Sunday, October 25, 2015

High Risk

   Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I’ve had nine years of higher education—
which means I’ve studied under a lot of different professors
and sat through a lot of different classes.
While I’ve learned a whole lot,
I don’t remember too many of those particular lectures.
But one that stands out rather clearly in my memory
is specifically about this Sunday’s gospel.
It was in Sr. Elena Bosetti’s course
on the synoptic gospels—on Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
And in examining the story of blind Bartimaeus,
she highlighted a small but crucial detail:
the way he throws aside his cloak in order to follow to Jesus.

Bartimaeus was a blind beggar,
which means this mantle was his only possession.
It was his covering to keep warm at night.
It was a defense against the insults or objects
that might be hurled at him by passersby.
In an age before tin cups,
it was also where he would collect any coins
that kindhearted strangers tossed his way.

“He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.”

Can you see what a big deal is contained in this small detail?
Bartimaeus is taking a huge risk
when he comes to stand before Jesus.
Compare him to the rich young man of two Sundays ago,
who walked away from Jesus sad because he had many possessions;
it’s an enormous gamble for this blind beggar
to throw aside the only possession he has.
Compare him to the brothers, James and John, last Sunday,
of whom Jesus asks the very same question:
“What do you want me to do for you?”;
while the sons of Zebedee try to secure future seats of power,
Bartimaeus jumps to his feet
and asks for the sight that will allow him to follow—come what may.
And compare him to what Jesus himself is about to do,
for just turn the page in Mark’s gospel, and it’s Palm Sunday,
when many are throwing down their cloaks
as Jesus enters the gates of Jerusalem;
God’s about to put everything on the line,
to take the biggest risk of them all—
which will also see the biggest pay-off—
in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

Most of us think of the Christian religion
as a refuge of safety and security:
a sure source of comfort in a troubled world,
of peace and joy amidst so much sorrow.
No doubt, that’s why folks react so strongly
whenever change comes to the Church—
whether it’s a change in church practice
or the closing of a church building.
“But we’ve always gone there!
We’ve always done it that way!”

Bartimaeus—with Sr. Elena’s assistance—
has helped me to see that the truth of the matter
is actually quite the opposite:
being a disciple of Jesus Christ is inherently risky business.

Now, I’m not naturally a risk-taker.
As a little kid, you might have easily mistaken me for Linus,
because I carried a blue security blanket with me
almost everywhere I went.
And while I was a summer camp counselor,
I distinctly remember saying that I prefer my adventures
to occur “in a carefully controlled environment.”
Even the modest investments I’ve made looking ahead to retirement
(assuming, of course, that I’ll ever be able to retire)
have all been rather careful, conservative ones.
But things have changed a bit in the last few years.
You know that, two years ago, I went out
on a 10-day, 120-mile hike through the heart of the Adirondacks.
And this September and last I took part in a 90-mile canoe race.
In between those events,
I’ve done quite a bit of camping in the mountains:
in fact, I’ve slept out-of-doors a least one night for the last 22 months.
My recent bout of outdoorsy activities
has necessarily come with more than a few risks
(just ask my worried mother).
Some of them I took knowingly; others I ran into by surprise
because I wasn’t as well-prepared as I thought.
But I’ve learned from them all.
Stepping out of my comfort zone,
I’ve not only seen some amazing sights
and grown in self-knowledge and self-confidence
by accomplishing things I never thought I could;
it’s also helped me to become a better Christian
and—I hope—a better priest:
one who’s more willing to take a risk for Jesus.

One risk I’ve recently taken as your pastor
is in founding Frassati House.
You’ve read a bit about it in the bulletin.
In an effort to reawaken the faith here at St. André’s—
in particular, among our young people—
I’ve invited young adult Catholics
to come and live as missionaries among us.
It was risky when I brought this new idea
to our Bishop and the Pastoral Council for approval—
a project that’s not just new to Malone or new to the Diocese,
but which hasn’t really been tried anywhere yet.
It was risky when we started advertizing Frassati House:
would anybody respond?
But inquires starting coming in
within the first hour we posted an ad online.
About 35 young people,
from more than a dozen states and 2 foreign countries,
expressed serious interest in coming to Malone for a year or two
to live and work as parish missionaries.
Mind you, most of them had no idea where Malone was
(although that changed after two inmates escaped in June),
but what they did know
is that they love Jesus and they love his Church,
and they want other people to do the same.
And after many résumés and interviews,
after much prayer and discernment,
five young Catholics—two men and three women—
have taken the risk to come here and help this new vision take shape.
You’ll be hearing from some of them this Sunday and next.

What’s the last risk you took for Jesus?
What cloak, what security blanket, do you need to throw aside?
Are you willing to step outside your own comfort zone
and give yourself to the adventure
of following the Lord wherever he might lead you?

It could reasonably be said that the Son of God
came with one mission: to open our eyes.
Christ’s mission is to open the eyes of our hearts
to the truth about God—that God is real,
that God loves us as our Father,
that God would do anything for us to know and live in that love,
both now and forever;
to open our eyes to the truth about ourselves:
that we are precious in God’s sight,
that we are called to holiness in this life and to heaven in the next;
and to open our eyes to the truth about one another:
that we have all been made in God’s image and likeness,
that we all have God-given dignity and a duty to defend it.

The Lord Jesus keeps opening my eyes:
from a lecture hall listening to Sr. Elena’s lesson,
to journeys among the mountains and waterways of the Adirondacks,
to serving you here at St. André’s as your parish priest.
What an adventure!  It’s been worth every risk!

Jesus wants to keep opening your eyes, too.
"Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Autumn Rewind

Due in part to some troubles with my computer, I've failed to share some shots from a few recent adventures, so I'll do a quick recap now...

A month ago today, on September 24, I climbed St. Regis Mountain (near Paul Smiths).  I've looked up toward the peak from below, but never hiked to the summit.  They were great views on a beautiful fall afternoon.  What was most unique was to get near the top and hear an unlikely wilderness sound: power tools.  A group of dedicated volunteers was working hard at rehabilitating the fire tower.

October 7-8, Fr. Scott and I went out for an overnight at the Biesemeyer lean-to on Lost Pond (where I'd previously camped back in April)--marking not only my 41st birthday, but also 22 months straight of wilderness camp-outs.  It was a nice, quiet (though slightly damp) night in the woods, followed by a quick hike up nearby Weston Mountain for some stellar views of the High Peaks coming up on their full autumnal splendor.

And then, on Columbus Day, I made a repeat visit to Catamount Mountain with KT and Lauren, two of our Frassati House Missionaries, taking in some colorful foliage that would be awfully hard to beat.

Most of the leaves are gone now, but the memories remain vividly colorful.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Great Service

   Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
I have no homily text to share with you this week: we had our monthly children's Mass this morning, so the written version never made it past a few notes scribbled on a scrap of paper.  

A few highlights...

It started with the old rhyme/song, "There was an old woman who swallowed a fly..."  Each creature swallowed (fly, spider, bird, cat, dog, goat, cow, horse) is bigger and faster and stronger than the last.  That's often how we measure greatness: by who's bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, prettier, richer, or more popular.  

James and John are right in desiring to be great--and in realizing that greatness requires being close to Jesus and being like Jesus.  But they seem to think (as many of us secretly do, too) that being great will mean being able to tell other people what to do.  That's not Jesus' way.

Jesus teaches James, John, and all his disciples that God measures greatness rather differently than we usually do.  Greatness isn't measured by what you can get other people to do for you, but by what you're willing to do for other people--not by how much we've got, but by how much we're willing to give.  And if we want to be like Jesus, then we have to give like Jesus--and that means we have to be willing to give not even just a lot, but everything.  A big part of being a Christian is about humble, loving service of others.

Serving our neighbor in this way is a matter of mission: it helps other people get to know Jesus by showing them how Jesus loves them.  And we do it, not for the big, fast, and strong ones, but for the little and least ones, because we can see their real greatness: we can see Jesus in them.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


"...a hundred times more now in this present age...with persecutions..."  (Mk 10:30)

   Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

We found out too late to let you all know in advance,
but a prayerful protest against abortion
was organized in Malone yesterday morning. 
Fr. Scott and I were among the 30 or so people there,
standing with signs on both sides of Main Street.
I was encouraged by the number of people driving by
who gave a friendly wave or honk, who gave us the thumbs up.
Near the end, I noticed one fellow in a pickup truck
extend a different finger in our direction—
and then wave it rather vigorously specifically at me
when he spotted my Roman collar.

I think you all know what his “sign” meant.
But do you know what my sign said?
It said nothing about Planned Parenthood;
it didn’t even say anything about abortion.
It simply said, “Jesus Forgives & Heals.”

Who knew that such a loving message
would provoke such a strong and hateful reaction?

And yet we shouldn’t be surprised, should we?
Jesus has always provoked strong reactions.
When confronted with Christ, you can’t remain neutral:
you’re either for him or against.
As in the story of the rich young man
from this Sunday’s gospel reading:
you must either follow Jesus or turn and walk away.

There are an awful lot of people in the world today
who claim to be “non-religious.”
Truth of the matter is, we all worship something—
everyone has some ultimate goal,
some “greater good” which they are pursuing
(although it might not appear “great” or “good” to anyone else.)
Even an atheist has his “god”—
generally, his comforts, his joys, or himself.  (cf. P. Kreeft)

Reflecting on the story of the rich young man,
Saint John Paul II noted that he didn’t come to Jesus
so much looking for a specific list of rules
as he did for the meaning of his life.
His question was one of direction.
The young man has sensed—
as does anyone who gives serious thought to life’s purpose—
that there’s a real connection between his actions and his destiny:
between a moral way of living and hope for eternal life.
The goodness he sees in Jesus naturally attracts him,
but that goodness also places obligations on him—
obligations he’s sadly not ready to fulfill.  (cf. Veritatis Splendor)
That’s because Jesus is so much more than just a good teacher;
Jesus is God’s eternal Wisdom,
God’s living and effective Word come in human flesh,
with the unique ability to cut right to the heart.
The One who gave up heaven
for the sake those of us stranded here in sin on earth
has impeccable credibility
whenever he asks us to give up mere earthly goods
for the sake of heavenly treasure!

Oftentimes, we’re all too ready to follow a false Jesus—
not the Jesus of the gospels,
but one who has been heavily edited to better fit our likes and lifestyles.
Such a Jesus never demands very much, never asks us to change.
How different that Jesus is from the real one!
The real Jesus is constantly challenging us.
He’s never satisfied with us just “getting by,”
with us being “good enough.”
Jesus knows we were made for so much more!

While a lot of people on the road responded to our protest yesterday—
even if it was only with a turn of the head to stare—
the vast majority had no reaction whatsoever;
they simply kept on driving right by.

How many people—even some regular churchgoers—
keep passing by Jesus in much the same way!

Does the message of the Gospel regularly challenge you?
When was the last time the teaching or example of Jesus
provoked you to make a change?
Have you settled for being just “good enough”?
Which gets more of your time and attention:
material gains or spiritual progress?
Where does your life find its meaning?
What gives it direction?
There can be no standing still this side of the grave!
You can’t remain neutral!
When confronted with Jesus,
you must either follow or turn and walk away.

When is say that Jesus came to “provoke” us,
I’m not saying that his mission 
is to irritate or aggravate us—
although he clearly still has that effect 
on some people.
No—as the perfect sign 
of God’s forgiveness and healing,
the reaction Jesus came to provoke 
is one of love.
The late Fr. Pedro Arrupe—for years, 
the international head of the Jesuit order—
once put this very beautifully while speaking with a group of nuns;
he said:
            Nothing is more practical than finding God,
            that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.
            What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination,
            will affect everything.
            It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
            what you will do with your evenings,
            how you will spend your weekends, what you read,
            who you know, what breaks your heart,
            and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
            Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.

Let Jesus give you meaning!  Let Jesus set your direction!
Let Jesus provoke in you that sort of joyful love!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Eye Contact

Timely, given what I preached today...

Worth Living

   Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I talked to a whole lot of people
at our Holy Harvest Festival two weeks ago,
but there’s one conversation among them all
that stands out in my memory.
It was with a man who lives out of town,
but comes here often for work.
He’s a probation officer—
which means that what he usually sees
is the dark underbelly of Malone.
He was rather encouraged 
to see another side of our community
in and around that tent 
behind Holy Family School:
kids and young families, prayer and games,
music and dancing, good food and laughter—
all on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

As we spoke,
the man shared with me his sadness
that what he encounters on the job
is rather the opposite 
of what we were witnessing at that moment:
he sees young people, 
filled with so much potential,
needlessly squandering it—
with drugs, or petty crime, or plain ol’ laziness.
You and I have seen it, too—
right here on the streets of this village.

My conversation with that man turned to our shared conviction
that how you choose to live your life
depends on whether or not you think you’re worth something.
It’s a question of dignity.
No one’s going to be very good
if they can’t see anything good in themselves.
You can’t expect somebody to clean up their act—
or even clean up their house—
if they don’t think there’s much value to their existence.

And if a person can’t recognize his or her own dignity,
then there’s not much chance
they’re going to show respect for anybody else’s, either.

What that visitor and I spoke about
is more than finding ways
to improve young people’s self-esteem.
This issue runs far deeper than how you feel about yourself.
Feelings, after all, come and go—
and they’re just that: feelings.

The remedy I’m talking about here is a matter of faith:
believing that there is a God;
believing that God created the whole universe in all its wonder;
believing that God—in love—
creates each and every human person;
believing that you are of infinite worth to God.
As we read in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews,
God’s own Son, for a little while,
made himself lower than the angels
that he might suffer and die
and so raise us up with him to glory.
Jesus is not ashamed to call us his “brothers.”
We’re that precious in God’s eyes!
And nothing whatsoever can diminish this great dignity,
since it’s God’s own gift.

There’s been lots of talk in Catholic circles in recent years
about “the dignity of the human person.”
We need to see it as so much more than a catchphrase!
Since I think the greatest poverty in our community
is not lack of money, nor lack of ambition, nor lack of jobs,
but is far-and-away a spiritual poverty,
I also think this approach
is the cure to so much of what ails us.
Even more: it’s at the very heart of the Gospel.
People need to discover their true worth,
and people do that when they come to believe
that they’ve been created in God’s image and likeness,
and called to live with him forever.
If we can deep-down-believe that we matter to God—
matter more than anything—
it changes how we live:
the respect we show for ourselves,
the respect we show for one another.
The God-given dignity of every person
is a way of life each one of needs to embrace,
and a message we all need to spread around.

This past week,
Fr. Scott loaned me 
a Lighthouse Catholic Media CD.
“It’s really good,” he said.
And he was right!
I’ve listened to it three times already—
and will listen to it again.
It’s by Fr. Mike Schmitz
and is called, 
Living Life by Design not by Default.
(There are copies of it in our CD racks
if you want to check it out for yourself 
after Mass.)

Fr. Mike is giving a talk to college students
about the impact 
our modern means of communication
have on our relationships with one another.
Email and texting, Facebook and Twitter
make it possible for us to communicate with many people—
—but to do so on our own terms, and at a safe distance.
When I see a post or receive a message,
I’m free to delay my response or ignore it altogether—
making such communication
in many ways far easier and less messy
than speaking with somebody face-to-face.

We’ve become rather expert at using our many tech devices…
…but we no longer know how to talk to one another in person.
Have you ever seen a young couple out on a date—
not gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes,
but both looking intently at the glowing screens of their Smartphones?

As Fr. Mike puts it,
we sacrifice real connection for mere contact.
Yes, we’re “in touch” with lots of people,
but we rarely (if ever) interact on any deep level with them.
We may be in each other’s space,
but we’re not really in each other’s lives.

A retired priest I worked with some years ago
was much beloved for the way 
he’d give high-fives to all the kids
as he processed down the aisle 
at the end of Mass.
Just imagine if I high-fived everybody 
on my way out…
…but then didn’t stick around 
to talk with anybody.
That’s the reality so many people 
are living today:
contact with lots and lots of people,
but connection with almost no one.
We have more ways 
to communicate than ever…
…but people are also more lonely than ever.
Getting this disconnected is far from healthy,
because it goes against the grain
of how God made us in the first place.
Taken to the extreme,
it leads to tragedies like our nation once again experienced
just the other day in Oregon.

On that CD, Fr. Mike shares an insight
from one of the organizers of the Steubenville Youth Conference—
to which we’ve sent high school students from our own parish
these last few years.
When they started the conferences 20-25 years ago,
their goal was to get teens
to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ—
so what they needed to do was introduce them to Jesus,
and once they met Jesus, their lives were changed.
Today, before they can introduce teens to Jesus,
they have to introduce them to the concept of a relationship;
they don’t know what a real relationship, what real friendship, is.

“It is not good for the man to be alone.”
Thus said the Lord God at the very beginning…
…and it remains just as true today.

What Fr. Mike sees in the effect of technology on our friendships,
Jesus was already able to see in so many of our relationships.
Jesus doesn’t want to see husbands and wives divided;
even in his day, divorce was widespread
and tearing at the fabric of the God-designed connection
between men and women.
Jesus doesn’t want to see parents alienated from their children,
or families broken apart.
How easily we let overwork, TV, daycare, school, sports,
and our increasingly independent lifestyles come between us!
Such division reaches its extreme
when children can be eliminated before they’re born,
and the sick and elderly, as well, if we find them too much a burden.
Nor does Jesus want to see this sort of disconnection
run into our most critical relationship of all:
our relationship with God.
We pop in, then pop out, once a week for Mass—
maybe not that often;
our prayer is sporadic, or maybe just routine.
Sure, we’re making some contact…but not a very deep connection.

At every level, in every relationship, it must be repeated:
“What God has joined, no human being must separate!”

October is Respect Life Month, and this is Respect Life Sunday.
This year’s theme is beautiful: “Every Life is Worth Living.”
It’s not only beautiful; it’s true.
So let’s make this a time to celebrate and promote
the immense dignity of every human person.
Don’t take it for granted!
Many folks around you have no idea how precious they are.
Tell them!  Show them!  But first: believe it yourself!
And let’s make this a time to foster connections.
Don’t settle for mere contact!
Develop authentically human relationships 
in a world that’s rapidly forgetting how.

We have such incredible dignity!
We're made for real connection!
Yes, lifeevery lifeis worth living!