Friday, July 25, 2014

Pearls of Wisdom – 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

John Steinbeck wrote a novel entitled “The Pearl” in which a poor family in Mexico has a child who was bitten by a scorpion.  Without proper treatment the child would die, and the family lacked the funds to pay for the medical care.  The father of the child goes out to shore to seek for a pearl in order to pay for his child’s medical care, and in that search he comes upon a rare pearl of great price.  Thinking that this pearl could lift them out of their poverty, he goes to various pearl merchants seeking the highest price.  The pearl merchants, however, are in collusion with one another, and are deliberately driving the price low.

Realizing this injustice is being done to him, the father decides to trek to Mexico City in order to sell the pearl there, taking with him his wife and child.  The pearl merchants pursue them, and in the chase the little child is killed by the pearl merchants.  Devastated, the parents return to their village and the father throws the pearl into the sea.

The point of the novel is similar to the readings for this Sunday.  What is the pearl of great price in our lives?  The father realizes that it is his child, and not the pearl itself, that is the real pearl.   In the first reading today, God asks Solomon to request the pearl of his life, and Solomon chose rightly:  “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”  At our baptism when we are anointed as a kingly people God asks each one of us through His Church to make a similar request.  Like Solomon, we need a similar wisdom to govern our own lives and to assist in guiding the lives of others with this gift of rightly distinguishing right from wrong.

It is at baptism that God first calls us to Himself, and we might often wonder for what we are called to be.  Paul answers that question for us in the second reading.  He reminds us that we are called “to be conformed to the image of his Son.”  Whenever we want to know what is right and wrong in our lives, we go to Jesus and see in His life and message what it is we ought to do in our mission.  What was the great pearl in Jesus’ life?  It was to do the will of His Father, something for which he prayed daily.  If we seek the pearl of great price and desire to be conformed to the image of Jesus, this too must be our goal – to do the will of God and seek it each day.

Very often the images Jesus gives for the kingdom of God are passive, i.e. they are images of gifts freely given by God for us.  Today, however, Jesus shows us the other side of the kingdom – that it is something for which we must actively seek in our lives.  The kingdom is a great treasure, a pearl of great price for which we desire and strive towards.  And yet we realize that the images of the kingdom are not exact analogies.  We often desire and love riches for what they can bring us; that is, they are often a means to another end.  The kingdom of God, however, is not a means to an end.  The kingdom is the end for which we strive.  We cannot use it for any other purpose; it is not a means to some other goal.  The kingdom is the end and goal of our lives.

Where is this pearl, this kingdom, located?  Jesus has told us that it is in our midst.  It is not some far distant place well removed from our daily lives.  The kingdom exists already in our midst, within each one of us.  If we are temples of the Holy Spirit as we believe, then God dwells among us and the kingdom is here both in our individual lives and in our communal lives as the People of God.  We often cling to very important things that help us in our relationship to God and in coming to realize the kingdom, but Jesus reminds us that only one thing is necessary.  Everything was taken away from Jesus – all earthly helps and consolations – and yet He showed us through His death and resurrection the one thing necessary:  God alone. 

When trials and struggles come to our lives as they come to every life, they are a reminder that one thing alone is necessary:  God is the pearl of great price and nothing else.  It is a lesson we often do not want to hear, for we are attached to many things in our lives.  As we strive for this pearl, for God alone, we come together to pray:  “God our Father, open our eyes to see your hand at work in the splendor of creation, in the beauty of human life.  Touched by your hand our world is holy.  Help us to cherish the gifts that surround us, to share your blessings with our brothers and sisters, and to experience the joy of life in your presence.  We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Let It Rain

Let It Rain – 15th Week in Ordinary Time
Mount of the Beatitudes

One day a boy was walking along the seashore and came upon thousands of starfish that had washed ashore by the tide.  Knowing that they would die unless returned to the water, the boy calmly walked along and began tossing starfish back into the ocean.  An old man saw the boy and came up to him to say, “Boy, you can’t possibly save all the starfish.  Why bother?  What does it matter?”  The boy picked up another starfish, tossed it into the ocean, and replied, “It matters to that one.”  Today’s readings ask us to reflect upon the word of God and its effect in our lives.

In the first reading today we find the prophetic message of Isaiah providing us with an incredible message of hope.  God’s word comes down to earth like the rainfall, and it will achieve the end for which it is sent.  What is that end?  It is the salvation of the entire human race.  God wills and desires that every single person will find salvation in Him.  What is more, God works untiringly in each person’s life in order to help achieve the salvation God desires for us.

However, there is one item in the universe that the omnipotent God cannot control, and that is the free will of human persons.  God gave us this free will because our love is the most important gift we can give to God.  If our wills were not free we could not freely love and thus the gift we offer to God would be something other than a gift freely given.  This freedom also means that we have the ability to choose against God and to reject His love for us.  Radical freedom means that we have the consequence of evil that arises from the misuse of our human choice. 

Herein we find the understanding we need to have of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel text today.  God freely gives generously and abundantly the seed – the word of God – in the soil of our lives.  The condition of our soil is not predetermined, but rather it is the result of how we have cared for that soil of our lives.  Is our soil fertile and open to God’s will, or is it shallow or thorny or some other condition that we have created preventing God’s word from taking hold in our lives?

We often blame God for our lack of sanctity and peace, but if we stop to examine our lives more closely we realize that we ourselves made this soil of our lives the way in which it is.  Yes, bad things to happen to us that come from outside of ourselves.  Other people perform wicked deeds to us that cause us great harm and pain.  We do, however, have a choice in how we respond to the evil done to us by others.  We cannot allow the bad soil of another’s life affect our own soil. 

If we realize that our soil is not what it should be, we have recourse to God, the master of the vineyard, who can cleanse our soil and work with us to make it fertile ground again for His word to take root in our lives.  We are not predestined to having bad soil; we cannot be content with the condition of our soil if it be less than what it ought to be.  Tools and resources exist for us to cultivate our soil to make it a flourishing garden. 
Like the boy in the story of the starfish, we cannot despair of the magnitude of the project.  Instead, we must go about our lives doing whatever good we are able, knowing that it does matter to those with whom we come in contact.  We cannot allow the pessimism of others to detract us from the fundamental mission we have in caring for others and providing good soil for ourselves and for others.  The boy stayed true to his mission and helped as many starfish as he could.  We can do no less as we live out the calling God has for each of us, realizing that while the boy could not save every starfish, God can save every human soul – whether it be in this present life or in the life to come.  Purgatory is a reality of our faith, and how it works is known only to God.  It may be that a great many people are there at God’s will finding salvation that both we and they thought not possible.

As we gather once again to seek nourishment in our Christian mission, we pray for the ongoing strength we need in cultivating our soil and being faithful to our mission of service to others.  “Father, let the light of your truth guide us to your kingdom through a world filled with lights contrary to your own.  Christian is the name and the gospel we glory in.  May your love make us what you have called us to be.  We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

Friday, June 20, 2014

Manna in the Desert - Corpus Christi

Manna in the Desert – Corpus Christi
Side Chapel - Church of Mary's Nativity, Nazareth

Whenever we leave loved ones for an extended period of time, it is customary for us to give them a memento that reminds them of our love and presence in their lives.  This token item is very often a picture or some object that reminds others of us.  In some way the object makes them present to us – their memory, what they mean to us, and the love we share from afar.  Today’s feast and readings reflect this theme in many ways.

While journeying in the desert the Israelites feared that they would suffer starvation and thirst.  In response to this need, God sent them manna each day.  Not only did the manna provide the people with the necessary nourishment for each day, but also it represented a pledge of God’s presence and care for his people in their pilgrimage to new life in a new land.  For this reason the people of Israel placed manna in the Ark of the Covenant alongside Aaron’s staff and the tablets of the Law.  These objects were mementos – reminders – of God’s love for His people, and they became God’s very presence on earth as the shekinah of the Ark. 

In reminding the people of Israel of the manna, Moses stated, “He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”  The Lord Jesus will use these very words to rebuke Satan during his own temptations in the desert.  Jesus’ complete and total dependence on God during these trials in the desert stand in contrast to the grumblings of Israel during the Exodus. 

We hear echoes of this grumbling in the Gospel text.  Jesus had multiplied loaves and fishes to provide for the people in the wilderness.  This good deed is met with a large crowd who follows Jesus about the area, demanding that they have this bread always, just as their ancestors who had manna in the desert.  Jesus, however, connects the Exodus event with His own experience in the desert.  He would not give them physical bread, but His own presence will be His pledge to us.  We will survive our journey in the wilderness and desert not with physical food, but with the presence of Christ in our midst.  For His presence will sustain us against the temptations of Satan in the desert as we journey to new life in a new land. 

This feast of Corpus Christi reminds us that we are to become what we eat.  God had pledged his presence and care for Israel with the manna in the desert.  The Lord Jesus pledged His very life as His presence and care for us in the Eucharist.  Every time we celebrate the Eucharist we are reminded of His saving words and deeds, and His very presence comes among us just as the shekinah of God descended among His people in the symbol of the Ark of the Covenant.  God cared for His people in real and concrete actions.  The Lord Jesus cared for people in real and concrete actions.  Our participation in the Eucharist reminds us that we must do likewise – to become Eucharist for others and to care for them in real and concrete situations.

The act of God in Exodus was an act of providing food for a hungry people.  The act of Jesus in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was also an act of providing food for a hungry people – an act that becomes the criterion by which we are to be judged on the final day (cf. Matthew 25).  Participation at the table of the Lord should then lead us to this divine act of providing food to a hungry people in real and concrete acts.  The Eucharist and care for the poor represent a fundamental truth and obligation of the Christian life.  We cannot pledge faith in the Eucharist if we fail to carry out its obligation to us in the Christian life, nor can we separate our care for others from our sacramental and spiritual life. 

As we discern how we might live out this Eucharistic reality and obligation of care for others in our own life, we gather together around the table of the Lord to be inspired once again to the live the life of God in being His presence and care for others in the world.  And we pray together for God’s continual help to live this life more worthily:  “Let us pray for the willingness to make present in our world the love of Christ shown to us in the Eucharist.  Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us in the sacrament of your body and blood.  May we offer to our Father in heaven a solemn pledge of undivided love.  May we offer to our brothers and sisters a life poured out in loving service of that kingdom where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.”  

Friday, June 6, 2014

Come, Spirit of Peace - Pentecost 2014

Church of All Nations - Jerusalem
Come, Spirit of Peace – Pentecost 2014

The marvel worked at Pentecost by the Spirit of God, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is that people from all over the Mediterranean region hear the Sprit filled disciples in their own languages.  What are we to make of this remarkable event, and what might such an event mean for us as followers of the Lord Jesus in the twenty-first century?

It is important to remember that the catalogue of peoples that Luke provides in this account have two things in common despite their diverse geographies:  they are all Jews, and they are all subjects of the Roman Empire.  Despite the differences that diaspora Jews had with Jews in Judea, the pilgrimage festivals united Judaism in their worship of the one true God.  This unity, however, was limited to Jews, who were a distinct minority throughout the region.  It did not extend to Gentiles, who were reluctant to convert to Judaism due to the requirements of male circumcision and dietary laws.  Nevertheless, such a unity provided a hope for 
greater unity among all peoples under the providence of the one God of all.

The Roman Empire provided another model of unity for people throughout the Mediterranean region.  The Pax Romana, or the Roman peace, was a time of relative calm where large scale wars were non-existent.  All peoples of the region were united under one realm.  Such a peace, however, was illusory and artificial.  For one thing, the peace was kept under military occupation and threats from the ruthless Roman army.  For another thing, people were required to pay religious tribute to the cult of the emperor as an outward expression of this ephemeral peace.  Only the Jewish people were exempt from such a requirement.

Despite the claim of Pax Romana, the people of Judea experienced little of this peace.  Revolts were frequent because the Roman occupation was harsh.  People were dispossessed of their land and impoverished in lives of hard, servile work that benefited only a few wealthy Jews who cooperated with the Romans.  People of the time knew the Roman peace was a sham, and they longed for a deep and authentic peace for themselves.

So, when the Spirit comes at Pentecost and all are able to hear the message of Jesus in their own language, we find therein the fulfilled desire of all peoples for true and lasting peace.  Peace does not come through coercion, nor does it come from the threatened violence of weapons and armies.  Peace comes to us as a gift of God in a mighty wind and the breath of Jesus, a gift offered freely and accepted freely in our lives.   It is a peace that comes through the ministry of reconciliation to which Jesus calls us to undertake as His followers. 

It is only through forgiveness of others, the putting aside of ancient hatreds, and the rejection of violence that peace can come to us.  This is the recipe Jesus provides to us in His teaching and in the life He lived while on earth.  It is a promise we can fulfill once we accept the Spirit of peace and resolve to live as Jesus did.  The fact that peace does not exist is explained by the fact that we do not forgive, we maintain ancient hatreds, and we continue to use violence as a solution to problems.  It is a scandal that Christians not only fail to live as Jesus lived, but also that many Christians attempt to argue that Jesus taught and lived violence as a path to peace.  We should not be surprised when people reject Christianity when such false forms of it are put forward as representative expressions. 

At the same time, when people see authentic Christian lives of witness to non-violence and peace that attraction to Christianity remains present in the world.  When St. Pope John Paul II walked into a prison cell to forgive his would be assassin; when Pope Francis washes the feet of a Muslim woman in prison – these authentic acts of Christ attract others because they emanate from the Spirit of peace who long ago swept across a small piece of land like a mighty wind and gentle breath of Jesus.

That same Spirit can animate our lives and transform our world if we would let Him.  As we gather together on this Pentecost, we ask for the Spirit to come upon us and make us ministers of reconciliation and instruments of authentic peace.  “Let us pray in the Spirit who dwells within us.  Father of light, from whom every good gift comes, send your Spirit into our lives with the power of a mighty wind, and by the flame of your wisdom open the horizons of our minds.  Loosen our tongues to sing your praise in words beyond the power of speech, for without your Spirit man could never raise his voice in words of peace or announce the truth that Jesus is Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hope in the Call - Feast of the Ascension

Hope in the Call – Feast of the Ascension

When I was fifteen I was chosen to be on a Babe Ruth League All Star team that represented our city in a statewide baseball tournament.  While being chosen for the team was an honor, at first I did not play at all.  The first few games of the tournament I sat on the bench, until one game in which we were behind by three runs.  The coach decided to put me in as relief pitcher, not thinking at all that I would do well, but in order to rest the other players so we could play again in the double elimination round.  This calling to the mound was not exactly a ringing endorsement, but I held our opponents scoreless while we came back to win the game and advance to the state finals, at which point I started regularly. 

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus gathering the eleven in Galilee just before he ascends to heaven.  These eleven men, as the text states, “worshipped, but they doubted.”  These words indicate their lack of perfection as followers of the Lord Jesus.  In spite of all they had witnessed, they still had doubts about the identity and mission of Jesus the Lord.  Nevertheless, in spite of their lack of perfection, Jesus calls them to go forth and make disciples of all nations, to teach, and to baptize. 

From all that we read in the Gospels the twelve show no indication that they understand the identity and mission of Jesus.  They continually misunderstand and fail in the work of discipleship.  And now that Jesus has died and risen from the dead they once again have doubts, leading us to think that failure will again come their way in the ministry of the Lord Jesus.  And yet to be chosen by God has nothing whatsoever to do with merit, for none of us is worthy, none of us is able to succeed of our own abilities and talents.  All of us have fallen short of the glory of God, and if we read the Gospels closely enough we will find ourselves in the place of the disciples when they misunderstand, when they betray, when they deny, when they run away in fear, and when they doubt. 

And yet you and I have been chosen by God to follow the Lord Jesus and carry out His work on earth.  We are called to love as He loved, to teach and to baptize, to reconcile and to heal.  Will we fail to live as we ought?  Yes, but God knew this fact ahead of time and called us anyway.  And we may be surprised at what we can accomplish with the help of God.  Remember that these same frail men who failed so often became transformed by the power of the Spirit.  They traveled to far away places in order to teach, to heal, and to reconcile.  These men, who had once run from a garden in fear of death, suffer many tribulations and die violent deaths just as the Lord Jesus had done. 

While we await the feast of Pentecost next week, we need not wait for the coming of the Spirit in our lives, for the Spirit is already present among us and dwells within us.  The rebuke of the two men in white is also addressed to us:  “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?”  We have been given a mission to accomplish:  to teach, to baptize, to heal, and to reconcile.  It is enough that we have been called by God to this work; we have what we need to accomplish the task, for Jesus has left us an example to follow, a glory to be awaited, and a Spirit to sustain us. 

In my baseball experience, my coaches did not believe in my abilities to be successful.  But God believes in us, and He calls us without any consideration of our merits.  And if God believes in us, why then should we not believe in Him?  Herein lies the parabolic nature of God:  we human beings spend so much time wrestling with belief in God and the path to God, while all the while God has put His faith in us all the while.  He did so at creation; at the incarnation of Jesus; at the resurrection and all times in between and since.  And now at the ultimate moment of Jesus’ return to glory God once again puts His faith in the human race by calling us to this work of Jesus the Lord.

As we come together to recommit ourselves to the work of God, we pray for that we might ever be conscious of the call, of the example of the Lord Jesus, of the glory that awaits us, and the presence of the Spirit ever with us.  “Father in heaven, our minds were prepared for the coming of your kingdom when you took Christ beyond our sight so that we might seek him in his glory.  May we follow where he has led and find our hope in his glory, for he is Lord forever and ever.  Amen.”  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Foolish We Are

How Foolish We Are – 3rd Sunday of Easter Year A

Parents often marvel in disbelief over the things that young children will fight over.  Who can forget the great debate over whose teddy bear was better, or the epic battles over space in the back seat of the car on road trips?  As adults we look at these feuds as childish, petty, and unimportant.  However, if we stopped to look at our own disputes with fellow adults we might not see the actual pettiness that exists within these spats.  How many “irreconcilable differences” in divorce proceedings are really unimportant matters of our own selfishness?  Even in matters of great consequence pride can consume our discussions and we are not conscious of God speaking to us and providing the resolution we need.

In today’s Gospel text we find two disciples walking to Emmaus conversing and debating the entire way about the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Certainly they did not agree on the meaning of these events, or even perhaps they disagreed on the facts described to them by the women.  By their own words they saw Jesus as one from Nazareth who was a powerful prophet of God – words they utter to Jesus himself, though as yet unknown to them!  But lest we be harsh on these two men, we might recall our own inability to see Jesus present among us and our failures in recognizing the full reality of Jesus’ identity.  And these disciples will provide for us an example worthy to follow.

For Jesus does appear to them and listens to their account of the story about himself.  They provide for Jesus an honest account of what they saw, heard, and believed about Jesus.  Then, these two disciples listen attentively as Jesus, still unknown to them, taught them about the identity of the Messiah through the scriptures.  What is more, these men urge Jesus to stay with them that evening for a meal and to continue the conversation about the true nature of the Messiah and the meaning of these recent events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Their openness and receptivity to the word of God is rewarded in coming to know the full identity of Jesus – present to them this entire time – in the sacramental action of the breaking of the bread.  Jesus, whom had been unrecognizable to them, now becomes fully known at table.  Their receptivity to the word of God enabled them to recognize the Lord Jesus in the present moment, and at once their previous conversation and debate is put aside.  Jesus has brought resolution to them through word and sacrament so that all conflict has been set aside.

What is more, these disciples then embark on a missionary endeavor to tell the others about how they came to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  It is not enough for us to merely come to a personal knowledge of Jesus’ identity and presence among us.  We must share this joy with others and make it known how the risen Jesus has appeared to us in our lives.

Many people today lament the conflicts that exist within the Church – whether these conflicts are local in the parish and diocese, or whether these conflicts are more global in nature.  Perhaps today’s Gospel text can provide for us a means of finding peace and resolution.  If we imitate these two disciples and listen attentively to the word of God, invite Jesus to remain with us, and gather together around the table of the Lord, we too can come to recognize the presence of Christ among us.  For what is essential to our lives is the living word of God and the sacramental action of the Church.  Through constant meditation on the word of God, through fervent prayer and receptivity to Christ in our lives, and in the celebration of the sacraments together we can resolve any difficulty and conflict.  In addition, we can go through life with the joy of the presence of Jesus, making known to others the great work He has begun in us.

The resurrection of Jesus means that conflict need not lead to a sealed tomb as the final resting place for ourselves and that conflict.  Instead, it means that the solutions lie beyond the tomb in the light of God’s presence.  As we gather together, we pray for the grace we need to be like these two disciples on the road to Emmaus so that peace may reign over conflict in all aspects of our lives:  “Father in heaven, author of all truth, a people once in darkness has listened to your Word and followed your Son as he rose from the tomb.  Hear the prayer of this newborn people and strengthen your Church to answer your call.  May we rise and come forth into the life of day to stand in your presence until eternity dawns.  We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The First Word

The First Word - "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."

In the first creation, God brought forth order out of chaos in seven days.  Jesus, the Son of God, the Word of God, in the new creation drama of Passion, Death, and Resurrection, brings order out of chaos in seven words.

On the first day of creation in Genesis, God provides us with hope in bringing forth light.  In the first word of the new creation, Jesus the Son of God provides us with hope in bringing forth the light of forgiveness:  "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."

How might we respond to this precious gift of hope in forgiveness that Jesus the Son of God extends to us in the first word?  The great Renaissance musician Johann Heermann provides us with the fitting words for such a response:

My loving Savior, how have you offended,
That such a hate in man on you descended?
Both mocked and scorned, you suffered our rejection
In deep affliction.

It was my guilt brought all these things upon you,,
Through all my sins was this injustice done you.
Lord Jesus, it was I that did deny you
And crucify you.

So now the Shepherd for the sheep is offered,
Mankind is guilty, but the Son has suffered.
For man's atonement, which man never heeded,
God interceded.

For us, dear Jesus, was your incarnation,
Your bitter death and shameful crucifixion,
Your burial and your glorious resurrection:
For our salvation.

Although, good Jesus, we cannot repay you,
We shall adore you and shall ever praise you,
For all your kindness and your love unswerving,