Friday, July 21, 2017

"DO NOT CLING TO ME."


July 22nd, 2017: John 20:1-2, 11-18.

          Mary Magdalene “saw Jesus,” we heard in the gospel, “but did not know it was Jesus.” That was the experience of almost all those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. Why? Jesus had not returned to his former life. He had been raised to a new life, beyond death. His appearance was somehow changed. Mary Magdalene realized it was the Lord standing before her only when he spoke her name. The gospel reading does not tell us how she reacted. We can easily infer this, however, from Jesus’ words:  “Do not cling to me!” Immediately followed by the command: “Go to my brothers with the news that [I am] risen.

          A young man thinking of priesthood told the priest who was helping him with his vocational decision that he had finally found courage to send in his application for admission to one of the Church’s religious orders for men. A few days after he received word of his acceptance into the novitiate, he was driving down the highway when he thought of a girl he had known. “She’d be the perfect wife for me,” he thought. “Am I crazy, throwing away that chance for happiness?” He got so upset that he prayed: “’Lord, you’re going to have to help me.’ Immediately, he said, “the Lord came to me so strongly that the tears ran down my cheeks, and I had to pull off the road.”

          “Johnny,” the priest told him, “the Lord came to you to strengthen your faith and your decision to serve Him as a priest. You must be thankful for that. But don’t try to hold on to that spiritual experience by running the video over again in your head. That is spiritual gluttony.”

          Then the priest told him about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord, and Jesus’ command to her: “Do not cling to me,” but go to my brothers with the news of my resurrection. Every encounter with the Lord is given to us not just for ourselves, the priest told the young man, to give us a nice warm spiritual experience inside. The Lord comes to us to send us to others – his brothers and sisters; yes, and ours too.  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

"I DESIRE MERCY, NOT SACRIFICE."


Homily for July 21st, 2017: Matthew 12:1-8.

          “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day,” is the third of the Ten Commandments. We find the Commandments twice in the Old Testament: in the 20th chapter of Exodus, and in the 5th chapter of Deuteronomy. Both versions say that we keep the Sabbath holy by refraining from work. Exodus says that the Sabbath rest commemorates God resting on the seventh day after creating the world and everything in it in the previous six days. Deuteronomy doesn’t mention God resting; but it spells out in greater detail what Exodus says more briefly: that the Sabbath rest is for all, domestic animals as well as humans, masters and slaves alike: “for you were once slaves in Egypt.”

          By Jesus’ day the rabbis had developed a list of 39 kinds of work that were forbidden on the Sabbath. Harvesting crops and preparation of food were both on the list. So when the Pharisees, who were among Jesus’ most severe critics, saw his disciples picking off heads of grain as they walked through a wheat field on the way to the synagogue on a Sabbath day and eating the grain to satisfy their hunger, they pounced quickly. “That’s forbidden!” the Pharisees say.

          Jesus defends his disciples by citing an incident in the Old Testament regarding the bread offered to God in the Temple each Sabbath. After a week it was eaten by the priests and replaced with fresh bread. Others were forbidden to eat it. Yet once, when the great King David was hungry, he and his companions ate the bread themselves.

          Jesus never abrogated any of God’s laws. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (cf. Mt. 5:17). But he made charity the highest law of all. That is why he healed on the Sabbath, for instance. And that is why Pope Francis, celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a prison on the first Holy Thursday after his election disregarded the liturgical law which says that only the feet of baptized men should be washed, in order to wash also the feet of some Muslim women. The highest law of all is charity. Or as Jesus said, quoting the prophet Hosea: “It is mercy I desire not sacrifice.”

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A PURE CHURCH?

    July 23rd, 2017; 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
          Wis. 12:13, 16-19; Mt. 13:24-30.
AIM: To show the hearers that the Church is a Church of sinners, not a    
          gathering of the righteous.
      A number of you are gardeners. Why on earth, you are probably wondering, does the man in this story tell his workers not to pull up the weeds in his field? The story, like many passages in Holy Scripture, makes us shake our heads and wonder how we can make sense of it all. Jesus tells us this story to show us that God’s ways are radically different from ours. The story is also Jesus’ answer to his self-righteous critics who complained: “This man receives sinners, and eats with them” (Lk 15:2). Why?
      The suggestion of the farmer’s slaves that they should pull up the weeds in his field was entirely reasonable. The farmer rejects the suggestion nonetheless. There will be a time for separating the weeds from the wheat, he says. But that is later, at the harvest. Until then, he orders, “let them grow together.” 
      ‘That is how I am acting,’ Jesus is saying. ‘That is how God acts — like this farmer.’ Jesus knew there were many people in the crowds which flocked to hear him who did not accept his message. Challenged by his critics to send such people away, however, Jesus refused. The time for separation and judgment, he said, was not yet. That would come later.
      The prophets of Jesus’ people, right up to and including John the Baptist, believed that when God sent his promised Messiah, the first thing this anointed servant of the Lord would do would be to judge people. Yet when Jesus came he did not judge. He ate with sinners. He prevented the stoning of the woman taken in adultery. He proclaimed God’s love for all – given freely and lavishly, whether people deserved God’s love (like the good Samaritan aiding the wounded man by the wayside), or whether they did not deserve it (like the younger brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son who came home, after wasting his entire inheritance, not with true sorrow for his sin, but simply to put food on his table and a roof over his head). Jesus healed people, without investigating first whether they repented of their sins or not.
      Jesus spoke of judgment too, of course. But he made it clear that this would come later. And it would be based on how people responded to God’s freely given love. In his great parable of judgment, the story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus said that the measure of our response to God’s love would be how much, or how little, we had done for people in need. 
      Jesus’ message – proclaiming God’s love first, and judgment later – and the story in today’s gospel of the wheat and the weeds which explains this message, are important for all those who are scandalized because his Church contains so many hypocrites: people who come to Mass on Sunday, but whose lives the rest of the week are inconsistent with the words they hear and speak in Church. There is no use trying to deny this. The Church does contain hypocrites. It always has. It always will. And it would be dishonest to pretend that they all laypeople.
      Jesus never promised that every baptized Catholic would be part of his heavenly kingdom, any more than he promised the crowds who flocked round him in Palestine that they would all be part of his kingdom. On the contrary, Jesus knows that his Church will always contain many who, because their hearts are far from God, are not part of his kingdom.
      Separating true believers from hypocrites, however, is for God not for us. “If you pull up the weeds, you might uproot the wheat with them,” Jesus warns. Every attempt to create a “pure” Church of true believers has ended in failure. Only God can purify his Church; for only God can see people’s hearts. If God chooses to delay his work of final judgment and purification, it is for the reason given in our first reading: God’s “mastery over all things” makes him “lenient to all.” God can afford to be generous and merciful because he is all powerful.
      The story tells us of God’s patience. It warns us not to be less patient than God. Which one of us would not like to have a Church in which there were no hypocrites? In which everyone from First Communion children to the Pope always practiced what they preached? That would be beautiful, wouldn’t it? But creating such a pure Church is God’s work, not ours. And the time for God’s final purification is not yet.
      Note that I said “final purification.” Purification of the Church through repentance and forgiveness of us, its members, goes on all the time, and must go on. The Second Vatican Council said that the Church is “always in need of being purified” (LG 8, end). The painful crisis which burst upon the Church in our country fifteen years ago through the misconduct of some priests and bishops is part of this ongoing purification.  
      The time for final purification, however, is not yet. That “not yet” contains a warning, and a burden, but also encouragement. The warning is contained in the farmer’s order at harvest time: “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning.” God delays his judgment because he is patient, to give us every chance to decide for him while there is still time. One day, however, there will be no more chances. Judgment will begin. That is the warning. The burden is having to live in a Church of sinners, where many are hypocritical and insincere. The story’s encouragement is its message that the Lord’s Church has room for everyone. 
      I’d like to leave you with a question, for your own reflection: If the Church were really as pure as we would all like it to be, can we be confident that there would be room in this pure Church for ordinary, weak sinners like ourselves?

"TAKE MY YOKE UPON YOU."


Homily for July 20th, 2017: Matthew 11:28-30.

          “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says. In Jesus’ day yokes were as common a wheelbarrows today. Carved out of wood to fit over the shoulders, they had arms extending out about a foot or more on either side, with a ring on each end supporting a rope or chain from which the person using the yoke could hang a bucket or other container. This made it possible to transport with relative ease loads too heavy to be carried by hand.

          It was crucial that yoke fit the shoulders of the person using it. Otherwise the yoke would chafe and the person attempting to use it would soon throw it off. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, “and my burden light.” There is an unspoken IF there. The yoke and burden Jesus offers us are easy and light only if we accept them. If we chafe against the yoke and try to throw it off, then it is not easy; and the burden which it supports is heavy and definitely not light.

          To help us accept the yoke Jesus says: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Meekness and humility do not come to us easily or without prolonged effort and many failures. We must be lifelong learners. Our teacher is the best there is. He understands our difficulties. He is not interested in how often we stumble and fall. He is interested in one thing only: how often, with his help, we get up again, and continue the journey.

          Our teacher’s name is Jesus Christ.    

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

THE CALL OF MOSES


Homily for July 19th, 2017: Exodus 3:1-6, 9-12.

Again today, as in our first reading yesterday, we encounter Moses. He has become a Nobody in a foreign land, reduced to tending sheep for a living. The Bible puts his age at eighty. His meaningful life, it would seem, is over. But not for God. God calculates differently. On a day which starts like every other, God breaks into the old man’s life and calls him to do what he had miserably failed to do half a lifetime before.

“The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and [Moses] looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” (Ex. 3:2) Moses is in the desert, the abode of wild animals. Fire means danger: better keep clear. Old in years but still young in spirit, Moses does something unexpected. “And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’” (Ex. 3:3f)

          “Do not come near,” God says to Moses, “put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. … And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex. 3:5f). Those words come back to me often, when I approach the altar to obey Jesus’ command at the Last Supper to “Do this in my memory.” Never in Holy Scripture is the encounter with God routine or ordinary. Always there is awe, even fear. So it was then. So should it be today.

“I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” God tells Moses, “and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians …” How surprised Moses must have been at these words. But also how gratified. The words which follow, however, shock him to the core of his being. “I will send you so that you may bring forth my people … out of Egypt.”

Me? Moses asks in astonishment. “Who am I that I should go and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” To which God replies simply: “I will be with you.”

When God promises something, he always keeps his promise. We know the dramatic sequel: the delivery from certain death of an entire oppressed people, under the leadership of a man who – until God called him -- was washed up, finished, kaput as the Germans say. If God could still use a man like that, He can use each one of us if, like Moses, we remain open to the Lord’s call, seeking every day to do his will.

Monday, July 17, 2017

LIFE OUT OF DEATH


Homily for July 18th, 2017: Exodus 2:1-15a.

          Just twelve days ago, when the first reading told about Abraham preparing to sacrifice his only son Isaac, and how God saved the boy ten seconds from death, I told you that the story was an example of God’s characteristic work: bringing life out of death. If we had time, I said then, I could give you other examples of God doing the same in generation after generation after Abraham and Isaac. Our first reading today gives us another example.

          Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, alarmed at the robust birth rate of the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt, decreed that every male Hebrew child should be killed at birth. “Whom the gods would destroy,” an ancient saying says, “he first makes mad.” Pharaoh’s order was madness indeed. He was ordering the death of the very people he needed for his ambitious building projects.

          Pharaoh’s order was the reason why the mother of the Hebrew baby in our first reading (whose name, we learn later, was Moses), put him in a water-proofed basket in the river, hoping that the little one would those escape the attention of Pharaoh’s enforcement police. It was a slender hope. Most likely the swiftly flowing water would soon carry away the basket and its content. As an extra precaution the mother tells her maid to keep watch from the nearby bushes.

          Against all odds, this high-risk strategy works. The little one is discovered by the daughter of Pharaoh himself. Thus it comes about that the baby is brought up at the court of none other than the ruler who had decreed his death. A remarkable coincidence? So we might say. For the Bible, however, coincidences are God’s way of concealing his identity. 

          Surrounded by every luxury, including we can assume, an education in the highest culture of that day, the adult Moses shows himself to possess a keen sense of justice. Seeing two Hebrews being abused by their Egyptian taskmaster, he intervenes by slaying the abuser. He does so carefully, only after assuring himself that there are no witnesses, other than the two men whom he saves. Oppressed people often turn on each other: see the statistics of black-on-black crime today. When Moses sees two of his Hebrew countrymen fighting, he rebukes them. “Are you going to kill us like you killed that Egyptian yesterday?” they ask. Alarmed that his blow for justice is not secret, as he supposed, Moses must flee for his life. So it comes about that a man twice on the brink of death, once as an infant, then as an adult, becomes the man whom God has chosen to save his entire people, trapped between the impassible waters ahead, and Pharaoh’s army closing in on them from behind.

            Once again we witness God as the God of the impossible, whose characteristic work in every generation, our own included, is to bring life out of death.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"NOT PEACE, BUT DIVISION."


Homily for July 17th, 2017: Matthew 10:34-11:1.

I have come, Jesus tells us in today’s gospel, not for peace but for division – even in the same family. We hear many voices reminding us that in today’s dangerous world we need a strong military defense. We hear less about the need to repair our moral defenses. All the military might in the world will not save our country, however, or any country, if the moral fabric of our national life is rotten. Examples of this rot are not difficult to find:

Schools that are awash in a sea of drugs, physical and general lawlessness; where parents are willing to have their children driven many miles to attend better schools; and where many who would like to be teachers instead of wardens are quitting in disgust. Lying, cheating, and taking unfair advantage of others at every level: in business, government, in labor unions, and in the so-called learned professions. A retired lawyer said to me recently: “When I was admitted to the bar, you could take another lawyer’s word for it. Now you had better get it in writing.”

The indiscriminate and legal killing of unborn children in our country, because their birth might be an inconvenience. There are now a million and a half abortions a year in our country. That is one tiny human life snuffed out every twenty seconds of every hour, day and night, day in and day out.

          Those examples are just the tip of the iceberg – only a small part of the evidence of moral sickness in our society. There are, thank God, also many beautiful signs of moral health, especially in the idealism and willingness to sacrifice of many of our young people. But all this good evidence cannot cancel out the bad. A moment’s reflection discloses part, at least of the reason for this moral sickness: placing private gain ahead of public good; seeking happiness through getting rather than through giving.

          Pointing out such examples of social rot is called unpatriotic, or silenced with the simplistic slogan: “America – love it or leave it.” Anyone who has experienced that kind of hostility knows what Jesus means when he says in today’s gospel: “Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” The price of following Jesus Christ is high. How could it be otherwise, when the One we follow found that the price of his discipleship was death – but beyond death – for Jesus as also for us if we are trying to build our lives on him – eternal life.

Friday, July 14, 2017

"GOD MEANT IT FOR GOOD."


Homily for July 15th, 2017: Genesis 49: 29-33; 50: 15-24.

          “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good.” These words from our first reading belong to the story of Joseph in Egypt, we have been hearing for several days now. The youngest of many brothers, Joseph was his father’s favorite. Understandably jealous, his older brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt and tell their heart-broken father that the boy is dead.

          After coming close to death in Egypt, Joseph rises to become the second most powerful man in the kingdom, after the ruler, Pharaoh. Anticipating a widespread famine, Joseph fills storehouses with grain, which is made available when famine strikes.

          Joseph’s brothers journey to Egypt in search of food and encounter their brother at the royal court, but do not recognize him. He immediately recognizes them, however, and invites them to come to Egypt, bringing their old father with them. Today’s first reading recounts the old man’s death many years later.

          Fearful that with their father no longer alive to protect them, Joseph will take revenge for their treatment of him years ago. They tell Joseph that their father had instructed them to beg for forgiveness once their father was dead. This they do, as we heard in the reading, in the most abject manner.

          This gives Joseph an opportunity to demonstrate his spiritual goodness by speaking the words quoted at the outset: “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good.” He tells his brothers to “have no fear.” He cannot take the place of God by taking vengeance on them.

          It is a moving and beautiful story. God can bring good out of evil, the story tells us. And he does so, time and time again – never more dramatically than, centuries later, when the crime of Jesus’ crucifixion is overruled by God through his Son’s resurrection on the third day.