Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Real Miracle-Gro

   Third Sunday of Lent   C 
A little boy from the city
was visiting friends out in the country
when he saw a farmer with a wagon full of manure.
The boy asked what he was going to do with it,
and the farmer answered,
“I’m taking it home to put on my strawberries.”
“Well that’s funny,” said the boy, “because where I come from,
we put cream and sugar on our strawberries…”

We here in the North Country are no strangers to manure.
Even if you’re not from a farming family,
it’s hard to avoid:
you’re on a side road and get caught behind a load of the stuff;
or it’s spring, you can finally open the windows,
and in wafts the fragrant aroma
of what I like to call “fresh country air.”
Manure is simply a fact of life in these parts.
And there are two very different ways to look at it:
as a rather unpleasant byproduct of food production
that you’d rather not have to deal with;
or—as wise farmers and gardeners see it—
as an abundant source of good (and basically free) fertilizer.

Did you notice the manure in this Sunday’s gospel reading?
Of course not—
because it must have been translated into English by city folk
who were afraid to offend delicate sensibilities.
But if you look at the original Greek text
of Jesus’ parable of the fig tree,
it’s right there in black-and-white:
“I shall cultivate the ground around it,” says the gardener,
kai ballo kopria”—
not “and fertilize it,” as we have in the sanitized version,
but literally, “and throw manure at it.”

That’s quite an earthy expression, isn’t it?
And it’s just the way life feels sometimes, too!
On occasion (maybe many an occasion),
life throws some pretty tough and nasty stuff our way.
Our days are touched by suffering.
As do Jesus’ listeners when they hear about recent tragedies—
whether accidental or all-too-intentional—
we can assume that such things are doled out as divine punishment.
We must have messed up.
We must deserve it.

And yet, deep down, we might also know that we don’t.
Very often, it’s the innocent who suffer most.
So what’s going on here?
Is God failing us?  Of course not.
Frequently, suffering just happens—
or if somebody’s brought it on, then it’s not God, but us.
Suffering is part of the lot of fallen humanity.
But we are not abandoned to face it alone.
Did you hear what God said to Moses from the burning bush?
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people.
I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them.”
Israel’s cries have not gone unnoticed!
God plans to take their suffering and turn it around—
for their good and his glory—
leading them out of Egypt, through the sea, across the desert,
and into a land flowing with milk and honey.
And that’s just what God wants to do whenever we suffer!
Where we can see only hurt and hardship,
the Lord is able to see a rich opportunity.
As one of our spiritual directors in the seminary used to say,
“God is the great recycler:
he never wastes any of our experiences.”
That’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Christian faith!
For followers of Jesus, suffering is not without meaning.
In fact, suffering is even redemptive if we join it to the Cross.

What God can do with the manure of human suffering,
he can also do with the manure of human sinfulness—
which, although we hate to admit it,
is quite a pile of our own making.

Having grown up on a farm,
I feel rather qualified to expound
on some of the finer points concerning manure
and its notable fertilizing potential.
For one thing, it’s important to realize that,
in its original, raw state, manure is actually harmful to plants.
It kills them, rather than providing them with nutrition.
But if you take the time to stir it up (and do so rather regularly),
exposing it to the light and the air,
then that manure becomes something
which helps fields and gardens (strawberries and fig trees)
to just grow and grow and grow—
transformed from something that brought death
into something that gives life.

Do you see where this going?
Jesus warns that, if we don’t repent, we’re doomed to perish.
But if we do repent—if we allow God to cultivate and fertilize us—
then not only will our life be saved,
but we’ll bear good fruit.

At the request of Pope Francis,
in observance of the Jubilee Year of Mercy,
our parish—for the whole of Franklin Deanery—
is hosting something called “24 Hours for the Lord.”
This coming Friday and Saturday,
there will be 24 hours straight of Eucharistic adoration here in this church,
along with 16 hours set aside for confession—
with two priests always available.
Don’t miss this grace-filled opportunity!
Come kneel on holy ground—not before a burning bush,
but before the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus,
all aflame with love and mercy!
That Sacred Heart—
really and truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar—
is the one that suffered for you and suffers with you.
You face none of life’s troubles alone!
And come meet the Lord, too, in the Sacrament of Penance.
Good preparation for confession is essential
for this sacrament to be fruitful.
including a thorough examination of conscience—
is in your bulletin today
to help you dig deep and turn things over in your heart.
Then come, confess your sins, exposing them to the light and air.
Sure, it can be a stinky, messy process,
but it’s absolutely essential if you want that manure
to become fertile compost for your soul.

The Lord is a most patient gardener—
carefully, lovingly coaxing even the most barren plant back to life,
that it might flourish and bear the good fruit of his Kingdom.
So take courage when life throws manure!
It simply means God wants you to grow.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


   Second Sunday of Lent   C 
29-year-old Joshua Myers of Yakima, Washington
was born with Down Syndrome.
“I consider it a gift,” he now says,
“but at first I thought it was a curse.”
Josh was overwhelmed by his disability
and struggled with depression.
As a teenager, he attempted suicide—
walking out into the middle of a busy intersection.
“I just wanted to kill myself,” Josh says,
“but a lady stopped in front of me.”
A woman he hadn’t met before 
(and has never seen again)
got him into her car and talked with him.
Only the two of them can know what was said…
…but we can guess from the outcome.
Instead of feeling that his condition is too much,
today he has big dreams for the future.
“One of them is to be a minister,” Josh says;
“the other is wrestling in the WWE…”
How does Josh describe his life now?
“Awesome,” he says.  “I love my life.”

Why was Jesus transfigured?
What with his glowing face, brilliant clothing,
a voice booming from above,
the entire scene enveloped in a cloud,
it’s easy for us to imagine that this vision of glory
is meant to reveal the divine nature of Jesus beyond all doubt.
Peter, John, and James had been followers of the Lord
for quite some time.  
Yet despite the many healings and exorcisms,
despite the calming of a stormy sea,
despite the feeding of a crowd of thousands,
despite all his authoritative teaching—
they still haven’t fully recognized Jesus for who he really is. 
And so before they walk with him
on what would be his last journey to Jerusalem,
we reasonably assume that the Transfiguration transpires
to dispel any lingering question of Jesus’ true identity
as God’s chosen Son.

But if we stop there, we’re really missing out.

For one reason or another,
the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton,
was outside his Kentucky monastery in March of 1958.
He found himself in the city of Louisville,
in the middle of the busy shopping district,
on the corner of Fourth and Walnut.
And there, among all these fast-moving people,
he had a mystical experience.
It is a glorious destiny, he realized,
to be a member of the human race,
though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities
and one which makes many terrible mistakes:
yet, with all that, God Himself gloried 
in becoming a member of the human race.
A member of the human race!
To think such a commonplace realization 
should suddenly seem like news that one holds 
the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstakes.
I have the immense joy of being man,
a member of a race in which God became incarnate.
As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition
could overwhelm me,
now I realize what we all are. 
And if only everybody could realize this!  
But it cannot be explained.
“There is no way of telling people
that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
…It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts,
the depths of their hearts
where neither sin nor self-knowledge can reach,
the core of their reality,
the person that each one is in God’s eyes.
If only they could see themselves as they really are.
If only we could see each other that way
all the time. (from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

at his Transfiguration Jesus is revealed
as God from God and light from light.
We’re given insight into just how we who dwell on earth
ought to look up to heaven through Christ.
But because in Jesus we see divine glory shining on a human face,
his Transfiguration also reveals something
of how heaven is looking down on us.
Yes, we’re given a privileged glimpse of divine glory…
…and we’re also given a glimpse of humanity
as God originally intended:
mere mortals transformed by eternal light;
men and women of earth become full citizens of heaven—
not only later, after death, but here and now.
What Peter, John, and James witnessed on that mountaintop,
Thomas Merton saw on a Louisville street corner
and Josh Meyers discovered in a kind stranger’s car:
only in the surpassing light of God’s presence
could they behold their own immense worth and dignity.
Sure, we often enough fail to see God.
But it’s also the case that God sees things in us
we don’t often see in ourselves.

Did you know that you—and everybody around you—
is, like Jesus, a beloved, chosen child of God?
Have you ever realized that, in the merciful gaze of the Father,
we all walk around shining like the sun?

Lent is a perfect time for getting to know Jesus—
not for learning more about Jesus,
but for coming to know him personally, to know him intimately.
Discover for yourself Jesus’ true identity,
and soon enough you’ll discover your own—
discover that life is never a curse,
but a truly awesome gift.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


   First Sunday of Lent   C 
This Sunday, we overhear
one of the most intriguing dialogues in history:
that between Jesus and the devil;
between one entirely consumed with raising up the human race
and one—shall we say—pretty hell-bent
on dragging it down.

When in Texas a couple of weeks ago,
I overheard another rather intriguing conversation.

As many of you know, I was in Texas for an ordination:
a seminary schoolmate of mine was being consecrated a Bishop. 
But Pope Francis hadn’t named him Bishop
of any run-of-the-mill diocese;
he’d named him the first ever Bishop
The Ordinariate’s story reaches back a few decades,
when scattered groups of Anglicans and Episcopalians—
both clergy and laity, whole parishes in some cases—
began to inquire about entering the Catholic Church. 
They had a centuries-old tradition
to which they were rightly much attached…
…but recent shifts in doctrine and discipline
left them feeling like strangers in their own home. 
Various provisional arrangements eventually led
to the establishment of three Ordinariates
by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012—
including one for the U.S. and Canada, based in Houston. 
Each would serve essentially as a diocese,
allowing these faithful Christians
to preserve some of their rich Anglican heritage,
yet within the full communion of the Catholic Church. 
The whole thing is quite an historic ecumenical development.

These new Catholics have suffered greatly
to get to where they are today. 
They endured much scorn from the communities they left,
and faced deep suspicion within the Church they sought to join. 
And they’ve made some courageous sacrifices
to be true to their consciences:
longstanding relationships were strained or shattered;
clergymen and their families 
put even their financial future on the line. 
As I listened to their stories in Houston,
I was inspired and deeply moved. 
Both in the sacristy at church and on the elevator of the hotel,
I found myself repeatedly saying,
“It’s so nice to meet you. 
And thank you for your witness!”

Which takes me to that conversation I overheard. 
I was on the shuttle bus—
whether to or from one of the ordination events, I don’t recall.  
A small group—all members of the Ordinariate—
were having a very animated conversation two or three rows back. 
They were clearly well educated in the Catholic faith. 
And they were also clearly rather passionate about it. 
Yet in the midst of these very joy-filled days,
what I heard was ultimately a lament. 
They were lamenting you and me:
their older brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church.  
As they spoke about the patterns
of learning and worship and commitment
they’d observed among their fellow Catholics—
both priests at the altar and people in the pews—
they were troubled by the way so many of us
just take the faith for granted:
rolling along, without much enthusiasm,
and all too willing to settle for the path of least resistance.

I’d have been offended by their remarks…if they weren’t so accurate. 
Sadly, I had to nod in agreement. 
Guilty as charged!

Needless to say,
that conversation has stuck with me—
and it comes back to me especially on this First Sunday of Lent
when the Church reflects upon the temptation of Jesus in the desert. 
Consider the traps the devil sets out before the Lord
to lure him away from his driving sense of mission: 
If you’re the Son of God,
why not satisfy your hunger by turning these stones to bread? 
If you’re the Son of God,
why not kick back, basking in power and glory? 
If you’re the Son of God,
why not let the angels tend to your every whim and fancy? 
Given that that’s how the devil tempts Jesus,
it should be little surprise that he’d likewise
tempt all of God’s sons and daughters: 
Since you’re already Catholic, why put yourself out? 
Relax.  You’re in!  So make yourself comfortable. 
Only do what you have to do. Take the easy route. 
Stick with what’s pleasant and familiar.  Why rock the boat?

We contemporary cradle Catholics
haven’t suffered much for our faith. 
Once outsiders, over the last few decades
we’ve become part of the establishment. 
There’s precious little now that distinguishes us
from our non-Catholic (or even non-Christian) neighbors. 
Sure, we might still put a statue of Mary out in the yard
and eat fish on Fridays,
but when it comes to the average Catholic’s attitudes and actions
surrounding abortion and euthanasia,
contraception and same-sex marriage,
papal authority and the priesthood,
even the obligation to get to church every Sunday,
we look a whole lot like everybody else—
regardless of what the Church actually teaches on any of these matters. 
Would we even dare to chat candidly and publicly
about our Catholicism in the back of a bus?
There’s little risk. There’s no price to pay. 
We’ve gotten awfully comfortable.

And that, my friends, is incredibly dangerous!
Why?  Because it plays right into the devil’s hand.
Although the evil one does like to kick us when we’re down,
we’re even easier prey when things are easy.

Lent is about being uncomfortable. 
The desert is not a hospitable place. 
Fasting isn’t intended to put us at ease. 
This is a season when—
stripping things down to the essentials—
we’re called to take stock of those aspects of our lives
that we’d much rather leave unexamined. 
If spiritually we’ve been coasting along on fumes,
now is the time to seek ways to be reinvigorated and refuel.

In our first reading this Sunday,
Moses prescribes the manner in which the Israelites
were to show their thanksgiving after the harvest.
As they acknowledged the ways
in which God had guided and guarded their people through the ages,
they were to come before the Lord with their firstfruits:
not their leftovers, not whatever they had to spare,
but the very, very best they had to offer.
They gave the choicest portion to God.
We must do the same.

When I overheard that conversation on the bus in Houston,
the Lord immediately put it on my heart
that I wasn’t meant to be the only one to overhear it.
Now, we could let such a stinging indictment
discourage us and weigh us down,
ironically causing us to continue resting on our laurels.
Or we can take it as an inspiring challenge to grow:
daring us to be different, to suffer, to sacrifice—
in other words, to become more and more like Christ.

The devil tempts us to an easy, comfortable faith.
But we weren’t made for comfort; we were made for greatness.
Let's give the Lord only our very best!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

I'll Drink to That

   Ash Wednesday   
You have to admit:
the Catholic practice of fasting as it stands today is pretty lax.
It’s only expected of us two days a year—
today and on Good Friday—
and it’s a matter of eating less than usual,
rather than eating nothing at all. 
But in ages past, Lenten fasting was much more intense. 
In fact, in the lives of the saints,
we find many examples of men and women
subsisting on a little bread and some water
for the entire season—or even longer.

There’s a legend about a monastery outside of Munich, Germany,
where the monks once embraced a most unusual Lenten fast:
for 40 days, they would consume nothing other than beer. 
I know: it sounds more like an idea
coming out of a frat house than a monastery,
but many monasteries—as a matter of health—
made beer for their common beverage
at a time when the water was generally unsafe to drink. 
These monks had a special brew for this time of year:
a fortified beer that was rich in carbohydrates and vitamins. 
It was nicknamed “liquid bread.”

We know for sure that the monks made the beer—
we still have their recipe. 
But did they really live on nothing else for all of Lent? 
Five years ago, a man from Des Moines, Iowa,
decided there was only one way to find out:
he’d make the “beer fast” himself. 
For the entire season of Lent,
4 beers a day during the week
and 5 beers a day on the weekend 
(when he had “fewer obligations”).

He lost 25½ pounds that Lent…but he gained so much more. 
What did he discover?

For one thing he discovered
“that the human body is an amazing machine.
Aside from cramming it full of junk food,
we don’t ask much of it.
We take it for granted.
It is capable of much more than many of us give it credit for.
It can climb mountains, run marathons
and, yes, it can function without food for long periods of time.”

Once his initial pangs of hunger had passed, however,
he came to some far deeper realizations. 
“My fast…underscored for me
that there is a difference between wants and needs.
I wanted a cheeseburger, but I didn’t need one.
I also didn’t need a bag of chips or a midday doughnut.
I needed nourishment,
and my [beer]… was enough to keep me strong and alert….”

Now, I don’t generally think of drinking a few beers
as something that can uncloud my mind,
but that’s exactly what it did for this daring homebrewer.
“My body…switched gears, replaced hunger with focus,
and I found myself operating in a tunnel of clarity
unlike anything I’d ever experienced.…
The benefits of self-discipline can’t be overstated
in today’s world of instant gratification.
The fast provided a long-overdue tune-up and detox,
and I’ve never felt so rejuvenated, physically or mentally.”

J. Wilson’s fast did more than prove to him
that the legend of some monks 
living on beer alone was probably true. 
“It left me with the realization that the monks
must have been keenly aware 
of their own humanity and imperfections. 
In order to refocus on God,
they engaged this annual practice
not only to endure sacrifice,
but to stress and rediscover their own shortcomings
in an effort to continually refine themselves.
Though they lived out their faith
at a higher degree of daily devotion than the average person,
they could sense their loss of focus.
Taking nothing for granted,
they took steps to rectify that problem on an annual basis.
Shouldn’t we all…?”

Just to be perfectly clear:
I’m not going on a beer fast this Lent—
and I don’t exactly recommend that you do, either. 
But doesn’t Mr. Wilson make some important points
for our consideration on this Ash Wednesday?

Lent is a time for us to get back to basics. 
The traditional practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—
which Jesus himself commends to us today—
are meant to strip away our attachments to the things of earth
that we might get greater clarity
and regain our focus on the things of heaven. 
Whatever your chosen Lenten discipline this year—
whether you plan to “give something up,”
do something extra, or some combination of the two—
make sure that it’s aim is to free you from distractions
and return your attention to what really matters in the end.

We are about to be marked with ashes. 
From ancient times,
ashes have been a vivid sign of the need for repentance.  
We were made from the dust of the earth,
and—on account of our sins—to that dust we shall one day return. 
It’s a fact we’d rather ignore or deny:
we are sinners destined for death. 
But we’re marked with those ashes in the form of a Cross. 
Although sinners, there is a God who loves us nonetheless—
loves us enough to send his Son to die for our salvation:
to die on the Cross that we might live forever. 
We’re sinners, yes…but we’ve been redeemed.

A most unusual fast helped J. Wilson
to distinguish between what he wants and what he needs. 
This Lent, whatever you do—on don’t do—
make sure its goal is to help you
want to know God and his loving mercy more than anything else. 
By God’s grace, maybe by Easter you’ll have then discovered
that God and his love are really all you ever need.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Time to Renew

A policeman stops a car and asks the driver, "Ma'am, do you know why I've pulled you over?" "Well it certainly wasn't for speeding, Officer," she answers. "No," he replies, "you weren't speeding. But I've been following you for awhile, which means I've observed you laying on the horn, making obscene gestures, and shouting rude comments to other drivers. So when I noticed your bumper stickersJesus is my copilot and Follow me to Sunday SchoolI couldn't help but assume that the car had been stolen..."

Make sure there's enough solid evidence to convict you of being a Christian! Do that by making a good Lent.

  Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

As most of you know,
I went on a brief trip this past week
So last Saturday night, I was packing my bags.
The plan was to fly out of Montréal on my way to Texas,
and as I was finishing up, I thought,
“I’d better grab my passport.”
Which is when, less than 24 hours before my flight,
I made the unfortunate discovery:
my passport had expired back in October.
As I paced around the darkened rectory,
I tried to figure out what I should do.
There’s no way to renew your passport in Malone, New York,
at 11:00pm on a Saturday night—I checked.
Maybe my enhanced drivers license would be enough?
I checked that, too…and it wouldn’t.
Maybe I could talk my way out of it—
after all, wouldn’t they take a priest at his word?
While I might be able to pull that off once,
there wasn’t much chance I’d get away with it four times
before returning home.
My U.S. citizenship, of course, hadn’t been revoked…
…it’s just that I didn’t have
any current, valid credentials to prove it.
Finally, deciding that I still really wanted to get to the ordination,
I broke down and bought all new plane tickets—
now flying out of Lebanon, New Hampshire,
at a much higher price,
and with much less desirable connections.
It was a humbling and costly mistake.

We’ve just heard again the familiar tale
of the call of Simon Peter, the fisherman.
It’s a striking vocation story.
As such, it’s frequently used to help people reflect upon
the particular vocation God has for each and every one of us—
the call to live singly or in Christian marriage,
to enter the clergy or the religious life.
This Sunday,
I want us to reflect instead on our common vocation:
the call we all share as the baptized.
We’ve all been called to drop our nets and follow Jesus,
to lead lives of real holiness,
to become saints.

You see, at Baptism,
we became citizens of the kingdom of God.
Nothing can change that:
our citizenship cannot be revoked.
Our baptismal calling remains throughout our lives.
But we can—and often do—take it for granted.
As an old saying goes,
“If you were arrested and changed with being a Christian,
would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
That I once was baptized,
or received the other sacraments in due course,
provides a vital foundation, to be sure.
But what about how I lead my life today?
What’s my level of involvement and commitment?
In other words: Do I have an up-to-date Catholic passport?
Do I have current, valid credentials
to prove my place within the Body of Christ?

Married couples commonly renew their vows
on significant anniversaries—
as do religious sisters and brothers.
We priests renew our priestly commitment each year
at the Chrism Mass in or around Holy Week.
But we will all have the opportunity
to renew the promises of our Baptism
as we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter.
It could easily be a hollow ritual for us—
simply repeating the words and going through the motions.
Or we could take the coming 40 days of Lent
and prepare to make this Easter a truly new beginning.

You see, the Season of Lent—which starts this Wednesday—
is the Church’s annual “grace period”
for renewing your spiritual passport.
The prayer and the fasting and the almsgiving—
all the things we choose to “give up”
and the extra things we promise to do—
should be more than a quaint religious custom:
they ought to aim at renewing our Christian life at its root.
Our many varied Lenten observances
should have but one common goal:
to get back to the heart of our baptismal vocation.
Am I becoming any more holy?
Do I take seriously the call to become a saint?
Do I hide behind my fears and feelings of inadequacy,
or am I prepared to leave everything to follow Jesus?
Will I take advantage of this coming Lent
to assemble current, valid credentials, proving beyond a doubt
that I’m a committed disciple of Jesus Christ?
We mustn’t forget, friends, that the stakes here are pretty high:
when it comes to reaching life’s final destination,
failure to keep our passport renewed
will result in less-than-desirable connections,
and may exact an extraordinary cost.

Our baptismal vocation is not a goal that we pursue,
but a call that we hear.
It’s not directed by our desires, but by God’s.
And deciding to obey the call of God’s voice
often involves doing things we simply don’t understand.
Noah had no clear idea why God told him to build that ark.
Moses led his people to the shore of the Red Sea
without a plan to get across it.
Mary couldn’t understand how she would be 
both a virgin and a mother.
And Peter lowered those nets again
even after a whole night without a catch.
We need to place out full trust in God’s plan,
rather than in our own limited understanding of things.
What we think is realistically achievable is far, far less—
our expectations are often much, much lower—
than the incredible possibilities God has in store
for those who willingly embrace their vocation
and heed his voice.

The gospel story we hear this Sunday
is of Simon Peter’s first call;
Jesus would call him to follow many times more—
every day, in fact.
The same is true for you and me.
So renew your spiritual passport!
Be always ready to go!
God wants to take you some amazing places!