Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Di Cuore

Forgiving from the heart
Matthew 18:21-35

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

            One of my favorite parts of the Mass is the end of Mass, when I get to greet people as they are leaving.  I know a lot of people also like that part of Mass, because it’s over!  Some parishioners make a point to come over and say hello, while I’ve noticed other parishioners make a point to avoid me and exit through another door!  They think I don’t see them, but I do!  I especially love watching the small children.  Some run up to me and jump up and give me a big bear hug.  Others can’t stand to look at me – I can’t blame them – and their parents have to cajole them to look at me and say, “Good morning, Father.”  Hispanic parents always teach their children to shake hands with the person they are greeting.  Some Latino children look the other way as they shake my hand; their hand is close but their heart is a million miles away.  And that’s what really matters, isn’t it, what comes from the heart?  A priest friend of mine who lived in Rome always signed his letters, “Di cuore,” which is Italian and means, “From the heart.”  What matters most is what comes from the heart.

            Today’s gospel concerns Jesus parable of forgiveness. Much has been made of how many times Jesus says you should forgive, not seven times but seventy-seven times.  Scripture scholars explain that the phrase “seventy-seven” is really a symbolic number and means a limitless number of times.  You must always forgive, no matter how many times someone offends you.  But for me that’s not really the point of the parable, rather, it’s the last line, where Jesus says, “each of you must forgive your brother from your heart.”  Sometimes we forgive our neighbor but we’re like those children after Mass who shake my hand but look the other way.  Our lips are moving and saying the right words, but our hearts are a million miles away.  And what matters is what comes from the heart, “di cuore.”  And it’s easy to tell when something is heartfelt, and when it isn't.

            I’m a big fan of “Alabama” – not the football team, but the country music band!  In one song, they say, “Play me some mountain music, That comes from the heart, Play something with lots of feeling, Cause that’s where music has to start.”  The heart is also where forgiveness has to start; otherwise, forgiveness is phoney.  Today, think of someone you have to forgive, maybe your spouse, or a sibling, or an old friend.  Reach out to them and apologize or forgive them.  But don’t be like those small children after Mass who extend their hand but not their heart; don't just forgive with your lips, but also with love.  It won't matter if you forgive your brother “seventy-seven times” if that forgiveness doesn’t come “di cuore.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Nose Knows

Treating our bodies like temples
John 2:13-21

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. At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered and said to them,  “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said,  “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,  and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body.

            Things are not always as obvious as they seem.  Of course, people say things like, “That’s as plain as the nose on your face!”  But is the nose on your face so plain?  Do you know where you nose came from?  One day a little girl asked her mother, “Where did people come from?”  Her mother answered, “God made Adam and Eve and they had children, and that’s how all mankind was made.”  A couple of days later, she asked her father the same question.  He said, “Many years ago, there were monkeys, which the human race eventually evolved from.”  The confused girl returned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, how come you told me we were created by God, but Daddy said we come from monkeys?”  The mother smiled and said, “Well, dear, it’s really very simple.  I told you about my side of the family and your father told you about his.”  Sometimes things are not as plain as the nose on your face.  Even your nose is not so plain.

            In the gospel today it’s not very plain what Jesus is talking about either.  Is he talking about the temple, or is he talking about his body?  First Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  So, clearly he means the temple, right?  And that’s what the Jews thought.  But one verse later, it says, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body.”  Can you blame the Jews for being confused?  Actually, Jesus is talking about both, that is, he’s drawing a kind of correlation or connection between the temple and his own body, saying that his body is the “true temple.”  You see, that’s why Jesus took so much offense at the way the Jews were disregarding and desecrating the temple, because Jesus felt as if they were virtually disregarding and desecrating his own body.  Years later, St. Paul will make the similar connection for the Corinthians, when he writes: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Cor. 6:19).  In other words, God did indeed create our bodies (like that mother said) – we’re not just an upgraded version of monkeys! (like that father thought) – but even more, he created our bodies to be temples.  For Jesus, that connection between the body and the temple was as plain as the nose on your face, that is, the nose on your face is part of the temple of the Holy Spirit.

            You know, there are lots of things that are not so plain about our faith and our church and we have to think carefully so we don’t get confused like the Jews did.  Consider these humorous examples.  One day a little boy was feeling sick to his stomach in church and told his mom he didn’t feel well.  She said, “Go outside behind the bushes and throw up.”  The boy left but came back quicker than the mom expected.  She asked, “Are you feeling better?”  The boy smiled and said, “Yes, but I didn’t have to go all the way to the bushes.  There was a box by the door that said, ‘For the Sick’.”  By the way, that’s why the box by the door at our church says, “For the POOR”!  Church signs can be confusing!  One morning a husband and wife were in the kitchen discussing who should make the coffee.  The wife said, “The man should definitely make the coffee.  It says so in the Bible.”  The man asked, “Where in the world does the Bible say that??”  The woman opened the Bible and said, “Right here, see in HEBREWS.”  You’re welcome, ladies!  You see, often our faith requires a second look; it is not as plain as the nose on our face.

            Something else not so plain to people is this penitential season of Lent.  Why do Catholics make sacrifices, like giving up T.V. and Facebook, chocolate and soft drinks?  What’s the point of disciplining our wills by more prayer and penance and helping the poor?  Do we Catholics just enjoy pain and like making ourselves miserable?  No, not at all!  We do all this because our bodies are really temples!  And just like Jesus had to run the money-changers, and buyers and sellers, and doves and oxen and sheep and goats out of the Temple in Jerusalem, so we too must drive our selfish desires out of our bodies, out of these “flesh and blood sanctuaries of the Spirit.”  Lent is kind of like a “cord of discipline” to drive out laziness and greed, to get rid of gluttony and lust, to leave no room for pride and vanity.  Lent returns the body once again into a house of prayer and love, not a marketplace.  You see, every Lent we should feel what Jesus felt: “Zeal for your house consumes me!”

            A few years ago, I read a short book by Fr. Robert Barron called, “Heaven in Stone and Glass.”  He explained how the ancient gothic churches and cathedrals – a lot like the church you’re sitting in right now! – were built by people of deep faith.  Those Christians easily and effortlessly saw the harmony between their bodies and the churches they built; that one was a mirror reflection of the other.  Listen to this stirring passage.  Fr. Barron writes: “There’s a wonderful description of the construction of Chartres Cathedral that has come down to us from the twelfth century.  It says that people from all walks of life and social strata – lords, ladies, soldiers, and common workers – came together in the grueling task of transporting stones, wine, grain, and oil to the work site.  They labored side by side and in reverential silence – and all forgave their enemies.”  Wow, sounds just like our Spaghetti Supper a few weeks ago!  But that is a perfect snapshot of Lent: we sacrifice legitimate passions so we can serve other people; we drive out the meanness of the marketplace so we can give generously to the poor; and we forgive our persecutors so we can find true peace.  We do all this in and through our bodies, because our bodies are temples.  And, and by the way, for a Christian: that is as plain as the nose on your face.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Pretty in Green

Gratitude for our gifts
Genesis 37:3-4
              Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a long tunic. When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his sons, they hated him so much that they would not even greet him.

            Today, we’re going to talk about two words, envy and jealousy.  Raise your hand if you think those two things are basically the same.  Don’t worry, lots of people think that, but they’re not.  Envy and jealousy are very different.  Jealousy is wanting something that someone else has and you don’t have it, but it stops there.  Envy goes further: it wants what someone else has, and thinks, “If I can’t have it, then neither should you!”  Let’s say your sister has a really pretty dress, and you wish you had that dress.  That’s’ just jealousy.  But let’s say you feel that if you can’t have that dress, then neither should she.  So, one night you sneak into her room with a  pair of scissors and cut up her dress.  That’s envy!  Envy is so bad, it even makes you change colors.  We say “a person is green with envy.”  No one looks pretty when they are green.

             Now let’s see if you can tell the difference between jealousy and envy in the Bible.  In Genesis, Jacob has 12 sons, and his youngest one was Joseph.  Do you know who was Jacob’s favorite son?  It was Joseph.  And do you remember the special gift that Jacob made for Joseph?  It was a coat of many colors, but it was NOT a “Technicolor” coat!  Now, how did Joseph’s brothers feel about Joseph and his coat?  Did they feel jealousy or envy?  Raise your hand if you think they felt jealousy.  Raise your hand if you think they felt envy.  Raise your hand if you think they felt BOTH!  It was both.  Most of the brothers felt envy because if they couldn’t have the coat, then neither should Joseph, and they wanted to kill him.  They were green with envy, and looked very ugly.  But not Reuben, he felt jealous but he didn’t want to hurt Joseph.  (By the way, that’s why that really delicious sandwich is named for Reuben, the “Reuben Sandwich.”)  Reuben knew that you don’t look pretty when you’re green.

            Boys and girls, do you know what is the antidote to the snake bite of envy and jealousy?  It is an attitude of gratitude.  Instead of worrying about what others have, worry about what you have.  Thank God for the great gifts he has given to you.  What are some of the blessings in your life?  We are blessed with good health: we can run and jump and play baseball!  We have food: fried catfish, spaghetti and cheesecake!  (No meat, today is Friday.)  We have friends and family who love us.  And most importantly, we have faith: we know God loves us, and every Sunday we can go to church and tell God we love him!

            God has given each of us special gifts and talents that he has not given to others.  Each of us has our own “coat of many colors,” so you don’t have to cut up your brother or sister’s coat!  And besides, you don’t look very pretty when you’re green.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Fine Diamonds

Appreciating our blessings
Matthew: 16: 29-31
           He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”

            Do you know what is the greatest pitfall of the priesthood?  It is not sexual scandals, or money laundering, or a lust for power.  These things are bad, of course, but there’s something even worse, namely, boredom.  We get to a point as priests where we just don’t care anymore; it simply becomes a job, a routine, and we put the priesthood on “autopilot.”  Have you ever attended a Mass where the priest was just going through the motions, more worried about saving his tee-time than about saving souls?  A priest in the seminary was telling us about this “spiritual ennui” when he said, “The day may come as a priest when you get to the end of the Mass and you ask yourself, ‘Did I actually consecrate the wine?’”  In other words, we’re so distracted at Mass, we don’t even recall the most sacred words we utter.  By the way, that’s why I always say those words of consecration slowly…and…deliberately.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “A jeweler gets used to seeing fine diamonds.”  A priest gets used to the “fine diamonds” of grace and glory he handles every day.

            This ennui explains the perplexing parable in the gospel today.  A rich man dies and lands in a place of torment – most likely hell – and he begs father Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so they will shape up and not also end up in hell.  Abraham says, “let them listen to Moses and the other prophets.”  But the rich man insists that his brothers need something spectacular to make them change, like someone rising from the dead.  And Abraham says what Fulton Sheen said, “Jewelers get used to fine diamonds,” and so will your brothers.  In other words, they’ll get used to someone rising from the dead, and take that for granted, too.  And Abraham was right: how many Christians know Jesus has risen from the dead, but that doesn’t make them change their lives?   A Christian gets used to the “fine diamond” of the resurrection of Jesus.

            Today, ask yourself, “What are the fine diamonds in my life that I’m too used to seeing and no longer appreciate?”  Just like some priests, so some Catholics take the Mass for granted and just go through the motions of the Mass on autopilot.  Another fine diamond in your life is your spouse.  Remember how wildly you were in love while you were dating and newly married?  You couldn't stop talking or keep your hands off each other!  But slowly we get used to our spouse and take them for granted.  Some couples have trouble remembering the last time they said, “I love you,” like some priests have trouble remembering if they said the words of consecration over the wine.

            Instead, we should feel like Brad Paisley in his song, “The Mona Lisa.”  He sang, “Now there are men who make history, There are men who change the world, And there are men like me who simply find the right girl.  And in that very moment, it all becomes clear, What I’m meant to do, the reason I’m here.  Now, every night I thank the Lord I found you, And every time I put my arms around you…I feel like the frame that gets to hold the Mona Lisa, And I don’t care if that’s all I ever do.”  That's how every spouse should feel.

            Today, wrap your arms around the Mona Lisas and fine diamonds in your life.  Tell them how much you love them, and hug them tightly.  And may we never get to the end of Mass and wonder, “Did the priest actually consecrate the wine??”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Living Vicariously

Seeking the Father’s will
Matthew 20:20-23

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

             One of the perennial problems that parents face is trying to live “vicariously” through their children.  Now, maybe I have no business telling parents their business, since I don’t have any children of my own.  But you know, there are 6,000 people in Fort Smith who call me “Father,” so I’ll keep going!  Some parents live “vicariously” through their children’s lives; moms and dads feel that what their children get, somehow they get it, too!  And what their children don’t get, they don’t get!  How many horror stories are there of a dad who goes “postal” when his son strikes out in a little league baseball game, yelling and cursing at the umpire?  It’s almost as if the dad thinks it happened to him.  How many weddings are ruined by an overbearing mother of the bride because she couldn’t give her daughter the wedding that she never had?  I always wonder: “Whose wedding is this, anyway??”  Of course, parents immediately answer, “We’re doing all this for our children and their happiness!”  But I suspect there’s also a subtle selfish motivation below the surface.

             In the gospel today, we see another mother living vicariously through her sons.  The mother of James and John approaches Jesus and asks him to place her two boys in the seats of highest honor in the kingdom.  I’m sure if anyone had asked Mrs. Zebedee why she was making such a request, she’d answer, “It’s for my boys, of course!”  But don’t you think it was also a little bit for herself?  What her sons get, she also gets.  Jesus gentle corrects her, saying, “That’s not how this works. Those seats are reserved by my Father to assign as he pleases.”  In other words, Mrs. Zebedee, don’t live vicariously through your sons, but rather tell your boys to seek the place the Father has reserved for THEM.  They, too, have a special place, but it's not that one.  You see, God is the only Father who did not live vicariously through his Son – thinking his Son always deserved the best – but he let Jesus fulfill his mission by suffering and dying on the Cross.  The only way NOT to live vicariously through your children is to teach them to seek God’s will, rather than the will of their mother or father.

            You know, all parents want what’s best for their children.  My parents came half-way across the world to give their children the best in a new country.  Parents save and sacrifice to send their children to Catholic schools to give them the best education.  You give your children the best food, the best clothes, the best upbringing.  But are you sure you always know what’s best for them? Sometimes, maybe what’s best is for your son to strike out in the little league game so he'll learn how not be a sore loser.  Perhaps it’s best for your daughter to have a simple wedding, and not a wedding like William and Kate in Westminster Cathedral.  Maybe what's best is for your children is not to sit at Jesus' left and right in his kingdom.  Maybe what’s best is for your Son to die a shameful and humiliating death on the Cross.  Do you always know what's best for your children? 

             You see, the only way to stop that sinister selfishness of living vicariously through our children is to teach them to seek God’s will in their lives, and not their parents’ will.  Today, you try to do that with your kids, and I’ll try to do that with my 6,000 kids.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Go Climb a Mountain

Humbling ourselves
Matthew 23:6-12
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

                “Would you like to be a bishop?” was a question that someone once asked me.  I replied, “Heck no!”  I explained, “It’s a lot easier to be a shepherd to the sheep than a shepherd to the shepherds!”  I remember once asking my little nephew that same question once, and he gave the same answer, but for a different reason.  He said, “I don’t want to be a bishop.  I want to be the pope!”  I have a priest friend who has a different perspective.  He happily says, “I would love to be a bishop, but I want to be an “auxiliary bishop.”  Those guys get all the titles and perks, but don’t have any of the problems and headaches!”  Last year, you might remember that Pope Francis had a little advice for ambitious priests.  He said: “And in the Church there are ‘climbers,’ people driven by ambition.  But if you like climbing, go to the mountains and climb them; it is a lot healthier.”  That is, the Church has no room for ambitious priests.

                 One of my favorite Shakespearean soliloquies was delivered by Henry V, where the king disguises himself as a common solider, and speaks to his men to cheer them up before a big battle.  The king laments to himself: “What infinite hearts-ease must kings neglect,  that private men enjoy!  And what have kings that privates have not too, save ceremony, save general ceremony?  And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?”  In other words, all kings really enjoy is a bunch of pomp and circumstance, which is not worth much compared to the heartaches and headaches.  Sounds like Henry V would have liked to be an auxiliary bishop!

                In the gospel today, Jesus is telling his disciples that same thing: don’t pursue the pomp and circumstance if you want to be my follower.  He tells them to avoid the titles like “rabbi,” and “father” and “master,” and “auxiliary bishop”!  Instead, he urges: “The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  Isn’t that what Henry did in laying aside his royal robes and serving his men by cheering them up?  Henry humbled himself, and therefore he was exalted as the ideal king.

                 Did you know there is both “bad ambition” as well as “good ambition”?  So far, we’ve been talking about bad ambition, but St. Paul talks about good ambition in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he says, “Be ambitious for the greatest spiritual gifts.  But I shall show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).  Do you know what comes next?  One of the greatest soliloquies in the whole Scriptures: St. Paul’s famous ode to love, where he writes, “Love is patient, love is kind, etc.”  In other words, we should have a healthy drive, ambition and enthusiasm, but that must all be directed properly: not to being auxiliary bishop or pope or to seek the flimsy fame of pomp and circumstance, but rather to humble service and heart-felt love.  You see, it’s because Pope Francis would rather NOT be pope or bishop that he’s just the right man for the job.  It’s because King Henry would rather remove his royal robes and cheer up his people that he was the ideal king.  He who humbles himself will be exalted.  And that is good ambition.

                Praised be Jesus Christ!

I Wish

Praying to our heavenly Father
Matthew 6:7-14

Jesus said to his disciples: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. “This is how you are to pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

            If you fortuitously found a genie in a bottle who offered you three wishes, what would you wish for?  In these scenarios people usually ask for loads of money or cars and houses or long life, or for the Razorbacks to win the national championship (because they put a big bet on them). But I want to burst out: “Ask for more wishes!”  Why can’t anyone figure that out??  Do you remember that 1960’s sit-com called, “I Dream of Jeannie”?  In the very first episode, an Air Force captain crashes on a deserted island and finds a bottle with a beautiful genie.  And do you know what he asks for?  He asks for a helicopter to come rescue him so he can go home.  Think about that for a minute: you are on a deserted island, with a beautiful genie who calls you “master,” and you ask for a helicopter.  Really??  If you were in that position, what would you wish for?  I would say, “More wishes!”
             In the gospel today Jesus helps us think about what we should request, not from a genie, but from God.  Jesus knows that sometimes we tend to look at God more like a “genie” than like a Father.  Jesus says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  And that’s precisely the problem: when we pray, we’re really asking for what we “want” – what we wish for – instead of what we really need.  And when God answers “no” to our prayers, could that not mean that we really don’t “need” those things but they are really something we want or wish?  Every time God says “no” to a prayer it’s a painful but necessary reminder that we’re not dealing with a genie in heaven, but a Father in heaven.  And good fathers don’t give their kids everything they wish for.  Maybe what we “need” the most is to remember that God is our Father who will always take care of us, regardless of whether he says “yes” or “no” to our prayers.  That's our greatest need.  That’s why the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, is not a laundry list of our wishes.  We don't pray: "Our Father, who art in heaven, let me win the lottery today, let me never grow old, give me this day a skinny body, and lead me into more and more wishes.”

            Last Saturday, a very thoughtful young man named Trey asked me a question that all thoughtful people ponder sooner or later.  He asked, “Why did God create a world in which there is suffering and sin and pain?”  I replied, “Why do you think he did?”  Trey thought for a moment and said, “I guess so we would have freedom to choose between good and bad, and suffering is the consequences of our sinful choices.”  I said, “That’s a great answer!”  But I added, “It’s also because if there were a better world, wouldn’t God have created that one instead of this one?  And so if God, in all his wisdom and love, chose to create this world, we must already be living in the best possible world.”  In other words, there’s no need to wish for a better world in which there is no sin and suffering or pain, where we're all rich and beautiful and never die, because we’re already living in the best world God could have created.

            But here’s the catch: this world was created by a Father and not by a genie, who doesn’t want his children to be spoiled, but to be saints.  And in this world, if you find yourself on a deserted island with a gorgeous genie and a magic lamp, maybe you, too, should wish for a helicopter.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Yes or No

Knowing when to say yes to Jesus
Luke 5:27-30

Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.”  And leaving everything behind, He got up and followed him. Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house, And a large crowd of tax collectors and others were at table with them.

            You know, occasionally, I’ll have to ask someone to volunteer for a ministry in the parish, like usher or Eucharistic minister or cub scout leader.  And do you know what some people answer?  They say, “No.”  Can you believe it?  Hard to imagine isn’t it?  Some people think, “Who could possibly say ‘no’ to you, Father John??"  Well, let me tell ya, the list is long!  Now, the really clever people say things like: “Well, Father, I can’t do that, but maybe my wife could help.”  Or, they’ll answer, “I have a friend who would be perfect for the job!”  We thereby throw our wife or friend “under the bus.”  Of course, we can’t say “yes’ to every petition that people propose, and so the hard part is knowing when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”  Just don’t say “no” to me.

            In the gospel today, we see how people respond when Jesus calls them.  Jesus calls Levi to follow him as a disciple.  You’ll remember that Levi and Matthew are two different names but refer to the same person.  Now, the gospel says, “Leaving everything behind, Levi got up and followed him.”  After all, who would say “no” to Jesus, right?  Wrong.  In the 16th century, the Renaissance painter, Caravaggio, painted this same gospel scene of Levi's calling, but included this exquisite detail.  Levi is seated at his custom’s post when he sees Jesus pointing to him, clearly calling him.  But Levi's own finger is pointing, too, at a younger man beside him, as if to say, “Sorry, I’m busy at the moment, but this guy would be perfect for the job!”  Sound familiar?  Of course, we know Levi eventually follows our Lord, and ultimately dies a martyr’s death.  You see, whether we live in the 16th century or in the 21st century, or in any century, it’s hard to know when to say “yes” and when to say “no,” even to Jesus.

            Did you know that Jesus is calling you, too?  Jesus is always calling us in a general sense to deeper discipleship.  That’s what Lent is about: listening to our Lord’s call and through prayer, penance and helping the poor, and becoming better disciples.  But Jesus also calls us explicitly, like to the vocation to the priesthood, or to the diaconate, or to be a nun or sister, or to go on a mission trip, or to work in a prison ministry.  You know what's funny?  We all know we need more vocations to the priesthood, but some parents say, “Sorry, my son is busy, but the neighbor’s boy next door would make a perfect priest!”  Call someone else.
             May I share another delicious detail about that Caravaggio painting?  Jesus’ hand that’s pointing to and calling Levi is very similar, really identical, to the hand that Michaelangelo painted for God the Father as he’s pointing to and creating Adam and Eve in the Sistine Chapel.  Caravaggio’s point is inescapable: Jesus doesn’t just call Levi, he re-creates and re-makes Levi into a new creation, namely, the disciple named Matthew.  Jesus doesn't just call, he creates.  That’s why it says in John 5:19, “The Son can only do what he sees his father doing.”  Like Father, like Son.  The hard part for us is always knowing when we should say “yes” and when we should say “no.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Moses Math

Answering what is X
Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said to the people: “Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God.

Luke 9:22-25

Jesus said to his disciples: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?”

             I hate math, and I REALLY hate algebra.  I was never any good with numbers, but I could tear it up with letters, with spelling and reading.  But algebra is the worst because it mixes numbers and letters!  Instead of asking like in math, “what is 2 + 2?” algebra asks, “in the equation 2x +2, what is x?”  I wanted to answer, “Well, x is a letter and it has no business in math!”  You know, Shakespeare didn’t do algebra, and so algebra shouldn’t try to sound like Shakespeare!  I always felt like quoting Rudyard Kipling, who wrote, “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and sky stand presently by at God’s great judgment seat!” (“The Ballad of East and West”).  In other words, some things don’t mix well, like letters and numbers: leave algebra for the afterlife, for “God’s great judgment seat.”

             Little did I know that miserable math and even odious algebra are exactly what’s going on in the Bible, especially in our two readings today.  The Old Testament is simple math: 2 + 2 = 4.  Moses says simply, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.  Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.”  Moses’ math is easy: choice + life = blessings.  But in the New Testament, Jesus teaches us “spiritual algebra” by introducing a variable, the “x” factor.  You see, X is the Greek letter for Christ.  And then the math gets hard, for Jesus says, “For he who wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”  In other words, Jesus inserts a variable into the equation, namely, himself, the X factor, and we suddenly get very different answers and results.  Now the equation reads: choice(X) + death = blessings.  Now you see why I hate algebra?!  Here’s my point: when Jesus, the X factor, enters the equation of your life, you’re not doing Moses’ math any more, this is algebra of the angels.

            Do you hate math and algebra as much as I do?  Well, even if you’d rather stick with spelling and Shakespeare, you still have to answer the algebraic question: what is X?  And when we realize that the X stands for Christ in the equation of our life, we do amazing and even miraculous things.  Our 40 seminarians have found that X is Christ and chosen what the world considers death (no money, or wife, no children) and found untold blessings.  Immigrants who move to a new country (like the Irish and Germans, the Italians and now Hispanics who moved to Fort Smith), know that X is Christ, and have been blessed abundantly.  Catholics who take Lent seriously by sacrificing legitimate pleasures know X is Christ and await the blessings of Easter (or maybe just next Sunday, when we get a pass on our sacrifice!).

             You see, algebra is advanced math, and not many like it or understand it or embrace it.  Similarly, Christian spirituality is advanced living, and not many like it or understand it or embrace it, because in both cases, you have to answer the question: “what is X”?  X is Christ: where east meets west, north meets south, and sky meets earth.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Southern Livin

Learning the rules of Catholicism

You know, I’ve been living in here in the South since I was eight years old, and I love it.  But apparently, I still don’t know all the “rules” of being a “Suthnuh,” so someone sent me this email to educate me on the South, and so I’d feel more at home here.  Let’s see if you’re a true “Suthnuh.”

            Suthnuhs know their weather report: humidity, humidity, humidity.  Southerners know everybody’s first name: Honey, Darlin and Shugah.  Southerners know their religions: Bapdiss, Methdiss, and Football.  Southerners know their cities drippin with Southern charm: Chawl’stn, S’vanah, Foat Wuth, N’walins, and Addlanna.  Southern girls know their prime real estate: The Mall, The Country Club and The Beauty Salon.  Southern girls know the 3 deadly sins: Having bad hair and nails, having bad manners and cooking bad food.  Even Southern babies know that “gimmie some sugar” is not a request for the white granular, sweet substance that sits in a pretty little bowl in the middle of the table.
             Only Southerners make friends while standing in line…and when we’re “in line”…we talk to everybody!  In the South “ya’ll” is singular, and “all ya’ll” is plural.  By the way, you may have noticed there ain’t no magazine named “Northern Living” for good reason; there ain’t nobody interested in living in the North, and nobody would buy the magazine.  Here’s the conclusion: ‘Now, Shugah, send this to someone who was raised in the South or wish they hada been!  If you’re a Northern transplant, bless your little heart, fake it, we know you got here as fast as you could!”  Did you know all those rules for “Southern Livin”?  I guess I’m still learning.
             Now, just like there are rule for Southern Living, so there are rules for Catholic living.  Since today is Ash Wednesday, maybe we should go over some of those rule, so you’ll feel at home here in the Church, just like I now feel more at home in the South.  On Ash Wednesday, everyone can get ashes, even non-Catholics.  So, just because you see someone on T.V. with ashes, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re Catholic.  Today is NOT a holy day of obligation.  [Let me pause for dramatic effect.]  Today is NOT a holy day of obligation, even though everyone thinks it is.  Catholics don’t have to go to Mass on Ash Wednesday.  BUT every Sunday IS a holy day of obligation; Catholics DO have to go to Mass every Sunday.  Missing Mass would be a Catholic deadly sin, like having bad hair and nails is for a Southern girl.
             Every Sunday, you get a “pass” on Lent, meaning you don’t have to make your lenten sacrifice on Sunday.  Why?  Because every Sunday is a “mini Easter,” and we don’t “fast” when Jesus the Bridegroom is with us.  Every Friday of Lent, we participate in the Stations of the Cross, because we love Jesus so much we want to imitate him by doing what he did.  Catholics don’t just read the Bible, we want to reenact the Bible.  On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we "fast," which means we eat one normal meal, and two small meals.  My rule of thumb is: if it didn't hurt a little, you didn't do it right.!  On Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, we don’t eat meat, but do love us a mess of lobster tails and some deep fried catfish!  There are Catholic rules, but there are also Catholic loopholes.  You have to know both!

            You see, just like there are rules for Southern Living, so there are rules for Catholic Living, and learning them helps us feel more at home, in the South and in the Church.  So, I’ll keep trying to be a better "Suthnuh," and you keep trying to be a better "Cat-lick."  And, by the way, if you mess up, bless your little heart!  Don’t worry, that’s why we have confession!

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Shake It Off

No Mulligans for Mardi Gras
Genesis 6:5-6

           When the LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was grieved.

            Do you ever wish life had a “reset button”?  Sometimes our plans and projects “go south” and fail miserably – maybe our whole life project has been thwarted by divorce or death – and we’d love to hit a universal “reset button” and start gain.  In golf we have a reset button it’s called a “mulligan” where you hit the same shot over without a penalty.  Of course it would be an Irish golfer who came up with a free extra shot – what a bunch of blarney!  Or, if you’re Taylor Swift, you don’t need a reset button, you just “Shake it off.”  Have you heard her catchy song?  She sings: “Cause the players gonna play, play, play; And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate.  But I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake. Shake it off.  Shake it off.”  In other words, you don’t need a reset button when life gets lousy, you just need good music to forget and fix your problems; you just need to “get down to this, sick, beat.”
             In the first reading today, God wishes he had a reset button, or at least a good Taylor Swift song to dance to, to forget his troubles.  His glorious creation has been wrecked by man’s sins, and Genesis records, “When the Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on the earth, he regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was grieved.”  God’s heart was broken.  But even though God knew, like T. Swift, that “heartbreakers gonna break, break, break,” he didn’t reach for the reset button.  He preserved Noah, his family, and enough creatures, to continue his original creation.  You see, you cannot just shake off sin; sin is only forgiven through sacrifice, and that’s what the Flood was.  Hebrews 9:22 reads, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”

            Today is Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday.”  And I’m afraid many people will behave today no better than the people did in the time of Noah, and once again break God’s heart.  Because “heartbreakers gonna break, break, break.”  You know, we all commit sins sooner or later, but the real question is: what are we going to do about it?  For sins there is no “reset button,” or “mulligan,” or magical songs to make them disappear; there is only sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus.  And we receive that sacrificial salve each time we go to confession.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen had this graphic description of confession, saying, “Every priest’s hand raised in absolution is dripping with the blood of Jesus.”  As Hebrews said: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”

            So, this Mardi Gras have fun: wear the gold and purple bead necklaces, eat and drink whatever you’ll give up during Lent, and enjoy some King Cake.  But don’t break the King’s heart with your sins.  Because you see, our sins actually do break the King’s heart.  And he can’t just “shake it off.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

That Guy

Reaching those at the margins
Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,  touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once.  He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest  and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

             Have you ever heard of St. Damien of Molokai, also known as the “leper priest”?  He has an amazing story, so amazing that they even made a movie of it.  In 1873 he volunteered to work on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, which was a leper colony.  He built hospitals, clinics, churches and some 600 coffins for those who died of leprosy.  12 years later, in 1885, he contracted leprosy himself and died that same year.  You may have heard that part of the story, but here’s something you probably don’t know.

             Shortly after Damien died, a Presbyterian minister named Rev. Hyde wrote a scathing criticism of Damien and his work on Molokai.  Damien, however, was defended by the famous writer Robert Lewis Stevenson; that would be like John Grisham coming to your defense or writing your eulogy!  Stevenson’s rebuttal of Rev. Hyde is so eloquent, I want to share a portion of it, even though it’s a little long.  He wrote to Hyde: “But sir, we have failed, and another has succeeded; we have stood by, and another has stepped in; we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succors the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn and dies up on the field of honor.”  Then, Stevenson concludes: “If that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien shall be named a saint (which would happen 100 year later), it will be in virtue of [your] one work: your letter [criticizing Damien].”  In other words, you’ll go down in history as just “that guy” who complained about a saint. Don’t be “that guy.”  You see, saints always seek those who sit at the margins of society, like lepers, and they even give a footnote in history to their detractors, like Rev. Hyde.

            This is exactly what Jesus does in the gospel today as he seeks those segregated by society.  A leper approaches Jesus and requests that he heal him.  But did you notice how Jesus healed the man?  He did exactly what he should NOT have done: he touched him.  In the first reading from Leviticus, Moses expressly tells the people that lepers should be expelled from the camp and never touched.  But Jesus comes precisely to seek the lost and the lonely, the ostracized and the outcasts, those who live on the fringes and those who are forgotten.  And when Jesus touched the leper, he didn’t just remove his uncleanness, he also brought him back from the margins into the heart of society, like St. Damien touched the lepers of Molokai and made them feel loved and accepted.

            Last week someone sent me this little joke.  A lawyer, a doctor and a priest went hunting together.  They came upon a big buck and all three of them shot simultaneously.  The buck dropped dead and the three men rushed to see who shot it.  They noticed there was only one bullet hole, and started arguing about who hit it.  A few minutes later the game officer came by and asked what the problem was.  The doctor explained the reason for the debate.  The officer took one look at the deer and said with complete confidence: “It was the pastor who shot the buck!”  They asked, “How do you know that?”  He said, “Easy.  The bullet went in one ear and other the other.”  But do you know why some Sunday sermons go in one ear and other the other?  I believe it’s when we priests, like Stevenson said, “sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions while plain, uncouth peasants step into the battle.”  In other words, sermons go stale when we priests don’t practice what we preach, and seek those at the margins of society.  You see, soul stirring sermons are only given by saintly pastors who care for the most “unclean” in their congregations.

             My friends, we cannot all go to Molokai and work with lepers to make them feel accepted, but there are people at the edges of our lives, and we can reach out to them.  There’s no better example of this than Pope Francis.  He’s constantly calling Catholics to seek those at the “peripheries” (the edges, the margins) – the refugees and immigrants, the homosexuals, the divorced and remarried, the mentally ill and those in prison.  Aren’t these people the modern-day "lepers" who live “outside the camp” and whom we feel dare not touch?  But they are precisely the people who merit our special attention and love.  There may be people in our own circle of family and friends whom we’ve pushed to the edges of our hearts.  Sometimes, those who are farthest from our hearts, live under the same roof.  Pray for them at this Mass, and find a way to reach out to them today.  And by the way, may I sincerely apologize if there’s anyone in this parish who feels I’ve ignored or neglected them?  No one should feel they are on the peripheries of Immaculate Conception Church, but rather at the heart of this parish community, and in the heart of this pastor.

             You know, in the end we only have two options in life; there are only two kinds of people in the world.  We can either be like the saints and seek those segregated by society, or we can be like “that guy” who complains about and criticizes the saints.  Don’t be “that guy.”  But, don’t worry, even if you are “that guy,” you will still get a footnote in the history books.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Law of Luck

Believing God’s love rules the world
 Mark 7:31-37     
          Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.  And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him off by himself away from the crowd.  He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”) And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.  He ordered them not to tell anyone.  But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.  They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

            Today is Friday the 13th!  Some people believe today is unlucky.  Raise your hand if you think today is “unlucky.”  In fact some people think the number 13 is bad luck.  So, if you’re in an elevator in a very tall building, you’ll notice there is no button for the 13th floor.  The buttons go directly from 12 to 14.  But even though they call it “the 14th floor” it’s still the 13th level of the building!  Other people try to avoid bad luck by “knocking on wood.”  Have you ever seen anyone do that?  When people say something bad COULD happen, they quickly knock on wood to avoid any bad luck.  Of all the people who play sports – basketball, volleyball, cricket – who are the most superstitious?  Baseball players!  If baseball players are winning games, they keep wearing the same uniforms without washing them, even their socks and underwear.  It’s very gross.  We do all these silly things to avoid any bad luck and to find some good luck.  We believe that the “law of luck” rules the world.

             In the gospel today Jesus cures a man who couldn’t hear very well.  But then Jesus does something very funny.  What did he do?  He tells the people not to tell anyone about the miracle.  If I had done a miracle, I would want it broadcast on the Evening News, or at least be a Sportscenter Top 10 Plays!  But not Jesus.  Why not?  Because he didn’t want people to believe in luck, but rather in love, in his Father's love.  God loves everyone in the world, not just those who were lucky enough to be in the house where Jesus was that day.  You see, Jesus wanted to teach the people that the “law of love” rules the world – that God loves each and every person – not the law of luck, just for the lucky few who “won the lottery” and were cured that day.

             Boys and girls, be careful how often you use the word, “luck,” and believe things that happen to us are good luck or bad luck.  We say, “Man, I was lucky I hit that 3-point shot to win the game!”  Or, “I sure am lucky my parents send me to Christ the King School.”  Some people even say, “It’s better to be lucky than good!”  Without realizing it, we begin to believe in the “law of luck.”  But what really rules the world is the “the law of love.”  God loves each and every person in the world: the rich AND the poor, the smart AND the really smart, the Cowboys AND the Indians (especially the Indians)!  I have a dear friend who often tells me, “God has a plan, and we have to be patient.”  She’s telling me that God’s plan is a plan of love, and when we're patient, we can see that his plan is slowly unfolding when good things happen and even when bad things happen; God loves us no matter what is happening to us.  It's better to be loved than lucky.  The “law of love” rules the world.

            Today is Friday the 13th.  Now, how many of you think today is unlucky?

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Birds and the Bees

Discovering the true picture of love
Genesis 2:18-25

The LORD God said:  “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.” So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.

             One of the most ironic things about the Catholic Church – and quite frankly, a little irritating too – is how much we talk about “love."  And yet all our church leaders are celibate men!  Does that strike anyone else as a little odd??  We tell you whom you can marry and whom you cannot marry (gay marriage is out).  We tell people they have to get an annulment after a divorce, before they can get remarried.  We even tell people what they can and cannot do in the BEDROOM – no contraception and use Natural Family Planning.  In fact, at Immaculate Conception School, it’s a priest and a pediatrician who give the “Birds and the Bees Talk” to the 6th grade boys.  This year it is going to be Fr. Andrew, so mark your calendars!  People may rightly ask: “What could celibate priests possibly know about love and sex??”  Doesn’t celibacy undermine our credibility to talk about love?

             That would certainly be true except for one fact: priests don’t drink deeply a draught of human love, but we do drink deeply of divine love.  Or, changing the metaphor: you can wade into the river of love at its lower levels, or you can climb up to the peak from where it cascades down, and swim in the pool of God’s love.  You see, love is not first and foremost a human thing; it is first a divine thing.  In other words, love’s truest picture is God’s love, and in comparison to that, human love looks like a photo-negative.  God's love is what celibate priests try to experience and share.

             In the first reading from Genesis, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone, I will make a suitable partner for him.”  Critics of Catholicism will quickly say, “Ha!  See, priests should be married; the Bible says so!”  Not so fast.  Jesus will complete what his Dad said in Genesis by adding, “Some will be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12).  In other words, some (meaning priests) will be celibate so they can teach others what love is like in its homeland of heaven, in the Kingdom of heaven.  You see, love is not what we think it is; love is what God thinks it is.  If you want to know what love is, ask someone who knows what God thinks.

             Would you please raise your hand if there’s someone you struggle to love?  Yeah, that would be pretty much the whole human race.  So, how will you know how best to love other people?  There are tons of self-help books and transcendental gurus lining the bookstore shelves.  Or you can swim up the river of love to its source, to gaze at the true picture of Love, that is, at God’s love.  And do you know what you’ll find when you get there?  Someone has already gotten there before you.  But don’t worry, we priests have been waiting for you!  Jump in, the water feels great!

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

A Test for Two

Remembering we’re not alone in temptations
Genesis 2:15-17

The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it. The LORD God gave man this order: “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”

             For 3 years I taught Latin at St. Joseph Catholic School in Fayetteville, and I loved every minute of it!  In fact teaching was my back-up plan in seminary, in case this priesthood gig didn’t work out.  My Plan B was to become a college philosophy professor, marry a good Catholic girl and have 20 kids.  Unfortunately Michelle Dugger was Baptist, so my priestly vocation was pretty safe!  As a teacher, I loved to give popquizzes, but my students hated it.  I tried to comfort them by explaining: do you know who is really being tested every time a student takes a test?  It’s not only the student; it’s also the teacher.  I don’t give a test just to see all of you fail, because that means I’ve also failed as a teacher.  A great teacher is best measured by the greatness of his or her students.  You see, every test is take by the student AND the teacher.

            In the first reading from Genesis we hear about the very first test that human students ever had to take.  (Remember the angels had already been tested.)  Genesis says, “The Lord God gave man this order (really this test): ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”  Adam and Eve probably saw that test like my Latin students saw my popquizzes, thinking: “That’s easy for him to say, he’s the teacher!  He’s not the one being tested and tempted!”  But good teachers care about test results as much as students.  And the best teachers care about test results even more than their students.  And to show that every test is taken by two, God sent his Son to take the same test as Adam and Eve, and to die on the Cross – the true tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Every test is taken by two.

             You know, being a teacher has taught me that in all my tests and temptations, I am not alone.  Oh, I’m not talking about taking the SAT or the GRE, but rather all the daily popquizzes that we face constantly: when our trust is tested hearing a loved one has cancer; when our patience is tested when someone cuts us off in traffic; when our joy is tested dealing with depression or dementia; when our faith is tested seeing scandals and sins in the Church.  When you take all these tests, know that you are not alone.  The divine Teacher is also being tested, and he wants you to pass this test even more than you do, so he’ll give you all the grace you need to succeed.  If you don’t believe me, just look at the Cross.  Every great teacher is measured by the greatness of his students.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Butler Did It

Giving God the glory
Genesis 1: 27-31

God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” God also said: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food.” And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.

             Every now and then, we do something really spectacular.  But to whom do we give the credit for the achievement?  Did you watch the Superbowl?  Malcolm Butler made a stunning interception to give the Patriots the victory.  I think he was almost as surprised as everyone else, and on the sidelines, he kept looking up and pointing to heaven, as if to say, “God made this possible.”  One headline read, “The Butler did it!”  But the Butler blamed God; he gave God the glory.  A couple of weeks ago, the No. 1 male tennis player, Novak Djokovic, won his fifth Australian Open.  He’s affectionately called “The Joker,” and I love to watch him play.  But I hate to watch him win!  He basks in the adulation of the crowds, and seems to hoard all the glory for himself.  I’m sorry if I’m too hard on the Joker.  But when we do something great, who gets the glory?

             The first reading from Genesis is the account of creation, and God also does something pretty great.  He creates everything with his divine bare hands, and then Genesis says: “God looked at everything he had made and found it very good.”  But, you know, God really wasn’t finished with creation on the sixth day, because he made a co-creator, man and woman, who would continue God’s work of creation down the centuries.  That’s why we call having a baby “procreation,” because every mom and dad shares in God’s original work of creation.  In other words, God didn’t want to hoard all the glory of creation for himself; he wanted to share it with us.  Like Malcolm Butler, God pointed at earth and looked down at us and said: “You make creation possible, too.”  And I think God winks at us, when we do something great.

             You know, eventually everyone does something superlative.  You may not win the Superbowl or the Australian Open.  But you may finally get grandma’s spaghetti sauce recipe just right.  You may land that deal with a client that takes your company to the next level.  You may finally give a sermon that someone doesn’t sleep through.  Or, you may just get through a whole day without screaming at your children.  When those monumental moments happen, who will you be like: the Butler or the Joker?  Will you give the glory to God or hoard it for yourself?  God created you in his image and likeness, which means he made you a co-creator, give him a little credit.  Next time you do something great, do like the Butler and blame God: point at heaven, look up and wink.

            Praised be Jesu
s Christ!


A meditation for a marathon
Colossians 3:15-17

             Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

            Running is a fascinating phenomenon, because everyone runs for a different reason.  Marathoners are no different, except we’re all a little crazy for wanting to run 26.2 miles, starting with the first marathoner, Pheidippides.  In 420 B.C. he ran from the city of Marathon to Athens to report the Greek victory over the Persians.  He uttered the word, “Nike!” – which means “Victory!” – and collapsed and died.  That’s why we’re here this evening: to pray for the safety of all marathoners.  So that at the end of the race, you, too, can say like Pheidippides, “Nike!” (Victory!) and still go and enjoy your beer.  (It’s okay to say “beer” in a Catholic church.)

            So, let me ask you: why are you running tomorrow in the Fort Smith Marathon?  Some of you may be running as a personal challenge to yourself, a new personal best, which really means you’re running for your ego.  But marathons are not very kind to egos.  My first marathon was in Tulsa, OK, the “Route 66 Marathon.”  I was feeling pretty good till about mile 20, and then the proverbial wheels came off.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, about that time, I was passed by a lady wearing a t-shirt that had written on the back, “You have just been passed by a mother of 8!”  And then, I was passed by her 8 children!  For those of you running in the full marathon tomorrow, leave you ego at the starting line.

            Other people run for the health benefits.  This is actually the marketing strategy of the shoe company ASICS.  Now, before I say another word, I want you to know I’m not getting a kickback from ASICS for saying this!  The name ASICS is actually an acronym, the 5 letters stand for 5 Latin words: “Anima Sana In Corpore Sano.”  Some of you Catholic old timers will know that means, “a sound mind in a sound body.”  Those of you running in the relay and half-marathon will certainly feel the health benefits of running.  Those, however, running in the full marathon will notice those health benefits declining sharply at about mile 20.  That’s why after our fourth marathon, my friends and I call it the “fool marathon,” spelled, “F-O-O-L marathon,” the fool marathon.  Health benefits will not be shared equally by all runners tomorrow.

            Other runners lace up for more altruistic reasons, that is, they run for a “cause.”  I am always inspired by these people.  Some are raising money for breast cancer research, others run in memory of a loved one who has died.  In the 4 marathons I ran, we asked people to sponsor us to raise scholarship money for our Catholic elementary school.  Others run in solidarity with those who run for a cause to show love and support and sacrifice.  I’m especially mindful of all the volunteers who will be “running” all day tomorrow.  They won't wear a number on their shirt, but they will be running all day to make sure streets are marked and water and Gatorade cups are filled.  A heartfelt thanks to all the volunteers, without whom we couldn't finish the race!

            But may I suggest to you another reason to run, a Christian reason?  St. Paul tells the Colossians: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  In other words, a Christian’s main motivation for a marathon is not for his or her ego, nor for their physical health, nor even primarily for a worth-while cause, good as these things are.  Rather, a Christian runs for the same reason he or she does anything else: to give glory and thanks to God.  You see, we should do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, whether we're walking or running, sleeping or eating, reading the Bible or reading the comics.

            Do  you remember the classic running movie, “The Chariots of Fire”?  It’s about two runners: one who ran for his ego and the other who ran for his God.  The second one, Eric Liddell, said in the movie, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”  Eric Liddell followed
St. Paul’s advice and did everything in the name of the Lord (he became a Presbyterian minister as well), and because he did that, he always felt God’s pleasure.  That’s my prayer for all of you who participate in the marathon tomorrow, volunteers and runners: do everything in the name of the Lord!  Then, you, too, will feel God’s pleasure, even if you're at mile 20, and even if you’re being passed by a mother of 8 children!

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Never Change

Holding on tightly to Jesus
Hebrews 13:5-8
Let your life be free from love of money but be content with what you have, for he has said, I will never forsake you or abandon you. Thus we may say with confidence: The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me? Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

            We all have things we love and hold on tightly to and we don’t want these things to change.  Is there anything you hope will never change and you won’t lose?  The “Peanuts” character Linus loved his blue blanket and never wanted to lose it.  Some children come to Mass with their Teddy Bear or doll, and I give them a blessing, but not Holy Communion!  When I was in high school, we used to say to our friends, “Love you.  Mean it.  Never change!”  We wanted to stay friends forever, and never lose touch with each other.

             One of the most powerful lessons of my life was also the most painful: I learned that sometimes things do change even though we hold on tightly to them.  When I was 7 years old, my family moved half way around the world and came to the United States, and everything changed for me.  I lost my friends, I left my neighborhood, I lost my house, and most importantly, I left Indian food!  But that taught me a very valuable lesson: everything in this world changes except one thing, one Person.  Do you know who that is?  It’s God.  He is everywhere and we can always hold on tightly to him.

             In the first reading today, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us the one Person we can always hold on to.  Who does Hebrews say it is?  It’s Jesus!  Boys and girls, here’s one Bible verse every Christian should memorize and hold on tightly to, just as tightly as to your blanket and Teddy Bear: Hebrews 13:8.  It reads, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.”  In other words, sooner or later, everything in this world changes, so start holding on tightly to the One who never changes, who will be around, “yesterday, today and forever.”  Jesus is the only One to whom we can really say, “Love you. Mean it. Never change.”  Because he doesn’t.

             Boys and girls, changes are hard, and we’ve had quite a few in our school lately.  It’s hard when there’s a priest change; it was very hard when Msgr. Galvin died, and then we’ve had lots of new priests since then.  You should know that changes are hard for priests, too.  We get comfortable in a certain parish, and we have our blankets and Teddy Bears there!  It’s hard for priests to move to a new parish.  A couple of teachers retired last year: Mrs. Janet Smith and Sr. Mary Sarto, and we miss them.  They are now probably sitting on a beach in Florida working on their tans – so not all changes are hard!  And the hardest change of all is when someone dies, like Mr. Martinez.  But I don’t want you to be sad thinking about all these changes. I want you to remember the lesson I learned when I was 7: even though everything changes, God never does.  I want you to hold on all the tighter to Jesus, the One who never changes.

            So, go ahead and hang on to your blanket, and hug your Teddy Bear, and give Fr. John lots of hugs and kisses!  But only to one Person can we say with complete confidence: “Love you. Mean it. Never change!”  That is Jesus.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!