Sunday, September 18, 2016

Troubleshooters

In a letter, the author J. R. R. Tolkien once pointedly asked, "What punishments of God are not gifts?"

 Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

It’s hard to believe today is already our eighth annual Holy Harvest Festival, and that I’ve been privileged to be your pastor for seven of them.  Each year I think it gets to be more fun, and one of the most enjoyable parts for me is working with the great team of folks who pull the event together, mostly behind the scenes.  They are so generous in sharing many their talents and abilities.  Everybody knows his or her job, and does it well, making the whole thing come off very smoothly.

Any time you’re working on a project and assembling a team, there’s a certain character you hope will be on board: the Troubleshooter, the Problem-Solver, Mr. or Mrs. Fix-It.  You know the type of person I mean: who can repair whatever is broken, make due with whatever is missing, achieve success not matter what happens to go wrong.  In fact, such a person often doesn’t only get things back to normal; they actually make things better than before.  Where most people can only see crisis, they see possibilities and opportunity.

What separates these people from the rest?  Are they smarter than others?  Do they work harder?  From my observations, what distinguishes them most is that they aren’t afraid of failure.  They’re willing to take risks, to try something they haven’t done before—or which nobody’s done before.  They can rise to the occasion because they aren’t crippled by fear.

This is a big election year.  (Did you know that?!?)  In our first reading, St. Paul encourages us to pray for our leaders and those in positions of authority over us.  It’s a very well timed reminder as we come up on Election Day.   I’d like you to consider for a minute just how much time, energy, and money goes into trying to get a single person elected.  Now I want you to consider what things would be like if the same level of effort when into getting somebody, not into office for a few years, but into heaven for eternity.  What a different world we’d live in!


This is also the time of year when we bring in the harvest from fields and gardens.   Here in this part of the North Country, with the influx of so many Amish families in recent years, it’s easy for us to compare modern farming techniques with the old fashioned way.  How much more efficient our work, and bountiful it’s rewards, when we use the advances of technology and innovation.  Now imagine if we took the same approach to harvesting not only food for our tables but to harvesting souls for God!

This Sunday, Jesus tells us the unusual parable of the dishonest steward.  Having stolen from his boss, he then encourages others to do likewise in order to secure his own future.  It can sound strange when Jesus advises us to be like him.  But the Lord isn’t encouraging us to imitate his dishonesty; he’s encouraging us to imitate his enterprise, his gumption, his good sense about getting things done.  If only we all put that much thought and effort into doing and being good!

I can be pretty sure that most of you have heard of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus or the “Little Flower”—a French nun who lived at the end of the nineteenth century.  About twenty years ago, she was declared a Doctor of the Church—which means we really out to take the things she said and wrote pretty seriously.  St Thérèse once said, “Everything is grace.”  In other words, everything life dishes out to us—good things or bad, sickness or health, riches or poverty, success of failure—can rightly be seen as a blessing coming from God, if we know how to see things correctly. 

Now, it could be rather easy to write her off, assuming that her life in the convent must have been quite a comfortable one.  Of course she’d say, “Everything is grace!”  But that ignores the actual facts of her life.  You see, her mother died when she was only four years old.  Later on, her father spiraled into mental illness.  The convent she entered wasn’t exactly a healthy one, and living, working, praying, and recreating with the same difficult women, day in and day out, was a heavy cross.  She suffered from tuberculosis the last year-and-a-half of her life, while also undergoing some serious doubts in her faith, before dying a painful death at the tender age of twenty-four.  St. Thérèse did not have it easy it all, and yet she honestly said, “Everything is grace.”  That’s because she was one of those Troubleshooters, those Problem-Solvers, a Mrs. Fix-It (or, better yet, a Sr. Fix-It).  Faced with any crisis, she saw a God-given opportunity: a blessed chance to grow in holiness.

Like her, we are called to have faith like that.

Jesus makes it clear this Sunday that we are stewards, entrusted with the true wealth of God’s kingdom.  With an eye on this world, we are to make use of our many blessings for the good of others, especially the poor.  But with an eye on the world to come, we are to exploit every grace that comes our way to bring people closer to God, both now and forever.  Let us dedicate all that we have and all that we are to gathering in such a holy harvest of souls!
  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Catching Up

A couple of relatively recent Adirondack adventures have slipped by in the last few weeks without me sharing them with you.

August 18, my sister and I took our nice and nephew on a hike up St. Regis Mountain.  I'd climbed it last fall, but this was first for the other three.  The fire tower was literally under reconstruction when I was there the last time, but now we could climb to the top and enjoy the view.





August 27-28 was the rare occasion (for me, anyway) of a weekend overnight in the woods.  My goal had been to spend the night in the lean to on Wilson Pond (not too far out of Blue Mountain Lake), but a mile or so down that trail I discovered a couple of other folks who had the very same idea.  I turned around and hiked back to the car, deciding I would try for one of the lean tos on Tirrell Pond, along the Northville-Placid Trail.  Though I had my tent in my pack (better safe than sorry), I was glad to find the O'Neill lean to waiting, clean and empty, just for me.  Crossing the somewhat daunting "drawbridge" to get to the peninsula, I got my first view of the pond and discovered an awfully nice spot in the woods with a superb little beach--perfect for reading in the sun.





Crazy Things

 Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 


On this same weekend the last two years, I’ve taken part in the Adirondack Canoe Classic, a 90-mile race on the water through the heart of the Adirondacks.  For various reasons, my paddling partner and I chose not to sign up this year.  As soon as the roster of competitors came out, folks noticed that the “Paddling Padres” weren’t on the list.  I received an email from Tom and Theresa—he was on her crew these last two years while she paddled with others—saying that they were disappointed they wouldn’t see us in the race.  When I offered Mass on Saturday evening in the campground, they were at the heart of my tiny impromptu congregation.  But there was a change in their plans, too.  Tom wrote in an email:

Here’s a little more about this year’s race.  My wife has paddled twice, both in a three-person canoe with young, strong paddlers.  This year she was without a partner but very set on doing the race.  So I have volunteered to do it with her….  Why would I do such a thing?  Because out 50th wedding anniversary is 9/10/16!  And that’s the present she wanted most.

I can say from firsthand experience: paddling a canoe for 90 miles over three days is a pretty crazy thing to do!  But love makes you do crazy things.  And so I was very happy to head off to the campground last evening, to offer Mass for Tom and Theresa and their crew, and to give these two rather tired and sore paddlers a special blessing on their anniversary.


This Sunday, we get a three-for-one special in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  By the very names we give to these stories, you can tell which characters hold our attention.  But I’m not sure there was much need for Jesus to tell tales that would help us understand the experience of being lost and in need of rescue.  We know all-too-well what it’s like to get off track, to lose our way, and to end up far from home.

Instead, I think that the figures Jesus actually wants to catch our eye are the shepherd of the flock, the woman sweeping her house, and the father waiting for his son’s return.  And they all do some pretty crazy things, right?  The shepherd leaves 99 sheep unprotected to go off and save a single stray.  That wasn’t exactly a prudent move.  Most of us would prefer to cut our losses.  The woman, after finding a small coin—think a penny or a nickel—invites her friends and neighbors over for a party.  Won’t she end up spending rather more money than she recovered?  Protecting our possessions or wealth will move us to action sometimes, but only so far.  And the same is true of our pride.  It’s wounded pride that causes the older son to make a stink after his brother’s return, but if anybody should be upset, it’s the father.  His younger boy has brought incredible shame on the entire family.  And yet, instead of facing a locked door or a lecture, the prodigal son is welcomed back with open arms.

More than anything else can, love makes you do some crazy things. 

While we can clearly see ourselves in the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, it’s in the good shepherd, in the diligent woman, and in the merciful father that Jesus wants us to see God.  And no one is more crazy-in-love with you than God!  That’s the very heart of the Gospel—not just these three stories, but the entire message announced by Jesus Christ: that God so loved the world that he’d go to the extreme, sending his Son from heaven to earth, taking on human flesh, living among us, dying on a Cross, and rising from the dead, so as to save us from our sins and gain for us eternal life.  He’s already proved it: there’s nothing God wouldn’t do out of love for you!

Yes, loving somebody makes a person do crazy things.  And knowing that we are loved can make us do crazy things, too.  I certainly see that in Tom and Theresa, who are spending their anniversary paddling a canoe.  I see it in the generosity of our region’s Catholics to the Bishop’s Fund appeal, which raises more than a million dollars every year to support the work of the Church in the North Country.  We all saw it 15 years ago today, when one of the worst days in our nation’s history brought out the very best in so many people.  And we see it—we taste it—in every Mass, when Christ Jesus, who came into the world to save sinners, renews his one, perfect sacrifice.

Love can make you do some pretty crazy things.  

And no one is more madly in love with you than God.
    

Sunday, September 4, 2016

On a Mission

A beautiful prayer by the Church's newest Saint:
O God, 
we believe you are here.
We adore you and love you with our whole heart and soul
because you are most worthy of all our love.
We desire to love you as the blessed do in heaven.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being utterly,
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through us, and be so in us,
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus! 
St. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1987)               

 Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 
Dr. George Lombardi is an infectious disease specialist who lives and works in New York City.  There’s a story he loves to tell: the unusual story of how he came to meet Mother Teresa. 

It was a Saturday afternoon in late September 1989.  He was in his early thirties, just beginning his practice—in fact, he was unpacking some boxes in his new office when the phone rang.  (His phone never rang: he didn’t have any patients yet.)  An unidentified woman on the other end of the line began to ask him questions about his studies, research, and expertise.  In time, the woman made clear what she was after: Mother Teresa was very sick, and she was hoping Dr. Lombardi would consult on her case.  Next thing he knew, he had spent an hour talking with a medical team in India, listening to the symptoms and giving the best advice he could.  When the conversation was over, he went back to unpacking boxes, assuming his unexpected involvement in the whole affair was now over.

But before long, the phone rang again.  It was the same woman as before.  She told him the Indian doctors had been quite impressed.  She also told him they hoped he would come to Calcutta right away.  Dr. Lombardi told her that would be impossible: he had just come across his passport in one of the boxes, and it had expired three months before.  She told him that would not be problem.  She would pick him up first thing in the morning, and he’d be flying out on the Concord.

She picked him up early the next day and first took him to the New York passport office, where—on a Sunday morning—a State Department official took his picture and, just fifteen minutes later, handed him a brand new passport.  She next took him to the Indian consulate, where—again, on a Sunday—the entire staff, in full dress uniform, formed an honor guard as he was given his visa to enter India.  He was then whisked away to the airport in an old, beat up station wagon with five nuns—five of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity—and crammed together into the back seat.

When Dr. Lombardi arrived at JFK, the five nuns spilled out of the back and began to hand him notes and letters and small packages, asking him to give them to the sisters at the convent in Calcutta.  He tucked them in his luggage, and began to make his way through the airport.  The five nuns followed, hot on his heals.  He asked the woman who’d been arranging all of this why the nuns were following him—in fact, why they’d come to the airport in the first place, since they could have simply had her hand him their deliveries.   “There’s something we haven’t told you yet,” she said.  “Our plan was for you to fly out on the Concord.  But we were unable to get a ticket, so you’re flying standby.   These five nuns are going to approach passengers as they wait in line at the gate, begging one of them to give his or her seat to you.”

The doctor stood back to watch the sister’s scheme unfold.  They first approached a serious New York businessman and began to plead their case.  The man looked at the sisters, then looked at the doctor, and then looked at the sisters again before saying no, he couldn’t help them.  They then approached a second passenger and made an even more impassioned plea.  Within a few moments, he melted, realizing that resistance was futile.  He handed the nuns his boarding pass, they took it to the ticket counter, and Dr. Lombardi was on his way to India.

When he landed in Calcutta, he was immediately taken to the hospital, where he consulted with the team of doctors.  He was next brought in to meet the patient.  Mother Teresa lay on her hospital bed, quite weak as her condition worsened.  She beckoned Dr. Lombardi to come closer.   He thought that she might give him a blessing.  She began by thanking him for coming all that way, and then gave him a rather stern warning.  “I will not leave Calcutta until I am well,” she told him, making it clear she’d never consent to going anywhere else for treatment.  “And you must never embarrass my Indian doctors.  Do not question or correct them in public.  You must cause them no shame.  I need them.  They run my hospitals and clinics.  They care for my poor.”

With Dr. Lombardi’s assistance, Mother Teresa began to get better a few days later—and lived for eight more years.  And to this day he counts it a great blessing that this unexpected encounter brought him into contact with the Missionaries of Charity and their work among the poorest of the poor around the world.


It’s hard to imagine a more determined group of people than those five nuns in the airport.  They were on a mission.  They were single minded about their purpose.  They had a clear goal and nothing, nobody, was going to stand in their way.   Where did they learn such a thing?  From Mother Teresa.  Even as she lay critically ill on her bed, she too was clear about her goal, her purpose, her plan.  She was on a mission and nothing—not even death itself—would deter her.  And where did Mother Teresa learn such a thing?  Well, from her Master and Lord: from Jesus and his Gospel.

What is your purpose in life?  What is your mission?  Where is your life headed?  What is your ultimate goal?  Those are legitimate, essential questions, even if they are questions we do not often ask.  It would seem that the answers would vary a great deal, depending on whom you asked and when you asked them.  If you asked an athlete, he’d tell you his goal was to be the best, to win.  If you asked a student, she’d say her goal was to graduate.  Ask graduates, and they’d tell you their goal was to get a job.  And on and on it goes: to get a promotion, to make good money, to get married, to raise a family, to retire, to travel, to spend time with the grandkids, to stay in good health.  But no one of those is the final goal, right?  There’s always something next.  In fact, they’re not actually goals at all, but many steps along life’s journey.

What is your final goal?  What is your ultimate, hoped-for destination?  Heaven, of course!  And who are the ones who have made it to heaven?  The saints.

The only people who are in heaven with God and his angels are saints.  We don’t often speak of it in those terms, but that’s how a saint is defined: someone who has made it to heaven or is on the way there.  We get thrown off a bit by the Saints with a capital “S.”  As the Church does for Mother Teresa today, it is longstanding Catholic tradition to canonize particular men and women who have made it: Christians of certain renown upon whose prayers we can rely and whose example we ought to imitate.  But these capital “S” saints aren’t the only ones.  It’s what we’re all called to be!  And the work of becoming a saint isn’t something that begins at death; it begins here and now.  While she was still alive, many considered Mother Teresa to be a “living saint.”  When once asked what she thought about this, she answered, “You or we shouldn’t be surprised if you see Jesus in me because it’s an obligation for all of us to be holy.”


That’s why Jesus speaks in such radical terms in this Sunday’s gospel: “Unless you hate mother and father, your family and even your own life, you cannot be my disciple!  Unless you relinquish all your worldly possessions, you cannot be my disciple!”   That language seems rather extreme—and it is.  That’s because the stakes are so high, the goal to which we’re called is so lofty.  Jesus is driving home the point that he himself is our ultimate goal.  The true purpose for which we were made is to love Jesus and make him loved by others, to be like Jesus now that we might be with him forever.  In different circumstances and many varied ways, our common goal is to be saints; our shared mission is to help others become saints.   That’s why Jesus states so strongly that nobody and nothing can be of higher value to us than him—why no relationship, no possession of ours, can be allowed to come between us and him.  And if any good thing becomes such an idol or an obstacle, we must drop it immediately and instead pick up our cross to follow after him.

Mother Teresa used to say, “If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’  I will continually be absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”  As on earth, so also in eternity: her mission will not be deterred.  And that selfsame mission goes on, because it is yours and mine, too.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!

  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Through the Narrow Gate

I have no homily to post for you this Sunday. My grandfather, Leo Giroux, died on Friday afternoon at age 92. (Fr. Scott agreed to preach here--and cover a bunch of other things, too--to allow me time to be with my family.) My "Pepère" had a long life full of many blessings; may the Lord grant him rest from all his labors.



“Strive to enter through the narrow gate..."
Luke 13:24

Sunday, August 14, 2016

In the Kiln

Wednesday-Thursday provided an opportunity for campout, so I headed to familiar spot: Cooper Kiln Pond.  It's was only sort of familiar: last time I was there, snow blew up my nose as I slept; this time, the thermometer on my car registered 90 degrees when I got back to it.  It was just the right spot--in the breezy shade of the lean-to right by the pond--to spend a couple of the dog days of summer...






Catching Fire

After the anticipated Mass, a young girl (8-9 years old) came up to speak with me.  She often has questions about my homilies, so I know she listens carefully.  She said, "Father Joe, when you were talking today, I heard a lady behind me say, 'There are kids in this church!'"  I tried to explain to her that she must have thought the story I told wasn't appropriate for children.  This young lady seemed much more taken aback by the woman's commentary than by the content of my preaching.  

"Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you...." 

 Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

It was late July, 1941, and a prisoner was discovered missing at the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz.  The usual price must be paid: when one is thought to have escaped, ten others must die.  The prisoners are all lined up outside, and ten are chosen, one-by-one.   One of the picked men begins to call out for mercy: “But I have a wife and children!”  The ears of the Nazi officers are deaf to his pleas… but they strike another man in the crowd.  In violation of every protocol, a prisoner steps foreword and says, “I volunteer to take his place.  He is young, while I am old.  He is a husband and father; I have no family.”  The man should have been shot on the spot for breaking rank, but the stunned officers turned toward him instead and asked, “Who are you?”  He did not respond with the number that had been tattooed on his wrist.  Nor did he answer with his own name.  He simply said, “I am a priest.”

The Nazi officers took him up on his offer.  He joined the other nine.  They were stripped naked, and thrown into an underground cell—not unlike the cistern into which Jeremiah had been thrown for proclaiming the truth thousands of years before.  The other prisoners knew what to expect in the days ahead, since some had been condemned to a slow, agonizing death by starvation before.  But this time was different.  Instead of anguished cries, they heard singing—religious hymns—and praying.  In the face of their certain death, the priest was giving the men hope—and the rest of the camp with them. 

He was the last of the ten to remain alive.  The Nazis grew impatient, and so on August 14, 1941—75 years ago today—they entered the underground cell with a needle full of carbolic acid, injecting it into his weak but willing arm.  The poison burned as it made its way through his veins and stopped his heart.  His lifeless body was then put in the ovens to be incinerated, as were millions of others.

That priest was a Polish Franciscan named Maximilian Kolbe.  Today, he is recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint—one in a vast and glowing cloud of witnesses whose example teaches us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as we persevere in running the race.  Given the manner in which he died, there’s a divine irony in the fact that he had once said, “The most deadly poison of our time is indifference.”  There was nothing indifferent about Maximilian Kolbe.  And the great ardor, the passion, the zeal with which he burned for Christ and our Blessed Lady, for the Church and all she teaches, was something that rubbed off on those who met him.  It rubbed off on his fellow friars who supported his often seemingly impossible plans.  It rubbed off on those who read the international periodical he published.  It rubbed off on the people of Japan to whom he went as a missionary.   It rubbed off on the husband and father for whom he offered his life in exchange, on his nine other cellmates condemned to death, and on the rest of the inmates in the Auschwitz who found hope in his heroic courage and love.  It rubs off still on men and women today, who are inspired by his life and helped through his prayers.

Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Spontaneous combustion is a rather rare occurrence.  In general, something only catches fire when it comes into close and sustained contact with something else that’s already burning.  And what’s true of material things is also true of hearts and souls.  We catch the fire of faith by getting and staying in touch with those who are already aflame.

Immediately going back to school after my ordination to the priesthood allowed me to have some rather unique experiences.   Among them: I was able to spend my first Holy Week and Easter as a priest in the Holy Land.  On Holy Saturday, a few of us went to the visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the sacred sites of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Each year, the Orthodox Churches await the coming of the “holy fire” in that building, believing that the Holy Spirit himself brings a flame from heaven that is then dispersed throughout the world—the light of the risen Christ.  We were curious to see how this tradition unfolded.  Hundreds and hundreds of people filled the ancient church before the doors were closed and locked.  (No outside flame was getting in.)  The patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox Churches entered Christ’s empty tomb together.  And then the crowd waited and prayed.  Eventually, an arm reached out from the Holy Sepulcher with a flame, a commotion ensued, and soon all the candles and torches and lanterns people had brought with them were blazing.  The flame was waving everywhere you turned—people being rather reckless because they believe the “holy fire” cannot burn you.  (I wasn’t so sure!)  It was an amazing (and somewhat terrifying) experience.  As we were waiting for the coming of the “holy fire,” we met an Orthodox priest who spoke some English.  Wanting the inside track, we asked him, “Tell us—where does the ‘holy fire’ really come from?”  He smiled and said, “It comes from the friction of putting three patriarchs in such close quarters together…”


My friends, the fire Jesus came to set on the earth is one that is passed from one person to another.  I recall our rector in the seminary once saying, “You can’t expect to find fire in the pews if there’s ice in the pulpit.”  Those are challenging words every preacher ought to recall!  But every person who steps into the pulpit first comes out from the pews.  We must all burn with that fire of love and mercy that warms the heart, with the fiery light of truth that shows the right way, with the purifying fire that transforms us and the whole world.  As we see so clearly in the example of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we catch the flame by getting close to those who are already ablaze with the Spirit of holiness—and then we must pass it on!

“The most deadly poison of our time is indifference.”  But there is an antidote and a cure for this poison of indifference.  Let us fulfill the burning desire of the heart of Jesus!  Let us all catch fire!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Bottomless

 Ninteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

A “bottomless pit.”  We use that expression to describe certain seemingly insatiable things.  If you buy a house or a car that needs constant repair or improvement, you might call it your “money pit.”  Or if there’s a teenaged boy in the family, you might think his stomach is a bottomless pit.  Fr. Scott is no longer a teenager, but his appetite still acts like one.  I often cook supper and think, “Good—we can get another meal or two out of this…,” but we almost never do.


Deep inside of each and every one of us, there is a longing—a hunger, a thirst, an emptiness—that seems insatiable.  And so we try everything we can think of to fill it: food, drink, drugs, sex, or other sensual pleasures; wealth or material possessions; power, prestige, or popularity; entertainment, sports, or other distractions.  But there will never be enough food, never be enough money, always be one more game to watch.  Even all the fried bread dough at the Franklin County Fair couldn’t satisfy this hunger!  It’s a longing nothing in this world can satisfy.  Such a bottomless pit can only be filled by something that’s inexhaustible; such an infinite desire seeks after something that’s infinite.  Actually, not something infinite, but Someone…

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.…  Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.  For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”

This deep longing within us is for God, but so very often, we attempt to satisfy it with something other than God.

This past week, I came across an article entitled, “Why DoesMass Last an Hour?”  Wearing heavy vestments on these recent hot summer days, even I have been tempted to ask that question!  People are so very busy these days.  It’s hard to find the time.  Why does Mass have to last for about an hour?  Often—if people’s facial expressions or body language are any indication—Mass feels even longer than that!  Sunday Mass can seem repetitive at the least, maybe even irrelevant.  But the author of that article was sneaky, because the question he really wanted to explore was, “Why does Mass have to last only an hour?”  If—as the Church teaches—the Eucharist is “the source and summit” of the entire Christian life; if it’s meant to be the beginning and end of everything we Catholics do and are; if this is when and where heaven meets earth; if the Mass is the most direct contact we can have with God in this life—then how could a single hour possibly be enough?

The average American spends five hours each day watching TV.  If you’re into video games, it’s an average of six hours a week spent on that pastime.  We manage to find two hours for a movie, or three hours for a football game.  Even in this country where we’re famously out-of-shape, the average American spends two hours a week on exercise.  So why is it so hard to set aside one hour out of 168 each week?  How many times before Mass begins have I heard, “Father, keep it short!”  How many of you breathed a sigh of relief when you realized I was using the shorter forms of the readings today?  Why is it so many Catholics get to Mass late, leave it early, or find it so easy to excuse themselves from coming altogether? 


Why is there all of this struggle?  Because we’ve gotten so used to trying to fill this deep hole within us with so many other things!  My friends, it’s high time we rediscover what’s really going on at Mass, that we recognize Who is truly present here among us.  We need to regain our taste for the only One who can ever satisfy our deepest cravings.  We need to move beyond looking at our attendance at Mass as the fulfillment of a religious obligation, and see it as something we can’t really live without.  This one hour is crammed with eternity!  The small, white host, and the little gold cup of the chalice—they accomplish the impossible: they contain the Infinite God!

I like to tease Fr. Scott that, one of these days, his metabolism is going to catch up with him—he’s going to find the bottom of that pit.  But the deep hunger, the deep longing that God planted inside you and me—that’s not ever going away.

Jesus is standing at the door of our hearts and knocks.  He’s put on his apron, has a place for us at his table, and is prepared to serve us—to fill us with every good thing.  It falls to you and me to be always ready to welcome and receive him.
  

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Do Not Use


After the first Mass this morning, a parishioner asked, "Who was that priest we prayed for among the deceased?"  If was Fr. Jacques Hamel, the elderly French priest who was killed in his parish church by ISIS terrorists last Tuesday.  Given the horrific circumstances of his death, I figured our prayers could help.  Even more, I was encouraged by what I heard on the news this morning: that, all across France, Muslim men and women were attending Mass at Catholic Churches as a sign of solidarity.  I couldn't help but think that I was seeing this folktale unfold in real life...

 Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

There’s an African folktale about a young man who married a woman whose brother was blind.  Wanting to get to known his brother-in-law better, he invited him to go hunting.  “Since I cannot see,” he answered, “I will certainly need your help, but—yes—I will go hunting.”  As the two are walking together through the bush, the young man is amazed at the blind man’s knowledge of the noises of the wild.  By their songs he correctly identifies every bird—and even notes their movements, based on the sounds of their wings.

When they reached their destination, the young man set two traps.   He set his own trap in a well-hidden location, such that no bird would ever suspect danger.  But he set his brother-in-law’s trap out in the wide open—making no effort to conceal it, since it was hot, he was tired, and the blind man wouldn’t know the difference.

The two men returned to the spot the next day.  Before reaching it, the blind man said, “We have caught something!  I can hear birds in our traps!”  The young man went first to his own, well-hidden trap, and within it found a small, brown bird.  But when he came to the blind man’s trap, he found a large, beautiful bird, adorned with all the colors of the rainbow.  He knew the bird would make a fine present for his wife, who would be impressed by its colorful feathers, so he put this bird in his own pouch and handed the small, brown bird to the blind man to place in his.


On their journey home, the two men rested in the shade of a large tree, talking about many things.  The young man soon recognized that the blind man was very wise, and so he said, “I would like to ask you a question that has troubled me all of my life.  Why do men fight with one another?”  The blind man paused for just a moment before replying, “Men fight because they do to each other what you have just done to me.”  The young man was ashamed and stunned into silence.  Not knowing what to say, he got up, took the brightly colored bird out of his pouch, and gave it to his brother-in-law. 

Taking the bird, the blind man asked, “Do you have any other questions for me?”  “Yes,” said the young man, “I have one more.  How do men become friends after they have fought?”  The blind man smiled and said, “They do what you just have done.  That is how men become friends again.”  (Based on, “A Blind Man Catches a Bird,” as written by Alexander McCall Smith and retold by Gioia Timpanelli)

This African folktale, like the words of Scripture we hear addressed to us this Sunday, seem to come to us from a far simpler time and place…and yet they speak so very poignantly to our supposedly “advanced” society.  “Guard against all greed,” Jesus says, “for life does not consist in possessions.”  As much—if not more—than ever, ours is a time that loves things and uses people, rather than the other way around.

We see it in our desire for cheap consumer goods—food, clothes, technology—without giving much thought to the laborers who provide them, the conditions under which they work, or how they’re being compensated.  We see it in the widespread use and acceptance of pornography, contraception, and abortion—almost without question, which reduce other people to commodities or inconveniences.  We see it in the degradation of the natural environment, focused more on how we want to live today rather than if our children will be able to live tomorrow.  We even see it the way an 85-year-old French priest had his throat cut on Tuesday as he offered daily Mass, in the name of promoting a radical ideology.

When God created this immense and beautiful universe, when he set the human race in and over it, God did so with a particular order and plan built right into nature: that things are there to be used, and people are there to be loved.  He didn’t intend his creation to be a vast moneymaking machine; he intended it to be a vast saint-making machine.  The essential trajectory of our lives, then, isn’t meant to be along the road to success; it’s to be along the path to holiness, the path to heaven—which is the only sure path to happiness, both now and forever.

God has created things for us to use responsibly, and people for us to love deeply, not the other way around.

In an age that’s constantly telling us—in ways both obvious and subtle—to look out after our own interests, to build bigger barns, to store up earthly treasures for ourselves, let us make sure that what we’re pursuing are true riches: those that matter to God.
  

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Your Lips to God's Ear

At the early Mass this morning, as I reached the end of the second paragraph, a young girl in the front pew yelled out, "Well, what about 5?!?"

 Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

Having grown up on a farm, I have memories of going with my dad to auctions—cattle auctions, equipment auctions.  I love the back-and-forth of the auctioneer and the bidders.  It’s like a game or dance—each one anticipating the next move of the other.  Of course, they find themselves at cross-purposes: the auctioneer trying to get the prices higher while the bidders work hard to keep them low.

I’ve always thought of an auction when reading this Sunday’s first reading: Abraham negotiating with the Lord over just how many righteous people it will take to keep Sodom from being destroyed.  “How about 50?  Would that be enough?  Or 45—can I get 45?  How about 30?  20?  Will you give me 10?”


But reading that passage again as I prepared for Mass this Sunday, a new and different image came to mind: the audacity of a little child trying to “negotiate” something with his father.  “Dad, you know I’d love an ice cream cone.  Can I have one if I’m good all day?  Of course, all day is a long time…so how about if I’m good this morning?  Or for the next hour?  Would 10 minutes be enough?”  I can see the child moving in as he makes his case: closer and closer, eventually climbing into his father’s arm’s, wrapping his arms around dad’s strong neck, and then leaning in to whisper into his ear.  The boy’s got one thing on his mind: getting that ice cream cone!  But what does dad have to gain?  Ten minutes of good behavior—maybe?  What the father gets is what he wants the most: to have his son draw closer and closer to him.

Jesus gives his disciples—gives us—a lesson in persevering prayer.  He tells us to keep on asking, to keep on seeking, to keep on knocking past midnight, if we must.  He tells us to ask the Father each day for our daily bread.  But why must we be so persistent?  Is it because God is stubborn?  Or hard of hearing?  Is heaven so far from earth that our messages rarely make it through?

Most of us approach prayer prepared to bargain.  We pray as if it’s a matter of us getting through to God; in fact, prayer is really all about God getting through to us.  We focus on what it is we hope to get; God is focused on to whom he can get close.  We can act as if prayer is a retail transaction, but to God, it’s all about deepening a relationship.

Our patron, St. André Bessette, understood this well.  Br. André used to say, “When you say to God, ‘Our Father,’ he has his ear right next to your lips.”  We move in close to seal the deal—to win what we’re after—and God does the same: he longs to make us ever more his own.

How about you?  Do you pray to God as the Great Auctioneer in there Sky, hoping to convince him that you're making an offer he can't refuse?  Or do you pray like a child who puts full trust in his loving Father?


If you read a bit further into Genesis, you discover that Abraham did not actually win the auction: there weren't 10 innocent souls to be found, and Sodom was destroyed for its many sins.  (The righteous were lead to safety before the destruction began.)  But Abraham did come to know the Lord much better through their back-and-forth exchange.  He discovered that God is just—not willing to sweep away the innocent right along with the guilty.  And he discovered that God is also merciful—giving one opportunity after another to flee from sin, to be converted from death-dealing to live-giving ways.  And Abraham discovered that God comes ever-so-close to his children—close enough to hear and respond to their every call for help.

When you pray, give up on trying to bargain with God.  Instead, draw close to him, and he’ll draw close to you (James 4:8).  Never tire of whispering into your Father’s ear.