Sunday, February 25, 2018

TAKERS AND GIVERS


Homily for February 26th, 2018: Luke 6:36-38.

          At the end of the day there are, basically, two kinds of people. There are the Takers, and there are the Givers. Which are you? If you’re a Taker, I can promise you one thing. You will always be frustrated; because you’ll never get enough. It is only the Givers who are truly happy. They are the ones who receive from God, the giver of every good gift, the joy and peace which only the Lord God can give.

          At bottom this is what Jesus is talking about in the short gospel reading we have just heard. “Give and gifts will be given to you,” he tells us. And what we receive will be measured out to us in accordance with the generosity of our own giving. “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

          If we want God to be merciful to us, Jesus says, we must be merciful to others. If we want God to be generous in judging us – and is there anyone who does not? – then we must be generous in judging others.

          Lent is a time in which we try to grow spiritually. One way to do so is to examine ourselves, our attitudes, and our behavior. Am I quick to find fault with others? Do I try to avoid contact with people who rub me the wrong way? Do I easily look down on others who don’t have the gifts God has given me? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, or sometimes, then we need to ask the Lord to help us change.

          Nor should we wait to see if others show any sign of being willing to change. Start to make the necessary changes today. And you will discover what all generous Givers know already: God can never be outdone in generosity!

Friday, February 23, 2018

LOVE WITHOUT LIMITS


February 24th, 2018: Matthew 5: 43-48.

          Nowhere in the Bible do we find the command which Jesus cites in the gospel reading today: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Jesus is citing not Scripture but general public opinion when he refers to a command to hate your enemy. Speaking not as an interpreter of the law, but as the Lawgiver (as we saw yesterday that he does at least three times in the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus states what we could call the  new law of God: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” The book Leviticus has something similar, but it pertains to Jews only: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.” (19:18) Jesus, in effect, lifts the limitation to Jews and makes the command universal. How could he do this? Because this is how Jesus himself lived.

          The 12th century English Benedictine, Abbot Aelred writes about this in a work called The Mirror of Love. Here is what he says.

“He who is more fair than all men offered his fair face to be spat upon by sinful men ; he allowed those eyes that rule the universe to be blindfolded by wicked men; he bared his back to the scourges; he submitted that head which strokes terror in principalities and powers to the sharpness of the thorns; he gave himself up to be mocked and reviled, and at the end endured the cross, the nails, the lance, the gall, the vinegar, remaining always gentle, meek, and full of peace.”

Jesus also prayed for his tormentors, Aelred reminds us, saying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And so, Aelred writes, “If someone wishes to love himself … he must enlarge the horizon of his love to contemplate the loving gentleness of the humanity of the Lord. … If he wishes to prevent this fire of divine love from growing cold because of injuries received, let him keep the eyes of his soul always fixed on the serene patience of his beloved Lord and Savior [Jesus Christ].” (Breviary Office of Readings, Friday of the first week of Lent.)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

"BUT I SAY TO YOU . . . "


Homily for February 23rd, 2018: Matthew 5:20-26.

          Three times in this first week of Lent the gospel reading is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. On Tuesday Jesus told us how to pray by giving us the Our Father. Today and tomorrow Jesus speaks about the central concern of Jewish religion: God’s law. There is an important phrase that we heard twice today and that shall hear again tomorrow: “But I say to you …” With those words Jesus distances himself from normal Jewish practice.  

          Other teachers of God’s law cite a Commandment and then discuss its interpretation, citing the interpretations of other famous rabbis. The Commandment to “Keep holy the Sabbath day,” for instance, raises the whole question of what kinds of work are forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus speaks not, like other rabbis, as an interpreter of the law. He speaks as himself the Lawgiver.

“You have heard, ‘You shall kill.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. Or – “You have heard, “Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you whoever looks lustfully on a woman, has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts.” Or again – “You have heard, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Or finally – “You have heard, ‘Do not take a false oath.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all.”

Do you see what Jesus is doing? Two things. First, by speaking not as an interpreter of God’s law, but as the Lawgiver, Jesus is manifesting his divinity. He does the same when he forgives sins. Second, he is plugging the loopholes in the law developed by legalistic interpreters – “the scribes and Pharisees” mentioned at the beginning of today’s gospel. If the Commandments really mean what Jesus says they mean, then they are beyond our power to fulfill completely.  

Many people think of the Commandments as questions in a moral examination in which we must first get a passing grade before God will love and bless us in this life, and admit us to heaven in the next. That’s wrong! God loves us already, just as good parents love their children from birth, or even from conception, without waiting to see how they’ll turn out. The Commandments tell us how to respond gratefully to the free gift of God’s love. And if a long life has taught me anything, it is this: grateful people are happy people – no exceptions!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"YOU ARE PETER.'

Homily for February 22nd, 2018.

          “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” The sentence contains a play on words. In Jesus’ language, Aramaic, the words for Peter and Rock were the same. Jesus was giving his friend Simon a new name. In reality, Simon, now called Peter, was anything but rock-like. When, on the night before he died, Jesus told Peter that within hours Peter would deny him three times, Peter protested: “Even though I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (Mt. 26:34f)  We all know the sequel.

          Yet Jesus chose Peter, of all people, to be the leader of his Church. As preparation Peter had to become aware of his weakness. He had to be convinced that without a power greater than his own he could do nothing. Then, and only then, could Jesus use him. 

          What was rocklike in Peter was not strength of character or willpower, but faith — Peter’s trust in the One whose strength overcomes our human weakness. That is the rock on which the Lord builds his Church: trust in Jesus as God’s anointed servant: the Messiah, and God’s Son. As long as this trusting faith endures, Jesus says, even death itself will have no power over his Church.

          We Catholics believe that Peter’s office of chief pastor continues in Christ’s Church. Every one of Peter’s successors, our present Pope Francis included, is an ordinary sinner like each of us, who must constantly seek God’s forgiveness for his sins in the sacrament of penance. Like Peter, he is strong only as long as he trusts not in himself, but only in the power that comes from God alone, through his Son, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

          When you look within, do you see anything of Peter’s impetuosity and weakness? Take heart! You have a friend in heaven. The same Lord who gave the vacillating Simon the name “Rock” has made you, in baptism, his daughter, his beloved son. He wants you to be his messenger to others. You say you’re not fit for that? Neither was Peter. God does not always call those who are fit, by ordinary human standards. But he always fits those whom he calls.  

          God has a plan for your life, as surprising and wonderful as his plans for Peter. The only thing that can frustrate the accomplishment of God’s plan — for you, for me, for any one of us — is our own deliberate and final No.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

THE SIGN OF JONAH


February 21st, 2018: Jonah 3:1-10; Luke 11:29-32.

          “The word of God came to Jonah a second time,” our first reading began. The first time God had spoken to Jonah, he told him to go the Gentile city Nineveh to preach repentance to its citizens. Jonah not only refused. He took a ship going in the opposite direction from Nineveh. When the ship got into a terrible storm, the crew thought God had sent the storm to punish Jonah for his disobedience. So they threw poor Jonah overboard. He was saved in the belly of what the Bible calls “a great fish” – who after three days vomited Jonah up on land. It was at this point that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time – and with the same command. Jonah had refused God’s command the first time, because he didn’t want Gentile outsiders to experience the love and mercy of Israel’s God. That was for Jews only, Jonah thought.

Now Jonah, though still resentful, goes to Nineveh, preaches repentance, and the people immediately obey! Whereupon Jonah is angry. ‘That’s just what I told you would happen,’ he complains to God. ‘That’s why I didn’t want to come here. Now I’d rather die.’ Jonah is the quintessential sorehead.

In the gospel Jesus reminds his fellow Jews of this old story, and tells those who have been demanding a “sign” before they will believe in him – some miracle so dramatic they it will compel belief – that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. At his preaching the Gentile Ninevites, who didn’t have the Ten Commandments and all the other blessings that God had showered on Jonah’s people down through the ages, believed at once, without demanding a sign, repented, and received God’s merciful love.

Lent challenges us, as Jesus challenged his own people. Is our belief in him strong enough to make us willing to change in areas where he wants us to change? I’ll be on retreat all next week. In preparation I have been praying that during the retreat the Lord will show me the areas in my life which need to change, so that I may be more pleasing to Him, and more useful to the people whom the Church ordained me to serve.

Perhaps you’d like to offer a similar prayer.  

Monday, February 19, 2018

JESUS' TRANSFIGURATION


“THIS IS MY BELOVED SON, LISTEN TO HIM.”

February 25th, 2018: Second Sunday in Lent, Year B.  Mark 9:2-10.

AIM:  To explain the meaning of Jesus’ transfiguration and show the importance of listening for Jesus’ words in everyday life.

 

          The event we have just heard about in the gospel, Jesus’ transfiguration, is mysterious. Like Jesus’ resurrection, which is not described in any of the gospels, the transfiguration stands on the threshold between this world and the next.  Mark’s account is rich in symbols.

          The unnamed “high mountain” is the first symbol. In the thought-world of the Bible, mountains symbolize remoteness from ordinary worldly affairs, and nearness to God. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Elijah, who appears with Moses on the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration, experienced the climax of his career on Mount Carmel, in his contest with the prophets of the false god Baal. (1 Kings 18) Jesus went up a mountain to call his twelve apostles. (Mark 3:13)  John’s gospel says that he withdrew to a mountain to pray following the feeding of the great crowd in the wilderness. (6:15)     

          The dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ clothes symbolizes God’s glory, which (as God told Moses) no mortal can look on and live (Ex. 33:20). We find this same symbolism in the Book of Revelation, which says that in heaven the blessed will be “robed in white” (Rev. 3:4f).

          Moses and Elijah, the two greatest heroes of Jesus’ people, symbolize the special relationship of the Jewish people with God. Together they point to Jesus as the one who fulfils all his people’s hopes and expectations. Jesus is greater than either of them, greater even than Moses and Elijah together.

          Peter is so fascinated by this wonderful experience that he wants to prolong it. His proposal, to erect three tents, is reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Tents, a joyful autumn celebration that recalled the time when God’s people lived in tents during their desert wanderings. That feast also looked forward to the joy of the end-time, when God would visit his people and complete the blessings promised in the covenant he had made with Moses in the wilderness.

          Peter’s suggestion about the three tents is immediately followed by the descent of the cloud. That is the most striking symbol of all. Repeatedly in Scripture a cloud is a sign of God’s presence. There was a cloud on Mount Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments (Ex. 24:13). A cloud received the risen Lord into heaven at Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9). Now the voice from the cloud speaks the same words uttered at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son.”  The concluding words, “Listen to him,” recall a prophecy uttered long before by Moses: “The Lord God will raise up a prophet from among you like myself, and you shall listen to him” (Deut.18:15).

          All these biblical symbols suggest in Jesus’ transfiguration meanings which are impossible to convey in a literal description. Like the resurrection, the trans-figuration is a mystery because, though it happened in time, it gives a glimpse into a world beyond time. For a brief moment, there on the mountain, the veil between time and eternity, between earth and heaven, was lifted. Jesus’ three friends catch a momentary glimpse of the invisible, spiritual world of God. And the concluding words spoken from the cloud – “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” – express the significance of this mystery for Jesus’ friends: not only for the three present there on the mountain, but for all the friends of Jesus, ourselves included. 

           We, the friends and followers of Jesus Christ, are the company of those who listen to his words. Jesus does not grant to us, any more than he granted Peter, James, and John, the continuous vision of his glory. We live not on the mountain-top of great spiritual experiences, but in the valley of life’s ordinary duties. There we do not look for dazzling visions from beyond. Instead we listen for God’s voice.

          Perhaps you’re wondering: Does God really speak to us? When? How? God is speaking to us all the time. He speaks in his Holy Word, in the teaching of his Church, through the circumstances of daily life, in the promptings of conscience, and in the needs of those whom we encounter along life’s way. To hear God speaking to us, however, we must learn to be silent. When I entered seminary 70 years ago next month, we new students were given a little book called “Principles”: pithy sayings to guide our lives. One was about silence. It went like this: “The conversation of the brethren should help and cheer us, but God’s voice speaks most often in silence. Keep some part of every day free from all noise and the voices of men, for human distraction and craving for it hinder divine peace.”

          Some four years ago a young man named Johnny, who had been received into the Church here in our parish the previous Easter, returned from a private retreat with the Brothers of St. John in the Joliet/Illinois diocese. He was just glowing from the experience. “I loved the silence,” he told me.

Johnny,” I replied, “if you loved the silence, you are light years ahead of 95% of your peers, who wear electronic ear plugs all day and half the night, so that they won’t have to endure a single minute of silence.” Nine months later Johnny joined the Brothers of St. John as a novice. I saw him a year thereafter, when he was on his way to a visit with his parents in Birmingham/Alabama. He was radiantly happy with the choice he had made for his life -- a choice that began when he discovered the beauty of silence.   
You too can experience that beauty. To do so, turn off the radio and the TV and create times of silence in your day. Turn inward and say: “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” Each time you do that, you are heeding the words the Lord God spoke on the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration two thousand years ago:

            “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”

THE LORD'S PRAYER


February 20th, 2018: Matthew 6:7-15.

          I’ve told you that Lent is a kind of spiritual spring training. It focuses on three essential practices: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Today’s gospel gives us Jesus’ teaching about prayer. “Do not babble like the pagans,” Jesus says. The pagan gods of Jesus’ day were manipulative. They were in competition with one another. To get on their good side, the worshipper had to say the right words, and repeat them as often as possible. Forget all that, Jesus says. The God to whom you must pray is your loving heavenly Father. He “knows what you need before you ask him.”  

          Jesus then lays out the pattern for our prayer. By praying our Father, and not my Father, we acknowledge that we approach God as a member of his people. We don’t have a private me-and-God religion. Three petitions follow, having to with God himself. “Hallowed be thy name” is the first. It means “may your name be kept holy.” God’s name is kept holy when we speak it with faith, not as a magical word to get his attention, or to con him into giving us what we want.

          “Thy kingdom come” is a petition for the coming of God’s rule over us and the whole world. We are unhappy, and frustrated, because the world, and too often our own personal lives as well, do not reflect God’s rule. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” extends this petition. In heaven God’s will is done immediately, and gladly.

          Four petitions follow which have to do with our brothers and sisters in the family of God: for bread, forgiveness, deliverance from temptation, and victory over evil.

          Here is a Lenten suggestion. Take at least five or ten minutes to pray the Our Father slowly, phrase by phrase, even word by word. Start with the opening word: “Our.” Reflect on the implications of that word. Pray that you may be mindful not only of your own needs, but also of the needs of your brothers and sisters. That could be your whole prayer for five or ten minutes. Move on in your next prayer time to the word “Father,” and on the day following pray over the words “Hallowed be thy name.” Practiced faithfully, and with patience, this way of praying the one prayer Jesus has given us will bring you close to Him who tells us in John’s gospel: “All this I tell you that my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete” (15:11).

Sunday, February 18, 2018

WARNING . . . AND ENCOURAGEMENT


February 19th, 2018: Matthew 25:31-46.

          Often overlooked in this familiar parable is the surprise of both groups at the judgment pronounced upon them. Those whom the king commends are not aware of having done anything special. Those he condemns are indignant. As far as they know, they have observed all the rules. And now they find themselves rejected for things they never knew were in the rule book.

          What a lesson there is there for us Catholics. The parable is a warning. It tells us that everything we do in life, as well as the things we leave undone, have eternal consequences. The choices we make each day and hour are determining, even now, our final destiny. Judgment is not a matter of adding up the pluses and minuses in some heavenly account book. Judgment is simply God’s confirmation of the choices, or judgment, we have already made by the way we chose to live our lives. That is the warning.

          The parable’s encouragement is the assurance that we need not fear judgment if we are trying to help people in need whom we encounter along life’s way. It is not that our good deeds gain us a row of gold stars in some heavenly account book which help balance out the black marks. Jesus is saying something quite different. He is telling us that the person who is genuinely trying to serve others’ needs will not fail to attain moral goodness in other areas as well. And such failures as remain (and we all have them) will be forgiven by God.  

          Do you come here discouraged? Your life is a tangle of loose ends, failed resolutions, and broken promises? You pray poorly, you lose your temper, you’re impatient, you are unable to overcome some bad habit or, as they say, to “get it all together.” Take heart! If that, or any of that, is your story, then the parable of the sheep and the goats is Jesus’ encouragement for you. It is his way of telling you that your failures are not ultimately important, if you are looking for opportunities of helping others, and using those opportunities when you find them. Anything good you try to do for others, no matter how insignificant, is of infinite worth. It is done for Jesus Christ. One day you will discover, to your astonishment, that you have been serving Him all along, without ever realizing it. You will hear the voice of your shepherd-king saying to you tenderly, and very personally: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

          That, friends, is the gospel. That is the good news.