Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Madly in Love

Making sacrifices out of love
Exodus 33:7-11; 34:28
The tent, which was called the meeting tent, Moses used to pitch at some distance away, outside the camp. Anyone who wished to consult the LORD would go to this meeting tent outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, the people would all rise and stand at the entrance of their own tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at its entrance while the LORD spoke with Moses. On seeing the column of cloud stand at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and worship at the entrance of their own tents. The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another. Moses would then return to the camp, but his young assistant, Joshua, son of Nun, would not move out of the tent.

So Moses stayed there with the LORD for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

            It’s amazing what we’ll endure and sacrifice when we love something or love someone.  Parents gladly give up their own comfort so their children are happy: working two jobs, giving up their own food and drink, moving to another country.  Navy SEALS make inhuman sacrifices to serve their country.  Have you heard of Hell Week?  That’s where SEAL candidates participate in 5 and a half days of continuous training, sleeping only 4 hours the whole week, running more than 200 miles and physical exercise for more than 20 hours a day.  They endure all that because they love their country.  I remember as a young boy I wanted to show my love for Jesus, and I wondered, “What sacrifice can I make to show Jesus my love?”  And the thought occurred to me, “I should become a celibate priest.”  To this day I wonder: why didn’t I give up chocolate for Jesus??  That’s hard, too!  But when you really love someone, no sacrifice seems too great.

            In today’s Exodus reading, we see that Moses, too, is willing to make sacrifices out of love for God.  We read: “Moses stayed there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water.”  Moses didn’t go through Hell Week, he went through six weeks of hell!  Just as impressive, though, was Joshua, who, it says, “Moses would return to the camp, but his young assistant, Joshua, son of Nun, would not move out of the tent.”  Little Joshua didn’t want to play video games or go to Disney World, or watch Sponge Bob, Square Pants; he gladly gave that up to be with God in the meeting tent.  You see, when you love something, you make amazing sacrifices.

            You know, the Catholic Church has some tough teachings: no contraception, no gay marriage, no remarriage without an annulment, welcoming immigrants, caring for the environment, only male priests, celibate priests, did I mention celibate priests?  Now, here’s the interesting thing: some people accept these tough teachings without question and gladly embrace them.  Others grumble and complain and sign petitions to change the teaching to what they prefer.  What’s the difference in these two mentalities?  It think it’s love for the Church, and how much we’re willing to sacrifice for her.  You see, when you really love someone or something, no sacrifice seems too great.

            You got up to come to 7 a.m. Mass this morning.  I got up at 4:30 to prepare this homily.  Some people might say, “You’re mad to do that!”  I would say, “You’re right.  We’re madly in love.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Unstoppable Serial Killer

Accepting responsibility for our sins
Exodus 32: 21-24, 30-32
Moses asked Aaron, “What did this people ever do to you that you should lead them into so grave a sin?” Aaron replied, “Let not my lord be angry. You know well enough how prone the people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us a god to be our leader; as for the man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Let anyone who has gold jewelry take it off.’ They gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out.”

On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a grave sin. I will go up to the LORD, then; perhaps I may be able to make atonement for your sin.” So Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Ah, this people has indeed committed a grave sin in making a god of gold for themselves! If you would only forgive their sin! If you will not, then strike me out of the book that you have written.”

            We have some great idiomatic phrases these days to avoid taking responsibility for our actions, when we want to “pass the buck.”  One popular expression is “throw someone else under the bus,” which became popular in the 2008 presidential election season.  David Segal wrote in the Washington Post, “This humble mode of transportation has become an unstoppable serial killer this presidential season, metaphorically speaking.  Hardly a week goes by without someone reviving the cliché of the 2008 campaign – that a former ally of a candidate has been thrown under a bus.”  Another great expression is “plausible deniability.”  Have you heard that one?  That’s where those higher in an organization can deny complicity in immoral or illegal action.  The funniest example is Sgt. Schultz from “Hogan’s Heroes,” who frequently said, “I hear nothing.  I see nothing.  I know nothing!”  We have all kinds of clever ways to get out of trouble.

            In the first reading from Exodus 32 – a chapter you should be familiar with – we see someone who used these excuses long before Schultz and 2008, namely, Aaron.  Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai to find the people worshiping the golden calf, and clearly Aaron is in charge and responsible and guilty.  But what does Aaron do?  First he throws the people under the bus by saying, “You know well enough how prone the people are to evil.”  And then Aaron plays the plausible deniability card, saying, “Well, the people gave me their golden jewelry, I threw it in the fire, and this calf came out.  I had no idea that would happen!”  Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “That’s the lamest excuse in all human history!”  Now, that’s what Aaron did, but what did Moses do?  He took the heat for the people himself, even though he was innocent, saying to God, “If you will not forgive them, strike me out of the book that you have written.”  Moses threw himself under that unstoppable serial killer.

            This is why Catholics go to confession: to stop making excuses and accept responsibility for our actions.  I remember one Catholic school teacher who told her students at the end of their confession to say, “These are my sins and I take full responsibility for them.”  After 19 years of hearing lame excuses in confession, those words are music to my ears!  Imagine for a moment your 10 year old child who broke the window coming to you and saying, “I broke the window and I take full responsibility for my actions.”  How refreshing would that sound to you?  Folks, we are masters of making excuse for our mistakes.  But in confession we get off that bus, accept responsibility for our actions, and stop blaming that unstoppable serial killer for our faults.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Father Dreamy

Making our faith a priority
John 6:8-15
One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”  Jesus said, “Have the people recline.”  Now there was a great deal of grass in that place.  So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.  Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.  When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.”  So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments  from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.”  Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

            Have you heard this phrase before, “Father what-a-waste”?  I first heard it in the seminary when people applied it to priests who were especially talented.  These men were intelligent and smart, handsome like movie stars, compassionate and loving, strong and courageous, faith-filled and devout, and did I mention handsome?  Sometimes people refer to such priests as “Father Dreamy” because he’s like a dream come true.  As for me, I was never called “Father Dreamy.”  While studying canon law in Washington D.C., I decided to grow my beard to see what I would look like, kind of like that “No-shave November” idea.  Well, my beard grew very thick and straight out like a porcupine.  My friends called me “Hezbollah.”  Sorry, I don’t mean any offense to the radical Islamist group in Lebanon.

            But the idea of behind “Father What-a-waste” or “Father Dreamy” is that this man could have done so much more with his life instead of becoming a simple priest.  He could have become a movie-star and driven down Rodeo Drive in a convertible; or a Wall Street business tycoon who could donate tons of money to the Church; or maybe become the president of the U.S and bring peace and prosperity to the whole world.  Wouldn’t that be better than being a poor priest just saying Mass and hearing confessions all day?  What a waste!  Has that thought ever crossed your mind when you see an especially gifted priest?

            Well, don’t worry, you are not the first person to ever think that; so did the people in today’s gospel reading.  In arguably one of the most pivotal points in John’s gospel, chapter six, Jesus feeds over 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.  But for my money, that’s not the really amazing part; it’s what happens next.  How do the people react to that miracle?  Well, they wanted to carry Jesus off and make him king.  In other words, they had found the perfect priest, “Father Dreamy,” and surely his talents were being wasted just preaching and healing and blessing babies.  Jesus could do so much more if we made him King!  And how did Jesus react to their reaction?  John writes, “He withdrew again to the mountain alone.”  It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “I would rather be ‘Father What-a-waste’ rather than “the king of the world” as Leonardo DiCaprio said in the movie “Titanic.””  That is, I don’t want to just feed you with the bread of men, but especially with the bread of angels.  I don’t want to just heal your physical wounds but primarily your moral and spiritual ones.  I don’t want you to live forever on earth but I came so you might live eternally in heaven.  You see, Jesus spent his life as an itinerant preacher and died poor and pennyless and perfect on the Cross.  Jesus was the greatest “Father What-a-waste” that ever lived; Father Dreamy who chose the Cross instead of the Castle.

            As you know, I am now the Administrator of Trinity Junior High.  We don’t have a lot of money, so I’m mowing the grass these days, and I enjoy it.  People often think I’m the gardener, which I guess is at least a little better than people thinking I’m Hezbollah!  But while I mow, I’ve got lots of time to reflect on why more parents don’t send their children to Trinity, or other Catholic schools.  Of course, for some people it’s a financial burden and that’s understandable.  But that is not the case for everyone.  I suspect that some parents may think it’s a waste to send their children to Catholic schools in order to help them learn the Catholic faith.  Surely, they can spend that tuition money on so many other things, other things that could do so much more good for their children and for the world.  Doesn’t every mother and father want their child to be a movie star or a business tycoon or the president of the United States?  And they wonder, “Will that happen if my child goes to a Catholic school?  Maybe all that’s going to happen is my child will become a “Father What-a-waste.””  And so, you see, enrollment declines in Catholic schools for the very same reason that the people in the gospel wanted Jesus to be a king instead of the Suffering Servant that Isaiah prophesied.  We want Father Dreamy to choose the Castle instead of the Cross.

            Ask yourself today: if you had been in that crowd and seen the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, would you have wanted to make Jesus a king so he could do so much “more good”?  Or would you have followed Jesus to the Cross and watched him die as a “Father What-a-waste”?  You know what the right answer is, but is that how you live every day?

            St. Francis of Assisi once said that if you were walking down a street and came up on angel from heaven and a priest at the same time, you should stop and greet the priest first, and then the angel second.  Why? Because only the priest can give you the sacraments that will give you eternal life.  And by the way, that would be true even if that priest looks like “Father Hezbollah”!

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Echoes in Eternity

Seeing the consequences of our actions
Matthew 20:20-23
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.”

            Many of the practical signs and gestures of the Mass have deep spiritual symbolism.  If you’ve ever been to the Cathedral of St. James in Compostella, Spain, you’ll notice this huge incensor that hangs from the ceiling and swings above the altar, across the entire expanse of the sanctuary.  Incense is a sign of the Holy, but it also has a practical value.  It hides the body odor of the pilgrims who’ve walked 550 miles of the Camino!  Both spiritual and practical.  Do you know why the priest washes his hands in the middle of the Mass?  He’s asking God to wash away his sins, but it also has a practical purpose.  In the early church people didn’t set up automatic bank drafts for their donations; they brought chickens and eggs and produce, and gave them to the priest.  So the priest had to wash his hands before handling the Holy.  Both spiritual and practical.  One day a Catholic brought a friend to Mass and was explaining all the rich symbolism, how everything had a meaning.  As the priest was about to give his homily, he took off his watch and laid it on the pulpit so he could watch his time.  The visitor asked, “What does that mean?”  The Catholic answered, “Not a darn thing.”  But MOST of the things we do at Mass have a spiritual finality, even an eternal destiny.  As Maximus said in the movie “Gladiator,” “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

            This is what Jesus tries to teach his apostles in the gospel today.  Mrs. Zebedee wants her sons to sit at Jesus left and right in his kingdom.  In other words, she wants earthly power and glory for her boys because she envisioned only an earthly kingdom.  Instead Jesus says drink from my chalice and seek a spiritual glory and a heavenly reward.  That is, what really counts is the echo in eternity.  James and John did indeed drink from Jesus’ chalice at the Last Supper – the same chalice you and I drink from at Mass – and they gained great glory in heaven.  What James and John did in life echoed in eternity.

            My friends, try to see the small things you do every day as having echoes in eternity.  Just as the practical things we do at Mass carry a weight of glory and grace, so, too, do our daily conversations, whether we build people up or tear them down.  That echoes in eternity.  This is why the Church dares to teach sexual morality, prohibiting contraception, adultery, pornography, homosexuality, etc., because these things echo in eternity.  So, too, does our care for our “common home,” as Pope Francis reminded us lately.  How we care for this world (or fail to care for it!) will echo in the next world.  Every time we sip from the same chalice as Jesus at Mass, remember that “what we do in life echoes in eternity.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Catholic Accounting Practices

Counting the Ten Commandments
Exodus 20:1-17
In those days: God delivered all these commandments: “I, the LORD, am your God,  who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves  in the shape of anything in the sky above  or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth;  you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God,  inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness  on the children of those who hate me,  down to the third and fourth generation;  but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation  on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.

            Did you know that Catholics and Protestants count differently?  Of course, we all use the same numbers, “1, 2, 3…” but we don’t use them the same way.  For example, we count church membership differently.  Protestants count by individual members but Catholics count by families.  We have over 1,800 families here at I.C., roughly 6,000 people, give or take a few.  Believe me, there are some I’d like to give or take.  Protestants and Catholics count our Sunday collections differently because Protestants actually have something to count.  Protestants use “cash basis accounting” while Catholics use “accrual accounting.”  That’s because Catholics have no cash.  Protestants count their babies, “one, two, three.”  Catholics count their babies by the half dozen or dozen!  Protestants count their blessings as they go to church.  Catholics count their sins as they go to confession!  I’m not saying one way is better than the other; I’m just saying they are different.

            But did you know that Catholics and Protestants even count the Ten Commandments differently?  That was our first reading from Exodus 20.  Now, how could you possibly count from one to ten differently?  Several years ago, a friend gave me the Ten Commandments that he had bought at a Protestant giftshop, and I noticed something odd about the enumeration.  What we Catholics consider the first commandment, the Protestants parse and divide into two commandments.  The first half of the first commandment is, “You shall have no gods besides me.”  And the second half says, “You shall not carve idols for yourselves.”  Well, this second half of the Catholic first commandment is actually the SECOND Commandment for Protestants.  Now, I’ll just give you one guess why Protestants make that prohibition of carving idols a whole commandment by itself.  Well, just look around at this church filled with carved images!  We Catholics are clearly in violation of the second commandment.

            Now, I’m not here to criticize how Protestants number the Ten Commandments, but I do want to explain our “Catholic accounting.”  You see, that Mosaic prohibition was valid but only for the Old Testament, where people could not see God and live, let alone utter his holy Name.  But all that changes in the New Testament, with the Incarnation, when God becomes a man.  That’s why Jesus explains to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  We can see the Face of God and live, and we plaster (pun intended) that lovely Face we see in Jesus and in the saints all over our churches.  In other words, Jesus comes to tell us we can count the Ten Commandments differently.  Again, please don’t hear me criticizing, but only clarifying our Catholic accounting practices.

            You know, they say that numbers never lie, and that’s true.  But you can count numbers differently, even the numbers one through ten.  By the way, do you know who is the father of modern accounting?  It’s a fellow who lived in the 15th century named Luca Pacioli.  He was a Catholic monk.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!


Acknowledging our apathy
Matthew 13:10-14, 16-17
The disciples approached Jesus and said, “Why do you speak to the crowd in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:

“But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

            There is a profound paradox prevailing in the Church today.  On the one hand, you have apathy and alienation of Catholic Christians.  Record numbers no longer go to church or have left the Church completely.  Do you know what is the single largest Christian denomination?  It is ex-Catholics.  On the other hand, there’s a notable renewal and resurgence of real faith.  People are thirsty for faith: Bible studies are booming, people buy books by popular authors like Scott Hahn, Robert Barron, Matthew Kelly and John Antony!  Again, we’ll have over 30 people in RCIA this year.  Our daily Mass attendance is between 75 and 100 people, even during the summer.  Pope Francis, the Good Shepherd, is bringing back the lost sheep.  This paradox prevails all around us: on the one hand indifference to the faith, on the other hand, intensity of faith.

            In the gospel today, Jesus explains that this paradox is found in every parable he utters.  Jesus says, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.”  In other words, each parable contains life lessons for each person, but it’s very painful to apply them to ourselves.  Instead of seeing the plank in our own eye, we’d rather point out the splinter in our brother’s eyes.  You see, Jesus did not come to change the world, he came to change each person, so we might have an intimate friendship with him.  When we miss that point, we miss the parable, “we look but do not see,” and we end up on the wrong side of the paradox of Christianity.

            My friends we don’t need to study statistics to see this paradox, we only need to glance into our own hearts.  Can’t you see in your own life this paradox playing out: highs and lows, peaks and valleys in your walk with Jesus?  Remember how as a child you loved to serve at Mass, and then as a teenager you hated to serve at Mass!?  Some Sundays you think, “There are a thousand other things I’d rather do than go to Mass!”  Other Sundays you sigh with St. Augustine, “Late have I loved Thee, Beauty ever ancient, ever new!”  Sometimes we wonder, why would any man want to be a priest?  But once I asked my nephew if he wanted to be a priest, and he said, “No, way, I want to be a bishop, because he gets the cool hat and stick!”  Highs and lows, peaks and valleys; paradox in each person.

            “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears because they hear.”  We will be blessed indeed if we see not only the paradox all around us, but also the one inside us.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

My Father John Fix

Renewing our faith in the Lord
Exodus 14:10-14
Pharaoh was already near when the children of Israel looked up and saw that the Egyptians were on the march in pursuit of them. In great fright they cried out to the LORD. And they complained to Moses, “Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert? Why did you do this to us? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said, ‘Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians’? Far better for us to be the slaves of the Egyptians than to die in the desert.” But Moses answered the people, “Fear not! Stand your ground, and you will see the victory the LORD will win for you today. These Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The LORD himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”

            Do you know what “the wall” is?  No, I’m not talking about the Pink Floyd song.  It’s what I experienced around the seventh week of studying Spanish in Mexico.  I had tried my best to learn the language, and I had even eaten spicy food and even drank Tequila, hoping that would help!  But nothing worked, and I wanted to give up.  But for some reason, I kept going for three more weeks (mostly because the bishop made me), and something miraculous happened.  I got over the wall and started learning extremely fast.  Words automatically came to mind, sentences formed themselves, and I was having fun, and I didn’t even need the Tequila!  You see the wall was a psychological barrier making me want to give up, but on the other side of the wall was another world, a better world.  Another kind of wall is the “seven year itch,” where married people have long finished their honeymoon, and now wish their honey was on the moon!  Divorce rates are extremely high around the seventh year.  But if you stay faithful through “the wall,” you’ll find another world, a better world, on the other side: your 25th and 50th wedding anniversaries.

            In the first reading from Exodus, the Israelites have hit “the wall” and want to give up following Moses.  It may well have been about seven days after they had left Egypt, and they see the Egyptians in hot pursuit and the Red Sea in front of them blocking their escape route.  They complain to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?  Far better for us to be slaves of the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”  But Moses pleads with them to be faithful, and not to give up.  And God makes the Red Sea into two walls on either side, allowing them safe passage.  If we have faith, God will change our walls of frustration and doubt into walls of salvation, where a new world, a better world, awaits on the other side.

            Did you know that God also hit a wall once?  God created the heavens and the earth in six days and then he stopped.  But God didn’t stop because he felt like giving up, he stopped to show us what to do when we feel like giving up.  Every seven days we should “rest in the Lord” we should renew our faith in him so that we can keep going for another seven days.  That’s the meaning of the Sabbath, or our Sunday, a day to rest but also to renew our faith.  Some people say they come to Mass here to get their “Father John Fix.”  But they really need a “faith fix,” a reminder that God can change our walls of desperation into walls of salvation.

            We all hit walls sooner or later – studying Spanish, in our marriages, in our jobs, indeed every week – but if you get your faith fix, you’ll see a better world awaits you on the other side.  And you won’t even need the Tequila.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Human Husbandry

Wanting what Jesus wants
Responsorial Psalm 23:1-3, 3-4

R. (1) The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul.

R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.

            Have you seen that famous painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, carrying the straying sheep on his shoulders?  I’ll never forget an explanation by Dc. Mike Henry, a good friend of mine, regarding that iconic image that completely changed my understanding of it.  While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Dc. Mike heard the local tour guide explain how shepherds herd their flocks of sheep, something called “animal husbandry.”  If one of the sheep were to stray, for instance, the shepherd would go in search of it, find it, and then hobble one of its legs, and then put it on his shoulders and carry it home.  In other words, that iconic painting is of a shepherd carrying a sheep because the sheep’s leg was broken.  But you see, that painful lesson was necessary to teach the sheep not to stray.

            But that wasn’t the end of the tour-guide’s story.  For several weeks afterward, the shepherd would keep the sheep close to him, carry it with him everywhere, he would feed it for his own table, he would let it sleep in his tent, and he would gently nurse it back to health.  You see, the pain that the shepherd caused the sheep wasn’t to hurt it but to help it not to stray and not to get eaten by wolves.  It was a sign of the shepherd’s love.  I bet every good parent knows exactly how such a shepherd feels: sometimes you have to say “no” to your children, correct them, and even punish them.  Scott Hahn once said, “God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.”  In other words, just like sheep we all have a tendency to stray, but just like the Good Shepherd, God brings us home, even if his love is a little painful at times.

            One of the most famous lines of the whole Bible is the first line of Psalm 23, today’s Responsorial Psalm.  It’s so well-known that even Catholics know it!  It goes, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”  But let me ask you: how does the shepherd satisfy our wants?  Does he give us everything we crave and desire?  Or rather, does he teach us to discipline our wills so that we actually want a little less, until we want only what's good for us, until we want only what the shepherd wants for us?  Last Sunday, for example, on my birthday, I received 3 homemade cheesecakes, and boy were they good!  But is that how the Good Shepherd satisfying my hunger?  Heck yeah!  No, just kidding.  Instead, the Good Shepherd teaches me, sometimes painfully, not to have everything that I want, but to want everything that I have; to shrink my wants to what I need to be holy, until I want what he wants.

            Once there was a millionaire who collected live alligators.  He kept them in the pool behind his mansion.  He also had a beautiful daughter, who was single.  One day he threw a huge party, and during the party he announced: “My dear guests, I have a proposition for every man here.  I will give one million dollars or my daughter in marriage to the man who can swim across this pool of alligators and emerge unharmed.”  As soon as he finished his last word, there was the sound of a large SPLASH.  There was one guy in the pool swimming with all his might.  The crowd cheered him on.  Finally, he made it to the other side unharmed.  The millionaire was impressed.  He said, “My boy, that was incredible!  I didn’t think it could be done!  Well, I must keep my bargain.  Which do you want, my daughter or the money?”  The man replied, “Listen, I don’t want your daughter and I don’t want your money.  I want the person who pushed me into that water!”  So, sometimes, the Good Shepherd breaks our leg, but sometimes he pushes us into a pool filled with alligators.  But he does that so we don’t want the girl or the money, but we only want him, like the man wanted the person who pushed him into the pool.

            My friends, do you know when the Good Shepherd is closest to you, when he loves you the most?  Most people would answer, “Of course, it’s when I’m healthy, wealthy and wise, when everything is turning up roses!”  Well, that’s certainly true up to a point, but I would suggest that Jesus is even closer to you in the dark, depressing, and most difficult times.  If I’m honest with myself, I can see how God’s grace worked wonders in my lowest moments: illnesses, broken relationships, failed exams in school, lost softball games last year(!), people sleeping through my sermons.  I’ve learned that the Good Shepherd doesn’t always give me everything I want to make me happy, but he does give me everything I need to be holy.  You see, Jesus has taught me to overcome my selfish wants until I want only him.  And when I have Jesus, “there is nothing I shall want.”  Can you hear that psalm in a new way now: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want”? If you have Jesus, what more could you want?

            May I suggest a few simple ways to curb out appetites, our wants?  For example, make sacrifices in what you eat or drink.  Last week I went to a restaurant with some friends and I ordered a salad without any dressing.  I said, “I’ll have a ‘naked salad.’  It’s the only time I get to say naked!”  Want less dressing.  If you’re married, look for ways to do what your spouse wants first, and then do what you want.  Want less of your way first.  Stop throwing away so much food and clothes and toys and stuff.  Pope Francis calls us “a throw away culture,” that even throws away people like the poor and unborn babies.  Want less stuff.  Reduce your “carbon footprint,” by using less energy, like keeping your thermostat at 75 degrees instead of 68 degrees.  Easy for a guy from India to say that!  Want less comfort.  Turn your cell phone off and take a detour from the information superhighway.  Want less stimulation.

            Discipline your will and curb your appetite so that you can say Psalm 23 in a new way, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”  Until you want only what the Shepherd wants.  For a moment try to imagine your 3-year old child saying to you, “Mom and Dad, from now on I only want what you want for me.”  Can you imagine that?  Probably not.  But that is exactly the meaning of the 23rd Psalm.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Road Trip

Taking food for the journey
Exodus 12:1-3, 11
           The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall stand at the head of your calendar; you shall reckon it the first month of the year. Tell the whole community of Israel: On the tenth of this month every one of your families must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household.

“This is how you are to eat it:  with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight. It is the Passover of the LORD.

            Americans instinctively love to travel.  Have you taken a road trip this summer to the beach or to the mountains?  We have highways that stretch from coast to coast for our traveling pleasure.  Heck, we’ve even traveled to the moon, and now we’re packing our suitcases for a trip to Mars.  Now, what’s the most essential part of any great trip?  Food, of course!  And everyone has their personal favorite snacks for the road.  One friend of mine loves peanut M&Ms.  Other people love trail mix.  Do you know what my favorite traveling food is?  It’s gift cards!  Man, they taste good.  That way I can stop in any number of restaurants which all serve my favorite food, free food.  We Americans can’t wait to take a road trip, and one of the first things we think of is food for the journey.

            In the first reading today, God wants the Israelites to be a little more like us Americans.  How so?  Well, he wants them to think about food for the journey.  But the Chosen People are not taking a road trip to the Rockies or Orange Beach or even to the moon; they’re going to the Promised Land.  And what is their food for the journey?  Not peanut M&Ms, not trail mix, not gift cards, but roasted lamb.  God says: “This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight.”  In other words, God knows that the most essential part of any road trip is food for the journey, and so he teaches his people how to pack when you take a road trip to the Promised Land: you eat lamb.

            My friends, let me suggest to you that every road trip you have ever taken is just a symbol or a snap shot of the ultimate road trip to the eternal Promised Land, namely, heaven.  That is, our whole life is but a road trip that lasts 80, or 90, or 100 years.  And what the best food for this journey?  It’s Lamb!  The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and which we receive every time we come to Mass.  Maybe that’s why some people come to Communion and leave immediately afterwards.  They say, “Fr. John said this is food for the journey, so I guess I better get on the road!”  That’s not what that means.

            Do you know what Viaticum is?  It’s part of the “Last Rites” when a dying person receives Holy Communion for the last time.  “Viaticum” comes from Latin and literally means, “take on road with you,” on the road to that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” as Hamlet said.  And what’s the only food that will help you complete that journey to the heavenly Promised Land?  It’s Lamb, the Lamb we receive in Holy Communion.  The most important part of any road trip is food for the journey.  On your very last road trip, you better take some Lamb.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Four Letter Words

Uttering names with utmost care
Exodus 3:13-15
             Moses, hearing the voice of the LORD from the burning bush, said to him, “When I go to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the children of Israel: I AM sent me to you.” God spoke further to Moses, “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. “This is my name forever; this my title for all generations.

            In the seminary we learned how to say Mass properly.  One of the rubrics – those are the instructions for saying Mass – was that whenever Jesus’ name is mentioned the priest should bow his head as a sign of respect for that holy name.  Well, one friend was rather scrupulous about this and would do that in everyday conversations.  So another seminarian teased him endlessly by using Jesus’ name in every sentence, just to make my friend bow his head repeatedly.  He resembled one of those bobble head dolls, or how we Indians speak while shaking our heads.  But that scrupulous seminarian had the right intention: trying to show honor for the holy name of Jesus, even he if got a little carried away.

            In the first reading from Exodus chapter 3, Moses learns another name that should be honored and revered, the holy name of God.  When Moses asks God his name, the Almighty answers: “I am who I am,” which in Hebrew is rendered with four letters, YHWH, or “Yahweh.”  By the 6th century B.C. it was forbidden for a Jew to even say that Name.  It was the first four letter word you should never say!  Not because it’s a bad word, but because it’s so good and holy, our lips are not clean enough to utter it.  Good thing my scrupulous friend was not a Jew, he would have looked like he was having an epileptic seizure as he spoke. But you see, some names are so sacred that we shouldn’t even say them.

            My friends, let me suggest to you that all names are sacred, not just divine names but also human names, including  yours and mine.  You don’t need to bow your head when you say “Fr. John” but I do hope you’ll say my name with respect when you talk about me.  Don’t you hope people will do that with your name when they talk about you?  I learned this lesson when I wrote my book last year.  The editor said I could not mention someone specifically by name without their permission.  Can you imagine if we applied that same rule, that rubric, in our daily conversations?  Don’t say someone’s name without their permission!  We’d all be like my scrupulous seminarian friend: bobbling our heads and stopping and starting suddenly in our sentences.  No wonder Indian people bobble our heads when we speak: we’re really showing respect for people!  Everyone should be more like Indians.

            Do you know what the second of the Ten Commandments is?  Of course you do: do not take the name of the Lord in vain.  The Jews felt like we always take God’s name in vain, so they stopped saying his name altogether.  Let me invite you to expand that commandment to include ALL names, even yours and mine, and avoid taking all names in vain.  You see, names are sacred syllables and they should only be uttered with due honor and esteem.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Killing My Brother

Choosing sides and loyalties
Exodus 2:11-15A
             On one occasion, after Moses had grown up, when he visited his kinsmen and witnessed their forced labor, he saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, one of his own kinsmen. Looking about and seeing no one, he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out again, and now two Hebrews were fighting! So he asked the culprit, “Why are you striking your fellow Hebrew?” But the culprit replied, “Who has appointed you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses became afraid and thought, “The affair must certainly be known.” Pharaoh, too, heard of the affair and sought to put Moses to death. But Moses fled from him and stayed in the land of Midian.

            When I was 13 years old I became a naturalized citizen of the United States.  Back then, the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) allowed you to become a citizen if you were under 18 and had lived continuously in the U.S. for 5 years.  But you did have to take a simple test, and I’ll never forget one of the questions.  The INS official asked me, “Will you take up arms to defend this country against a foreign invasion?”  I knew what the right answer was, but I hesitated as I wondered: what if American went to war against India, would I be able to shoot at my own family?  Now, there were times I wanted to kill my brother, but that was different.  I felt a deep divided loyalty that perhaps people who are born U.S. citizens never feel.  Don’t worry, I answered, “yes,” don’t report me to the INS!  Ask yourself today, how deep is your loyalty and love to this country we call home?

            In the first reading from Exodus, we meet another man who felt a divided loyalty between two countries, namely, Moses.  By birth he was a Hebrew and belonged to the people of Israel, but by adoption he became an Egyptian and grew up in Pharaoh’s household.  Moses was never asked the question I was by the “Egyptian INS” but he faced the same dilemma: would he defend Egypt against a foreign threat?  I had said “yes,” but Moses’ answer was “no.”  In fact, he chose to defend his kinsmen and killed the Egyptians instead.  For Moses blood was thicker than the water of the Nile River.

            My friends, I would suggest to you that that simple question I was faced with as a 13 year old may confront all of us sooner or later.  Not that the U.S. will have a conflict with another country, but that the U.S. could have a conflict with the Catholic Church.  It is very disappointing and troubling to see this nation take a decisively anti-Catholic direction – in allowing abortion, in its immigration laws, in allowing same-sex marriage, etc. – and every Catholic may feel a deepening divided loyalty.  Our honored motto of “separation of church and state” may turn into “church versus state.”  Let’s pray that never happens, but if it did, whose side would you be on?

            Sometimes when I visit people’s homes they proudly display the Bible verse, Joshua 24:15, which reads, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  But the larger context of the verse was the same divided loyalty that Moses and I faced.  The whole verse reads, “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  Would you take up arms to defend this country against a foreign power?  What if that foreign power was the Catholic Church?

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

An Old Soul

Advancing in wisdom, age and grace
Mark 6:7-13
           Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.  He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick— no food, no sack, no money in their belts.  They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave.  Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.”  So they went off and preached repentance.  The Twelve drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

            Today just happens to be my 46th birthday – in case you didn’t already see that on Facebook.  Now, let me ask you: does 46 years old sound “old” to you?  I bet that sounds very old to our altar servers, but it probably sound very young to our Ladies Auxiliary.  Well, I recently came across these signs to tell if you’re getting old.  Feel free to test yourself:  (1) In a hostage situation, you’re likely to be released first.  That’s a good thing!  (2) You and your teeth do not sleep together.  (3) People call at 9 a.m. and ask, “Did I wake you?”  I wish that’s what people asked me.  (4) You begin every other sentence with, “Nowadays…” because nowadays sure ain’t “the good old days.”  (5) The clothes you put away until they come back in style…well, they have come back in style.  (6) Things you buy now won’t wear out (because you’ll wear out before they do!).  (7) There’s nothing left to learn the hard way.  (8) The phrase “getting a little action” means you don’t need to take a laxative today (sorry about that one).  (9) When getting lucky means you find your car in the parking lot.  (10) When your happy hour is a nap.  (11)  When you are 7 around the neck, 42 around the waist and 94 around the golf course.  Well, did you past the test?

            Here’s a better test to see if you’re not just growing old, but growing up, that is, becoming wiser and more mature, really advancing in age, like Jesus “advanced in wisdom, age and grace” (Luke 2:52).  It’s when you have a firm grasp of God’s will, and you feel peace and purpose in your life.  Do you feel that way, or do you feel lost?  Sometimes, even very young people can be very mature in this way, when we say that the child has “an old soul.”  The 12 year old Jesus had an old soul.  I would say the best test of advancing in age is knowing God’s will, knowing why God put you on this planet.  If you don’t know that, you’re just a youngster, even if you don’t sleep with your teeth!

            In the gospel today we see the Apostles are advancing in age, too, because they are discovering God’s will for their lives.  Mark writes, “Jesus summoned the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.”  Even though the apostles had all come from widely diverse backgrounds – fishermen, tax collectors, religious zealots – their primary purpose would now be a spiritual one, having authority over unclear spirits.”  In other words, they all began to develop “old souls” because they discovered God’s will, even young John, whose youth is depicted in art by his lack of a beard.  You see, the true sign of advancing in wisdom, age and grace is a clear awareness of God’s will, not whether you’re 46 or 56 or can’t find your car in the parking lot.

            My friends, in modern American culture there’s a real tension and tug-of-war between youth and old age.  The young can’t wait to grow up and the old are still celebrating their 39th birthday for the 20th time!  No one seems to be happy in their own skin.  Instead of spending so much time, money and energy trying to look older or look younger, worry rather about knowing God’s will in your life.  That’s how you can tell if you’re advancing in wisdom, age and grace.

            Here are six signs of knowing God’s will: (1) Am I at peace in my vocation to marriage, or as a priest, or as a single person, or as a religious brother or sister?  Everyone is called to one of those four “states of life.”  (2) Do I know the talents and gifts God has given me and do I use them for his glory?  (3) Do I find more joy in helping others, especially the poor, or am I living for myself?  (4) Do I pray to know God’s will or do I pray so that God will know MY will?  (5) Do I have a genuine friendship with Jesus: praising him, serving him, receiving his sacraments, becoming more like him?  Here’s the hardest test of all: (6) Do I accept the authority of the Church (priests, bishops and pope) to guide my faith and morals, and to help me overcome unclean spirits?  You see, God’s will is manifest in the teachings of the Church, that’s why he established the Church in the first place, to help us all to have “old souls.”

            Today’s my birthday and I’m 46 years old.  My bones creek when I genuflect at Mass.  My hair is growing, but in all the wrong places.  An old priest told me once, “A holy pastor wakes up at 4 o’clock…twice a day.”  I can say, “Check!”  But I’m not worried about my old body because what I really want is an “old soul,” one that is advancing in wisdom, age and grace, and fulfilling God’s will.  If that’s what happens every birthday, then I don’t mind getting a little older.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Bone Church

Deciding where our remains will remain
Genesis 49:29-32
           Jacob gave his sons this charge: “Since I am about to be taken to my people, bury me with my fathers in the cave that lies in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing on Mamre, in the land of Canaan, the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burial ground. There Abraham and his wife Sarah are buried, and so are Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and there, too, I buried Leah– the field and the cave in it that had been purchased from the Hittites.”

            Do you ever think about where you will be buried after you die?  As I approach my 46th birthday, I am starting to think about it more and more!  I would like to be buried here in Fort Smith, but I hope that doesn’t happen any time soon!  One of the most fascinating burial sites in Rome is commonly called “the Bone Church.”  It’s the crypt section below a Capuchin Church where the bones of over 4,000 deceased monks actually decorate the walls and form elaborate art work.  A lot of people think it’s creepy, but I think it’s cool.  On one wall of the crypt is this sober reminder, as if the bones were speaking to each visitor: “Where you are, we once were; where we are, you shall be.”  In other words, nobody is getting out of here alive!  So, everyone should give some thought to where we’ll leave our mortal remains.  As I celebrate every passing birthday, I’m more and more keenly aware I’m getting closer to my “death day” and wonder where I should deposit this bag of bones.

            As we come to the end of the book of Genesis, we also hear about the end of the lives of two of the patriarchs, Jacob and Joseph.  And what are their final thoughts for their children?  They worry about where they will be buried, specifically, where to leave their bones.  Jacob wants to be buried with his father Isaac and his grandfather, Abraham.  And Joseph wants his bones NOT to be buried in Egypt, but taken back to the Holy Land and buried with his ancestors.  You see, as Jacob and Joseph celebrated each birthday, they could hear louder and louder the voices of Abraham and Isaac saying, “Where you are, we once were; where we are, you shall be.”  Like the Capuchin friars, Jacob and Joseph wanted their bones to be treated with respect and even reverence.

            Have you noticed something curious that the priest does when he walks in to start Mass?  He approaches the altar and kisses it.  But did you know that he’s not really kissing the altar?  Nope.  He’s kissing the relic that is buried inside each altar.  A relic is a small piece of the bone of a saint.  In other words, every Catholic church is a kind of "bone church”!  And every priestly kiss is a reminder to treat our bones with respect and reverence like Jacob and Joseph desired their children to treat them.  That’s why even though the Catholic Church allows cremation, she does NOT allow you to sprinkle the ashes of your deceased relatives over the Rocky Mountains or on their favorite fishing hole.  We kiss things that we love and honor; and Catholics kiss relics because we love the saints and revere their bodies and even their bones.  You may think that’s creepy, but a real Catholic would think that’s cool.

            Where will you be buried?  That’s not an unimportant question, and it’s not one you can ignore forever.  I’ve ignored it for 45 years, but I can’t ignore it anymore.  Why?  Because that relic I kiss at the start of Mass is saying to me louder and louder: “Where you are, I once was; where I am, you shall be.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Vacation from Hell

Longing to sleep in our own bed
Genesis 46:1-4
          Israel set out with all that was his. When he arrived at Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. There God, speaking to Israel in a vision by night, called, “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here I am.” Then he said: “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you a great nation. Not only will I go down to Egypt with you; I will also bring you back here, after Joseph has closed your eyes.”

            I have had the best summer ever, and been on vacation all over the world.  Of course, I’ve been here in the U.S. enjoying seafood in Seattle and wine in Napa Valley.  I’ve gaped in wide-eyed wonder into the Grand Canyon, and almost caught a homerun at a St. Louis Cardinals game.  I’ve taken gondola rides in Venice and stood in silent prayer looking down at the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.  I almost got sunburned on the beach and nearly lost my Ray Bans on a roller coaster ride.  I’ve walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid and the Uffizi in Florence.  And you know what else I did?  I slept in my own bed every night!  How is that possible, you’ll no doubt ask.  Easy.  I’ve been seeing everyone else’s vacation pictures on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!  That's just like being there!  But do you know the best part of any vacation?  It’s coming home and sleeping in your own bed; unless you take vacations like me (on Facebook) and sleep in your own bed EVERY night.

            The first reading today from Genesis 46 is about a family vacation that literally “goes South” and becomes a disaster.  Jacob packs up his whole family and goes to Egypt.  And while they are in Egypt they enjoy the sites and sounds; they live in the best neighborhood of Goshen and they were people of prominence and prestige because Joseph was second in the Kingdom.  But like Chevy Chase’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” disaster strikes and the family becomes enslaved in Egypt.  But God promises Jacob, “Not only will I go down to Egypt with you; I will also bring you back here, after Joseph has closed your eyes.”  In other words, God promises Jacob that one day, after this vacation from hell, you will sleep in your own bed.  Too bad Jacob didn’t have Facebook – he could have slept in his own bed every night, like me.

            My friends, may I suggest to you that our whole existence on earth is kind of like the vacation from hell?  We started off great in the Garden of Eden, but then Adam, like Chevy Chase, drove the family RV off the cliff!  And we’ve been picking up the pieces of that ruined vacation ever since, trying to make the best of it on earth, making lemonade out of lemons.  Just like Jacob’s family spent 400 years in enslaved in Egypt, so Adam’s family has spent 4,000 years enslaved on earth. But God also says to us, “Not only will I go down to Egypt with you; I will also bring you back here, after Joseph has closed your eyes.”  In other words, someday, this vacation from hell – our lives on earth – will be over, and we will go home to heaven and sleep in our own beds.  That’s why St. Teresa of Avila described earthly life as “a bad night in a bad inn.”  Maybe St. Teresa had watched the movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” too.  The best part of any vacation is going home and sleeping in your own bed.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Free food

Learning everything is a gift from God
Matthew 10:7-15
          Jesus said to his Apostles: “As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give. Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick. The laborer deserves his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, look for a worthy person in it, and stay there until you leave. As you enter a house, wish it peace. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you. Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words— go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

            I have one simple rule for being a happy and healthy and holy priest: “never say ‘no’ to food.”  I shamelessly beg for food from the pulpit (like I just did) and then eagerly accept invitations to dinner.  People often ask me, “Father, what is your favorite meal?”  I always answer: “I have two favorite foods: free food and food I didn’t have to cook!”  I look at food like “manna from heaven.”  Just like God miraculously sent food from heaven for the Israelites in the desert, so I trust God will feed me.  I’ve come to realize, though, that food is not all I’ve received freely; everything I have has been given to me at no cost.  For instance, I did not pay for the house I live in (you did!), someone gave me my car as a gift, even my clerical clothes are hand-me-downs from another priest, my shoes were a gift from a Hispanic family, my body was given to me by my parents, my soul was infused in me by God, my talents and abilities are merely on loan.  St. Augustine said that the only things truly and completely our own are our sins!  The secret to being a happy, healthy and holy priest is free food: realizing that everything is a gift from God.

            In the gospel today Jesus is trying to teach this basic rule of free food to his first priests.  He says, “Without cost you have received, without cost you are to give.”  In other words, everything you have is a gift from God.  Therefore, give all you have freely, also as a gift.  He clarifies further: “Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts, no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, no sandals or a walking stick.”  Why?  Well, because the people of God will give you new sandals for your feet, and a Toyota Avalon for a walking stick.  You see, the secret to being a happy, healthy and holy disciple is also free food, relying entirely on God's goodness.

            A Protestant friend once explained how he finally learned to tithe ten percent.  He said, “It was always hard for me to give away my hard-earned money.  Then one day our pastor explained that everything we have really belongs to God, and he just lets us borrow it briefly.  Once I realized that 100% of what I had belonged to God, then giving him 10% wasn’t so hard.”  I thought: Yeah, that’s good, but Catholics will never buy that.  St. Paul asks rhetorically in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you have not received?”  Take a little time today to think about your life, your house, your body, your soul, your car, your shoes and your talents.  Where did you get all that?  It’s all a gift from God.  The only things you can take any credit for are your sins. Congratulations.  My friends, the secret to being happy, healthy and holy for anyone is free food.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wonder Bread

Feeding the world with Jesus
Genesis 41:55-57
           When hunger came to be felt throughout the land of Egypt and the people cried to Pharaoh for bread, Pharaoh directed all the Egyptians to go to Joseph and do whatever he told them. When the famine had spread throughout the land, Joseph opened all the cities that had grain and rationed it to the Egyptians, since the famine had gripped the land of Egypt. In fact, all the world came to Joseph to obtain rations of grain, for famine had gripped the whole world.

            What is your greatest need?  What is the one thing that you could not live without, without which you would die?  Is it food or shelter, or water to drink or air to breathe?  I remember in eighth grade our teacher asked us if we had to give up our television or music which one would we NOT sacrifice?  Which could you not live without?  Of course, you can live without both of them!  But I said “music.”  I couldn’t imagine life without Led Zepplin and Pink Floyd.  I mean, why bother living??  But that was the first time I realized how much I loved music; how much I needed music.

            But I would like to suggest to you that our greatest need is for God.  Without God, you could not draw your next breath and sing your favorite Beatles song.  St. Thomas Aquinas taught that not only did God create all things in the beginning, but he also keeps everything in existence by a “continuous act of creation.”  Imagine that ancient Greek god Atlas who carried the world on his shoulders.  If God ever removed his creative, loving hands that hold us in existence, we would fall into oblivion.  Our greatest need, you see, if for Atlas (the true God) not to shrug.

            In Genesis 41 the whole world faces a basic human need, the need for food.  The whole world is gripped by famine, and goes to Egypt for food.  And how does Joseph satisfy their hunger: with grain, a basic human necessity, and staple.  But Joseph was a symbol of Jesus, who would also feed the whole world with grain, the grains that make up the Bread of the Eucharist.  Every Sunday, Jesus, the new Joseph, feeds one billion Catholics with the grain of the Eucharist, satisfying their deepest hunger, our hunger for God.  This “Wonder Bread” not only sustains each of us, but it also holds the entire universe in being by a “continuous act of creation.”  That’s pretty good Bread.

            What is your greatest need?  Most of us don’t even know what we need most, like I didn’t realize how much I needed Led Zepplin in eighth grade.  Most of us don’t know that our deepest desire, our most ancient ache, is for God, who lovingly holds us in his hands, even when we don’t think about him, or love him, or even when we deny him.  Consider this: even the words that the atheist uses to reject God are only possible because God gives him the breath to utter them.  Every time you go to Mass and put that little bit of grain in your mouth, remember how Jesus feeds you like the New Joseph of Egypt.  You couldn’t even say “Amen.” If God didn’t give you the strength.  Our greatest need is for Atlas never to shrug.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Eye to Eye

Learning the culture of heaven
Genesis 32:23-31
            In the course of the night, Jacob arose, took his two wives, with the two maidservants and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had taken them across the stream and had brought over all his possessions, Jacob was left there alone. Then some man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When the man saw that he could not prevail over him, he struck Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the hip socket was wrenched as they wrestled. The man then said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” The man asked, “What is your name?” He answered, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed.” Jacob then asked him, “Do tell me your name, please.” He answered, “Why should you want to know my name?” With that, he bade him farewell. Jacob named the place Peniel, “Because I have seen God face to face,” he said, “yet my life has been spared.”

            Sometimes what is proper and praise-worthy in one culture can be insulting and injurious in another.  For example, here in the United States when you speak to someone you should look them in the eye.  Not to look someone in the eye means you are not being honest or you’re hiding something.  Sometimes, Fr. Andrew won’t look me in the eye when he knows he’s in trouble (just kidding).  But in many other cultures, it’s more respectful to look down when you speak to someone.  In Latin American countries, to look away is a sign of respect and honor, and to look eye to eye is improper and dishonorable.  In India we have the custom of arranged marriages, but Americans find that appalling and an affront to their fundamental freedoms.  But I just chuckle because isn’t eharmony and and Christian Mingle just a sophisticated version of arranged marriages?  In American arranged marriages, mom and dad are replaced by websites and the internet: they tell you whom you should marry.  It’s not easy to navigate in this world of clashing cultures.

            In Genesis 32, Jacob experiences this culture clash in a wrestling match with an angel.  But notice that Jacob is not trying to understand the culture of the United States or India, but he’s struggling to understand the ways of heaven.  That nighttime wrestling match was a perfect symbol of the clash of heavenly and earthly cultures.  And Jacob learns two things about heaven: first, names are not important. The only name that matters in heaven is the name of  God, and it’s so holy no one is allowed to pronounce it.  And second, stepping into heaven always requires some sacrifice, so Jacob’s hip is hurt and he walked with a limp.  It’s never easy to adapt to another culture.

            My friends, in your relationships with each other be a little more sensitive to this culture clash.  Sometimes this clash happens within the same family.  Husbands and wives can feel like they come from different planets, like in the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.  Parents and children feel a yawning cultural divide between them, and find it very hard to communicate and speak the same language. But most importantly be aware of the cultural clash between heaven and earth, and that we must all wrestle with angels in order to learn the heavenly culture.  The way we do things on earth may not be the way they do things in heaven.  Oh, and for all the people still up in arms about same sex marriage or even arranged marriage, you’ll be happy to know that there won’t be ANY marriage in heaven; we’ll all be like the angels in heaven, says Jesus (Matthew 22:30).  And that might make all of us limp a little bit.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Next Generation

Thanking the Supreme Court
Genesis 28:10-19
Jacob departed from Beer-sheba and proceeded toward Haran. When he came upon a certain shrine, as the sun had already set, he stopped there for the night. Taking one of the stones at the shrine, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep at that spot. Then he had a dream: a stairway rested on the ground, with its top reaching to the heavens; and God’s messengers were going up and down on it. And there was the LORD standing beside him and saying: “I, the LORD, am the God of your forefather Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. These shall be as plentiful as the dust of the earth, and through them you shall spread out east and west, north and south. In you and your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing. Know that I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you.” When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he exclaimed, “Truly, the LORD is in this spot, although I did not know it!” In solemn wonder he cried out: “How awesome is this shrine! This is nothing else but an abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven!” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head, set it up as a memorial stone, and poured oil on top of it. He called the site Bethel, whereas the former name of the town had been Luz.

            Parents always want to leave their children the best they can: the finest food, the best clothing, the highest education.  But what do parents leave to their grandkids?  I saw one elderly couple driving a very expensive car with a bumpersticker that read: “We’re spending our grandkids inheritance.”  I saw that in the church parking lot before Mass.  (Just kidding.)  It was meant as a joke, of course, but I wonder how many grandparents are doing exactly that.  My father made the observation recently that the best inheritance parents can leave their children is a Catholic school education.  He said, “Then, when the parents die, the children won’t fight over who gets what!  Each child will have received something priceless that they will never lose.”  We should ask ourselves today: what are we leaving the next generation?

            Jacob is asking that same question in the first reading today from Genesis 28.  Jacob has a dream in Bethel where he sees angels ascending and descending on a ladder to heaven.  And what does he do when he wakes up?  He decides to build a shrine there as an inheritance for his children and grandchildren.  In fact, the name “Beth-el” literally means “House of God.”  Jacob did not spend his grandchildren’s inheritance, rather, like my father he built a church, a school, where his children would learn how to climb to heaven.

            With the recent Supreme Court ruling, do you know who I worry about the most?  It’s your children and grandchildren.  Why?  Because they will now grow-up in a world in which they will be confused about what a normal family consists of.  You see, that bumpersticker was right: we have indeed spent our grandkids’ inheritance; we will not leave them a moral society based on Christian principles.  That, we have spent.  So, what can we leave them?  Well, the same thing that Jacob did and my father did: build a church, a school, where our children can learn about God, and find a ladder to climb to heaven.  Ironically, I believe the Supreme Court decision may have done a huge favor for Catholic schools: as parents see what is taught in public schools as “the new normal,” they may want to give their children something else.

            My father was right: give your children a Catholic school education, an inheritance that they won’t fight over, and that no one can take from them, not even the Supreme Court.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Marriage in Mayberry

Trying to be good Catholics
Mark 6:1-6
Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples.  When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished.  They said, “Where did this man get all this?  What kind of wisdom has been given him?  What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!  Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”  So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

            We received a very strange phone call at the church office this past week.  Someone representing a Christian organization left a message saying they were very upset by the Supreme Court ruling that now all fifty states have to allow same-sex marriages.  Have you heard about that decision?  If you haven’t you must have taken a vacation to the moon this past week because everyone is talking about it!  This caller was very angry that the Supreme Court decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is a Catholic.  And the person insisted we petition the president of the U.S. Bishops Conference, whom they called “Mr. Joseph Kurtz” (but they meant Archbishop Joseph Kurtz) to excommunicate Justice Kennedy for not upholding Catholic teaching on marriage.  The person ended by saying that if the Catholic Church did NOT excommunicate Kennedy, many good Catholics would leave the Church.  Unfortunately, they didn’t leave a number to call back, because you know how much I love to return those calls.

            But that call left me pondering and praying over two things.  First, do “good Catholics” really leave the Church when they find a teaching that’s disagreeable to them?  Would you leave the Church?  I would think a “good Catholic” would choose to stay no matter what, and not “church hop” to a faith that fits his own fancy.  All a good Catholic has to really do is “pray, pay and obey,” as we used to say.  But second, I also wondered: if the Church DID excommunicate Kennedy, how many “good Catholics” would leave the Church then?  Aren’t there many Catholics who agree with the Supreme Court decision, and celebrated this past week?  You see, we’re not really worried about “good Catholics” leaving, one way or the other, because good Catholics don’t leave their Church.  In other words, the Church does not determine doctrine by popularity polls or go with the latest cultural fad; the Church teaches what the Holy Spirit has revealed through Scripture and Tradition, handed down for two thousand years by the Apostles and their successors.  You see, a good Catholic would never leave the Church because in 1 Timothy 3:15 St. Paul says the church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”  What makes a Catholic “good” is that he does not leave.

            Have you heard this little joke about marriage that’s making its rounds on email?  The writer says: “It just dawned on me why Mayberry (the fictional town of the Andy Griffith Show) was so peaceful and quiet.  Nobody was married!  Here are the single people that come to mind: Andy, Aunt Bea, Barney, Floyd, Howard, Goober, Gomer, Sam, Ernest T. Bass, the Darlin Family, Helen, Thelma Lou and Clara.  In fact, the only one married was Otis, and he stayed drunk.”  You see, the Church’s teaching about marriage is not meant merely for your happiness – just ask Otis! – but mainly for your holiness (to help you become a saint), and ultimately to get you to heaven, the only place you’ll find real happiness. Good Catholics know the Church’s teaching doesn’t always make them happy, but it will make them holy, and that’s why good Catholics don’t leave.

            In the gospel today, we see that even Jesus had to face the displeasure of his disciples and even his own family.  He returns to his hometown of Nazareth and you might expect he’d receive a hero’s welcome, or at least a ticker tape parade down Main Street of Nazareth.  But instead Mark writes, “They took offense at him,” just like people take offense at the Church’s teaching about marriage today.  And how did Jesus react?  “He was amazed at their lack of faith.”  But notice what Jesus did NOT do: he did not conduct an opinion poll to see what the majority of his followers believed and change his teaching accordingly.  He did not set up a think-tank to study the problem and suggest the best solutions.  He was simply amazed at their lack of faith.  You see, Jesus did not come to make the majority of the people happy, not even his own kin; he came to call the wayward children of his heavenly Father back home to heaven.

            My friends, before you pick up stones to throw at the Supreme Court, or sign petitions to get “Mr. Joseph Kurtz” to change the church’s teaching to allow gay marriage,  take a closer look in the mirror.  Are you as good a Catholic as you think?  I’ll bet you dollars to donuts there’s at least one Church teaching that makes you squirm in your seat; heck, there’s probably more than one.  For example, how happy are you with the Church’s teaching against contraception?  Yeah, that pretty much took care of everyone.  Where do you stand on abortion?  How enthusiastic are you about helping illegal immigrants?  “Ouch!” many would say.  How about capital punishment no longer being allowed?  Toby Keith and Willie Nelson couldn’t sing “whiskey for my men and beer for my horses,” a song about hanging people who commit crimes.  How did you feel about the pope’s latest letter on the environment and climate change?  Maybe Al Gore will become Catholic now.  How about missing Sunday Mass being a mortal sin?  How about the teaching on hell, and that Jesus says a lot of people are going to end up there?  Not you and I, of course, because hell is for other people.  How do you feel about purgatory, and that most people will go there after they die, and not straight to heaven?  When was the last time you went to confession?  That’s always a crowd favorite.  Don’t worry, folks, I struggle with all these things, too.  In other words, Jesus could look at each one of us, and be amazed at our lack of faith, not just those who want gay marriage.  Good Catholics know our faith is not perfect, so we repeat with that father in Mark 9:24, who wanted Jesus to heal his son, saying, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Only if we stay in the Church will Jesus be able to “help our unbelief.”

            A friend of mine wanted to join a very strict religious order called the Carthusians.  They have a rule of life that has not changed in a thousand years.  When someone new joins the order and wants to change the rule to modernize it, they are told: “We do not change the rule, the rule changes us.”  That’s the way a good Catholic looks at Church teaching: we do not change Church teaching, Church teaching changes us.  And it has to change all of us, even poor Otis.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!