Tuesday, May 12, 2020

I AM THE TRUE VINE


Homily for May 13th, 2020: John 15:1-8.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” Some Bible scholars think that Jesus spoke these words as he crossed the Temple courtyard with his eleven still faithful friends after the Last Supper. It was Passover time, so there would have been a full moon. The golden vine around the Temple wall, which symbolized God’s people, glowed in the moonlight. Pointing first to himself, then to the vine, Jesus says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower ...”
In calling himself the true vine, Jesus implies a contrast. God’s people, the vine he had brought out of Egypt and planted in a new land, had not been true. Jesus had been true. His death the next day would be Jesus’ final act of faithful obedience to his Father’s will. He was calling the little band of friends accompanying him to imitate his faithfulness “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
  To do this, they must remain united with him. “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.” The person who remains united with him, Jesus says, “will bear much fruit.”
“My Father is the vine grower,” Jesus says. He cares for the branches of his vine in two ways: by pruning those that bear fruit, and by cutting off and burning the unfruitful branches. Jesus’ words about these unfruitful branches being thrown into a fire and burned are an implied reference to Judas, who was even then betraying the Lord.
The vine grower’s treatment of the fruitful branches seems at first sight severe: “Every one that [bears fruit] he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” The image, easily understood by Jesus’ hearers, who were familiar with vineyards and grapes, is that of a gardener pinching off the new green shoots on a vine, so that all the growth can be concentrated in the few early blooming branches which the gardener has selected to bear fruit. 
Faced in life with setbacks, injustice, or suffering -- as all of us are, at some time or other -- which one of us has not asked: “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” Jesus’ words in today’s gospel do not answer these questions. Instead his words challenge us to view setbacks, injustice, and suffering as opportunities to grow. He is inviting us to submit to the vine grower's pruning, and so to glorify him by producing abundant fruit.

 

Sunday, February 23, 2020

"ALL IS POSSIBLE THROUGH FAITH.


Homily for February 24th, 2020: Mark 9:14-29.

The boy who is brought to Jesus by his father is possessed by “a mute spirit,” Mark tells us. He is evidently both deaf and dumb, unable to speak. The symptoms Mark describes are consistent with what today would be called epilepsy. Jesus lived in a pre-scientific age. Illness was normally attributed to demons. That is not entirely false. Illness and death were not part of God’s original plan of creation. They entered the world as a consequence of human sin. And it was human sin that opened the door for the Devil and his dark power.  

Jesus’ cry, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?” reminds us of Jesus’ sigh before the healing of a deaf man in chapter seven of Mark’s gospel, which we heard just ten days ago. That sigh, and Jesus’ words here, are expressions of the Lord’s grief over the consequences of human sin – in both cases illness.

The father’s detailed description of his son’s condition shows that he is in anguish over the boy. “If you can do anything,” the father concludes, “have compassion on us and help us.” Quoting the father’s own words, “if you can,” Jesus assures him: “Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Whereupon the man bursts out: “I do believe, help my unbelief!” His prayer for greater faith shows that he still has doubts.

As the story goes on, it becomes clear that even this imperfect faith is enough. It enables Jesus to cast out the demon and restore the boy to good health. Jesus’ words, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him and never enter him again!” show that the healing is permanent. 

What is the story’s lesson for us? It tells us that what opens the door to God’s action is faith. And it assures us that this faith need not be perfect. Finally, the story encourages us to pray with the desperate father of this boy: “Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief!”

Friday, February 21, 2020

"YOU ARE PETER."


Homily for February 22nd, 2020: Matthew 16:13-19.

          “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, 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.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

GIVERS AND TAKERS


Homily for February 21st, 2020: Mark 8:34-9:1

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel. Let me give you two examples of people who are doing that.  

The first is a mother with three children, all under six. Their needs keep her busy all day and well into the night. “Sometimes I’d just like to close the door on them and walk away,” she says. “But of course, I can’t,” she adds. And she doesn’t. That mother is losing her life for Christ’s sake—for the Him who tells us in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “Inasmuch as you do it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it for me.” In serving the needs of her three little ones, she finds a life filled with joy – the special joy that young children bring to a mother who, with her husband, has given these little ones the gift of life.

My second example is taken from the life I know best: that of priests. There are two kinds of priests: the sheets-to-alb priest, who lies abed as long as he can and reaches the sacristy just in time to throw on his vestments before he goes to the altar. And there is another kind of priest. He is up early, an hour at least before Mass, so that he can spend time waiting in silence on the Lord before he ascends the altar steps. Which of these two do you suppose finds priesthood a rat race? And which of the two finds priesthood a life filled with joy? Clearly it is the one who rises early. He is like the busy mother with her three little ones. Like her, he is losing his life for Christ’s sake. And like her, he finds life: a life so filled with joy that he would not trade it for anything.

What is comes down to is this. There are two kinds of people: takers, and givers. Which are you? If you choose to be a taker, I can promise you one thing. You will always be frustrated and disappointed; because you’ll never get enough. It is the givers who experience a measure of joy that only the Lord God can give.

 

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

"GET BEHIND ME, SATAN."


Homily for February 20th, 2020: Mark 8:27-33.

          Pope Francis spoke about today’s gospel reading at his first Mass with the cardinals who elected him. Here is what he said:          ere is what he said:

He“The same Peter who had confessed Jesus Christ said to him: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I will follow you, but let’s not talk about the cross. This is not a part of it. I will follow you in other directions, but not to the cross.’ When we journey without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we confess a Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord: we are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord. I would like for us all, after these days of grace, to have courage, precisely the courage, to walk in the Lord’s presence, with the cross of the Lord; to build the Church upon the blood of the Lord, which was poured out on the cross; and to confess the only glory there is: Christ crucified. And in this way,” the Pope concluded, “the Church will go forward.”

All of us must walk, at one time or another, through what Psalm 23 calls the valley of the shadow of death, when the clouds of doubt and discouragement seem to shut out the sunshine of God’s love. When we wonder why that should be so, why we cannot have a religion of Easter only, without Good Friday, we need to remember: Jesus could not have that. Neither can we. Take the cross out of our faith, and you have ripped the heart out of it. Good Friday and Easter belong together. Behind the cross of Good Friday, we must see the open portal of the empty tomb. And through that open portal of Easter morning, we must always see the cross, where Jesus offered all for us, even life itself. That is where all the great lessons of life are learned: at the foot of the cross.

 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

TRUSTING FAITH


Homily for April 27th, 2020: John 6:22-29.

“This is the work of God,” Jesus says in the gospel reading we have just heard, “that you believe in the one he sent.” Or as another translation has it: “Have faith in the one he sent.” What is faith? For many of us, I think, faith means belief in the truths contained in the creed which we recite every Sunday at Mass. Faith in that sense is more properly called “belief”: mental assent. Important as that is, faith has another meaning: personal trust -- an affair not of the head, but of the heart.  Even the creed begins not “I believe that” but “I believe in.” To believe in someone is to trust that person. Here’s a story about such trusting faith.
Some Alpine guides in a Swiss village organized a climb late in the season, after all the tourists had departed. They reached their chosen summit without difficulty. They were disappointed, however, not to have found an edelweiss, the delicate star-shaped white flower that grows only at high altitudes and is prized by mountaineers as a souvenir of their exploits.
The group had already started their descent when one of them spotted a single edelweiss on a narrow ledge some thirty feet below. To get it someone would have to be let down on a rope. There was no time to linger, for the weather, which changes rapidly in the mountains, was deteriorating. The climbers turned at once to the youngest and smallest member of the party, twelve-year-old Hans, making his first major climb with his father. It would be easy to let him down. In five minutes, they could be on their way again. 
“What about it, Hans,” they asked. “Will you do it?”
Hans peered anxiously at the narrow ledged with the treasured white flower -- and at the sheer drop of hundreds of feet immediately beyond.
“’l’ll do it,” Hans replied, “if my father holds the rope.”
That’s faith -- unconditional trust! That is what Jesus is talking about when he says in today’s gospel: “This is the work of God: that you believe in the One he sent.”
We pray in this Mass that, through the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, we too may receive the trusting faith of that twelve-year-old boy.   

"BE DOERS, NOT HEARERS ONLY."


Homily for February 19th, 2020: Letter of James 1:19-27.

          “Be doers of the word and not hearers only,” we heard in today’s first reading. The words summarize the central theme of the whole letter. They are remarkably similar to something Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “It is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; it is those who keep it who will be declared just” (Rom. 2:13). Jesus says the same in the Sermon on the Mount: “None of those who cry out, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of God but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

          Who are the people who say, “Lord, Lord”? We are! Every time we pray – and your presence here shows that you do pray – we are saying, “Lord, Lord.” God asks for more. If our prayers do not bear fruit in our lives, they are useless.

          Our first reading says the same, using the image of a mirror. “If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like.” The nineteenth century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne says something remarkably similar when he writes: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

There are people who have hidden behind a mask for so long that they have forgotten what their true face looks like. Our masks may fool others. They cannot fool God. God looks behind our masks. God looks at the heart. God reads even our secret thoughts and desires. Yet no matter how great the darkness within us, God never rejects us. God loves us deeply, tenderly, passionately. That is the gospel. That is the good news.

Monday, February 17, 2020

HOMILY FOR FEB.23rd


“LOVE YOUR ENEMIES.”

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Levit. 19: 1-2, 17-18. Matt. 3:38-48
AIM: To help the hearers share with others the forgiveness God lavishes on us.    

          Do you have an enemy? Someone who stands in your way; someone who refuses to understand you; who has cruelly misjudged you; who is convincing others that you are a bad person, when you know you are only trying to do your best? Is there someone who has inflicted terrible injustice on you – or on someone you dearly love – at work, at school, in your family? If you have enemies – indeed, if you have only one enemy – then today’s first reading, and the gospel we have just heard, are for you. 
          How should we treat enemies? There is a cynical answer to that question: “Don’t get mad, get even!” Which of us has never experienced the desire for revenge? Today’s readings tell us something that is terribly hard for us to respect. “Take no revenge,” our first reading tells us. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil,” Jesus says in the gospel.
          How, we ask, can Jesus demand something so difficult? Because revenge merely escalates the level of level of hatred and the desire for further revenge. We see this in the history of the last century. World War I began in 1914, just over a century ago. It left 20 million dead. Because there no reconciliation when it ended in November 1918, it was followed twenty-one years later by World War II, which cost 80 million lives.
          When we seek vengeance, nobody wins. Instead everybody loses. Certainly your enemy loses when you seek revenge. Ah, you say, but isn’t that just the point of taking revenge: to inflict pain and loss on the one who has wronged me? True. But no matter how much your enemy loses through your vengeance, he will never lose the one thing he most needs to lose: his enmity. The more you try to pay him back, the greater his enmity is likely to become.
          When you seek revenge, you also lose. You allow yourself to be dragged down to your enemy’s level. You become like him: a person of anger, bitterness, and hate. Instead of conquering your enemy’s evil, you allow yourself to be conquered by it.
          Is there an alternative? There is, and Jesus gives it to us when he says: “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”
          Suppose, instead of cursing your enemy, you were to pray for him. Suppose, rather than seeking revenge, you were to extend forgiveness. Prayer and forgiveness are the way to heap coals of fire on your enemy’s head, to melt him down from an opponent to a penitent. When you repay enmity not with evil but with good, you are burning away enmity and evil with the fire of love.
          That is the way God treats enemies. We make ourselves God’s enemies each time each time we choose our own selfish desires rather than his holy will – which alone can bring us true happiness, though we often find it difficult to believe that.
          St. Paul tells us that “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5:8, New English Bible). Long before that, Jesus had been rejected by the pious, “religious” people of his day for fraternizing with his enemies. “This man welcomes sinners,” they complained, “and eats with them (Luke 15:2).
          Isn’t this what Jesus is doing right now, around this altar? He is welcoming us, who have failed him so often; who will continue to fail him; who have denied or betrayed him in a hundred ways: secretly, half-secretly, openly, even brazenly. Despite all these things, and to show us that he loves us with a love that will never let us go, he invites us to his holy table, where he feeds us with his own body and blood.
          When Jesus does this, he heaps coals of fire on our heads: not the fire of vengeance but the fire of love, to burn away our betrayals and to warm our hearts so that we can begin to love him with at least a pale reflection of his fiercely burning love for us.
          And to love not just him: to love one another. That is what the Lord is asking us to do in today’s readings: to share with others the forgiveness and love he lavishes of us, despite all our betrayals of his love. Today’s responsorial psalm reminds us of the gifts we are called to share:
          He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills,
          He redeems your life from destruction,
             crowns you with kindness and compassion.
          Merciful and gracious is the Lord,
            slow to anger and abounding in kindness. (Psalm 103:3-4, 8)
          In trying to share those wholly unmerited gifts with others, especially with those who have done nothing to deserve our sharing because they are our enemies, we are fulfilling Jesus’ demand in the gospel. We are proving ourselves daughters and sons of our heavenly Father, who bestows his life-giving sunshine and rain on bad and good alike. By trying to imitate him who loves his enemies into submission – who will never stop loving us, no matter how unfaithful we are to him – we are being made perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect.