Sunday, October 29, 2017

Does That Make You Jealous?

 Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

Did your parents ever play favorites among your brothers and sisters?  Or did you ever play favorites with your own kids?  Most siblings joke about just who mom or dad loved best.  In my family, it wasn’t a joke: with one sibling so clearly more intelligent, handsome, and charming than all the others, of course I was their favorite.  Just kidding!!!

A study done a few years ago revealed that parents playing favorites isn’t really a joke.  It turns out that 70% of fathers and 74% of mothers admitted to purposely giving preferential treatment to one of their children.  

That’s kind of disturbing news, isn’t it?

But what if I were to tell you that God himself shows favoritism among his children?  But—you object—God loves us all, and he loves us all equally.  True enough.  But if you read the Scriptures closely, you begin to see that God repeatedly shows special treatment to some folks.  Consider our first reading this Sunday.  As God lays out laws for his people, he singles out foreigners and strangers, widows and orphans, the poor as people deserving of favored treatment and protection.  God has a soft spot for outsiders and the vulnerable, and he expects us to do the same.  God wants us, like him, to show extra care and compassion to those who need love the most—maybe even to those who deserve love the least.

Who in your life right now, who among your neighbors, is poorest when it comes to experiencing love?  And what are you going to do about it?

Now, what if I were to tell that God’s love no only plays favorites, but that it’s insanely jealous.  It’s true.  God tells us so point blank, just a couple of chapters earlier in Exodus, while giving the Ten Commandments: “I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God” (Ex 20:5).  What is God jealous for?  Well, God is jealous for your love, your trust, and your company.

God is jealous for your love.  He won’t be content just being one more item on the long list of people and things you love.  God won’t even settle for being number 1.  If there’s anything else on the your, God wants it to be there because you love it for his sake.  Of course God expects us to love him more than our house or our car.  He expects us to love him more than our country or the Church.  He even expects us to love him more than our spouse or our children.  God is jealous for your love, and so he asks for your whole heart.

God is jealous for you trust.  In what sort of things do we put our trust?  Maybe we put stock in our intelligence, good looks, or charm—the things that made us the favorite son or daughter.  Maybe we see strength in our family name, our influence, or our wealth.  But all of those things can and do fail us.  God wants us to leave no room for such idols, for such false gods—demanding our undivided allegiance.  God is jealous for your trust, and so he asks for your full soul.

God is also jealous for your company.  Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who can’t take their eyes (or their thumbs) off of their Smartphone?  They might say they’re still listening…but how much of their attention are you really getting?  Imagine how often God must have that experience when he’s trying to communicate with us!  God’s purpose in creating us—in creating all things, actually—is to enter into an exclusive, intimate relationship with you and me—one that starts now, and is meant to last forever.  God is jealous for your company, and so he asks for your entire mind.

God’s looking for more than a little affection, more than an emotional response from us; he’s looking for a deep and total commitment.  The Lord has every right to expect from us our all.

God’s love is jealous, and it plays favorites.  And both of those details come to the fore as Jesus reveals the two greatest commandments in God’s law: that we must love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  To keep these is our highest obligation.  In fact, we can’t be genuinely observing any other of God’s laws if we are not first keeping these two commands.

Now you know!  God plays favorites.  So be sure to love those whom God loves best: love your neighbors who need it most.  And God is insanely jealous—jealous for your love, your trust, and your company.  So give him what he desires more than anything: all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your mind.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Don't Play That Game

 Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

When I was born in Plattsburgh, the city had a most unique mayor: Roland St. Pierre—Father Roland St. Pierre, a Roman Catholic priest.  With the permission of his superiors, in 1971 he resigned his position as pastor of my home parish in order to run for office.  He beat the incumbent that November by a margin of almost 2-to-1, and went on to be reelected twice.

Have no fear: I’m not about to announce to you that I’m running for mayor of Malone!

Fr. St. Pierre’s time as an elected official certainly raises the issue of the appropriate relationship between Church and State, between religion and politics.  That’s not a new concern, as this Sunday’s gospel reading makes clear.  Jesus gives us one of his best one-liners—a catchy sound bite long before our Popes and our Presidents began to “tweet”: Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God. 

It’s a deceptively simple phrase. 

To begin with, Jesus affirms that there is a legitimate distinction between these two spheres of influence.  Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar…  Like right religion, a just government has a valid and crucial role to play in the world: making laws, giving order to society, providing for our defense, negotiating treaties, and—yes—even levying taxes in order to pay for all of this.  It’s not a question of either/or, but of both/and.  Which is why it should strike us as strange that a priest would be an elected government official.  It crosses and tangles the lines.  In fact, Canon Law now completely forbids it.  (Sorry, Fr. St. Pierre!)  We can’t allow politics become our religion.

…and render unto God what belongs to God.  And what, my friends, belongs to God?  Everything, of course—even Caesar!  While religious leaders shouldn’t seek to be political leaders, that doesn’t mean the Church doesn’t have anything to say to the State.  In fact, calling politicians to account is an essential part of the Church’s mission, which we especially remember on this World Mission Sunday.  As Christians journeying onward toward the next world, we have a God-given duty to keep making this one better—working for peace and justice, speaking up for those with no voice, whether that’s the unborn child, the refugee, or those approaching their last days on earth.

But Jesus gives this teaching—quite important in and of itself—in a very particular context that reveals to us another critical life lesson (one which I never recognized before hearing Bishop Robert Barron recently reflect on this gospel passage).

In case you haven’t noticed, the Pharisees rather dislike Jesus.  In fact, it’s not too much to say they hate him, since we know they will eventually conspire with other Jewish leaders (whom they would normally consider enemies) in order to have Jesus eliminated.  And so we find them this Sunday setting a trap for him. 

They begin with some false flattery in their effort to trip him up, asking for his opinion on paying the census tax.  Paying taxes has always been unpopular—and particularly so in this case, since we’re talking about money the Jewish people must pay to their pagan Roman conquerors.  The Pharisees know that if Jesus says they should pay, he will be betraying his own people—and therefore alienate much of his “base.”  But they also know that if Jesus says folks should not pay, he’ll run afoul of the Roman authorities—and they can be sure those authorities will find out, since some Herodians are standing nearby, who’re in pretty thick with the Romans.

Have you ever noticed just how mean religious people can be to one another?  We see it between the faithful of different religions, and of different denominations, but it’s most disturbing of all when it’s Catholics versus Catholics.  Two people, two groups, have a difference of religious opinion, and they end up at each other’s throats.  They don’t simply want to convince their opponents otherwise; they attempt to all out destroy them.  If you don’t believe me, look at Catholic news sites online and read some of the comments.  They’re often filled with cruel and hurtful words.  When religion gets so politicized, it results in character assassination at its best, and something like 9/11 at its worst.

This, unfortunately, isn’t reserved to the Internet or international affairs; I’ve seen it all too many times right here in our own community.

We can never serve the God of love by hating other people.  Sure, we can respectfully argue about differing positions.  We can—and should—kindly and constructively correct others when they are mistaken.  But there’s absolutely no room for hate.  It only serves to undermine the gospel we’re on a mission to spread.  When we speak the truth, it must always be in love.

Jesus shows us this other way.  He sees right through the Pharisees’ trap, and refuses to play their game.  That’s the great strategy of his comeback: he doesn’t take the bait; he doesn’t fight fire with fire; he avoids being drawn in to battle.  If Jesus had responded with a counterattack, he would have only given them justification for their suspicion and hatred.  That simple but effective strategy is not a bad one for you and I use to use still today!

Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God.  Let us never neglect our duty to speak up as Christians on the matters of the day, yet without allowing politics to become our religion.  And let us also avoid the temptation to make our religion something political.  We must never look on each other in terms of winners and losers, but always as true brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ—all children of one and the same God.

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.