September 24, 2017 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Sep 242017
 

Matthew 20:1-16a

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Let’s just set it out there again: life often is not fair. That’s one of the things that we learn early on. It’s the result of the Fall of our First Parents: Adam and Eve. Resentment was the sin of Cain that led him to kill his brother Abel. It wasn’t fair, Cain thought, that God chose Abel’s offering over his. Our Lord Jesus acknowledged this ubiquitous unfairness when He said in Matthew 5:45 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Why should the evil and the unjust get the benefit of sunshine and rain?

We’ve got this issue of fairness in the parable this morning from Matthew 20.

Let’s set the stage. As in so many of Jesus’ parables, the Landowner represents God and the workers represent both Israel and the Church. You see, among other things, Jesus meant this to be a warning to his disciples and by implication to us, the Faithful today, to be careful of our attitudes, especially our resentments and grudges, even in the face of obvious unfairness.

In the preceding chapter, Matthew 19, Peter showed that he was worried about fairness by stating that “We’ve left everything and followed you, so what is our reward?” Jesus promised great return for their sacrifices, but in this lesson today, he also seems to be giving a warning to the disciples and to us. Do not be resentful of folks we think are unfairly rewarded. We the faithful, the disciples of Jesus, are not to be overly concerned about whether or not things are fair. It’s right here in today’s parable.

You’re familiar with the story, so let me paraphrase:

A certain prosperous farmer needed some day laborers. At 6:00AM he went to the employment agency and picked out his crew; they agreed on a fair day’s wage and he put them to work.  At 9:00 he went back and picked up a few more. At noon he came back, and then at 3:00 and finally at 5:00, one hour before quitting time.

Now the climax of the story is the anger and resentment of the workers who put in a long twelve hours; these were the guys who bore the heat of the day, who worked harder and longer than the others and they received no more than the guys who worked only for one hour It just wasn’t fair.

Sometimes you and I have a tough time with this, especially when life is unfair and specifically when life is unfair to me. It’s bad enough when life is unfair to you, but when life’s unfair to me, that’s really awful. It’s easy to slip into this kind of thinking, isn’t it?

Some years ago I saw the movie “Amadeus.” It was the story of that great musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  The movie depicted Mozart as a really irritating spoiled and crude sophomoric brat who also happened to be a musical genius. His social skills were almost non-existent. In the royal court of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, Mozart acted the buffoon.

In contrast to Mozart was Joseph II’s chief court musician, a man named Solieri, a man of impeccable grooming and manners, but whose musical abilities were rather pedestrian compared to Mozart’s.  Solieri despised Mozart. He resented him. He obsessed over this thought “How could God permit such an obnoxious person to be so gifted? It just wasn’t fair.”

What made this story particularly interesting to me was that Solieri was a pious Catholic. He was a man of deep faith, so he was seriously anguished when he could not understand why God did not make him more gifted instead of squandering all that talent on that boor Mozart.  In a moment of despair and frustration, Solieri takes his crucifix off the wall and throws it into the fire. In his mind, Christ had forsaken him, so he was going to forsake Christ.

Most of us don’t do such dramatic gestures when we think God has forsaken us, or shown more favor to someone else who is much less worthy in our eyes. In response, we generally don’t burn our crucifixes or rosaries. But we may quit saying our prayers, we may stop attending Mass, thereby ex-communicating ourselves. After all, it’s just not fair.

Clinging to our own interpretation of fairness may very well reveal how we can easily misunderstand God’s ways. God’s kingdom is not based on fairness, it is based on love.  And God’s love is not fair. Why? Because God’s love extends to people we think should not receive it:  Muslim extremists, murderers, molesters, members of that other political party.  When we are honest with ourselves, there are a whole lot of times in our lives when we aren’t deserving of God’s love, either, but we receive it anyway.

You see, what all this means is that God is doing business on his terms, not ours. That’s the lesson from the parable. God, speaking through the voice of the landowner says “am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ I suggest that there are 4 primary difficulties in the human condition to which this parable speaks.

1. Self absorption:   This is a theme I go back to frequently. Some years back I saw a bumper sticker that described perfectly the human condition. It said: “It really is all about me.” There’s a similar phrase from my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous: “I may not be much— but I am all I think about.” This is the basis of sin. This is the manifestation of our separation from God and others. This is not always the case. We are capable of incredible altruism, but there are plenty of times when we complain and grumble about inequities. Each one of us has been known to focus more on my work, my leisure, my problems, my wants and needs and less on God and his kingdom and his overwhelming love and graces. That is what leads to alienation, especially when things go sideways. It’s so easy to be self-absorbed.  After all, it’s not fair.

2.  Comparison:  Growing up with siblings makes us constantly aware of comparison.  Like many of you, we had a rule at our house when i was a youngster, that if there was one piece of cake left and two of us kids wanted it, one would cut the cake in half and the other would have first choice.  My brother and I would literally get out a ruler to measure the cake. We were figuring height and width and depth and volume long before we ever heard of geometry. As adults we get into the comparison stuff so strongly that we all too frequently ignore God’s grace completely. We may not say the words, but we often think, “Hey, he got more cake than me.” It’s not fair.

3.  Presumption:  We often presume too much when it comes to getting rewards. Somewhere along the line we have learned to assume that we are entitled to every blessing, forgetting that blessings by definition are gifts. The biggest problem with presumption is that we neglect to say thank you from the heart and we may tend to be tightfisted with the gifts that God so generously has bestowed upon us. After all, what’s mine is mine, I’ve earned it or at least I deserve it, and if we don’t receive what we think we deserve, we get resentful and affirm in our hearts that it’s just not fair.

4.  Distortion:  When we judge others as unworthy and receiving more than they deserve, we misunderstand that the Kingdom of God is built on Grace and not on our efforts, no matter how much exertion we have extended. If we work hard and play by the rules and we are not rewarded in the way that we think we are entitled, we grouse that it’s just not fair. We identify with the people who worked all day and got paid the same as the workers who worked only one hour. It wasn’t fair. This kind of thinking brings a distorted view of God’s kingdom.

Here again are the 4 reasons why we so often think things are not fair:

  1. Self-absorption
  2. Comparison
  3. Presumption
  4. Distortion

So in closing, it’s not fair that folks should suffer, it’s not fair that little kids get cancer and that old people get ripped off and their retirement funds are embezzled, it’s not fair that folks are victims of terrible abuse and that all too often perpetrators go free. It’s not fair that earthquakes and hurricanes and forest fires should savage so many. And I would remind you that it’s especially not fair that God gave his only son to die on a cross for our salvation, but that’s what love does. It forgoes and sacrifices and serves in the midst of such horrible unfairness. That is the way of love. It’s not about fairness, it’s about gratitude and grace.

 

 

 

 

 

September 17, 2017 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Sep 192017
 

Sirach 27:30—28:7

Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins? Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

 

I’ve been thinking about prudence. The Catechism tells us that prudence is “The virtue which disposes a person to discern the good and choose the correct means to accomplish it.” It goes on: Prudence “dispose(s) the Christian to live according to the law of Christ,” and “provides…guidance for the judgment of conscience.” (CCC p895-6)

To repeat, the Catechism tells us that prudence disposes us “to live according to the law of Christ” and it provides us “guidance for the judgment of conscience.” For Catholics, the conscience is the ultimate guide. This is from the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes (16), the Pastoral Constitution of the Church:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…For man has in his heart a law ascribed by God…His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.

Without the proper guidance however, we can confuse conscience with other things: the voice of the world, the flesh and or the devil. There may have been some indoctrination that is counter to Church teachings. Events in life can warp our perspectives. Perhaps there was an issue of abuse in our early years. Or we might be victim to some mental illness. There are many things that can lead us to slip into thinking that our consciences are instructing us to do something contrary to the laws of God and the Church.

To give insight into this Pope Saint John Paul II wrote several things on the topic including the encyclical Veritatis Splendor or “The Splendor of Truth.” He teaches that the conscience is not subjective, but is the conveyor of objective truth. There cannot be a moral truth for one person and a different one for someone else. Abortion can’t be killing a child for one person and a good moral choice for another. St. John Paul tells us that the conscience actually represents the overcoming of subjectivity because it brings us into direct contact with the moral truth revealed by God.

Once we know and embrace the teachings of the Church on moral issues we realize that the conscience embraces the truth of moral norms and when that happens, you and I appreciate that these norms are not alien or imposed from the outside. Rather they orient us to our own good and personal fulfillment.

For example, when our consciences perceive the intrinsic value of marriage, then we subscribe to the norm forbidding adultery not because it is some burdensome external command, but because following this norm is in harmony with our own nature and the objective order of goodness willed by God. When we know the truth of the Church, then our consciences are at peace when we practice this truth.

According to St. John Paul, the “conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil.”  Rather, the conscience must act in conformity with the objective moral norms given to us by God, and if this does not happen, then our conscience is in error. Conscience is always subordinate to moral truth. It is crucial, therefore, to dispel the myth that conscience is a lawgiver or represents the final subjective determination of what’s good or what’s evil.

Conscience, therefore, is far more than a rational judgment process. Through our consciences we are open to the demands of moral truth and the voice of God who speaks to us through that truth. Our consciences provide all of us with the capacity to transcend our own egos so that we can grasp those objective truths that perfect us and consequently we are lead to fullness of life.  Saint John Paul emphasizes that our consciences need to be tutored; we need instruction from the teachings of the Church and we need to be instructed especially from the scriptures.

As an example, today we have scriptures before us that instruct our consciences. We must take them to heart if we are to be faithfully prudent. This is God’s instruction for our consciences.

We can start at the opening lines from our first lesson from Sirach: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.”

A well-tutored, prudent conscience does not permit vengeance, even though there are times when we want to give into the very sinful notion of “I don’t get mad—I get even.”

In the Gospel lesson we hear something more. Here we have Saint Peter asking how many times he needs to forgive his brother. And in response, Jesus tells the parable of forgiveness of monetary debt, which in fact deals with the nature and state of our hearts.

It’s appropriate for each of us to ask, ‘What is the state of my heart, the place where my conscience lies?” Remember the teaching of Gaudium et Spes, we have in our hearts “a law ascribed by God.” This is heart-level faith. I regularly will ask someone in confession if they are suffering from hardness of heart, the state that blocks the holiness of our consciences. I’ve found over the years that when one suffers from hardness of heart there are generally two causes.

The first is the heart that is calloused over. This generally comes from a sense of competency and efficiency. A person may be quite good at accomplishing tasks and gets very impatient with those who are less competent, who get in the way, who mess things up. This kind of hardness of heart, this callousness blocks compassion and gives way to a seriously critical and oftentimes resentful nature.

A second reason for hardness of heart is scar tissue. This is from old wounds that have caused the heart to be scarred. And this scarring prevents one from being compassionate. These old wounds that have been scarred over and often prevent us from being kindhearted to someone who reminds us of the old times of wounding.

The penance I regularly assign to this hardness of heart is for the penitent to ask our Blessed Mother to come and gently massage the callous or the scar tissue and break it up, so that the heart can be soft and supple. When this happens the heart is open to the instructions of God for our consciences and enables us to be more sensitive and more receptive to prudence.

Back to the Gospel lesson.

Peter asks: “Lord if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” The Greek here is a little ambiguous and I think the translation is a bit misleading. It implies that Jesus is saying that there is a finite number of times we are to forgive someone. So if somebody sins against you 78 times, you no longer have to forgive him because he’s already used up the allotted 77 times.

I think there is a better translation of this passage, one that speaks to the intent of our Lord, It is to replace the number 77 with the number 7 to the 70th power. I asked my son the engineer to calculate this for me. He said it was 1.435 followed by 59 zeros. I’m not going to check his math, but remember that a million is 1 followed by 6 zeros. 59 zeros represent a really, really big number. That’s the point.

Once again Jesus is using hyperbole, extreme exaggeration, to teach us. We are to forgive always with no finite number attached. We are never to run out of forgiveness. Why? Because God never runs out of forgiveness for us—never.

And just as we are forgiven, we are to forgive. It’s a critical part of the prayer Jesus taught us “Forgive us our trespasses, as, AS,AS, we forgive those who trespass against us.” Being forgiven and forgiving others are so intertwined they cannot be separated, a basic Catholic teaching.

The New Testament speaks with one voice on the subject. Forgiveness is not like a Christmas present that a kindly old grandfather gives to a sulky kid, even if the grandchild hasn’t bought a single gift for anyone else.

Forgiveness is more like blood in your heart. There’s only room for blood to come in if your heart has pumped the blood out. Your heart pumps out blood and takes in more blood. You can’t separate one from the other.  Whatever the spiritual, moral or emotional equivalent of a heart may be, it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness, and instruction for our consciences.

But if it it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other. Jesus finishes the parable by making it clear; if you don’t “forgive from the heart,” you are not going to be forgiven.

You can feel it along with your heartbeat: forgiveness out—forgiveness in—forgiveness out—forgiveness in. In fact it’s actually love in—love out—love in—love out—love in—love out. It’s a major rhythm of the life of the Faithful.

Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer says it all: If you are still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them, you’re probably just postponing revenge.

What Jesus is talking about is simple.  Don’t even think about the number of times you forgive, just do it from the heart. It’s the best way to assure your own forgiveness and to honor Christ who died for the forgiveness of your sins and mine. We have no higher calling. It’s the ultimate expression of prudence.

I close with more of God’s instruction from Sirach:

Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay and cease from sin!  Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults. This is real prudence.

 


 

September 10, 2017 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Sep 102017
 

Ezekiel 33:7-9

Thus says the LORD: You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die, ” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

Romans 13:8-10

Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, ” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

 

St. Paul lays it out for us right here in today’s Epistle lesson:  Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.( Romans 13:9) 

Paul is intentionally using the metaphor of debt to make his point that there is an obligation which is owed by everyone. It’s the extension of Christ’s loving gift of himself on the Cross, and our fullest and most proper response, in fact, our only response is to love others as a sign and symbol of Christ’s love for us.

Paul was reinforcing the point that Jesus made. To refresh your memories, we read in the 12th chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel that Jesus had a particular encounter with a scribe who wanted to know about the greatest law. There are 613 laws in the OT and it was common to debate which one was supreme. Jesus quotes Dt.6:4-5 (Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is one!) This passage goes on to tell us that we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and all our strength. The implication is that a love for God does not arise spontaneously but by conscious commitment that stems from every ounce of our energy and aspect of our being.

Again to remind you, the second part of Jesus’ response to this scribe quotes Lev. 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus finishes by saying that “There is no other commandment greater than these.” St. Paul is picking up on this theme.

As we know, the Greek term for this love is Agape, and this emphasis on Agape love is foundational for all the Faith of the Church. We read much about this throughout the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers. Perhaps the most famous passage is found in the 13th Chapter of First Corinthians where Paul writes that “faith, hope, love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

What does agape love mean?  My New Testament professor in seminary defined agape love as “unconditional positive regard.” This means that we need to love with no reservation. But neither Jesus nor Paul were naïve in making this requirement. So in the chapter before today’s Epistle lesson, Chapter 12 of Romans, St. Paul emphasizes that love must be “genuine.” (Rom. 12:9) The actual Greek translation tells us that love must not be “hypocritical.”

So how do we do this? Here’s how. If we treat someone we thoroughly dislike and mistrust as if we hold them close to our hearts with the deepest of affection. if we do everything we can to imagine and remember all the difficult things that have happened in their lives that made them so very hard to love, then it may well happen that authentic sympathy and even affection may arise.  And with God’s Grace it will be sincere, not hypocritical, something truly loving that stems from our hearts. It’s the practical implementation of that old statement from 12 step programs that we see so often on bumper stickers: Fake it ‘til you make it. Often times acting as if we are loving is sufficient; the actions will bring along the sincerity.

This love is tough; not simply in the sense of the “tough love” that is sometimes needed when dealing with a recalcitrant teen who has succumbed completely to addiction and rebellion. Rather, this love springs not from the emotions but from the will. This love grits its teeth and sets its jaw and behaves in loving ways, no matter the feelings, all the while trusting that eventually the feeling will come trotting along at the appropriate time and place. If we reduce this holy love to our emotions and feelings, we lose not only consistency but any kind of true piety.

Perhaps no one knew this better that Saint Theresa of Calcutta. To remind you her feast day is September 5th and we’ve just celebrated the 20th anniversary of her death. As you know, it came out after her demise that she suffered terribly from a profound darkness, perhaps a clinical depression. Much of the time she did not feel loving, but she chose to act in a loving manner. This was conveyed both by her actions and the words she wrote. For example:

“I realized that I had the call to take care of the sick and the dying, the hungry, the naked, the homeless…to be God’s love in action to the poorest of the poor.” That was the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity [the religious order she founded.]”

She continued: “I see God in every human being. To God there is nothing small. The moment we have given it to God, it becomes infinite. When He was dying on the cross, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’  Jesus is thirsting for our love, and this is the thirst of everyone, poor or rich alike. We all thirst for the love of others, that they will go out of their way to avoid harming us and to do good to us.”

What a remarkable woman! As I reflected on her statement “I see God in every human being,” I immediately made a mental list of people in which I have a lot of trouble seeing God…terrorists, abortionists, child molesters, the guy who cut me off in traffic, and then I realized that St. Theresa, Mother Theresa, would have no trouble seeing God in these people and I am chagrinned.

She had amazing vision. Not only did she see God in despicable people, she saw God even in the rich and the powerful who turn a blind eye to the perils of the poor and the helpless. Amazing.  As her reputation grew, she was a perennial guest of the most powerful leaders in the world, largely, I think because these leaders needed to be seen with her for political reasons more than she needed to be seen with them for economic support.

In many ways, Mother Theresa was like the appointed Watchman mentioned in today’s lesson from Ezekiel. His job was to warn the inhabitants of Jerusalem of impending danger. The citizenry had the right to exercise free will in ignoring the warnings, but they did so at the risk of their own jeopardy. From the passage today we hear:

…if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

These are pretty uncomfortable words, but I think, in many ways Mother Theresa embraced them…and we are the recipients of her warnings.

One of her favorite themes was this: “We are called to be faithful; we are not called to be successful.” We may fail in the eyes of the world; we may not have the well paying job, the perfect smile, the attentive spouse. But if we are faithful to God by loving others, then that is enough. Being faithful is more important than accumulating material wealth.

That was a message not well received by many here in the United States. So, rather than backing off, Mother Theresa pushed it.  She said, for example, that on the streets of Calcutta, the dying were suffering only from material poverty. In fact, she said, these street people were far richer than most Americans.  For the street people, in all their misery, loved one another. They tended one another as best they could. And they did it day in, day out, week in, week out. It was the way they lived. They tended one another.

In contrast to this, she said, the individual competitive drive is so intense here in the States that we will be supportive for the short term, but we get weary and even annoyed with giving long term support because there doesn’t seem to be much return on our investment of time and perhaps other resources. In our system things are supposed to get fixed quickly; if they are not, then something is really wrong and we need to back off.

Mother Theresa said that we do things well for the short term, but how many are excluded because they cannot meet our expectations for the long run?  With very few exceptions, we are good at dealing with crises; we are not so good at dealing with chronic, long term problems. Think about Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  We’re willing to give storm relief, but we continue to build on flood plains and we are reluctant to spend the money to fortify the infrastructure of dikes and so forth that would lessen the damage of such terrible storms.

Among other things, the result of our attitude is that there is a myriad of very lonely people here in the states. Prophetically a Watchman like Mother Theresa pointed out something obvious: loneliness in America is epidemic. Just think of the number of people who live alone or who are institutionalized and have no one to really love them, and who, in turn, are not encouraged to love others. You see, love is about the long haul, not just the short term.

This was the theme of her life, and she would be fierce about it. And she took it to places that made many of us really uncomfortable. Her eyes would blaze as she talked of what she called the holocaust of abortion.  At the National Prayer Breakfast, shortly before her death, she made her point crystal clear. Here she was at her prophetic, watchmanlike best:

She said:“A nation that destroys the life of an unborn child, who has been created for living and loving, who has been created in the image of God, is in tremendous poverty.” She pulled no punches as she continued:

“I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion because it is a direct killing of the innocent child. Abortion is murder in the womb. A child is a gift from God. America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe V. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men.  It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.  It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society.  It has portrayed the greatest of gifts…a child…as a competitor, an intrusion and an inconvenience.’

“It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the dependent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners.”

“Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his [or her] humanity.  The right to life does not depend, and must not be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent…You must weep that your own government seems blind to this truth.”

As an aside, Oregon House Bill 3391, signed into law by Governor Kate Brown, requires all insurance companies to provide free abortions, and provides free, taxpayer- funded abortion for undocumented residents. 117,000 valid signatures are required to qualify our pro-life measure for the next statewide ballot, to reverse the expansion of taxpayer-funded abortion mandated by HB 3391. After mass there will be opportunities to sign a petition to have this horrendous law overturned. If you are a registered voter, and have not signed this petition, we implore you to do so.

It is one thing to have this intense, some would say pushy, little nun doing unpleasant things with unpleasant people over in that unpleasant country on those most unpleasant streets. It’s quite another to have her come over here to the land of the free and the home of the brave and the incredibly generous and tell us that those wretchedly impoverished people are richer than we are and that we should be weeping for our sins. She told us what it is really like to be loving. She said: “Keep the joy of loving God in your heart and share this joy with all you meet, especially in your family. Be holy…” We are indebted to St. Theresa of Calcutta and we owe it to her to love and protect these little ones in particular.

 

 

 

 

September 3, 2017 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Sep 032017
 

Matthew 16:21-27

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

We have one of the harder sayings of Jesus in our Gospel lesson. Whoever wishes to come and follow me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is one of those passages that makes most of us pretty uncomfortable if we take it seriously. We prefer passages like Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Mt.11:28) or God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not parish, but have eternal life. (Jn. 3:16)

These are comfortable words, words that generate good, secure feelings of affirmation. But to tell us that we need to “deny” ourselves and take up our crosses, that’s hard. Especially when it’s tough enough just to keep the bills paid and to put food on the table; when it’s hard enough just to get up in the morning to face the challenges of an ordinary day.

We may hope that this was just a message for the disciples back then and not for us. Surely we get a pass, do we not?

And we all know folks who have taken this hard saying and made it their mission statement. They put themselves down all the time and they shun comfort as if it were poisonous to their souls. They deny themselves even the smallest pleasures of life and view themselves like death row prisoners, as if human happiness were somehow a deep betrayal of God’s Grace. Do we really have to die to show our love for him? Isn’t there some way to show our love for him by living fully?

This whole conversation came about because St. Peter was asking the same kinds of questions. The disciples were off by themselves with Jesus, taking a breather between rounds with their critics. In the passage just before this one, Jesus asks his disciples who they thought he really was. Peter gave the right answer: you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. It was then that Jesus proclaimed that Peter was the rock on which he, Christ would build his Church.

But Peter’s glory doesn’t last long. Jesus begins to tell all his disciples what is going to happen to him, how he is about to walk right into a trap set for him in Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed and then be raised from the dead. Peter explodes. “God forbid, Lord” he shouts. “This will never happen to you.” It is simply too much for Simon Peter to imagine Jesus coming to such an ignoble, bloody end. There’s a bit of scolding here as well. Peter’s outburst is not so subtle criticism and Jesus unloads on him. Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.

What a shock that must have been not only for Peter, but for the other Disciples as well. To hear Jesus call Peter, the foundation rock of the Church, a stumbling block is startling. What did Peter do wrong? What was his sin? All he did was protest the forecast that Jesus was to suffer and die. All he did was to say out loud that there had to be another way.

But as far as Jesus was concerned, it was Satan talking. Satan the ancient tempter, from the beginning of time has offered alternatives to the directives of God: easier alternatives, often flashier alternatives, all of them temptations for us to do and be something other than what God has called us to do and be.

In this particular case, the temptation for Jesus is to play it safe, to skip the trip to Jerusalem and to find another way to bring salvation to the human race. Perhaps he could direct the effort from a safe and secure place, to elude his enemies, staying just out of reach and leading his holy revolution without placing himself in jeopardy.

We need to assume that this was real temptation for Jesus, or why else does he rebuke Peter so harshly? Like the tempter in the wilderness at the start of Jesus’ ministry, Peter is offering Christ a way out, a detour around Jerusalem with all its risk of pain and death. For a moment at least, the possibility may have seemed real to Jesus, real and desirable. And then his head clears and the desire to shirk vanishes. Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.

There is something troubling about this. Does Jesus mean that those of us who pray to be delivered from suffering and death are on the side of fallen humanity and that the side of God is reserved only for those who are ready and willing to suffer and die? If true, then that is troubling.

If we step back, we can see that this is not the point. The point is that God cares more about our quality of life than he does the quantity of life. Although biological human life is precious and we are to fiercely defend the life of every person from conception to natural death, it must be said that God is not primarily interested in the continuation of my breath, the health of my cells, rather he is vitally interested in the depth of my life, the heft and zest of my life. And he is particularly interested in my life of faithfulness.

The deep secret of Jesus’ words for us in this passage today is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not living at all. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to having abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and squirreled away any more than a kitten can be put in a shoebox and stored on a closet shelf.

It seems to me that Peter wanted Jesus to do that. He wanted Jesus to become cloistered, perhaps like some Eastern Guru and who had people climb the mountain to come to his cave to obtain wisdom and enlightenment.

Let’s look again at the first sentence of our Gospel lesson, Mt. 16:21: Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

When we ponder this, we often get stuck on the suffering and death part. We get that far and then say “God forbid Lord! This shouldn’t happen to you and I especially don’t want it to happen to me!” When we do this, we are ignoring the final words that on the third day there is resurrection.

We don’t get there if we let the suffering and death throw us off track, if we let fear of those things keep us from sticking our necks out from taking the appropriate risks that make life worth living. We can try to stockpile it, being very, very cautious about whom we let into our lives, frisking everyone at the door and letting only the most harmless, benign people inside, and being very, very wary about going outside ourselves, venturing forth only under heavy guard and ready to retreat at the first sign of trouble.

We can live that way, but if we do, then we mustn’t expect to enjoy it very much or to accomplish very much. And if we do, then we’d best not expect to be missed when our safe, defensive life finally comes to an end and no one notices that we are gone. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose itBut Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues— but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Living the life of faith is not about being a daredevil. It’s not about signing up for bungee jumping at 90, however, for some that might be fun. Jesus is talking about living the life that matters. A life for Christ’s sake, a life about refusing to put our own comfort and safety ahead of living a life that pours itself out for others as an act of gratitude to the one who poured his life out for us. It’s a life that is generous without counting the cost, knowing that there is always more life where our own life comes from and that even when our own lives run out, God has more life for us, more than we can ask or imagine.

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me—said Jesus. These will never be easy words to hear, but they are not, in the ultimate and final analysis, an invitation to follow Jesus into eternal death, rather it is an invitation to follow him into everlasting life, both now and later on. We can only follow him if we do not get tripped up on the suffering and death part; if we get so frightened and anxious and preoccupied by all this that we forget “who we are” and “whose we are” and why we are alive in first place.

There is a certain amount of pain involved in being a human being, and a good bit more involved in being a human being dedicated to being fully faithful, especially in a world that counts on our fear of death and uses it to keep us in line. Jesus’ enemies counted on his fear of death to shut him up and to shut him down, but they were wrong. He may have been afraid, but he did not let it stop him. He did not get stuck on the suffering and death part. He saw something beyond them, something more wide and glittering than the sea, something worth every risk required to reach it, and he did not stop until he got there.

To follow Jesus with our crosses on our shoulders means going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety. It means receiving our lives as gifts instead of hoarding them as our own possessions. It means that each of us is to share the life we have been given instead of bottling it up for our own consumption. It means giving up on the notion that we can build dams to hold back the bright streams of our lives and letting them flow instead, letting all the streams of living water swell their banks and spill their wealth until they carry us down to where they run, full and growing fuller into that wide and glittering sea.