Sunday, June 24, 2018

They say it's your birthday...

   The Nativity of St. John the Baptist   

In the Church’s vast annual cycle of feasts, she celebrates just three birthdays.  The most well known of them, of course, is the nativity of our Lord on December 25.  Everyone remembers that one, since it’s Jesus’ birthday…but we’re the ones who get the presents!  We also celebrate the birthday day of his blessed mother, Mary; that’s on September 8, precisely nine months after we honor her Immaculate Conception on December 8.  (Don’t forget your mother’s birthday!)  And this Sunday, we celebrate the nativity of St. John the Baptist.  Why today?  Well, when the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear God’s Son (recalled on March 25, nine months before Christmas), he offered as proof the fact that her elderly, barren cousin, Elizabeth, was already pregnant—sixth months along, to be exact.  And so now, three months after the feast of the Annunciation, we celebrate John’s birthday.

The birth of every child has us asking—as did the neighbors at the end of today’s gospel reading—“What will this child be?”   Each newborn is a mystery yet to unfold.  But this is a particularly apt question at the birth of John the Baptist, given the miraculous signs that surrounded it.  Family and friends had some understandable expectations for this boy.  First, they expected he’d be named Zechariah, after his father…but instead, he’s named John—the name given by the angel who announced his birth.  Then they expected that he’d become a temple priest, just like dear ol’ dad (since the Old Testament priesthood was a hereditary one, and both sides of his family were of priestly stock)…yet he rather becomes a wild and fiery prophet baptizing out in the desert.  And as Paul’s preaching reminds us in our second reading, the crowds who heard John thought that he was the long expected Messiah…but John insisted he was only preparing the Savior’s way.

We have our own hopes and dreams for our children.  And children grow to have hopes and dreams of their own about the future. But the fact that St. John the Baptist didn’t fit any of the expectations others had of him is a great reminder that God has his own hopes and dreams for every child.  How often do we stop to consider those?

The Church celebrates these few sacred birthdays because when God has a message to send to the world, when there’s a wrong to be righted, when there’s important work to be done, he doesn’t do so by means of earthquake or thunderbolt; he does it by sending a baby.  These tiny children often come from humble roots, born in unlikely circumstances—when and where you’d least expect it.  But God sends a baby who carries his own hopes and dreams—not just for this individual child, but for the whole world.  Each one is entirely unique, with a mission, a vocation, all his own.

You see, the greatest events in human history are not a matter of who won the battle or who won the election; they’re babies.  God has a place in his plan for every one, even before they’re formed in the womb.  And each one carries the crucial message that God hasn’t grown discouraged with us, that God hasn’t given up hope for the human race.

It’s so important that we see this!  It’s so important that children grow up seeing this!  We need to make sure that children know that they’re precious—to us and to God.  We need to make sure that children know that they’ve been given a role by God that only they can play.  We need to make sure that children know that they’re filled with immense potential—a part of the fulfillment of God’s dream for us all.

While this is true of every fragile, tiny life born into this world, two other upcoming birthdays can help us to see how it’s also the case on a wider scale.

In just ten days, it’ll be July 4—the birthday of our nation.  What were those brave patriots dreaming of in 1776 when they signed the Declaration of Independence?  What were their hopes for these United States? What did they imagine we’d become? And what about God’s dream for our country?  For our place in the great family of nations?  Are we fulfilling his plan?

And even sooner, on July 1, we will celebrate Foundation Day—the birthday of St. André’s parish. It was 177 years ago this month that the first recorded Mass was offered in what is now our parish, when a few Catholics in the young settlement of Malone gathered with a visiting priest in John McFarlene’s house to pray.  What were those pioneering souls thinking of?  What hopes did they have?  And what about God’s dream for the Catholic Church here in our community?  Are we living up to our potential?  

What will this child be?  

What will this nation be?  

What will this parish be?

As we—every one of us—play our own part in the unfolding of the mystery, with expectations and hopes of our own, let us make sure our highest goal is to fulfill God’s dream for us—for each and for all.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Arbor Day? Father's Day!

   Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
Trees seem to be on God’s mind this Father’s Day…and so they’re on my mind, too.

Trees play an important role in many passages from the scriptures.  Just last Sunday, we were reminded of the repercussions from Adam and Eve’s snack stolen from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which sent them next to the fig tree to make themselves some clothes.  

Without a doubt, the most celebrated of trees in the Bible are the famed cedars of Lebanon. In the responsorial psalm this morning, we were told that the just man grows like one of these.  There are not too many cedars of Lebanon left these days, but once upon a time these mighty trees grew in thick forests on the snowy mountain slopes there—some of them living for more than 1,000 years. Their wood was highly prized, such that King Solomon harvested their timber to build the temple in Jerusalem.

We have our own majestic trees much closer to home.  Did you know that the tallest tree in all of New York State stands just 30 miles south of here, not too far outside of Paul Smiths?  There you’ll find an old growth grove of white pines, which have somehow been spared logging and storms for centuries.  They’re believed to be nearly 350 years old.  5 of them are taller than the Statue of Liberty.  The tallest is over 160 feet tall, and more than 13 feet around.  (Those measurements are from 2012, so it’s likely even a bit bigger now.)

These trees are massive!  But consider how they started out.  Have you ever seen a white pine seedling?  It’s a rather puny thing.  (Think Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree…only more pathetic.)  It’s a stick with a few needles—that’s it! So tiny, so vulnerable, so seemingly insignificant.

God’s not only thinking about trees this Sunday; he’s also thinking of the birds in their branches. Our readings speak of how the birds of the air dwell in their shade.  Trees offer them shelter; trees protect them.  And trees also bear fruit—seeds and cones, nuts and berries—providing birds with food; trees nurture them.   Now, birds aren’t meant to stay in trees; the sky is their true home.  But the shelter and sustenance birds get from trees makes it possible for them to do what they were created to do: to fly high, to soar.

Ezekiel uses a cedar to prophesy about Israel: that out of this tiny nation would one day come a mighty king—a savior, the Messiah.  And Jesus points to the largest of plants that springs up from the smallest of seeds to teach us about the Kingdom of God: that from a few ragtag followers would come a great community of believers—the Church.

But in addition to these original meanings, I think the trees have a particular message for us on this Father’s Day.  You see, what trees provide for the birds is pretty much a dad’s job description: to project and to nurture his children.  And he does so with one goal in mind: so that these kids can soar!

It’s clear enough how to do this for children’s bodies: they need shelter and they need food. (And if there are teenagers in the house, they need lots of food!)

But what we do for their bodies, we must also do for their souls.

Many commentators today are saying that, here in the U.S., we have a Catholic Man Crisis.  

In 1965, 55% of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday; now, it’s only 23%.  50 years later, we have 30 million more Catholics on the books, but there are actually 8 million fewer Catholics sitting in the pews. 

It’s not been an equal exodus of the sexes.  Just look around!  Conservative estimates are that among regular Mass-goers, 60% are women, 40% are men.  We see the same thing in the rest of church life, as well.  Experts say that when it comes to roles in the Catholic Church that do not require ordination, 85% are filled by women.  The Catholic Church has the reputation of being a patriarchal and male-dominated institution…but the facts on the ground are a good bit different from the perception.

Among the men who are here in church, studies show that they’re rather disengaged.  83% say they rarely or never take part in any parish activity outside of Mass.  Less then half of these men say they pray at any other time.  And 55% say they get nothing out of Mass.

The Catholic Man Crisis quickly becomes a Catholic Fatherhood Crisis.

When children—especially sons—see dad bored, disengaged, late for Mass, leaving early, dozing off, skipping it completely, checking the score on his phone during the homily, checking out the ladies on the way to Holy Communion, checking out from Mass all together, it sends a message: Maybe this Catholic thing isn’t real.  At the very least, it’s not very manly.  I guess that, if I want to learn how to be a man, I’ll have to look somewhere else.

And when these same children notice that what they hear from the pulpit doesn’t match up with the way dad speaks and acts the rest of the week, it teaches them:  There’s no real connection between faith and life.  It’s OK to just go through the motions. (It must just be something we do to keep mom happy.)

These are not simply my own observations.  The Swiss did a rather revealing study a few years back.  It showed that when mom is regular about going to church but dad is not, then only 2% of their kids (just 1 in 50) will remain faithful to the religion in which they were raised.  But when it’s dad who goes regularly to church but mom does not, that number jumps to 44% of their kids remaining in the faith.  (Oddly and interestingly, that rate for dads is even higher than when both mom and dad are regular churchgoers.  But moms: that doesn’t mean I want you to stay home!)

All this is to say—Dads, your faith may sometimes feel like a white pine seedling: kind of puny compared to the task at hand, easily overlooked, knocked over, or snapped right off.  But what God sees is not something puny at all; what God sees is something full of potential. Yes, God can make your faith grow—make it strong and fruitful—but only if you let him.  Do that, and you’ll be able to fulfill the noble vocation the Lord has given you: to protect and nurture those souls that God allowed you to bring into this world—souls he created because he hopes to see them soar…all the way to heaven.

So let God our Father be a true father to you.  Let him shelter you.  Let him nurture you.  Let him teach you how to walk by faith, not sight.  After all, you can’t give what you ain’t got.  But God can turn that right around—in fact, God’s the undisputed master when it comes to starting small but reaching high.

I issue this Father’s Day call to “man up” as your spiritual father.  “Father” is more than just a formal title for me as your parish priest; it’s my job description, too: to protect and to nurture the church family entrusted to my care.  If I don’t call and challenge you to grow—well, the ripples effects…we’re already seeing them.

How I long to see this parish become a grove of old growth Catholics—the most magnificent around—strong and fruitful in a way that puts the white pines of Paul Smiths to shame! But I myself can only do so much. As every wise farmer and forester knows: the real secret of growth is hidden away, underground.  It must all begin in the soil of our hearts.

Just men shall flourish and grow like the cedars of Lebanon.  Thus the Lord has spoken.  Let us strive to make it so.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Who's to Blame?

   Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I had a classmate in the seminary from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana…and you knew it from the moment Bryce first opened his mouth.  He was the reader at morning Mass one day, and the first reading was the one from Genesis that was read today.  But instead of God asking Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” as we’d expected, we heard, “Who told you yous was nekkid?”  We knew that Bryce’s grammar was much better than that, so we asked for an explanation on the way to breakfast.  “Oh, you northerners!” he said.  “Don’t you know that there’s a difference between ‘naked’ and ‘nekkid’?  When you’re naked, you don’t have any clothes on, but when you’re nekkid, you don’t have any clothes on, and yous up to sumptin’.”

That unfortunate incident with the apple in Eden set into motion some very longstanding patterns in the world—and more than just putting clothes on every morning.  The original sin was the start of the blame game.  Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent.  (The serpent—very interestingly—doesn’t blame anybody.)  Yet a closer reading reveals that Adam blamed someone else before blaming Eve: “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me the fruit…”  The old catchphrase is, “the devil made me do it,” but from day one we’ve been laying the blame on God.

What’s happening here is more than a simple attempt to convince the Lord that “really, it’s not my fault!”  The temptation to disobey God actually flows from the temptation to doubt him.

God hasn’t given our first parents some arbitrary rule about produce.  The forbidden fruit is taken from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  We can think, “What’s so bad about human beings knowing right from wrong?”  The actual nature of this tree doesn’t translate well into English, for it’s not about recognizingright and wrong but about determining for oneselfwhat’s right and wrong.  Hence the serpent’s enticement: “You know, God has only forbidden you to eat from that tree to protect himself.  If you eat it, you’ll be just like him—making your own rules.  He’s holding out on you.  He doesn’t really have your best intentions at heart…”  The serpent manages to make something evil look good in order to make God look bad.  And it’s an effective trick he still hasn’t tired of using all these centuries later.

Notice what Adam and Eve do right off the bat: they hide and sew fig leaves together to clothe themselves.  This is more than shame at their “nekkidness.”  Their doubt of God’s good will runs so deep that they now feel the need to protect themselves from him.  That’s why it’s significant to note what this unhappy couple does notsay to the Lord: that they’re sorry. They never ask for forgiveness! Fearful and ashamed, they persist in their doubts about God: doubting that God is merciful; doubting that’s God’s love for them is bigger than their sin.

We find a parallel pattern in this Sunday’s gospel.  The established religious leaders are feeling threatened by this traveling preacher, healer, and exorcist.  Proper order must be maintained for the good of the people.  “We haven’t authorized this Jesus to say or do these things.  Clearly he’s mad—no, wait—he’s possessed!”  It’s absurd to claim that Satan is fighting against Satan, but that’s their argument.  “Of course, we would never be in league with the evil one, so Jesus must be.”  They are so certain that they’re right, so proud and self-righteous, that they cannot see their error, even with the truth laid out clearly before them.

And so we have before us two ways to cut ourselves off from the power of the Holy Spirit, from the reach of God’s forgiveness—to commit what Jesus warns is “an everlasting sin”: on the one hand, to believe, “I’m too far gone; God could never forgive me” (doubt and despair); on the other hand, to believe, “I’m that good that I don’t need any forgiving” (self-righteousness and pride).  Neither perspective is able to accept a Savior, and so neither can be saved. God won’t ever force himself on us.  We can only be forgiven if we’re open to it.

The pattern of doubt goes even farther than the bad things that we do, that have a human cause and for which someone (maybe even oneself) is to blame—what we call “moral evil.” It also extends to the bad things we must endure—things known as “natural evil”—such as disease and natural disasters.  Whether it’s the common cold or cancer, that we’re stuck in a traffic jam or just lost our home in a tornado, we find ourselves asking, “Why doesn’t God stop picking on me? Why is God punishing me?” Even our insurance companies refer to such incidents as “acts of God”!  Doubting God’s good intentions slides into discouragement, or even into outright rejection of him.

At one point or another, we’ve all found ourselves in these situations.  “If you’re so good, God, then why did you make us this way? If you’re so good, God, then why did you make the world this way?”  They’re questions that arise from the seeds of doubt sown way back when by the serpent.

This is the point where you’re thinking, “Now Fr. Joe is going to answer those questions and clear everything up.”  Sorry—but no answers here.  In fact, no one has the answers to the mystery of evil.  And really, who are we—mere mortals—to question our Maker and his inscrutable plan?

No, I don’t have the answers, but I do have two examples to which we ought to look for inspiration.

The first is St. Paul. In our second reading today, he writes, “While on the outside we may be wasting away, on the inside we’re being renewed every day.  We can accept this momentary light affliction because it will produce an eternal weight of glory.”  But when we’re stuck in sin, when we’re deeply suffering, such words can seem to be little more than pious platitudes.

That’s until we read these words in context.  They come to us from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Corinth was the Las Vegas of its day—Greece’s “sin city.”  Paul was justifiably worried that what happened in Corinth wouldn’t stay in Corinth.  So he called out the Christians there for participating in the culture’s wickedness.  And, as you might expect, the Corinthians didn’t take it very well.  So they launched a counter attack against Paul: “Just who do you think you are?”  And their greatest argument against his credibility was just how very much he suffers. “Your life’s a mess, Paul.  You keep getting sick.  We’ve lost count of the times you’ve been arrested and jailed.  You’ve been beaten, stoned, and left for dead.  You’re a disaster!  What kind of man of God goes through all that?  The Lord certainly must not love you very much!”

St. Paul responds by telling the Corinthians that they’ve got it all wrong.  All this suffering doesn’t call his credentials into questions; all this suffering ishis credentials.  His suffering is evidence that he serves Jesus who suffered himself. Rather than making excuses, or demanding an explanation, he invites them to examine the evidence in his own life.

Paul isn’t preaching a God who is separate from us, high above this messy, painful world, watching and waiting to catch us doing wrong.  (Gotcha!)  That’s the kind of God the serpent convinced Adam and Eve to fear.  No, Paul believes in a God who desires to walk right along side of us.  That’s precisely what God comes to do when he finds Adam and Eve in hiding: he’s out for his evening stroll with them in the garden.  God wants to walk with us, to carry our burdens, to carry us.  In Christ, God identified with us in our sin and our suffering so completely that he willingly endured the shame and anguished death of the Cross.  And just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he can also lift us up from our despair and discouragement…but only if we allow God to, and to do it on histerms.

Paul knows this from firsthand experience.  That’s why later in this same letter he can say that he actually boasts of his weakness, because when he’s weak it makes it clear that God is strong (2:9-10).  Yes, Paul admits, life is hard—terribly hard sometimes—and we must take responsibility for our part in that.  No one promised that it would be easy.  No one gets through without suffering—no one.  But there’s more—much more—than meets the eye. As difficult as things can be, as much as we struggle to understand, we do not face any of it alone.

A second example of one who broke the pattern set in motion in Eden is the woman we find waiting outside the door at the conclusion of this Sunday’s gospel: Jesus’ dear mother, Mary.

Jesus’ words to the crowd can sound awfully disrespectful when we know his mom is within earshot: “Who is my mother?  Who are my brothers?”  But the offense is only apparent.  Carefully consider his response: “My mother, my true family, are those who do the will of God.”  Other than the Lord himself, did anyone ever do God’s will more perfectly than Mary?  She’s the Mother of God by giving him birth, for sure, but also his Mother by her unwavering obedience—making Mary the first and greatest of Christ’s disciples.  The first woman, on hearing the serpent’s temptation, said, “Mywill be done!  I know best what’s good for me.” This woman, on hearing the angel’s message, said, “Thywill be done!  May it be done unto me according to your word.”  Mary’s complete trust in God—even without knowing his plan or understanding her place in it—gave us the promised Savior who came to crush the serpent’s head.  His victory is already won.

“Who told you yous was nekkid?”

We need to stop laying blame, especially on God.  Yes, we have an enemy…but it isn’t him!  When you’re tempted to shame and despair, to self-righteousness and pride, to discouragement and doubt, be sure to break the pattern.  Decide instead to trust God and his blessed will for you—to trust that with the Lord there is loving mercy and the fullness of redemption.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Give Blood, Give Life

We had ten childrenfive boys and five girlsreceive their First Holy Communion at Mass this Sunday. One of the girls eagerly started to take her shoes off...and mom put a quick stop to that.  This picture with Evan gives you some idea about the mood after Mass:

   The Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ   B 

Boys and girls, you know that for a long time I’ve baked bread with the children as they got ready for their First Holy Communion.  We didn’t do that yesterday—I thought we’d change things up a bit—but we did talk for a few minutes about how bread is made: with flour and water.  

Well, there’s one thing we didn’t get to yesterday that I thought we could do right now.  To celebrate Mass, we don’t only need bread; we also need wine.  So I thought we’d make a little wine today.  Did you all wash your feet this morning?  I’ve got this little tub here, and I bought these grapes.  Why don’t you start taking off your shoes so we can stomp out some wine…

This is when five mothers start saying, “Not in that pretty white dress, you won’t!”

To squash grapes with our feet in your nice church clothes would be crazy, right?  It would make a huge mess!  But doing that would be a lot less crazy than what Jesus did that has talking about wine in the first place today, what Jesus did to show us how much he loved us when he died on the Cross.

We just heard the story of Jesus’ Last Supper on the night before he died.  At the table with his friends, he took the break, broke it, and said, “Take this and eatit: this is my Body.”  And then he took a cup of wine and said, “Take this and drinkit: this is my Blood.”

Our readings at Mass today are full of blood—lots and lots of blood.  There’s the blood of bulls and goats.  There’s bowls of blood splashed on the altar.  And there’s more blood sprinkled on the people.  Sounds pretty gross, right?  And it would far more messy if we did that today than if we actually stomped out these grapes to make a little wine.

So why all this talk about blood?  Why is blood so important as you receive your First Communion?  Let me tell you a little story to help you understand.

A girl about your age named Lisa was very, very sick—so sick that the doctors were worried she was going to die.  But they knew there was one thing that could make Lisa better, and that was a blood transfusion. (Do you know what a transfusion is?  It’s when someone gives their blood to someone else who needs it.)

Well, because Lisa was so sick, they knew they would need blood that was a perfect match—and they knew where they could get it: from her five-year-old brother, Josh. Because Josh was so young, the doctors were worried about asking for his blood, so they tried to explain everything to him slowly and carefully.  And when they were done, Josh made a serious face, thought about it for just a minute, and said, “Yes, I’ll do it to save my sister.”

The two kids were lying on hospital beds, side by side.  And as Josh’s blood started to flow in Lisa’s veins, she started to look better. She opened her eyes and the color began to come back to her cheeks.  Everybody smiled, including Josh.  But then Josh’s face went white, he got very serious again, and called the doctors over to his bed.

Josh asked, “Will I start to die right away?”  You see, Josh hadn’t really understood what the doctors were asking him. He thought he was going to have to give Lisa allof his blood.

Josh knew that when your blood gets separated from your body, you die.  He understood that blood is life.  But he was willing to make that sacrifice for his big sister.

A sacrifice is when you give up or give away something good and important and precious in order to help make something or somebody better.  And it’s the sacrifice that Jesus made for you that makes your First Communion possible today.  Jesus gave up his life here on earth so that you would be able to have life with him in heaven some day.  And Jesus gave away all of his Blood because he wanted to share his life, and not only with the twelve Apostles at the Last Supper.  Through his Apostles and then through priests after them, in the Sacrament we call the Eucharist, Jesus left a way for all people, everywhere, for thousands of years—including you, boys and girls—to have Jesus’ life within them, to have Jesus’ Blood flowing through their own veins.

Yesterday, when we were exploring behind the scenes in the sacristy, we looked at the silver chalice that was made when I was ordained a priest and offered my first Mass. And we saw on the bottom of it that it has my name and the date I became a priest.  But it also has these words:I will raise the cup of salvation; I will call upon the name of the Lord—words from the Psalm we sang about 10 minutes ago

This is no ordinary cup, because it holds no ordinary drink.  In just a few minutes, the deacon will fill this chalice with wine. And not long afterward, when you come forward to receive Holy Communion, if go to drink from it, what’s inside will still look like wine, and taste like wine, and smell like wine (and hopefully not like any stinky feet that helped to make it).  But what’s in this chalice won’t be wine anymore; it will be the Blood of Christ.  When we lift up this chalice, it’s the sacrifice of Jesus for you.

And that’s why we call it the “cup of salvation,” because what’s inside of it has the power to save our lives.  What Josh was willing to do for Lisa should make you think of what Jesus has done for you. Jesus was willing to die, willing to shed allof his Blood on the Cross, so that he could save you, so that you can live forever.

Boys and girls, today is a very special day as you receive your First Holy Communion.  But it’s a very special day every time we offer Mass, every time we’re able to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  So every time that you walk up to the altar, be sure to remember the sacrifice Jesus made to show his love, and be sure to have a heart full of thanks that he left this great Sacrament so his own life could flow in you.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
Lord Jesus, in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, you have given yourself to us as food and drink: our Bread of Life and Chalice of Salvation.  Stay always in our hearts!