Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Neck

Allowing Mary to turn our heads
Luke 1:57-64
            When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.  When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”  But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”  So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.  He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.

             I often think of the advice the mother of the bride gave her daughter in the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  Do you remember it?  The bride was getting cold feet and threw herself on the bed crying and sobbing uncontrollably.  The mother calmly counseled her, saying, “Honey, there are only two things you need to remember to have a happy marriage.  First, the man is the head of the house.  And second, the woman is the neck.  And the neck can turn the head.”  May I ask how many men have suffered whiplash with how fast their wives have turned their heads?  The Church describes marriage as a “consortium vitae,” a sharing of life, an equal partnership, a mutual give and take, and that’s certainly true.  But anyone married for more than five minutes knows that the neck can and will turn the head.

             In the gospel today we see the neck turning the head as John’s name is bestowed on his circumcision day.  The neighbors and relatives ask what the parents will name the child, and his mother, Elizabeth, says, “He will be called John.”  The people, however, protest and turn to the his father, Zechariah, for help.  But Zechariah had suffered enough whiplash in arguments with his wife and knew he better agree.  So he wrote on a tablet: “John is his name.”  You know, sometimes, the Bible gets a bad rap for being “misogynist,” treating women as second class citizens.  Anyone who thinks that has forgotten that while the man is the head, the woman is the neck.  Just ask Zechariah.

             My friends, who is turning your head these days?  On this penultimate day before Christmas, every advertisement tries to turn our heads to buy this and to grab that gift.  Instead, may I suggest you allow a woman to turn your head?  Oh, it’s not some sexy super model, but rather a simple Super Mom, the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Indeed, a thousand years ago, St. Bernard of Clairvaux had described Mary as “the neck” connecting Christ the Head with his Body, the Church.  Today, let Mary be your neck and turn your head away from all the commercialism and cacophony surrounding this season, and rather to the quiet contemplation of the coming of Christ.  Pray the rosary, sit silently in the darkened church, go for a long walk with your dog, read the Bible stories of Jesus’ birth slowly.  Let Mary turn your head to Christ.  After all, truly “wise men” know better than to argue or resist.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Mutual Admiration Society

Appreciating what is good in another
Matthew 21:28-32

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: “What is your opinion?  A man had two sons.  He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’  The son said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order.  He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.  Which of the two did his father’s will?”  They answered, “The first.”  Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you.  When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.  Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

             I remember when I first heard the phrase, “mutual admiration society.”  I was a newly ordained priest serving with Msgr. Hebert at Christ the King.  One day he said a parishioner had complimented me on a homily, and I immediately complimented that person on something I admired about him.  Msgr. Hebert said, “Well, you both have a little mutual admiration society.”  By the way, you could never quite tell if Hebert was being sincere or sarcastic when he talked to you; it was probably both.  I’ve always liked that phrase ever since.  That phrase comes close to the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle’s definition of friendship, as two people who love what is good in the other person. (Nicomachean Ethics, VIII).  But before you can love something good about the other person, you have to see the good in them; you must appreciate that good.  In other words, you have to create a mutual admiration society.  You see, Hebert was teaching me the rudiments of friendship in his simple, sarcastic way.

            In the gospel today, we see what is arguably the greatest friendship in the whole Bible, namely, the friendship between John and Jesus.  It was the greatest friendship because they both had the most good to love in each other.  We know in what glowing terms John spoke about Jesus, saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.  I am not worthy to loosen his sandal straps.  He must increase, and I must decrease.”  Well, today Jesus returns the compliment saying, “When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe in him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.”  Hebert would say John and Jesus had a little mutual admiration society.  In other words, each one deeply admired the words and works of the other man.  In Aristotle’s language, they loved what was good in the other person, the beginning and end of all friendship.
             My friends, I am convinced that seeing the good in another person is not only the basis of friendship, it is the bedrock of any relationship.  Why do married people sadly get divorced?  They can no longer see what is good in the other person; they only see the faults and failures.  They are not a mutual admiration society.  On the other hand, newly married couples can only see what is good in the other person; they are blind to the bad.  How did Abraham Lincoln convene a cabinet of his former rivals?  He created a “mutual admiration society.”  Each man could appreciate the talents and tenacity of the other men at the table.  If there is someone you are not getting along with – and there always is! – try to see something good in that person – and there always is! – by creating a little mutual admiration society.  That is the beginning and the end of all relationships.  And I say that in all sincerity and no sarcasm.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Social Universe

Keeping Jesus in the center
 John 1:6-8, 19-25

              A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?” He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Christ.” So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” He said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’” as Isaiah the prophet said.”

            Everyone loves babies!  Raise your hand if you don’t love babies.  Exactly.  Everyone loves babies because even when they are bald they are beautiful; their fat rolls are actually a sign of being healthy, and sometimes even their poop smell good!  Whenever a baby enters the room, all eyes turn towards it, and all hearts melt.  Have you noticed how people make perfect fools of themselves trying to get the baby’s attention or to make it laugh?  Now, all this lavish love and adoring attention is healthy for the baby’s psychosocial development, according to the renowned psychologist Erik Erickson.  The baby feels like the sun at the center of the human universe, everyone and everything revolves around it.  Once a baby was crying at Mass while Archbishop Fulton Sheen was preaching, and the mother finally took the baby outside.  After Mass the archbishop found the lady and said, “Madam, your baby was not bothering me.”  The lady replied, “No, I left because you were bothering the baby.”  So, even priests revolve around babies.

            But Erikson also recognized that the baby must mature and realize it is not the sun at the center of the social solar system.  It must learn to share with others, to wait its turn in line, to even love others more than himself or herself.  This process of discovering one’s own identity is felt most acutely in adolescence.  Mark Twain once famously quipped: “When I was a boy of seventeen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in four years!”  Of course, it wasn’t his father who learned something, it was Twain.  He learned to stop putting himself at the center of the social universe by appreciating and loving others.  Sooner rather than later we must all learn we’re not the sun at the center of the social universe.

            In the gospel today we meet the one man whose job it was to tell us who should be at the center of the social universe, that is, we meet St. John the Baptist.  Listen to how the gospel of John – that was a different John – describes John the Baptist: “A man named John was sent from God.  He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”  The gospel touches the core of John’s identity, that is, “he was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”  And later, when John is asked if he’s the Christ, the gospel repeats: “He admitted and did not deny it but admitted, ‘I am not the Christ’.”  I am sure John the Baptist also experienced Erickson’s stages of development from baby to adolescent to adult.  But as John moved out of center stage, he taught that Jesus is the “Son” at the center of the social universe.  In other words, the social universe should revolve around Jesus, the true light.

            Now, sometimes, helping move people out of the center of the universe can backfire.  One day a man came to Mass still hungover from a drinking binge the night before.  He fell asleep during the priest’s sermon, and so the priest decided to make an example of him.  He said softly to the congregation: “All those wishing to go to heaven, please stand.”  The whole room stood up, except the sleepy man, of course.  Then the priest said more loudly: “And he who would like a place in hell, please stand up!”  The weary man, catching only the last part, groggily rose to his feet, only to realize he was the only one standing.  Confused, he said, “I don’t know what we’re voting on here, Father, but it seems you and me are the only ones standing for it!”

            Today, ask yourself this question: “Who or what is at the center of my social universe?”  What is the most important person or thing in my life that makes everything else secondary?  Of course, we’d all LIKE to answer: “Well, it’s Jesus, naturally!”  But not so fast.  Here’s an easy litmus test to see if Jesus really is the center of your life.  Is there anything that really bothers you or absolutely annoys about other people – maybe their driving, maybe how they eat their foot too fast or slurp their coffee, how they snore, children who cry in church, priests who preach meandering mindless homilies, mother-in-laws who are busy-bodies or daughter-in-laws who are not good enough for my son, a bishop who has all the wrong priorities, a president who doesn’t work with congress, terrorists and Taliban, Republicans and Razorbacks?  Whenever we feel like the 17 year old Mark Twain and declare: “That person or group is so ignorant I can hardly stand to be around them,” realize that in 4 more years you might feel very differently.  In other words, you are still standing at the center of your social universe, not Jesus.

             Here’s another example.  Have you noticed how people use the word “Christmas”?  They say, “We’re going to have Christmas at grandma’s and then we’re going to have Christmas at Uncle Jimmy’s, and then we’re finally going to come home and have Christmas at our house.”  What does “Christmas” mean for them?  It means the moment we open presents, not the moment of Christ’s birth.  Folks, Christmas is a birthday, not a moment to open presents.  When we use that language, we’ve put gifts at the center of Christmas, rather than Jesus.

             That’s why the ancient Greek Temple at Delphi had only two words written above the door as your entered, “Know Thyself.”  Most of us don’t know ourselves very well; we don't know we are still standing at the center of the social universe.  We believe we’re like the cute, chubby baby that everyone else should gush over and look silly trying to make us smile and laugh.

             Every Christmas we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, who comes to us as a little, bald, chubby baby.  Jesus was the only Baby not only born at the center of the social universe, but he was the only one who was supposed to stay there.  Only Jesus is the light, not John the Baptist, not anyone else, not Christmas presents, and certainly not you or me.

             Praised be Jesus Christ!

Elijah Redivivus

Seeing John as opening act for Jesus
Matthew 17:9A, 10-13

            As they were coming down from the mountain, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said in reply, “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased.  So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

            I’ve never been to a concert before, and I really have no desire to go.  I can’t fathom why anyone would spend good money, go gaga watching someone look silly jumping up and down on stage and do something that sounds more like yelling than singing.  But there is one thing I do appreciate about concerts – they invariably have an “opening act.”  Before the featured artist comes on stage, a lesser-known singer will perform.  It’s kind of how at Mass a deacon reads the gospel before the priest gives the homily: every deacon is a priest’s opening act!  The purpose of an opening act is to warm up the crowd and get them excited for what’s coming next.  They build up people’s expectations and then the featured artist comes on stage and everyone goes crazy!  Yep, that’s pretty much what happens at every Sunday Mass.

            In the gospel today, we hear that even Jesus needed an opening act, namely, St. John the Baptist.  But apparently, the disciples were like me and had never been to a concert before, so they ask Jesus, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”  And Jesus basically answers that like any great artist, he, too, needs an opening act.  John was basically “Elijah redivivus,” (Elijah born again).  But unlike the concert crowds that go wild for Ozzie Osborne and Miranda Lambert, the crowds awaiting a Messiah killed both John and Jesus.  But that’s not because John was a poor opening act; instead, he did his job perfectly, preparing the way for Jesus, whose own great act would be his saving death on the cross.  Fulton Sheen said, “E
veryone comes into the world to live, but Jesus came into the world to die.”  That’s why John was his perfect opening act.  Every great artist needs an opening act, even Jesus.

            My friends, I would like to suggest to you that the 4 weeks of Advent are also like the opening act for Jesus.  In fact, Advent really should take on the character and personality of John the Baptist.  If John is Elijah redivivus, then Advent is “John redivivus” (John born again).  John said repent and so we should make a good confession in Advent.  John said take care of the poor, so we should help the needy in Advent.  John said believe in Jesus, so Advent should help us deepen our faith.  John said, “I must decrease and he must increase,” and so the daylight diminishes until Christmas and then begins to increase after the birth of the Son of God.  You see, the whole season of Advent is a huge, 4-week opening act for the main attraction, Christmas, where Jesus walks on the world stage and the crowds go wild and crazy.  Every great artist needs an opening act.  You know, I’ve never even been to a concert, but even I know that.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Devil's End-Game

Making a good confession
Matthew 18:12-14

Jesus said to his disciples: “What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”

             Yesterday, I went to confession.  I know, I know what you’re thinking: what could sweet, loving, joyful Fr. John possibly have to confess??  Don’t worry, I got plenty of sins.  And, by the way, so do YOU.  I’ll never forget what a priest once said to me in confession.  It was a number of years ago, and my laundry list of sins was particularly long at the time.  After I finished, he simply said, “That was a good confession.”  I was stunned.  I expected him to reprimand me or at least to say he was disappointed, but he didn’t.  He just smiled, and said, “That was a good confession,” gave me a few Hail Marys and sent me on my way.

            It wasn’t until years later, after I had heard countless confessions myself, that I learned why that confession was “good.”  Look at things from the devil’s point of view: he doesn’t just want to make you commit a mortal sin.  He’s certainly happy about that.  But what he really wants to do is keep you out of the confessional.  He knows the moment you walk in and confess your faults, he’s left empty-handed.  The devil’s real end-game is not just mortal sins, but rather to keep you out of confession, and, judging from the "long confession lines" here at I.C., I would say his strategy is working like a charm.  That’s why my confession was “good” – I was in the hands of the devil, and now I was in the hands of Jesus.  The devil's hands were empty.

            In the gospel today, Jesus reveals his attitude toward sinners.  He asks, “If a shepherd has 100 sheep and loses one, will he not leave the 99 and search for the stray?”  And what will he do when he finds it?  He rejoices!  That was the attitude of that priest who heard my confession years ago: no reproach, no rebuke, only rejoicing that he who was lost had been found.  St. Alphonsus Ligouri counseled priests saying: “A priest should be a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional.”  Why?  Because it takes a lamb to know a lamb.

            So, let me ask you, when was the last time you made a good confession?  If you respond, “Well, I don’t have any sins,” I would answer that you don’t know yourself very well.  The Bible says, “The just man falls seven times a day” (Prov. 24:16).  That’s the just man, which means you and I fall many more times each day.  Maybe you’re afraid the priest will yell at you or remember your what you say and look at your differently.  Don’t flatter yourself; we’ve heard better sins!  Mostly, remember the devil’s real end-game: to keep you out of the confessional.  Every time you walk in and make a good confession, you leave the devil empty-handed.  Don’t worry, you don’t disappoint the priest; you’ll disappoint the devil.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!


Trusting in the Father’s love
Genesis 3:9-11

               After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree, the LORD God called to the man and asked him, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.” Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked? You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!”

            Boys and girls, how many of you get nervous if you have to stand in front of people and speak, like when you have to give a presentation in class or read in church?  It’s very normal to get nervous and feel fear.  I get nervous, too.  Someone gave me a little advice to help me relax when I have to give a homily.  They said, “Try to imagine everyone sitting in the audience in their underwear.”  You know what happens?  When I try to picture that, that makes me laugh, I relax, and I feel no fear.  But do you know why I relax and feel no fear?  It’s because I think in my head, “Haha!  Look at those people in their underwear!  They look funny!  THEY should be afraid, not me!  They have more to worry about than I do!”  Now you know what I’m thinking as I give these homilies and why I like to laugh in church!

            Now, have you ever noticed that there are some people who love to run around without their clothes on, and they’re not worried about it?  Can you guess who they are?  Little boys and girls sometimes run through their house naked!  They feel no fear.  Sometimes I go to people’s homes for supper and if they have small children, those children will sometimes take off their clothes and run around the house.  The parents are always so embarrassed, but I just smile because that’s what I see in church every Sunday.  Do you know WHY little children feel free to be naked?  It’s because they know their parents love them.  They feel no fear, but only mom and dad's love, and so they run around their house in their birthday suits, confident that nothing will hurt them.  You see, fear needs clothes, love doesn’t.

            In the first reading today from Genesis we see someone who was naked and afraid.  Do you remember who that was?  It was Adam.  He said to God, “I heard your voice in the garden, but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.”  Now, the funny thing is that all this time Adam WAS naked, but he was not afraid.  So what did Adam do that suddenly make him afraid?  He did something bad – what was it?  He ate the apple; he committed a sin.  Adam didn’t trust in God’s love for him, and that’s what every sin ultimately is.  This is the best definition of sin: a failure to trust in God's love.  Before he ate the apple, Adam was like a little boy running around the garden without any clothes on, completely confident in his Father’s love.  But because he sinned -- he doubted God’s love -- he became afraid, and hid his nakedness.  Fear needs clothes, love doesn’t.

            Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Today, we remember the only person (besides Jesus) who never committed a single sin, that is, who never doubted God’s love for her.  Who was that?  Our Mother Mary!  She was like a little girl who could run around without any clothes on – she didn’t do that, of course – but she could have because she was completely confident in her Father’s love for her; she knew nothing could hurt her.  She never doubted God’s love for a second, and that’s what we mean by the “Immaculate  Conception,” that is, from the first moment of her existence, Mary never sinned, she never felt fear, only God's love.  Mary wouldn’t get nervous giving a presentation in class or reading at Mass because she was filled with God's love.  That’s why we honor our Mother Mary and try to be more like her, so that we, too, may never doubt our Father’s love for us.

St. Augustine famously said, "Love, and do what you will."  When your heart is as full of love as Mary's was, there is no room for fear.  When you have that much love, like a little child's, you might even run around your house without any clothes on.  Fear needs clothes, love doesn't.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Toot N Tell

Proclaiming God’s merciful love
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
                  Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.

                One day an elderly priest said to his new, young associate priest: “You had a good idea to replace the first four pews with plush buc
ket theater seats.  It worked like a charm.  The front of the church always fills up first.”  The young priest nodded, the old priest continued: “And you told me adding a little more beat to the music would bring young people back to church, and now our services are consistently packed to the balcony.”  The young priest smiled, the old priest continued: “But I’m afraid you’ve gone too far with the drive-thru confessional.”  “But Father,” the young priest protested, “my confessions and the donations have doubled since I began that!”  “Yes,” replied the old priest, “I appreciate that.  But the flashing neon sign that blinks, ‘Toot n Tell or Go to Hell’ cannot stay on top of the church roof.”  You have to use the right bait when you go fishing.

            In the first reading today, Isaiah also believes confession and reconciliation are things to proclaim loud and proud; indeed, he recommends shouting it from the mountain tops, not just with a neon sign on a church roof.  Isaiah writes: “Go up on a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!”  And what should they shout?  Isaiah continues: “Like a shepherd God leads his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.”  In other words, there’s nothing more glorious than God’s merciful love, and we should want to “Toot n Tell” that from roof tops and mountain peaks.

            Let me ask you something.  Is there anything you get so excited about that you can’t keep it inside?  Were you sitting quietly and calmly as the Razorbacks beat LSU and snapped a 17-game losing streak?  I doubt it.  People get so excited at football games they hug and kiss perfect strangers and buy beers for everyone at the bar!  When your baby is born, you don’t sit quietly contemplating that moment like a Buddhist monk.  You run around the delivery room like a lunatic crying and babbling for joy.  Do I even need to ask what would happen if you won the lottery?

            Well, I don’t know about you, but every time I walk out of confession, I feel like a new man, like the king of the world!  I feel a profound peace that comes from knowing God has forgiven me and given me yet another chance.  I want to shout from the mountain top – not my sins! – but how good God is, his enduring love, called “hesed” in Hebrew.  Feeling God’s hesed should make us want to sing and shout more than football, more than birthdays, more than anything.  As you go to confession today, I hope you, too, will feel that profound peace that comes from God’s hesed.  And who knows, as you drive out of the parking lot tonight, you too may want to “Toot N Tell” how good God is.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Think Again

Letting actions speak louder than words
Matthew 9:27-31

             As Jesus passed by, two blind men followed him, crying out, “Son of David, have pity on us!” When he entered the house, the blind men approached him and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I can do this?”  “Yes, Lord,” they said to him.  Then he touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done for you according to your faith.”  And their eyes were opened. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.”  But they went out and spread word of him through all that land.

            Boys and girls, I have a very important question for you this morning, and it’s a very difficult question.  Put on your thinking caps!  Which is more important: how we think or how we behave (how we act)?  Say, for example, your mom has baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies for dessert and you see them sitting on the kitchen table.  Which is worse: thinking about stealing a cookie, or actually gobbling one up?  How many believe thinking about stealing is worse?  How many believe actually stealing a cookie is worse?  Here’s another example: let’s say you thought about drawing a lovely picture for your dad, but never did it.  But your little sister actually drew a lovely picture for your dad.  (Now, you know why she's his favorite.)  Which counts more: good thoughts or good actions?  You see, thinking rightly is important, but acting rightly is even more important.  How we think changes our life, but how we act changes other people’s lives.

            In the gospel today we see the difference between thinking and acting, between faith and love.  Jesus cures two blind men.  But before he cured them, Jesus asked them, “Do you believe I can do this?”  What did they answer?  They both said, “Yes, Lord!”  That meant that they were thinking right, they believed.  And their lives were changed because now they could see.  But then Jesus asked them to DO something.  Does anyone remember what that was?  Jesus said, “Shhhh!”  That is, keep this healing a secret.  But what did these two men do?  They blabbed it all over the place.  They acted poorly, without love for Jesus.  You see, these men knew how to think right (they had faith) and so they changed their own lives.  But they didn’t act right (they didn’t have love) and so they changed other people’s lives, including Jesus’ life.  How we think changes us; how we act changes others.

            Mrs. B told me a few days ago that she asked her Lighthouse Leadership Team, “What is the definition of a leader?”  Does anyone know the answer?  A leader is someone who DOES the right thing even when no one is watching.  A leaders is not someone who just THINKS the right things when no one is watching.  A leader knows that how he or she thinks only changes him or her, but how a leader behaves changes others, even when he or she is alone.

            Boys and girls, here at Immaculate Conception School we want to teach you to think right, but also how to act right.  Right thinking will get you straight A’s, but right acting will get you to heaven.  Which one do you think is more important?

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Choosing our last words wisely
Isaiah 26:1-3

On that day they will sing this song in the land of Judah: “A strong city have we; he sets up walls and ramparts to protect us. Open up the gates to let in a nation that is just, one that keeps faith. A nation of firm purpose you keep in peace; in peace, for its trust in you.”

             Do you know what a “valediction” is?  You’ve probably heard of a valedictorian, who delivers the “farewell speech” on behalf of a graduating class.  The valedictorian is usually the number one student in the class.  But we all give valedictions, regardless of our grade point average.  Every time we write a letter or send an email, we conclude with a valediction, the last words before we sign our name.  It’s very popular these days to write “Blessings” before your name; lots of people are doing that.  I want you to know I was the one who started that trend, and I now I can’t wait to receive all the royalties every time someone writes that!  Archbishop Peter Sartain’s valediction was always “Peace.”  But I think he was doing something more than using it as a cool conclusion that he hoped would become a trend.  He was also wishing that on the recipient of his email or letter.  In other words, Archbishop Sartain’s valediction was like a prayer as well as a conclusion.  What better way to end a message than to wish peace on your interlocutor?

             In the first reading today, Isaiah indicates what God’s wish and prayer is for his people, namely, “peace.”  Isaiah says, “A nation of firm purpose you keep in peace; in peace for its trust in you.”  That is, if God were to send us an email or write us a letter, his valediction would also be, “Peace,” and then his name, “God.”  That’s why Jesus said, virtually as his valediction, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27).  Saints and scholars have often described the whole Bible as God’s love letter to each of us.  And now we know how God would conclude this long letter, with the valediction, “Peace.”

             Did you know that one day you will also be the valedictorian and graduate at the head of your class, as number one?  That will be the day that you die and graduate from this school called “earthly life.”  You’ll be number one because you’ll be the ONLY one in your class!  Congratulations.  Since you’ll be the valedictorian, what will you say in your farewell speech?  Have you noticed how carefully people listen to the last words of a dying person, as if they are about to say something profound?  Well, they are; these words will be their valediction to the world.  May I suggest you make your valediction like a prayer, like Archbishop Sartain did?  So that your final words are also a final prayer.  And if anyone is leaning close to listen to your last words, what more can you wish them than “Peace”?

             Praised be Jesus Christ!

Down Shifting

Slowing down to stay spiritually awake
Mark 13:33-37

                Jesus said to his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.  It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
This weekend marks the one year anniversary for me as pastor of Immaculate Conception.  Can you believe we've made it this far??  We have been together for the time that it takes the earth to make one full circle around the sun, which means now we're back exactly where we started in space.  And I gotta say, it does feel like we're going in circles around here!
 I don't know if you've learned anything from me this past year, but I want to share something important I've learned from you.  Living in Fort Smith has taught me to slow down, to sort of "down shift" as I drive through life.  I tend to live at a fast pace, staying very busy, living fast and furious, but this last year I've learned to slow down.  I sometimes joke with people that now I only have two goals as pastor: first, don't screw things up, and second, stay off the bishop's radar.  By the way, neither of those two things are as easy as they sound, especially for a multi-tasker like me.
             But this down shifting has certain benefits, too.  For example, not being in a rush, I listen more carefully to what people say, especially when I go to your homes for supper.  Sometimes, I get great homily material from conversations over beer and brisket.  I should read people their "Miranda Rights" after we say "Grace": "You have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say can and will be used against you in a Sunday sermon."  Here's another benefit:  when we slow down we can also begin to hear God's voice better; like parents distract small children with toys or candy so they don’t see more serious things happening at home.  We begin to understand what Gandalff said when he counseled Frodo: "There are other forces at work in the world besides the will of evil...and that is a very comforting thought."  This past year in Fort Smith has helped me slow down, and begin to perceive those "other forces" in the world working for good.  It's hard to perceive those forces in the hustle and bustle of a busy life.
In the gospel today, Jesus also urges his disciples to slow down and pay more attention.  Jesus says, "Be watchful!  Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come."  He's referring, of course, to the end of time when he will return in glory to judge the world.  Now there are two different ways to fail to watch, to fail to be alert.  One is by actually falling asleep, and the other way is by becoming so busy that we don't pay attention to what is important.  Ironically, busy-ness can also make us sort of "sleepy" to spiritual things, to the "other forces at work in the world," and we miss the moment of Jesus' return.  You see, being busy actually makes us spiritually sleepy, while slowing down can help us to be spiritually awake and alert.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a season the church has specifically designed to help us wake up from our spiritual somnolence.  Have you ever noticed how Advent comes a few days after Thanksgiving just like Lent comes right after Mardi Gras - first the feast and then the fast!  Let me ask you: what will you do to make this season more meaningful as you prepare for Christmas?  May I suggest that instead of adding another item to your Advent "to do list," doing something more, maybe you should take something off, maybe you should do less.  In other words, instead of making yourself busier this Advent, try to slow down and down shift a little.
Here are some examples: when you’re in a conversation with someone, try to listen more and try to talk less.  It's amazing the things people say when you listen to them!  Fr. Tom Elliott once told me he'll sometimes tell a hysterical person in counseling, "Can you hear yourself talking right now?"  That comment immediately helps them calm down; they stop talking and start listening, at least they listen to themselves.  Here's another suggestion: when you sit down for supper, eat your meal more slowly.  Msgr. Hebert once gave a talk to us seminarians and pulled out a spoon and simply said: "This is a spoon, not a shovel."  Your meals will taste better when you slow down and add the spice of conversation.  This may sound silly, but as you putter around Fort Smith in your car, try to drive the speed limit.  And all the money you will save from not getting speeding tickets, put in the collection plate at Mass!  Another suggestion: when you visit your family during the holidays don't just count the hours till you get to leave.  Ask questions that show genuine interest and care for the people God put in your life.  My favorite definition of family is this: "your family is the friends that God picked for you."  Now, here's the wildest suggestion of all: stay all the way to the end of Mass, until the choir finishes the last verse of the last hymn!  I know, I know, that's just crazy talk!  But, you see, when we're always rushing to the next thing, we miss what the people right in front of us are saying and what God is saying, and the movement of those “other forces” at work in the world until Jesus returns.
                By the way, the next time you come across a little old lady or a little old man driving very slowly around Fort Smith, don’t honk your horn or give them the evil eye as you pass by them.  Remember they’re probably far more spiritually awake and aware than you or I are as we zip through life.  And who knows, it might not be a little old lady or a little old man in that car, but a little old priest.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Grecian Urn

Finding beauty in every moment
Luke 21:29-33
Jesus told his disciples a parable. “Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near. Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away,  but my words will not pass away.”

             Have you ever wondered what truly lasts, what is timeless and eternal?  If you’re living in a retirement center or in assisted living, you’ll probably answer, “Not much!”  John Keats, the British poet, tackled that question in his famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  He analyzes these exquisite, gorgeous figures on an ancient urn: a man and woman in love, trees and flowers in spring, a group of people following a priest to a religious sacrifice.  The underlying question throughout the poem is: does any of this last?  The poem concludes with these remarkable lines: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth and that is all ye need to know.”  In other words, what lasts is what is beautiful, everything else fades and is soon forgotten.  I’m sure companies like Botox and Neutrogena and Oil of Olay would say, “Amen! Preach it, brother!”  Isn’t this why we keep photographs from our 20’s and 30’s on our night-stand?  We want to be remembered for when we were good-looking and gorgeous like the figures on the Grecian Urn.

            In the gospel today, Jesus also addresses the question of what lasts.  Listen to our Lord’s answer.  He says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  Botox and Neutrogena would say, “Booo!  Me no like!”  But Jesus is not really denying Keats’ claim that “Beauty is truth.”  Rather, he’s saying look for true, eternal beauty not in smooth skin and thin thighs but in his words: in Sacred Scripture, in the lives of the saints (which is really the Bible written throughout human history).  When St. Augustine first read the Bible, he turned up his nose at it, considering it very poor grammar and very mediocre rhetoric.  After his conversion, however, he would say, “Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever ancient, ever new.”  St. Augustine learned that Jesus was right: his words are eternal, and his words are eternally beautiful.

            My friends, are you looking for what lasts, what is changeless, timeless and eternal?  Well, let me suggest to you that BOTH John Keats and Jesus are right: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty.”  But that doesn’t mean you should get a nose job and a tummy tuck and buy all your clothes at the store, “Forever 21”!  The beauty of youth is not eternal, because that too, is part of the “heaven and earth that will pass away.”  Instead, be grounded in God’s word, and open your heart to his grace – his beauty! – in every season of your life.  Andrew Weil, in his book, “Healthy Aging,” describes the beauty of old trees, whose knots and lines and weather-worn look have an exquisite beauty that a young sapling sadly lacks.  That is also true with human beings: our age-lines and “crow’s feet” also indicate a sacred wisdom and a breath-taking beauty.  There is a beauty in every age; there is a grace in every moment.  Let us not repeat with St. Augustine, “Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever ancient, ever new.”  Let us love him now.

            Praised be Jesus

Thursday, December 4, 2014

God's Hand

Being grateful for God’s hand in our lives
Luke 17:11-19

           As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten persons with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” As they were going they were cleansed.  And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.  He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?  Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”  Then he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”

            Do you remember the assassination attempt of Pope St. John Paul II in 1981?  He was greeting pilgrims in an open-air popemobile, when Mehmet Ali Agca fired from close range, hitting the pope 4 times.  One of the bullets came very close to the pope’s heart, but missed.  That assassination attempt occurred on May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and the pope always held that Mary’s hand had moved the bullet away from his heart and vital organs.  One skeptical reporter asked, “Why didn’t Mary’s hand move the bullet away from the pope’s whole body!?”  Great question!  You see, the pope saw more than Mary’s hand at work, he also perceived God’s hand.  That hidden divine hand was pointing to Ali Agca, whom the pope visited in prison and personally forgave.  The pope also wrote to Agca’s mother and brother.  In February, 2005, as the pope was dying, Agca wrote to the pope to wish him well.  I bet both the pope and the would-be assassin were grateful for their meeting: how Mary’s hand saved the pope’s life, but also how God’s hand had brought them together.  It is said that “God writes straight with crooked lines.”  That’s true even when those crooked lines are the path of a bullet.

            In the gospel today, we see another man who perceives God’s hand in his life.  Jesus meets 10 lepers who all cry, “Jesus, Master!  Have pity on us!”  He directs them to go show themselves to the priests, and they are all healed.  Sadly, only one man returns to tell Jesus thanks.  But I think the man was grateful for more than the healing; he was grateful to meet Jesus, and maybe even saw that leprosy was the occasion for that meeting.  In other words, he saw not only Jesus hand of healing, but he perceived God’s hand guiding his whole life to this encounter with Christ.  I be the other 9 – like the cynical reporter – walked away from Jesus muttering, “Well, why didn’t God just keep us from getting leprosy in the first place?!”  You see, it takes faith to see God’s hidden hand in your life.

            I recently came across some Thanksgiving Day riddles.  See if you can answer them.  If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?  The answer: they bring pilgrims!  What do you call it when it rains turkeys?  That’s called “foul weather” – even weatherman, Joe Pennington knew that one!  What do you get if you divide the circumference of a pumpkin by its diameter?  You get pumpkin pi – spelled “pi.”  What’s the most musical part of a turkey?  It’s the drumstick!  Okay, last one: what happened when the turkey got into a fight?  He got the stuffing knocked out of him!  I share these riddles not only because they’re funny, but also because they train our mind’s eye to see below the surface of things; to see beyond the obvious.  That’s what faith does, too: it helps us see below the surface of our lives and get a glimpse of God’s loving hand.

            Today we have so much to be grateful for, as individuals, as a nation, and as a church.  We have decent healt, at least to make it to Mass.  We have a modicum of wealth, at least more than most of the world.  We have freedom to express our opinions and to worship as our conscience dictates.  It’s easy to see Jesus’ and Mary’s hands helping us receive these blessings, and we should be grateful.  But today also try to see below the surface of your life to perceive God’s hidden hand, even in the sad and tragic moments: the lost job, the broken relationship, the sudden illness, when you have the stuffing knocked out of you!  These things, too, are a part of providence, and for which we should give thanks.  The one leper who returned to give thanks not only was grateful to be cured of leprosy; he was also grateful the leprosy helped him to meet Jesus.  Today, say “thank you” for all the things – the good and the bad – that have helped you to meet Jesus.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Seasons of our Life

Learning to long for the harvest season
Revelation 14:14-16
I, John, looked and there was a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud one who looked like a son of man, with a gold crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. Another angel came out of the temple, crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap the harvest, for the time to reap has come, because the earth’s harvest is fully ripe.” So the one who was sitting on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.

             Yesterday a friend asked me, “What is your favorite time of year?”  She went on to explain that fall was her favorite time because of the colorful leaves and the changing of the season.  Other people love spring or maybe summer, and some even love winter.  I agreed that fall was nice, but what I really wanted to answer was: “My favorite season is football season!”  And my favorite month is November, when we enjoy not only college and professional football but the start of basketball season and NFL hockey season!  Is this heaven?  Then there are also “liturgical seasons” in the Church calendar, like Advent (which begins Sunday) and Christmas, or Lent and Easter.  Each season has its unique purpose and pleasure, and we all look forward to our own favorite season.

             In the first reading we see what the angels would answer if my friend had asked them, “What is your favorite season?”  They would answer in one chorus: “Our favorite time is the harvest season!”  In Revelation 14, John sees 3 angels wielding sharp sickles and they shout to each other: “Use your sickle and reap the harvest, for the time to reap has come, because the earth’s harvest is fully ripe.”  The harvest season is, of course, the end of time, when all other seasons will come to an end, even football season!  You see, that’s the season all the angels long for, and that season, too, has its own particular purpose and pleasure.  John’s point in Rev. 14 is that we, too, should adopt the attitude of the angels and learn to love the harvest season, to see its purpose and to desire its pleasure.

            Do you know the one thing that holds us back from loving the harvest season like the angels do?  It’s this “little thing” called death; it’s anything but “little.”  In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet said that contemplating death makes cowards of us all; death overwhelms us.  As much as we may love the fall season, we know that’s also the season when nature herself seems to die, and we shudder at the thought like we shudder at the cold November wind.  Here’s a little poem that may help us not to be overwhelmed by death, and help us start to look forward to the harvest season like the angels do.  It’s called “Death, be not proud” by John Donne.  Here are a few lines:

            “Death be not proud, though some have called thee
            Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
            For, those, whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow,
            Die not, poor death, nor canst thou kill me.”

Then, Donne concludes:

            One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
            And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

            And that’s why the angels rejoice at the “harvest season,” not because it means our death, but because it means that is when death itself shall die.  And, who knows, that may be even better than football season.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Cry Like A Man

Weeping as we behold the Holy
 Revelation 5:1-5
             I, John, saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who sat on the throne. It had writing on both sides and was sealed with seven seals. Then I saw a mighty angel who proclaimed in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to examine it. I shed many tears because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to examine it. One of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed, enabling him to open the scroll with its seven seals.”
            Have you ever heard the old expression, “Grown men don’t cry”?  Or as Tom Hanks said in the movie, “A League of Their Own,” where he was manager of a women’s baseball team, “There’s no crying in baseball!”  Real men play baseball and they obviously don’t cry.  There’s probably been a moment or two when you’ve tried to hold back the tears believing that is being strong and somehow that’s more helpful to others.  The person who shattered this saying for me was my first pastor, Msgr. Gaston Hebert.  I have a lot of respect and admiration for Msgr. Hebert, and I consider him a man’s man.  But I noticed that whenever we celebrated First Holy Communion Masses, and all those boys in suits and ties and girls in veils paraded down the center aisle, Msgr. Hebert had tears running down his face.  At that moment Msgr. Hebert taught me how to cry like a man.  In other words, Hebert showed me that tears are not a sign of unmanliness, but rather a sign of true manhood, a sign of Christian manhood.

            The first reading today shows us another Christian man who was wont to cry, namely, St. John the Evangelist.  He sees a heavenly scroll closed up with seven seals that no one can open or read, and he cries like a man.  John explains why he cried, “I shed many tears because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to examine it.”  But Jesus comes to answer John’s prayers and to wipe away his tears.  You see, both St. John and Msgr. Hebert knew how to cry because they both beheld something holy, the presence of God in innocent children, in a divine scroll.  Tears are not a sign of unmanliness; they are a sign of real manhood, a man who can see God.

            Today, let me invite you to open your hearts to the holy and to behold God’s beauty, and to open your tear ducts, too!  Now, I’m not talking about those “crocodile tears” that small children cry to manipulate mom and dad.  Instead, I’m talking about not holding back your tears when you behold the birth of a baby, when you see a bride takes her first steps down the aisle on her wedding day, as you hold your mother’s hand as she takes her last breath, as you gaze at the priest raising the white Host and golden chalice at the Consecration of the Mass.  Let the tears flow and cry like a man.

            Rudolf Otto wrote a famous book in 1917 called, “The Idea of the Holy.”  He said the “holy” (or God) is at the same time both terrifying and fascinating; we are afraid but also irresistibly drawn to it.  He wrote, “[The holy] presents itself as wholly other…where by the human being finds himself utterly abashed.”  That holiness, that presence of God, is what made Msgr. Hebert cry and that’s what made St. John cry.  And if that doesn’t make you cry, you’re not much of a man.

            Praised be Jesus

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Walking Tall

Healing our inner illnesses
Luke 19: 5-10

          When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

            My first pastor, Msgr. Gaston Hebert, taught me about the phenomenon called “psychosomatic illnesses.”  You see, our bodies and spirits are wired together so closely that what affects one is often manifest in the other.  Classical literature is replete with examples.  In Shakespeare’s play, “King Lear,” Gloucester loses his physical sight as a sign of his inner blindness and his inability to discern which of his sons is good (Edgar) and which one is corrupt (Edmund).  In Dostoyevsky’s novel, “Crime and Punishment,” Raskolnikov falls physically ill because he refuses to confess to the murder of his landlady.  Our principal, Sharon Blentlinger, explained that the first week of school many children mysteriously suffer from headaches and stomach aches not because of any physical malady but because they are “sick” of being in school.  A little psychosomatic illness can come in very handy!  You see, the spiritual world manifests itself in the physical world because they are so closely connected.

            In the gospel today, St. Luke describes a man suffering from a psychosomatic disorder.  Zacchaeus is short in stature but I believe that physical limitation is a manifestation of a spiritual limitation, namely, cheating people as a tax-collector.  However, when Jesus arrives in Zacchaeus’ home, he heals his inner, moral malady.  As a result, Zacchaeus says, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over.”  Jesus replies, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”  In other words, Jesus healed Zacchaeus’ spiritual limitation, and I bet Zacchaeus was "walking tall" afterwards.  Now, of course, this does not mean all short people are corrupt tax-collectors!  But psychosomatic illnesses require more than Tylenol and Aspirin; they also need a good dose of spiritual medicine.

            Let me ask you today: how are you feeling?  Do you have a tummy ache or a headache?  Are you suffering from blurry vision?  Do you have trouble remembering things?  Does your back hurt and cause you to walk with a stoop?  Do you feel terrible and don’t know why?  Well, what are you waiting for, go see a doctor!  But also keep in mind the possibility of a psychosomatic illness.  Your body might be telling you something: not only where it hurts physically but also where it hurts spiritually and morally.  And then go see the Divine Doctor, Jesus, so he can heal you inside as well.  Make a good confession and find some innner healing and peace.  You see, a little psychosomatic illness can come in very handy sometimes.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Fourth Gambler

Taking risks in the Christian life
 Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus told his disciples this parable: "A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one-- to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two.  But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master's money.

            You all know that I love to go over to parishioners’ homes for supper.  But what you may not know is that after supper I love to teach the children how to play poker.  Yep, poker.  Now, I realize that saying this is either going to drastically reduce my dinner invitations or maybe really increase them a lot, because you’d like to learn, too!  It’s amazing how quickly the children learn the game; a brief review of the rules, the ranking of the hands, and the dynamics of betting and bluffing.  Now, some children are natural risk-takers: they love to “bluff,” pretending to have a bigger hand than they really do.  They confidently say, “I’m all in,” and push all their Cheetos or marshmellows into the middle of the table because that’s what we bet with.  Other kids, however, are very conservative and don’t want to lose, so they fold quickly because they have a weak hand.  At some point in the evening, I always feel like singing that Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler,” “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.  You never count your money, when you’re sittin’ at the table, there’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”  Of course, poker is just a game but I hope it also teaches a valuable life-lesson: sometimes in life you have to take a risk, you can’t always play it safe all the time; you have to “gamble.”  In each person’s life, there comes a moment when you have to say, “I’m all in” and push all your Cheetos into the middle of the table, and risk it all.

            In the gospel today, Jesus tells the very familiar parable of a master who gives his servants different “talents.”  One receives 5, another 2 talents, and the third only gets 1.  You can almost imagine the master as “the dealer” of a poker game, and each of the servants gets a “hand” to play, some hands are better than others.  That’s the way life is. Two servants are willing to “gamble” and they double their winnings, while the third servant, who holds a weak hand, buries it, he basically “folds.”  The point of the parable is unmistakable: our talents are given to us to be multiplied, even put at risk, but definitely not to bury and not to fold.

            But did you notice there is another gambler in the parable?  Most people miss him.  The fourth gambler is the master himself!  The master is also “gambling,” not with talents, but with his servants.  He’s taking a risk that they will do well with his talents, he’s betting on them to make good with the talents. You see, the master has a lot to lose as well and he puts himself at risk.  We all know, of course, that the master of the parable is God.  I hope this will not sound too irreverent, but I believe God is like a shrewd gambler.  He has gone “all in” by sending his Son to save us, and then, he entrusts us –you and me – with his gifts and graces, his “talents.”  God is betting on us, like that master was betting on his servants.

            I often wonder why God called me to be a priest and now pastor of Immaculate Conception Church.  He took a big risk gambling on me!  He could have called someone smarter or someone younger or someone holier or someone better-looking – well, not better-looking.  Let’s be honest.  But God took a huge risk, a gamble, in inviting me and other weak, fallible and foolish men to be priests and to run his Church.  But you see, God is betting on us; he has gone “all in” with us.  But you know, we priests are gambling, too.  We’ve gone “all in” by giving up marriage and family, and possible fame and fortune to serve the Church.  Man, I sure hope this bet pays off, and bring us happiness!

But do you know who I think makes an even bigger bet?  It’s people who choose to marry.  They are basically gambling with their heart.  They have said, “I’m all in,” and pushed their heart into the middle of the table, and they are betting their spouse will love, cherish and respect that heart.  But it’s a huge risk, isn’t it?  Just ask anyone who has gotten a divorce.  The great Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote these memorable lines: “I hold it true, whate’er befall; I feel it when I sorrow most; ‘Tis better to have loved and lost. Than never to have loved at all” (“In Memoriam A.H.H.” Canto 27).  In other words, it’s better to take the risk of loving someone, marrying them, and possibly losing everything, than to fold and never take the chance, “than never to have loved at all.”

            You know, sooner or later in the Christian life, you have to take a risk; you have to put all your Cheetos into the middle of the table and say, “I’m going all in.”  We take great risks and gamble when we choose a vocation like priesthood or marriage; we gamble with our happiness and with our hearts.  We go “all in” when we decide which college to attend or what career to pursue; it may all “go south” and we fail miserably.  We gamble when we have another baby, hoping everything turns out well, like Catholics who used to have 6, 7, 8, and 9 kids.  Catholics were great gamblers back in the day!  We take risks when we move to another town and start life all over again.  I’m still in awe at my parents who moved not to another town but to another country – talk about a gutsy gamble!  We take a huge risk when we invite the priest over for supper and have no idea what he might teach our children after dinner!  But remember this: not only are you betting on God, that he will give you the grace you need, but God is also betting on you, not to bury your talents and abilities, not to fold.  Don’t forget about the Fourth Gambler in the parable.

            The 17th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal saw the whole Christian enterprise in terms of a great gamble, what he called “the wager” (Pensee, 233).  Basically he said, it’s good to bet on God.  Sometimes in the Christian life, you have to say “I’m all in” and push all your Cheetos into the middle of the table and bet it all.  Why?  Because God is betting on you.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Opposites Attract

Appreciating what is different
 Luke 17:33-37

Jesus said to his disciples: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it. I tell you, on that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken, the other left. And there will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken, the other left.”  They said to him in reply, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the body is, there also the vultures will gather.”

            Boys and girls, have you ever heard the phrase, “opposites attract”?  What does that mean?  Well, it means that things that are very different –even the opposite of each other—go very well together.  The world is a more fun and exciting place because people are different and not all the same.  Now we’re going to play a little game.  I’ll say a word and you tell me its opposite.  Ready?  “White.”  The opposite is “black.”  That was too easy.  How about “peanut butter”?  The opposite is “jelly.”  Here’s a hard one, “hands.”  The opposite is “feet.”  Here’s a really easy one, “Arkansas Razorbacks.”  The opposite is “LSU Tigers.”  You see, life is more fun and exciting when you have opposites: white and black, hands and feet, peanut butter and jelly, the Razorbacks and the Tigers.

          In the gospel today, we see Jesus also likes opposites.  He says: “He who seeks to preserve his life will lose it, and he who loses his life will save it.”  What are the two opposites that Jesus puts together?  To save and to lose.  It’s funny, isn’t it?  Jesus sees that “saving” and “losing” are two opposites that go good together for Christians.  When we lose something, we actually save it.  When we make sacrifices for others (lose something) we will gain a lot more in return (save something).  I gave up my own family and kids by not being married to be a priest, but now I have over 300 kids in our school!  I gained a lot more than I lost.  The two opposites: “loss” and “gain” go good together and make life more fun and exciting.

           Boys and girls, sometimes we want the world to be all the same: everyone should look the same, everyone should dress the same, everyone should think the same.  We think that the best friends are those who think and dress and act just like we do.  But that would make life very boring.  Instead, look for ways that opposites attract and make life more fun and exciting.  Today, try to find more opposites that attract, especially Christian opposites; opposites that Jesus would put together.  Here are a few more opposites for you: boys and…girls, Summer and…Winter, Cowboys and…Steelers, democrats and…republicans, wining and…losing.  I think we’ve lost enough football games now, so now it’s time to enjoy the opposites: winning, especially against LSU on Saturday!

Praised be Jesus C

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Somebody's Daughter

Seeing others as brothers and sisters

Philemon 10-16
 I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to both you and me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the Gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary. Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.

             In the seminary my spiritual director gave me some great advice on how to deal with especially attractive women.  Since priests are required to be celibate, we have to learn how to guard our celibacy and not fall in love with every beautiful woman we meet.  Here’s what he said: “If the beautiful woman is older than you, think of her as your mother.  If the attractive woman is around your same age, look at her at your sister.  If the gorgeous girl is younger than you, treat her as your own daughter.”  And I have to say, his advice has come in very handy.  We have ladies in the parish now cooking meals for us priests and the next step will be to have them do our laundry too!  Thanks mom!  But seriously, when we see other people, especially women, as members of our own family, we not only see THEM in a new light, but we begin to see OURSELVES differently. What do I mean?  When I see these beautiful women as mother and sister and daughter, I begin to see myself as “son” and “brother” and “dad” to them.  And that helps me to know how to behave toward them and treat them as I should.  You see, my spiritual director wasn’t just telling me how to look at attractive women, he was teaching me how to look at myself.

            St. Paul is fulfilling the role of a good spiritual director in his letter to Philemon.  Even though the letter is very brief, Paul gives some great advice, namely, how to look at other people.  Philemon had a slave named Onesimus who had spent time with Paul and become a Christian.  Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, but with a little advice.  He says: “I send Onesimus back to you no longer as a slave but as a brother in the Lord.”  In other words, Paul urged Philemon, like my spiritual director urged me, to see Onesimus in a new light, not as a slave but as a brother.  But St. Paul was also subtly suggesting to Philemon to see himself differently: not as a master but as a brother.  You see, Paul wasn’t just teaching Philemon how to look at Onesimus, he was also telling Philemon how to look at Philemon.

             How do you treat other people?  Do you treat some people rudely and disrespectfully, like people who drive crazy in traffic or people in government offices who seem not to care?  Try to see them as your mother, your sister, your daughter.  Are there people with whom you’ve had a fight and find it hard to forgive?  Try to see them as your brother or sister.  (If it was your brother and sister you fought with, then you’re out of luck.)  Are there people you treat as objects of pleasure, like beautiful models in swimsuit advertisements or T.V. commercials?  Look at them as your mother, or sister, or daughter.  Like people sometimes remind us: “Hey, you know, that beautiful girl is somebody’s daughter.”  A good Christian would respond: "Yes, she's MY daughter."  When we train our eyes and our minds to see others in this new light, we also begin to see ourselves in a new light, as a brother or sister in the Lord.  And we act accordingly.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Brideshead Revisited

Remembering the wedding of Jesus and his Bride

John 2:13-17
 Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me.

             We are very blessed here in Fort Smith to have two of the most beautiful churches in the diocese (the state of Arkansas): Immaculate Conception and St. Boniface.  I love their traditional, cruciform style, the stunning stained-glass windows, and the statues of saints peeking around every corner.  But I confess, I am not a fan of modern church architecture which often looks like a Pizza Hut restaurant (no offense to Pizza Hut), or a vacuous, air-plane hanger, just an open space with little spiritual sense.  Some people argue that church architecture is a matter of taste, “de gustibus non est disputandum” (there’s no arguing over taste).  They say: "I like contemporary and you like traditional; one style is as good as another."  But I disagree.  Whenever someone says that modern churches are as good as classical churches, I always ask them, “When your daughter grows up, where will she want to get married someday?  Where would she like to walk down the aisle on her wedding day?”  Of course, we know the answer: every girl dreams of getting married in a traditional-looking church, not in a Pizza Hut.

             But I believe our brides are really on to something essential about churches.  That is, a bride’s preference for a church is not just a young girl’s whimsy; rather it speaks of something spiritual and supernatural, and ultimately points to something other-worldly.  A bride always wants to marry in a traditional church because traditional churches were built according to a heavenly design.  What do I mean?  You see, traditional churches followed a pre-set pattern based on a heavenly model, on heavenly blue-prints.  Hebrews 8:5 says “Moses was warned when he was about to erect the tabernacle: ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain’.”  And why did Moses have to follow these heavenly blue-prints exactly?  Because one day what would happen in that Temple would be a wedding, and you know, everything has to be perfect for a wedding.  If you don't believe me, just ask any mother of the bride!  You see, both old Moses and young brides understand that Temples are not a matter of personal taste; they are a matter of divine design.  God designed the heavenly Temple for the wedding of his Son, Jesus, and his Son’s bride, the Church, and every earthly temple should be an accurate replica of the heavenly one.

            In the gospel today, we see Jesus acting in a very uncharacteristic way.  Meek, mild, gentle, loving Jesus makes a whip out of a cord and drives people out of the Temple, turns over tables and sternly warns people, “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace.”  Someone sent me a “meme” (a little cartoon) recently, that showed this same scene, with a caption that read: “If anyone asks you ‘what would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility.”  But why is Jesus getting so bent out of shape over making a little money in church?  What’s the big deal?  Well, Jesus is not only a Savior, he’s also a loving groom, and he wants the Temple to be perfect for his Bride’s wedding day.  You see, Jesus knows Temples on earth should mirror the Temple in heaven, and they are all ultimately designed for a wedding day, namely, Jesus’ wedding day.

             Now, sometimes not even traditional churches nor traditional-minded priests do their job well.  One day a priest and a taxi driver both died and went to heaven.  St. Peter met them at the Pearly Gates and said to the cabbie, “Come with me.”  St. Peter led him to a huge mansion.  It had anything you could imagine from a bowling alley to an Olympic sized pool.  “Wow, thank you!” said the taxi driver.  Next, St. Peter led the priest to a rugged old shack with a bunk bed and a little old television set.  “Wait, I think you are a little mixed up,” said the priest.  “Shouldn’t I be the one who gets the mansion?  After all, I was the priest, went to church every day, and preached God’s word.”  St. Peter answered him, “Yes, that’s true.  But during your sermons people slept.  When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed!”  So, just sitting and sleeping in a traditional-looking church is not enough; you have to actually pray while you’re here.

             My friends, every time we go to Mass on Sunday, we should go with the attitude we’re attending a wedding.  Just imagine how well everyone would dress: the men would be in suits and ties, ladies would be in dresses, boys and girls would look cute as a button, and not like Dennis the Menace.  We all wear our best to a wedding, don’t we?  And people pay attention and pray at a wedding, too.  They pray the happy couple will not mess up saying their vows, and married couples remember their own vows and pray that God will help them be faithful to each other.  And if the priest is a little more like that taxi driver, he’ll help people think about the heavenly wedding day between Jesus and his bride, and not put them to sleep.

            That’s why Pope St. John Paul II called marriage the “primordial sacrament,” because it’s the fundamental pattern of every sacrament: baptism, confession, Communion, etc. should all have seeds of marriage in them.  Every sacrament, especially the Mass, should make us feel like we’re going to a wedding.  That’s why every church building should be one a bride wants to get married in.  And that’s why Jesus got upset, because people didn’t treat the Temple according to his divine design for a wedding.  And that’s why taxi drivers who get people to pray get a higher place in heaven than priests who put people to sleep.

             Have you ever read the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh?  It’s about a young man named Charles Ryder, who falls in love but never marries his beloved, a girl named Julia.  At the end of the book he returns to Julia’s home, a mansion in England, and stops to pray in the family chapel.  He reminisces about the purpose of a chapel as he stares at the red flame of the tabernacle light, he says: “Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work…a small red flame…and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.”  You see, Charles realizes his love is not all lost: he didn’t have Julia’s love but he still had Jesus’ love; he could look forward to the heavenly wedding day.  In the very last line of the book, a junior officer tells Charles, as he comes out of the chapel, “You’re looking unusually cheerful today.”  Every time we come out of the church, we should look “usually cheerful,” too.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!