Sunday, March 26, 2017

I Can See Clearly Now

   Fourth Sunday of Lent   A 

I distinctly recall the first time I failed an exam—and how it turned out to be one the very best things that could have happened to me.  I was in the 4th Grade…and I failed my eye exam with the school nurse.   (Despite the apparent evidence of this bright rose vestment I’m now wearing, the diagnosis wasn’t that I’m colorblind but nearsighted.)  Within a few weeks, I was off to the optometrist, and a few weeks after that, I was off to pick up my new glasses.  I have very vivid memories of the ride home with my mom in our big ol’ station wagon that day.  We were traveling very familiar streets, but I was really seeing so many things for the very first time—not just minute details, mind you, but really big things…like houses and even distant mountains!  I remember, too, going to Mass that next Sunday.  My home church has many paintings of angels and saints on the ceiling; previously, they’d simply been swirled colors and rough forms, but now I could see the features of their faces and the folds of their clothes.  All these things that’s seemed so new and exciting weren’t really “new” at all; it’s just that they’d only now become visible to me.

In a small way, that must have been what it was like for the man born blind when his eyes were opened by Jesus.  Did you happen to notice how he failed an exam, too?  His neighbors and the Pharisees simply refuse to accept the answers he gives in response to their many, many questions…but that also works out in his favor, for in the process he gains clear sight not just once, but twice.

After his cure, the formerly blind man is questioned by his neighbors, “How were your eyes opened?”  He responds, “By a man named Jesus…”  The Pharisees then question him, “What do you have to say about this Jesus, since he opened your eyes?’  And responds, “He is a prophet.”  Finally, he’s questioned by Jesus himself: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  “Who is he, sir, that I might believe in him?”  “You have seen him, the one speaking with you.”  “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshipped him.  (He finally answers one question right!)

Take note of the progression in the man’s answers about the identity of Jesus: from a man (another guy like himself)…to a prophet (someone sent by God)…to the Lord (that is, God himself); from a notion based on the hearsay of others (how else did he learn even Jesus name, since he never introduces himself?)…to an initial opening to faith (“he must be from God if he was able to heal me”)…to a deep, personal commitment (Jesus is no longer a stranger, but has become the center of his life).

While the man’s bodily eyes were opened instantly, the eyes of his heart are only gradually opened to the truth about Jesus Christ.  But as the man born blind grows toward better vision and greater light, his neighbors and the Pharisees are sinking into worse blindness and deeper darkness. 

Take note, now, of the progression in questions and doubts of the neighbors and Pharisees.  They begin by questioning the identity of the blind man: “Maybe it’s someone else who just looks like him.”  Then they question Jesus’ identity and motives: “He must be a sinner, since he heals on the Sabbath.”  They ridiculously question the man’s parents: “Are you sure this is your son?”  They even try to get the blind man to deny his cure: “It’s unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of someone born blind.”  In the end, they express doubts even about themselves: “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

While the man was born blind through no fault of his own, these others are going blind because of their persistent, stubborn refusal to see.

Unfortunately, this effort to protect what’s familiar and hang on to an illusion of control, this fearful resistance in the face of something new and unknown, this rejection of Jesus and his teaching because it challenges us and our way of thinking, is a tragedy often repeated, even in our own day.

We’re awfully sensitive at this time of year to the steady increase of daylight.  It’s pretty nice now that it’s still light out after 7:00pm, isn’t it?  And each day, the sun comes up just a few moments earlier.  This regular cycle of dawn and dusk, of sunrise and sunset, makes it clear: we’re always either gaining light, or losing it.  There’s no standing still.  And what’s true in the daily round is also true—as we see in this Sunday’s gospel—of our spiritual lives.

We were all born blind beggars, with the mud of sin covering our eyes.  And as we began our journey of faith, our walk with the Lord, Jesus sent us to wash—not in the Pool of Siloam, but in the healing waters of Baptism.  In the early church, Baptism was also known as “illumination” or “enlightenment.”  That’s why we read this particular story in preparation to renew our baptismal promises at Easter.  Baptism fills our hearts and minds with the light of truth, shedding light on our earthy life and enabling us to walk toward the glorious vision of God.  But unlike the day I got glasses, our sight is restored gradually.  Ours is first the faith of childhood, a “borrowed” faith, that rests on what others have told us about Jesus.  As we grow into the faith of spiritual youth, we begin to make it our own, to express our own convictions, but still maintaining a safe and respectful distance.  Finally, we reach Christian maturity, where we put our full trust in Christ and make him the very center of our life.  This process of conversion is ongoing—it begins at Baptism, and lasts our whole life long.

This midway point in Lent is the perfect time for us to consider:  In terms of daylight, where is my spiritual life right now: is the sun rising ever higher and brighter, or sinking toward the western horizon?  In terms of growth and maturity, where is my faith at this point: still borrowed from others, or growing in my own conviction, or quite personal and deep?  How clear is my vision?  Where is God calling me to go with him, and how is he calling me to get there?

God naturally sees things differently than we do.  That’s certainly made apparent when Samuel goes to seek out and anoint young David—no longer to shepherd a flock of sheep, but to shepherd God’s chosen people: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.”  Left on our own, we don’t see that well.  But God takes us beyond the limits of our fallen nature by his supernatural gifts—by grace.  The Lord’s own light illumines our minds and enlightens the eyes of our hearts.  We can begin to see life and the world and other people, in a least a small way, from God’s perspective.  The disciples understandably asked Jesus, “Why was this man born blind?”  And Jesus responds, “That the works of God might be made visible.”  When, by grace, the Lord opens our eyes, it’s like everything is new as we begin to recognize his fingerprints on everything.  The truth is, God has been present and active in our lives all along…it’s just that now we can see it.

The wonders of modern science—whether with spectacles like mine or a surgeon’s laser—can often do for our bodily eyes what once required a miracle.   But only God can give sight to the eyes of the heart.  As we continue to make our way to Easter, let us ask Jesus for the illuminating grace we need to always walk as children of the light.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

All generations shall call me blessed...?

I got a most usual request last Sunday: to pose for an icon.  No, not an icon of me (don't be silly!), but  one of Blessed Marco d'Aviano--a Capuchin priest whose preaching rallied the Christian troops during the Siege of Vienna (1683-1689) and who was beatified in 2003.  You can read more about him here.

We didn't happen to have a Capuchin habit lying around, so we had to make due with an approximation.  But I did have the beard the iconographer was looking for.  She seemed pleased with my "modeling" debut...

Oh, to not only pose as a saint, but to be one...

Blessed Marco, pray for us!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Holy Patron, Thee Saluting

I'm a few days getting this things up on the blog...but...Monday was the feast of my holy patron, St. Joseph.  In honor of his solemnity, I have to things to post: one fun, one funny.

On Sunday evening, we had our new men's group, André's Brothers, over for Vespers and dinner.  It was a most enjoyable evening: good food and good fraternity.  Not to mention I put together my best looking St. Joseph's Table yet:

That was fun.  This is VERY funny:

Sorry the print's so small; you can see it full size here.  (Trust me: it's worth visiting the page!)

Sunday, March 19, 2017


   Third Sunday of Lent   A 

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.

As the snow was falling Tuesday evening (you remember that little dusting we got, right?), Fr. Scott and I settled in to watch a DVD—a documentary called, “The Hungry Heart.”  It’s about a small town like ours: St. Alban’s, Vermont, only about two hours east of here on the other side of Lake Champlain.  It tells the story of a doctor there and his efforts to help the many young people of his community who’ve fallen prey to an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.  (The DVD was lent to us by a local addictions counselor who said, “If you want to know what happening in Malone, watch this…”)

The most compelling part of the documentary for me was a string of clips of these young addicts talking about why they became addicted to drugs—not the specific details of how it came about, but what was going on inside of them.  Now, these are not “bad” kids, but most of them grew up in pretty tough situations: broken families; in and out of foster homes; deep poverty; unable to find work; parents who were themselves abusing drugs.  This difficult start to life left them feeling a great emptiness inside.  There was a hole, a hunger, a thirst, a deep longing, a gnawing ache, right in the middle of their being that left them feeling incomplete, and led them to question their self-worth and their reason for being alive.  When someone offered them drugs for the first time, those drugs did precisely for their spirits and souls what they are prescribed to do for our bodies: they didn’t actually eliminate the problem, but they did take away all of the pain.  Unfortunately, these young people didn’t realize they were only adding to their troubles as they hid from the hurt.

While I listened to them, one after the other, saying almost exactly the same thing, my eyes started to tear up.  I wanted to jump right through the TV screen and say, “That emptiness you’re feeling?  I know exactly where it comes from…and I know what will fill it up!”

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.

Do you remember the first reading from a couple of Sundays ago?  It involved Adam and Eve, a cunning serpent and some forbidden fruit.  It was the story of the Original Sin—one with which we’re all too familiar, since we’ve all been dealing with its sad consequences ever since.  But have you ever wondered what life was like for Adam and Eve before that incident at the tree?  Theologians call that earlier state of affairs, when everything was still working as intended, “Original Holiness” or “Original Justice.”  In one place, the book of Genesis describes it a bit more poetically, implying that, in the cool of the evening, Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden (cf. 3:8).  Just imagine, a late day stroll, hand-in-hand with God in Paradise!   Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  But that’s exactly what we were made for.  God created us to be in such an intimate friendship with him.  We were built for relationship, for union, for communion with God.  Which is why Original Sin deals such a deep blow to our original design.  When our relationship, our communion, with God was broken by sin, we were left with a hunger, a thirst, an ache, a big empty hole.

We see this in the Samaritan woman who speaks to Jesus at Jacob’s well.  She’s startled that Jesus knows her so well: “You have had five husbands, and the man you’re with now is not you husband.”  It kind of makes you wonder if it’s really water she was after, having spotted a handsome, single man sitting all alone in the bright sun by a watering hole…  (“Can I get you a drink?  Do you come here often?”)  This woman indeed has a deep, deep thirst, but she seems unable thus far to recognize it for what it truly is.  And so, in the words of the old Country song, she keeps “lookin’ fer luv in all the wrong places.”  They’ve only just met, but Jesus seems to already know her much better than all the other men in her life; in fact, he knows her perfectly, and seems to care for her anyway.  He’s waiting there, not considering how he might take advantage of her, but instead offering to quench her thirst.

So the woman runs off, and tells everybody she knows about this Jesus: “I just met the most amazing guy over at the well!”  “Oh,” they must have said, “we’ve heard about you ‘amazing guys’ before…”  “No,” she insists, “you have to trust me: this one is different from all the rest.  He’s able to see things in me—good, true, and beautiful things in me—that I haven’t been able to see in myself.  I think he’s the one I’ve been looking for all along.  Actually, I think he’s the one we’ve all been waiting for.”

Did you catch the little detail of what she did when she ran off?  She left her water jug behind.  She won’t be needing it any longer.

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.

Have you ever noticed this hole inside yourself?  Since the Fall, it’s there in every one of us—no matter how hard we try to ignore it, or wish it away, or attempt to fill it up.  Some of the cheap counterfeits for living water are rather obvious, such as drugs or alcohol, promiscuity or pornography.  They’re all just different ways we take a crack at numbing the pain.  But there are other distractions which are a bit more subtle—or, at least, more socially acceptable.  Some of us just throw ourselves into our work: “If I just work harder!  If I just keep myself busy!”  For some of us, it’s sports—whether playing them or watching them: “As long as I’m in the game, nothing else matters!”  And then there are all those glowing screens in our lives—television, internet, cell phone, video games—whisking us away from the real world to a virtual reality.

My friends, we need to get in touch with this deep longing.  We need to acknowledge and repent of all the false gods with which we’ve attempted to satisfy our true need.  We need to recognize there’s only One who can fill the hole, who can satisfy the hunger, who can quench the thirst—and that’s the One who made us, and the One for whom we were made.  He fits in that empty space perfectly: square peg in a square hole.

Did you catch that the Samaritan woman isn’t the only one who comes to Jacob’s well thirsty that day?  So does Jesus. “Give me a drink,” he says to her.  We thirst out of deep need: something crucial’s missing for which we were made.  But God thirsts, too.  God’s thirst is not out of need; God is in need of nothing, which is a big part of what makes him God!  But God thirsts out of deep love: desiring that relationship, that communion with us, which was his plan for you and me from the very beginning. 

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.

This Lent, let us reckon with the thirst we find within ourselves, and the many sinful ways in which we try to satisfy it, and instead go looking for love in all the right places.  In so doing, we’ll begin to satisfy the thirst we meet in Jesus, that thirst found in the very heart of God: for our faith, for our love, for our souls.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


   Second Sunday of Lent   A 

It’s not just a cliché to say that most men are too proud to ask for directions.  A few years back, a British insurance company did a study which determined that the average male motorist in England drives an extra 276 miles every year simply because he won’t ask for directions.  The same study also said that four out of ten men had told their passengers they knew exactly where they were going…even when they didn’t.

Where are we going?

That would certainly have been a legitimate question for Abram to ask when God called him to leave his homeland and head out.  And it would have been perfectly reasonable for Peter, James, and John to ask the same when Jesus led them up the mountain to be transfigured before them.  (Actually, it’d have been fair for them to ask it again when they were coming back down, too.)

Where are we going?

There are certainly answers to that question which we can plot on a map .  God was taking Abram to the land of Canaan—the Promised Land, which would be the inheritance of his descendants.  And that mountaintop excursion for the three Apostles was but a consoling detour on their way to the holy city, Jerusalem, where Jesus would soon suffer and die before rising from the dead.

Where are we going?

It’s a question that also runs a good bit deeper, doesn’t it?  It strikes at the very heart of human existence.  What’s the meaning, the purpose, of life?  What’s it all about?  Why are we here?  Where are we going?

For us Christians, the deceptively simple answer is, “We’re going to heaven.”  God has made us for a life beyond this one, and desire that we live with him forever.  But while we hold out hope for heaven, that destination can seem impossibly far off.

St. Paul puts it another way when he writes to Timothy: “God called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design.”  Like Abram, like the Apostles, the Lord is leading us somewhere, and it’s his path, his plan, his map that will get us there.  God is calling us to be holy.

We each have a specific vocation from God: to be a priest, a deacon, or a religious; to be a husband, a wife, to be a parent, or single.  And within these vocations, our calling is even more unique: to be part of this family, to serve in this parish, to accomplish this work.  But there is also a general vocation, a common calling, which belongs to all who follow Jesus, and that’s the call to holiness, the call to be saints. 

“What?  Me?  A saint?”  We can’t forget that “saint” literally means, “a holy person,” and that the only people in heaven are, by definition, saints.  And we all want to get to heaven, don’t we?

Fr. Murphy walks into a bar, and starts asking each man he meets, “Do you want to go to heaven?”  One-by-one, as they say yes, he has them line up along the wall.  The priest comes up to Eddie O’Toole and asks him as well, “Eddie, do you want to go to heaven?”  And Eddie answers, “No, Father.”  “I can believe this!” shouts the priest.  “You mean to tell me that, when you die, you don’t want to go to heaven?”  “Oh,” said Eddie, “yes, when I die…but I thought you were putting together a group to go right now.”

To be called to holiness is to be headed for heaven.  They’re one and the same.

Where are we going?

Life often feels like we’re on a great big treadmill, doesn’t it?  There’s lots of movement, lots of activity, we’re worn right out…but there’s no real progress, we’re not getting anywhere, we’re not moving ahead.  We can’t really expect to travel forward if we aren’t fixed on our destination.  How do we supposed to arrive somewhere if we’re not clear about where we’re going?  Lent is an opportunity given us each year to set things on the right track again.

What’s true for individuals is also true for the Church.  For the past year, we’ve been in a process of pastoral planning, not only here in the parish but across the Diocese, that’s meant to reckon with this question: Where are we going?  Sure—we can see it simply as a matter of dealing with some hard facts: that we have fewer priests and fewer people in the pews, which means we can no longer keep doing business as usual.  But we mustn’t miss the blessed opportunity that this situation presents: a chance to refocus our vision and our efforts as people of faith, asking not, “How do we want things to be?” but, “Where does God want us to go?”  If we can’t answer that fundamental question, then none of our practical conclusions make much difference at all.

Where are we going?

Some spiritual reading I was doing the other day served as a good reminder that all the duties of a priest—celebrating Mass and the Sacraments, preaching and teaching, caring for God’s people—is all about “leading them to sanctity.”  I was struck by that simple word, “leading.”  Leading implies that we’re going somewhere.  Most often, my ministry feels more like that of a caretaker, expected to preserve things the way I found them, to keep things going the way they’ve always been done before.  That, my friends, is a perfect recipe for just spinning our wheels.  Instead, the priest’s call is to be a leader: giving direction to a people on the move; keeping the Promised Land, the heavenly Jerusalem, in sight; constantly discerning, “Where ought we be going, and how do we get there?”

We—men and women, priests and parishioners—live at a time when we can’t afford to be too proud to ask directions from the Lord.  Asking God for direction isn’t a sign of weakness!  It’s a matter of putting our full trust in him…and that’s the only sure way forward.

St. John Vianney was headed on foot to his new parish in Ars, France, on a foggy February day.  Afraid he’d gotten lost, he asked a young boy for directions.  “You’ve shown me the way to Ars,” said the holy priest.  “Now I’ll show you the way to heaven.”

Where ARE we going?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Shark Bite

You may recall a homily back during Advent when I recounted to the children a strange dream Fr. Scott had and, as a result, one of the kids relayed in graphic detail how a shark could (and I quote) "bite your face off."  Well, some kind and generous (and good humored) parishioners just got back from a month in Florida, where they were inspired to buy a little gift to add to my hat collection:

Somehow, I thought you might enjoy that!  Of course, I won't be wearing it around the house, for fear of giving  Fr. Scott nightmares...

Risky Business

   First Sunday of Lent   A 

Q.  When is insurance first mentioned in the Bible?
A.  The day Adam and Eve realized they need more “coverage”!

(Sorry for such a bad joke…but most of the Adam and Eve jokes I could find were not appropriate to share in church.)

Was it all just a set up?  No, not the way Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent.  I mean the whole arrangement of having our first parents in the garden with the forbidden fruit in the first place.  Knowing what God knows—which includes the future in its fullness—were the first man and woman set up to fall?  Was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil nothing other than a trap? 

No, God didn’t set out to trap us.  (If that were in fact the case, who’d want to believe in a god like that?)  So why put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and give them this solitary rule?

When God made the human race in his own image and likeness, he invested us with many of his own divine characteristics.  Among them was freedom.  God created us with free will.  You see, God made the human race out of love.  And God made us for love: to experience his love, and to love him in return.  But love cannot be forced; to be true, it must be free.  I mean no offence when I say it, but your dog or your cat does not love you.  Sure, it wags its tail or rubs up against your leg…but that’s just because it knows who controls access to the food.  Animals live by their instincts, not free will.  And neither can a computer love you.  Robots may appear human, but they act according to their programming, not freedom.

God didn’t make us to be puppets, with him pulling all the strings.  If we were going to be able to love, we had to be free: free to choose to love God, to trust him, to obey him.  But that came with a huge risk: that we might choose the opposite.  God was more than willing to take the chance.  And so he gives Adam and Eve a single law—not to trip them up, but to give them the necessary space to exercise their freedom.  The forbidden fruit was intended to provide us with a way to prove our love for God—to choose against sin and for God.

We sadly know all too well how things went from there—not just because we've read the first pages of the Bible, but because we see this same story play out time and time again.

While we find the first man in a garden, this Sunday we encounter another man in the desert.  Both Adam and Jesus, in rather unique fashion, can call God their “father.”  And both are tempted by food—although in neither case is food the real focus of the temptation, but merely the bait employed by the evil one. 

Jesus faces temptation in the desert for much the same reason Adam and Eve did in Eden.  The devil is trying to sway him from his true mission and real identity—trying to get him to doubt God’s love and withhold his own.   If Jesus would fall to temptations to self-interest, it would break his bond of love with us, for he’s come on the most selfless of missions: not to be served (as he tells us elsewhere), but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28).  If Jesus would fall into disobedience of the divine will, it would break his bond of love with the Father, with whom the Son is perfectly one.

The responses of Adam and Jesus, however, couldn’t be any more different: by the disobedience of one man, we were made sinners, sharing his condemnation and subject to death; but by the obedience of the other, we are given the gift of righteousness, sharing in his victory and restored to life.

My prayers were answered last evening when I saw an insurance agent at Mass.  Since I started things out with insurance, I asked him, “If God were to come to you with his plan to create Adam and Eve, and knowing the great risks involved, would you have written him a policy?”  The guy’s response: “I’d have given them my coat”…providing a far more literal sort of needed “coverage” than I expected!

It was risky business, indeed, when God gave the human race free will.  Yet his concern wasn’t with liability, but with love.  God found it more than worth the risk.

In light of all this, and while it’s still so early in the season, now’s the right time to evaluate what we’ve chosen to do for Lent.  Whether we’re giving something up, or have chosen to do something extra, it’s worth considering: Is this going to help me learn how to use my freedom as God originally intended, to realign my will with his?  Is it providing me with a real way to prove my love?  That, after all, is really the whole point, isn’t it?

About forty days from now, we’ll recall how the man we see in the desert today went to the Cross in perfect obedience and love—though sinless, accepting the death due to our transgressions.  But on the third day, we’ll find him walking about alive again—not by coincidence, in a garden, for his death and resurrection return us to paradise.

May our Lenten disciplines prepare us well to meet him there.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Me? Worry?

 Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

I met Margaret last evening at a little reception following the 4:00pm Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ogdensburg.   I had spotted her out in the pews earlier during the Mass.  She had the most lovely big, dark eyes, and beautiful curly, dark hair.   She was actually rather captivating.  Now, before you get too nervous, I need to add: Margaret’s not quite two years old….

When I was introduced to her, Margaret had a big cookie in her hands, and was happily nibbling bits of it from around the edge.  Her sippy cup was easily within reach—her reach, and that of her mother and grandparents, as well.  And when I last saw her, as we headed out of the Cathedral together, Margaret had been wrapped in her pretty, pink, polka dotted raincoat, with the hood up to protected her from the rain.

With food, drink, and clothing all taken care of, Margaret seemed to be without a care in the world…with one exception.  As the reception wore on, she began to venture farther and farther into the room, away from her family’s table.  But every 10-15 seconds, she’d turn back to look over her shoulder.   Margaret’s only worry was that she might wander out of her mother’s sight.

How is it that little children, whose needs are so great, manage to live without worry?  Because they have complete confidence that they will be cared for; they have prefect trust that they are loved.

As we continue our reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this Sunday, he repeatedly tells us not to worry: “Look at the birds of the air!  See the wildflowers of the field!  Do not worry and ask, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’”  At first glance, it might seem that Jesus is encouraging us to irresponsibility—to throw caution to the wind and neglect having any concern about the necessities of life.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!  In the first pages of the Bible, we’re told that, from the dawn of creation, we human beings have been given a stewardship over the good things of this world.  We are to cultivate and care for the earth, by means of which God provides for our every material need—with more than enough to go around.  In writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us that this stewardship extends to spiritual goods, as well.  For them all, we must one day give an accounting—not according to the opinions of our neighbors, but by the judgment of almighty God.

No, the opposite of worry is not irresponsibility.  Jesus isn’t counseling us to be careless, but carefree.  What he wants us to see is that the opposite if worry is faith.

Faith is a word that can have many dimensions.  Three levels of meaning come to mind for me today. 

We can say, “I believe in God,” and mean nothing more than, “I have faith that God exists.”  Most people on this planet have some sort of belief in a “higher power”—whether they believe in a god or gods or some impersonal force that animates the universe.  That’s not the level of faith to which Jesus is calling us.

We can say, “I believe in God,” and mean, “I have faith that the God revealed by Jesus Christ exists.”  This is the foundation of Christian faith: belief in the Most Blessed Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a personal God who is an eternal communion of mutual love; and that this divine love overflows for sinful mankind, and is most perfectly manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who is God-made-man.  But Jesus is calling us to a level of faith even deeper than that.

When we say, “I believe in God,” we need to be saying, “I don’t only believe that God is perfect, eternal love.  I believe that God loves ME—individually, particularly, and personally.  He knows me inside out, and has a plan for my life.  And I believe that to follow that plan, to obey his will, is my only path to real happiness—in this life and the next.  And that’s what God wants more than anything else: for me to be happy with him forever.” 

Jesus is calling us to just the sort of faith, the sort of trust, that I saw in Margaret.  As Isaiah relates it so powerfully, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?”  We know of no stronger human bond than that between mother and child…which is why it’s so shocking to ever read the story of a mother abandoning her baby on the steps of a hospital, orphanage, or church.  It should equally sadden and shock that the law of the land permits a mother to end the life of a little one growing within her.  “Even should she forget,” the Lord assures, “I will never forget you.”  It’s faith in that sort of promise that frees us of every worry.  We are to believe that we are constantly cared for, to trust that we are perfectly loved.

If you want to be free from every worry, then you’ll have to put your complete confidence in God—not just for the most part, but 100%.  The trick is, we oftentimes put our confidence in the good things God provides, rather than in God himself—or even mistakenly believe that we can provide them all on our own. 

Lent starts this Wednesday, and it’s a fairly common custom for folks to give up something for 40 days.  When we decide to give up something for Lent, it shouldn’t be something sinful…since we ought to give up our sins not only for a season, but for a lifetime.  No, during Lent the challenge is to give up something good, and do so in favor of something even better.  To practice such freely-chosen sacrifice and self-denial helps to refocus our faith and strengthen our will.  Lent is a perfect time to make sure our trust is where it rightly belongs.

May this Lent be a time that frees you from all worry.  Look to the birds of the air, the wildflowers in the field, to little children like Margaret, and learn to trust in the Lord’s love for you.

In God alone will your soul be at rest.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

In the Eye

 Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

“An eye for an eye…and soon the whole world is blind.”  Gandhi is reported to have said that.  A comic gave it a new twist: “An eye for an eye, and soon…we all look like pirates!”

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.”  We find this law—mentioned by Jesus in the gospel—three times in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:21).  It sounds quite brutal, even barbaric, doesn’t it?  And yet, it was rather a significant improvement over what came before. 

You see, when we’ve been hurt—or a family member, or our property, or our rights have been hurt—we fallen, sinful human beings have a rather strong tendency to seek revenge: “You injured my eye?  Now I’ll make sure your whole family’s goes blind!”  I wish I could say we’d left this inclination behind back in the Stone Age…but you and I both know that it’s there every day in the morning paper and on the evening news.

The law of “an eye for eye” is actually a way for containing the violence of revenge.  It limits a person to simply “getting even.”   It does not permit you to inflict any more harm than was first inflicted on you…and so it represents a step in the right direction.

Since this was clearly the law on the books at the time of Jesus, did that mean there were a lot of one-eyed, toothless Jews running around?  Of course not!  Actually, nowhere in the Bible do we find any evidence of this law having ever been strictly enforced.   In fact, we know that in Jesus’ day the law was interpreted in favor of paying a ransom: “You knocked my tooth out!  By rights, the law allows me to now knock out one of yours…but that won’t do either you or me any good, will it?  So what’s that tooth really worth to you?  Pay me a ransom for it, and you’ll get to keep it, and we’ll call things even.”  It might only be a small step, but it’s still another step in the right direction!

You begin to see here the long-range lesson plan by which God teaches the slow-learning human race, moving us from revenge, to limited retribution, to a ransom as restitution.  Now, in Jesus, God seeks to make one last big stride forward—all the way to reconciliation: “Offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”

Scientists tell us that we human beings, like every other animal on the planet, have two basic instincts when we’re under attack: fight or flight.  You can put up your dukes, or turn tail and run.  Those two options make perfect sense in the law of the wild, where it’s all about survival of the fittest.  But we humans are different than all the other animals.  Our lives are not governed by instinct, but free will.  For us, fight and flight both result in certain loss: flee, and you cede the higher grown to the one who does wrong; fight, meeting violence with further violence, and you lower yourself to the same level as the wicked.

Jesus teaches us a third way.  Turning the other cheek can sound rather passive and naïve, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  Jesus is certainly not saying that Christians ought to be the world’s doormat.  To stand your ground when slapped reveals an incredible strength, forcing your oppressor to look you in the eye as you essentially say, “You will not treat me this way.”  The red handprint on your face also forces an enemy to confront his own injustice.  It’s a tactic aimed not so much at conquering your foe, as it is as opening her to conversion.  You put up a counterintuitive sort of resistance—one that challenges the other to repent.  Evil can only intensify when met with further evil, but it is completely disarmed when it comes face-to-face with goodness.  Jesus teaches us to feely renounce our legal right to retaliate in favor of a higher purpose—of something far stronger than vengeance or hate or even death: of the all-surpassing power of love.

The gospel teaching we hear this Sunday is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  It’s the fourth Sunday in a row that we hear a portion of it.  It’s no accident that Jesus is speaking to us on a mountain.  Where did Moses receive the law from God?  On a mountain.  This Sunday and last, as Jesus provides a rather authoritative commentary on that law, his mountainside perch is a subtle hint at who he really is.  But there’s more to it than that.  To ascend a mountain, you must gradually climb higher and higher.  Jesus is calling us to continually greater heights in our relationship with God. 

This Sunday, Jesus is asking us, “What’s your standard in moral action?  How do make ethical decisions?”  Is your standard one of fairness?  (That’s “an eye for an eye.”)  That’s an OK place to start—but come higher.  Is your standard to be better than the next guy: “At least I’m a cut above those tax collectors and pagans!”  Come higher still.  Is your standard obedience to the commandments of God?  That’s the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  But for disciples of Jesus, that too must be surpassed…

In the Christian tradition, the sayings of Jesus we hear this Sunday and last—“You have heard it said…but I say to you…”—are known as “counsels of perfection.”  They are not substitutions or replacements for the law.  (Jesus assured us last Sunday that he hadn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.)  These “counsels of perfection” call us to yet another standard—to something even higher than the law.  The strict dictates of law provide an essential foundation, to be sure, but meeting them is a matter of minimal requirements.  Just imagine a couple trying to convince you they have the perfect marriage purely by the standard of the Ten Commandments: “We don’t lie to each other, or cheat on each other, or steal from each other.  Heck—we haven’t even killed each other yet!  Ours is clearly the ideal marriage!”  Doing no harm is pretty important in a relationship…but it’s only a start.   There is, of course, no law that says a husband much ever buy his wife flowers—not even on St. Valentine’s Day.  But if he never does anything so generous or tender, one could rightly begin to question if his love were growing cold.  Law requires the minimum; love calls us to always keep doing more.

For those who follow Jesus, who want to grow in their relationship with God, it’s not enough to keep the law; we’re to become more and more like the Lawgiver.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points to the summit saying, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  He repeats what we first heard in Leviticus: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”  To truly love one’s enemies—is there any possible way to be more like God than that?  The old saying is spot on: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

How are you doing at being perfect?  We strive for it, and keep on trying…but we also keep on faltering and failing.  Did Jesus ask us to do the impossible?  No.  It’s that we go about it wrong.  We mistakenly think we can become perfect all on our own.  St. Paul uncovers the secret: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God?  That God himself—the Holy Spirit—dwells within you?  And where God dwells—his temple—is holy.”  God alone is perfect, and it’s only his presence within that can perfect us.  To be holy, to be perfect, is never a personal human achievement, but always a gift, a God-given grace.  Our part is to be open to receive it.

We sang in the words of the psalm, “The Lord is kind and merciful.”  My friends, let us become more and more like the Lord: treating our friends with human kindness, and treating our every enemy with divine mercy.