Friday, August 19, 2016

Heavenly High Society

Welcoming the poor and persecuted into our hearts  

Matthew 22:1-14 
Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and the elders of the people in parables saying, “The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. Then the king said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.   
          Every country, every culture and even every clan has a sort of high society that all strive to be part of. It’s not just my country of India that has a caste system, so does every country: upper, middle and lower classes. Now, for the longest time in America, Catholics always comprised the middle and lower rungs of this ladder. But do you know when we finally “arrived” and took a seat at the table of high society? It was when a Catholic first because president of the United States. In 1961, John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president. He was the youngest man to ever be elected president – at only 46 years old – and also the youngest to die as president in 1963 in Dallas, TX, a day many of you will well remember. They called the White House “Camelot” in those days because JFK and Jacqueline were more like royalty – a handsome king and a beautiful queen – the Catholics had arrived in Camelot. Catholics were no longer the unimportant immigrants without a penny in their pocket, we were in high society.   
          In the gospel today, Jesus tells the parable about the high society of heaven, and what it takes to be a part of it, and who holds its privileged places. He describes a wedding feast in which the invited guests decline the invitation to come to the celebration. The king who throws the feast for his son then invites the lowly to the feast. He says, “The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main road and invite to the feast whomever you find.” And indeed they did, filling the feast with street people, the bad and the good alike. Like the Kennedys who found themselves in Camelot, so God wants to “cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly” (Luke 1:52), as Mary sang in her Magnificat. In other words, heavenly high society will be filled with the lowly and the lonely, the humble and the homeless, the poor and the persecuted, the unimportant and the immigrants.   
          My friends have you noticed how Pope Francis has been talking about the privileged place of the poor ever since he moved into his humble hotel room as pope? He wrote in his first encyclical, “The Joy of the Gospel,” these stirring words: “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They [the poor] have much to teach us.” Just like poor Catholics have much to teach America. He goes on: “We need to be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the center of the Church’s pilgrim way.” The pope then gets even more personal, saying, “We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them” (Evangelii gaudium, 198).   
          In other words, we should see the poor as God’s privileged people, and those who are the high society not only of heaven, but also in our hearts. You see, the real “Camelot” is the heart of every Christian, and there every unimportant immigrant should feel like a king and a queen.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Not Created Equal

Giving God the glory for our gifts  

Matthew 20:1-16  
Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
          You know, God is great, but he’s also goofy. Now, I don’t mean any disrespect, but sometimes God doesn’t think like you and me; his behavior is not as logical, or reasonable, or common sensical as we would hope. For example, the Declaration of Independence says, “all men are created equal.” But are all men and women created equal? Does God give equal gifts to everyone? Have you ever heard of Joshua Bell? I bet Nicole Jeter knows who he is. He’s a world-renowned violinist, and he will actually be playing here in Fort Smith on September 11. How many of you have tried to play the violin? Do you play as well as Joshua Bell? Well, why not; after all, aren’t we all created equal? Is it just because you don’t practice enough? No. It’s also because God has given him a gift: the gift of making a piece of wood come to life and dance and sing, like Gepetto made the piece of wood called Pinocchio come to life. In other words, God has not created us equal or the same; he gives his gifts as it suits and serves his pleasure.   
          In the gospel today, Jesus teaches this truth to his apostles, that is, that all men are not created equal. He tells a parable in which a landowner pays his workers in a very illogical, unreasonable, and very non-common sensical way. He pays those who worked one hour as much as those who worked the whole day. The landowner explains his pay policy: “Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?” You see, the “money” is a symbol of God’s gifts. In other words, God gives as it pleases him, not as it pleases us. That’s why Joshua Bell plays the violin a little better than Nicole Jeter, and why one day she may play the violin better than him.
          Boys and girls, one of the great blessings, but also a great burden of junior high school is that you’re starting to catch that we are not created equal. God gives you some gifts he does not give to others, and others get gifts that you do not. For instance, Salomon Amador runs with the football like a Mack truck; he’d run right through Mr. Plake. But Salamon can’t sing a song to save his life. Gracie Hollenbeck destroys people on the volleyball court, but don’t ask her about her algebra grade. Tommy Caldarera can easily be the captain of any Quiz Bowl team, but don’t expect him to hit the three-point shot. Teachers are not created equal either. At our first assembly, the students cheered a lot louder for Coach Meares than anyone else. I leaned over to Mr. Edwards and said, “I wonder if they’ll cheer that loudly at the end of the school year.” Some of you speak three languages, while some can barely speak one.   
          Here’s my point: God has not created us equal or the same; he’s free to do as he pleases with his gifts. We may not like it; that doesn’t look very logical, but it’s no use complaining like the workers in the vineyard. Here’s what you can do: find your gifts and use them for God’s glory, and praise God for the gifts he gives to others; don’t be jealous. Go to the Joshua Bell concert and give him a standing ovation, and someday maybe others will give you one, too.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Casablanca Queen

Making our moves out of love for Mary

Revelation 11:19A; 12:1  
God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple. A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.   
          Do you like to play chess, or do you prefer checkers? You may know that chess is a lot harder and more complicated than checkers. But for that very reason it is far more enjoyable. I recently came across this saying; see if you can understand the gist of it. People say, “He’s playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.” Do you get it? That means the chess player grasps the gravity and grace in a given moment while the checker player only sees and skims the surface of things. The chess player sees a lot more of what’s going on. By the way, in the movie Casablanca, do you remember what Humphrey Bogart is doing in the opening scene when you first see him? He’s playing chess, and remarkably, he’s playing chess against himself. There’s no worthy opponent. In fact, throughout the whole movie, I believe Bogie is “playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers,” as he anticipates and moves people around the city of Casablanca, as if he were moving pieces on a chessboard.   
          Now, in chess, which piece is the most preeminent and powerful? It is obviously the queen. She can move in multiple directions and glide gracefully from one end of the chess board to the other. In the real-life chess game that Bogart played in Casablanca, who was his queen? It was Ingrid Bergman, and his love for her motivated every move that he made. You see, those who play chess rather than checkers always realize the role and respect that is given to the queen. She is immensely important.   
          Well, I believe we will understand the Scriptures today a little better if we played a little more chess rather than checkers. What do I mean? Well, throughout the Bible we hear about an institution called the “Gebirah” or the “Queen Mother.” In the Old Testament, after King David himself, the second most prominent and powerful person in the kingdom was Bathsheba, the Queen. No one had more influence in the royal court than the queen, just like on the chessboard. That’s why today Psalm 45 says, “The Queen stands are your right hand (at the king’s right hand) arrayed in gold.” In the first reading, Revelation 12:1, John sees what is happening in heaven: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is obviously a queen because she’s wearing a crown! And in the gospel Elizabeth says, “And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” That is, she sees Mary as the Gebirah, the queen-mother of Jesus, the King of Kings. You see, just like Bogie in Casablanca, so too, King David and the Apostle John and Cousin Elizabeth all play chess while everyone else is playing checkers, because they know how important the queen is.   
          On this feast of the Assumption, the Church invites us to start playing more chess and less checkers, spiritually-speaking. That is, try to catch the complexity of Catholicism which is organized more like chess than checkers, and then you’ll realize the role and respect that Catholics accord to Mary, the Queen Mother, the Gebirah; why Catholics love and honor and show such devotion to her. Indeed, the whole of creation is laid out more like a chessboard, with kings and queens, knights and pawns and castles. And John sees this holds true in heaven as well as on earth. Those who play chess always grasp the gravity and grace in the moment because they can catch the complexity of creation, and especially the role of the queen.
          Few have understood how Catholicism is more like chess then checkers than G.K. Chesteron, mainly because he understood Mary. He attributed his own conversion to her intercession. He wrote: “The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her (Mary); when I tried to forget the Catholic Church, I tried to forget her (he means Mary); when I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and the hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her (meaning Mary) in the port of Brindisi, that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land.” Chesterton promised Mary he would become Catholic. Chesterton loved to play chess while everyone else was playing checkers, especially in his spiritual life, and he couldn’t help but become Catholic. Why? Well because when you play chess, you know that no one can beat the queen.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Hold My Beer

Finding our courage and confidence in Christ  
Hebrews 12:1-4 

Brothers and sisters: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.   
          Where do you get the guts and gumption, the courage and the confidence to do something great? Do you know what Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian of all time, eats every day? He consumes close to 12,000 calories per day. For breakfast he downs egg sandwiches, chocolate pancakes, French toast, grits, and a five-egg omelet. His lunch includes two ham and cheese sandwiches, energy drinks, and a pound of pasta. For dinner, it is a whole pizza and another pound of pasta. So, clearly all you have to do it eat all that and you, too, can win 22 gold medals. Or, maybe you lean more toward “liquid courage,” which is what rednecks calls alcohol. Liquid courage helps a redneck to do not so much heroic feats but definitely hilarious ones. If you want a good laugh, watch the Youtube video called, “Hold my beer, watch this!” Those are also the famous last words of a redneck, “Holy my beer, watch this!” Or maybe music gives you your “mojo,” and so you listen to your favorite playlist with Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen and Bon Jovi. Ask yourself: what makes your heart beat a little faster and makes you want to go do something great?   
          In the second reading today, the author of Hebrews gives us another motivation for greatness, namely, Jesus. So he says, “Brothers and sisters…keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” And why should we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus? He goes on, “In order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.” That is, better than gulping down 12,000 calories, or filling your belly with a bottle of liquid courage, or even listening to Rachel Platten sing, “This is my fight song,” keep your eyes on Jesus. Why? Well, because the greatness you will achieve in Jesus does not tarnish like a gold medal, or fade into history like a number one hit song. Rather, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of a greatness and glory that lasts into eternity, namely, the glory of the saints. In heaven the scene is more like this: Michael Phelps and Eddie Van Halen and John Bon Jovi will look in awe upon the saints and wonder: “What did they eat for breakfast and what was on their playlist??” You see, up and down the centuries those who achieve eternal greatness are the saints, those who kept their eyes fixed on Jesus.   
          Msgr. John O’Donnell, a former pastor of Immaculate Conception Church would greet the parishioners at the beginning of Mass by saying, “Good morning, Saints!” Now, technically, to be a saint you have to be dead, and I’m sure the good monsignor was not saying you all look like you’re dead. Nevertheless, Msgr. O’Donnell was right that everyone in church should strive for sainthood. May I mention a few saintly parishioners who strive more than most? Sharon Blentlinger, our school principal is one. She has been the principal for 30 years, and now she’s beginning her 31st year. She has educated thousands of students, seen boom times and bust times, and her biggest achievement is surviving 4 different pastors – she hasn’t survived me yet! You see, Sharon strives for sainthood by keeping her eyes fixed on Jesus.   
          Another saintly striver is Steven Werley. I didn’t ask his wife Surennah if I could mention Steve, and that’s why I am able to mention him. But Steve regularly comes to mow the grounds with me at Trinity Junior High, and he never utters a cross word or complaint. For full disclosure, Steve also brings a little liquid courage along, so he’s still got a little way to go to be a saint, and by the way, I do, too because I enjoy the liquid courage also.   
          Today, I’d like to point out Dianne and Andy Strecker, who are also striving to be saints and who are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary today. You know, you have to be a saint to be married for 50 years! In a moment they will renew their vows, and we’ll see if they can still remember them! I always wonder how people make it to 50 years being married to the same person, and I think Andy and Dianne’s secret is Jesus. You see, they have kept their eyes fixed on Jesus and they have not “grown weary or lost heart” like the Letter to the Hebrews said. You should know that Dianne is also one of our dedicated Eucharistic Ministers to the Sick, which means she takes Holy Communion to the hospital once a week. She helps the sick to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus, so they also will not “grow weary or lose heart.”   
          Folks do you feel a little weary, or have you lost a little heart lately? Do you need something to get you out of bed in the morning and to go for the gold every day? Well, don’t reach for the five-egg omelet or put liquid courage to your lips, or replay Katy Perry’s song “Roar.” Rather, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Only by following Jesus will you find a glory that echoes in eternity, and doesn’t just fade on earth. And then you, too, can say, “Hold my beer; watch this!” Why? Well, because then you won’t need the beer to do something great.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Bachelor

Embracing God’s plan for marriage and happiness  
Matthew 19:3-12  
Some Pharisees approached Jesus, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” His disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” He answered, “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”   
          What is the single toughest teaching of the Catholic religion? Some may say it’s Communion and our belief it is the Body and Blood of Jesus; hence, some people accuse Catholics of cannibalism. Others think it’s our respect and obedience to the pope; who some are certain is the Antichrist. Still others may mention Mary – whom Catholics clearly worship, kneeling before her statues like Superman knelt before Zod. These are truly tough teachings, but even harder to swallow and stomach is what we maintain about marriage, namely, it is a life-long, monogamous, heterosexual union for bringing up babies. Do you know anyone who has gotten a divorce and left the Catholic church because they felt unwelcome? Don’t worry, I have, too. Anyone who has been married more than five minutes quickly, realizes, “Oh man, this is going to be hard!” Now you know why I decided to become a celibate priest. In many ways, celibacy is the easier vocation while marriage is the harder one.   
          In the gospel today, the apostles catch on to this conundrum as well: Jesus’ tough teaching on marriage. Both the Pharisees and the apostles are trying to find an easier explanation on marriage than what Jesus proposes. But our Lord insists: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” In fact, the apostles go so far as to say: “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” In other words, it’s better to be a bachelor. They were thinking like I was – take the easy way out. But even in the face of such criticism and complaint, Jesus doesn’t change his teaching or water-down the doctrine. He asserts that marriage is a life-long, monogamous, heterosexual union for bringing up babies.   
          My friends, still today many don’t like marriage as Jesus taught it, and try to challenge and change it. People parade marriage as entertainment with television programs like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” which weaken and water-down how meaningful marriage is. Some quarters of our culture are trying to redefine marriage so it is not necessarily between a man and a woman. A growing group of young people simply live together and don’t marry at all; they’ve given up on marriage. After all, you can’t get divorced if you never get married! That’s one way to avoid divorce.   
          But Jesus said two thousand years ago, and the Church continues to say today: “From the beginning it was not so.” That is, in the beginning God had a plan for our happiness, and that plan entailed marriage for the majority of us: life-long, monogamous, heterosexual union for bringing up babies. You see, true happiness is not found in bachelors, but in babies.    

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Prayer to Prince of Peace

          Heavenly Father, look upon us, your children, and have mercy on us.  Our hearts are heavy as we pray for the repose of the soul of Cpl. Bill Cooper, the continued recovery of Police Chief Darrell Spells, and especially for Billy Monroe Jones, the shooter.  Your Son, Jesus, taught us to pray not only for our friends, but also for our enemies.  Reach into our hearts and heal the deep wounds of sin, the hurts of our history, and the pains and problems for which we have no one to blame but ourselves.  You see all.  You know all.  And you love all.  As our nation, and now our neighborhood, is touched by violence again, grant us the grace to see, and to know and to love like you.  We ask you this through Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, he who is the Prince of Peace.  Amen.

Good Wood

Embracing the struggle to become the best version of ourselves   

John 12:24-26  
Jesus said to his disciples: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.”   
          I love how Matthew Kelly, the popular speaker and writer, describes personal growth. He calls it, “becoming the best version of yourself.” By the way, the reason he’s so popular is because he’s got this great Australian accent. What a great way to describe the journey of personal maturity – “becoming the best version of yourself.” But here’s the catch: it always involves some personal sacrifice, some struggle, and you could even say, a certain death to self. In other words, the “old you” must die before the “new you” can be born; that’s the only way you can become “the best version of yourself.”   
          Now, there is no better version of becoming the best version of yourself than the story of Pinocchio. He was originally created as a wooden puppet by Geppetto, but he always dreamed of being a real boy, that would be his “best version of himself.” He’s given that chance by the Blue Fairy, but who warns him, “Remember, a boy who won’t be good, might just as well be made of wood.” Thus begins his journey to boyhood. Pinocchio quickly learns, however, this is no cake-walk: he struggles with severe misfortune, he deals with deceptive enemies, and finally he gives his life trying to save his father from Monstro the whale. But notice that it is precisely at that moment, the moment of his death, that Pinocchio achieves the best version of himself, and the Blue Fairy rewards him with his dream to be a real boy. Pinocchio had to die to his “old self” before his “new self” could be born.   
          In the gospel today, Jesus insists that the same is true in the spiritual world: death precedes life, the old version of yourself must die before the best version of yourself can be born. Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” In other words, only when we achieve the “best version of ourselves” will we be the most fruitful, the most productive and a real blessing to others. When Pinocchio died and became the best version of himself, he bore great fruit: not only in saving his father, but also in being an example for everyone who reads the story. Heck, he also helped me write this homily!   
          You know, as educators – whether teachers or coaches or staff – our job is to help each student achieve the best version of himself or herself. From when they arrive here in 7th grade till they leave in 9th grade, we try to help them strive for that best version. But don’t forget the catch: there are no short-cuts to personal growth and maturity. There will also be struggle, and sacrifice and death to self: football practice in August heat, showing all the steps of the geometry proofs, reading the whole AR book and not just the Cliff Notes version, being punctual at Mass and to class, eating balanced meals, and proper hygiene. “Remember: a Trinity student who won’t be good, might just as well be made of wood.”   
          But the same applies to us educators: we, too, are on the same journey of personal growth. That journey never ends in this life.  Don’t forget the old Latin maxim: “nemo dat quod non habet” – you cannot give what you do not have. Our words and our wisdom will ring hollow in the ears of our students if we have not vigorously pursued the best version of ourselves, too. We must practice what we preach. So, we can also say: “Remember, a Trinity teacher who won’t be good, might just as well be made of wood.”   
          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Comfort Food

Filling our hearts with God’s cooking  
Ezekiel 2:8—3:4  
The Lord GOD said to me: “Son of man, eat what is before you; eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat. Son of man, he then said to me, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll I am giving you. I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. He said: Son of man, go now to the house of Israel, and speak my words to them.”   
          Here’s the easiest question anyone will ever ask you: what is your favorite comfort food? In case you don’t know what comfort food is, it was first defined in 1966 in the Palm Beach Post like this: “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’ – food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached eggs or famous chicken soup.” So, what would be your go-to comfort food? The Huffington Post listed these delicious items: grilled cheese sandwiches, creamed spinach, roasted chicken, peanut butter (straight out of the container with a spoon), spaghetti and meatballs, chocolate pudding, and shrimp and grits (and southern favorite).   
          Now, what would you guess is a priest’s comfort food? When I lived with Msgr. Hebert (who is a gourmet chef, by the way), sometimes we didn’t have time to cook and so he would love to grab some fried chicken – gourmet fried chicken, of course. One of my last days in India, we stopped and ordered French fries. I was all curried out. Whether we’re under a lot of stress, or just need to decompress, comfort food comes to the rescue.   
          What does the Bible cook up for comfort food? In the first reading today, Ezekiel receives some comfort food straight from the hand of God, who cooks almost as good as Hebert. We read: “He said to me: ‘Son of man, eat what is before you; eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel.’” And how did God’s food taste? Ezekiel says, “I ate it, and it was sweet as honey in my mouth.” In Jeremiah 15:16 another prophet eats God’s comfort food. Jeremiah says, “When I found your words, O Lord, I devoured them, and they became the joy and the comfort of my heart.” And in the book of Revelation, an angel serves up some divine delicacies for John, who says, “I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me: ‘Take and eat it; it will be bitter in your stomach, but it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth’” (Rev. 10:10). You see, no one can cook like the Creator, who knows how to nourish both body and soul.   
          My friends, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see so many Catholics hungry for God’s comfort food: his Word which is sweet as honey. We have a group of men that meets at 6 a.m. on Friday mornings to break open the Word, like they are breaking open a hard-boiled egg; hungry for holiness. We have a group of ladies that meets Monday evenings to taste the sweetness of God’s cooking. A group of stay-at-home moms meet at noon to devour the Word and let it become the joy of their hearts. Of course, the Ladies Auxiliary has been meeting since Solomon built the Temple, and feeding their bodies and spirits on God’s goodness. And what an inspiration to this priest every morning to see 75-100 people attending daily Mass – daily Mass, not Sunday Mass – who are hungry for some divine comfort food: the Word in the Bible and the Word in the Body and Blood.
          Let me ask you again: what is your favorite comfort food? Go ahead and enjoy the mac and cheese and hamburger and pizza. But also develop a hunger for God’s cooking: there’s no better way to reduce stress and decompress. And besides, it’s also low calorie.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Genteel Jesus

Hiding our crazy and loving our neighbor  
Matthew 17:22-27  
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, “Does not your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes,” he said.  When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?” When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the subjects are exempt. But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up.  Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you.”   
          One of the things I love about the South is how the prevailing culture is gentle or “genteel.” Do you know what “genteel” means? Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines genteel as “having a quietly appealing or polite quality,” and “free from vulgarity or rudeness.” And that’s true here in Fort Smith, unless you try to change the high school mascot. But by and large, we try to speak, act and live in a way to avoid giving others offense.   
          This genteel spirit is epitomized excellently in Miranda Lambert’s song called “Mama’s Broken Heart.” A young girl is suffering a break up with her boyfriend, and her mother’s advice is to be a little more “genteel.” She sings: “Go and fix your make up, girl, it’s just a break up, Run and hide your crazy and start acting like a lady, ‘Cause I raised you better, gotta keep it together, Even when you fall apart. But this ain’t my mama’s broken heart.” Even though she disagrees with her mother, she defines this southern genteel spirit perfectly: if at all possible, try not to offend others.
          In the gospel today, we see a “genteel Jesus” in his attitude and actions; he sort of “hides his crazy.” He explains to Peter why they both are legitimately exempt from paying the Temple tax. But then he adds, “But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up.” In the mouth of the fish would be a coin to pay their tax. Now, we know Jesus does not take the Temple lightly – remember how he drove out the money changers in Matthew 21:12? But that was a rare moment of his wrath, his righteous indignation. But 99% of the time we see a more “genteel Jesus.”
          I recently received an email from someone incensed about Pope Francis and his soft treatment of Muslims. I want to share my reply with you, as an example of “genteel Christianity,” and how to hide your crazy. I wrote: “Dear Friend, my apologizes for taking this long to reply to your email. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, and for giving me an opportunity to reply. Please read this reply in the most positive light. I sympathize with your feelings about Pope Francis, and agree that some things he says have been taken out of context and misinterpreted. I am not really qualified to speak on behalf of the pope, but he seems to me ultimately only to want to create bridges of understanding and reconciliation (where possible). Perhaps you believe no such reconciliation is possible, and there’s certainly plenty of evidence to believe that when we see ISIS terrorists killing innocent people. As Christians, however, we do try to hope beyond hope.”  
          Here’s the conclusion of my email: “You’re absolutely right that I fear greatly all the things I will be held accountable for on Judgment Day, and that includes whatever way I have not rightly evaluated Islam, Muslims, and even terrorists. May God have mercy on us all, on Judgment Day and every day. Grace and love, John.” And that’s an example of how I “run and hide my crazy.”  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

80 Percent Friend

Having fearless faith to love both friend and foe  
Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-12  
Brothers and sisters: Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Because of it the ancients were well attested. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.  By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God.
          Several people have asked me about my trip to India, so let me share a few facts and a little fiction. First of all, there’s an almost 12 hour difference between India and the United States. So, while it’s 10 a.m. over here, it’s almost 10 p.m. over there. So, I’m still feeling the jet-lag and may well fall asleep in my own homily. You won’t sleep alone today! Secondly, the whole two weeks we only visited family, both living and deceased. Our vacations don’t include visiting the Taj Mahal or watching Ballywood movies; rather we go to several different cemeteries where my grandparents and other relatives are buried. We place flowers on their graves and light candles and pray for their souls. Of course the food was phenomenal and we even saw a snake charmer who made two cobras dance while playing his flute. One family we visited had a water buffalo, but I couldn’t convince him to let me bring it back to be our school mascot: the Buffaloes! The second week we were in Kerala, which is my parents’ hometown and where they grew up. I finally knew what it feels like to be a Wewers and Gilker, a Maestri and a Meyers here in Fort Smith – I was related to all those people; everyone was my second cousin, once-removed.   
          Now, we had originally planned to go to India back in January, not in July. But we postponed the trip out of fear. You might recall that in December, a few weeks before we were going to leave, there was a bombing in Paris, France, and shortly after that, the shootings in San Bernardino, CA. We felt it was too dangerous to travel, especially as Americans. Well, as you know, the terrorist killings had not subsided by July, but this time we decided to go anyway. Why? Well, my mom summed it up perfectly. She said: “I feel peace. I have faith that God will protect us on this journey.” I felt like saying, “Good for you, Mom! You go, and I’ll wait here and pray for your safety!” But she was right (as usual), and we stepped out in faith, forgot our fear, and we had the best vacation ever. You see, faith helps you to overcome your fear.   
           In the second reading today, we see Abraham overcome his fear by the force of his faith. The Letter to the Hebrews states: “By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.” Abraham had faith like my mother (and not like me!) which overcame his fear of a foreign country, and instilled in him peace and purpose to do God’s will. After all, Abraham is called “the Father of Faith” precisely because he demonstrated how faith forces out fear from the heart. And that’s why Jesus says in the gospel today: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” In other words, have faith in the Father, and like my mom said, “he will protect you on your journey.”   
          Last week I received a very disturbing email, but I’d like to share it with you. You may want to cover your children’s ears. This person was infuriated with Pope Francis and said he was too soft on terrorists, and he is down on America. My email friend wrote: “Your pope has proven to be a jihadi sympathizer. Following the public shooting of a priest in Normandy by filthy Muslim jijadis, your pope basically apologized for these savages and their actions.” He goes on, and I apologize for the rather long sentence. My friend wrote: “Your pope has been co-opted by world government establishment figures and this explains his attempt to change the rules of Catholicism, his affinity with communism, his attempts to affect the presidential election of my country, his efforts to help illegal aliens subvert the laws of my country and now his idiotic idea that anyone who tells the truth about Islamic terror is evil.” Now you see what fun it is to be a Catholic priest: you get to reply to emails like that. I responded to my email friend as pastorally as possible, and also said a prayer for him and others who feel so strongly. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of what he wrote flowed from fear, which even a fraction of faith could easily diffuse. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” In other words, put your faith in the Father and you will feel no fear; or at least you won’t feel the need to write emails like that.   
          Folks, let me invite you to do a five second inventory of your fears. What are you afraid of? Are you like my email friend and afraid of Islamic terrorists, or maybe even afraid of what the pope might say next? Or maybe you are like I was and frightened to travel to a foreign country. Maybe you are afraid of the outcome of the presidential election and who will be our next president. You might be afraid for your children and the world they will grow up in. Maybe you’re afraid that Mass will last more than one hour – I am, too, because it always hurts our collections. Less Mass, more money! Do you know what a lot of Catholics are afraid of? They are afraid to sing in church. Well, to inspire a little faith to force out that fear, this weekend we’ve put new hymnals in the pews to help you to sing!  You might be thinking: Fr. John more people fear that I WILL sing. What are you afraid of, little flock?   
          Let me conclude with a question: who said “my 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy”? Well, a lot of people have said it, but it was originally President Ronald Reagan. He was encouraging people to overcome their fears of others who don’t think exactly the same way; try to see more people as your friends. Folks, whether someone is an 80 percent friend or an 80 percent foe, we should still love them. And it is your faith that makes you that fearless. Like my mom said: “I feel peace. I have faith that God will protect us on this journey.”   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Oh, Brother

Seeing another’s dignity as a child of God  
Matthew 16:24-28  
Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay each according to his conduct. Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.”   
          It’s fascinating to figure out how folks measure their self-worth, as well as the value they put on others. Some people measure with money. They ask: “What is your net worth?” For instance, George Lucas, the movie mogul, is worth $5.1 billion, Oprah Winfrey is worth $3.2 billion, and Sir Paul McCartney is estimated at only $1.2 billion -- poor Paul! And these are not even the richest people in the world.   
          Other people put a high price on music. Have you seen that hilarious movie called “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou”? In one scene, the three hapless heroes are driving along and pick up a young black man named Tommy Johnson. Tommy explains that he has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning how to play the guitar “real good.” Delmar is shocked by this unblessed bargain and asks, “Oh, son, for that you sold your everlasting soul??” Poor Tommy simply says, “Well, I wasn’t using it anyway.” Did you catch that – he wasn’t using his soul anyway. But Tommy measured his self-worth in music; he was willing to sell his soul to play the guitar.   
          In the gospel today, Jesus weighs in on the question of human dignity; how to measure a man or a woman’s worth.  He rhetorically asks his apostles: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” To make sure they caught the question, he asks it again: “What can one give in exchange for his life.” In other words, he’s asking, “What are you worth?” Do you measure yourself by money, or by music, or by some other standard? And then Jesus explains that when he returns in glory, each person will be repaid according to their conduct. That is, don’t measure yourself by your cash, but by your conduct.   
          My friends, have you noticed how as soon as we see someone, we sort of “size them up,” and begin to put a price on them? We judge them by their clothes – especially when they’re at Mass! – or by the car they drive, or by the house they live in, or by the books they’ve published! When I traveled with my parents to India recently, I’d sneak a peek at people’s passports, and smile to myself because I had an American passport, which is infinitely superior, of course. Do we look down on others because they are undocumented or illegal aliens? Against all such easy but erroneous evaluations, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in no. 1700, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image of God.” In other words, each person is of infinite value and worth, whether you have a billion dollars or you can barely buy a bus ticket.   
          The next time you see someone, go ahead and size them up. But don’t measure them by money or music, or by their brains or their brawn or their beauty. Look deeper than their cash and see their conduct, the conduct of someone created in the image of God.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Rebel Without a Cause

Learning to listen to our conscience  
Matthew 15:1-2, 10-14  
Some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat a meal.” He summoned the crowd and said to them, “Hear and understand. It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles the man; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.” Then his disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He said in reply, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”   
          Did you ever see the 1955 classic movie entitled, “Rebel Without a Cause”? It was the only lead starring role for James Dean, but the movie made him a legend and an icon for all troubled teens. Every teen wants to think he is as cool as James Dean. The movie is about a young man who’s in constant conflict with authority figures in his life: his parents, the police, the principal, and especially the school bully named, “Buzz.” (Why are all school bullies named Buzz?)  He navigates his teenage years with two friends, who are also rebels, named “Judy” and “Plato.” To me, though, the movie is more about a young man trying to find his moral compass, and seeing most authority figures as failures in that regard, except one wise police officer, Ray Frenick. Ultimately, Jim’s moral compass is configured by his conscience, which teaches him two rules: loyalty to friends, and standing up for what is right.   
          The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in no. 1776, “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey…For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God...There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” You see, in his heart, James Dean was not a rebel without a cause. His cause was his conscience, the voice of God.   
          In the gospel today, we see Jesus playing the part of the rebel without a cause. Like James Dean, he constantly conflicts with the Jewish authority figures, often going out of his way to tweak their noses. This prompts his apostles to ask: “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” And Jesus replies: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.” In other words, the highest and holiest authority is the heavenly Father, whose voice is heard in your conscience, where he “plants” the seeds of his wisdom and love. That is, you may be a rebel without a cause to earthly authority, but you cannot rebel against your conscience, the voice of the Father.   
          Today ask yourself: who is configuring my inner compass, my conscience, or am I just a rebel without a cause? For instance, there are some people we listen to “get their take,” and conform our thinking to their way of thinking. Some people only listen to Rush Limbaugh, others will only watch Fox News, which is “always fair and balanced.” Others only watch CNN, which one friend called “the Clinton News Network.” Another friend loves Ellen DeGeneres. Who is on your Twitter feed? What “blogs” are you subscribing to? Whose columns do you never miss on the “OpEd” page of the paper? Now, I’m not saying you should or should not listen to these voices: they all have something worth considering and contemplating.   
          However, take time to listen to that “deeper voice” in your heart, where you are alone with God - without Rush, without Hilary, without Ellen, just you and God. That is your conscience and your compass, where every rebel finds his cause.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Too Big for Britches

Seeing our own smallness and God’s greatness  
Matthew 14:13-21  
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” He said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”   
          I believe that it’s only when we see our own smallness that we can glimpse God’s greatness. Haven’t you ever noticed how easily small children believe in God, in miracles, in heaven, in angels? On the other hand, we adults need proof, we need hard evidence, we need scientific studies and focus groups before we will believe in anything. Spiritually-speaking we become too big for our britches and therefore blind to God’s glory.   
          For example, through the centuries nearly all apparitions of Our Blessed Mother Mary are to small children, or to those who are child-like. Just take the one we should all be familiar with here at Immaculate Conception Church – the apparition for which our church is named – when Mary appeared at Lourdes in 1858. Notice, she did not appear to a priest or to a prince or even to the pope, but rather to a 14 year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous. She said to Bernadette, “Je suis l’Immaculee Conception.” That’s French for “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Mary simply spoke and Bernadette believed. You see, because of her smallness, Bernadette saw God’s greatness.    
          In the gospel today, Jesus is trying to help his apostles to glimpse their own smallness, so they can see God’s greatness. Thousands of people are hungry and Jesus asks the apostles to feed them. But they reply that they only have 5 loaves and 2 fish. Now, did Jesus know that’s all they had? Of course he did. So why does he ask them? He wanted them to sense their own insufficiency, so that they might better see God’s superabundance. In fact, in the gospel of John it says it is a small boy who brings the 5 loaves and 2 fish. In other words, Jesus is instructing his apostles not to be too big for their britches, but rather like the little lad. Only when you see your own inadequacy can you see God’s sufficiency.   
          Let me suggest to you a simple way to sense your own smallness and that is by complimenting others. And don’t just compliment your friends and the people you like and admire. Rather, compliment those you disagree with and even compliment your enemies. If you are a Democrat, try to say something nice about Donald Trump. Even some Republicans have a hard time doing that. If you are a Republican, compliment Hilary Clinton. Compliment your ex-spouse, say something nice about your boss, praise your pastor – especially the one you don’t like.
          When we see God’s grace working in others, especially in our enemies, then we are no longer too big for our britches; we humble ourselves; we become small. We become like little children, who easily see God’s glory everywhere, even in political candidates.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Lethal Weapon

Walking the way of peace and mercy  

Jeremiah 26:11-16, 24  
The priests and prophets said to the princes and to all the people, “This man deserves death; he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” Jeremiah gave this answer to the princes and all the people: “It was the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and city all that you have heard. Now, therefore, reform your ways and your deeds; listen to the voice of the LORD your God, so that the LORD will repent of the evil with which he threatens you. As for me, I am in your hands;  do with me what you think good and right. But mark well: if you put me to death, it is innocent blood you bring on yourselves, on this city and its citizens. For in truth it was the LORD who sent me to you, to speak all these things for you to hear.”   
          One of the great blessings of my trip to India was being able to see something beautiful in the blood of Indians, namely, the spirit of non-violence. That is, there is a willingness to suffer injustice, inequality, and ingratitude without fighting back, without killing in return. We wield the weapon of non-violence. In the movie “Gandhi,” the great Indian liberator said, “In this cause I am prepared to die. But there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.” Then he continued with these eloquent words: “They may torture my body, they may break my bones, they may even kill me. Then, they will have my dead body, but not my obedience.”   
          And Indians wield the weapon of non-violence not only for political purposes, but also for religious ones. Do you remember reading in the newspapers back in March about the one Indian nun (among other sisters) who was killed in Yemen and an Indian priest who was abducted by ISIS terrorists? In the attack on a home for the elderly run by the Missionaries of Charity, the terrorists wielded the weapons of guns and machetes; the only weapon the Indian priest carried was his rosary. And may I suggest that on the spiritual level, the rosary is the far more lethal weapon.
          In the first reading the prophet Jeremiah, too, is willing to die but not willing to kill to fulfill God’s will. He says – in terms strikingly similar to Gandhi – these lines: “As for me, I am in your hands, do with me what you think good and right. But mark well: if you put me to death, it is innocent blood you bring on yourselves, on this city and its citizens.” Jeremiah didn’t carry a rosary, but he had the same lethal weapon of non-violence that Indians love to carry. In other words, often non-violence is able to effect more lasting change than violence, hatred and inhumanity. After all, who’s in charge of India now?  
          My friends, what weapons do you use to fight injustice, inequality and ingratitude in your own life, or to fight it in the world at large? Often our anger at these problems tempts us to use force and to fight, like shooting police officers or riots and looting in the wake of brutality and bloodshed. Closer to home: we harbor hatred in our hearts for family and friends who hurt us, which (Jesus said) is like killing someone in your heart. But there is a better way in the beautiful blood of Indians: the path of non-violence and peace. There is a lot that needs to change in our world, and in our country and in our hearts: but the big question is what weapons will we use to make that change? Will we brandish a rifle or bring out our rosary? On the spiritual level - and that’s the level that ultimately matters - the rosary is the far more lethal weapon.
          Do you remember the advice Mr. Miyagi gave to Danielsun on the eve of the big tournament? He said: “Here are the two rules of Miyagi-Ryu Karate. Rule number one: ‘Karate for defense only.’ Rule number two: ‘First learn rule number one’.”  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!