Sunday, April 26, 2015

Not For Hire

   Fourth Sunday of Easter   B 

What do you get if you cross
an angry sheep with a grumpy cow?
An animal that’s in a b-a-a-a-d mooood.


Of course,
I wish the only things for which I had to apologize
were my lousy jokes.

Last Sunday, I was stopped by a gentleman after Mass.
He’s not Catholic, but his wife and kids are,
and for years now he’s regularly come to church with them.
He said, “You know, Father, some Sundays,
as we’re driving home and I’m thinking about your message,
I get awfully frustrated.”
I swallowed hard.  What had I done now?
He went on to say that there are times when I’m preaching
when he senses that I’m working up to a point—
about to say something strong and challenging,
to call people to task,
to speak words that will provoke
because they’re not “politically correct,”
words people don’t really want to hear but need to hear—
and then they don’t come.
“I get frustrated,” he said,
“because you didn’t take your message far enough,
because it feels like you backed down.”
In the past few months,
a friend who reads my homilies online
has made much the same point.

Guilty as charged.

In this Sunday’s gospel,
Jesus contrasts a good shepherd 
with a hireling:
one risks everything—even life and limb—
for his sheep;
the other turns tail and runs.

I’m afraid that there are times 
when this shepherd
acts more like a hired man—
when I should be saving you from wolves,
but I instead find myself scared of my sheep.

Pardon me for being a bit timid sometimes,
but I receive phone calls and mail aplenty
from parishioners intent on reminding me
of all the ways I’ve screwed up.
There’ve been times when there’s been a misunderstanding—
when I overreacted,
when you felt brushed off,
when I didn’t follow through.
There’ve been times when I taught something unpopular,
enforced a rule with which you disagree,
or made a change you did not like,
and I've done so with more devotion to truth than to charity.
There’ve been times when
I’ve failed to practice what I’ve preached,
or when I tried to make a joke, but it just wasn’t funny.
I know I can’t please everybody all the time
(and I’m learning that there are some people
I simply can’t please at any time),
but by-and-large I’m doing the very best I can.
And yet—because I’m a man before I’m a priest—
I have bad days and days when I’m tired,
days when I’m selfish and days when I sin,
days when I’ve hurt you, failed you, let you down.
And for them all, I’m truly sorry.

But I’m sorrier still for any time
when I’ve let those experiences of being called to task
hold me back from saying or doing
what I know, deep down, to be the right thing.
I worry, yes, about the ways in which, as your pastor,
I must give an account to you;
of far greater concern, however, is the account
which I must one day give before almighty God.
St. John Mary Vianney,
the heavenly patron of parish priests
besides whose image I stand in this pulpit today,
once wisely advised:
“Do not try to please everybody.
Try to please God, the angels, and the saints—
these are your public.”
He also very frankly added elsewhere,
“If you are afraid of other people’s opinion,
you should have not become a Christian.”

These are not easy times to be a faithful priest
because these aren’t easy times to be a true Christian.

I was mightily encouraged a few weeks back
when I read an article about
11-year-old Brett Haubrich of St. Louis.
Brett has inoperable brain cancer,
and is undergoing chemo and radiation.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation offered Brett
the chance to do just about anything he wanted…
go to Disneyland, meet a celebrity…
…but he didn’t really want anything like that.
Finally, they asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up.
His first choice?  A priest.
And so, on Holy Thursday,
Brett fulfilled his wish as a “priest for a day.”
They dressed him up in a black cassock and Roman collar,
and he served Mass at the cathedral for the archbishop—
right alongside the seminarians—not once, but twice that day:
at the Chrism Mass in the morning,
and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the evening.
He shared a luncheon for priests and deacons,
and had dinner in the archbishop’s residence.
The archbishop even washed his feet.
When asked his favorite part of the day,
Brett said, “The whole thing.
It was really neat for them to let me do this stuff.
Just a really cool experience.”

Now, Brett didn’t have to preach on a hot-button subject.
He didn’t have to tell somebody they couldn’t be a godparent.
And he didn’t receive an anonymous note
accusing him of ruining the whole parish.
But he was exactly right:
it’s the “whole thing” that makes the priesthood
such an incredible vocation.
Sure, there are moments
when you get to do “neat” and “cool” stuff—
but the beauty and power of this calling
are far, far greater than that.
And, yes, it’s hard sometimes—
really hard sometimes—
yet even with the “b-a-a-a-d moooods”
(mine and everybody else’s),
it’s a life I’d choose all over again.
Of course, it’s not about my choosing.
I wasn’t hired; I was called.
If I had been hired, there’d be a quitting time—
be priest for a day or a decade,
when it’s comfortable or convenient.
But since a priest is called by God,
I must keep laying down my life—
like Christ, with Christ, for Christ—
and resist every temptation to ever act sheepishly,
whether fending off wolves or facing the flock.

Please pray for your priests.
And pray for Brett and his family.
Pray for vocations to the priesthood—
and actively encourage the young Catholic men you know
to give it some serious thought and prayer.
And let’s pray for courage, too, for shepherds and sheep alike,
that we might all be true to the calling we have received from God.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Not Lost At All

Last Wednesday-Thursday (April 15-16) I was out camping once again, this time in the Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area just outside of Keene, NY.  A lovely night was spent in the Biesemeyer lean-to on Lost Pond (2.1 miles from the trailhead), and midday Thursday took us up to the top of nearby Weston Mountain (.3 miles up from the lean-to), which isn't an Adirondack "High Peak" (at 3182 ft.), but which gives you a pretty good view of quite a few of them.  With temperatures in the 50's, and very clear night for star gazing, it was a great time to be out.  Trail conditions were quite a mix--from bare to wet/muddy to snow deep and soft enough to require snowshoes--making the trip in a bit more involved than we'd hoped, but we'd come prepared.  A highlight: I've now got a backpacking frying pan, so we had pancakes for breakfast...and they were pretty good!  (I'll add a photo of that momentous meal when Paul sends me the ones he took).

Night falls over Lost Pond

The bright white spot left of center is Lost Pond from the peak of Weston

Sunday, April 19, 2015

For Real

   Third Sunday of Easter   B 
At Mass on Easter Sunday,
my 5-year old niece, Abigail,
heard the deacon start to read the gospel
and said in a “whisper”
(loud enough for half the church to hear),
“I know what’s going to happen next!
Jesus is going to rise from the tomb!” 
She’d done what in most other cases
would have been an unforgivable sin:
she gave away the ending!

The Resurrection of Jesus is, of course,
the central mystery of the Christian faith—
the very heart and soul of everything we do and are and stand for.
Yet if you look closely, stories of the risen Jesus
make up a very small part of the New Testament.
Out of the four gospels combined,
there are only five chapters devoted
to what happened after that first Easter morning.

Why should that be so?
Why should something so crucial be so little written about?

Two reasons come to mind….

The first: to keep the Resurrection real for you and me.

You and I will never walk the roads of first century Palestine.
What Mary and Joseph, what the twelve Apostles,
what the people of that land experienced—
the miracles and teachings of Jesus—
will never be experienced in the same way again.
Therefore they recorded them all carefully,
to preserve them for future generations.
But starting that first Easter Sunday ,
things would be radically different than they were before.
Jesus may have died on a certain day,
at a certain time, in a certain place…
…but Jesus now lives on forever and ever.
The Christian faith isn’t so much that Jesus was raised
(though that’s a matter of history,
just as how he once taught and cured the sick),
but that Jesus is risen.
From Easter onward, Jesus will remain with his disciples
always and everywhere in a completely new way—
not a figure stuck in the past,
but a Savior who is eternally present.

The Apostles have a tough time
getting their heads and hearts around this new reality.
In this Sunday’s gospel reading,
we hear again about Easter Sunday.
This is the evening gathering from which “doubting Thomas”
was unlucky enough to be absent.
To be fair: the other Apostles come off
looking just as uncertain as he does.
They’re “startled,” we’re told,
"amazed" and “incredulous for joy.”
They want to believe…but how can they?
This man they’re seeing
appears to be the same Jesus they’ve known—
right down to the wounds of the crucifixion.
But he comes and goes—literally!—out of nowhere.
Since he can walk right through walls and locked doors,
they think he’s a ghost, a mirage.
But then he joins them in eating a bite of fish for supper,
proving he’s not a figment of their imaginations,
but a living man of flesh and bone.
He’s real! 
It’s just that he’ll be with them now in a whole new way.

We’re in the same boat as those apostles, aren’t we? 
We want to believe that Jesus is alive…but how can we?

We need to let Jesus amaze us…just as he did them.
We need to allow Jesus to be real for us—
to play a real and active part in our everyday lives.
We say that Jesus still speaks to us
through the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church…
…but we have to listen as if he’s really saying something that matters.
We say that Jesus still touches us through the Sacraments…
…but we have to give him the space to work
because we actually expect him to.
We say that Jesus still moves within us in moments of prayer…
…but we have to be open as if something’s really going to happen in us.
This is not wishful thinking!
Jesus may no longer be bound by space and time,
but he’s very, very real.
This is something that all comes together for us in the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus continues to make himself known in the breaking of the bread.
No, we cannot touch the wounds in his hands and feet…
…but Jesus touches us very personally
when he places his Body, his Blood, into our hands.

That the real-life experience
of the presence and action of the risen Jesus
might be just as immediate and true for you and me
as it was for Peter, James, John, Thomas, and all the rest—
that may be one reason why the gospels all end so abruptly.

The second reason:
so that you and I will make the Resurrection real for others.

We live in a world where people
are just as likely to believe in ghosts
as they are to believe in Jesus—maybe even more so.
Now, you can’t force faith on anybody;
not even Jesus could do that to the men and women of his time.
But you can speak and act in a way
that makes it clear to people around you
that Jesus is, in fact, a real part of your ordinary life.
Just look at Peter in the Acts of the Apostles.
He who had been locked away for fear with the others
is now out and about speaking rather boldly:
“Here’s what I know about Jesus…
Here’s what Jesus has done for me…
Here’s what I think Jesus can do for you…”
The world needs us to be witnesses for Jesus like that:
those who speak firsthand—
sharing not just what we’ve heard from somebody else,
but what we know for ourselves.

Yet also consider what John says in his first letter.
It’s not enough for us to say, “I know him.”
We must also keep his commandments,
must avoid sin, must keep his word—
living the way that Jesus lived,
living the way of life Jesus taught.
To do otherwise would be to give false testimony:
to be a hypocrite, a liar.
How could anyone come to believe that Jesus is real
if his followers are living a lie?

Why is the New Testament so short on post-Resurrection accounts?
Maybe it’s because the book isn’t finished.
My niece may have given away the ending…
…but the story is still unfolding.
Jesus is real, and he’s still risen from the dead:
still helping others—helping us!—to rise with him
to new and everlasting life.

May the Lord’s face shine brightly upon us,
that we might experience his real and living presence
in each of our lives.
May the light of the Lord’s Resurrection
also shine brightly through your face and mine,
that all the nations might come to believe
that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.
He is risen, indeed!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

In the Community

   Second Sunday of Easter - Divine Mercy   B 
Last summer marked 20 years
since I got involved with Camp Guggenheim
our diocesan youth camp on Lower Saranac Lake.
Every week, every year, it’s almost exactly the same:
on Sunday afternoon, 80 shy and awkward teenagers arrive,
not too sure about what’s coming;
on Friday afternoon, the same bunch of teenagers
are hugging and sobbing because the never want to leave.
Is it the place? 
Yes, it’s beautiful…but it doesn’t have any sort of magic.
Is it the staff?
Sure, they’re gifted…but this transformation isn't their doing, either.

Kids come to summer camp from every possible background:
boys and girls, from city and country, rich and poor,
in junior and senior high, many Catholic but not all.
Most of them have never met
prior to their being thrown together.
But over the course of five days—
whether on the beach, at Arts and Crafts, around the bonfire,
or during Mass and other moments of prayer—
they come to know themselves better,
and they come to know each other better,
and they come to know God better,
and so they come to truly care for one another.
This doesn’t happen to everyone, of course:
one or two get homesick and don’t make it through the week;
some have decided before they even arrive
that they’re just “too cool” for all of this;
a few break off into cliques and have a rather narrow experience.
But the vast majority discover something
they’ve rarely—if ever—encountered before:
what it’s like to be part of a community.
It might only be temporary, but it’s no less real or powerful.
Yes, these young people are given a safe place
to be good and do good,
and they have a great staff to support and encourage them,
but ultimately it’s their choice, their decision,
to let their differences dissolve
and something new and beautiful arise:
a community to which they’re rightly proud to belong.

Throughout these 50 days of the Easter season,
our first readings are taken from the Acts of the Apostles.
This Sunday, we hear a description of the first Christians in Jerusalem,
just a few months after the Resurrection of Jesus.
We’re told that they share everything with each other—
even their material possessions—
making sure nobody ever goes without.
We’re told that the believers were “of one heart and mind.”
In a pretty short time, like kids at summer camp,
they’ve formed a true community.

Is that your experience of the Church?

One of the great joys of being a Catholic
is that you can go to any Catholic Church in the whole world
and, even if you don’t speak the local language,
you can pretty much know what’s going on at Mass.
It really the planet’s only truly global network.
In a sense, wherever you are, you’re “home.”
But this reality also comes with a danger:
since we can “fit” just about anywhere,
it can give the impression that we Catholics
are only so many interchangeable parts.
Does anybody really notice if I’m there?
Does anybody really notice if I’m absent?

This is a particular problem here in the United States.
For one thing, American Catholicism
has become a lot like the rest of the nation:
divided into political factions.
Even here in Malone,
history has often led us to accentuate our differences:
making a bigger deal of whether we’re Irish or French,
from uptown, downtown, or out-of-town,
rather than that we’re all Roman Catholics.
And we Americans also like to think of ourselves
as rugged individualists—“lone ranger” types—
who, even spiritually, want to stand on our own two feet.
Settle into this sort of thinking,
and a parish becomes a disconnected group of individuals
who happen to come to pray at the same time in the same place,
but who could just as easily do so elsewhere.

For decades now, study after study has shown
that when Catholics leave—and many do—
it’s not generally because of a scandal
nor difficulties with doctrine nor a dispute with their parish priest,
but because they’ve found a stronger sense
of community and fellowship somewhere else.

I hear complaints and concerns in this department
from time to time—
that the parish isn’t as warm, welcoming, and friendly as it ought to be.
Unfortunately, this isn’t something I have the ability to fix,
other than giving encouragement, like I’m doing right now.
This is not a change that can be made from the pulpit;
it’s one that must come out of the pews.
It’s up to you!
Are you content to have a parish that works like a fill-up station,
where religious consumers come to get what they’re after, then go?
Or are you willing to make the effort to be a real family,
where members become companions who seek to give and to grow together?

he announced for the Diocese about a year ago,
Bishop LaValley made it quite clear
that he sees the Catholic Church in the North Country
not being built of bricks and lumber, but of living stones.
Toward that end,
he’s requiring every parish 
to take up a door-to-door census—
an initiative that I think is perfectly timed for us
still in our first year here at St. André’s.
We need to know who’s out there—
to learn their names and needs, to hear their concerns.
We need you to go out—
to have those conversations and make those connections.
Fr. Stitt tells me that in his little parishes
in Bombay and Fort Covington,
they’ve got more than 90 volunteers 
signed up as home visitors;
here, in the largest parish in the Diocese,
we’ve got less than 20 so far.
I’ve heard folks say,
“But people like to be personally invited,
they like to be asked…”
I understand.  So do I!
But that misses the point a bit, doesn’t it?
Your parish needs you to step forward, 
to make the first move.
Don’t wait!
See the insert in this Sunday’s bulletin for more information.

It’s quite hard—almost impossible—
to try and be a disciple all on your own.
Just look at the apostle Thomas:
when he’s away from the rest,
he’s plagued with serious doubts,
but when reunited with his brothers,
he meets the risen Jesus and comes to faith.

We rely on the steadfastness of the good Lord,
whose loving mercy is everlasting.
We’re touched by it in the Sacraments
We’re formed by it in the Church’s authentic teaching.
But we also ought to experience it
simply by being part of the community of believers—
by the genuine support, compassion, and concern we show each other.
Jesus’ Easter gift of the Holy Spirit is a bond of unity.
(That’s why the Spirit is the life-breath of forgiveness.)
The Holy Spirit is imparted
in order to draw us more intimately into relationship
with God and with our neighbor.
The Spirit has the power to unite us in true community…
…but he won’t ever force himself upon us.

What 80 kids a week experience each summer at Camp Guggenheim
isn’t meant for just a few;
it should be our common experience of the Church.
It’s not so much because of a special place.
It’s not even because of a gifted staff.
It’s because we’ve made a decision—every one of us—
to remain open:
open to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit
and all that he would teach us—about himself, about ourselves;
open to our neighbor—
taking the blessed risk to become one in heart and mind.

It’s happened before.
Let’s make it happen here!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

For Sunday

   Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord   

I gave up a number of things this Lent—
all things I’ve given up before:
eating dessert, snacking between meals, drinking alcohol.
None of those gave me any real trouble.
But I also gave up coffee.
I’d noticed myself getting more and more caffeine dependant,
and I didn’t think that was a very healthy thing,
so I figured it best to nip it in the bud.
I allowed myself one cup a week—my Sunday coffee.
This did not go so well.
In fact, one Sunday after lunch,
I made myself a café latte so large
it had the whole pot—nearly six shots—of espresso in it!
(I’m lucky I’ve ever been able to fall asleep since.)
Many an afternoon, as my energy began to fade,
I found myself longing for the taste of that hot bean beverage.
I even caught myself saying,
“I’m just dying to have a cup of coffee!”

But, wait a minute…dying?  For coffee?
I know it’s just a figure of speech, but it begs the question:
What would you die for?

On February 12, 304,
31 men and 18 women were arrested in Abitina,
a village in north Africa.
Their crime?  Illegal assembly.
They had gathered for Mass on Sunday.
Not quite a year before,
the emperor had issued an edict which—among other things—
forbade Christians from coming together to worship.
The penalty was death.
When interrogated at their trial as to why they’d violated the decree,
several members of the group spoke up.
“We must celebrate the Lord’s Day,” one said. 
“It’s a law for us!”
Another responded, “As if a man could be a Christian
without keeping the Lord’s Day!
Just as there can be no Sunday without Christians,
so there can be no Christians without Sunday.”
And when the owner of the house where Mass had been offered
was questioned as to why he hadn’t prevented it,
he replied, “Impossible! 
We cannot live without the Eucharist! 
We cannot live without the Lord’s Day!”

These 49 Christians knew what they would die for—
and they did: they were all martyred.
They would die for Sunday.

The first book of the Bible tells us
that, on the seventh day, God rested.
Creating the universe is obviously hard work!
Observing this weekly day of rest—
enshrined as the third commandment—
was to be a distinguishing mark of God’s chosen people.
The Lord had freed them with a mighty arm from slavery in Egypt;
he didn’t want them living or acting like slaves ever again.

As we’ve recalled once more during this Paschal Triduum:
on the seventh day, Jesus also rested,
lying quite quiet and still in a borrowed tomb.
Redeeming the world is hard work, too—
deadly work, as a matter of fact.
And so we find God yet again taking a sabbath rest.

When the sabbath was over…
…very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb.
From that first Easter,
Christians have kept Sunday sacred.
Because it’s the first day of the week,
Sunday recalls the first creation—
when God made the heavens and the earth;
but Sunday, if you will, is also the eighth day:
the day marking the new creation
ushered in by Christ’s Resurrection—
the day of new beginnings, of new and everlasting life.
You might say that every Sunday is a little Easter:
not a day of colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, and frilly hats,
but the day consecrated by Jesus when he rose from the grave.
Better yet, instead of thinking of Sunday as a little Easter,
we ought to think of Easter as the greatest of Sundays.

Like the sabbath of the first covenant,
the Lord’s Day was to be a distinguishing mark of Christians.
And for many centuries, it was.
(Just ask those 49 martyrs of Abitina!)
People used to have their “Sunday best”:
special clothes to be worn only on that special day.
In many places, the law of the land
protected Sunday worship and rest by restricting business.
We even still speak of “Sunday drivers” on the road,
who apparently have no reason to be rushing along.
But gradually, Sunday is becoming more and more like any other day.
Most everybody shops or takes care of their chores.
Many adults work just like they do on the other six days.
And while kids may not have school to attend,
they’re often equally busy with sports, whether practice or games.
The uniqueness of Sunday has gotten lost in “the weekend”—
not a day belonging to the Lord, but a “free” day.
It’s getting to be that you can’t distinguish Sunday…
…and you can’t distinguish Christians.

My friends,
the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
in the wee hours of a Sunday morning—
the mystery into which you and I were baptized—
changes everything.
Or, at least, it’s supposed to.
Can we allow it to influence how we spend our time?
To rearrange our calendar and our priorities?
What would you die for?
Would you die for that day
which belongs to the one who died for you?
Better yet: What do you live for?
Will you live solely for him who rose
that you might have life and have it more abundantly—
not a life enslaved to the world, the flesh, or the devil,
but a life of true freedom,
a life that finds its rest and refreshment in him?

No lie:
I’m very much looking forward to my Easter Sunday coffee…
…and probably some on Easter Monday, 
Tuesday, and Wednesday, too!
But I wouldn’t die for it, and I wouldn’t die without it.
But like those saintly martyrs from north Africa,
it would be impossible for me to live without the Eucharist,
to live without the Lord’s Day.
There can be no Sunday without Christians;
there can be no Christians without Sunday.
This indeed is the day the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.