Sunday, September 25, 2016


 Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 
The parable Jesus tells us this Sunday is chock full of foundational truths of our Catholic faith.  First, it teaches us the truth of the immortality of the soul: God made us to live forever; we have a definite beginning, but will not have an end.  It teaches us of the existence of heaven and hell: what we’ve done (or what we’ve failed to do) in time will have real and lasting consequences in eternity.  The parable teaches us about the dignity of the human person: every human life has immense value—not because of what it can accomplish, but simply because it has been created by God—and that dignity must be honored.  Finally, it even hints at the very core of Christian faith: the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But even with so many central beliefs contained within this one parable, there’s yet another that I believe is still more basic.

What is the essential difference between Lazarus and the rich man?  No, I’m not talking about money.  I’m not even talking about the wide gap between their eternal destinies.  The main difference is that only one of them realizes that he’s a beggar.

You see, the rich man thinks of himself as self-made.  He flaunts his accomplishments with daily banquets and flashy clothes.  He considers himself as the source of his own notable success.  And if he can succeed so well, then why can’t anybody?  Ought not everyone—including the poor man lying at his gate—do something to get ahead?

In being so full of himself, the rich man has left no room for God.

Meanwhile, having so precious little, Lazarus clearly recognizes his total dependence on God—even for the small comfort he gets from the neighborhood dogs.  Whatever he gets, no matter how small the scrap, is a gift to be received with gratitude. 

And what Lazarus recognizes, we all must recognize.  Consider even just the bare necessities for life.  When it comes to food—sure, I can plant seeds…but I can’t make them grow.  I can construct a simple shelter…but can’t create the stones or trees from which to build it.  We require air and water…and while we can protect or pollute them, no one of us can make them from scratch.  And what’s true of the needs of the body is equally true when it comes to the soul.  How complete is our reliance on God!

Do you see now the essential split between the rich man and Lazarus?  And realizing this makes all the difference in how we understand the parable!  Without this distinction, Jesus can seem to be teaching that, as long as we’re good to the less fortunate, then heaven is guaranteed: you do this, and God will certainly do that.  But such thinking makes God into a taskmaster, not the Lord of love and mercy we meet in the Gospel!  The parable’s message is actually quite the opposite.  God owes us nothing, and yet gives us everything.  And when we recognize that everything’s a gift, everything’s a grace—not what’s due to us, but the fruit of divine love—then we’re moved to share what we’ve been given with others. 

Next year will be the five-hundredth anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-nine grievances on the cathedral door, sparking the Protestant Reformation.  As you might easily imagine, I’m not in full agreement with everything Luther said or did.  But there’s something that he most definitely got entirely right.  On his deathbed, Martin Luther took a small scrap of paper and scribbled six simple words in German, which translate: “We’re all beggars.  This is true.”

We are all beggars.  And we’re never more beggars then when we kneel here before the Lord’s Table and ask of him our daily bread. 

Freely we receive; freely we must give.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Two Lovely Lasses

In posts over the years, you've met my friend Lawrence Bartel: for the last 12 years, the pastor of Niccolls Memorial Presbyterian Church in Old Forge.  It was with Lawrence that I hiked the Northville-Placid Trail three years ago, and paddled the "90 Miler" twice.  (Truth be known: all three adventures were at his instigation.)

Lawrence has accepted a new call, and is moving with his family to Oxford, Ohio, next week.  We arranged a little time in our schedules for one last jaunt in the Adirondacks...but, alas, the realities of packing and tying up loose ends forced Lawrence to miss out at the last minute.

I decided to go ahead with the trip nonetheless, and even stick with the destination he'd suggested--one which was entirely new to me.

Wednesday afternoon, I drove to Lake Lila.  It was about 85 miles southwest from Malone: 13 miles off the main road (Route 30 between Tupper Lake and Long Lake), the last 8 of them unpaved (and a few before that just barely so).  I brought my kayak, packed it full of my gear (rather more full than I think one ought), and paddled out into this new-to-me body of water.

I'd heard Lawrence and others speak of the beauty of Lake Lila in almost mythic terms.  Spending 24 hours there myself, I now understand why.

The water was rather rough as I made my way to Spruce Island...

...the lone campsite on which would be my home for the night.  I got my camp set up... plenty of time to enjoy a stunning sunset.

Being a clear night, and in the middle of a lake in the middle of nowhere, I had an unobstructed angle on the Milky Way.  And being on an island means you get both sunset and sunrise views.

Rising up from Lake Lila's western shore is Mount Frederica (2170 feet)...

...whose summit cliffs provide a stunning perspective on the lake (and pretty nice place to eat lunch).

At its base are the remnants of the Nehasane train station, which once welcomed the well-heeled to this neck of the woods.

I'm so glad Lawrence arranged for me to meet Lila and Frederica, even if he couldn't be there in person for the introductions.  He certainly came along in my thoughts and prayers.  Though they'll take a bit more arranging, I fully suspect there are more shared Adirondack adventures in our future.  In the meantime, I bid my dear friend and his family a safe trip and a warm welcome in their new home.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


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!