Sunday, October 15, 2017

How's My Hair?

 Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

In the spring of my first year of seminary study in Rome, my parents came over for a visit.  This would be their first transatlantic flight, and I wanted to be sure everything went smoothly during their stay in the Eternal City.  I met them at the airport, brought them into town on the train, and got them settled in their room.  My main objective for the rest of that first day was to keep them awake—knowing that going to bed at a somewhat normal hour would help them with the jetlag.  So, despite their being rather tired, we walked around quite a bit that afternoon. 

Before heading out to get an early supper, I stopped by the seminary where I found a message waiting for me at the main gate.  It contained some wonderful news: we’d been granted front row tickets for the next day’s papal audience, which meant we were going to be able to meet—and get our picture taken with—Pope John Paul II.  So we immediately walked some more—a brisk half hour across the city—to pick up our prized tickets before the visitor’s office closed.

In the midst of their exhaustion, and while verifying all the details for our early start the next morning, I remember my mother’s lone preoccupation (and she won’t be too pleased that I’m sharing this): she didn’t have a hairdryer.  For the record, I just looked over those 20-year-old photos and, I must say, even without a dryer, her hair looks much better than mine!


It’s only natural that we want to look our best—better yet, be at our best—when we have the high honor of meeting someone of importance.  And that basic human instinct lies behind the parable we’ve just heard.  Often enough (and I’ve done this myself), a preacher will use this gospel story to remind folks that it’s a good idea to dress up nice for Mass.  But the message Jesus wants to convey runs far deeper than fashion sense or etiquette.

Jesus tells the story of a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son; as in all his similar parables, we know that the king must be God the Father, and the king’s son is, of course, Jesus himself.

Have you noticed in recent years that couples are often sending out two invitations for their wedding: a first that says, “Save the date,” and a second that contains all the details?  That’s not a new trend, but was the common practice in Jesus’ day: messengers would be sent out first to tell guests that the big day was coming, and later to let everyone know the feast was now ready.  Who are these two sets of messengers?  First come the prophets, telling people to prepare, for the Day of the Lord is coming; next sent are the Apostles, who announce that what was long-awaited has now arrived.  And who are the people on that initial guest list?  The people of Israel, of course.

How is the invitation received?  Some choose to ignore it, reneging on their original acceptance—they have “more important” things to do; others outright spurn it, attacking the messengers and in so doing rebelling against the one who sent them.  Both responses have dire consequences.  The king’s reaction is rather startling and severe, but Jesus thus manages to get our attention and make it clear that, while this is simply a story, the message it conveys is pretty serious—in fact, a matter of life and death.

When those first invited prove themselves unworthy, the invitation is then extended far and wide: the mission turns to the Gentiles.  And with his banquet hall now full, the king goes out to work the crowd a bit, and his attention falls on one guest in particular: a man without a wedding garment.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that a poor man is being scolded because he failed to rent an expensive tuxedo; scholars tell us the man simply hadn’t put on a clean outfit.  With little notice, my mother managed to find a way—without a hairdryer—to fix herself up to meet the pope; even with a last minute invitation, one can find the time to change out of dirty work clothes before attending a royal wedding.  And as it was for those who disregarded or despised the original invitation, so too there are consequences for those who would presume to partake of the feast when not properly prepared.


Hence Jesus concludes, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”  God’s kingdom is open to all, but not all will prove worthy of it.  Some will decline the Lord’s invitation, and so exclude themselves; other will accept the call, but then fail to follow through on all of its demands.

So, what does all of that mean for you and me in the here and now?  To figure that out, we need to answer two more questions.

(1) What character is missing from the story?  The bride, of course!  It’s kind of hard to have a wedding without her.  If the king’s son is Jesus, then what new reality is being celebrated?  The marriage of heaven and earth, of God and man, of Christ and the Church.  Which means that you are the bride!  This parable is about God’s passionate desire to enter into a personal relationship with you, to be intimately united with your soul.

(2) And what is the wedding garment we’re expected to wear?  The righteousness that comes with conversion to Jesus Christ.  What needs changing is not our clothing, but our lives; what needs to be washed clean is not our laundry, but our hearts.  We need to “put on Christ” (cf. Rm 13:14, Eph 4:24, Gal 3:27).

God has graciously extended the invitation, but as to a response, the choice is completely up to us.  This parable reveals four possibilities:

(A) We can ignore it or quietly decline, going back to our previous pursuits, acting as if nothing was really changed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as if nothing new or different is required of us.

(B) We can respond with indignation, get defensive or hostile, because the invitation to accept a Savior also means admitting that I’m a sinner who needs saving, and such a call to repentance threatens things with which I’ve grown quite comfortable, things I’ve convince myself that I need to be happy.

(C) We can allow our conversion to remain incomplete, neither ignoring nor refusing the call, but also not permitting our initial “yes” to carry through into the rest of our day-to-day life, hoping to reap all the rewards of the kingdom but without having to leave all of our old, sinful ways behind.

(D) Or, we can wholeheartedly accept it—holding nothing back.

The King of Heaven
requests the honor of your presence 
at a banquet for the marriage of his dearly beloved Son.  

How are you responding to that personal invitation?  Forget about your hairdryer!  In what sort of garment are you dressing your soul?
   

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Happy Camper

So, you might be wondering why there was no homily posted last Sunday.  We'll, I started last weekend with one of my "usual" camp-outs (Thursday-Friday), enjoying a good hike through the woods and a night spent on the shore of Little Green Pond (near Lake Clear) with Fr. Stitt.





It's when I left Little Green Pond that things got a LOT more interesting.

I headed next to Newcomb, where I had registered to take part in Philosophers' Camp.  Back in 1858, 10 prominent New England intellectuals (including Ralph Waldo Emerson) gathered on the shores of Follensby Pond in the Adirondacks (incidentally, not too terribly far from Little Green Pond) where they spent several days "roughing it" in the wild, discussing the important matters of the day.



Beginning in the fall of 2015, SUNY ESF's Northern Forest Institute (Newcomb) and St. John's College (Annapolis/Santa Fe) revived the tradition, opening the invitation to a small group of interested folks to come together for a weekend at ESF's beautiful Masten House on remote Henderson Lake to discuss carefully selected works around a particular theme.






I picked up a brochure about Philosophers' Camp when I was visiting friends in Newcomb back in August, and my curiosity was immediately piqued.  I took the plunge and signed up!

So I found myself around the table Friday through Sunday engaged in lively and engaging seminars with 15 others who'd come from the North Country/Adirondacks and rural Kentucky, from New York City, Baltimore, and Santa Fe.  In the mix we had college professors and high school teachers, a psychiatrist and some philanthropists, an artist and a poet, an organic farmer and a genetic engineer.  And did I mention a Catholic priest was thrown in, too, for variety's sake?

Not only was the conversation fascinating and far-ranging (and often, rather fun, too), but we also enjoyed some good food and drink, as well as time exploring our wild surroundings.  Some took a hike through the woods; I joined the crew that canoed on Henderson Lake to take in the stunning view of Wallace Mountain which flanks Indian Pass.









It was not the usual company I keep, nor my usual wilderness outing...but Philosophers' Camp was sure a delightful way to spend a weekend in the Adirondacks!
   

Gardening at Night

 Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

What were you doing at 4:30am this morning?  (When I asked a couple of guys this question at the 8:00am, one said he was doing dishes and the other said he was watching sports on TV.  I should have known I’d be talking with early risers at the early Mass!)  Most reasonable folks were sleeping…which is what I wanted to be doing.  But at 4:25am, the emergency pager went off.  Groggy and bleary-eyed, I called the hospital to find out what was going on.  The nurse told me there was an elderly woman in the ER—let’s call her “Gertrude”—who wanted to see a priest.  I asked if it was an emergency.  She answered, “No, not really.  If you waited and came at, like, 8:00am, or even later, I’m sure it would be OK.”  Naturally, I then asked why she’d gotten me out of bed.  “I didn’t get you out of bed!” she replied.  I’m pretty sure she was trying to be funny…but I’m not very good at getting jokes at 4:30am.  So I said, “Just tell Gertrude I’ll be there in a little while.”

As I was making my bed, I was spittin’-and-sputterin’.  And while I brushed my teeth, I grumbled.  And as I was getting into the shower, I was about to say, “Gotta look my best for Gertrude!” when I caught myself and said instead, “Gotta look my best for Jesus!” since he’s the one who had really called me out at such an early hour.


On my way to the ER, I got thinking about all of this in light of today’s gospel reading.  This is the third Sunday in a row that Jesus takes us into the vineyard.  The parable we’ve just heard isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy one.  In fact, it’s got some rather sharp edges.  The landowner sends one messenger after another into his vineyard…and the first they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.  Understandably, we hear of these messengers and think of the prophets, who were given such poor receptions by God’s people.  But wasn’t Gertrude also a messenger of the Lord?   Had not the beloved Son called for me in the guise of a frightened old lady in a hospital bed?  How many other times had I failed to recognize him, or treated him poorly, because I was too focused on my own plans, on my own needs, on my own desires?

Jesus is clearly addressing his pointed parable to those who have been appointed to tend the vineyard: to the chief priests and elders; to the religious leaders of the day.   Deacon Nick and Deacon Brent—that now includes the two of you.  As Bishop LaValley reminded you in his homily at your ordination yesterday, the gift you have received isn’t for yourself, but for the Church.   Your ordination isn’t about gaining the power and authority to get your own way, but to be of service in the name and in the likeness of Christ.

But that message isn’t only for the clergy.  Jesus is clearly basing his parable on one told by Isaiah nearly 500 years before.  And in Isaiah’s song of the vineyard, it’s the vines that have yielded, not the sweet fruit that was desired, but wild, sour grapes.  God has done so much to nurture and cultivate us!  He’s given us the Scriptures and the Sacraments and the saints.  He’s given us the communion and community of the Church.  He has every right to expect a good and bountiful harvest from us!  Can we honestly say that we’re we giving him his due?


In the aftermath of terrible shootings in Las Vegas, many people have been asking this week, “How could something like that happen?  Why would anybody do it?”  The answer comes from the same dark place in the human heart that could cause one to get up on the wrong side of the bed, or to mistreat or disparage or reject another person.  St. Paul’s message this morning is so timely.  He tells us to have no anxiety at all, to be at peace.  And in a world marred by our sinfulness, he tells us how to find that peace—how to live by God’s grace: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.  Then the God of peace will be with you.”

My friends, let us live each day—no matter the hour—with our eyes fully open, that we might recognize Jesus whenever he comes, no matter his current disguise.  Let us always bring forth—through acts of love and mercy, thought our care and compassion for one another—the rich, sweet fruit of the kingdom that God’s so desires from us.
   

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Harvest Time

 Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

A rich old man was dying.  He sent for his accountant and his lawyer to come and sit by his bed as he died.  After a long, awkward silence, one of them asked, “Sir, why have you called us here?”   “Because I want to die like Jesus,” he answered, “between two thieves.”


We know that Jesus hung on his Cross between two thieves.  But who stood there below at his feet?  His Mother, of course, and Mary Magdalene.   But also his Apostle, John.  John had been one of the very first to follow Jesus, called from his fishing nets on the seashore.  He left his job and family, walking the dusty roads of Palestine with Jesus for years, following him all the way to Calvary—the only Apostle to do so.  And after the Resurrection, John took the Virgin Mary into his home, caring for her during the rest of her earthly life.  He wrote one of the four Gospels for us, and four other books in the New Testament.  It’s believed he died in his 90’s, after a long and full career in the Lord’s service.

It’s safe to guess that St. John has a pretty high place in heaven—right?  (Of course, he and his brother James were hoping for just that, once asking Jesus for seats to his right and his left in his kingdom!)

Now, back to those two thieves.  What do we know about them?  From their own words, we know they were guilty as charged and received a just punishment for their crimes…which tells us they’d been arresting for something far worse than shoplifting.  What’s the difference between the two?  One of them mocks and reviles Christ, but the other, seemingly now repentant for his sins, says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  What a beautiful profession of faith!  This hardened criminal is able to look at the man crucified beside him and see, not only one who is innocent, but a King whose reign is beyond this life and even this world.  And how does Jesus answer him?  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  That makes the “good thief” the only saint to have been personally canonized by Jesus!

Is it also safe to guess that the “good thief” has a pretty high place in heaven?

But wait.  St. John had dedicated 70 years or more to following Christ, and given up everything.  How long was the “good thief” a disciple?  Only minutes or hours!  And what had he given up?  You might say he’d given up his former ways…but that’s easy enough to do when you’re dying and there’s absolutely no chance you’ll return to them anyway.  How could it possibly be fair for them both to receive the same eternal reward?

Such a contrast between these two saints is a perfect parallel to the parable Jesus tells us this Sunday.  The parable of the workers in the vineyard is probably the one with which Christians struggle the most.  It’s not fair!  But we must remember Jesus wasn’t teaching us about labor relations or encouraging people to join the union.  He tells us this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven.  And, because of that, it contains many important points for us to ponder.  I want to consider three of them with you this Sunday.

Who is the “landowner” in the parable?  God, of course.  And what does this parable tell us about him?  That God is amazingly generous.   First, that landowner is generous in his hiring practices.  If it’s 5:00pm, and quitting time is 6:00pm, and nobody’s hired you yet…there just might be a good reason for that.  But he hires such folks anyway.  And then there’s the salaries.  Everybody got the amount specified in their contract, right?  No one was cheated out of what they deserved.  It’s just that most of the workers got even more than they deserved—many, a whole lot more.  The bonus was a pure gift.  Our God is exceedingly generous.

Who are the “workers” in the parable?  Well, that’s us.  And what are they doing before they got hired?  Absolutely nothing.  So what does that say about you and me?  That from God’s perspective, we often look pretty idle.  (Remember what God says through his prophet, Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways you ways….”)  It makes me think of a bumper sticker I’ve seen a few times:  “Jesus is coming.  Look busy!”  Most of us feel exceptionally busy these days—even if we’re technically retired.  But we’re busy about our own affairs, with the things of this world, rather than busy about God’s affairs, with the things of heaven.


What were those workers hired to do in the vineyard?  Most likely, it was to bring in the harvest.  And what is the harvest God wants us to gather into his kingdom?  Souls!  We have been given a share in the mission of Jesus: to win souls for eternal life.  That’s the “fruitful labor” St. Paul talks about—unable to decide if he prefers death or life, since dying means heaven but life means bring more people to Christ.  Do you want to go to heaven?  It’s going to take some effort though, right?  Not because it’s the wage due a job well done, but because we ought to lead lives worthy of such an incredible gift.  And I suspect you’d be willing to work a bit at getting those who came with you to Mass this morning into heaven, too.  But about those who aren’t at Mass today—those we only see at Christmas and Easter?  What about those who never go to this or any church anywhere ever?  How much are you willing to do to get them to heaven?  One of the motivations for getting to heaven is knowing about the alternative.  If we really believe that there’s a hell, then what must we think of our fellow human beings—friend or stranger—if we don’t do everything in our power to keep them out of it?  There’s a huge harvest out there, ripe for the picking—but the season is limited.  And God is always hiring.

In response to our most generous God, let’s be sure not to stand idly by, but to get right to work at gathering in souls, that together with St. John and the “good thief” we might celebrate a most bountiful harvest and live with the Lord Jesus forever.
    

Sunday, September 17, 2017

All Is Forgiven

 Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

This is one of those stories that I couldn’t verify if it were true…but it really ought to be.

A man in a large South American city placed an ad in the local newspaper addressed to his estranged son: Juan, Meet me at the Grand Plaza Hotel on Thursday at 6:00pm.  All is forgiven.  Love, Your Father


His son saw the ad and arrived at the hotel at the appointed time.  But he found himself lost in an immense crowd: hundreds of young men all named Juan—every single one of them looking to be reunited with his own father.

Have you ever noticed how often “forgiveness” comes up in the course of every Mass?
In the Penitential Act: “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”  During the Gloria: “…you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us….”  In the Creed: “I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  At the Consecration: “…the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins….”  During the Lord’s Prayer: “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….”  Before Holy Communion: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world….”  It comes up so often because forgiveness is God’s business.  And he’s rather extravagant about it.  We’re not just dealing with a Master to whom we owe an exceptionally large amount; we’re dealing with our Maker, to whom we owe absolutely everything.  As St. Paul reminds the Romans, “Both in life and death, we are the Lord’s.”

If God is so lavish with us—even in our sinfulness—how can we be tightfisted with one another?

Jesus lived and died and rose again, not simply to make us feel good or give us an example of how to “be nice,” but to heal a fatal wound, to bridge a gaping chasm: that sins may be forgiven.  And we’ve been given the most amazing privilege of sharing in that mission by extending forgiveness to one another.  In fact, as we’re reminded each and every time we repeat the Lord’s Prayer, we can only truly know that we’ve been forgiven when we pass it on to another.

Waiting to be forgiven is interminable.  That’s why God wastes no time in making the offer, and repeats it many more than seventy-seven times.  But he doesn’t print it in the newspaper.  He sends the message to us alive, in his Word made flesh: All is forgiven.  Love, Your Father.

Let’s be sure not to withhold from our brothers and sisters what God has so graciously extended to us.

with much inspiration taken from Fr. Lawrence Donohoo, O.P. 
   

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Gathering

No homily for you this Sunday: Fr. Scott preached so I could help with the launch of our new Family Catechesis program...

 Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 



Sunday, September 3, 2017

Got Your Compass?

 Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

Four nuns and a priest pile into a car.  (This is not a joke, but a true story!)  It was December, six or seven years ago, while the Grey Nuns were still working here in the parish.  I was going with them to a celebration outside of Montréal in honor of St. Marguerite d’Youville, the foundress of their order.  Besides the five of us, I seem to recall there also being in the car two GPSs and a printed sheet with directions.  As you can imagine, they never all agreed with one another at the most crucial junctures…

We found ourselves moving right along on a divided highway when the GPS in which we had the most confidence told us to take the exit on the right in 100 feet.  There was no exit in 100 ft.  In fact, a sign had just told us the next exit was some 20 miles away.  (We later found out that they had rebuilt and rerouted the highway, but forgot to notify both us and the satellite.)  So we pulled into the “No U-Turn” spot to make a u-turn.  But it had snowed, and the lane hadn’t been plowed, and we got stuck.  My memory is fuzzy, but I like to think it was Sr. Rita Francis laying on the gas as I pushed on the bumper.  Somehow we not only got out of the snow and found our way to the basilica, but we even made it there with time to spare.


But getting taken for a little joy ride isn’t the only trouble with a GPS.

Remember how we used to plan a trip before a GPS?  You’d look at the map ahead of time to get the lay of the land and consider the best route.  You’d actually read the traffic signs and learn the names of the street.  You’d watch for landmark and take note of the terrain.  If you came upon an accident or a detour, you could often find your own way around it because you’d already taken in the big picture.  And if you did get lost, you’d actually stop to talk to a real live human being in order to find your way again—maybe meeting someone you know, maybe making a new friend.

Sometimes it was by our mistakes, but we learned how to navigate—how to find our way wherever we were going.

We Americans like to think of ourselves as rather independent—free thinkers, rugged individualists.  But the fact of the matter is that more and more often, we let somebody or something else do most of the thinking for us.  We might consider ourselves rather self-reliant, but our actions say that we actually prefer to be told what to do and where to go.  It just makes things easier, doesn’t it?

But this is a rather dangerous approach to making our way through life.

In this technological age, we can get the idea that God is like a super GPS in the sky, beaming down clear directions—as long as we maintain the signal—whenever we need them: “Do this!  Don’t go that way!”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally find God working that way!  And because he doesn’t, we could get the idea that God has failed us.  The truth is, we have failed to recognize who God really is.  You see, God is less like a GPS and a more like compass.  God gave us a mind and reason, a will and freedom, and he fully intends for us to make good use of these gifts.  The Lord won’t think for us or make our decisions, but he always stands ready to point us in the right direction.

Consider this Sunday’s and last Sunday’s gospel readings side-by-side.  Last Sunday, Jesus asked his Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?”  And Peter moves to the head of the class: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”  Jesus praises him saying, “Blessed are you, Simon!  For this was not revealed to you by human flesh and blood, but by my heavenly Father!”  He didn’t figure this out with his wits alone, but by following the guidance of grace from on high.  He read the compass, and took his direction from God.

But this Sunday, Jesus makes the first prediction of his coming passion, death, and resurrection.  At the first mention of this suffering and shame, Peter says, “God forbid it!  We’ll never let such a thing happen!”  Peter goes straight from being on the way to being in the way.  “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus answers.  “You’re not thinking as God does, but as men do!”  (You can almost hear the GPS: “Recalculating!”)  Peter struck out on his own, taking advice from other than heaven, and he loses his way.

Jesus quickly puts us all back on track: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.“  The way of Jesus is the way of the cross.  I don’t think it’s an accident that the four point of the compass mirror the four points of the cross!  It’s the cross that ought to give us Christians direction.


For one thing, the cross tells us that we ought not look for detours around suffering.  Our age attempts to avoid the least suffering at all costs.  But I know that, in my life, it’s in times of trial that I usually learn and grow the most.  Suffering is of little value if we simply endure it, but if we accept it, it can become a means by which God grants us new life.

Likewise, the cross reminds us of the incredible depths of God’s love.  He would stop at nothing to save us!  The truth of God’s boundless love for each one of us should be the basis on which we get out bearings for every single step we take.

Wouldn’t it just be so much easier for God to download into our brains the most efficient route to heaven?  Of course!  But we’re not computers, and neither is God.  God’s a person.  What he wants isn’t so much to communicate information to us; what he wants is draw us ever closer into a relationship with him.  That’s why Jesus doesn’t simply say, “Go this way!” but instead says, “Follow me!”  It’s his plan that we walk along this path together.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul warns us about being conformed to present age.  We mustn’t let the world—whether it’s Washington or Hollywood, Wall Street or Facebook—do our thinking for us.  Instead, we must allow God to transform our minds—to reset our inner compass by the cross of Jesus—so that we can discern what is truly good and pleasing and perfect in all things.

Four nuns and a priest piled into a car…and somehow they got to the church on time!  Yet we’re all still on the way to our true destination.  The only way there is the way of the cross.  Take it as your compass.  Travel along with Jesus.
   

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Moonlighting

And you thought the it was made of cheese...

 Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

Since I last saw you, I took a little vacation—nothing exotic (I’d didn’t go to Cancun or anything like that), just a long weekend with my family, visits to some good friends, and a few quiet days in a borrowed cabin by a small lake.  Whenever I go on vacation—long or short, near or far—the moment I know it’s really begun is when I can take my church keys out of my pocket.  (There are only 5 keys on this ring…but I have 18 others on another one in the car; if I carried them all around all the time, I’d have developed a definite lean to one side by now.)  It’s not that these keys are heavy, but it’s a matter of what they represent: the many buildings for which I’m ultimately responsible and—even more—the care of the faithful people who come together in them.


The symbolism of keys—which we see when Jesus hands the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter and his successors—is fairly easily understood: they represent authority.  Frequently, when we consider being entrusted with authority, we focus on the perks and prerogatives that come along with it.  Just imagine how easy it is for Pope Francis to get through airport security!  But with authority also come many duties and a great deal of responsibility.  How does the Pope sleep at night knowing he bears a certain obligation to Jesus for every soul on the planet?

The “power of the keys” entrusted to Peter has a bearing not only on the life of the Pope, but on the pastor of every parish and every person in the pew—although in rather different ways for each of us.  To go too much deeper into the role of sacred authority in the Church would take us more time than we’ve got this Sunday.

So I want to shift our attention to the other prominent symbol featured in our gospel reading: that of the rock.  Today, we hear how Jesus gives a fisherman named Simon a new name: Peter.  It’s important to realize that “Peter” wasn’t a name before this exchange.  To put it literally, Jesus is nicknaming one of his Apostles “Rocky.”  On this rock-solid foundation Jesus plans to build his Church.  Yet we know Peter, and as we’ll see in next Sunday’s gospel, the cornerstone sometime becomes a stumbling block instead.

To help us make sense of all this—and understand how it applies to each one of us—I want us to consider a very familiar rock.  We don’t often think of it as a rock, and that’s probably because we don’t find it where we usually see rocks: under our feet. To see this one, we have to look up, because it’s hanging over our heads.  Of course, I’m talking about the moon.  (Did you know that our Adirondack mountains are actually formed from the same type of stone as the moon?  Spread that around and impress all your friends!)

I spent Monday with a good friend who’s a high school science teacher, which means she had two pair of these “eclipse glasses.”  (There’s a part of me that wants to leave them on for the rest of the homily—but, if you’ve tried them yourself, you know that I can’t see a blessed thing right now!)  With these, every twenty minutes or so, I was able to watch the progress of the solar eclipse that afternoon.


The reason the eclipse got so much attention is that we witnessed the moon doing the exact opposite of what we generally experience.  What does the moon normally do?  It shines.  And not with it’s own light, either, but with the light of the sun: it reflects it to the world.  If you ask me, there are some things that look even better in the moonlight than in broad daylight—I think of a mountain lake glittering under a full moon.  But on Monday, what did we see?  We saw the moon block out the sun.  It didn’t shine, but instead cast a shadow.  As I listened to some coverage out west, I heard folks talk about watching the streetlights turning on and feeling the temperature drop; this was a shadow with real, noticeable effects.

Isn’t that how it is with Peter?  And isn’t that how it is, too, with all of us who follow Jesus and who are the living stones with which he builds his Church?  What Jesus rightfully expects of us is that we shine, reflecting his light to the world and, therefore (returning to the image of the keys), opening the door for others to come and know Jesus, too.  But sometimes, sad to say, we’re more of a stumbling block than a foundation stone—casting a shadow instead of shining, and so closing the door that leads to Christ.

Whether you realize it or not, when you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re always doing one or the other; there’s no neutral middle ground.  And so it’s worth reflecting this Sunday on which one am I doing these days: shining, or casting a shadow?  Opening the door, or locking it shut?

How often do you speak about Jesus to other people?  (No, saying his name loudly when you stub your toe or get startled doesn’t count!)  Do we have the courage to speak about Jesus and our faith in him to others?  If we don’t, how can we expect them to recognize his light?  And how do we speak about the Church—whether our local parish, of the Church universal?  Are we always pointing out flaws?  Loudly complaining about our pastor or fellow parishioners?  We mustn’t forget how our behavior speaks, too.  What does it say to people when we’re in such a big hurry to get out of Church?  (Sometimes, I actually fear for my safety during the closing song—true story!)  If we want to get away from the house of God and our brothers and sisters so fast, it casts a shadow many people can’t see beyond.

This isn’t a principal in effect only when we’re doing explicitly “religious” things.  I think of the old joke about the cop who pulled over a car covered with Christian bumper stickers: “Honk if you love Jesus!”, “Follow me to church!”, “Sunday school teacher on board!”  When he got to the driver’s window, the cop was immediately asked, “Why did you pull me over, officer?  I know I wasn’t speeding!”  “No, you weren’t speeding.  But the way you keep laying on the horn, rudely cutting off other cars, and screaming obscenities, I could only assume that this car had been stolen.”

Whether we realize it or not, everything we do or say—in public or in private, here in church or outside of these walls—either shines or casts a shadow, reflecting the light of Jesus or eclipsing it.

Only one man has been entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of heaven—and because of that awesome responsibility, the Pope deserves our regular and fervent prayers.  But we all share in the duty of opening the door of faith in Jesus for the other people in our lives.  Let us reflect the light of Christ so brightly that people begin to need special glasses whenever they look our way!
   

Sunday, August 20, 2017

So Much to Do

I can really relate to ol' Snoopy today!  No homily to post: I'm way on a little vacation...


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Riding the Waves

 Ninteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 
Yesterday was the seventeenth anniversary of my ordination as a priest.  In gratitude for my vocation, I offered Mass in our little rectory chapel.  I was getting things set up when I noticed that the sanctuary candle was getting pretty low.  As I reached the Offertory of the Mass, it appeared that the candle had gone out.  Making a mental note to replace it when I’d finished, I noticed the red glass beginning to glow again: the flame had returned, and was now rather bright.  Then it shrank down again to almost nothing.  This pattern of rise and fall continued through the rest of Mass, until the candle finally burned out for good as I said a few prayers of thanksgiving afterward.


I don’t believe that what I witnessed was anything miraculous—in fact, I’m quite sure it was entirely due to natural causes.  But I’m also quite sure it was meant as a message: a metaphor for my life and ministry as a priest these last seventeen years.  It’s certainly had its ups and downs: times when the light of Christ has burned brightly, seen by me and through me; times when the light’s been dim, and fears arise that it’s going out…but (praise God!) it never does.

This came together for me with this Sunday’s gospel story of Peter walking with Jesus on the water.  The stories about St. Peter are quite comforting not only to us priests, but to all followers of Jesus, because he’s so much like the rest of us.  (You could say we’re all in the same boat.)  One of the Lord’s first priests and our first Pope had many shining moments where he clearly “gets it,” but also times when he falls—even falls hard.  And yet Jesus, though he must correct him, never gives up on Peter—and likewise, Peter never gives up on Jesus.

Did you notice in our gospel reading what precisely caused Peter to slip beneath the water?  It was “when he saw how strong the wind was….”  If Peter’s eyes were on the storm, if he was looking at the waves, what couldn’t he see?  Peter had stopped looking at Jesus.  It’s only when he takes his eyes off of the Lord that things start to fall apart.  Isn’t that always the case?  I know it is for me!  When Jesus is no longer the very center of my attention, when I get distracted or discouraged or doubting—whether due to a challenging situation that I must face or my own weakness and sin—that’s when the flame burns low, that’s when I start going under.  But experience has also taught me that when I do keep Jesus in sight, when he remains at the heart of who I am and whatever I’m doing, then no gust of wind can blow out the fire, no swell of the waves drag me down.

My home church in Plattsburgh, where I celebrated my first Mass seventeen years ago today, is named for St. Peter.  And in the sanctuary, right next to the altar, is a larger than life mural of the scene from this Sunday’s gospel.  Peter is half submerged, wild-eyed and windswept, with his boat rocking behind him.  His muscular arms are reaching up for help: his own strength cannot save him now.  And walking toward him is Jesus—cool as a cucumber, with peace in his eyes and not a hair out of place.  (Have you ever noticed that?  How, regardless of what he’s doing, Jesus is always pictured with perfect hair?)


Maybe as I offered my first Mass I should have paid a bit more attention to the painting over my left shoulder.  But at least I can now recognize what the Lord is saying through that piece of art, placed so close to the altar and the tabernacle.  At Mass I, as a priest, experience something so similar to Peter on the sea: something far beyond the abilities of my human nature takes place only because of divine grace as, in my hands, bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Christ.  Is that not the meaning of the red sanctuary candle?  That God is here with us, and remains with us always?  And through all the circumstances of life?  Its light repeats to us the words of Jesus: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”  When times get tough, we—like Peter—say to ourselves, “I can’t do this!”  But if we’re listening carefully through the wind and the waves, we can hear Jesus whispering, “You’re absolutely right: you cannot do this…by yourself, anyway.  But I can do it.  And together, we will do it.”  Even if he doesn’t calm the raging storm, Jesus remains right there to walk us straight through, unharmed.

And so I ask you to pray for me, and to pray for all priests, that we will remain faithful: that we’ll rise a whole lot more than we fall.  And pray, too, for vocations to the priesthood, that the People of God will never be left wanting for the Eucharist, which is the real presence of God in our midst: the strong Savior who is always ready to quiet our fears, to rekindle our faith, and to lift us up.
   

Sunday, August 6, 2017

So Beautiful

   Transfiguration of the Lord   

We had our annual parish picnic on the first Friday of July, and it was followed—as we hold on the first Friday of every month—by “Hearts on Fire”: a holy hour of Eucharistic adoration with praise and worship music.  A couple from the parish brought with them their two young grandsons—I’m going to guess about 7- and 9-years-old.  The boys ate heartily and ran around with the other kids, playing games in the yard between the raindrops. 

I was then quite pleasantly surprised to then see these grandparents bringing the boys in for the holy hour.  Now, I would have guessed (and the grandparents may have hoped) that, with full stomachs at the end of an active evening, the boys would have sat still for about 10 minutes and then, in the half-lit church, fallen fast asleep.  But that was not at all the case.  Instead, those boys remained wide-awake through the entire hour, and they took it all in: staring at the gleaming gold of the monstrance and the flickering of the candles; following every move of the servers and the flowing robes of the priest; smelling the incense and watching its smoke gently rise; listening to the voices, keyboard, and guitar that made such sweet music in praise of the Lord.

When it was over, the grandmother asked the boys what they thought.  The younger of the two said, “It made me want to cry.”  Surprised, she asked why he had said that.  His response: “Because it was so beautiful.”


The ancient philosophers identified truth, goodness, and beauty as three essential attributes of being—three timeless, transcendental properties that are part of the very nature of things and reflect their divine origin.  The Christian tradition easily recognized that these correspond to the natural desires of man as God made him: with a mind that seeks after truth, and a heart that delights in goodness, and a soul that wonders at beauty.  Even more, we followers of Jesus recognize God himself as the One who is Truth and Goodness and Beauty itself, making the presence of these properties in creation as the fingerprints of the Creator.

Beauty, then, is so much more than a matter of personal taste, more than “in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.”   Beauty reveals the inner radiance of a thing, and attracts us to it.

Beauty is not, however, at the top of our list in this utilitarian age.  We most prize things that are useful, practical, efficient, and valuable—in the sense of monetary value, that is.  Beauty is none of those.  In fact, when we try to put a price on beauty, it only serves to cheapen it.

One could easily say that this Sunday’s feast of the Lord’s transfiguration is a feast of beauty.  Jesus takes three of his Apostles to the top of a mountain—a place to which one hikes, not because it’s convenient, but because of the view; it’s a place of great natural beauty.  And there, Jesus’ own inner radiance—his divine nature—comes shining through: a vision that those who witnessed it struggle to describe in terms of light and glory.  A luminous cloud envelops the scene, and the majestic voice of the Father is heard.  Peter, James, and John are surrounded by previously unimaginable splendor.  Overcome by the beauty of it all, it’s Peter who says, “It’s so good, Lord, that we are here!”  If he’d had a Smartphone, this is when he’d have made a short video to post on YouTube, or maybe taken a selfie with a glowing Jesus behind him.  Not having the technology in hand, Peter proposed to set up three tents that he might capture and preserve this most beautiful moment.


We don’t have much trouble recognizing the essential place of truth in the Christian faith.  One quickly recognizes the teaching of the Jesus as amazingly reasonable, and the great wisdom behind the accumulated teaching of the Church.  Likewise, the place of goodness is pretty clear.  How else could one describe the deeds of this man who healed the sick, forgave the sinner, showed compassion to the outcast, and spoke on behalf of the vulnerable—and whose disciples continue to do the same—besides eminently “good”?  But we must resist the temptation to reduce the faith to a body of true knowledge to be studied or to a motivation for doing good deeds.

Beauty is also essential to our Christian faith—particularly, it is essential to Christian worship.  There’s a great temptation these days to streamline the liturgy or cut corners when building churches.  “Can’t we use the short form?  Do we have to sing all the verses?  Are stained glass and marble really necessary?”  But Christian worship, by its nature, is not at all practical or efficient.  In fact, the hour spent at Sunday Mass is likely the most “useless” of the entire week.  What do you have to show for it?  (Other than the bulletin you leave in the car, of course!)  It produces nothing.  In the eyes of the world, it is a waste of time—but its very wastefulness is what makes it a sacrifice of praise.

And that’s precisely where beauty fits in.  It, too, is useless…but also of the highest value.  And that’s why the sacred vessels on our altars don’t look like the dishes on our kitchen tables.  That’s why the music at Mass doesn’t sound like the music you hear in your car or on your iPod.  That’s why the words spoken here don’t sound like the words spoken on the street.  That’s why liturgical vestments don’t look like the clothes we wear everyday.  The articles and actions of the Mass should be marked by an uncommon beauty.  Now, beauty doesn’t require that things be fancy or expensive; often, the most beautiful things are also rather simple.  But beauty does require a certain nobility and order.  Beauty is fitting to everything we do and everything we use for worship because—like truth, like goodness—it is one of the radiant fingerprints of God.

This is true not only of worship, but in the beauty we encounter in nature and the arts.  In the sounds of music, whether in a great symphony hall or down at the country fair; in the bright hues of a sunset, or the brushstrokes of a painting; in the graceful lines of a classic car, or the familiar lines of your beloved’s face—all real beauty is a ray from the face of Jesus Christ that can and should provoke wonder in us.

The great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky once wrote, “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live….”  Elsewhere, he took it even further by writing, “Beauty will save the world.”

So be on the lookout for beauty, and work to spread it around, aware that it’s a glimmer here and now of the beautiful face we hope to behold for all eternity.  Allow beauty to stir your soul—and maybe even bring a tear to your eye.