet Naaman but sent a prescription to him through one of his followers: bathe seven times in the Jordan River! (Almost sounds like saying, “Go, jump in a lake.”) Naaman needed to swallow his pride; he “knew” how foolish it sounded and that there were just as good or even better rivers in Syria. But he submitted his judgment . . . and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the third scene, Naaman came back to say thank you and more - he expresses faith in the God of the Jews: “Now I know that there is no god in all the earth except in Israel . . . Allow your servant to be given as much earth as two mules can carry, because I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any God except the Lord.” Naaman accepted God’s gift and responded with praise. He wanted to worship on Jewish soil. Faith.

The ten lepers in Luke’s Gospel called Jesus “master.” Perhaps, they sensed the power of God. Ten were cured; only one returned and fell at the feet of Jesus and “glorifying God in a loud voice thanked him.” He was a Samaritan, a Jewish outcast. And yet, and Jesus said: “Your faith has saved you.” Is praise and gratitude identified with faith?

So often we are like the nine lepers who were cured but did not return to give thanks. We, too, take good things for granted - the good test results, the accident avoided on the highway, the negative x-ray. So often we chalk up the good things that occur in our lives as being solely the result of our own efforts:

“The reason I do not have lung cancer is that I stopped smoking.”
I am healthy; I eat healthfully; I avoid fats, salt, sugar, cholesterol.”
I exercise. It’s all about me; I made it happen.”
True, we cooperate, but “none of the above” guarantees good health.

Like the nine lepers do we simply want to get on with our lives instead of reflecting on the source of good gifts? After any of our various recoveries, do we move on immediately - without first giving thanks?

This second “good Samaritan” in the gospel, the tenth leper, surely wanted to get on with his life, too. Yet, there was a difference with him: he chose to glorify God and then thank Jesus. There is a character difference between the person of faith and others who do not return to express gratitude.

Jesus taught us the lesson of the connectedness of humility, gratitude and faith. At the last supper on the night before he died, Jesus washed the feet of his Apostles. Humility. He gave thanks to his Father and instituted Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” Gratitude. He went to Calvary and commended himself to the hands of our father. Faith.

Humility is the underpinning of gratitude. We recognize our insufficiency and our gratitude to God. Humility and gratitude makes us “soft-eyed.” Gratitude introduces us to faith - as Naaman and the Samaritan make clear. Humility and gratitude render it impossible to have the “hard-eyes” of the macho personality skeptic or the cynic.

For what are you thankful to God? When is the last time you’ve expressed your thanks?

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary time (October 6, 2019)

There is the story of the Irish woman, Deirdre, who looked out of her window after reading about faith moving a tree in Luke’s Gospel and a mountain in Matthew’s gospel. She saw in the distance the mountains of Mourne shouldering their way down to the sea. She decided to “give it a try.” She scrunched her eyes shut and spoke intently with God, seeing if she could get the mountains to move. After a minute, she wide-opened her eyes - everything was right where it had been before. She said: “I nivir taut he would do it!”

Today’s Gospel cannot be understood without reading the preceding verses. Jesus had just called his followers to forgive seven times. That is the context that needs to be understood. Vindictive revenge was the cultural norm of that time and, unfortunately, for some in our own day. To them, forgiveness seems like nonsense. There’s little wonder, then, they would ask for more faith to accept the teaching on forgiveness.

The Apostles indicate that they have faith, but need a booster or, as they say, an “increase.” Jesus’ response stunned them. It’s not the quantity of faith, but the quality that needs to change. A tiny bit, like a mustard seed, is enough to achieve the spectacular. They need an attitude adjustment to use the faith that they already have.

Perhaps we can learn from Jesus. Our effort to do such difficult things as forgive is never “enough;” we need to be open to God’s initiating call and respond to it. Doing the difficult “things” of following Jesus is not solely about our effort o our action - we act in union with God’s activity.

Our faith and god’s grace interact for us to grow. The good that we do is as much the fruit of god’s grace as it is our effort. We do the good things of the kingdom the same way that we pray: “through him, with him, in him.” humanity and divinity work together to bring about both our growth and the building of the kingdom! The magnitude of moving a tree or a mountain speaks to the magnitude of what god can do with us. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back as though we did it all by ourselves.

Jesus’ parable requires us to put on our first century cultural ears. If we do not, we do not get it. In that day, slavery was a common and accepted practice. It was only later that civilization evolved to the point that we realized that slavery was evil - the parable has nothing to say about the morality of slavery. Jesus simply draws a lesson from their experience of slavery. Like slaves who did what is expected of them, we are to forgive without question.

Who of us does not need more confidence in our divine partnership? I think that the vitality of our confidence is rooted in self-discernment. Some questions may be helpful. What talents do I have? With what personal accomplishments am I pleased? On what do people compliment me? Yes, this is profiling – but some profiling, as it turns out, may actually be good! And it is helpful in discerning how we can progress in our personal faith and help others more creatively.

The self-discernment and self-identification of our talents provides the self-confidence to respond in faith to the inspirations that come to us in times of our God-awareness or from the suggestions of others.

We cannot wait for some sensed, divine empowerment that comes to us while tripping through the dewy grass in our bare feet. We recall that the Lord did not come in a powerful wind or in a lightning strike. The Lord came then - and comes now - in a whisper. This self-discernment is a hearing aide for the whisper that inspires you and me to work in our partnership with our Lord in both our personal, spiritual health and in the building of the kingdom.

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 29, 2019)

Our God has a thing about names. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham, Simon’s to Peter. Jesus told many parables. Do you realize that today’s parable is the only one in which a participant has a name: Lazarus [which means: God helps]?

Early in the last century, an official English translation of the official Latin text took “dives,” the Latin adjective meaning “rich” and mistakenly personified it, made it a person’s name – a mistake many of you probably remember. This was called the parable of Dives and Lazarus.

The rich man wore a purple robe with fabric dyed with a pricey die from Tyre then called “Tyrean red.” Only the wealthy and royalty could afford it. Bread was also used as a napkin at that time. It was used and discarded and may well have been all that kept Lazarus alive.

As we heard, when the rich man died after Lazarus, he saw Lazarus sitting next to Abraham in the place of honor. He is still trying to give orders: have pity…send Lazarus to dip his finger . . . Send him to my father’s house.” Abraham gently calls the rich man “my child” and reminds him that he was once rich and Lazarus, poor, and that there is now a great chasm between them. Abraham is not angry with the rich man; he simply states the facts. When the rich man wants his brothers warned, Abraham simply states that the brothers have had the words of “Moses and the prophets;” that is, the Hebrew scriptures. Lazarus, previously, and his brothers, currently, have not listened to scripture. Jesus ironically closes the parable, putting the words in Abraham’s mouth: “Neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” Listening works. The spectacular does not.

The parable is not complex. Listening is our response to scripture, the voice of God. When one does not listen, there are consequences. Abraham’s tone is not angry, not vindictive. The rich man is not portrayed as a terrible person; Lazarus is not portrayed as a virtuous person. Abraham simply repeats a teaching: how one uses one’s earthly resources is very important, and there is a consequence for neglecting the poor.

Death is a pivotal event in the parable; it is like an official’s game-ending whistle or the courtside, final horn. Their sound marks the end of opportunity. The consequence of our real-time effort then plays out; one reaps what one has sown. Faith and hope are no more, leaving love / charity as the greatest and the forever virtue.

We recall Jesus’ words: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” Each of us needs to listen whether it is between two of us or as a whole community. We need to live a reflective, not a hyperactive lifestyle. Hyperactivity numbs us. Being reflective allows us to be a listener - a listener both to Jesus and to the cry of the poor.

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 22, 2019)

Luke’s Jesus is vividly aware of our attraction to money and possessions and how we pursue them. Last Sunday we heard about the prodigal son who asked prematurely for his inheritance. In fact, the identical Greek word used to describe the steward in today’s Gospel as “squandering” his master’s wealth is the word used of the prodigal son “squandering” his inheritance. Next Sunday, we will hear about the rich man luxuriating while Lazarus, a poor man, pitifully sits at his door.

Luke is making it patently clear that wealth is not a measure of one’s worth. John Calvin in the 16th century asserted that wealth was a sign of God’s pleasure with us. This is cited as the cause of the “Protestant Work Ethic.” People, consciously or unconsciously, began to work harder to become wealthier to look “blessed.” The Joneses became a recognized family name. The rat race evolved!

Today’s gospel is surely an offbeat story - unusual for Jesus. When called on the carpet for squandering, the steward knows two things: his master is honest, and, more importantly to him, he is incredibly merciful. The master does not turn the steward over to be whipped until he has payed the last penny. He simply dismisses, fires him.

The slick steward thinks on his feet and comes up with a clever plan that hinges on his master’s mercy. He has to work fast - before the word is out that he has been fired and lacks the authority to implement his clever plan.

He plans to take care both of himself and make his former master look good. He hopes that the master will not later want to appear ungenerous after appearing so generous to his debtors. The slick steward “summons” the debtors and asks them what they owe “his master.” He tells them “write quickly” for good reason.

He already has the mercy of his master for his past misdeeds and now wants to gain the good will of his master’s debtors in a hope for future security. It is not a foolproof plan; it may backfire. First, the debtor who deflates the debt may not want to deal with this manager in the future whom he knows to be untrustworthy. Also, the debtor was told to take his bill and reduce it in his own handwriting. He thereby becomes a co-conspirator in the plot.

As we all know, the duplicity and dishonesty is not praiseworthy; Jesus praises the quick thinking and ingenuity of the steward. Jesus is encouraging us to be as ingenious in doing his work, the building of his kingdom.

A parish not far to the north in the archdiocese of Philadelphia produces ads and rents space during advent in local movie theatres: “Come home for Christmas,” attempting to welcome and bring back alienated Catholics. The same parish supplied insulated holders for hot coffee cups with the same theme to attract the alienated. The ideas worked; many returned to church; the rice also flourished with people who felt that they found a place where they felt wanted.

Elsewhere, a divorce and separated group advertised their availability for support with notices on the bulletin boards of local, large, food stores where newly divorced Catholics might stop to check on local resources in their new-found state. It worked.

Jesus isolated a single trait in the manager and praised his imaginative solution, not his dishonesty. Our imagination is often an untapped source since we come from an age that has stressed the importance of our intellect, not our imagination.

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 15, 2019)

The story of the prodigal son is both the most consoling and yet most challenging story in the New Testament. Having been lost morally, for a time, is not an unknown experience for many of us. We may more easily identify with the younger son.

Jesus portrays his father in heaven as the father of two sons. The younger son makes a decision to do life “his way.” It doesn’t work out. We need to put on our Jewish ears to hear how bad it was: he gets a job feeding pigs. A good Jew would not eat pork and would not slop pigs. He “comes unto himself.” He is not sorry for having insulted his father by asking his father “to make like he’s dead, so he can get his inheritance.” He is selfishly sorry because his own, personal day to day life is miserable.

He composes and practices his well-worded “act of contrition” and starts for home. His father sees him from afar. Had he been watching for him for months, years? His father runs to greet him. His son never even finishes his act of contrition, poor as it is.

The father accepts him as he is. His father is exuberant: get new clothes; a robe, sandals, a ring. Let’s party – no cold cuts. We’re having filet mignon.

The elder son. Who dutifully did what he was told regarding work, comes in from the fields. He becomes angry. More significantly, he lacks his father’s generous heart and spirit.

The father understands. This son is also lost, so the father goes out to meet him, as well. This son is hard-hearted - like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day and perhaps, a little like ourselves.

Earlier in my life, I identified with the younger brother. As life went on, I identified with the older brother in hindsight, having gone through the “duty’’ stage of immature, spiritual growth. It is a stage of being self-righteous, unforgiving. Pondering this parable, recognizing how pharisaical it is, we see Jesus’ guiding us to a new level with a new principle: “everything through love; nothing through fear.”

This is also another vivid example of a key issue in the New Testament: forgiveness. Our father loves us unconditionally. The meaning of “unconditional” is seen in this story. He loves us no matter what we do. We appreciate that as the best part of the good news. His love is called “agape,” a love that refuses to take revenge for hurts or exact punishment.

Let’s recall that Jesus’ words: “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” are in the context of the father’s mercy to us. We got a sense of relief to learn that we are not expected to do everything we do perfectly; that is the error of “perfectionism.” In our relief from perfectionism, however, let’s not forget what Jesus’ saying does mean: grudges are not allowed. It is the tender secret of the human-divine relationship.

Unforgiveness is a spiritual cancer that destroys our spirit / our soul as inexorably as untreated physical cancer will kill our physical body. Our Father is aware of his children’s sins, takes the initiative, comes out to meet us, and rejoices at our homecoming. Once again, this is an example of God being a both/and God, not an either/or God. He goes out to both sons.

Don’t you think that a parent’s joy at a child’s rehabilitation from drugs or alcohol more closely mirrors god than the moralist’s condemnation of evil or the church’s imposing a penalty? Significantly, there is no conclusion to the story of the second son; the story stops without the elder son’s response. The father now begins his worrisome wait for the elder son.

And us? We are challenged to evolve toward the third person in the drama, the hero-father. When we have done what we can do in a relationship, we wait both for someone to return from alienation and wait - even for churchmen – for hearts to soften, lose self-righteousness, and find love.

As I said at the beginning, this parable is at once consoling and challenging.

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 8, 2019)

September has returned - a growing shortness in daylight- crispness in the early morning air. Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are becoming just a memory. Whether we are still in school or long gone from school, there is a September spirit in the air: new beginnings. There is the start-up of activities – an unwritten, carry-over into adult life: things re-awaken in September.

New adventures need planning. We have a tradition for planning that goes back long before Jesus. It is being a realist when we initiate something. The examples that Jesus uses of the king contemplating battle and the builder contemplating construction are stark reality.

“No one plans to fail they just fail to plan.” is a helpful adage. The Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea is a 105-story, abandoned, concrete shell that was begun in 1989. It was expected to be the tallest hotel and one of the tallest buildings in the world. It is permanently uninhabitable because of its faulty structure and cost. It towers over the skyline as an international monument to poor planning.

No one plans to fail they just fail to plan. Cost is an essential part of planning. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the German theologian who died in a Nazi death-camp, understood this. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, he says, using different words but the same thought as Jesus, there is no “cheap grace.”

Jesus tells us the cost for our planning to be a disciple in today’s gospel: you must “hate” even your father and mother. Now, we know that the Aramaic word for hate does not mean the same in English as it does in Aramaic; there, it is not an emotional hate, but rather means “to love less” or “not to choose.” The meaning of the gospel is that nothing and no one can be put ahead of God in our personal hierarchy of values. So, both the wisdom of common sense and the wisdom of the Lord is, “No pain no gain.”

I think every one of us takes a long time to come to comprehend that “hard” saying of Jesus about prioritizing god above all. We tend to ignore it. Jesus teaches us that there must be no idolatries in our life - no matter how worthy the object of our devotion may be. People, like father, mother, loved one, children, friends; things, like career, education, talent, physical fitness, television, sports. We must “hate” [refuse to idolize] all persons, all things. Discipleship with its cost is paramount; it redefines all other loyalties.

We have an advantage over the people who heard Jesus that day. Neither Jesus nor his listeners knew then all that lay before Jesus: the cost of loss of the respect of many, the cost of the passion, and the cost of his crucifixion. We have the benefit of having seen the whole picture, including his resurrect-ion. We have seen what has happened within us after our appreciation for what he has done.

In considering the cost of discipleship, we raise another question: what is the cost of not following? Only God knows. In our hearts, we sense a great tragedy avoided. Jesus asked peter, after many had left Jesus when he spoke of his real presence in Eucharist, “Will you also go?” Peter answered for so many of us on many questions even in our own lifetime: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

September is a time for planning. Just as football teams have a game plan, financial analysts have a fiscal plan, teachers have a lesson plan, students have a study plan -- each one of us today needs a personal, spiritual plan. No one plans to fail they just fail to plan.

How are we planning our use of our time, our talent, and our treasure? It might be a very good idea to answer that question during quiet time after communion as we entertain Jesus in our spirits and bodies.

Smell the change in the September air.

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 1, 2019)

I would be embarrassed to tell you how many years I read this gospel about table seating and hosting - and just didn’t get it. Perhaps you have had trouble, too. We were not there. We did not hear Jesus’ inflection nor did we see the wry smile on Jesus’ face. I took as serious where Jesus was poking fun. Understanding that, the reading makes sense. His point speaks to the prideful Pharisee in many of us.

Jesus’ parable about how the guests might strategize to jockey them-selves into more prestigious seats is nothing short of comedy. Rather than speak directly about humility, Jesus creates a slightly outrageous story / parable to make his point.

Humility is having accurate knowledge of ourselves and accepting ourselves. In the parable, Jesus looks at motives. Humility is elusive; it is a slippery fish. In claiming that we have it, we lose it to pride. He challenges his host, the guests, and us to become humble.

Jesus’ words: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” cannot be ignored. We see some football players, after a great play, point skyward while others proudly thump their chests.

There are times when laughter is the best spiritual medicine. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves. I love another of those wonderful, Alcoholics Anonymous maxims of profound wisdom; “I may not be much, but I’m all I can think about.” The humor is so insightful. Humility is truth as Saint Therese, the little flower, says. It is the recognition that in god’s kingdom every individual is a beloved child of God. Stories such as today’s gospel make it clear that as an after-dinner speaker, Jesus probably caused heartburn for the Pharisee host.

In the second part of this episode, Jesus turns his attention away from being a good guest to being a good host. If we invite those who cannot reciprocate, we trade off dining with the somewhat rich and famous now for dining later at the banquet of the just in heaven. Throughout his ministry, Jesus judged the least, the lost and the forgotten as those most worthy of the kingdom of God.

I honestly do not know anyone or have even heard of anyone – including any religious family and my family of origin - who follows Jesus’ words literally as to who is to be invited to a gathering. Jesus is on a roll with his offbeat approach. This is hyperbole – deliberate exaggeration – about his preferred guest list. These words serve as a reminder to us of Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. Jesus wants inclusion, not exclusion.

What are we to do to steer between the twin rocks of a prideful attitude and self-rejection? We take the polarities of success and failure and learn the best from each. The unitive consciousness is balance, is reality.

The humble, gifted soprano does not deny the truth of her ability, nor does a good and humble athlete speak as if he is inept. We need simply to acknowledge our giftedness, but not get carried away with ourselves. We try to think no more highly nor lowly of ourselves than what is true. When complimented for an accomplishment, we simply say “thank you.” This acknowledges the truth-as-someone-sees-it, neither allowing our heads to swell, nor groveling that we are unworthy of the compliment.

We thereby allow our genuine, self-worth to grow, interiorly giving more of the credit to God. For, after all, “what do we have that we have not received?”

The humble have no problem recognizing their dependence on god and others. They acknowledge their own shortcomings and forgive the shortfall in others. Because they are not pretentious, the humble can rub elbows with the world’s “nobodies” and the really “somebodies” and be grateful for the good company of both.

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 25, 2019)

Two “door stories” from the New Testament impact us. One is from the Book of Revelation: “Here I stand knocking at the door. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and have supper with him and he with me.” That verse is supported by the familiar picture of Jesus standing outside a door without a doorknob. It must be opened from the inside . . . by us.

In the other story, the one in today’s Gospel, Jesus answers a seeker who asks, “Will only a few be saved” with “strive to enter through the narrow gate…” Here, the seeker is on the outside and Jesus is on the inside, but in both stories about entrance to life with our God, some effort is required of us who want to be on the same side of the door/gate as Jesus. Whether it is by turning the doorknob and opening it or by walking through the gate, something is required of us.

Jesus says that the master does not know where the petitioner comes from. Jesus is surely not talking about geography. He speaks of the necessary “striving” to enter. He adds that some will not be strong enough. He says that he recognizes those who are coming from the same place as he. The “same place” – again, not geographical - includes those who have taken on his mindset, his heart and strive to love everyone. This story reminds us of his saying that the sheep recognize the good shepherd’s voice; and he, theirs.

So, the question for us today is whether we are among those who strive to enter, whether we “will be in that number when the saints go marching in.” This is what the first reading from Isaiah is about. The prophet is telling the Jews that God will use every imaginable means of transportation used for both war and commerce. Chariots and carts and mules and camels sounds like mass transportation, not the saving of only “a few.”

More significantly, they will come from the farthest places the people of that time could imagine: from the west - in Spain [Tarshish] and from over in Africa [Put & Lud], from a tiny island around Greece [Javan (dzhay van)], from up the coast of the Black Sea [Tubal (tyoo b’l)]. These foreign people are going to enter the door just as the Israelites will. The point: the kingdom of god is larger than they expect and extends far beyond Israel. Socks will probably also drop at who will be there. Elsewhere, the god of surprises says that prostitutes and sinners will enter before those expecting admittance.

Entering the door will be a question of whom we know, but not in the politically correct sense. Knowing and empathizing with Jesus in his mind and heart converts our minds and hearts, who we are. Conversion will make us recognizable to him. He knows us if we are like him, living Jesus. He came among us as a servant. That was a favorite metaphor right to the end, to the last supper foot washing and his hanging on the cross as the suffering servant. He recognizes fellow servants.

Servants are expected to do things. The fact that we are servants of the lord means that much more is expected of us than the worldly, minimum daily requirement of decency. If we set our sights only on keeping our noses clean, that is not being a servant/disciple. That is trying to play it safe. Playing it safe is a futile business because Jesus never “played it safe.”

The “last” by worldly reckoning will be “first” through the door in Jesus’ view, and the firsts from a worldly perspective will find themselves at the back of the line Jesus tells us.

Each of us can rejoice in the fact that we have been invited. We have been offered the gift of faith with its expectations. We can rejoice that Jesus walks with us each step of the way. Our task is to be attentive, to listen for the lord and to respond with our continued “Yes, Lord” to our daily invitations.

This is our task: turning the knob on our side of the door; walking toward the gate by “striving” to identify with the mind and heart of our master. Striving to live Jesus is what we are called to do.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 18, 2019)

Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already blazing!” Jeremiah, the author of the first reading, wrote, “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.”

What is it that is burning within? The fire of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm sounds almost too weak a word. Athletes can surely appreciate the “fire in the gut” feeling. Being “fired up” means maximal effort, the absolute best effort within you. There is fire-filled effort in football on the two-yard line – on both sides of the ball – that is never exceeded.

John the Baptizer who said Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire prefigured Jesus. Here it is! The disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter afternoon returned the seven miles to Jerusalem claiming their hearts were burning within them when Jesus spoke with them. Later, tongues of fire strengthened the apostles at Pentecost to speak out fearlessly of Jesus. Fire!

Today, we do not hear more of his message. Instead, Jesus turned his attention from his message to the people who receive his message and what happens.

He asks, “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather, division!” Jesus tells of the different effects of his message on different households. He tells us that his message will not result in having one, big, happy family. He said elsewhere that his word was like a two-edged sword. It cut those from Jewish culture; it cut those from secular culture. It led him to his death.

Yet, from Jewish culture, Peter led those people who listened: Jesus’ people. From secular culture, Paul and his companions led people who listened to form a community who were called “Christians” for the first time.

Christian faith is trust, acceptance of Jesus; it is entering what philosophers call “a new sphere of existence.” The division of Christian faith is simple: either you accept Jesus, or you do not. Christian religions, on the other hand, have creeds and codes. Religion is the institution supporting faith. A religion is a means, not an end. Christian religions, as we know, differ: Lutheran, Methodism, Baptist, etc. In the last forty years, and a lot of meetings, there are fewer differences among Christian religions.

Finally, there are divisions within the same Christian religion: there are progressives and there are conservatives. Some of our leaders support the decisions of Vatican II; some want the former, top-down leadership to return. These are presently having their way. As people decide, divisions emerge.

The unknown author of Hebrews, our second reading, urges us “to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who inspires and perfects our faith.” Jesus is the object of our faith. May we not be distracted by human standards of religions’ ritual observances or creedal orthodoxy. In the end we will be judged on how we have lived as loving members of our faith family.

The opposite of division is unity. We remember Jesus’ prayer at the last supper: “I pray…that all may be one as you, father, are in me, and I am in you; I pray that they may be [one] in us.” To have unity we do not need uniformity, but some, especially the hierarchy, maintain that unity requires uniformity. Common sense says we can maintain unity in our diversity. In our multi-culture world, how can leaders expect uniformity? There is an old adage in political science: “You can’t legislate universally for a heterogeneous group.

May the fire spoken of by Jesus be the spark of love for Jesus that has taken hold in our hearts and grows stronger as faith grows within us. At times, it is a fire that illuminates our minds with new insights and transforms us. At times, it brightens a scene of God’s magnificent creation, and lifts our spirit. At times, it becomes a driving energy as we face the hurdles of life as a fire within us to stretch ourselves. At times it is the solitary light burning at the end of the tunnel. Often, it is the wonderfully warm glow that emanates from this loving, faith community and encourages us.

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 11, 2019)

All three readings speak of faith. Faith is not logic; it is a conviction about what we do not see. Most basically, faith is trust.

The second reading deals with Abraham, “Our father in faith” - as our Eucharistic prayer calls him. The event occurred about the year 2000 BCE in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in a territory we now call Iraq.

What singles out Abraham from all other tribal leaders is that he came to faith in the one, true god and that he was the first historical person to do so. He did not know much about God, but he learned something of how God works:

1. God told him that he and Sarah would have a child; it was logically impossible - Sarah was past childbearing years.

2. God then asked him to sacrifice their son, Isaac; it seemed like insanity to be willing to accept. How could there be a logical, divine plan in all this?

3. God asked him to leave his home and his land and he promised him a future. He set out for the Promised Land, not even knowing where his journey would lead.

That is how our God works with us: He asks us to trust, to take a risk, to move forward to a new adventure.

The first reading begins with “that night.” We need to put on our Jewish ears to understand. All Jews knew exactly which night that was: the night that the exodus of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery began. The Exodus is the most startling example of God’s saving power to save for a Jew. The Jews did not move easily to the Promised Land; they spent forty years walking to get there. They were asked to put their faith in God who would accompany them.

Today’s Gospel consists of three short parables about the necessity of our watchfulness. The logic in the progression is that when one learns to trust in God’s generosity, one can wait expectantly and faithfully like servants who must faithfully wait for their master’s return, even if it is delayed. What an unpredictable reward! The master will then serve us servants.

How about us? How about myself? Am I a person of faith? It seems that God has more competition in our day than in any time in history. Our lives are filled with such a high level of distraction that God’s voice is drowned out: radio, TV, and the new electronic gadgets that seem to appear almost weekly- coupled with an increasing hardness of heart by so many toward people in need.

God reciprocates our efforts and has faith in us. We are made in his image and likeness. He knows us inside out because he made us. His seed of goodness planted in us is encouraged to root deeply within us and blossom so that we may serve the people in need whose lives we touch. Just as we trust in God, so God trusts in us to partner in works as an expression of our faith.

We have heard that a journey begins with the first step. There are many outstanding examples. Mother Theresa said that after she got down to attend the first person she found in a Calcutta gutter, it got easier thereafter. Jean Vanier began his work by inviting two institutionalized adults with developmental disorders to live in his home. That was the beginning of l’Arche. Vanier had no idea where that idea would lead. In 2007, hundreds of handicapped people live in one hundred and thirty ecumenical communities across thirty countries.

A book called Rescuers tells how ordinary people rescued Jewish friends and neighbors during the Holocaust. As one says, “You start off storing one suitcase for a friend, and before you knew it, you were in over your head.”

We may not be moved to do such dramatic work for the Lord, but there are so many opportunities to reach out to someone right where we live every single day…if you have enough faith to believe in God, and to believe in yourself. Don’t worry too much about getting in over your head; however much or little you do in God’s name, simply do it from your heart.

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 4, 2019)

The book, Ecclesiastes, is something of a misfit in the bible. This is the only appearance of this book in the 3-year cycle of Sunday readings. Today, it deserves our attention.

Quooleth [ko-hehl-ehth] [“one who conducts a school”] was a philosopher, a realist. He was surely not a subscriber to “I’m okay; you’re okay.” He belonged to the tell-‘em-like-it-is school.

His opening words, “all things are vanity is the theme for his book. “Vanity” comes from the root of a word meaning to exhale, to evaporate. Vapor is something transient and insubstantial.

All three of today’s readings converge - a rare occurrence. Paul in writing to the Colossians urges us to move beyond vanity, illusion, and set our hearts on what pertains to higher realms.

Jesus talks about money in today’s Gospel. He sidesteps someone who wanted to put him in the middle of a family squabble. Jesus broadens the picture and addresses the bigger question: “take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Yet, who can deny the powerful influence of greed in our culture? We see it in business executives, political figures, and religious leaders. We see it in stress in the workplace. We see it in megastores that pay low wages to financially strapped employees and provide bargains to the more affluent. We see it in the obscenity of CEO’s paid in a ratio of 500-to-1 over their workers. We see it in the ridiculous salaries and bonuses demanded by athletes and entertainers.

Greed is a spiritual disease that convinces many that what they have is never enough. It is addictive and draws its victims to possess the poison that is killing them.

In an issue of the magazine, Minnesota monthly, the cover story is entitled “big winners.” It is the story of the lottery mega-winners. The article mentions the millionaire circle club, a N.Y.-based support group for winners. Can you imagine? We know that there are support groups for alcohol, drug, and gambling abuse now; there are support groups for wealthy people. Why? You may ask.

• Spouses seriously disagreeing on what to do with the money;

• Relatives and friends continuously making their needs known to them;

• They no longer know who their real friends are.

The stories are so sad that it provokes us to say: “Vanity of vanities.”

Jesus tells the parable about a man who experienced abundance and then acted greedily. How would he manage the increased assets his answer: build bigger barns; keep everything. Wrong! Correct answer: fill the empty barns of the poor that are already built.

The antidote to poisonous greed is gratitude. We need to be grateful for what we have to draw us away from our attention on ourselves and turn our focus to the source of the good things in life that we already have. That strengthens our faith; it reminds us to share with others.

The early Christian community, formed by Jesus, did not follow the worldly economy. “Steward” regards something a person becomes. A stewarding community is a community of serious gratitude and overflowing generosity. A stewarding community - family or church - replaces the worldly notions of power-by-possession with the God-like practice of sharing our abundance.

As we come to know, sooner or later, satisfaction and security in life does not come from wealth, but from the way we relate to each other, the care we have within our family, the loyalty we have in relationships, the work we do in community.

Our parish is a stewarding community. It understands itself as called into being by god and entrusted and empowered with God’s compassion to gratitude, generosity, hospitality, and service

We need to learn not to hug what cannot hug us back.

Seventeenth Sunday in ordinary Time (July 28, 2019)

The only recorded time that Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus for instruction is the scene in today’s Gospel. They asked him to teach them to pray. It was a common practice for rabbis to teach their disciples a prayer in Jesus’ day. Jesus provided them with an “all-purpose” prayer. It was one they could pray alone or together, in good times and in bad. A prayer for all seasons. It also gives us insight into how Jesus prayed.

Rather than go through the prayer itself, I thought it might be helpful to look at some background for prayer. First, we need to look at the one to whom we are praying. What is our personal image of the Father? How do we imagine him? In our first reading from the Old Testament, god conjures up the image of a judge who will pass sentence on Sodom and Gomorrah. In Hebrew, Matthew’s Gospel, chapter twenty-five, Jesus uses the same, judge image of the Father when he talks about a final judgment when the sheep and goats are separated. That is the scary image with which many of us grew up.

In today’s Gospel from gentle Luke, Jesus addresses the father as “Abba.” As we know, abba means “Dad.” Jesus passes on to us his warm, familiar image. John the evangelist proclaims that god is love.That image has grown most strongly in the last several decades. God is love; God is also perfect. So, God is perfect love. The popular name for that is unconditional love.

Antony Campbell, an Australian Jesuit, writes that we cannot have a level playing field with conflicting God-images. If you want to say, “On the one hand, God is our judge; on the other, God is unconditional love,” these two tend to cancel out each other. A judge is, by definition, coolly impartial, even-handed. A lover is by definition biased in passion-ate favor of the beloved. If we try to hold both images simultaneously, we have no vibrant image of god that we can relate to. We get a spiritual headache trying to focus. We need to choose for ourselves one as our over-arching image.

Personally, in the Salesian tradition, I chose unconditional love. The image of God as judge then needs to fade far into the background in order to appreciate and live by the image of god as unconditional love. With a good and healthy image of God, we can then pray in a spiritually healthy way,

If we image god this way, it follows that we need to image ourselves as sons and daughters of God who unconditionally loves. And that is wonderful. Sons and daughters need to have and express a dependent attitude. God is the Holy One, a friend to be approached in awe and reverence: “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come…” We pray thy will, not my will be done and for the coming of his kingdom, not my kingdom. This gives both meaning and direction to our lives. Today, Jesus speaks words. During passion he both speaks and models those words: “Father, let this cup pass . . . Not my will but yours be done…into your hands I commend my spirit.”

We cannot afford to be distracted by Jesus’ humorous example to a Jewish audience about a person wearing a friend down to get a favor. Why? We are part of a much later Christian community. If we have some spiritual maturity; we realize that we neither bargain with god nor feel that we have to beg God. There is no “us on our hind legs” begging for a treat. Abba wants to give us gifts that will help us; he loves us. We need to go to Jesus’ own conclusion of his humorous example: “How much more will the father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Jesus challenges us to do as he did; to ask our loving Father – with trust, period. We extend our open arms toward him in openness. Or, in more difficult times, we remember Amy Floirian’s example of the trapeze artist extending her arms back, vulnerably, towards her partner, the catcher.

What about Jesus’ insistence on persistence in prayer? Why do we need to repeat our requests? Delay in receiving a positive answer gently pushes us to rethink what we pray for. We may need to amend our petition to what will be better in the bigger picture. Let’s never mindlessly, rattle off this precious prayer. Let’s try always to pray this prayer attentively, from our hearts.

After all, it is the one prayer that Jesus himself taught us.

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 21, 2019)

Martha invites Jesus to dinner. Martha and Mary live a five-minute, mile and a half bus ride from Jerusalem. I timed it when I was in Israel. Mary and Martha are present in only this one passage in the synoptic Gospels. Their brother, Lazarus, is not mentioned here. Luke tells us that Martha has a house in a village. John’s gospel gives the three more prominence. He identifies the village as Bethany.

Jesus was the guest of Martha and Mary more than once, as john tells us. John also tells us that Jesus loved the two sisters and their brother, Lazarus very much. This is as close as we get in the Gospels to the private life of Jesus.

Rather than comparing the two sisters, we can move beyond dualistic thinking; that is, something is either black or white, either this or that, either home maker or prayer, either liberal or progressive. Dualistic thinking divides rather than unites.

Jesus’ apparent correction of Martha does not indicate her having too many things to do. If she had less to do, she would very likely still have the same problem. Jesus identifies her problem as anxiety that is directed in being “anxious about many things.” We, like Martha, need to be un-anxious.

This experience of Jesus, Mary, and Martha was long ago. Today, our parallel situation deals with being listening disciples and simultaneously being breadwinners and housekeepers and child raisers; being young, Catholic Christians and students. That takes us beyond the Mary-Martha experience and places us in our need for balance in daily life situations two millennia later.

Baking brownies does not need to be separated from union with Jesus. In the ever-increasing pace of living, we, like Martha, need to maintain our listening hearts while doing the things we need to do.

We are faced with dualities that need to be resolved by avoiding dualistic thinking and pursuing what Richard Rohr has named unitive consciousness; that is, initiate creatively; take the best from each of the “either/or” dualities and create a new entity that includes the best of both.

The first part of the solution is to recognize the dualities that we face. In today’s gospel, spirituality and daily chores are not “either / or” situations but are “both / and” situations. We need both to be spiritual and to fulfill the needs to eat and work and drive the kids – or, for young folks: to study, work, pray, and play.

St. Francis de sales is helpful with a practice he calls “the direction of intention.” We invite god’s presence into our presence, ask God to help us in identifying and choosing well in our dualities as well as other situations, offer him what good we do; this helps us keep perspective. We see ourselves as “living Jesus.” Jesus is “our ground of being” in mutual presence as we do the things we do in our mutually cooperative building of the kingdom.

As we begin any activity during the day - easy, difficult or in between - we invite, we ask god’s help, we spiritually do the activity together with our lord. This spiritual practice is one of the hallmarks of Salesian spirituality. We sow the acts of directing our intention and reap the habit/ virtue of deeper union. In time, the practice becomes like breathing in and breathing out: ruah, the breath, the spirit in easy relationship.

We incorporate our divine relationship with the person, situation at hand in order to bring about our union with Jesus and our enlightened effort in any situation.

In the Martha-Mary episode, Jesus himself established priorities of “good” and “better” in an apparently contentious situation. In so many other situations, Jesus came up with a third and better solution: is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar, or not…? The woman at the well where is it appropriate to worship God on Mt. Gerizim or the mount in Jerusalem? And more.

May you be blessed in your efforts not to classify yourself or another as “Mary” or “Martha” and may we all become Mary-Martha’s – and, may we be blessed in our efforts to improve in achieving unitive consciousness

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 14, 2019)

I have met the lawyer in today’s Gospel many times; sadly, sometimes it’s been when I looked in the mirror

To test Jesus, he asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, as he does so often, answers with a question: “What is written in the law? “

The lawyer answers with the same answer that Jesus used when he was asked what the greatest commandment is: love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Then, Jesus tells him precisely what to do; “Do this [love] and you will live. The lawyer had asked a “do to get something” question; Jesus corrected with a “do to live” answer.

The lawyer, in legal fashion, then asked that “neighbor” be defined: “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps he did not want to make the mistake of offering his charity unnecessarily. The question indicates that the lawyer is more interested in the law than love of his neighbor.

Jesus answered with the trick of threes – as, “there was a rabbi, a minister, and a priest” – or “there was a Polish man, an Italian, and an Irishman.” The third mentioned is either the punch line of a joke or the successful solution to an issue. Jesus’ story in which a Samaritan was the hero, the one who possessed the compassion of God over a law-abiding priest and a Levite would have been a severe shock to any Jew at that time.

Jesus was saying that this lawyer and his fellow Jews could not hide behind their laws or culture. True, laws give structure to our lives; few would prefer to live without them. Jesus broke laws to help people, demonstrating beyond doubt that compassion trumps law.

Neither the Jews, then, nor ourselves, now, can decide who is our neighbor. In the kingdom of God, boundaries defining neighbors do not exist. Compassion trumps law.

There is a second, subtler, more personal lesson to be learned – one that surely impacts me. It is provoked by the closing words of Jesus, “Go and do likewise.”

If there is any verse in all of revelation that stands out for me, it is Jesus’ answer to the question: “What is the greatest commandment?” It has been drummed into us all for years. But . . . Why is the follow-through not in the forefront of my consciousness? I feel a need to “go and do likewise” in a more pro-active way.

Theology may help here. Theology talks about cognitive knowing and evaluative knowing. Some folks intellectually know that murder is wrong but fail to appreciate its wrongness.

Perhaps I/we intellectually know that love of god and neighbor should be paramount in our lived lives but fail to appreciate that spiritual truth 24/7 and thereby fail to apply the knowledge in the here and now situation. Like the gospel lawyer who knew the greatest commandment, I / we also begin to ponder it and do not, as Nike says, “Just do it.” If we do not work on our faith convictions, our faith-convictions will not work for us in crunch times. The disconnect indicates a degree of lack of integrity.

The Good Samaritan was “good,” because he saw a need. His gut was struck. He reacted - positively. The story does not speak of any debate in his mind, weighing pros and cons. He was somehow “compassion-ready” for this moment. My goal is to increase spontaneity in compassion situations so as to model better the compassion Jesus spoke about.

To our credit, you and I have promptly reacted in critical situations in the past. I present for your thoughtful consideration my concern for my own “compassion knee-jerk.” Perhaps, you can identify with this. We, perhaps, need to be conscious of a possible disconnect -- or slow-connect -- between knowing about compassion and showing compassion, -- consistently identifying with the compassion of god in the here and now living our Christian vocation.

I have a need to “live Jesus” in a state of greater readiness to react compassionately at a gut level. I hope that my reflection will be of some help to you. I have a greater hope that you don’t need any help.

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 7, 2019)

Last week we saw in Luke’s Gospel people coming to join Jesus. This week we see Jesus sending them off two by two on mission as “advance men.” Curious that what we see politicians do today is what Jesus wisely did two thousand years ago. He sent disciples ahead of him to announce the Good News; he will not be far behind. Two by two affords some protection on the dangerous, ancient roads; it was also Jewish custom to believe testimony based on the witness of two people.

“Sending” has been the story of Christianity from the beginning. Jesus was sent by the Father. Disciples were sent forth by Jesus in today’s Gospel. Jesus’ instructions are not detailed on what they are to say. Instructions on how they are to conduct themselves are more detailed than what they are to say. They are to travel light - they are not vacationers. They are not to lose time with lengthy, oriental greetings. They are not to upgrade their lodging. In a word, they are to be single- minded.

We stand in this same tradition. This was actually the beginning of Christian “tradition,” literally “handing on.” In our day we are in the midst of change in the process of handing on the story of Jesus. As the number of priests, brothers, and sisters, who have been the professional “handers on,” diminishes, it is the laity who are playing an increasing role as the second Vatican Council urged. The role of the laity in celebrating Eucharist has passed from being observers to being active participants: lectors, Eucharistic ministers, ministers of hospitality, ministers of music. The locus of teaching both in the parish as catechists and rcia team members and in the home is increasing.

I think it helpful for us, as individuals, to identify those who have been the best in handing on “the faith” to us. Most of us seem able to identify those with whom we have experienced interpersonal contact, “Ah hah” moments in our faith development. We need to ask ourselves what we have to pass on, and discern how best we, now as disciples, can pass on what is our best.

Today, I would like to focus on one line in the Gospel that may not immediately catch our attention: “The seventy returned with joy…” There is joy in being disciples, a joy that is strong and is unique.

A story. When I came to teach at Salesianum in 1974, the theology department embarked on an enterprise of revising the course offerings to our students. We had only “required” courses and we then introduced “optional” courses.

In an effort to promote orthopraxis as well as continue the traditional orthodoxy, we decided to make as a “required,” one-semester course in junior year a service project where the students would go into the community, engage in some ministry for x-number of hours and submit regular reflection papers to the teacher. The reports were to be oriented beyond being “do-gooders,” to a reflection on putting faith to work. Praxis - this was a pioneering idea at the time.

There was some initial grumbling from students and some parents. “How can you make works of charity, love, mandatory? This should be voluntary.” We held firm. One family withdrew their son from Salesianum in protest. The service-director scouted many regional enterprises for placements. Students were free to come up with original sites with the director’s approval.

One of the strangest experiences in my years of teaching followed – one that was never anticipated by department members. We had a case of chaos at the end of the first semester. The students who had completed their service project would not leave their projects. Many of the other half of the junior class had to find new projects, new placements.

Salesianum students had discovered the joy of serving. It was more than discovering that they had newly-found talents. Many reflection papers were revelatory. They discovered the joy of ministering, the joy of cooperating with God in helping others in the building of the kingdom. The reflective life was worth living.

The words of a non-Christian, Rabindranath Tagore speaks to this:

“I slept and dreamt life was a joy.
I awoke and saw life was service.
I acted and behold service is joy.”

“The seventy returned with joy…” We are each called to a life of discipleship. The “tradition,” the “handing on” of what Jesus taught and what Jesus did needs to be passed on. How I do that is the question the Gospel asks us this day.

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 30, 2019)

Today’s readings are about making a decisive choice about discipleship.

The prophet Elijah - thought by Jews to be the greatest prophet - was clearly impatient with Elisha when he wanted to say goodbye to his parents before setting out on his career as a prophet. Elijah took this delay to indicate a lack of resolve on Elisha’s part.

Elisha proved his resolve by sacrificing his oxen to god on a fire of wood from his plow. His entire livelihood, the tools of his trade, literally, went up in smoke in his response to the Lord’s call. There was nothing to return to; he had burnt the bridge to his livelihood behind him. His God-choice was clear as crystal.

Luke captures Jesus at a climactic moment in his Gospel. Luke pictures Jesus as in an old western where the hero is standing, slightly spread-legged in the middle of the town street, thoughtfully looking off in the distance. Alone. Resolute. Brave. All eyes are focused on him. Then, one by one some come forward to join him as a posse.

An older - and I think better - translation reads: “He set his face for Jerusalem.” The remainder of Luke’s Gospel is about the journey with his disciples to Jerusalem after this famous, pivotal verse in Luke, 9:51.

Jerusalem is not so much a geographical destination as the culmination of Jesus’ life and mission.

James and john, disciples-in-training, provide an almost comic relief from the drama. The Samaritans have rejected Jesus because he is heading for Jerusalem; Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerizim and would not follow one heading for Jerusalem and the temple. Young Johnny and Jimmy want to vengefully kill the Samaritans with lightning from heaven. They were given the nickname “Boanerges,” the “sons of thunder.” They did not yet “get it.” Jesus’ way was non-violent, surely not vengeful. He invites, not demands. He extends an invitation to the kingdom, not a command.

Some listeners approach to join Jesus. One would-be disciple claims that he will follow wherever he goes. Jesus is up-front with him; he speaks that classic response: “The foxes have dens; the birds of the air have nests; the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, don’t choose too quickly; consider the consequences! This is not a walk in the park. As we said last weekend, a follower must prioritize God’s will over one’s own – and may lose popularity with one’s “old crowd.”

Another man wants to “bury his father.” This doesn’t mean that his father has just died and the funeral is tomorrow, but that he wants to delay until after his father’s death before he will follow Jesus. Jesus replies that the choice of discipleship precludes family duties being top priority.

Another wants to say his goodbyes. It reminds us of Elijah in the first reading. Jesus, in this different situation, calls him to single-mindedness.

Jesus tells us that when we choose him, we are like an Amish farmer in Lancaster County - who sets his hand to his plow and does not look back. No one plows a straight furrow while looking back over his shoulder. No one can be a disciple of Jesus while looking back at what is behind him and still move forward undistracted.

For years parents and educators have been concerned about the high rate of students deciding to drop out of high school and college. Studies tell us that the chief reason why students drop out is simple: they did not really want to go to school/college in the first place. The real reason they started was: peer pressure . . . parents . . . Or, they just didn’t know what else to do with their lives at that point.

I wonder about the many who have decided to leave the church at this time. Your and my faith cannot be based on an institution composed of good and bad leaders, but it needs to be based on faith in Jesus. I propose for your thoughtful consideration a question: are many of the departures from the church about inept/bad bishops and cardinals and priests, or are they really like the college dropouts? They did not want to be followers of Jesus in the first place? The fire was not in their guts.

We are Christians because we follow Jesus. If Jesus did anything for sure on earth, he certainly gathered a group of people around him to support one another and neighbors and spread the good news to the entire world. We, the people of god, comprise the church as a community. A title for the pope is, ironically, “servant of the servants of god.”

Personally, the reason I stay a Catholic-Christian is that I am hooked on Jesus, his life and teaching, the fisher of men. I am also hooked on you, my brothers and sisters. We are the people of God. Let our great celebration continue!

Body and Blood of Christ (June 23, 2019)

Today, the church celebrates the Eucharist in a manner second only to Holy Thursday on this superfeast – called “the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ.” The feast was formerly known as Corpus Christi.

So, why is this feast celebrated since we already have Holy Thursday? The best explanation seems to be that, historically, Holy Thursday became unbearably overloaded with add-ons. Think about it. On Holy Thursday in holy week, the early church celebrated the return of public sinners from public penance. Then, the church added the blessing of the holy oils for the next year. Not long ago, the chrism mass was moved earlier in Holy Week.

Besides these, there is the washing of feet, which we still celebrate. All these were in one liturgy plus celebrating the institution of the sacraments of Eucharist and holy orders and added a procession to the altar of repose as its conclusion. We needed more attention to celebrate Eucharist itself; this feast was added.

We hear in this year of Luke the Gospel account of the feeding of the 5000, the only miracle recorded in all four gospels. It is closely associated with Eucharist in the images it conjures: take, look up to heaven, bless, break, give, eat – as related in Jerusalem and Emmaus.

Food is a critically important, human concern. Since most ancient times people have striven to give their most precious gifts to their gods, food was offered to gods. We tend to project our behavior onto god. We project that food must be most precious to god. An unblemished lamb was the best of food, therefore, the greatest gift-sacrifice.

Many, many years earlier, the prophet Micah introduced change in our gift-giving to our God. “What shall I give to the Lord?” Micah asks, he answers: “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly.” He introduces the gift of giving our best-in-relating-to-others.

We heard today that Jesus responded to the human need for food. He first had the people sit in groups of 50. He did not separate his listeners by gender, class, or wealth. Unsegregated groups were unheard of in Jesus’ day. A giant step forward in the evolution of relationship! And 50 people is a community; 5000 is a mob.

He used what was available, a boy’s few fish and loaves of bread, as John tells us in his Gospel. We do not hear any details as to “how” it happened. Jesus just did it. Jesus had his followers gather up the leftovers that they might feed others, later.

In his teaching the people, Jesus gave what he had received from his Father, words of loving relationship. As we know, Jesus was so different in what he said and in what he did that Jewish leaders sought to take his life. It was “expedient that one man dies”, so that they could go on with life as usual. Later, they succeeded. Jesus’ giving his loving words and loving actions was what led to jealousy and his death for his gift of self and the Father.

Like Micah, we can ask, “What shall I give to the Lord?” Our answer is the same as Micah’s. We offer our selves to our God. Jesus used only what was available in terms of a few loaves and fishes, and that was more than enough. We give ourselves, just as we are in our effort in “doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly”.

Some think that because they do not do those things to their own satisfaction, their gift is unworthy. It is not. We need to remind ourselves over and over that god does not love us because we are good, but because God is good. This is the direct opposite of how the world judges with its conditional love. We do what we can with what we have. God loves us just as we are. That is his gift of unconditional love.

Just as everyone sat in the group of 50, each – regardless of what they thought of themselves – and received God’s gift of bread unconditionally. Each of us receives the gift of God’s love in Eucharist. We respond in loving relationship – in acting justly, loving kindly, and walking humbly.

Trinity Sunday (June 16, 2019)

We have all wrestled with the question: “What is God really like? If you are confused, it is a perfectly normal reaction. It is impossible to fathom our infinite God.

The ancient Jews had an idea. Realizing the impossibility of comprehending God, they would not even speak the word “Yahweh,” God. They used a substitute word, “Adonai,” to emphasize their awe before God.

Jesus knew he could not give his disciples an explanation. Instead, he spoke of relationships and reassured them that the Holy Spirit would guide them “into all truth.” in other words, the mystery of God does not preclude that we can grow in our understanding of relationship with god as Abba, Jesus the word made flesh, and the holy spirit.

Our God is revealed in John’s letter as “love” - a unity of three persons in relationship. In very early Christianity, origin of the use of the word “person” came from ancient theatre where one actor wore several masks for the different persons he played. So, God could be said to be one, yet somehow three persons. That we are made in his image means that we are rational, relational and loving.

Today’s feast also reminds us that we cannot be rugged individualists; that is against our relational nature. We are children of our father; therefore, we are brothers and sisters to one another, interrelated with our God and our families, friends, church community, and the world.

So, how do we grow in our understanding of God? Doctrines and dogmas can help us to begin to learn about God being a three-person community of love, but it is only in experiencing God, experiencing his love for us as persons that we finally “get it.”

I am not one who grows from reciting litanies to our lord composed by someone else; I am one who grows in understanding God’s working in my life in litanies of my own gratitude. That builds relationship.

I thank God in my own words for the wonderful people that are in my life. I see the love, the goodness, the generosity, and the compassion of the Trinity in you. You lead me into closer relationship with our God, and I hope that I am helpful in your growth.

I thank God for the gifts that I have . . . and do not have. Thank you, Lord for seeing the sunrise - or the sunset. Thank you, Lord, for being able to see. Thank you, Lord for the health that I have enjoyed, and thank you, Lord, for sickness that I have not had and how I have grown from what I have had.

As we grow in experience of God’s love for us, we are moved and enabled to love and care about others. God intends Trinitarian love to flow from God to us, but also to flow out from us to all whose lives we touch. Our God’s credibility is dependent on whether love and unity are seen in us to attract non-believers to god and to our community.

Let us not fail to acknowledge the many blessings and grace that the triune God makes present to us each day as part of the divine desire to fill us with the fullness of divine life and draw us into the unity with the three and the one.