Wednesday, March 26, 2014

All Laws Stutter

Learning to be patient with laws and lawgivers

Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-9

      Moses spoke to the people and said: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. Therefore, I teach you the statutes and decrees as the LORD, my God, has commanded me, that you may observe them in the land you are entering to occupy. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’ For what great nation is therethat has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?  Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?  “However, take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”

      Several years ago I visited Washington D.C. and took a tour of the U.S. Capitol.  Have you seen it?  I learned something amazing: in the House Chamber there are side portraits -- bas reliefs -- of 23 great lawgivers throughout history.  Among them are Hammurabai, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon I, and even Pope Innocent III.  What's even more fascinating is that all the reliefs are seen from the side, except one, the central portrait of Moses.  Moses' face is depicted from the front, a full view.  What's even more mind-blowing is the other 22 reliefs are on either side of Moses -- 11 on his right and 11 on his left -- all facing toward Moses.  The art in the House Chamber conveys one clear message: among all human lawmakers, Moses enjoys pride of place.  Why?  Moses legislated not merely human laws, but divine laws.  Our U. S. Representatives would do well to look up often and remember in whose footsteps they walk.

      The greatest image of Moses, however, is not found in D.C. but in Rome, Michaelangelo's Moses, in the Church of St. Peter in Chains.  The statue is so life-like that after Michaelangelo finished it, he took a hammer, hit Moses' knee and said, "Speak!"  There are a few people I'd like to hit with a hammer and say, "Shut up!"  But I believe Michaleangelo wasn't just patting himself on the back for another masterpiece.  Rather, when he hit Moses' knee, he made a crack (still visible today), a flaw in that perfect sculpture.  And when he declared, "Speak!" Michaelangelo remembered Moses' great flaw.  Do you recall it?  Moses st-st-st-stuttered.  The greatest lawgiver in human history -- someone who finally had something worthwhile to say -- couldn't speak well.  Michaelangelo's point was that no human lawgiver is perfect, even those who legislate God's laws.  Laws and lawgivers are always a work in progress; they are never perfect.

      Today's first reading is from the book of Deuteronomy.  But do you know what the word "deuteronomy" means?  It comes from two Greek words, "deutero" and "nomos," which literally mean "second law."  The people couldn't keep the original law of God, the Ten Commandments, so Moses created thousands of exceptions and provisos and loopholes so that the people could keep MOST of the law.  The whole book of Deuteronomy is Moses telling the people that laws are always a work in progress; be patient with the laws and be patient with the lawgivers, and most of all be patient with the people who must obey the laws.

      Keep this in mind whenever you hear about human laws: immigration laws, or abortion laws, or about same-sex marriage laws or about tax laws.  Some laws we like and some laws we don't.  Some laws we'd really like OTHER people to obey!  But all laws are a work in progress; all laws st-st-st-stutter in trying to convey God's eternal laws.  The last law of the Church's Code of Canon Law states, "The highest law is the salvation of souls."  In the end, the salvation of souls will be the only law that matters.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jesus' true first miracle

Appreciating pregnancy as a miraculous gift

Luke 1:26-33

The angel Gabriel was sent from Godto a town of Galilee called Nazareth,to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,of the house of David,and the virgin’s name was Mary.And coming to her, he said,“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”But she was greatly troubled at what was saidand pondered what sort of greeting this might be.Then the angel said to her,“Do not be afraid, Mary,for you have found favor with God.Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,and you shall name him Jesus.He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

      There are some things I will never get to do as a priest -- and for which I am eternally grateful!  I will never have to take a Natural Family Planning class, and have to learn about mucus.  I will never have to attend a Lamaze class and learn about proper breathing techniques.  I won't become an expert in ecological breast-feeding or know how long breast milk keeps in the fridge.  You don't want to know how long a gallon of milk sits in my fridge.  I guess I'll just be happy living the deprived life of a celibate priest.

      But even I know what today's feast of the Annunciation is about -- do you?  Today is March 25, which is exactly nine months before what important date?  All the accountants at Mass know nine months from today is December 25.  And what human process typically takes around nine months to complete?  Pregnancy.  That's why today the Church celebrates the Annunciation -- the "announcement" of the Angel Gabriel -- the moment of the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary.  Nine months from today Jesus will be born in Bethlehem.  Why even a celibate priest knows that.
      Now, you should know that there are certain currents in society today that look down on pregnancy and see maternity as something which holds women back from fulfillment and happiness.  I recently read the book "Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan, who said women will only be happy when they leave the home and enter the workplace.  And there may be a lot of truth to that.  John Paul II, however, taught us something different called "the feminine genius."  Women have an intuitive grasp of God's goodness and grace, and therefore they have a lot to teach us, even in and through their pregnancy.  We should humbly listen and learn from this "feminine genius" that women possess, especially from pregnant moms, like the Blessed Virgin Mary.

      One priest I know calls women "walking miracles" because in their womb is the cradle of life, where another miraculous human life is conceived and carried.  That's why I believe that Jesus first true miracle is not when he changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana in Galilee.  Rather, Jesus first miracle was his Incarnation -- his becoming a baby -- in the womb of Mary, and we should learn Mary's "feminine genius" for the next nine months.  Mary's pregnancy was Jesus first true miracle.  Indeed, a true miracle happens every time a woman gets pregnant.  And you won't learn that in your Lamaze class.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Where is Waldo? Learning to find Jesus hidden in the poor

1 Samuel 16:1B, 6-7, 10-13A

     The LORD said to Samuel: “Fill your horn with oil, and be on your way. I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem, for I have chosen my king from among his sons.”  As Jesse and his sons came to the sacrifice, Samuel looked at Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is here before him.” But the LORD said to Samuel:  “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” In the same way Jesse presented seven sons before Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any one of these.” Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse replied, “There is still the youngest, who is tending the sheep.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Send for him; we will not begin the sacrificial banquet until he arrives here.”  Jesse sent and had the young man brought to them. He was ruddy, a youth handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance. The LORD said, “There—anoint him, for this is the one!” Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand, anointed David in the presence of his brothers; and from that day on, the spirit of the LORD rushed upon David.

     I asked Pastor Ulrich before we began if it was permitted to use holy water in the Presbyterian Church.  He kindly consented.  If you’ll allow me, I’d like to sprinkle us all with holy water as a symbol of beseeching God’s anointing.  Samuel anointed David and the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him; I pray that happens to us.  Before asking God’s blessing, let me make two disclaimers.  First, do you know how you make holy water?  You boil the hell out of it.  I hope it’s okay to say “hell” in church; we have to tell you what to avoid.  Second, sometimes when I sprinkle people with holy water, some people burst into flames.  Please don’t be alarmed if that happens.  That happens ALL THE TIME in the Catholic Church; it’s very normal.  With those two caveats, let us pray that the Spirit of the Lord will rush upon us as it did upon the young David.  May almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

     Madeline L’Engle tells this true story about a party in a large English country house.  She writes: “Often after dinner people at these parties give recitations, sing and use whatever talent they have to entertain the company.  One year a famous actor was among the guests.  I believe it was Charles Laughton.  When it came his turn to perform, he recited the Twenty-third Psalm, the most beloved psalm in the Psalter.  ‘The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.’  His rendition was magnificent, his pace and enunciation flawless, and there was loud applause when he finished.
     As the evening wound down, someone’s great aunt was dozing in the corner.  In addition to her drowsiness, she was deaf as a post and missed most of what transpired.  When informed it was her turn to recite – English education in her era had stressed such skill – she thought for a moment, and in her quavering voice, began: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”  There were a few suppressed giggles, but as she continued the room fell silent, and by the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.  Everyone’s head was bowed down in prayer.

     Later in the evening, one of the guests sought out the famous actor, and after complimenting his superb recitation, asked why the funny old lady’s recitation had been so moving.  Laughton replied: “I know the Psalm, but she knows the Shepherd.”  Laughton made a great point: while it’s good to know Psalm 23, it’s far more important to know the Shepherd of that Psalm.  But it’s not so easy to know the Shepherd: he’s not in plain sight, in obvious places or in expected people, he prefers to remain hidden.  Did you ever enjoy those books called “Where’s Waldo?”  You have to search very hard to find Waldo. Well, the Shepherd is like that: he loves to hide his among his sheep.

     In our Scripture reading today, the prophet Samuel is learning to find the future shepherd of Israel, and he finds it’s not so easy.  Samuel mistakenly thinks Jesse’s older sons – each one handsome, strapping, confident, all Matt Damon and Brad Pitt look-a-likes – will be the next king of Israel.  But God teaches Samuel, “Do not judge by appearances or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him.  Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.”  Like Charles Laughton said: it’s one thing to know the psalm, but it’s another thing entirely to know the shepherd.  The characteristics that count for God has far more to do with what’s on the inside of a man than what’s on the outside, with the quality of his heart rather than his place in high society, with the longings of love rather than with the lap of luxury.  It’s not so easy to find the shepherd; he’s not usually where we would first guess.

     Have you heard of Pope Francis?  After all, you guys are Presbyterians so I didn’t want to presume. Pope Francis is teaching us to find the Shepherd hidden in another surprising place and among very unlikely people, namely, in the faces of the poor.  One of Francis’ catch-phrases is: “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor.”  The poor are his priority.  Why?  Well, because he believes that’s where the Shepherd loves to hide, among his poorest sheep.  Listen to this quotation from his recent document, and see if you can tell like Samuel how God prefers to be hidden among the poor.  Francis writes: “The poor have much to teach us.  Not only do they share in the sensus fidei (that means “the sense of faith”), but in their sufferings they know the suffering Christ.”  Sounds like that funny, old aunt who knew the Shepherd, doesn’t it?  Francis continues: “We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.  The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the center of the Church’s pilgrim way.”  The poor should be at the heart of the Church’s mission because that’s where the Shepherd is.  Finally, Francis teaches where to find the Shepherd: “We are called to find Christ in the them (the poor), to lend our voice to their cause, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them” (Evangelii gaudium, 198).  Just like that creepy old aunt with the creaky old voice knew the Shepherd much better than Charles Laughton, so too the poor enjoy an inside track on Jesus.  We may know the Psalm, but the poor know the Shepherd.

     A priest friend of mine recently visited the Salvation Army shelter here in Fort Smith.  He stood outside visiting with some of the residents of the shelter getting to know them, and introducing himself.  One lady resident said, “If you want to talk to the main people who run the shelter, they are inside in that office building.”  The priest smiled and said, “I’m already talking to the main people right here.”  That priest caught what Samuel at first missed: the Shepherd is not to be found in those of lofty stature and nobility, but in the poor and lowly. The poor are the “main people.”  The Lord said to Samuel: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Welcome Home: Forgiving others as condition to enter the Father’s House

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them Jesus addressed this parable. “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly, bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’“


            Let me ask you a tough question: which is harder to do: confess your sins or to grant forgiveness to another?  When we’re small children we’d answer that it’s a lot harder to confess.  To say, “I’m sorry I stole the cookie; please forgive me for lying to you; I’m sorry for punching Johnny in the nose.”  It’s hard to confess and eat humble pie when we’re young.  But when we get older other people offend us, and it’s up to us to forgive them.  I would submit to you that forgiveness is a lot harder than confession.  I’ve counseled countless married couples, and the single biggest reason marriages fail is not because someone committed adultery, not because someone spends too much money, not because of a difference of religion.  Rather, it’s because one spouse refuses to forgive the other for some offense.  Let me ask again: which is harder: to confess cookie theft, or to forgive an adulterous husband?


            That’s why people often miss the point of today’s gospel, the so-called parable of the Prodigal Son.  Who is the story really about: the younger son or the older son?  Most people would say the protagonist is the younger son, but I disagree.  The whole section about the younger son – the squandering money, the dissolute living with prostitutes – is setting up the real dilemma: will the older son forgive or not?  The parable really is not about confession, but rather about forgiveness. Why?  Well, because Jesus knows which is harder for us (and which was harder for the Pharisees), that is, it’s a lot harder for us to forgive.  After all, the younger son does finally confess his sins, while the older son stands stubbornly outside the house refusing to forgive, that’s how the parable ends.  We don’t know if the older son ever went inside the Father’s house.  Confession is hard, but the younger son eventually does it; forgiveness is so hard that the older son can’t do it.  Alexander Pope wisely said 300 years ago: “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”


            Let me ask you another tough question: Why don’t Catholics go to confession?  Most of us would reply: “I can’t think of anything I’ve done wrong!  I haven’t robbed a bank, I haven’t killed anyone, or even punched Johnny in the nose!”  That may be true.  But you see, confessing sins is the easy part of this sacrament; the harder thing is forgiving others.  Ask yourself: whom have I refused to forgive?  Does anyone come to mind?  I bet a lot of people come to mind: parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, maybe even a priest or two, oh, and how about your ex?  I know lots of people come to your mind because plenty of people come to my mind, too, who I refuse to forgive.


            My friends, we reach a point in life when the purpose and perspective of the sacrament of confession changes profoundly.  We don’t enter the confessional as the younger son – carrying the sins of sex, drugs and rock and roll – but rather we enter as the older son – weighed down with the burden of self-righteous indignation, grudges and resentment.  To err is human – that was the role of the younger son; to forgive is divine – that was supposed to be the role of the older son.  Forgiving was supposed to be how the older son would become like his Father, and the condition for him to enter his Father's house.  Forgiving others is also the condition for us if we want to enter the Father's House.

                                                       Praised be Jesus Christ!



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Outside dangers, stepping outside your front door takes great faith

 Genesis 12:1-4A
The LORD said to Abram:“Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.” Abram went as the LORD directed him.
             One of my favorite childhood novels was “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien.  It’s about a humble little hobbit named Frodo and how his whole life changes with an ominous warning.  His uncle Bilbo tells him: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door.  You step onto the road and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  Like any good nephew, Frodo ignores his uncle’s advice, steps out his front door, and is swept away on a wild adventure facing dragons, Dark Lords and certain death.  Now, you should know that Frodo had every reason to stay put inside his home: he was safe and comfortable, his world was predictable and he was respected by everyone, even a hometown celebrity.  Life only begins, however, when we step out our front door into the wild world outside.  In a very different book, and on a much larger stage, Shakespeare put these words on the lips of Brutus: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.  Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries.”  Stepping out your front door is indeed dangerous; life is safer inside, but that life is also shallower.  Outside lays                                                                greatness.
            In the first reading today, God invites Abram to step outside his front door, to take a step of faith.  Listen to the famous call of Abram in Genesis 12 and see if you hear an echo of Bilbo’s avuncular advice: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.’”  God sweetens the deal further by telling him that stepping away from safety also means stepping closer to greatness.  The Lord continues, “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  Abram took a great risk going out his front door – it would have been easier and safer to stay home in Ur of the Chaldeans – but that first step eventually led him to become the father of a great nation, and ultimately the “Father of Faith.”  You see, it takes great faith to step out your front door.
             I did a little going out my front door too this past week.  What I found outside my front door was the wild world of “social media.”  Believe me, it’s a lot easier to fight orcs and trolls and Dark Lords than to survive the strange creatures crawling in cyber space!  I was visiting a family for supper and the 13 year old girl set me up with an “instagram” account.  My name is “priestdude.”  I have a grand total of 7 followers (all her friends).  Someone else told me I should get a blog.  Not knowing what that is, I said, “Eew!  A blog sounds gooey and sticky – the blog!”  Gross.  You can access my blog through the church website.  I decided to seek more friends on Facebook, so indiscriminately asked hundreds of people to friend me.  I got a nasty note from Mark Zukerburg at Facbook saying, “If you do not slow down your friend requests, we will have to block you!”  I wrote back, “Move over Zukerburg, this is the information superhighway!”  So, now I’m blocked on Facebook and Mark Zukerburg has un-friended me.  You could say I got pulled over on the information superhighway.  All this techno-geek stuff is not my cup of tea.  I’m much more like a hobbit, who’d rather sip a real cup of tea in front of a blazing fire, reading a good book about Dark Lords and death-defying bravery.  But if we never leave the safe haven of our homes, like Brutus said, “all our lives will be bound in shallows and miseries.”  I’m not exactly the “father of faith” like Abram, but I’ve learned that I can share the faith with thousands more through Facebook than I ever could face to face.  The first step is always “the dangerous business of going out your front door.”
             My friends, God invites all of us to “go out our front door” and be swept off to an unknown future.  It’s like the bumper sticker that says: “If God is your co-pilot, switch places!”  In other words, let God be your pilot (not you!) and let him fly you to places you never dreamed.  Every Lent we participate in a sermon series with other Protestant pastors.  On Monday, Rev. Phil Blackburn will preach here at I.C. and later I will preach at Central Presbyterian Church.  Have you ever stepped into a Protestant church and experienced their world of worship?  It’s a lot safer but also shallower to always stay put in your home church.  If you’re a Republican, I dare you to read the speeches of Bill Clinton, they are quite good.  If you’re a “yellow-dog Democrat” pick up the pages of Ronald Reagan, the great communicator.  (A yellow-dog Democrat will vote for a yellow dog before he votes for a Republican!)  Many people never venture outside their political home – it’s dangerous out there!  I will forever be in awe of my parents who not only walked out their front door, but out of their home country to an unknown future.  What great faith it takes to leave your family and friends and especially Indian food (!) to start a new life: talk about being a father and mother of faith!  My parents have never read Shakespeare, but they know better than Brutus that “there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.”  We three children have inherited that fortune.  Many husbands and wives fight and argue and sometimes divorce because neither one will step outside their front door, outside their own perspective, and see things from their spouse’s point of view.  That could be dangerous.  How many parents a
nd teenagers argue because neither wants to step foot into the other’s wild world?  If we choose safety, we also choose shallowness.  It takes a lot of faith to step out your front door.
             Bilbo wisely said: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door.”  Why is it dangerous?  Because outside you will find orcs, and trolls and Dark Lords, Democrats and Presbyterians, Instagram and Twitter.  But only if we step out that door will we begin the journey of faith, only then will we move over and let God be our pilot.

             Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Snowball's chance in purgatory

Isaiah 55:10-11
Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down And do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, Giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
    One of the toughest jobs in television is to be the weatherman or weatherwoman.  Sometimes we love them and sometimes we hate them.  School children hang their hopes on every word of the weatherman when he predicts snow, hoping for a school cancellation.  Store managers stock shelves on the word that a storm will cause power-outages.  People plan vacations and get-aways only after checking the extended forecast.  I’ve become friends with our local weatherman and he says he gets angry emails and even threats when the weather turns out different from his forecast.  One child refused to go to school one morning saying, “The weatherman said it would snow!”  A weatherman’s words can cause joy or sorrow, they can give hope or despair, they can produce excitement or calm.
    Today’s readings tell us that each of us carries the mantle of the weatherman; in a spiritual sense, our words can make it rain and snow.  Listen to Isaiah, who says: “Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth…So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth…achieving the end for which I sent it.”  God’s grace, his mercy, is like rain and snow falling from heaven that produce goodness and growth, that give joy and healing, to all the earth.  And in the gospel Jesus tells his disciples how to unleash this torrent of grace: by prayer, like the “Our Father.”  When we pray for someone, we wear the mantle of the weatherman, and our words of prayer can cause the rain to fall, which brings joy, peace, hope and mercy.
    For a moment, think of someone who could use a little spiritual sunshine, or maybe a child who desperately wants another snowday!  Did you know a simple prayer for them can cause their spiritual weather pattern to change?  A friend of mine sent someone a note of encouragement and included John Donne’s powerful poem “Death be not proud.”  Do you think that not brought a warm southern breeze to scatter the dark and cold clouds hanging over that man’s heart?  You betcha.  Every week we send acknowledgements to grieving families that a Mass is offered for their deceased loved ones.  The graces from those Masses can change the weather patterns even in Purgatory!  One person who died set aside $10,000 in his will for Masses after he died: he was hoping for a few snowdays in Purgatory!  But don’t limit the heavenly rain and snow only to fall on those you love, but also pray for your enemies.  Every weatherman knows that when he forecasts a sunny day, that sun will shine for everyone.  It will even warm the faces of those who send him angry emails.

 Praised be Jesus Christ!

Apples or pairs : Trusting in God for our happiness

Matthew 7:7-12
Jesus said to his disciples: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asked for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.  “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.”

            Pope John Paul II gave me a whole new way of understanding the Adam and Eve story, especially the sin of eating the apple. Most commentators say the first couple committed an act of disobedience, and that’s true, they violated God’s express prohibition not to eat of the forbidden fruit.  Other commentators say it was pride and arrogance, wanting to be like God themselves.  After all, wasn’t this precisely what the Serpent promised them?  Scott Hahn suggested that it was a sexual sin.  He joked, “The problem was not the apple on the tree, but the pair on the ground.”  Get it: not an apple but a pear!  John Paul II, however, said what lay at the root of their sin was a lack of trust. You see, God had built the whole Garden of Eden saying in effect: “I have provided all this for your happiness. You can trust me to take care of you.” But Adam and Eve said, “Thanks but no thanks.  We’ll trust someone else to make us happy; we’ll trust the Serpent.”  And the rest is history: the history of a humanity that fails again and again to trust in the Father’s love.  All of human history can be seen through this lens: a timeless tale of committing the same sin of Adam and Eve: failure to trust God for our happiness.  We are truly children of our first parents; you could say “the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
            This is how we should understand today’s gospel: in the context of reestablishing that broken trust in the Father.  Jesus says, “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asked for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish? If you then, who are wicked know how to give good gifts to your children how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”  Every mother and father’s heart beats with one overriding impulse: to give their children the best.  In fact, most parents want their children to have far better than they had themselves. Every mother and father says in effect to their children: “Trust me, I’ll take care of you.  I truly want your happiness.”  But sooner or later most children repeat the fatal words of Adam and Eve, “Thanks but no thanks.  I’ll trust someone else to make me happy.”  But Jesus shows us another way: the road of total trust in God.  Jesus not only taught us how to trust the Father, he modeled how to do it, all the way to the Cross.  That’s what Adam and Eve should have done: total trust in God.
            Let me ask you something: do you truly trust God?  I really believe this is the most important thing we have to do.  Here’s another way to look at it: every sin is at root a statement of lack of trust in God.  If we truly trusted God, we would pull the rug out from under every desire to sin; we would be exactly like Jesus, who trusted totally.  Behind every sin is a lack of trust in God.  Behind every adulterous affair, behind every South American drug cartel, behind every mother's gambling addiction, behind every priest's excessive drinking, behind every student who cheats on a test, behind every masked bank robber, behind every Mass we skip on Sunday, behind every word of gossip, behind every white or black lie, behind every ruthless dictator lies one final and fundamental fact: we don’t trust God for our happiness.  Even our money reminds us: “In God we trust.”  But do we?  You see, Adam and Eve’s sin had little to do with apples and pairs, but everything to do with a lack of trust.  It’s the same for each of our sins: ultimately it’s a failure to trust in the Father’s love.  If we totally trusted God, we wouldn’t sin.
            That, by the way, is why Adam and Eve’s mistake has traditionally been called “The Original Sin,” because every sin since them has just been a knock off.  The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

All brides fast

Matthew 9:14-15
The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
     How many of you have been to a wedding before?  What was the best part of the wedding for you?  Some people cry at weddings when the couple says their vows, other people love all the beautiful flowers, decorations, flowing dresses, everyone loves the party and punch and cake at the reception.  Everyone loves the loud music and dancing, except the priest who sits in the corner grumpy because he doesn’t have anyone to dance with.  If you see a priest at a wedding reception be sure to dance with him.  Now, a lot of work goes into making the wedding day picture perfect.  But do you know what the most important part of the preparation is?  The bride has to lose weight.  Why does she have to lose weight?  So she can fit into her wedding dress, so she can look pretty and perfect.  How do you lose weight?  You don’t eat.  What is another word for “not eating”?  That’s called “fasting.”  All brides fast before their wedding day!  Now, does she fast on the wedding day itself, at the reception?  Heck no!  One picture in all wedding albums is when the bride and groom cut the cake and each puts a small piece of cake in the other’s mouth.  On the wedding day, we don’t fast, we feast!
      This is what Jesus is talking about in the gospel today: when to fast and when to feast.  He says that while he is with his disciples, they don’t fast.  Why?  Well, because he is the Groom and they are the “Bride.”  When the Bride and Groom are together, it’s time to feast, not fast.  But Jesus, the Groom, will be taken away from the Bride, and then it will be time for them to fast.  At the end of time, however, Jesus will return in glory and do you know what will happen then?  It will be a huge, cosmic wedding!  It will literally be “the party to end all parties”!  You see, the last book of the Bible tells us what will happen at the end of time.  What is that book called?  Most people call it “Revelation.”  But there is a better title, and that is “Apocalypsis.”  That’s a Greek word and it means “unveiling.”  Now, I’ll give you one guess who is being “unveiled” at the end of time.  It’s the Bride on her wedding day.  A very important part of the wedding ceremony is when the Groom lifts the veil off the Bride’s face and kisses her. I know that sounds yucky, but some day you’ll appreciate that.  The end of time will be a huge wedding day, a day to stop fasting and to start feasting.  I hope you like weddings.
      Boys and girls, for a moment , think of someone who has died.  I now that’s very sad and we miss those people.  This past week Mrs. Betty Merrywell passed away.  She is the mother of one of our teachers, Mrs. Patty Frala.  I want you to look at death in another way.  The people who have died are closer than we are to the end of time, some are there already (like Mary and the saints), to that great and glorious wedding day!  They are not gone forever; we hope to see them again on the last day, the wedding day when the Bride and the Groom will be together forever.  On that day the Bride will not fast, she will feast; she will be pretty and perfect.  On that day, the Groom will take the veil off her face and he will kiss her and he will give her cake to eat forever and ever!  Of course, it will be chocolate cake.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Early bird special

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
Brothers and sisters: We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says: In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

             We all know that “the early bird gets the worm.”  We know that if we don’t get up early we will miss golden opportunities.  That’s why people line up and wait for hours before stores open up on “Black Friday.”  That’s why Black Friday is now officially “Black Thursday” – we want to be the early birds.  Even though we know this is true for material things, we fail to apply this lesson to spiritual things.  We indefinitely postpone the work of serious spiritual renewal.  We say, “I’ll start praying next year.”  “I’ll pray the rosary when I’m retired.”  “I’ll go to Mass when I have more free time.”  St. John Vianney warned: “We must take great care never to do anything before having said our morning prayers…The Devil once declared that if he could have the first moment of the day, he was sure of all the rest.”  The early bird gets the worm, but be careful, Devil wants to be the early bird, too.

            In the second reading today, St. Paul urges us to wake up to our spiritual lives; he wants us to stop procrastinating.  He writes to the Corinthians: “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”  He’s saying in effect, “Look, have you been waiting for just the perfect day to start taking God seriously?  Well, guess what?  That day has arrived!  In other words, stop being a spiritual slacker!

            Well, Lent was designed specifically for us spiritual slackers.  It’s a wake up call so we can be early birds and get the spiritual worms.  Every year, we’re reminded not to put off growing in holiness and to take it soberly and seriously.  Now is the time to go to confession.  Now is the time to clean up your potty mouth.  Now is the time to stop drinking and smoking and use the money you save to help the poor.  Today is the day of salvation, not tomorrow.  The early bird gets the worm.  Don’t let the Devil get up before you do.
            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Mine! Letting go of ourselves and holding on to Christ

1 Peter 1:14-16
Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly, and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, Be holy because I am holy.
Mark 10:28-31
Peter began to say to Jesus, “We have given up everything and followed you.”
             Our former bishop, now Archbishop of Seattle, J. Peter Sartain, once described how we go through three stages of Christian maturity.  In each stage we tend to use a peculiar word.  In the first stage we say “mine.”  This lowest level is usually that of a child.  The bishop said: “’Mine’ is typically a word spoken with quivering lips and the tenacious tug of little hands.  ‘Mine” is a fighting word, rarely spoken in hushed tones.”  I say that word every morning as I grab the coffee pot from Fr. Pius, “Mine!”  The second stage often uses the word “ours.”  He explained: “’Ours’ is a civil word, a family word, one that can hold us in pretty good stead through most of life.”  But the last stage is when we humbly say “yours.”  The bishop goes on, “There comes a time, especially in our relationship with God, when, with empty hands open in poverty, we say only this: “Everything is yours.  I can’t do it.  Will you do it for me and in me…as you always have?”  These three words correspond beautifully to the three stages of the spiritual life the classic authors taught.  “Mine” refers to the "purgative way," where we learn to let go of our sinful selves.  “Ours” is like the "illuminative way" in that we’re growing in awareness of others and the need to love others.  And “yours” is the counterpart of the "unitive way" because it is complete abandonment to God, “all is yours” we finally say.  Or, as John the Baptist put it perfectly: “I must decrease and He must increase.”  Mine.  Ours.  Yours.
             We see Peter going through these stages in today’s readings.  In the gospel Peter asks, “We have given up everything to follow you.”  It’s as if he’s complaining: I’ve given up everything that is mine, and now I have nothing.  Can’t you almost picture Peter saying that with quivering lips?  But in his first letter as our first pope, written much later, we see Peter in the full blossom of Christian maturity.  He humbly says, “Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly, and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”  Set your hops completely on Christ.  In other words, it’s not about “mine” or even about “ours” but it’s all “yours” meaning “Christ’s.”  Peter had reached the heights of holiness and humbly confessed that everything is “your’s,” that is, God’s.
             Each of us can evaluate our progress on the road of Christian maturity using these three words “mine,” “ours,” and “yours” as our guage.  Where would you say you are?  We’d all immediately like to say, “Heck, I’m at the end, in the full blossom of holiness!”  That’s nice.  May I suggest to you that in reality we are all pretty much still at the beginning, still worried about what’s “mine”?  A good tool to use is to pay attention to how often you use the word “I” in a conversation, when you write, when your think.  Or better, notice how others do that, you’ll see that much quicker.  You'll notice how everyone likes to talk about themselves!  But the point is, we are often, almost always, self-referential in our conversations, turning the conversation onto some personal experience we’ve had instead of focusing on what the other person is sharing.  Watch how often people do that today.  Here's another tool: can you walk by a mirror without taking a glance at your appearance?  That’s another sign the ego is alive and well.  Have you learned that the whole world is not waiting with bated breath to see what you will post on facebook next?  I will give you one guess what I’ll do with this homily after Mass this morning.  I can't wait to see who "likes" me!  In other words, maybe it’s not just small children who say “mine!” with quivering lips and a tenacious tug of little hands.  We all do that, far more than we care to admit.  Man, we have a long way to go on the road of Christian maturity.  Good thing Lent begins tomorrow.
             Praised be Jesus Christ!

All aboard for heaven: Giving up earthly things as requirement to enter heaven

Matthew 6:24-34
Jesus said to his disciples: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

             My favorite book by C. S. Lewis is one that very few people have heard of and even fewer people have read.  It’s called, “The Great Divorce.”  After all, who wants to read about a divorce, even if it is a “great” one??  It doesn’t really have anything to do with marriage and divorce, but rather, it’s about an imaginary bus trip to heaven and Lewis’ startling claim that you can’t take any souvenirs from earth into heaven.  Listen to how he puts it: “You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey (here he means to heaven) even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you leave behind.”  Remember in the Bible where Jesus says that if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off, and if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out?  Lewis goes on saying, “If we insist on keeping earth, we shall not see Heaven; if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retrain even the smallest souvenirs of earth.”  For just a moment, try to visualize packing your suitcase for a trip to heaven.  What would you take?  Would you take your favorite Teddy Bear, pack your jogging shoes, charge your Kindle and download books, take plenty of sunscreen?  Or, put it another way: what would you want to have in heaven so much that, without it, it wouldn’t feel much like heaven?

 Several years ago there was a news story about a man who loved his Cadillac so much that when he died, he wanted to be buried with it, with his body placed in the driver’s seat.  He said he wanted to drive his Caddy in heaven.  That’s a true story; you can’t make this stuff up.  Two friends were discussing the passing of a very wealthy neighbor.  One asked, “How much did he leave behind?”  The other answered, “He left it all behind.”  That’s what C. S. Lewis was saying: We won’t take anything material with us to heaven.  Do you recall that famous line from the Old Testament book of Job, where Job exclaimed, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there.” (Job 1:21)?  When we return to heaven, we’ll all go back in our birthday suits.

               Now, here’s the hard thing to understand about heaven: it won’t be simply a continuation of life as we know it on earth: just more of the same but just a lot better.  That’s what most people think and that’s what they expect heaven to be like.  But it won’t.  Rather, there will be a radical break with earthly life, a dramatic departure, for which Lewis decided to use the drastic term “the great divorce.”  Grasping that dramatic difference between heaven and earth is the hard part of heaven.

In the gospel today, Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for that final bus trip to heaven, so that, when they climb aboard that heaven-bound bus, they can leave behind all of their luggage.  Our Lord says rather starkly: “No one can serve two masters.  He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon.”  That is, they cannot love both heaven and earth equally, they must choose one, they must love one decisively more than they love the other.  When Jesus uses the term “mammon” he’s referring to all the things they’d like to pack on that bus trip to heaven; the things they feel they just could not live without.  That’s why Jesus goes on to list the things they tended to worry overmuch about (really to love too much): security, food, clothes and so forth.  But his point is clear, even if uncomfortable: you cannot pack anything for heaven.   The apostles must love God more than they love their teddy bear, more than they love their Cadillac, more than they love their chai latte.

            Let me ask you: have you decided what you’ll give up for Lent this year?  Now, don’t be like one of my friends who always waits till the end of Lent and asks himself, “Let’s see, what did I not eat or drink for the past 40 days?  That’s my Lenten sacrifice!”  Sorry, there are no “retroactive Lenten penances.”  Maybe you’ll adopt the attitude of one of our second graders who said last week, “I’m going to give up watching 6 minutes of T.V. every day!”  Hey, that’s a big sacrifice for some people!  May I suggest another way to look at Lent?  Try to think ahead to that inevitable bus trip you’ll take one day to heaven.  What are the things you think you cannot live without in heaven: your morning coffee and newspaper, your favorite playlist of songs, texting, tweeting, and Facebook, watching American Idol and drinking a cold Coors Light?  Give up these things for Lent; you’ll have to give them up one day.
 Now, don’t misunderstand me: we don’t give these things up because they are bad, indeed they are good things.  God made them for our happiness.  Rather, it’s because sacrificing them shows we love God more than these things.  You see, Lent is a kind of “litmus test of love” to see if you really do “love God more than mammon.”  It’s easy so to say, “Yeah, I love God!”  It’s a lot harder to show it.

 Then, if we truly love God more than mammon during Lent, something beautiful will happen at Easter.  We will celebrate the Resurrection.  And I don’t just mean Jesus’ Resurrection, but in a spiritual sense, also our own resurrection.  You see, just as Jesus had to be stripped of everything of this world – all the worldly mammon – during his passion and death so that he could rise on the third day, so must we.  The cost of that bus ride to heaven is the same for everyone, that includes Jesus: we must leave behind all our luggage.  You could say that every Lent and Easter we are invited to take a little “day trip” to heaven.  But like before any vacation, the hard part is knowing what to pack and what to leave behind.  That’s what you have to figure out this Lent: what is one more thing you must learn to leave behind before you can board that bus?  “You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind.”  Oh, and if you need someone to drive your Cadillac around during Lent, I’ll be happy to swap you for my Toyota.
 Praised be Jesus Christ!