Sunday, October 30, 2016

To Save What Was Lost

Our parish's patron, St. André Bessette, said, "The door to heaven is the heart of Jesus.  The key to this door is prayer and love."

 Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 
There are only three weeks left to the Jubilee of Mercy. When it commenced early last December, it did so as Catholic Holy Years have done for centuries: with the ceremonial opening of a Holy Door in Rome.

Across the front of St. Peter’s Basilica, there are five sets of bronze doors, and the pair farthest to the right (which, incidentally, is the smallest of the bunch) is designated as the Holy Door: open during a Jubilee year, but otherwise—literally—bricked up the rest of the time.  It’s a symbol of the way the doorway to God grace and mercy is open to us—during a Holy Year, and always. 

These Holy Doors are decorated with 16 bronze panels depicting scenes going all the way back to Adam and Eve and coming right up to modern times—scenes that depict stories of sin and forgiveness, of God’s mercy and our redemption.  My favorite among them is the one portraying the Good Shepherd.  This is not the Good Shepherd you’re used to from stained glass windows and holy cards: with a clean, pressed robe, perfectly quaffed hair, holding a mild-mannered lamb that looks like it just had its fleece shampooed.  No, this is a scene straight out of the parable we heard Jesus tell us seven Sundays ago: when the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine behind in pursuit of the one lost sheep.  This sheep is on the edge of a cliff, all tangled up in a thorn bush.  And the shepherd—clearly in a workingman’s clothes—is hanging on to the rocks for safety with one hand, and stretching as far as he can with the other, in his effort to bring this lost sheep back from the brink. 

Across the top of this bronze panel is a three-word Latin inscription: SALVARE QUOD PERIERAT, “to save what was lost.”  It the very last phrase of the gospel passage we have just heard: “The Son of Man has come to seek out and to save what was lost.”  That little phase captures the mission of every Holy Year—and this year of Mercy, in particular—which sends out the call anew that sinners are always welcome to come home.  And it’s the mission of every Holy Year because it’s the mission of the Church.  As Pope Francis is constantly reminding us, the Church was never intended to be a country club for the righteous, but a field hospital for sinners.  And it’s the mission of the Church because it’s the mission of Jesus Christ.  The Son of God came from heaven to earth where he lived, taught, healed, suffered, died, and rose again in order “to seek and to save what was lost.”

We see this mission illustrated so beautifully in the story of Zacchaeus—and what an example Jesus gives to you and me!

We’re told that Zacchaeus is short in stature…which makes it safe to assume he’d been teased and bullied about his height for most of his life.  We’re also told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector…which means we would have been regarded as a traitor and a serious sinner by his own people.  He may have been rich and prominent, but Zacchaeus wasn’t a well-liked or popular guy.  Zacchaeus has heard about this Jesus, who seems so different from all the rest, and so when Jesus is passing through Jericho, he climbs a tree to catch a glimpse. 

It’s when Jesus glimpses Zacchaeus that everything changes.  What does Jesus say to him?  He doesn’t embarrass him by asking, “What in the world are you doing up there?  You look ridiculous!”   (Even though it was true.)  And Jesus doesn’t say, “Repent, you sinner, or you’ll go to hell!”  (Even though, by rights, he could have.)  Instead, Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, I’m coming to stay at your house.”  Rather than the rejection and rebuke to which Zacchaeus was accustomed, or the reprimand he deserved, he finds acceptance, and even love.  Jesus treats him with mercy.   And because Zacchaeus knows that he is loved, although so undeserving, he’s able to find the courage to change his ways: to leave his sinful past behind, to make right the wrongs he has done, and even to move foreword with generosity.

How different is Jesus’ approach to “saving the lost” than the one we find at work in the world today!  Whether or not you use the Internet yourself, it has had a deep impact on the way people communicate with each other.  Because we can send messages at a distance, in ways that are impersonal and even anonymous, people now say things to and about one another in a very public fashion that, in earlier times, would never have been said even in private.  This has sadly happened among us Christians, too.  Instead of using the Internet as a tool to seek out and save the lost, it frequently gets used as a weapon to seek out and correct those who are wrong or to condemn those who have lost their way.

It’s pretty rare, my friends, that harsh words of condemnation will bring someone closer to Jesus or his Church…but merciful words and compassionate deeds will almost always open a door.  Daniel Burke (an American Catholic writer and speaker) puts it well when he says, “Love builds a bridge over which truth can pass.”  If people know that we love them and—through us—know that God loves them, then they can be open to hearing the truth: the truth about sin, and how it’s hurting them and others; the truth of the Gospel, of how God sent Jesus to save them by the Blood of his Cross.  But start by beating someone over the head with the truth…and they’ll likely slam the door on what was meant to be their redemption.

When in your own life have you experienced Jesus seeking and saving you?  How did you get lost, and how did the Lord bring you back?  Or maybe you’re still lost—or you’re lost again!  Do you know that you are loved?  Do you realize the lengths to which God has gone to lead you home?  And are we willing to share this experience of salvation with others so that they may experience it, too?

In three weeks, the Jubilee of Mercy will conclude as the Holy Doors in Rome are closed again…but mercy remains our mission always.  In a world of harsh and hateful talk, let’s be sure to build bridges of love over which the truth can then pass.  Let us never tire in our efforts to save those who are lost—grateful that Jesus never tires of seeking after us.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

All We Have Done

I preached this in the parishes in Lyon Mountain and Ellenburg, as their pastor (Fr. Tom Higman) is here to preach a Parish Mission for the Jubilee of Mercy.  Please pray for its success!

 Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

A parishioner came up to me Friday morning and said, “Father, I now know for certain who’s the bravest person in the entire world.”  I knew he was leading me on, but I nonetheless took the bait and asked, “Who is that?”  He answered, “It’s Cardinal Dolan of New York.  Last evening, he was the only thing sitting between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton…”

This has been quite a campaign season, hasn’t it?  No only does it get longer every time we do this, but it’s been so terribly negative.  The two mainline candidates for the White House have said so many harsh things about each other—as well as about others who disagree with their policies or positions. 

As troubling as that is, however, what should trouble us even more than how they speak about one another is how they speak about themselves.  Now, running for any public office obviously requires somebody to speak well of him- or herself.  If you don’t believe that you’re fit for office yourself, then why should anybody else give you their vote?  But the candidates this year carry on like they’re self-made people.  Their qualifications, their many achievements and accomplishments—they’d have us believe they’re singlehandedly responsible for every one of these.  I haven’t really heard any talk from them about their parents, or their teachers, or the person who gave them their first job, or folks who inspire them or whom they admire.  I’m just waiting for one of them to claim to have given birth to him- or herself!

Which brings us to the parable Jesus tells in this Sunday’s gospel—that of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple.  The tax collector stands boldly up front, listing his many religious credentials—his fasting, his tithes, how he’s better than the rest of sinful humanity.  Notice that St. Luke tells us that he even “spoke this prayer to himself,” rather than to the Lord.  In effect, he’s telling God, “Thanks for the offer of your help, but I’ve got this.  No need to worry about me.  I’ll make my own way to heaven.  See you when I get there.”  Meanwhile, the tax collector kneels humbly in the back, pouring out his heart: “Lord, I’m nothing before you.  I’ve made of mess of my life.  Only with your help could I do anything worthwhile.  Have mercy on this sinner!”

See the difference?  One think’s he’s self-made; the other knows he’s God-made.

You’ll see us priests often walking around with our breviaries—our book of daily prayers.  As we repeat the cycle every four weeks, on certain Tuesday mornings we pray words from the twenty-sixth chapter of Isaiah that echo in my mind time and time again: “It is you, Lord, who have accomplished all we have done.”  It’s the whole people of Israel who are praying these words.  They’ve been speaking to God about their nation: about it’s firm foundations, about the strength of Jerusalem, about the way they live in justice and peace.  But they’re not celebrating any of this as their own achievement.   “It is you, Lord, who have accomplished all we have done.” 

And that same prayer should constantly be on all of our lips!

This is World Mission Sunday.  It’s easy on a day like today to think about the men and women who bravely carry the Gospel to foreign lands—and rightly we’re called upon to support their efforts.  But this is also a day to recall that, by virtue of our Baptism, every Christian is sent on mission, to spread the good news wherever we are: where we live and work, where we play and pray.  Sort of like those who are running for elected office, that means we need to speak about ourselves: to share our own faith.  But we American Catholics aren’t very good at this.  It makes us very self-conscious.  We think of our faith not only as something very personal, but as something very private.  Yet if we just look around (the current presidential campaign being a prime example), we can see what happens when Christians fail to speak up and people do not hear about Jesus and the commands he gave us.  Our mission, my friends, isn’t to speak about ourselves, but to speak about Jesus Christ.  What we need to tell others isn’t, “See what great things I do for God!” but, “See what great things God does for me!”  Without him, we’re nothing and can achieve very little; with him, we see our immeasurable value and that all things become possible. 

I think we all need to be brave as Election Day approaches this year.   Let me tell you who to choose: choose Jesus Christ—this November, and forever after.   Choose to follow in the humble way he taught us.  Choose to praise him by the way you live each day.  Choose to speak of him to your family, friends, and neighbors.  Let everyone know that it is Jesus who has accomplished all you have done.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

For Battle

We've sure got a lot to pray about these days, don't we?

 Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 
It was the fall of 1571.  It’s no exaggeration to say that the very existence of Western civilization and the future of Christianity were on the line.  The Protestant Reformation was in full swing.  Martin Luther and his followers had left the Catholic fold, and the divisions, the fracturing, had continued on from the there.  The King of England, over the question of his own divorce, had declared himself the head of the Church in that country.  Political players took full advantage of the situation, such that theological differences gave rise to civic disturbances and violent clashes.

The Christians of Europe were fighting amongst and against themselves.

Needless to say, the enemies of Christianity watched all of this with rather keen interest.  The Ottoman Turks had already conquered the Christian East; they now set their sights on Europe.  The fortified city of Belgrade fell.  Vienna was repeatedly and ruthlessly attacked.  The kingdom of Hungary was invaded—an ancient Christian land that would now endure more than 200 years of Muslim rule.  The Ottomans next took to the seas, and their navy was quickly gaining control of the Mediterranean—apparently, with eyes on Spain.  Danger was all around.

Pope Pius V set out to—literally—rally the troops, calling on the leaders of traditionally Christian nations to band together for their common defense.  Some refused because they were preoccupied with uprisings at home; others, having become Protestants, could no longer conscience fighting at the side of Catholics.  The few who answered the Pope’s plea joined forces to form what became known as the Holy League.  While the troops made their plans, the Pope enacted a plan of his own: he ordered churches to remain open day and night and asked Catholics in the strongest terms possible to pray for victory—specifically, to pray the Rosary.  All the men in the Christian fleet were likewise told to pray the Rosary and go to confession.  There would be no “cursing like sailors” on these ships, nor any drunkenness.  Their mission was seen as a holy one.

And so, on October 7, 1571, even though the weather was against them and they appeared to be outnumbered, the Holy League engaged the Ottomans.  And they won.  It was not to be the final battle against this enemy, but it was the day that the tide decisively turned.  And Pope Pius, although thousands of miles away in Rome, in an age without telephones, satellites, or the Internet, knew for certain that the Christian fleet had triumphed.  He called for prayers of thanksgiving, and declared the day to be a feast: a new feast of the Virgin Mary, first known as the feast of Our Lady of Victory and later—still to this day—known as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.  It may strike us as rather odd to mark the anniversary of a fierce battle by honoring the Queen of Peace but, much like the Fourth of July or Veterans Day, it’s a date set aside to recall the workings of Divine Providence and how, with Mary’s motherly intercession, God had been our sure defender, fighting right at our side.

Why give you this history lesson today?  Because, while reflecting on this Sunday’s first reading, I couldn’t help but think of the Battle of Lepanto.

A little background helps us to better understand the story about the battle between Israel and the Amalekites.  Moses was leading the Israelites through the desert on their forty-year journey to the Promised Land.  And what did the people do along most of the way of their exodus?  They grumbled against Moses and fought amongst themselves.  In the verses immediately before those we hear this morning, they’re complaining loudly about their thirst.  “We have no water out in this desert!  Has God abandoned us?”  And, again proving his great faithfulness, God provides for his own, making water gush forth from the rock.

Now they’re under attack from a fierce enemy.  Squabbling among themselves, they’d been rather vulnerable, but when they instead support one another—as is literally the case with Moses, who has Aaron and Hur at his sides—they cannot be defeated.  Instead of cursing God and each other, they seek the Lord’s blessing.  Instead of tearing each other down, they lift each other up.  When they stick together, when they keep the faith, God gains the victory on their behalf.

Do these stories from ages past sound strangely familiar?  Sadly, they should.  In this contentious election season, marked by so much bitterness and ugliness, we have been turning on one another.  Our country is changing, and not for the better.  I don’t blame this on the campaign;  Actually, I think the campaign is holding up a mirror revealing in large part who we’ve already become.  People are being viciously torn down by those trying to climb their way to the top.  Suspicions are high.  Curses are constantly being hurled.   And while we make enemies of one another, our real enemies stand back and laugh.  To be clear: I’m not talking here so much of those enemies who hack emails or make bombs or plot terrorist attacks, as I am about the unseen Enemy whose prize is our souls.  He’ll have no need to wage war against us if we’re doing such a good job of waging it against ourselves.

Now, I’m not trying to incite a holy war here.  This isn’t a call to arms; it’s a plea for unity.  My concern in preaching today isn’t about the victory of any candidate or party, nor about the domination of any particular country; it’s about the victory of truth and goodness.  That, my friends, is something we can all get behind!  And for that we need to work and to pray.

At the end of this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus asks the chilling question, “When the Son of Man comes again, will he find any faith on the earth?”  Sadly, it’s an all-too-legitimate question—in our own age, as it has been in earlier times.  Jesus’ teaching isn’t only about being persistent in prayer.  We’re not like the widow who must fight hard against an unjust judge in order to secure her rights; we, rather, stand before the Lord of heaven and earth, the judge of the living and the dead, who’s more than willing to come to our aid.  Jesus isn’t simply encouraging us to persevere in prayer; he wants us to pray that we might persevere, despite the struggle, to the very end. 

The battle is on, my friends.  So let’s make sure we’re fighting against the real enemy—and not against each other.  We need to stick together.  We need to bless, not curse.  We need to pray—it’s our most powerful weapon!  Instead of tearing one another down, let’s be sure to hold one another up.  And then God’s victory will be ours.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Mountain Men

On Monday, we took advantage of the holiday and led a "guys only" hike up Catamount Mountain with some men from the parish.  It was a beautiful day with gorgeous views (after a challenging climb: almost 2,400 feet of elevation gained over just 1.8 miles on the trail) spent with a great group of men...

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Giving Thanks

 Twenty-Eigthth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

Not quite two weeks ago, one of our younger parishioners (I believe she’s four years old) left a very unique gift for me in my office: a beet from her garden.  I guess it was awhile before when she’d said, “That one’s for Fr. Joe,” and so, when the harvest was gathered in, it made it’s way to me.  Now you need to understand that this was no ordinary beet: it was the biggest beet I’ve ever seen.  (It was so big, in fact, I thought it might be a turnip!)  Think of a really large grapefruit…and it was even bigger than that.

I knew that such a kind and generous gift needed to be properly acknowledged, and so I sent her a small thank you note a couple of days later.  A couple of days after that, her proud father showed me a photo he’d taken on his phone: it was his daughter asleep, her head on her pillow, curled up with my thank you card.  He said that she’d insisted on going to bed with it for a few days.

Now, I know that this young lady was clinging to more than a small piece of heavy paper.  It was a stand-in for something more precious—a sort of sacrament, if you will, of my appreciation.  Likewise, the beet she gave me was more than an impressive piece of produce (and a very tasty one, at that).  In the process of giving, receiving, and responding with thanks, we had exchanged more than presents and pleasantries; we’d exchanged a small part of ourselves.  And what do we call it when you give of yourself to another person, or give of yourself for another person?  Of course, we call that love.  She’d done much more than bring me a gift; we’d been brought a bit closer together.

It would be easy enough to hear the readings from Sacred Scripture this Sunday and imagine them simply to be a divine reminder of the good manners which we ought to have learned as children: “Always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’!”  But it runs so much deeper than that.  We’re always missing out when, in receiving a gift, we focus our attention on the thing we have received, rather than on the one who has given it.  And how that is especially the case with God!  God’s great delight in bestowing his blessings upon us isn’t in the good things he can provide; it’s in the chance to draw us closer to himself.  Likewise, our delight in responding mustn’t be so much in the gift as it is in the Giver.  Clearly, the Samaritan leper understood this, and that’s what led him right back to thank Jesus.

We have come together before the altar, as we do Sunday after Sunday, to celebrate the most blessed of the Sacraments: the one we call the Eucharist, which comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.”  It truly is right and just, our duty and, yes, even our very salvation, to give God thanks—most especially to do so here, where the Gift and the Giver are perfectly one.  

May our gratitude be more than a matter of proper etiquette.  May it draw us ever closer to the Lord.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

To the Point

Wednesday-Thursday took me and couple of others out on the trail to catch some glimpses of peak fall foliage.  We spent the night on Kelly Point, along the southeastern shore of Long Lake (on a section of the Northville-Placid Trail).  A hike of just over 4 miles took us to a pair on lean-tos on the site of a long gone hotel (the relics of which included a mighty impressive set of stone steps down leading toward the water).

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Start Small

The kids got an interactive version of this (with a little show-and-tell) at the 11:00am Mass. You can rest assured I got several reminders not to play with matches...

 Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

Life is full of examples of small things that end up becoming big things.  Think of the cute little puppy that used to curl up on your lap…and now knocks you over when you come through the door.  Think of the tiny misunderstanding with a friend…that somehow turned into World War III.  Think of the minor repair you needed to make in the kitchen…which ended in an extreme makeover.

This Sunday, the Church presents us with three examples of little things that can become big things.  In the gospel, Jesus speaks of faith that’s the size of a mustard seed.  In the second reading, St. Paul writes to Timothy of a small fire within: stirring into flame the gift of God we have received.  And on this Respect Life Sunday, we’re reminded of the tiny, hidden, vulnerable origins of each and every precious human life.

Within the smallest of seeds lie the largest of plants.  Even California redwoods sprout from a little seed.  A single match can be used to light a fire of many sizes: a candle or a campfire, for example; whether from carelessness or malice, it can also set ablaze a home or an entire forest.  Smaller yet than a match or a mustard seed is the human person it his first hours and days…but filled with almost limitless potential.

What’s it take for a seed to grow?  Soil and water, sunshine and fertilizer.  And how about a flame?  Air and fuel.  A child?  Food and drink, safe shelter and education…

But all three of these things take something else besides: they need space to grow.  Plant a seed in the wrong part of your garden, and that plant will be stunted, if it even comes up.  Without enough room, a fire will be stifled or snuffed out.  Around nine months, a child wants out of the womb…and will continue to need more and more space to crawl and run, to play and learn…

The examples of the seed and the flame that the Church gives us this Sunday are metaphors.  The seed represents faith; even a small amount can accomplish what seemed impossible.  The flame is the fire of the Holy Spirit, who guides us on our way.  The little child, of course, is no metaphor at all; life is God’s most fundamental gift—the one necessary before all others.

It is God, of course, who plants the seeds of faith, who lights the spark of his Spirit in our hearts, who alone is the source of new life.  And it’s God who provides all the fertilizer, all the fuel, and all the food required.  It falls to us to give each of these the room necessary to grow.  Faith is God’s gift, but it needs room to grow.  We need to give it more than an hour on Sunday morning.  If we want the Lord to increase our faith, as the apostles prayed, then we must more and more entrust ourselves to him—each day, and throughout the day.  The Holy Spirit who dwells within us is also the gift of God, but he, too, needs room to move.  If we desire to live a truly spiritual, Spirit-led life, then we must leave enough room to hear him speak and then follow the direction he shows us—not merely in theory, but in concrete practice.  Human life, of course, if God’s gift as well…but there’s less and less space set aside for it these days.  We need to make room for the gift of life in our families, in our society, in our laws—first and foremost, in each of our hearts—recognizing that life at its most vulnerable, in its first or last days, is not a burden that can be eliminated but a blessing to be embraced.

The prophet tells us that the just man, the righteous one, lives by faith.  The life of faith, the life of the Spirit, like the flesh-and-blood life of our bodies, is a heaven-sent gift.  God plants the seed and lights the spark.  God provides all the food and the fuel we need.  Let’s make sure we always leave plenty of room for God's gifts to grow.