Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Take up your cross and follow Me."

“Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Eugene Orowitz was a skinny, 100-pound sophomore at Collingswood High School in New Jersey in the 1950s. One day in gym class, the coach was teaching everyone how to throw a javelin. One by one, the students threw the six-foot-long spear. The longest throw was 30 yards. Finally, the coach looked over to Eugene and said, “You want to try, Orowitz?” Eugene nodded, and the other kids laughed. Some said, “You think you can lift it?” or “Careful, you might stab yourself.” But as he stood there, a strange feeling came over Eugene. Holding the javelin, he imagined himself as a young warrior about to enter into a battle. He raised the javelin, took six quick steps and let it fly. It soared and soared and soared eventually crashing into the empty bleachers. His throw went twice as far as anyone else’s.

When Eugene retrieved the javelin, he saw that the tip had broken in the crash. The coach looked at it and said, “Well, Orowitz, you broke the thing. It’s no good to us now. You might as well take it home.” That summer Eugene began throwing the javelin in a vacant lot. Some days, he spent six hours throwing it. By the end of his senior year, Eugene threw the javelin 211 feet – farther than any other high schooler in the nation. He was given an academic scholarship to college and began to dream of the Olympics. Then one day, he didn’t warm up properly, and while throwing tore the ligaments in his shoulder. That put an end to his javelin throwing, his scholarship, and his dreams. All his hard work was down the drain. It was as if God had slapped him in the face after he had performed a minor miracle with his puny, 100-pound body. Eugene dropped out of college and took a job at a warehouse.

The story of Eugene Orowitz raises a vexing question, one that is echoed in our Scriptures today: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why does He let suffering touch the lives of good people who don’t deserve it? We heard this in our first reading from Jeremiah. Why did God let a good man, a prophet, like Jeremiah be ridiculed? We heard Jeremiah’s frustration, “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” And, why did God let tragedy tear the prize from the hands of Eugene Orowitz after he had worked so hard to win it?

Jesus gives us a hint of the answer to that question in today’s Gospel when he says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” What Jesus is saying is hard to believe, even a bit crazy, to someone who doesn’t have faith. “Whoever accepts suffering and misfortune for my sake will find a whole new life.” And it will not be only in the world to come. It will be right here in this world, as well. And Jesus suggests that it will be a far richer life than the one lost by tragedy.

Another way to understand this is to realize that God doesn’t cause tragedy; He doesn’t harm us; or cause harm in the world; He doesn’t give people cancer or cause drunk driving accidents; He doesn’t cause or condone the wars we engage in. These horrible things aren’t God’s will; in fact they are the opposite of what God wills for us. But, in the midst of tragedy, God can use even those challenging situations to guide us to newer and better lives.

Take the case of Eugene Orowitz. We left him working in a warehouse his dreams seemingly crushed. But, one day, Eugene met a struggling actor who asked him for some help with his lines. Eugene got interested in acting himself and enrolled in acting class. His big break came when he was cast as Little Joe in the popular TV western “Bonanza” which ran for 14 years. Later, he got the leading role in other long-running TV shows, “Little House on the Prairie,” and “Highway to Heaven.” You see, you might know Eugene Orowitz better by his stage name, Michael Landon. And in his success, he came to realize that the most important thing that happened in his life was the day he tore those ligaments in his shoulder, even if it seemed like his world had ended that day. What seemed like the worst tragedy of his life was in fact one that led to incredible blessings and fortune; a life that far surpassed the dreams he once held.

How do we apply this to our own lives? Jesus give us the answer: “Take up your cross and follow me.” Or to make it even simpler – not my will Lord, but Your will be done. And so, if we are a young person who dreamed of making the basketball team, but got cut, we should pick up our cross and follow Jesus. He promises He will lead us to a better life. If we are an older person who dreamed of being a success in business, or having the world’s greatest family, or greatest marriage, but ended up with none of these, we should pick up our cross and follow Jesus. He will mend our broken dreams and lead us to a renewed appreciation of life that we never dreamed possible.

All of this, however, still doesn’t explain the mystery of suffering and misfortune. In the end, all we may be able to do when it strikes is trust in Jesus who says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We may never understand the mystery, but we can find comfort and direction in its midst. There is an old poem by an unknown author called “The Folded Page.” Let me end with it:

Up in the attic of an old house,
As raindrops pattered down on the roof,
I sat paging through my old schoolbook.

I came to a page that was folded down.
Across it was written in my old childish hand:
‘The teacher says we should leave this for now.
It’s too hard to understand.’

I unfolded the page and read it.
Then I smiled and nodded my head and said,
‘The teacher was right; now I understand.’

There are many pages in the book of life
That are hard to understand.
All we can do is fold them down and write:
‘The Master says to leave this for now.
It’s too hard to understand.’

Then, someday in heaven,
We’ll unfold the pages, reread them and say,
‘The Master was right; now I understand.’

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Let us lose ourselves in the life that Jesus has planned for us. Let us desire only what He wants for us and embrace the mystery of a life lived in and for Christ.

May God give you peace.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house"

Blessed John 23rd was pope during the turbulent 1960s when it seemed that everything was falling apart. The priesthood was in crisis, religious life was in crisis, marriage was in crisis, faith was in crisis, the church was in crisis. The pope worked long and hard hours trying to address these problems. One evening, after an exhausting day in the office, he went to his private chapel to do his daily Holy Hour before retiring but he was too exhausted and too stressed out to focus or pray. After a few minutes of futile effort, he got up and said, "Lord, the church belongs to you. I am going to bed."

Difficulties might have driven the Pope to acknowledge that the church belongs to Christ. But, as we heard in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus himself said it 2000 years ago: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

This is the most explicit statement that Jesus makes in the Gospels about the church and it is crucial for a proper understanding of what the church is, and of our role in the church.

Most importantly, it reminds us that Jesus is the owner of the church. Neither Peter nor the disciples owned the church then; nor do bishops and pastors today. The Church belongs to Christ. All God's people have been called together as co-workers in Christ's vineyard, each with a distinct and important role to perform. But we do not own the church. Instead, we belong to the church under the leadership of Christ.

The passage also tells us that Jesus is the one who builds His church. “Upon you I will build my church.” He is the Master Builder who has the building plan in His hands. We co-operate with Him to help Him with the building. Our role is to listen and follow His instructions, doing our own small part in the grand design of the Master. When we force our own ideas rather than following the directives given by the Master, we may find ourselves working at cross purposes.

If Jesus is the owner and builder of the church, where then do we come in? We come in precisely where Peter comes in. Together with Peter we are the building blocks of the church; we are what Jesus uses to build His Church – we are what it is made of. Peter is the foundation rock and we are the pieces of stones with which the church is built. Peter himself wrote in his first letter, “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Notice he doesn’t say “build yourselves up,” he says "let yourselves be built" – the passive voice. It is God Himself who is the builder and not us. Our role is to allow God to use us. The question we could ask ourselves today is: "How is God using me to build up his church? Am I letting God use me to build up his church?" We must not forget that no matter how small a piece of stone may be, the Master Builder still uses it to do something beautiful.

A famous stained-glass artist was commissioned to make a huge portrait of Christ for the cathedral in Chartres, France. First he laid all of the pieces he was going to use out on the floor of the cathedral. Among these awesome pieces of glass was a small, clear piece about as big as a fingernail. As the stained-glass portrait was assembled, that little piece remained on the floor. Only the big colorful pieces were used. On the day of the window's completion the entire city gathered to witness the unveiling of the portrait. The artist pulled down the cloth cover and the crowd gasped at the beauty of the colorful window glowing in the sunlight. After a few seconds, however, the crowd grew silent. They sensed that something was missing, that the portrait was unfinished. The great artist then walked over to where the little clear piece of glass lay, picked it up, and placed it in the portrait, right in the center of Jesus' eye. As the sun hit that little piece, it gave off a dazzling sparkle. The work of art was now complete.

My friends, in the grand design of building the church of God, each one of us could consider ourselves to be that small but indispensable piece of glass. Blessed John 23rd said this about our role in the church, “We are not on earth to guard a museum but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” Let us allow God to build up His church with us and through us.

“And so I say to you…upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

May God give you peace!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."

A neighborhood woman was well-known for her faith and for her boldness in talking about it. She would regularly stand on her front porch and shout “Praise the Lord!” Next door to her lived an atheist who would get so angry at her proclamations he would shout back, “There is no Lord!!” One day, the woman found herself on hard times and she prayed to God to send her some help. Standing on her porch she shouted, “Praise the Lord! God, I’m having a hard time and need food. Please send me some groceries.” The next morning the she went out on her porch and found a large bag of groceries and shouted, of course, “Praise the Lord.” Immediately, her atheist neighbor jumped from behind a bush and said, “Aha! I told you there was no Lord. I bought those groceries, God didn't.” This only excited the woman more. Clapping her hands she said, “Praise the Lord! God not only sent me groceries, but He made the devil pay for them. Praise the Lord!”

We heard in our Gospel, “Jesus said to [the woman] in reply, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.” Our Gospel passage today is the flip side of the coin that we heard in last week’s Gospel – and both of them are a reflection on the nature of faith. Last week, of course, we heard the dramatic story of Jesus walking on water and inviting Peter to do the same. Peter, as we recall, was strong in his faith walking on water with Jesus – for a moment – but soon found himself letting doubt creep back in and sinking in the Sea of Galilee. It was the story of a disciple challenged through faith into a miraculous moment; but letting doubt and fear cancel out the power of his faith.

But this week, we are on the flipside. This week we hear a story about someone who was not a disciple. In fact, this woman was a Canaanite, a group hated by the people of Jesus time. Like Peter, she was also challenged. But she confronted that challenge with determination and perseverance; and she did not lose the miraculous precisely because of the courage of her conviction. Her daughter was healed.

One side of that coin is an example of what doubt can do to our faith; the other tells of the transformative power of a strong and courageous faith.

But, our Gospel today also challenges us in another way. It begs a simple question of us – who does God love? Is God’s love available to all; or is it the property of a select few people or groups or sects?

Mahatma Gandhi in his autobiography tells how, during his student days, he read the Gospels and saw in the teachings of Jesus the answer to the major problem facing the people of India, their caste system. He had seriously considered becoming a Christian and attended church one Sunday morning hoping to talk to the minister about converting. On entering the church, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and told him to go and worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have their own caste system,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.”

Have you ever felt excluded? I think it is a rather common thing for most people to have experienced exclusion at some point in their lives. Some of us have felt it more than others and many have felt it more strongly. Were you ever the last one picked for the baseball team and it seemed no-one wanted you? Did you feel snubbed by some group because they felt you weren’t good enough? Were you not invited to a party because you didn’t seem to fit in? Were you excluded by others because of your economic status; or the color of your skin; or your liberal or conservative politics? I think that many of us have experienced this feeling at some point in our lives for any number of reasons.

Well, this can happen in a faith context as well. The belief that God's blessings are limited only to certain people has been around for a very long time. Every people and culture has a handful of such prejudices and myths - from the myth of the Jews as the only beloved people of God to that of no salvation outside the Catholic Church, from the prejudice of the caste system in India to that of racial superiority in Nazi Germany, from the myth of the superiority of men over women to that of the superiority of Western culture over all others. Such a belief was alive in the society in which Jesus grew up.

But, through this intervention of a complete outsider, the Canaanite woman, we become aware that God’s love and mercy are available to everyone. That through perseverance and faith, God’s power can be active in everyone’s lives. It calls to mind the hymn, “There is a wideness in God’s mercy.”

A man arrived at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asked his religion and the man answered, "Episcopalian." St. Peter says, "Go to room 24. But be very quiet as you pass room 8." A woman arrives at the gates of heaven and answers the same question, “I’m a Baptist.” St. Peter says, "Go to room 18. But be very quiet as you pass room 8." Finally a third person, who is Jewish, arrives and hears the same thing, "Go to room 11. But be very quiet as you pass room 8." Curious, he asks, "St. Peter, you have said the same thing to each of us. Why must we be quiet when we pass room 8?" St. Peter says, "Well, the Catholics are in room 8, and they think they're the only ones here."

We can be tempted to think that we have cornered the market on God; that we are the only ones to be included in the Kingdom of Heaven. That God loves us and only us. But, God poses to everyone the same invitation He poses to us, “Come and draw near to Me and I will draw near to you.”

As we gather today for this Eucharist, let us all have hearts that hunger for the miracle that is Christ in our lives. Let us thank Him for the gift and grace of our Catholic faith and let us be persistent in asking God for what we need. There is a wideness in God’s mercy; in His love and in His invitation. Let us pray that all my discover the treasure of faith that God has given to us. And our persistence, our courage and our faith will pay off in the end as the Lord says to each of us, “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

May the Lord give you peace!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Things you never knew you wanted to know!

Q: Why do men's clothes have buttons on the right while women's clothes have buttons on the left?
A: When buttons were invented, they were very expensive and worn primarily by the rich. Since most people are right-handed, it is easier to push buttons on the right through holes on the left. Because wealthy women were dressed by maids, dressmakers put the buttons on the maid's right! And that's where women's buttons have remained since.

Q: Why do ships and aircraft use 'mayday' as their call for help?
A: This comes from the French word m'aidez - meaning 'help me' -- and is pronounced, approximately, 'mayday.'

Q: Why are zero scores in tennis called 'love'?
A: In France , where tennis became popular, round zero on the scoreboard looked like an egg and was called 'l'oeuf,' which is French for 'egg.' When tennis was introduced in the US , Americans (mis)pronounced it 'love.'

Q. Why do X's at the end of a letter signify kisses?
A: In the Middle Ages, when many people were unable to read or write, documents were often signed using an X. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfill obligations specified in the document. The X and the kiss eventually became synonymous.

Q: Why is shifting responsibility to someone else called 'passing the buck'?
A: In card games, it was once customary to pass an item, called a buck, from player to player to indicate whose turn it was to deal. If a player did not wish to assume the responsibility of dealing,he would 'pass the buck' to the next player.

Q: Why do people clink their glasses before drinking a toast?
A: It used to be common for someone to try to kill an enemy by offering him a poisoned drink. To prove to a guest that a drink was safe, it became customary for a guest to pour a small amount of his drink into the glass of the host. Both men would drink it simultaneously. When a guest trusted his host, he would only touch or clink the host's glass with his own..
Q: Why are people in the public eye said to be 'in the limelight'?
A: Invented in 1825, limelight was used in lighthouses and theatres by burning a cylinder of lime which produced a brilliant light. In the theatre, a performer 'in the limelight' was the centre of attention.
Q: Why is someone who is feeling great 'on cloud nine'?
A: Types of clouds are numbered according to the altitudes they attain, with nine being the highest cloud. If someone is said to be on cloud nine, that person is floating well above worldly cares.

Q: In golf, where did the term 'Caddie' come from?
A. When Mary Queen of Scots went to France as a young girl, Louis, King of France, learned that she loved the Scots game 'golf.' So he had the first course outside of Scotland built for her enjoyment. To make sure she was properly chaperoned (and guarded) while she played, Louis hired cadets from a military school to accompany her. Mary liked this a lot and when returned to Scotland (not a very good idea in the long run), she took the practice with her. In French, the word cadet is pronounced 'ca-day' and the Scots changed it into 'caddie'.
Q: Why are many coin banks shaped like pigs?
A: Long ago, dishes and cookware in Europe were made of a dense orange clay called 'pygg'. When people saved coins in jars made of this clay, the jars became known as 'pygg banks.' When an English potter misunderstood the word, he made a container that resembled a pig. And it caught on.

Q: Did you ever wonder why dimes, quarters and half dollars have notches (milling), while pennies and nickels do not?
A: The US Mint began putting notches on the edges of coins containing gold and silver to discourage holders from shaving off small quantities of theprecious metals. Dimes, quarters and half dollars are notched because they used to contain silver. Pennies and nickels aren't notched because the metals they contain are not valuable enough to shave.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

"Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid"

Most visitors to the Holy Land like to take a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, the sea on which Jesus walked. One pilgrim wanted to take the ride, but soon found out it would cost $50. "Fifty dollars!" exclaimed the tourist, "No wonder Jesus walked across the water!"

The story of Jesus walking on water is both familiar to us, and a bit confusing. What does it all mean? This is a tremendously layered story; one that has a lot to teach us about who Jesus is, but also about the church in its journey through the world, and about the life of faith of the individual believer.

So what does it say about Jesus? The miracle story of Jesus walking on the sea, together with last week’s passage - the multiplication of loaves – is an epiphany, a manifestation showing us that Jesus is Lord and as Lord has authority over all forces natural and supernatural. In the worldview of the Jews, the sea was the domain of supernatural demonic forces. A rough and stormy sea was regarded as the work of hostile spirits. By walking on the raging waves and calming the stormy sea, Jesus shows himself to be one who has power and total control over these hostile forces. Today's gospel brings us the good news that these powers of darkness stand no chance at all when Jesus is present and active in our lives. Jesus says to us, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

This passage also has a lot to say about the Church. The boat on the sea is one of the earliest Christian symbols for the church in its journey through the world. Just as the boat is tossed about by the waves, so is the church pounded from all sides by forces that are hostile to the kingdom of God. In the midst of crisis, Jesus comes to restore peace and harmony in His church. But He comes in a form and manner in which He is easily mistaken. He comes in a way that makes many well-meaning Christians cry out in fear "It is a ghost!" as they try to keep Him out. But if we listen carefully, we shall hear through the storm His soft, gentle voice whispering in the wind, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” If we believe in His word and take Him on board, the storms will always subside.

But, we must act in faith. We must stand on the promise of Christ that if we are busy going about the duty He has assigned us, just as the disciples were busy rowing their boat to the other side of the shore as Jesus had instructed them, then Jesus Himself will come to us riding on the very waves that threaten to swallow us up. As the church in the modern world, like Peter's boat, sails through the stormy seas of our time, we need to keep an eye on those very seas looking for Jesus who comes to bring deliverance and peace. We must strive to recognize Him even when He comes in an unexpected form.

And what does this say about you and me; the individual believer? From our point of view, the story of Jesus walking on the seas, especially the involvement of Peter in the story, is a lesson for disciples who are tempted to take their eyes off Jesus and to take more notice of the threatening circumstances around them. Peter had says to Jesus, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Jesus gives Him that word of command, "Come." It would seem like Jesus is commanding the impossible. Yet whatever Jesus commands us to do, He also gives us the power to do. And in faith, the ordinary man, Peter, begins to walk on the seas to Jesus. “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” As long as Peter kept his eye fixed upon Jesus, and upon His word and power, he walked upon the water; but when he took notice of the danger he was in, and focused on the waves, then he became afraid and began to sink. “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

And so it will be for you and me in our own individual spiritual journeys. As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, our ears attentive to His words, our will firm in following His command – we too can conquer the storms that might beset us.

In the midst of our own personal trials and storms of tribulation, let our hearts be calmed as the waters were. Let us be comforted by the words of Jesus each and every day of our lives. “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” and He will not let us down.

May God give you peace.

Changing the impossible

HOMILY FOR THE 2nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, January 20, 2019: When my parents got married more than 50 years ago, my Mom came from a pract...