Sunday, February 11, 2018

Outside In

On the way out of early Mass this morning a woman told me, "Father, your beard is looking very biblical today."  I'm not sure how she meant it, but I took it as a compliment...

   Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

How about that first reading today?  All the talk about scabs and blotches and pustules is so appealing—especially first thing in the morning.  If you read the entire chapter from Leviticus, it goes into great and gory detail about how to distinguish one nasty sore from another—and it was the temple priests’ job to check them all out.  As we were doing the dishes after supper last night, I told Fr. Scott, “I’m awfully glad I’m a New Testament priest and not an Old Testament one!”  Gross!

But as bad as it would have been to be an Old Testament priest, it would have been far worse to be an Old Testament leper.

Wasn’t it bad enough to be terribly sick?  But all kinds of regulations are laid out for lepers: they must dress in torn clothes; they must live outside of town; wherever they go, they must cry out, “Unclean!  Unclean!”  Most intriguing to me—no surprise—is the part about muffling one’s beard.  Back in the day (and even still in the Middle East), a man’s beard was considered his glory.  (I rather like that idea!)  In times of mourning or distress, a man would cover over his glorious beard with the edge of his robe as a sign of sorrow.

All these restrictions can sound pretty harsh.  In fact, we might think they’re downright primitive or backward.  Why do they seem to hate sick people so much?  If only they had antibiotics and good dermatologists! 

But we mustn’t forget that these rules are found in the Scriptures.  They are part of the law given by God.  Three considerations can help us understand why this is a bit better.

(1) True leprosy—although exceptionally rare and quite treatable today—was a highly contagious, very debilitating, and oftentimes fatal disease.  Kind of like not shaking hands at the Sign of Peace when you have a cold, minimizing contact with lepers was a matter of public health.

(2) These laws are not so much medical as they are spiritual.  To be ritually “unclean” meant—above all—that one was forbidden to enter the temple.  (Many other things besides blotches on your skin could render a person unclean for a period of time.)  But to be unclean was not a moral matter—as if to say a person were sinful or wicked.  You see, the temple in Jerusalem represented paradise; it was a symbolic effort to recreate Eden—the way God originally meant things to be.  Thus anything that spoke of death—such as leprosy, bleeding, contact with corpse—was to be kept outside, since death was never part of God’s plan for us.  The distinction between clean and unclean was meant to serve as a reminder that this world isn’t as it should be.

(3) Of course, we’re tempted to think, “But we’re so much more civilized and enlightened than that.  That sort of thing would never happen today.”  But remember when AIDS first came on the scene—and all the irrational fears and the stigma?  What about the immigrants and refugees who, if given legal entry, often end up segregated into slums and ghettos?  I also think of registered sex offenders who have served their sentences and are trying to reform their lives.  Given all the legal restrictions concerning where they can live and what they can do, many of them end up in housing that looks an awful lot like the leper colonies of old.  Yes, we must take prudent precautions to keep people safe…but maybe we’re not so very different after all.

“A leper came to Jesus…”  Right away, in the first words of this Sunday’s gospel, we should take note that this leper has come into town and isn’t crying out, “Unclean!  Unclean!”  He isn’t doing what he’s supposed to.  He’s breaking the rules.  Is he reckless?  Or courageous?  I’d guess that he was desperate.

And kneeling down, what does the leper ask of Jesus?  “Make me clean.”  Notice that he doesn’t ask to be cured, but to be cleansed.  He wants to be restored to a place in the community: to be reunited with others, reunited in worship; to be in touch with God, in touch with God’s people.

And how does Jesus respond?  He “stretched out his hand [and] touched him.”  Jesus breaks the rules, too—but not just to be a rebel.  He could have healed the man by simply saying the word.  So why touch him?  Imagine how long it’s been since anyone has touched this man.  He’d been banished, forbidden all human contact.  In touching him, Jesus not only heals his sores, but meets his human desire, his deep human need to be accepted, to belong.  According to the old law, to touch a leper was to make oneself unclean.  Jesus turns that right around.  His actions say that those who stay in touch with him don’t have to be worried about being tainted.  Those who are touched by Jesus are made clean, and they then bring the cleanness, the purity of God to the world they touch.

There are plenty of outcasts in the world today, whether they’ve been pushed out through their own fault, through someone else’s fault, or through the fault or no one whatsoever.  There are plenty of folks who feel like outsiders: “I’m good for nothing.   I’m not worthy.  If they only knew how I really am.  Could anybody love me?”  And there are some we have cut off:  “They’re too rich/too poor.  They’re a different color/speak a different language.  They lead a different lifestyle.”  We keep our distance.  We put up barriers.  And sometimes, we even justify this on religious grounds: “I’m just going stay all safe and snug here in my little Catholic bubble and not be contaminated by the evils of the world.”

Jesus came to unite us.  (It’s the devil that divides.)  Jesus came to bring together the scattered children of God—to bring us into communion with himself and with each other.  So as members of the Body of Christ, we are to continue his work.  Remember in the first pages of the Bible, at the end of each day of creation, God looks over what he has made and calls it good?  There’s only thing that God sees and pronounces not good: after creating Adam God declares, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  Coming together as one: that’s how the world was always meant to be!  Strengthening our bonds of community, reaching out to those on the margins—that’s what we’re called to do.

But it’s risky business.

The leper in the gospel quickly changes his tune.  He didn’t cry out, “Unclean!  Unclean!” like he was supposed to, but—despite Jesus’ clear warning—he starts announcing to anybody who will listen, “Look!  I’m clean!  I’m clean!”  And what’s the consequence for Jesus?  “It was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.  He remained outside in deserted places.”  Those circumstances should sound familiar.  Jesus is now like the leper was before: marginalized, pushed out.  In freeing that man from his isolation, Jesus takes it upon himself.

Are we willing to take that same risk?

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.  Your forehead won’t be marked with the sore of leprosy (please God—I hope not!), but it will be marked with a smudge of ashes.  And there’s a good chance that others—coworkers or classmates, family members or friends—may notice at mealtime that you’re fasting and abstaining from meat.  You’ll be rather clearly marked as a Catholic for all to see.  Now you don’t need me to tell you that what the Catholic Church stands for flies in the face of much that’s promoted by contemporary culture. 

Like the marks of leprosy, your fasting, your abstinence, your ashes will be a reminder of death: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  They’ll be a reminder that this world isn’t as it should be—a reminder that much of it is unclean and in need of intense purification.  But the world doesn’t like to be reminded of that.  And so some people might misunderstand you.  Some people might question you.  Some people might mock you.  Some people might reject you.  But know that if take that risk, that if you do find yourself pushed out, that that’s precisely where you’ll find Jesus: on the outside, in deserted places.

I’m really glad I’m not an Old Testament priest—and not just because of all those pustules!  I’m glad because, as a New Testament priest, time and time again I get to bring people to Jesus, and to see him touch them, and to see their souls cleansed, and to see their deep wounds healed, and to see them reunited with God and with his people.  But that’s not a duty or a privilege reserved to the clergy; it’s the right and the responsibility of every one of us here.  What Jesus has done for you and for me, we are called to go forth to do for others.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”  So out to the margins and gather in the outcast.  And make a real effort to work on relationships right here within our parish community.  And take a chance on living your faith for all to see, even if it means you might get the cold shoulder.  Do it all for God’s glory!  That’s why Jesus brings us together as one: to give ever-greater glory to God.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Tell Me Why

   Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I’ll have to ask my mother to check my memory, but I seem to recall her telling me that one of my first and favorite words as a young child was, “Why?”  I’d ask that question about everything, and as a follow up to each answer: “Why? Why? Why?”  Of course, the eventual response was, “Because I said so, that’s why!”

Our first reading this Sunday is taken from the Book of Job.  It’s not exactly the most uplifting story in the Bible.  You’ve got to love how it wraps up:
            …I shall not see happiness again.
            The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.
Thanks be to God?  We’re supposed to be grateful for that unhappy ending?

The Book of Job is more than 40 chapters of “ugh.”  The poor guy can’t catch a break.  First, all his sheep are struck by lightening.  Then thieves steal all his camels.  Then all his children a killed during dinner when the house blows down in a windstorm.  And then Job’s covered with boils from head to toe.

This tale of woe is quite a downer, to say the least.  It can leave us asking, “Why?”  Why is this book even in the Bible?  It’s certainly not a feel-good story.

The Book of Job wrestles with a couple of perennial questions.  (1) Can human beings love God for his own sake (and not just to get something out of the relationship)? That’s certainly an idea worth exploring, but we’ll leave that one aside for another time.  (2) Why?  Why is there suffering in the world?  Why do bad things happen to good people?

Several “friends” (we’ll use the term loosely) come (so they say) to “comfort” Job in his anguish.  But their message is far from consoling: “Surely you must have done something to deserve this!  Why don’t you man up and accept responsibility?”  They believe that suffering is a matter of divine punishment.  Our reading today is part of Job’s response to one of these so-called friends.

Job himself wonders why all this has happened: “Maybe God is upset with me for some unknown reason.  Maybe the Lord’s fickle, or unreliable.”

In the end, God himself speaks up.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  In typical Jewish fashion, God answers a question with a question:  “Who are you to ask?  Who are you to question me?  My ways are not your ways.”

The mystery of suffering forces us to reckon with the fact that God’s will doesn’t bend to mine; I, rather, must bend to the will of God.

Why?  Why is there suffering in the world?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  We don’t know!  The Lord’s message to Job and to us is essentially:  “You’re just going to have to trust me.”

That’s where the Old Testament leaves us.  But things are rather different after Jesus.  That’s because, in Jesus, God himself comes to suffer.  In effect, he’s saying, “Let me show you, once and for all, that suffering will not defeat me.”  The New Testament may not answer our repeated question, “Why?” but when it comes to suffering, Jesus does show us how.

In the gospel last Sunday, we found Jesus driving out an evil spirit.  Today, he’s curing the sick.  In a few short chapters, he’ll calm a calm storm at sea.  Since the original sin of Adam and Eve, our world’s been a mess.  This is no longer paradise!  But how does Jesus respond to this mess—to the demons, the disease, the disasters he encounters?  He rebukes them all, and they obey.  Christ has come to heal this broken world.  Even now, at the very start of his ministry, we see that for sickness and sorrow, for the devil and death, it’s the beginning of the end.

Two Sundays back, we heard how Jesus called four fishermen—Simon and Andrew, James and John—to be his first disciples.  This Sunday’s passage comes just a few verses later.  And where do we already find Jesus?  Already at the bedside of Simon’s mother-in-law!  Jesus clearly takes a keen and immediate interest in the personal lives of those who follow him.  “So tell me about your family.  Would you mind if I came over to the house?  What’s that about your wife’s mother?”  Jesus gets right into the nitty-gritty of their lives.

Does Jesus cure everyone who is sick?  No.  There were still sick people in Galilee.  There are still sick people today.  His mission wasn’t one of medical miracles.  Physical healing wasn’t the reason he came.  But when he does cure the sick, and the manner in which he does it, makes something crucial very clear.  As the French writer and thinker Paul Claudel put it about one hundred years ago, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it.  He came to fill it with his presence.”  God is right there with us when we’re hurting.  We do not face any of our trials alone.

Jesus has had a particularly busy day.  He begins by preaching in the synagogue.  Then he drives out the unclean spirit.  Next he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.  After she prepares a quick bite for him, it’s back to work: more sick people, more possessed people, until after the sun goes down.  And this was all on the Sabbath—supposedly a day of rest!

What does Jesus do early on Sunday morning?  He goes off to a deserted place.  It’s not hard to imagine why: he’s got to be tired.  It’s hardly a stretch to think he needed a little time and space for himself.  But his disciples find him, and what do they say?  “Everybody’s looking for you.  The people—they need you!”

Isn’t that always the way?  You’ve had a tough day, or maybe a tough week, and all you want is a few minutes to yourself, to sit down in your comfy chair, to put your feet up…and the phone rings.  Or there’s a knock at the door.  Or someone’s calling for you from upstairs.  Someone needs our help.

How do we respond?

(Sigh!)  Sadly, all too often, we moan and groan, don’t we?  We drag our feet, as if something’s being taken away form us.  Our response is an unwilling one.   Whether we’re dealing with a minor inconvenience or a major crisis, we view it as one more thing to be endured; like Job’s sleepless night, we’re just waiting restlessly for it to be over.

Or, we can do like Jesus did.  We can get up and go.  We can say, “Yes,” to those who need us.  We can willingly submit to our troubles.  We can give of ourselves.

St. Paul gives us an example of this.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, just before the section we hear this Sunday, he tells us about what he’s freely given up for the sake of gospel.  For one, he’s given up a salary.  He has every right to financial support as a preacher and teacher, but he has decided to forgo it, so as not to be a burden on anyone.  He’s also given up having a wife and family.  “The other apostles might have ’em,” Paul says, “but not me!” 

Now, he doesn’t write this to be all proud and macho.  (“See how tough I am?  See how holy I am?”)  Paul shares this because this is the way of Jesus: this is how Jesus lived; this is how Jesus died.  It’s the way of self-sacrifice: to willingly lay down my life and join my sufferings to those of Christ.  Sure, life is hard—sometimes really hard—no question about it.  But as God proved beyond all shadow of doubt on that first Easter morning: suffering does not have the final say.  That’s the very heart of the gospel! 

And so, no matter what may come, I can put all my trust, all my hope, in the Lord.  God’s got a plan, even if I can understand very little or nothing of it.

St. Bernadette was the young French girl who saw the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in February of 1858.  She was no stranger to suffering.  She grew up poor and sickly.  When she first spoke of the apparitions, she was harassed and ridiculed.  Later fleeing the curious crowds who wished to see and touch her, she became a cloistered nun and died in the convent after a long illness at the young age of 35.  But Bernadette didn’t waste her time asking, “Why?  Why?  Why?”  Instead, she turned to Jesus to better learn how.

In one of her notebooks, Bernadette wrote this heartfelt prayer:
            I beg you, O my God…
            not that you spare me from suffering,
            but that you do not abandon me in the midst of it;
            that you teach me to search for you in suffering
            as my only comforter;
            that you sustain my faith, strengthen my hope,
            and purify my love in suffering;
            that you give me the grace to recognize your hand in suffering
            and to desire no other comforter but you.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
On that Sabbath in Capernaum, Jesus came to Simon’s mother-in-law on her sickbed.  Today, in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus comes to us here.  He is present now, with all the same power and love as then.  Let us open our hearts to him.  Let us expose to him our wounds.  Let us give him our suffering and sorrows, our weakness and brokenness.  Jesus wants to heal us.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Authority Issues

   Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
Who are some of the authority figures you encounter in your ordinary, day-to-day life?  Police, judges, teachers, doctors, parents, spouse—the list could go on and on.  From where do they get their authority?  Some from the law or an election, some from their superior knowledge, some from a “higher power.”  But none of them have authority on their own; it’s borrowed, if you will, from another.

Such was the case among the rabbis and scribes of Jesus’ day.  When preaching and teaching, they would always make an appeal to the authorities.  “My mentor, Rabbi Frank, used to say…”  “Rabbi Bob, at the next synagogue over, has always taught…”  Of course, beyond citing other scholars, they would also invoke the authority of the Sacred Scriptures—the Law and the Prophets—with especial reverence for the words of Moses.  The people in the synagogue that Sabbath were astonished because “he taught them as one having authority.”  We don’t know the details of that particular sermon, but on a number of other occasions we hear Jesus say, “You have heard it said…but I say to you….”  His authority was all his own.

When someone speaks with that sort of authority, you sit up straight and pay attention.

Does Jesus still have that same authority?  Yes.  Is he still speaking?  Yes.  But are we paying attention?

When was the last time you heard the voice of the Lord?  (You might be thinking, “I’d better be careful how I answer this question or I’ll end up in therapy!”)

There are some usual, dependable, recognized places where we can always hear the Lord speaking. 

One of them is through the Scriptures.  We don’t believe that the Bible is just ink on a page, preserving dead words from the distant past; instead, we believe it is the living word of God, which still has plenty to say to you and me today.  That’s why, as a parish priest, one of the most distressing things I regularly see is people reading their bulletins during the first part of the Mass—preferring to browse the announcements rather than give their full attention to God as he’s speaking.  When God speaks, we should sit up straight and listen.

Another dependable place to hear the Lord’s voice is in the teaching of the Church.  The Church is not merely a human institution, but is in fact the Body of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Now, I’m not referring here to mere offhanded comments or the personal opinions of the clergy—whether it’s a deacon, a priest, a bishop, or even the pope.  But when the Church officially teaches on matters of faith and morals, she does so with an authority given her by Jesus Christ.  With Jesus’ own authority the Church applies what the Lord has said in the past to our lives today.  And so when the Church teaches, we ought to really pay attention.

Yet another place we can expect to regularly hear the voice of the Lord is in the lives and writings of the saints.  The friends of God, who have given flesh and blood to the words of Scripture and the teaching of the Church, are a loud and clear message to you and me of the holiness to which we have all been called.  Get to know the saints and you’ll come to recognize the sounds of God’s voice.

But God also can—and often does—speak to us in some unexpected, unusual ways.  Maybe it’s through the words of the book you’re reading or a song that comes over the radio; maybe it’s in conversation with a stranger or while gazing upon a sunset; maybe it’s in silence or in the sound of a baby’s cry (which is why I think we ought to let the children speak, even if it’s loudly and in the middle of the homily).

But we won’t ever hear the voice of the Lord if we aren’t listening for it.  And what we hear won’t matter a bit if we don’t take his authority seriously.

Who in that synagogue in Capernaum takes the authority of Jesus most seriously?  The demon!  The unclean spirit knows who Jesus really is and fully recognizes his absolute authority.  The spirit hates to do it, but he can’t resist.  For the forces of evil, this is a losing battle.  They must obey.

But we have a choice when we stand before Jesus, when we hear his word.  Jesus came to destroy the sway of the devil and his minions.  But us?  Jesus came to save us.  Yet we can only be saved if we’re willing: willing to acknowledge Jesus identity; willing to recognize his authority; willing to follow him; willing to obey.

Jesus is still speaking.  Listen carefully, and you’ll be amazed.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
Jesus is just as present to us here and now as he was on another Sabbath long ago in that synagogue in Capernaum—present to us today in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.  And Jesus is still speaking, Jesus is still teaching.  During these few moments of silence, let us still our hearts and minds so we can give our full attention to the voice of the Lord as he speaks to us again.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Have You Heard the News?

   Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The news these days often has you shaking you head, doesn’t it?  But sometimes, news has an even greater power: to make us drop everything and stop us in our tracks.

I think of the evening last July when I got a phone call telling me my family’s farm was on fire.  Within ten minutes I was in the car and heading fast for home.  And it only took me ten whole minutes because I needed some time to get my head wrapped around what I’d heard and to tell Fr. Scott I probably wouldn’t be back until very, very late.

But it’s not only bad news that can make you drop everything.  In 2015, not long after Pope John Paul II had died, I was in Washington visiting a priest friend who was studying there.  He was dropping me off to spend the afternoon at the Smithsonian as he headed off to class at Catholic University.  I literally had one foot already out of the car when we heard coming over the radio: “Breaking news from Rome—there’s white smoke at the Vatican!”

“Shut the door!” my friend shouted as he hit the gas.  “Where are we going?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “but we’ve got to find a television fast!”  We ended up at a bar (sounds like a joke doesn’t it?—“two priests walk into a bar…”), waiting for the good news of just who the Cardinals had elected as our new Pope.

In the gospel reading this Sunday, St. Mark tells us that Jesus came “proclaiming the gospel of God.”  But what does that word, “gospel,” mean?  And where does it come from?

Literally, the word “gospel” means “good news” or “glad tidings.”  In Greek—the language of the New Testament—the word is euangelion.  In Old English, that became good spiel, which then became godspell (remember that musical from the ’70’s?), and eventually gospel.

The word euangelion existed before Christians began to use it in relation to Jesus—and it didn’t point to just any ol’ happy message.  In the first century, it was specifically connected to good news in connection with the Roman emperor.  (Even way back then most of the news was political.)  If Caesar had a son, if an heir was born, that was shared throughout the empire as an euangelion, as good news.  When a new emperor ascended to the throne, it was an euangelion.  When the emperor won a military victory, it too was an euangelion.  And since Caesar couldn’t tweet his good news to the four corners of his vast realm, he sent our flesh-and-blood messengers known as “evangelists” to start spreading the news.

So consider how that word sounded when it was used by the first Christians.  Think back a month to Christmas.  What was the message of the angel?  “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy—euangelion—for all the people!”  This was an announcement that didn’t come from Rome, but straight from heaven.  And it hailed the birth, not of Caesar’s son, but of the Son of God.  Now that’s good news!

Then think a couple of months ahead to Easter.  The apostles—some of whom we begin to meet this Sunday—will go forth from Jerusalem to spread a joyful message—an euangelion: that this Son of God took upon himself what we deserved—he died for our sins on the Cross—and has risen from the dead.  The emperor may have had the power to take life, but Jesus had the power to give it anew.  Caesar might have been victorious on the battlefield, but Christ has conquered even greater enemies: no less than the devil, death, and hell.   Now that’s good news!

How ought we respond to such news from the Lord?

In our first reading, the prophet Jonah is sent to the city of Nineveh with a less-than-cheery announcement: “Forty days, and your city will be wiped out!”  What do the people do when they hear this news?  They stop in their tracks.  They drop everything.  They repent of their evil ways and their city is spared.

In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus encounters Simon and Andrew, James and John, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  He proclaims the gospel, the good news, to them, and how do they respond?  They drop their nets.  They walk away from their families.  They leave everything behind to follow Jesus.

Now, we can wonder about the motivation of these four men when they walk away so quickly from their boats.  Given how many times we hear about these fishermen coming in with empty nets, we could get the impression that they were poor and simple country bumpkins.  Following this wandering preacher surely would have seemed like a more interesting venture—and might even be their meal ticket.  Why, they didn’t have anything to loose!  But did you catch that detail at the end of the reading?  When the sons of Zebedee walk away, they leave their father in the boat  “along with the hired men.”  We’re talking about successful businessmen here.  Following Jesus would entail some real and serious sacrifice.

When was the last time you dropped everything for Jesus?  When was the last time you dropped anything for Jesus?

Maybe there’s a sin that has plagued you for far too long.  Is Jesus calling you to stop in your tracks and leave it behind, so it will no longer be an obstacle in your relationship with him?  Maybe what you’re called to drop isn’t something wicked, but something good.  As St. Paul reminds us, we Christians must relate to the things of this passing world in a very different way than do all the rest.  Is Jesus calling you to make some sacrifice—big or small—in order to follow him more closely than before?

Of course, if we’re going to be motivated to drop anything or everything, then we must be struck deeply by the good news.  Most of us have little trouble recognizing the gospel as good; but after two thousand years, we do struggle to receive it as news.  But let this sink in again: God became man for you; God died on a Cross for you; God rose from the dead for you.  Whoa!  Can anything really be more consistently newsworthy than that?  We mustn’t allow ourselves to ever take the gospel for granted.

Ask Jesus for the grace to hear his gospel again as if for the first time.  Let is stop you in your tracks.  Drop your nets, and follow him.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
Jesus is as really and truly present to us here and now as he was to Simon and Andrew, James and John, when walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  He’s really present to us in his precious Body and precious Blood—present before us in the tabernacle, present within us in Holy Communion.  He’s still announcing the gospel: that God is with us, that God loves us, that God will stop at nothing to save us.  And he’s still calling, now as then.  Ask the Lord in these few silent moments to open your eyes to recognize any sin from which you still need to repent—and to give you the strength to walk away from it.  Ask Jesus to make it clear if there’s any sacrifice he wants you to make for the sake of your relationship with him—and to give you the courage to drop your nets and follow.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

You Called?

   Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

It was just about 75 degrees colder when I left for the early Mass this morning than it was when I went out to get groceries on Friday afternoon.  Brrr!

But let’s talk about something other than the frosty weather for a few minutes…

Fifteen years or so ago, when I was still a recently ordained priest, I was appointed as an assistant vocations director.  That basically meant that Sr. Rose and I went around to the Catholic schools in the diocese to speak to the classes about vocations.  To be blunt: we were looking for new recruits!  And as we talked with the kids about our lives as a priest and a nun, we told the story of the call of young Samuel that we heard in our first reading today.  As a matter of fact, we’d have the students help us tell it by acting it out.  We’d dress up one boy as Samuel, another as Eli, the priest, and then one of the girls as Hannah, Samuel’s mother.  And then we’d try to convince the rest of the kids that we’d saved the most important role for them: to be the voice of God.  Whenever we gave the signal, they’d all whisper together, “Samuel…   Samuel…,” and then they’d giggle as Samuel got up and ran to Eli again and again and again.

This familiar story from the First Book of Samuel is frequently used to speak to both children and adults about vocations.  I want to take some time with you today to explore a bit of that story’s wider context so that we can see how it speaks to vocations in a broader, more fundamental sense that just about priests and nuns.

Let’s begin by considering why a young boy like Samuel is having a sleepover in the temple in the first place.  Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was the second wife of her husband.  His first wife bore him children, but Hannah had not.  While her husband did everything he could to make sure Hannah would know just how much he loved her, his first wife couldn’t resist rubbing Hannah’s nose in her barrenness. 

When the whole family made it’s annual trip together to worship at the temple, Hannah had reached the breaking point.  She went off by herself before the Lord to pray, and poured out her hurt and her shame with such passion that Eli, the priest, thought she was drunk.  In fact Eli—not exactly known for his stellar people skills, but more about that in a minute—told Hannah just as much and tried to shoo her out of the temple for making such a spectacle of herself.  But through her sobs and her tears, Hannah made a promise to the Lord: if he looked with favor on her sorrow and granted her a son, she’d give the boy over to the Lord’s service his whole life long.

Hannah headed home, and soon afterward she and her husband conceived.  (In fact, she’d go on to have five other children—three boys and two girls.  Now who’s taunting who?!?)  When the boy, Samuel, had been weaned, Hannah brought him to the temple to serve before the Lord, and she sang a hymn of praise to the faithful God who raises up the lowly.

At the temple, Samuel is under the direction of Eli, the priest.  When it comes to priests, Eli isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.  In fact, whenever we hear about him, he’s either sitting down or fast asleep—as he is in today’s reading.  This isn’t an indicator that he’s feeble or overworked; it’s the biblical way of telling us that he’s lazy and lax about his duties—literally “lying down on the job.”  A priest’s role was to stand before the Lord on behalf of the people, but Eli was always taking a seat.  His two sons were worse yet: not only slackers, but swindlers who took advantage of those who came to offer sacrifice and thus stealing from the Lord.

Between Hannah and Eli, we have Samuel: a key figure of the Old Testament who will go on to anoint Israel’s first kings.  Samuel is attentive and hard working.  In time, he will become quite expert in recognizing and responding to the voice of the Lord.  So where does this young man learn how to stand before the Lord?  Certainly not from Eli or his sons!  It’s not from the “professionally” religious, but from the example of his mother whose devout prayer was heard and who kept her promise to the Lord.

That big picture of the call of Samuel tells us something crucial about vocations!  While we focus a lot of time and attention on recruiting priests and nuns—and God knows, we need them!—we must not neglect those vocations which serve as their foundation.  I, for one, can attest that I wouldn’t be preaching to you here today if my parents and grandparents hadn’t heeded their own call from God in handing on the Catholic faith to me.

Our gospel reading this Sunday widens the circle a bit further yet.  We find John the Baptist pointing out his cousin, Jesus, to some of his own followers and friends: “Behold the Lamb of God!  This is the one I’ve been telling you about all along!”  So Andrew and a companion begin following Jesus.  And after spending only one afternoon with Jesus, what’s Andrew’s immediate reaction?  To go and get his brother, Simon: “Let me tell you about this guy I just met.  You have to come and meet him, too!”  As it is with mothers and fathers, so too is there a vocation for brothers and sisters and friends.

It should be noted that, like any call from God, these vocations are not insignificant, nor can we simply presume someone else will pick up the slack.  If Andrew hadn’t gone to get his brother, there’d have been no Peter, no Rock, no Pope, no Church as we know it.  And if Hannah hadn’t taught Samuel how to stand before the Lord, he would have never anointed King David, which means there would have been no Son of David, no Messiah, no Christ.  God still has plans to do great things, and—as much as we depend on him for everything—he’s also depending on us.

I invite you to ponder this Sunday: who taught you to stand before the Lord?  Clearly somebody did, and did it well, or you wouldn’t have ventured out to Mass when it’s 15 below!  Thank God today for their good example.

And then ponder: as a mother or father, brother or sister, friend or classmate or coworker, who in my life right now needs me to introduce them to Jesus?  Pray for those people, and ask for the courage to bring them to Christ.

As we stand before the Lord today, the Lord is still speaking.  Let’s make sure we, his servants, are still listening, still ready to do his will, still answering his call.

* * *

After Holy Communion:
We have indeed just beheld the Lamb of God in the Most Blessed Sacrament, just as really and truly as when John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to Andrew and the first Apostles.  And now as then, Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?”  In a few silent moments, as we remain with Jesus and Jesus remains with us—before us in the tabernacle and even within us in Holy Communion—let us consider that probing question.  We cannot begin to lead others to Jesus if we’re not clear ourselves about what we seek.  In your heart now, answer that question of Jesus: “What are you looking for?”

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Seekers Sought

   The Epiphany of the Lord   

Have you ever tried to size up a stranger from a distance?  When the police do it these days we call it “profiling”…but we all do it from time to time.  Someone catches your eye—maybe it’s mere curiosity, or maybe there’s a sudden romantic attraction—and you begin to look for clues, to read the signs, attempting to figure this person out.  You look at what he’s wearing, how she carries herself, and even begin asking questions of others, using a combination of observation and intuition to formulate an idea of just what sort of person he or she might be. 

Sometimes we read the signs rightly, but other times we get them all wrong.  You might assume the ring on her finger means she’s spoken for, and so decide not to approach and engage her in conversation…which means you’ll never find out that the ring is a keepsake from her grandmother that she pulled out of her jewelry box this morning.

There’s only one way to really get to know another person, and that is if the other person speaks and opens his or her mind and heart to you.  We may try our best to gain knowledge from the outside, but the inside must be revealed to us.  And when that person reveals him- or herself, then we must adjust or initial perceptions—confirming what we got right and correcting what we got wrong.

That little insight from everyday experience can shed some necessary light on the life of the soul.

We live at a time (although we’ve seen it before in history) when people want to divide spirituality from religion.  We’ve all heard it: “I’m spiritual, just not religious.”  There are any number of reasons for this.  Some people are just asserting their independence, and don’t wish to be considered a member of any particular faith.  Others believe it would be insensitive, or arrogant, or downright undemocratic, to make any specifically religious claim on knowledge of the absolute.  Some think that differing religions only serve to divide the human race and disturb the peace.  Others are convinced that all spiritual paths are equal and lead to the same conclusion.  Many claim they can encounter the divine just fine in their family, in their work, or out in nature, and so they don’t need any outside help or interference—thank you very much!

And so we end up with a lot of folks who are spiritual, but not exactly religious; who are comfortable with vague intuitions of the holy, with the basic, common wisdom shared among many traditions, but not with specific, definitive claims to the truth; who are seekers, but not quite believers.

The thing is, when we settle for spirituality alone, God becomes something for us to discover—as if the Almighty has gone and gotten himself lost, and it’s up to us to bring him out of hiding.  It makes us the active party, and God pretty passive.  Even more, it tends to make God a vague presence, a distant and disinterested power, an abstract force.  And such a God makes no concrete demands of us—and we rather like discovering a God on our own terms and based on our own expectations, which might even be able to manipulate.

The God of Christianity, however, is not like this at all.  The God of the Bible isn’t an abstract force, but living and personal.  The Lord isn’t standing far off, waiting for us to figure him out all on our own; rather, he has spoken to us, opening his heart and mind, revealing himself.  In fact, God is the seeker—pursuing man.  It’s earth that’s shrouded in darkness and clouds, and glorious light from heaven that dispels them—not the other way around.  It’s God self-revelation that gives order, focus, and direction to the vague notions and longings of the human spirit—both confirming what we got right and correcting what we got wrong.

The magi help us to see how this applies to each of our lives.  Who are these magi?  We don’t really know.  They’re likely from Babylon or Persia.  And they’re clearly star-gazers: a cross between astronomers and astrologers, who not only study and record the movements of the heavenly bodies, but who also attempt to find meaning in them.  In other words, they’re seekers—and they represent the spiritual seekers of all times and places.  But despite their great intelligence and keen intuition, they still don’t really know where they’re going as they follow that star…that is, until they come to the Holy Land and encounter the Jewish people.  By way of King Herod, they come in contact with the chief priests and scholars of Israel: the experts in God’s revelation.

The Israelites were a people specially chosen by God.  But while distinct and unique, they weren’t chosen for themselves, as if they were somehow better than everybody else; they were chosen for the sake of all people, of all seekers.  Israel is not just one nation among many, pursuing a spiritual path equal to all the rest.  To this particular people God has spoken his mind and opened his heart, gradually revealing himself, forming and preparing them for the crowning moment of his revelation: when he sends the Messiah, his Son.

Now the magi can find what they were always looking for!  It’s no longer a vague search, and ambiguous quest, but something very, very specific: in this town, in this house, resting on this young mother’s knee, is the One that all people always and everywhere seek.

We should learn all we can from science and philosophy and literature.  We should study the world’s great spiritual traditions to soak up their wisdom.  But we must also realize that this will never be enough—that such knowledge and insight must yield to something far deeper.  We Christians have become stewards of the mystery made known by revelation.  All spiritual seeking remains incomplete unless it draws us to the God of Israel, to that swaddled infant lying in a Bethlehem manger, who is himself God’s great Epiphany: the manifestation of his mercy in our human flesh, the revelation of his love for the whole world to see.

We thought we were seeking God.  It turns out we’re the ones being sought. 

In an age that so often settles for spirituality alone, we must not be afraid or ashamed to share our religious convictions.  Revelation is our inheritance as Christians, but it’s one that all people need.  Share what we believe and help the seekers of our day to find what they’ve been unknowingly looking for all along.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

All in the Family

   The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph   
I was Christmas shopping a few years ago when I came across one of those, you might say, “inspirational” signs in a department store: “Our family puts the FUN in dysFUNctional.”  I was rather tempted to buy it…but walked away.  When I was back in the same store a week later, they were all sold out.  I guess at least a few families have the same experience!

At Christmas, many of us spend a lot of time with family—with all the ups and downs that can entail.  And how very appropriate that is during this season when we focus so much of our attention on the manger, and there see the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  Over the holidays, families eat together and exchange gifts, all gathered together in one place.  But does sharing a meal, giving presents, or being under the same roof somehow make a group of distinct individuals into a family?  Of course not. 

The fact of the matter is that our Christmas festivities get their power and meaning from what happens the other 364 days of the year: from being there for one another; from looking after one another; from asking about each other; from supporting each other in difficult times; from celebrating with each other in happy times.  It’s only because we already care about one another, because we love one another, that it makes any sense at all for us to come together in the first place.

And the very same thing is true of our Church family.

The Church is a family.  We speak of our Holy Mother, the Church.  We refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  You even call me Father Joe.  That familiar language is intended to be so much more than a homey metaphor.  But it’s not enough that we happen to spend an hour in God’s house at the same time every Sunday to make those words a reality.

Although showing up is pretty essential, to be Catholic requires much more of us than regularly getting to Mass.  In fact, it’s what we do between Masses that helps to form us and keep us together as a true family of faith.  We have to get to know one another.   We have to care for each other—to be there for each other in good times and bad.  We have to love each other.

And this is where the dysfunction comes into our Church family.  Experience shows time and again that when Protestants become Catholic, it’s usually either because of doctrine or the sacraments: the Church’s teachings are so consistent, so comprehensive, so compelling, that they want to be a part of it, or they recognize the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and can’t stay away.   But we also see that when Catholics leave and become Protestant, it’s generally because they’re looking for a stronger experience of fellowship: their parish didn’t have an honest sense of community; they didn’t feel at home there; it didn’t feel like a real family.

Sure, we’re here right now to keep an obligation—but even more, we’re here to strengthen relationships.  That’s why taking a moment to greet one another before Mass begins—as we did this morning—is not a silly little exercise.  It’s also why racing out of Mass or heading home early is like leaving the dinner table without first being excused.  But there’s no magic program, no foolproof plan that can fix this dysfunction.  No one else can do it for you.  As in any family, being a family of faith is something we have to work at—each and every one of us.  Neglect it, take it for granted, and before long, it won’t be there for you any more.

I’ve been doing some reading recently on the life and ministry of priests.  A number of things I’ve read have pointed out that priests need to have an experience of community amongst themselves.  We were never meant to be “lone rangers.”  That’s important for our personal wellbeing—to have companions we know we can depend on.  But it’s also important for our pastoral ministry: if priests are going to be able to lead and form a parish community, then they need to have some first hand experience of community from the inside.  Community begets community; family begets family.

If that’s the case for the priest’s place in the parish, I’d say it’s much the same for the parish’s place in the wider world.  In our day and age, the family is threatened. Many would say that’s because we’ve gone and tampered with the very definition of what it means to be a family.  While that may be true, families have always come in a wide array of shapes and sizes.  (With apologies to my own parents and siblings: Have any of you ever met a “normal” family?)  For me, any concern about families these days being non-traditional is eclipsed by the fear that families may actually soon disappear altogether.

We don’t have any time to be a family any more.  Parents today are super busy with work (sometimes earning a salary just to pay someone else to look after their children).  And kids are super busy with the demands of school, sports, and countless other activities.  For many modern families, the only time they have together is in the car racing from one thing to the next.  Families are busy with many good things—it’s just they’re busy with too many good things.

And we’ve also allowed ourselves to accept some pretty cheap substitutes for family life.  Hours and hours every day are spent tending to our “social networks” and “online communities.”  Such connections can seem so much safer, so much more efficient, so much more convenient, than keeping in touch with our loved ones the old-fashioned way.  But you know these aren’t real relationships—only imitations—when you see family members, young and old, right next to each other…but never saying a word, their attention entirely given to tiny glowing screens.  Technology’s a helpful tool, but it’s also a huge temptation.

That’s why I worry that the family is an endangered species.  And that’s why the world we live in desperately needs parishes that are real families—that are authentic communities which allow people to experience human connection the way God intended it.  But “we can’t give what we ain’t got.”  And so there’s a great urgency for us as a Church family—specifically, as a parish family here at St. André’s—to get it right when it comes to loving one another as true brothers and sisters in Christ.

The sacred scriptures this Sunday remind us that the Lord promised Abraham many descendants.  But the promise was for more than a long bloodline; it was for an immense family of faith.  When God tells Abraham to go out and count the stars (for that is how numerous his children will be), we tend to overlook a rather crucial detail of the story: it was the middle of the day!  It’s not that God was asking Abraham to do something impossible—stargazing at noon; it’s that God was asking Abraham to trust him completely. 

And Abraham would be called to do that very thing again and again: when leaving his homeland; when awaiting a son with Sarah in their old age; when put to the test as he was asked to offer that same son in sacrifice.  That complete faith in God is what links all the spiritual children of Abraham.  It was that faith which united and guided Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as they journeyed to Bethlehem, then to Jerusalem, then to Egypt, and then to Nazareth.  It’s that faith which must bind us together here in Malone as one holy family.  We, the Church, are the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

As a parish family, we are called by God to give witness to genuine human connection.  But deep and lasting human connection is only possible because we are really and truly connected to the Lord.  Since the Word became flesh, since God became man, the Christmas mystery is at the heart of what it means to be a family.  As he appears in every Nativity scene, it’s only when we keep Jesus at the center that we can be who we were meant to be.

You don’t get to pick your family, of course.  It’s a gift you receive—and it’s one you can’t return or exchange.  So we might as well make the most of it!  Yes, our family of faith will always be dysfunctional.  And that’s because you and I are members of it: we’re sinners among so many others.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t find the fun in our dysfunction.  And it certainly doesn't excuse us from answering the call to be holy.

Like the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we now present ourselves before the Lord here in this temple.  We have come together again as God’s family in God’s house.  But let’s be sure we’re thinking and speaking and acting—and, above all, that we’re loving one another—as a true family of faith, not only on Sundays and at Christmas, but every day and all throughout the year.