Thursday, June 25, 2015

A possible response from US Bishops on Gay Marriage

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to make history most likely tomorrow (Friday) or Monday on the issue of  gay marriage in the United States. Most of the speculation seems to favor that the action of the Supremes will in effect make same sex marriage legal across the United States.

This, just a month after the once lock-step Catholic bastion of Ireland became the first nation to approve gay marriage by referendum. After the approval of that referendum on the Emerald Isle, though, I was very impressed with the open and pastoral tone that was struck by Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin. Following the vote, he said, "We [the Church] have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities. We won't begin again with a sense of renewal, with a sense of denial. I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution."

The Archbishop also spoke about the Church's need to reach out in a new way to young people and to rethink the way our doctrine and theology are presented.

His response has me pondering, naturally, how will our bishops here in the United States respond in the days to come? Once again, this anticipated outcome of the Supremes will be an opportunity for the U.S. Church and I see basically two options.  Option one is to once again hunker down in battle mentality. The bishops can make proclamations about conspiracies and "gay agendas" and media manipulation and the triumph of the secular over the sacred.

But, I think the evidence is in on this approach and the conclusion is that it doesn't work. It doesn't lead anyone to Christ, to the Church, to a deepened relationship with the Lord. In fact, data would suggest that it has the exact opposite effect. A recent Pew study showed that the largest religious group increasing in the United States are those who are "not affiliated" to any Church or denomination. The group where most of these "nones" are leaving from is the Catholic Church. And among the chief reasons for the departure is the perceived "judgmental" attitude of the clergy/church officials. One of the key things that Pope Francis has showed us, I think, is that very often the problem is not the teaching of the Church, but the way that teaching is presented and the attitude of the presenters.

What Archbishop Martin did was to acknowledge something - he acknowledged his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Ireland who were experiencing a significant moment in their lives and the life of their nation. He was acknowledging that they had experienced years of oppression and discrimination and so it was very natural for them to experience the referendum as a great moment of liberation. He acknowledged the reality as it was experienced right before him. That seems like an obvious statement, but it is one that needs to be stated because the problem is that too often, we don't see what is right before us and instead recast it into a narrative that better suits the story we want to shape. But, dialogue begins with acknowledging the reality of the other. It all starts there.

So, let's imagine Option Two. Here is another way that our U.S. Bishops could respond tomorrow or Monday if the Supreme Court makes same-sex marriage the law of the land.
A possible response of the U.S. Bishops: "Today, in a truly landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision, the result of which makes it legal for people of the same-sex to contract a legal marriage in the United States. To the extent that this decision represents the end of discrimination and oppression of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as a group of people, we rejoice with them. The Catholic Church has long opposed discrimination under the law in all of its forms and we rejoice whenever such legal discrimination is cast aside in favor of progress toward the recognition of the equality of all people. We rejoice with those who welcome this movement of liberation. We understand that civil law is different than church law or theology, and our tradition as well as current and long-held theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage continues to be that sacramental marriage is a union between a man and a woman. But, we also understand the desire of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to find long term, lasting, loving and committed relationships. The Church in recent years has struggled in its attempts to reconcile all of these positions in a coherent way that leads all her children to Christ without making some feel as though they are not welcome within our walls and our communities, or that we desire anything less than a full, happy and fulfilled life for them. What we ask of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters today is this: please, keep struggling with us; let's continue to dialogue together. We need you and hopefully, you need us too. Please continue to be active members of our parishes and communities and help us understand one another better and figure out how we all walk to Jesus together."
The Archbishop was right, "We have to stop and do a reality check." Our reality check would quickly show that the strategy of condemnation, finger-pointing and name-calling has done nothing more than close off the conversation, drive people away from the Church, and relegate our voice increasingly to the margin. Perhaps another strategy - the one that Jesus employed - might be called for: the strategy of respectful, open dialogue. It's time for option two. It's time to find common ground, recognize the good in others, begin by accepting them where they are, be open to a conversation, be able to state like Archbishop Martin that we at the very least understand why people might welcome this ruling, even if it isn't in line with our teaching. We are called to the attitude of Christ, "neither do I condemn you" and instead to be oases of compassion, love, joy, healing and mercy. It is then that we begin to be not just a community, but a family. It is then that we move forward together in Christ, towards Christ.

Let's see which option the bishops choose.

- FT

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The healing power of forgiveness in Charleston

The day before the brutal, hate-filled, racist killing of nine innocent people attending a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston,  the Scriptures of the Catholic Mass gave us this Gospel passage from Matthew, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  Little did we know that just the next day, our faith in that passage would be put to the test.

Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and more. While these tragic events are different each in their own way, I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to feel something like fatigue at what seems to be a repeating pattern every six months or a year or so of yet another horrific moment when evil raises its head yet again and strikes out at innocents followed by the cycle of recrimination and justification; mourning and weeping.

I pray that it will end. I pray that we will be renewed. I pray that we will find our way to a better reality - one where love conquers hate, light overtakes the darkness, goodness triumphs over evil, and we all find a way closer to each other as brothers and sisters.

But, then, in the face of such tragedy, people of faith can do amazing things that restore faith and hope and love. I think of the amazing power of reconciliation that we saw in 2006 among the Amish people in Nickle Mines, Pennsylvania. If you recall, in October of that year, a 32-year-old man held 10 school girls captive and horrifically killed them before turning the gun on himself. A moment that shocked the world and completely devastated these people.

But their reaction - born of their deep and abiding faith - was to forgive. They forgave the killer of their children and not only in word, but also in deed. Family members of the deceased, just days after burying their own children, attended the funeral of the man who took the lives of their own.

The mother of the shooter, spoke about that moment and said, "For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us...Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?" She was so moved by this act of forgiveness that she continues to this day to go once a week to care for the most seriously wounded survivor of that day.

This extraordinary, beautiful and powerful forgiveness brought about a transcendence that lead that community to a true sense of healing so that life might go on, that they might move forward. It doesn't make the pain go away; it doesn't solve the problems that lead to the tragedy, but it does allow people to see one another precisely as people who are worthy of salvation, worthy of dignity, worthy of a new future - all because of the power of forgiveness.

Amazingly, we saw something of that again this week in Charleston. Just days after yet another senseless tragedy that took, this time, nine innocent lives of good and holy people studying God's Word in His house, we were humbled to hear these words from the loved one of a victim. The daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance who died at Mother Emanuel said, "I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you."

Another family member, the sister of Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, said, "We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul."

When tragedy strikes, anger is the easy response and the quick response. Solutions - whether legal, political or societal - are also a fast way to direct our strong feelings into something constructive. These are all necessary responses and part of the process. 

But, a reconciliation born of faith takes time, it takes patience, it takes a willingness to be vulnerable in the face of evil and danger. It is also the only path that can bring about lasting change and true healing. Let us be reminded of that example from the Amish almost 10 years ago. Let us be inspired by these good, holy and brave survivors in Charleston who have the miraculous courage to proclaim forgiveness in this dark and painful moment. 

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  If you've ever wondered what that looks like in practice, look no further than the Amish, look no further Charleston this week. 

Forgiveness transforms, it heals, it calls us higher, it makes us whole, it shows us and the world who God has truly called us to be. 

Let us all strive to do the same. It just might change the world. "...where there is injury, Lord, let me bring pardon."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Kingdom of God is like a dandelion...and that's no joke

HOMILY FOR THE 11th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, June 14, 2015:

A young man considering a vocation with the Franciscans was invited to dinner at the local friary one evening. As dinner went on, from time-to-time, one of the friars would stand up and say a number and the rest of the friars would laugh hysterically. One stood up and said, “72,” and everyone laughed. Later, another stood and said, “149,” and again everyone laughed. Another stood and said, “14,” and again, everyone laughed. Confused, the young man asked the friar beside him what was going on. He answered, “Well, you see, we’ve all lived together for a long time. By now, we know each other jokes by heart, so we numbered them all to save time. Someone says a number and we remember the joke and laugh,” then he said, “Why don’t you give it a try. We have 300 jokes, just stand and say any number you like.” The young man stood tentatively and said, “107,” but this time there was nothing but silence. The man sat down sheepishly and asked the friar what went wrong. He said, “What can I tell you? Some people just can’t tell a joke.”

I was thinking of this today because I think there’s something like this going on in our Gospel. I think Jesus is telling us a bit of a joke, but I didn’t notice anyone laughing as I read it today. It was a classic case of the flop.

So, what’s the joke? Well, as we heard in the Gospel, Jesus asks the familiar question “To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God?” Now if you think about how you might answer that question, most of us would probably choose something amazing to compare the Kingdom of God to. We might choose, for example, the image we heard in our First Reading from Ezekial – the great and mighty cedar tree. This is an image that is used over and over again in the Old Testament and these were mighty trees. They were large and strong, they would soar into the sky as high as 200 feet. Standing at their base it might feel you could climb them all the way to Heaven. Certainly a worthy comparison to the Kingdom of God.


But, instead of something so majestic, Jesus said, “It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.” And, I think this is his joke. Instead of a mighty cedar, Jesus is essentially comparing God’s kingdom to something like a weed; that’s what the mustard bush was after all. We might understand better if it were told like this: the Kingdom of God is like dandelion seed, which, when sown into your lawn....” As always, though, Jesus is telling His little joke to make a much bigger point. The point is that we may want the Kingdom of God to be like the beautiful, majestic cedar tree shooting all the way to Heaven itself, but the reality is that God’s Kingdom needs to be a little closer to earth; a little closer to our reality. And, the Kingdom of God needs to be persistent – ever try to get rid of those dandelions? The Kingdom of God will not simply arrive and remain forever. It will pop up over here, and then over there, and again over there. And, we need to be the ones continually planting those tiny little seeds of the Kingdom so it becomes present in our world.

We are the sowers of the seeds of the Kingdom of God. We help to bring forth that Kingdom when we commit ourselves to Kingdom values – peacemaking instead of discord, forgiveness instead of vengeance, reconciliation instead of revenge, justice instead of crookedness, generosity instead of greed. We are called to be sowers of that little seed; to make our own personal contribution to the presence and the growth of God’s Kingdom; and our personal contribution is incredibly important.

Kingdoms don’t grow by themselves. The seeds we sow in God’s name have enormous potential. They are the principles we hold dear, the loving witness that we give, the faithful promises we make and keep, the needy people we help to raise out of poverty, injustice or despair. They are the prayers we say, the children we welcome into relationship with Christ, the Holy Masses we celebrate, the hurts we forgive, the kindness we show, the family members, neighbors and even enemies we love and forgive. The seed can be all sorts of things – a listening ear, an encouraging word, a happy memory shared.

My friends, the seeds we plant will take root and grow and the presence of the Kingdom of God will be realized more and more each day in our midst if we remain persistent in spreading them. We are builders of the Kingdom of God and honored to partake in this great and wonderful and majestic work of Christ. And, that’s no joke. Bring forth the Kingdom of God!

May the Lord give you peace.

Friday, June 5, 2015

How Christians should REALLY respond to Caitlyn Jenner

Have I got your attention? I have been really struggling with wanting to say something about all of the coverage surrounding the recent transitioning of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner.

Now, perhaps, like you, there is a lot here that I really don't understand. If I'm going to be completely honest, the experience of having a biological gender but experiencing that you are actually another gender, is so very far outside of my realm of experience, it really leaves me quite speechless.

But, what has troubled me at an even deeper level over especially this past week has been the response of far too many so-called Christians, and even those who are called forth to be leaders in the Christian community to this public announcement.

Over the course of the last week, I have come across blog posts or articles that have had titles like, "How Christians should respond to Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner" and some of them have even begun with some hope, but they have quickly descended into something that makes me question how anyone could ever think that these are Christian responses to anything.

Let me give you a sampling:

"You may want to write in your social media, 'This disgusts me.'" or "Bruce Jenner is not a woman. He is a sick and delusional man." These are the tamer ones because I won't give space here to the truly objectionable quotes.

Worse for me was an article I read about a high ranking U.S. Church official speaking at a conference this week on the sacred liturgy. He was speaking to a room full of devoted Catholics, devoted to the Church, devoted to the liturgy. Speaking to the crowd, he said that someone told him of a university that offered housing “for a grand total of 14 different gender identities. I’m sure even more will be invented as time goes on.” The crowd of Christians, it is reported, laughed. They laughed.

Speaking of the Jenner situation, he said that when culture no longer respects the natural law in regards to gender the natural conclusion is that this will lead us to the  "paganism of old" with "the practice of child sacrifice, the worship of feminine deities, or the cult of priestesses."

Putting aside the, at best, challenging logic of that claim, how is any of this the way that a Christian should respond? Condemnations, accusations, and laughter. What, Sweet Jesus, would You do?

I watched the Diane Sawyer interview a few weeks ago, and again, I state that I am really confused about the whole issue of what's really going on when someone is experiencing what they call transgender disorder. What I was not confused about at all was this - the experience of Bruce Jenner's life up until now, the last 65 years, has been an experience of pain, difficulty, confusion and often depression.  It has harmed his ability to form and maintain good, open, fully honest relationships.

What all of this has engendered in me has been compassion. I feel so sad for anyone who goes through their life feeling this terrible disconnect between who they are on outside and who they feel they are on the inside - no matter the reason, no matter the cause. I cannot imagine what pain that must be to endure.

It also made me feel some sense of relief for Caitlyn that she can finally feel as though she can begin to address the situation of her life openly and honestly. There must be a tremendous liberation in that experience for her. (And for those of you who might be wondering why I'm using "she" and "Caitlyn" it is because no matter what my own personal feelings or struggles with the issue might be - I see the person first, and respect their own inherent, God-given dignity. It is a respect every person deserves.)

Please show me the passage in Scripture where Jesus says, "No, I don't think so. I don't accept you. Try again. I reject you." I'll give you a few moments to go look that one up....

Are you back? Good. I'm sure what you found was that Jesus always meets people where they are at - with love, with compassion, with joy. Jesus sees the person before Him. He loves that person - not some idealized or future perfect version - the person before Him as is. And, so should we.

Why is it that in the world of social media, those who don't claim to know Jesus have been the ones responding with love, support, care and compassion; and so many of those who do claim to know Jesus have been responding with judgment, contempt, condemnation, or worse? And we wonder why people find a disconnect between the Gospel and what they experience from the followers of Jesus?

The response that Christians REALLY should have is this:

Be people of prayer - pray for Caitlyn and people like her who find themselves in what has to be a very difficult situation. Pray that they experience God's presence in their struggle.

Be people of compassion - this is a very good general rule for us followers of Christ, by the way. The world needs our presence to be one of kind compassion. Let's not be quick to judge. Imagine if we were as quick to offer compassion as we are to offer condemnation.

Be people who listen - imagine what we can learn by listening to the experiences of other people; these experiences that are so very different, perhaps, than our own. Listening helps us to learn, it helps us to become more compassionate, it helps us to see the other as a person.

Be open and welcoming - imagine the difference we could make in people's lives if they felt closer to God, closer to Christ, closer to the Church by feeling as though they were welcome in our midst, welcome to be part of our life of prayer and community. Pope Francis said just yesterday, "The Eucharist is not the prize for the strong." Imagine the benefits of a full sacramental life for people in struggle.

Be who we are called to be - that's the heart of it. They will know we are Christians by our love. Unfortunately, especially in the public sphere, that doesn't seem to be what we show. I know how loving our Christian communities are. I was formed by them. I live in them and I thrive in them. I want the rest of the world, especially those who need us, to know this too. Let's show them how we love.

I'll give you one blog post that did have a good answer, "Jesus wasn't the one to turn away from those the world had labeled broken. He was the one who would walk towards them with open arms."

Let's respond as Jesus would respond - with mercy and compassion; with love and joy - with arms open wide.

May the Lord give you peace.

- Fr. Tom

Sunday, May 3, 2015

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.”

HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 3, 2015:

NOTE: I offered this homily for our men in formation in Boston this morning

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” As you know, Fr. Mike and I were in Washington on Friday night for the 25th anniversary gala of Franciscan Mission Service. This quote by Dorothy Day was shared by one of the young adults who received the San Damiano Award for her service to the poor. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let that one sink in a little bit as we focus in on our readings today.

As much as the Easter season is about Jesus and His resurrection, this season so often is also about another central figure, Saul who becomes Paul – and, not coincidentally the effect of resurrection, or the effect of encountering the Resurrected One, in his life. We hear a lot about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles which have such a prominent place in our Easter readings, and of course, we always hear a lot from him, as his letters to the various churches he establishes are read just about every Sunday throughout the year.

As I was reflecting on today’s readings, this point about resurrection really struck me. Just think about our passage from Acts. At this moment, Paul – still known as Saul — was a fresh convert to the faith and newly arrived from Damascus. I hope your ears perked up like mine did at the beginning of the passage: “they were all afraid of him.” Isn’t that stunning? The early Christians knew who this guy was and what he did– he was a persecutor, a Christian-hunter. It’s fair to say that, among the Christians in Jerusalem Paul probably wasn’t very popular. Nobody trusted him. They even feared for their lives just because he was there. The beginning of the Chapter puts it even more dramatically. It says, before his conversion, “Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples.” This was one mean guy.

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” This very mean Saul is not who usually comes to mind when we think of the great saint. So, what happened? Well, his conversion moment, of course, his direct encounter with Jesus. But, what else? Well, there was also one person in the community of believers who saw something more. That person was Barnabas. Barnabas believed in Paul’s conversion – and believed in him. Today’s reading says he “took charge” of Paul. But Biblical scholars think it was more than that. One commentator has suggested that there would not even be a Paul if there wasn’t first a Barnabas – someone who after that tremendous moment of conversion became a mentor and guide, a friend and confidant; but also a figure who must have had great courage, and patience, and perseverance. In other words: Barnabas was someone who personified Christian love. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”

Years later, when Paul wrote his now famous passage to the Corinthians about love, the one we usually apply only to marriage and weddings – how it bears all things, hopes all things, and never fails – I believe, he was really talking about this. Not something romantic or flowery. But something that is a gift of self, that demands sacrifice and faith. That is unafraid and steadfast. That is willing to risk. Willing, even, to see beyond someone’s past; even a horrible and violent past like Saul’s. In other words: a love willing to “believe all things” – even to believe that a lowly tentmaker from Tarsus, a man who was a sinner and persecutor, might have the potential to be a saint. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”

Let me share one more detail with you about our good Barnabas. Barnabas is not the name he was born with. His given name was Joseph. But just as Saul became Paul, he, too, was given a new name by the Christian community to symbolize his new life in Christ. He was given the name Barnabas, a name which translated means, “Son of Encouragement.” Encouragement is what he gave to the growing community of Christians – and it surely describes what he offered to Saul and he grew into the Saint Paul we have come to revere.

To offer encouragement means to support and uplift. It is taking time to give of self – to give a hand to hold, a shoulder for support, an ear to listen, a voice to calm all doubts and erase all fears. It is to love like Christ loves. To see beyond sin into holiness. This is the effect of resurrection. It will raise us not only on the last day, but it can raise us on this day too – right out of whatever weighs us down.

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, loved a man that “they were all afraid of”, a man who “breathed murderous threats against them” and he loved and encouraged him into a saintly life.

My brothers, let us pray today that we too might be Sons of Encouragement – for each other, for those we struggle with, for those who seem to need that love and encouragement more than anyone else. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let the person we love least, be the person we love most and then we will be loving the way that God loves, and we will be encouraging as Barnabas encouraged, we too will be Sons of Encouragement and making our way to Heaven.

May the Lord give you peace.

Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church "cool" | Washington Post

NOTE: This is a great argument on being true to ourselves as a Church and the power of our worship. What moved me most is when the writer says, "What brought me back to the church was the sacraments." I would only add, that the challenge for our churches is not to make them more flashy or relevant, but they must be done well! - FT

 April 30 | Washington Post
Rachel Held Evans is a blogger and the author of “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.”
Bass reverberates through the auditorium floor as a heavily bearded worship leader pauses to invite the congregation, bathed in the light of two giant screens, to tweet using #JesusLives. The scent of freshly brewed coffee wafts in from the lobby, where you can order macchiatos and purchase mugs boasting a sleek church logo. The chairs are comfortable, and the music sounds like something from the top of the charts. At the end of the service, someone will win an iPad.
This, in the view of many churches, is what millennials like me want. And no wonder pastors think so. Church attendance has plummeted among young adults. In the United States, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background have, at some point, dropped out. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, among those of us who came of age around the year 2000, a solid quarter claim no religious affiliation at all, making my generation significantly more disconnected from faith than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their lives and twice as detached as baby boomers were as young adults.
In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.
You’re just as likely to hear the words “market share” and “branding” in church staff meetings these days as you are in any corporate office. Megachurches such as Saddleback in Lake Forest, Calif., and Lakewood in Houston have entire marketing departments devoted to enticing new members. Kent Shaffer of ChurchRelevance.com routinely ranks the bestlogos and Web sites and offers strategic counsel to organizations like Saddleback and LifeChurch.tv.
Increasingly, churches offer sermon series on iTunes and concert-style worship services with names like “Vine” or “Gather.” The young-adult group at Ed Young’s Dallas-based Fellowship Church is called Prime, and one of the singles groups at his father’s congregation in Houston is calledVertical. Churches have made news in recent years for giving away tablet computers , TVs and even cars at Easter. Still, attendance among young people remains flat.
My friend and blogger Amy Peterson put it this way: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”
Millennial blogger Ben Irwin wrote: “When a church tells me how I should feel (‘Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!’), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion — not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.”
When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake.
While no two faith stories are exactly the same, I’m not the only millennial whose faith couldn’t be saved by lacquering on a hipper veneer. Accordingto Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. A similar study found that “only 8% say they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date,’ undercutting the notion that all churches need to do for Millennials is to make worship ‘cooler.’ ”
In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.
If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.
You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.
What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.
My search has led me to the Episcopal Church, where every week I find myself, at age 33, kneeling next to a gray-haired lady to my left and a gay couple to my right as I confess my sins and recite the Lord’s Prayer. No one’s trying to sell me anything. No one’s desperately trying to make the Gospel hip or relevant or cool. They’re just joining me in proclaiming the great mystery of the faith — that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again — which, in spite of my persistent doubts and knee-jerk cynicism, I still believe most days.
One need not be an Episcopalian to practice sacramental Christianity. Even in Christian communities that don’t use sacramental language to describe their activities, you see people baptizing sinners, sharing meals, confessing sins and helping one another through difficult times. Those services with big screens and professional bands can offer the sacraments, too.
But I believe that the sacraments are most powerful when they are extended not simply to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the marginalized, the lonely and the left out. This is the inclusivity so many millennials long for in their churches, and it’s the inclusivity that eventually drew me to the Episcopal Church, whose big red doors are open to all — conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me.
Church attendance may be dipping, but God can survive the Internet age. After all, He knows a thing or two about resurrection.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hungering for eternal life

HOMILY FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER, April 19, 2015:

Some of you might remember the wonderful comedy with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep that came out back in the 1990s called Defending Your Life. In the story, Albert Brook’s character Daniel has died, but before he goes to heaven, in a sort of purgatory called Judgment City, he has to literally defend his life before God’s representatives. Each day he goes to a room, much like a courtroom, where they show scenes from his life – the good, the bad and the ugly – and he has to defend his decisions in each of those moments. A successful defense means entry into Heaven. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is an interaction between Daniel and Julia, who one night go to a restaurant in Purgatory. In Purgatory, they serve only the best food; you can eat as much of it as you want; and you don’t gain any weight! So, as the camera pans the restaurant you see people devouring heaping platters of lobsters, steaks, pasta and desserts! Purgatory doesn’t sound so bad, now, does it?! Makes you hungry just thinking about it.

Easter is of course a time of year when we focus on the afterlife. We celebrate the incredible event of the resurrection and we immerse ourselves in these remarkable post-resurrection accounts in Scripture. We have the holy women who are the first to discover the empty tomb, disciples racing to see if it could all be true. We have the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. As he speaks to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and that wonderful statement, “Were not our hearts burning within us as He spoke to us?” And how they came to recognize Him in the breaking of the bread. He appears again to Peter and others at the sea of Tiberius as they are fishing. They make a miraculous catch at His command and he sits down with them and prepares a breakfast. As we heard last Sunday, He appeared again to the disciples who were locked in the upper room in fear. Thomas puts his finger in the wounds in Jesus and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

And of course, we have the passage before us today. As Jesus appears once again. And, Jesus asks a very important question of those gathered there. Maybe you heard it. He said, “Have you anything to eat?” Now, I don’t know if you are picking up on the theme here, but after He has risen from the dead, Jesus seems to keep asking this same question, “Got anything to eat?” Road to Emmaus – they sit down and eat. Sea of Tiberius – He makes them breakfast. In the room where they are gathered today, Jesus is hungry again and we’re told that they gave Him a piece of baked fish and He enjoyed it. We can only come to one deep, theological conclusion – rising from the dead makes you really hungry! I guess Defending Your Life was right! What Jesus wouldn’t give for a Country Buffet!

Of course, that’s not the point of these details. But, they are there for an equally important reason. These stories don’t want only to recall the encounters that Jesus had with His disciples after His resurrection, but they want us to know something key – the man they encounter is real. The resurrected Christ is a flesh and blood, breathing and yes eating human being. This is not a ghost or a spirit. This is why we profess in the Creed each week that we believe in the resurrection OF THE BODY. Ghosts don’t eat baked fish. Spirits don’t get hungry. Humans do and that’s what Jesus is after the resurrection just as he was before. 

And this isn’t meant to be an interesting, yet unimportant, detail for us to pick up. Instead, we are reminded first that through the grace of our own baptism, we too are welcomed into a life that is eternal with God. That we too will be resurrected, body and soul, one day. We will not be ghosts; we will not be angels; we will not be spirits in the life that is to come – we will continue to be human beings who need to eat and sleep, live and breathe, but perfected or glorified through a life of grace in God’s Kingdom where sin and death are no more.

There is a tremendous intimacy that Jesus invites us into through resurrection. In a simple way, it is all about the body. Not only the Body of Christ raised from the dead 2,000 years ago. But, the Body and Blood of Christ present in our midst at each and every Mass; taken into our own bodies to mingle with us, unite with us, as we receive Holy Communion each week. As St. Augustine said, in the Eucharist “we become what we receive.” The resurrected Body of Christ becomes part of us and we are transformed, day-by-day, bit-by-bit, Eucharist-by-Eucharist into resurrection; into eternity. Easter is not only His; Easter is ours too!

Archbishop Tom Murphy was the much beloved Archbishop of Seattle through the late 1980s and most of the 1990s. He was a true shepherd who loved his flock and was always very present to the people. He had a particularly close relationship with the teens at one of his Catholic high schools where he essentially acted as their chaplain. Despite his busy schedule, he was always available whenever the sacraments needed to be celebrated for the students. They were his kids and he was their Archbishop.

In 1996, he was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia. For the last year of his life, he underwent chemotherapy and other treatments trying to fight the cancer and these left him in need of regular blood transfusions to keep up his strength. His kids saw this as their opportunity to reach out to this holy man who had done so much for them and so they organized blood drives so that their Archbishop would have the blood needed for his transfusions.

At his last Mass with the teens he said to them, “Since I was a little boy, I have always loved the Mass and in particular loved the Eucharist. As a young boy, I would serve at daily Mass and was always in awe of what took place on the altar. But, I don’t know that I ever fully understood it until now. Today, as I stand here, I’ve got your blood in me and I’m standing here alive today because of your blood in me. Now I get it.” He died six days later as surely received his heavenly reward.

My brothers and sisters, this is what Easter is all about. Do we get it? It is not only about one resurrected body 2,000 years ago. It is about that same resurrected body appearing on our altar each day with an invitation: Take Me into yourselves. Let Me be united with you in the most intimate way possible. Feel my body and blood coursing through your veins giving you life; eternal life.

My friends, at each Eucharist, we have got the Body and Blood of Jesus coursing through our veins and uniting with our cells. Each time we gather here, we are becoming more and more what we receive; more and more the Body of Christ together. We stand here alive today because the Body and Blood of Christ poured out for us; runs through our veins.

Let us live in the resurrection Christ promised us at our Baptism and affirms in us at each and every Mass. We believe the resurrection of the Body and life everlasting. Amen.



May God give you peace.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Doubting Thomas no more!

HOMILY FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER, April 12, 2015:

Today, of course, we celebrate the Second Sunday of Easter, it is also Divine Mercy Sunday. This is one of my favorite Sundays because of the Gospel that we are presented with and the story of the apostle Thomas. For obvious reasons, I have always had a great affinity for Thomas and have also always found that he gets the short end of the stick when it comes to the way we usually perceive him. As we know, you mention this apostle and the first association that most people make is: Doubting Thomas. But, as we all just heard in the proclamation, doubting is not where Thomas ends up, but believing. His great profession of faith, “My Lord and my God” is what we should remember.

As someone also named Thomas, I’m always on the alert to try and rehabilitate this apostles’ image as the perpetual doubter. And this week, I came across one of the most interesting commentaries on this Gospel I have ever read and it certainly contributes to this goal.

The usual take on today’s Gospel goes something like this – Jesus appeared to the disciples, except Thomas who wasn’t there. Jesus gives them the gift of peace; He breathes the Holy Spirit on them and gives them a mission to go forth and forgive sins. Everyone believed, except poor Thomas who, of course, gets labeled the doubter. The message from too many preachers will be: Don’t be like poor, poor Thomas, instead have some faith like the rest of the apostles.

And, this is where Russell Saltzman gives the story a new spin. In his commentary he writes, Notice that “[the other apostles] didn’t go anywhere, did they? They stayed put. They didn’t venture an inch. They didn’t undo a single sin anywhere. They remained together and they were still there when Thomas finally shows.”

Read Russell Saltzman's full commentary: Correcting St. John

Saltzman goes on to say that if Thomas did indeed doubt, perhaps he didn’t doubt Jesus, but he doubted his fellow apostles. After all, if Jesus appeared as they said, if He gave them peace as they said, if He breathed the Holy Spirit as they said, and if He gave them a mission as they said, then why were they still locked up afraid in that upper room? “If you’ve been sent, what are you still doing here?” is Thomas’ dilemma. From Thomas perspective, an encounter with the Risen Jesus should have produced some fruit on the part of his fellow apostles, instead, he finds them right where he left them – afraid in the Upper Room.

Fast forward a week later, when Thomas is present, he receives the same gifts from Jesus and Tradition tells us that Thomas was the first of the disciples to leave Jerusalem. Once he was sent, he didn’t hang around. From his encounter with the Risen Lord, Thomas made a huge leap of faith to the full divinity of Christ that the others didn’t and was able to proclaim: “My Lord and my God.” And with that he traveled, further and faster than all the rest, all the way to the tip of India. This is not the behavior of a doubter.

This is all a simple way of saying – especially on this Second Sunday of Easter – that Easter, the Resurrection, our faith should also make a difference in our lives; a difference that shows. Our encounter with the Risen Jesus should move us too and not leave us right where He found us. My friends, our God appears to us here again today. He speaks His word, He offers His Son, He gives us a mission. We, just like the apostles, are being sent – will we go anywhere? Will it make a difference in the way we are living our lives?

Pope Francis spoke powerfully about this moment not long after his election as Pope, and how this encounter is meant to send us our in mission. The Pope said, “The path to our encounter with Jesus are his wounds. There is no other. Jesus tells us [as He told Thomas] that the path to encountering Him is to find His wounds. We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked, because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he's in jail, because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed."

My friends, today it is we who are in the Upper Room. It is we to whom Jesus offers peace and the gifts of His Spirit. It is we who are once again sent. Let us proclaim with Thomas, My Lord and my God!

Happy Easter and may the Lord give you peace.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Welcome Home | Easter Homily

HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE RESURRECTION OF THE LORD, April 5, 2015:
Three men died and found themselves at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter told them they could enter only if they could answer one question, “What is Easter?” The first man replied, “That's easy, it's the holiday in November when everybody gets together, eats turkey, and is thankful.” “Wrong,” said St. Peter, and turned to the second man. He replied, “I know. Easter is the holiday in December when we put up a nice tree, exchange presents, and celebrate the birth of Jesus.” St. Peter shook his head and looked to the third man, “What is Easter?” He said, “Easter is the Christian holiday coinciding with the Jewish feast of Passover when Jesus and His disciples were eating the Last Supper, but He was deceived and turned over to the Romans by one of His disciples. The Romans crucified Him and made Him wear a crown of thorns. He was hung on a cross and buried in a cave which was sealed off by a large boulder.” St. Peter said, “Very good. Anything else?” The man said, “Oh, right, and every year the boulder is moved aside so that Jesus can come out, and if He sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.”

Well, let’s see if we can come to a bit of a clearer answer to the question what is Easter today. “Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.” That is a passage from a book that I read a few years ago called Home by Marilyn Robinson. It is the sequel to her successful book Gilead. I’m currently reading the third in this series Lila, and this particular passage has been sticking with me all through Lent this year. Home is a sort-of prodigal son story as it tells of Jack, the black-sheep of his family, who returns home after many years to reconcile with his father and come to terms with the mistakes he’s made in life. But, I can’t help but think this particular passage is good answer to our question about Easter. “Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.”

Yes, of course, Easter is our annual commemoration of the event that changed the world, and changed our lives – Jesus, the Son of God, does the seemingly impossible – He conquers death itself. O Death, where is your victory? And through our Baptism, He welcomes us into the same life eternal with Him. This is almost more than the mind can handle.

But, I think Easter is more than that for us, as well. It also plays a role in our own annual journey of faith. “Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful.” My friends, we may have found ourselves at some point feeling any of these things – weary or bitter or bewildered; maybe other things – overwhelmed, tired, angry, or sad, even far from God. But, our faithful God has welcomed us home once again. He wants to renew us in His love and in His grace; to wake us up, to reanimate our faith, to resurrect in us our spiritual life; to be the people He created us to be.

As our former Pope St. John Paul II, reminded us so well, “We are the Easter people and ‘alleluia’ is our song.” And what he meant was that Easter isn’t just today, but it is a way of life. You see, resurrection changes everything. You can’t go from death to life without being changed. And so, if our Lent was a time to give things up, perhaps our Easter should be a time to take things up. Things like finding more time with family and friends. Things like joyfully remembering our own baptism – when we died with Christ so that we might live with Him forever. Things like engaging in surprise acts of generosity and kindness and goodness; becoming the embodiment of Christ’s new life that fills our world. Our Easter candle should not be just a light in our Church, but a bright light for all to see. If people noticed our ashes and our fasting during Lent; they should also notice our joy and happiness in the reality of the resurrection throughout Easter. We should embrace Easter so fully that those around us might ask, “What is this all about? What has changed with you?”

God is always faithful. He lets us wander so we might know what it means to come home. So whether you were already near, or perhaps you were far away, Jesus says today, Happy Easter and welcome home. Welcome home to the renewed, refreshed and resurrected relationship He offers you here today.

And, as an Easter people, go and share God’s goodness to those in need; speak love to a world bruised by violence and consumed with anger; show reconciliation to people whose lives are broken; offer hope to those who ache under hardship or failure. Be the Easter people who cry out “alleluia” to the world around us. We are the Easter people and ‘alleluia’ is our song!

Happy Easter and may the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Consumed with zeal for God's house

HOMILY FOR THE 3rd SUNDAY OF LENT, March 8, 2015:

I want to ask a very basic question today as we are gathered here in our beautiful Church. Why was this church built? There are actually a couple of ways to answer that. Of course, historically, St. Anthony’s was built almost 150 years ago to serve the needs of the then-new and growing community of Italian immigrants in this part of the city.

So, history is one answer to the question of why this church was built. But, there is also another answer – this church was built to be a temple. Every Catholic church was built to be more than a merely ordinary space. This isn’t a meeting place or an auditorium or a theater where we go to see a play or a concert. A temple is a building that is built for a singular and unique purpose – to immerse us in the drama of our relationship with God. And, notice that I said “our relationship with God,” not “my” or “your” relationship with God. Because while we may come here for private prayer from time-to-time, the main reason for this building is to serve as the place where we come to meet God in Word and Sacrament to be formed once again into members of His family. It is a unique place of real encounter with the living God.

A temple is, of course, a building dedicated to God. But it's more than that. It's a sacred space, a space unlike all others and one where we enter so that we can be truly present with our God. A temple is God's house; a place where we can be together with God. God is really and truly present here; as this is His house. The flickering red candle with its eternal flame always burning is a signal telling us that the Eternal One dwells here, in this place.

And, it is because of that real dwelling of God that we act differently here than we do everywhere else. Have you ever thought about that? We have a whole set of rules and customs and behaviors that we do only here. We enter with a spirit of prayerful silence. We genuflect to the Presence of Christ dwelling in the tabernacle. Men remove their hats. We all dress respectfully. We kneel and bow and give our attention in a way that shows that we know that God dwells here and we have come here to worship Him.

And this brings us to our Gospel today. This extraordinary passage is really the only recorded angry outburst of Jesus in Scripture. What explains the anger we see today as Jesus turned over the money changers’ tables and drove them out the Jerusalem Temple? The Gospel gave us the answer, “Zeal for [God’s] house will consume me.” In today’s passage, Jesus found the Temple being treated like a shopping center or a bank. Jesus viewed this as an insult to God – treating God’s dwelling place differently than the sacred space it is meant to be. And how right Jesus is. I’m sure we, too, would react the same if our church were being used in a way that somehow insulted God.

But, there is something more to this passage today as well. The Jerusalem Temple was not the only temple. This Church – any Church – are not the only structures where God dwells. In His resurrection, Jesus reminded us that each of us, too, is a temple. That, through our baptism, through Confirmation, through each and every Eucharist, God dwells in us. Each one of us here is a Temple of the Holy Spirit; a dwelling of God’s presence. Each one of us here was brought into being and designed by God for the purpose of making Him present to others, especially when they enter encounter we who believe in Jesus. Each one of us here is a walking, living temple of God’s presence through which we are meant to make God present to others. We receive the living Body of Jesus in Holy Communion so that God might dwell within us. Here we become what we truly are - the living stones of God's temple here on earth.

Remember what was said of the early followers, “See how these Christians love one another.” As living, breathing, walking, talking Temples of the Holy Spirit; Temples of the Presence of God, we are meant to be visibly different in the world – different in a way that makes others feel as though they have encountered something of God when they meet one of His followers; when they meet us.

”Zeal for [God’s] house will consume us.” The fundamental question for each of us today is simply this: What sort of Temple am I? Am I a Temple of God that would find favor with Jesus? The answer to that question is what Lent is all about. Lent is given to us each year so that we might examine and perhaps change what is inside of us that keeps us from being a truly holy Temple.

My friends, as you receive Holy Communion today – God’s true and abiding presence – welcome that same living God into the Temple that is you once again. Let zeal for God’s Temple that is you consume you and be renewed this Lent.

May God give you peace.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Welcome to Freedom

HOMILY FOR ASH WEDNESDAY, February 18, 2015:
“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” With these words, God once again invites us today into this great season of renewal. The words are challenging because a return suggests perhaps that we have been away from the Lord. Returning to the Lord, reminds us that we must be leaving something behind – namely, our sin.

But, even in the midst of this, it is important to remember that Lent is not for us an extended Day of Atonement, instead it is a Season of Surrender and a Time of Liberation. Sometimes we envision Lent as the great spiritual battle of our year. We say, “I will overcome this sin or that vice;” or, “I will conquer this thing or that practice.” But, what Lent is really calling us into is the realization that we can never overcome our sinfulness on our own. Ever. Triumph over our sin is not found in ourselves. It is found in Christ alone. Lent welcomes us into the freedom that can be found with the Lord. So the only relevant question for us today at the start of these 40 days is this – do you want to be free?

We will reach this freedom this Lent only if we can give ourselves totally to God, as He has given Himself completely to us in Christ. We must surrender. We must let go. We must let God do His work of making us free. There is a story of the way African hunters trap monkeys in the wild. They slice a coconut in two, hollow it out, and in one half of the shell cut a hole just big enough for a monkey's hand to pass through. Then they place an orange in the other coconut half before fastening back together the two halves of the coconut shell. Finally, they secure the coconut to a tree with a rope, then retreat into the jungle and wait.

Sooner or later, an unsuspecting monkey swings by, smells the delicious orange, and discovers its location inside the coconut. The monkey slips his hand through the small hole, grasps the orange, and tries to pull it through the hole. Of course, the orange won't come out; it's too big for the hole. To no avail the persistent monkey continues to pull and pull, never realizing the danger he is in. While the monkey struggles with the orange, the hunters simply stroll in and capture him. As long as the monkey keeps his fist wrapped around the orange, he is trapped. What the monkey doesn’t realize is that it could be free if it would only let go.

This is exactly what we are reminded of each and every Lent. Similarly, we cannot have both our freedom in Christ, and continue to keep our hands and our hearts clutched on things that are not of God, on our sins. To be free, we must let go; we must surrender. And this should be our focus over the next 40 days of Lent.

In a few moments, we will put ashes on our foreheads as the outward symbol of our penance, the outward sign of our commitment to surrender to freedom with God this Lent. If all we are here for today is for these ashes on our foreheads, and don’t enter into Lent honestly, then we leave the church today with nothing more than a dirty forehead. So, how can we make this a truly effective Lent? Let me offer three suggestions of ways we can make this Lent special - one personal, one communal and one universal.

First, the personal. You know that even as I share these words about freedom, God is putting something on your heart that He wants you to leave behind; that He wants you to surrender. It isn’t the simple and superficial practices of giving up sweets or eating between meals. Perhaps it is something major and challenging like giving up the desire to gossip; giving up anger that can control your life; healing grudges and past hurts, turning away from problems with drinking or even drugs. Whatever it is, you know God is calling you to something specific, something personal, something that needs to change if you are going to grow in holiness and be free. Whatever this personal thing is, God wants you to surrender it to Him here today so that you may grow better in His sight.

The second things we need to do is communal. During Lent, we have many opportunities for our community to gather in prayer. We have daily Mass at 8 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. Priests are available for Confessions every Saturday at 4 p.m. or anytime by appointment – don’t bring your sins into Easter Sunday. We have Stations of the Cross on Friday nights so we can meditate upon the sacrifice Christ made for us. Fr. Joe will be offering a Bible class on Wednesday nights beginning next week. The point is, if we are going to successfully navigate this time of penance and prayer, we need to do it together. We need to pray together, prepare together. We need each other. We can help each other. None of us should make this Lenten journey alone. Let’s travel together towards Easter joy.

And something universal. We should all let this Lent help us to focus on others – contribute some money to the poor, to local charities, to the Church, to the St. Vincent de Paul. One mark of our growth in holiness is a greater awareness of the needs around us. Our small sacrifice here can have a big impact on the lives of others elsewhere.

So, these are the things we can do – something personal, something communal, something universal. Let us pledge ourselves wholeheartedly to these 40 days of Lent that that this may be a true and effective Springtime of faith in our lives – and the true path to our surrender and the freedom that God invites us into.

“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart.”

May you have a holy season of Lent and may God give you peace.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The compassion of Jesus! | Pope Francis

HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS - FEBRUARY 15, 2015:

“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean”… Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said: “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mk 1:40-41). The compassion of Jesus! That compassion which made him draw near to every person in pain! Jesus does not hold back; instead, he gets involved in people’s pain and their need… for the simple reason that he knows and wants to show com-passion, because he has a heart unashamed to have “compassion”.

“Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mk 1:45). This means that Jesus not only healed the leper but also took upon himself the marginalization enjoined by the law of Moses (cf.Lev 13:1-2, 45-46). Jesus is unafraid to risk sharing in the suffering of others; he pays the price of it in full (cf. Is 53:4).
Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized! These are the three key concepts that the Church proposes in today’s liturgy of the word: the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate.
Marginalization: Moses, in his legislation regarding lepers, says that they are to be kept alone and apart from the community for the duration of their illness. He declares them: “unclean!” (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46).

Imagine how much suffering and shame lepers must have felt: physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually! They are not only victims of disease, but they feel guilty about it, punished for their sins! Theirs is a living death; they are like someone whose father has spit in his face (cf. Num 12:14).

In addition, lepers inspire fear, contempt and loathing, and so they are abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society. Indeed, society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy. It excludes them. So much so that if a healthy person approached a leper, he would be punished severely, and often be treated as a leper himself.

True, the purpose of this rule was “to safeguard the healthy”, “to protect the righteous”, and, in order to guard them from any risk, to eliminate “the peril” by treating the diseased person harshly. As the high priest Caiaphas exclaimed: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50).

Reinstatement: Jesus revolutionizes and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality. He does not abolish the law of Moses, but rather brings it to fulfillment (cf. Mt 5:17). He does so by stating, for example, that the law of retaliation is counterproductive, that God is not pleased by a Sabbath observance which demeans or condemns a man. He does so by refusing to condemn the sinful woman, but saves her from the blind zeal of those prepared to stone her ruthlessly in the belief that they were applying the law of Moses. Jesus also revolutionizes consciences in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5), opening new horizons for humanity and fully revealing God’s “logic”. The logic of love, based not on fear but on freedom and charity, on healthy zeal and the saving will of God. For “God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 12:7; Hos 6:6).

Jesus, the new Moses, wanted to heal the leper. He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community without being “hemmed in” by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected. Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences! For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people!

Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).
There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.
These two ways of thinking are present throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. Saint Paul, following the Lord’s command to bring the Gospel message to the ends of the earth (cf. Mt 28:19), caused scandal and met powerful resistance and great hostility, especially from those who demanded unconditional obedience to the Mosaic law, even on the part of converted pagans. Saint Peter, too, was bitterly criticized by the community when he entered the house of the pagan centurion Cornelius (cf.Acts 10).

The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the “outskirts” of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: “Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners” (Lk 5:31-32).

In healing the leper, Jesus does not harm the healthy. Rather, he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law. Indeed, Jesus frees the healthy from the temptation of the “older brother” (cf. Lk 15:11-32), the burden of envy and the grumbling of the labourers who bore “the burden of the day and the heat” (cf. Mt 20:1-16).

In a word: charity cannot be neutral, antiseptic, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial! Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages! For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous! (cf. 1 Cor 13). Charity is creative in finding the right words to speak to all those considered incurable and hence untouchable. Finding the right words… Contact is the language of genuine communication, the same endearing language which brought healing to the leper. How many healings can we perform if only we learn this language of contact! The leper, once cured, became a messenger of God’s love. The Gospel tells us that “he went out and began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word” (cf. Mk 1:45).

Dear new Cardinals, this is the “logic”, the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church. Not only to welcome and reinstate with evangelical courage all those who knock at our door, but to go out and seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received. “Whoever says: ‘I abide in [Christ]’, ought to walk just as he walked” (1 Jn 2:6). Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honour!

Consider carefully that, in these days when you have become Cardinals, we have asked Mary, Mother of the Church, who herself experienced marginalization as a result of slander (cf. Jn 8:41) and exile (cf. Mt 2:13-23), to intercede for us so that we can be God’s faithful servants. May she - our Mother - teach us to be unafraid of tenderly welcoming the outcast; not to be afraid of tenderness. How often we fear tenderness! May Mary teach us not to be afraid of tenderness and compassion. May she clothe us in patience as we seek to accompany them on their journey, without seeking the benefits of worldly success. May she show us Jesus and help us to walk in his footsteps.
Dear new Cardinals, my brothers, as we look to Jesus and our Mother, I urge you to serve the Church in such a way that Christians - edified by our witness - will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it. I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is emarginated, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith, or say that they are atheists; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul - who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! May we always have before us the image of Saint Francis, who was unafraid to embrace the leper and to accept every kind of outcast. Truly, dear brothers, the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered and is revealed!

Transforming our brokenness

HOMILY FOR THE 6th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 15, 2015
In 1981, violinist Peter Cropper, was invited to Finland to play a special concert. The Royal Academy of Music in London had loaned him their priceless 285-year-old Stradivarius violin for use in the concert. The violin takes its name from its maker, Antonio Stradivari, who made it from over 80 pieces of special wood and covered with 30 coats of special varnish. The special sound of a Stradivarius has never been duplicated.

Peter arrived in Finland with the rare and beautiful instrument for his concert, however, as he was walking on stage for the performance, he tripped and fell, landing on top of the priceless treasure, breaking it into several pieces. He flew back to London in a state of shock.

However, his good fortune was a master craftsman named Charles Beare who worked successfully for well over a month to repair the violin. Once he had it back together, came the dreaded moment of truth – what would the violin sound like?

Beare handed the violin to Cropper, who’s heart was pounding inside his chest as he picked up his bow to play. Those present could hardly believe their ears. Not only was the violin’s sound excellent, it even sounded better than before. In the months ahead Cropper took the violin on a worldwide tour, beginning here in New York at Carnegie Hall and the precious violin that everyone thought ruined drew standing ovations, once again, everywhere it went.

The story of this violin is a helpful in understanding what is going on in our Scriptures today. Both our First Reading and Gospel passage talk about something that is not really a part of our daily lives anymore – the scourge of leprosy. It was, however, something more commonly seen in ancient times and even just a century ago – we recall saints like Franciscan sister, Saint Marianne Cope and Saint Damian of Molokai who cared for lepers in Hawaii about 100 years ago – but in our own world today, encountering people with this difficult disease is not a part of our regular life. But, in ancient times, people were terribly afraid of encountering a leper; afraid that they themselves might catch the disease from them. The lepers life was difficult to say the least. People turned away at their sight and even Psalm 31 tells us from the lepers perspective, “Those who know me are afraid of me; when they see me in the street, they run away. I am like something thrown away.”

To this tragic figure, Jesus responds lovingly and with compassion, not turning or running away, but moving close touching the man with love and healing him. The story of the leper, like the story of the violin, both serve as metaphors for our contemporary experience. They remind us of something that happens over and over in life. Too frequently tragedy strikes our lives – perhaps a loved one dies, or a friend betrays us, or an accident leaves someone disabled, or we or someone we know loses their job, or we know people suffering from the challenge of addiction. The list can go on.

When struggle, challenge and even tragedy strike our lives, we can be overwhelmed and crushed, just like the leper must have been when he realized the disease he had contracted. We can be plunged into shock, like Peter Cropper when he broke the precious violin. But, both of these stories remind us that, with Jesus, there is nothing that we can’t survive; there is nothing that we can’t recover from; that there is no moment from which we can’t pick up the pieces and begin again.

Like the craftsman who fixed the violin – Jesus is always waiting to repair whatever is broken in our lives. That and more. Jesus can take our brokenness and transform it into something better and more beautiful than it was before.

In 1917, an explosion burned the legs of 8 year old Glenn Cunningham so badly that the doctors were considering amputation. The managed to save his legs, but thought he would be an invalid for life. Two years later, Glenn was off his crutches and was not only walking but running. Eventually he became a college runner and intercollegiate records were soon crumbling literally beneath his feet. By the Berlin Olympics, Glenn not only qualified for the 1,500 meter dash – he broke the Olympic record for it. A year later, he’d break the indoor mile and soon was considered the world’s fastest runner. The boy whose life was broken by a tragic explosion came back stronger and better than he was before.

St. Paul sums it up this way in Second Corinthians, “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed…Therefore, we are not discouraged.”

This, my friends, is the Good News of our Scriptures today – that even the bad news can be transformed through faith. That Jesus can transform our challenge and suffering into something beautiful and more precious if we surrender it to Him and invite Him into the midst of it.

Let me conclude with an old prayer that you may have heard before:

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.

May the Lord give you peace.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Why do we suffer?

HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 8, 2015:
Our Scriptures today invite us to contend with perhaps the most difficult question in all of religion: Why do we suffer? It is a question that I’m sure each one of us has thought about at one point or another on our spiritual journey.

We heard about this right from the first reading in the perhaps most iconic story of suffering and its meaning in the story of Job. We heard his desperation, “Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” Job lost everything; his land, possessions and even his family, besides a plague of boils and other horrors. Listen to the anguish in his words, “My days come to an end without hope…I shall not see happiness again.”

Job sees no purpose in his suffering. He can’t make meaning of what he’s enduring and so he complains. Job feels helpless and hopeless. I imagine that when we hear these words of Job, we can all identify with him in one way or another – either in trying to make sense of our own suffering or in trying to understand why others suffer. We’ve all felt like Job wondering why things have to be the way they are. Why bad things happen; especially to good people.

The story of Job today reminds me of the mother of a close friend of mine who passed away a number of years ago. His Mom’s name was Adele. Adele had many Job-like moments in her life. She lost her father when she was very young, her brother died at age 16, she had 7 miscarriages before finally carrying a baby to term in her 40s, she suffered through cancer, heart attacks, lost her kidneys and had to undergo dialysis for years, and she suffered from diabetes that in the end required the partial amputation of a leg. She had sufferings that could give Job a run for his money and she could have very easily said like him, “I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me.” But, Adele never spoke the words of Job. Instead, she said regularly, “Don’t waste your suffering. Offer it up and unite it to the suffering of Christ.” Even when faced with amputation, she didn’t ask how she could avoid the pain and suffering that procedure would entail; she didn’t ask why this was happening to her. Instead she asked, “What does God want me to do with this suffering?” And before she was taken into surgery, she prayed thanking God for the use of her legs all those years, for carrying her around, and allowing her to be a good mother. She was an incredible witness of faith to the transformative power of suffering. It’s one thing for someone who has not suffered to tell you to “offer it up,” but it’s quite another thing when someone who really knows suffering, who’s walked the walk, to tell you the same thing.

The famous dramatist Paul Claudel said poignantly of suffering, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His presence.” You see, for we who believe in Christ, suffering is never without meaning. With the eyes of faith, in our suffering we can be united with Christ in the one great act of redemption. What our world forgets in this no pain day-and-age is that suffering is an opportunity to be united with Christ in the greatest moment of the history of the world – we can be united with Him on that cross and in the salvation of the world. Souls can be redeemed and saved and prayers answered when we direct our suffering, offer it up, to this spiritual end. And, importantly, in our suffering, we are not alone. Jesus is right there by our side carrying the cross with us.

We know that suffering and pain are part of the human condition. They are not caused by God. The wrong question to ask in the face of suffering is, “Why did God do this to me?” God didn’t do it to us. Suffering is part of being human. When we accept that reality we become open to another possibility – an opportunity to invite God into our suffering to transform it – to fill it with His presence.

In our Gospel today, we hear about the compassion of Jesus as he cures Peter’s mother-in-law and then all who asked for healing. But, many of those who went to Jesus were looking for him for the wrong reasons. They were looking for Jesus simply to get what they wanted – something merely external. They weren’t interested in what Jesus came to give. Jesus says in our Gospel, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” He came to proclaim the Good News, to invite everyone to let God reign in their hearts and lives, to reconcile us with God and with one another. Jesus is interested in our physical welfare, but the spiritual must come first. Like the people of Capernaum we come to Church with our various problems of soul and body looking for Jesus. What we first need to do is to set our hearts on Jesus and the Good News and trust that the rest will unfold according to His plan.

Pope Francis took up this theme earlier this week in one of his daily homilies. Instead of getting stuck on the question of why there is suffering in the world, the Holy Father invites us to realize that the reason we are here is to help be God’s presence in the midst of trial. He said, “I sometimes describe the Church as a field hospital. True, there are many wounded, how many wounded! How many people who need their wounds to be healed! This is the mission of the Church: to heal the wounded hearts, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good, God forgives all, that God is our Father, God is tender, that God is always waiting for us."

In his own death, Jesus showed us how to face suffering and all the other evils we will inevitably meet during the course of our life. He showed us that suffering can have a purpose – even if we don’t understand it.

Jesus calls us to seek Him first, to seek His Kingdom first. Jesus calls us to never waste any suffering that comes our way. We can offer any suffering in our lives to God. We can ask him to accept these sufferings as our share in the Cross of Christ, as our small contribution to Christ’s work of salvation. We can be united with Him as He unites Himself with us in our struggles. The more we are able to do this, the more we begin to see with the eyes of faith, and find the happiness of the Kingdom. Let us invite God to fill our suffering – as well as our joys – with His presence and let us bring that presence to the places where it is needed in our world.

May the Lord give you peace.