Sunday, April 29, 2018

Staying Connected

   Fifth Sunday of Easter   B 

As my family and friends will tell you: I’m not the person you want to ask about the latest technologies.  I’m not afraid of or opposed to all these new devices.  It’s just that I’ve seen too many people who buy them hoping to make their lives simpler and easier…only to end up with things getting a whole lot more complicated.

I bought my first laptop computer when I arrived here in Malone, replacing an old desktop model that was on its last leg.  With house and office at opposite ends of Main Street, I needed something I could pick up and go.  

Then a few years later, some of my priest friends bought me an iPod touch. I didn’t own a cell phone, and I think they wanted to nudge me in that direction…but they’re still waiting. I use it all the time to carry music and podcasts with me, and sometimes to take pictures.  I’ve even got my address book on there so that, when I’m away from home, I can look up a number and call…using someone else's phone.  

And just this last Christmas, my parents bought me a Fitbit.  It tracks everything: my footsteps, my heart rate, my sleep, the calories I’ve burned.  It even counts how many times I climb a flight of stairs—which is often, living up on the third floor of the rectory.

The thing is, to keep these three devices working as they should, I have to keep them all connected. They connect with each other to exchange data invisibly—over WiFi or Bluetooth.  But they need a visible, physical connection to stay charged.  They can be programmed with all the information in the world, but if they run out of juice, they’re good for nothing.  The result is that my desk is now covered with chargers and cables—looking like a high-tech bowl of spaghetti.

I bring all of this up on this Sunday when Jesus speaks to us of vine and branches because—well—there probably aren’t any vine growers in the room, but most of us are using these kinds of technology…and they can actually help us begin to understand what Jesus is getting at.

Just as our devices need both visible and invisible connections to work right, so too do we. The human person is made up of both a visible body and an invisible soul.  We require both to be truly human, and so both must also be engaged in our life of faith.  That is to say, it’s not enough to be spiritual (the invisible part); we need to also be religious (the visible part). 

Christianity isn’t a path to be studied; it’s a person to be loved: Jesus Christ.  Jesus left us his message—his gospel—which we are to pass on faithfully from generation to generation, like data downloaded from one device to the next.  But how are we supposed to stay in touch—in visible, physical contact—with Christ?  How do we remain plugged in?

This is where we leave high-tech and move to low-tech—or maybe I should say, "old-tech."

In Rome, there are beautiful churches everywhere you turn.  But one of the most fascinating is the Basilica of San Clemente—named in honor of St. Clement, the martyred third pope.  The church that you walk into from the street was built in the year 1108.  But if you go downstairs, you’re able to see what’s left of the “old” church, built in 384—one of Rome’s 25 original parishes.  And if you go down more stairs, you can walk through some ancient Roman buildings from the time of Christ and before; one of them is a home in which Christians gathered to worship before the year 200.  The faith—literally—runs deep there.

Let’s go back upstairs to the “new” church—the one from the middle ages.  The thing that captures your attention as soon as you walk in is the half dome over the sanctuary.  It’s covered in the most spectacular mosaic: millions and millions of small tiles of gold and stone and colored glass, all catching and reflecting the light.  In the center is Christ, hanging on the Cross.  But out of that Cross grows a luxurious, swirling, flowering vine that fills the whole space.  

Among its many branches are birds and fruits of countless kinds.  But also among them are a number of little people—men and women, rich and poor.  There are nobles in their finery.  There are monks writing books.   But there’s also a shepherd with his flock, a boy milking a goat, and a woman feeding her chickens.  And just who is this motley crew coming from all walks of life?  Why, it is the Church: the assembly of God’s holy people.  And all of this is purposely placed right above the altar.

So what does it mean? What’s the message?

On the night before he died—the very same night on which he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches”—Jesus did not hand his Apostles a book and say, “Take and read this; this is my mind.”  Instead, he broke bread and passed a chalice saying, “This is my Body; this is my Blood.”  So we have the Body of Christ which hangs upon the Cross—the same Body that was born of the Virgin Mary, was raised from the dead, and is now seated at the Father’s right hand.  And we have the Body of Christ which is the Eucharist, celebrated on the altar.  And we have the Body of Christ which we see amidst the branches and seated around us in the pews: the Church.

How many bodies does Jesus have?  Not three!  Jesus isn't a three-headed monster, nor does he have three bodies.  He has only one.  If we want to stay in touch with Jesus, risen Body and soul from the dead; if we want to remain in him and he in us, then it’s not enough for us to be spiritual, aware of his teaching; we must also be religious, staying in visible, physical contact with his Body in the ways he has provided: in the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments, and in his Church.

This is where the comparison to our devices falls short in a couple of very crucial ways.

To be part of the Church isn’t to be a cog in a machine or a member of an organization; it’s to be part of an organism.  We don’t belong to a club, but are intimately united with Someone who is very much alive.  They used to say that, to be a “good Catholic,” you only needed to “pay, pray, and obey.” If it were only that simple! Being a member of the Body of Christ much run so much deeper than that.  It’s not about paying your dues; it’s about becoming a new person. Like sap from a vine moves out to the branches, we have—thanks to the Eucharist—Christ’s own Blood flowing through our veins.  And that is meant to change how we relate to God, and to the world, and to each other as brothers and sisters.  Each one of us is a living cell in a living Body. Which ought to make it clear how important it is to stay connected: it’s a matter of life or death.  As Jesus warns: if we fail to remain in him, we wither away and die.

All our many high-tech devices can be plugged in just about anywhere: at home, in the office, in your car.  They’re pretty much interchangeable.  But you can’t do that with branches on a vine.  There’s no switching them out.  That’s to say, there’s only one source for the life we seek, the life we need, and that’s Jesus Christ.  Without him—he tells us—we can’t do all things, or most things, or even a few things.  “Without me you can do nothing.”  Jesus cannot be exchanged or replaced.  And neither can you or I.

Just as you need to make sure your gadgets are connecting both invisibly and visibly to keep them working as they ought, make sure you’re engaging both your body and your soul in your life of faith.  Be both spiritual and religious.  Yes, study the gospel with your mind, but also stay in close contact with the one living Body of Christ: in touch with the Eucharist and in with touch the Church.  Draw all your power, your life—your new life—from Jesus, by loving him in your neighbor and pumping his Precious Blood through your heart.  Remain in Jesus, as a branch growing from the true vine, and you will surely bear much good fruit—now and forever.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Counting Sheep

   Fourth Sunday of Easter   B 

No homily for you this Sunday...

"I am the good shepherd, 
and I know mine and mine know me."
John 10:14

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Ups & Downs

   Third Sunday of Easter   B 

How did you celebrate Easter?  (It’s only been a couple of weeks, so you can’t have forgotten already!)

Believe it or not, I celebrated Easter on a trampoline.  After the Masses, I headed to my sister’s house in Plattsburgh to have Easter dinner with my family.  After dinner, there was the Easter egg hunt.  And after the hunt, the grown ups went inside to visit and my nieces and nephew stayed outside to jump on the trampoline.  Having seen all the fun they were having, I headed out into the backyard.  Everyone else just assumed that I was going to watch…but I already had other plans. After determining that the thing could actually hold me, I climbed in and started jumping.  It wasn’t long before my youngest sister came out to tell me they’d already called 911 and put an ambulance on standby—and, of course, to take a few pictures.  I soon learned that jumping on a trampoline is harder than it looks—at least at my age, anyway.  I also learned that all that bouncing isn’t exactly the best thing to do with a tummy full of Easter dinner.

That’s how you celebrated Easter.  Now, why did you celebrate Easter?

So you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?  Why?  On what evidence?

Don’t worry: your pastor’s not having a crisis of faith!  But that’s a reasonable question, isn’t?  And the world has every right to ask it, because there seems to be plenty of evidence to the contrary…

We want to believe that Jesus, by his death and Resurrection, has triumphed over sin and death—once and for all.  But sin and death still hit us hard.  Easter comes along with the promise of springtime—full of hope and new life.  After the austerities of Lent, we can eat chocolate and dessert again!  But then the jelly beans get stale, the lilies wilt and die, and it starts to snow again…and again and again.  There’s political turmoil in our country and violent unrest in the wider world.  There are our individual or family struggles with illness or finances or conflict.  And there’s even heartbreaking diminishment in the Church—something we’re experiencing right here, right now.  If Jesus is risen, if he’s alive again and working among us still, then shouldn’t every day feel like Easter?  The world we live in doesn’t exactly look like everything’s been changed, and changed for the better.

Life—even for us Christians—can often feel an awful lot like jumping on a trampoline, with so many ups and downs.  But wasn’t the Easter grass supposed to be greener on the other side?  Weren’t the powers of hell defeated?  Where are the signs of victory?  

And so we end up being in much the same state as Jesus found the Eleven: startled, terrified, troubled, with hearts full of questions.

And the risen Jesus says to us precisely what he said to them: “Peace be with you.”

A little context here helps us better understand…

This Sunday’s gospel reading starts at the tail end of another story: that of the Easter walk to Emmaus.  With their Messiah (they think) dead and buried, two downcast disciples meet a stranger on the road: it’s Jesus, but they don’t recognize him.  He gradually sets their battered hearts on fire by the word he speaks, and then opens their eyes in the breaking of the bread.  They’ve run—breathless—the seven miles back to Jerusalem, and have burst into the upper room: “Listen up, everybody!  We need to tell you what Jesus just did for us!”  But before they can finish telling their remarkable tale…Jesus himself walks in.  (It’s what Jesus always does when you speak about him, isn’t it?)

And in our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear one of the first sermons of the first Pope.  But what was the occasion for this homily?  Peter and John went to the temple to pray, and at the temple gate they met a crippled man, begging.  “We have no money,” they told him, “but what we do have, we give you.  In the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk.” And that’s just what the man did. The place goes wild!  This man was well known; he’d been crippled from birth and begging for years.  Now he’s leaping and dancing about!  The cured man is actually still clinging tightly to Peter when he starts to preach to the crowd: “You think that was amazing?  Let me tell you my story about the man who made this all possible…”

In both of these cases, we meet people who are living witnesses of the risen Jesus.  A witness, of course, is someone with personal knowledge of something.  They’re not teaching catechism from a book or making studied theological arguments—although those have their crucial place.  But it all has to start by speaking from their own, first-hand experience: “Let me tell you what Jesus has done for me…”  And through their witness, other people come to know Jesus personally and powerfully, too.

They don’t have evidence that Jesus is risen from the dead; they are the evidence.

People who witness to Jesus and his Resurrection testify to the wholeness, the healing, the fullness of life—in other words, to the true and abiding peace—that he brings them.  This is not a peace found apart from all the dizzying ups and downs life throws our way; it’s a peace found right in the midst of them. And this peace of Christ that they experience, they in turn can pass on to others

I learned on the trampoline—and rather quickly!—that you can’t always be going up-up-up. (Yes, we’re on our way to heaven—God willing—but you don’t need me to tell you that we’re not there yet.) You see, the question isn’t whether or not you will come back down; the question is how you will land.  And that makes all the difference.

While the Resurrection is the ultimate proof of his divinity, Jesus didn’t shed his humanity after rising from the dead.  He’s still flesh and bones—still very much human, like you and me.  Jesus still bears the wounds of the Cross in his hands and feet for all to see.  But those wounds have been transfigured.  They are no longer wounds of suffering and shame, wounds of injury inflicted by the cruelty of others or circumstance.  Rather, they have become wounds of love, holy and glorious wounds, wounds that reveal just how close God has come to man in order to restore man to closeness with God—to the communion with God for which we were made.

We all have wounds—from when we haven’t landed well; from when’ve come crashing down hard into reality on the trampoline of life.  Have you invited the risen Jesus into your wounds?  Have you allowed him to transfigure them?  To make them no longer a badge of your shame, but an emblem of his victory?  Are you willing to be a witness to the Lord’s Resurrection, sharing that personal, first-hand knowledge: “Let me tell you what Christ has done for me…”? Are you ready to pass on his peace?

Our world desperately needs such witnesses in the face of all the seeming evidence otherwise.

While it’s oh-so-tempting to try and look like you have it all together—as if that’s what it takes to be a “real” follower of Jesus—that won’t convince anyone for the simple reason that it would be a lie.  Instead, let the very fact that you’re wounded, yet still incredibly alive and well, be evidence of the all-important truth that Jesus of Nazareth, though himself wounded, too, is indeed risen from the grave.

Of this, my friends, we are all witnesses.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
Lord Jesus, in the gospels, after your Resurrection, time and time again you make yourself known to your disciples by joining them at table, doing what you did so often before your death: remaining in their company and breaking the bread. Open our eyes to recognize your presence here among and within us.  Heal our wounds.  Make us your courageous witnesses.  Fill us with your peace.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Trust Me

   Second Sunday of Easter - Divine Mercy   B 

What did Thomas doubt? Most of us would say he doubted the promise of Jesus: he doubted the truth of the Resurrection.  But look a little more closely at the gospel story, and you realize that what Thomas really doubted was the word and good intentions of his brothers.  “You say you saw Jesus?  Well, I don’t believe you!  And I won’t believe you unless I can see him with my own two eyes—no, unless I can touch him with my own two hands.”

You see, if Thomas can’t trust his brothers who are right there in the same room with him, then how could he believe in a risen Jesus whom he does not see?

There’s someone you haven’t seen for the last several weeks, and that’s Fr. Scott.  Many of you, no doubt, have already read his letter in your bulletin.  I assure you that he is OK.  But he’s going to be away for a while—how long we don’t know—in order to give some focused attention to his health.  He’s right where he needs to be right now.  And he appreciates your prayers.  And I can’t repeat often enough: he’s not thinking about leaving the priesthood!

In the meantime, Fr. Justin Thomas will be returning to St. André’s to help on weekends during April and May.  I’m sure you’ll give him a warm welcome back.

Those are the facts. Why are you only hearing them now? For a few reasons.  There was a chance that Fr. Scott was going to be back already.  Holy Week and Easter aren’t exactly the best time to discuss these sorts of matters.  And it takes a while to work out all the details.

Some of you have reached out to me lately, asking about Fr. Scott out of genuine concern for him. That is exactly the right response.  And that’s why, on this Divine Mercy Sunday, we’re putting together a “spiritual bouquet” to send him.  As you leave this Mass, you’ll find tables near the church doors where you’ll receive a small paper heart.  We’re asking you to put more than well wishes on it; we’re asking you to take action.  Maybe, for example, you can commit to saying the Rosary—once, or every day for a week, or once a week until Fr. Scott returns. Or you can offer your Holy Communion for his intentions.  Or you can make a Holy Hour.  Or you can do some work of mercy.  All those hearts from St. André’s will be collected in a big jar and sent to Fr. Scott.  Take some time before the end of Mass to consider what you or your family can do.

While some have been concerned, others—sad to say—have decided to fill the gaps with rumors and accusations.  “Something must be done before Fr. Joe is allowed to drive yet another young priest away!” I’ve got to say: that really, really hurts.  Right now, I’m not only missing a truly devoted and dutiful coworker at a very busy and challenging time, but my heart is aching in the absence of one of my nearest and dearest friends.

There are three things I ask of you as your parish priest:

(1) If you have questions—about anything going on in the parish—please come to me, to the one who’s most likely to have the answers, rather than take them out into the streets. I can’t always share everything, but I’ll tell you what I’m able.  Speculation and rumors are terribly destructive things.  We have feelings, too! Like you, scratch us and we bleed.

(2) Please respect our privacy, just as you rightly expect us to respect yours.  We live a lot of our lives in the public eye, I know, but there are some personal things we want and need to keep personal.  Thanks for understanding that.

(3) Trust us. This is where Thomas comes in—doubting the word and good intentions of his brothers.  Our society’s default position these days is one of accusation and suspicion.  In this, we Christians are supposed to be different from all the rest.  

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the first believers “had everything in common,” selling their houses and property, entrusting all their wealth to be distributed by the apostles.   Wow! That’s a huge level of commitment, right?  But that passage begins by telling us something even more remarkable: “the community of believers was of one heart and mind.”

The Church is headed for self-destruction if we think and act as if things are a matter of priests versus people.  We’re all on the same team.  Yes, there have been some bad actors among the clergy, and that has understandably weakened people’s confidence in the Church.  But that’s not all priests; it’s not even the majority of us. Really—we’re not such bad guys! I hope you can give us the benefit of the doubt.

Where does Jesus find those ten disciples on that first Easter night?  Locked up together in a room.  Why?  Because they’re afraid.  And what are they scared of?  That they might have to do what Jesus did.  That God might ask them, too, to suffer.  That God might call them to sacrifice.

And how does the risen Jesus greet them?  “Peace be with you.”  The perfect greeting for a room full of terrified grown men!  Then he does something unusual before he repeats those same words again: he shows them the wounds in his hands and side.  

We generally assume that’s to give them proof that it’s really him.  But maybe it’s to reassure them in a far more profound way.

Maybe it’s to say, “See—I’ve suffered.  I’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.  And I’m OK.  And you’ll be OK, too. There’s no need to be afraid. You can do it.  I’ve gone before you, and I’ve got your back. Locked doors cannot stop me. I will be with you always. I will never abandon or forsake you.  Let me breathe new life into your frightened hearts.  Receive the Holy Spirit to be your courage and your strength.  Sure, you’ll be wounded, too.  You will suffer— even sometimes at the hands of one another.  Like me, the Father is calling you to sacrifice.  But you can do things that you thought would hurt way too much.  And you can let go of things you thought you just couldn’t ever do without.  So, trust me.  Be at peace.  It’s by these wounds—not in spite of them—that I’ve won the victory.  Now you go, and conquer the world!”

Every image of the Divine Mercy depicts Jesus at this very moment, inviting us to experience it for ourselves.  And every copy includes at the bottom the deceptively simple prayer that we can’t repeat often enough: “Jesus, I trust in you.”

Let us pray.

Risen Jesus, wounded for love of us, in your infinite mercy, in good times and bad, both when life is serene and when we suffer, increase our trust: increase our trust in you; increase our trust in each other.  Amen.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Where Are You Going?

   Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord   

Last Sunday—Palm Sunday—I was expecting my parents to drive over from Plattsburgh and join us for the 9:30am Mass.  It’s become a little tradition for them to come to Malone for Mass on Palm Sunday, and then we head up for the Sugar on Snow Brunch in Chasm Falls. 

So, I was a little surprised when I didn’t spot them as Mass began.  In fact, we had blessed the palms, had our procession, sung songs and said prayers—and still, no mom and dad.  Now, you have to understand, it would be no surprise at all if they’d arrived late.  I grew up thinking that my family had a special place in the Entrance Procession on Sundays—and not because we kids were all altar servers.  But this was late, even for them.  I just figured that something had come up and plans had changed.

But then, half to three-quarters of the way through the first reading, there they come through the side door: mom, dad, and my 8-year-old niece.  Immediately I thought, “There will be story…”

So after Mass, after greeting so many of you, I got to greet my family.  Which is when 8-year-old Abigail filled me in on the story: “Papa got a ticket!”

It seems that my father was driving at interstate speeds on the Brainardsville Road when he came upon a State Trooper who quickly pulled him over.  The Trooper came to the window and asked, “Where are you going in such a hurry?”  “To church,” answered my dad.  Now, I had learned as a child that there’s no speed limit when you’re on the way to Mass…but the Trooper was obviously raised differently than I, and so Papa got a ticket.

“Where are you going in such a hurry?”  Where are you going?

Have you ever heard of a “bucket list”?  Many folks have them.  It’s a list of things you hope to do before you “kick the bucket”—tasks you hope to accomplish, places you want to see, experiences you want to have.  And just where does such a list presume that you’re going?  Well, to death, of course.  A cheery thought, no?  But that’s how it works.

This perspective colors everything, if you think about it.  We get good grades, so we can get into college, so we can get a good job, so we can make enough money, so can retire at an age when we can enjoy it, so we can travel and buy that place in Florida for our golden years….before we die.  We hurry along the roads of life as if it’s all going to come to a complete stop—as if the grave is our final destination.

Easter tells us to turn the car right around.  Death is not the end!

We Americans have a particular tendency to be heading the wrong direction—riding off into the sunset.  “Go west, young man!”  But we weren’t made to rush headlong into the lengthening shadows.  Our Easter faith instead looks to the east, to the dawn, to a new start.

As we recounted at the great Easter Vigil, God has been leading us in this direction all along—from the very beginning: from darkness to light; from barrenness to fruitfulness; from the slavery of sin to the freedom of the Promised Land; from the infidelity of exile to redemption and a clean heart.  We’ve certainly seen this movement over these last three holy days as we’ve walked with Jesus from the upper room to the garden to the cross into the tomb…and now back out of it again.

Consider the Easter gospel we’ve just heard.  It’s important to note the time when Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’ tomb: at the very break of day.  And what does she go there expecting to find?  Why, his dead body, of course.  Which is why the empty tomb is so perplexing to her—and later to Peter and the beloved disciple, too.  Our working presumption has always been that death is the end toward which we are heading.  But the Resurrection of Jesus has changed that—and that changes absolutely everything!

Among the things it changes is how we Christians think of cemeteries.  Visit an old cemetery, and notice that—more often than not—the headstones are facing toward the east.  That’s so that, when the great day of our resurrection dawns, all we’ll have to do is sit up and our faces will be turned toward the rising sun.  The grave is not your final resting place; it’s just where you wait for what comes next.

We Christians can approach the whole of life from this perspective because—as St. Paul reminds us—we have already died.  In the waters of Baptism, our old, sinful self was drowned and we were buried with Jesus so that we might then rise with him.   We are not headed for death; we are headed for heaven! 

And heading in that direction needs to guide every single thing we think, do, and say.  Because we have been raised with Christ, we need to constantly seek after the things that are above—not the things of earth.  Through Baptism, we have been reborn to a new life, hidden with Christ in God.

Lots of people have made a big deal that, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day and now Easter Sunday coincides with April Fools Day.  (This hasn’t happened since 1956, and won’t happen again until 2029—just long enough for us all to forget that we’ve ever seen this before.)  But this fun little fluke of the calendar also holds some deep meaning for us. 

Are you willing to look foolish and head in the opposite direction from most of the rest of the world?  Are you willing to live in such a way that other people stop you on the side of the road of life and ask, “Where are you going?”  That’s what Easter demands.

And such a dramatic and complete turnaround can only be a matter of the heart.  We’re compelled first by the incredible love we see flowing from the very heart of God: the love with which the Son of God became man, accepted death, and rose again on the third day.  And we’re moved by the desire found deep within our own hearts: the longing for true communion with the Lord, the very thing for which we were created—an intimate relationship that starts now, and is meant to last forever.

So…where are you going?