Saturday, October 29, 2011

Taking off our masks

A six-year-old was excited about his Halloween costume. “Mom, I want to be the Pope for Halloween!" he said. "Son, you can’t be the Pope," the mother said. "You’re not Catholic. You’re Lutheran." The boy thought about it a moment and considered his alternatives. After a few minutes, he asked, “Well, then is Dracula a Lutheran?”

Of course, tomorrow is Halloween, which for many is a dress-up day in which children run from house to house in their costumes begging sweet treats. I read in the newspaper that among the most popular costumes this year are Angry Birds, zombies, Captain America and Charlie Sheen (no comment). Halloween is a day of make-believe, a day of pretending to be someone, something that we are not.

I want to talk a little bit about pretending today, but first I need to begin with a brief Latin lesson. So, pay attention, there may be a quiz at the end. The Latin verb, teneo is translated to mean “I hold.” Many common English words contain versions of this Latin verb. For example, if you add the prefix “ex” meaning “out” to the verb teneo you get the word “extend” – which of course means to “hold out.” Or add the prefix “re” to our root and you get the word retain, or to hold back. You get the idea. Well if you add the prefix “pre” which means “in front” to our root, you get “pre-tend” or that which you hold in front of you so that you are not seen, but only the image. This is essentially what children do at Halloween – they pretend; they hold in front of them an image that is different from who they really are. In fact, very often, the image that they hold in front, or that they pretend to be, is so different that it is hard to recognize the true person.

Well, our readings today, are very apropos to this theme of pretending. In our first reading, the prophet Malachi has strong words for the priests of his time who pretend to conduct the ritual sacrifices properly, when, in fact, they were bringing substandard and blemished animals to be sacrificed at the altar of the Lord. They were bringing pretend offerings while “retaining” or “holding back” what was real and holy from the Lord. Malachi tells the religious leaders that if they continue misuse their God-given powers, then terrible things will happen.

And we heard in our Gospel passage today, “Do and observe all things whatsoever [the Pharisees] tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” Jesus is speaking about a group of pretenders, the Pharisees. Jesus tells His disciples and the crowd to adhere to the demands of the Law of Moses, but as for those who interpret the Law for their own benefit, do not follow what they do. They are pretenders, holding in front of themselves religious symbols. As Jesus said, “They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.” Phylacteries are containers affixed to arms and foreheads. Inside are written important verses of the Law. People who see them are impressed believing that those who wear them are as holy as the verses themselves.

Jesus reminds His listeners that it is not what one wears outside that makes a person a follower of God’s ways. It is not the name “teacher” or “father” or “master” which make a person a reflection of God’s holiness. Rather, it is what is written in your heart, shown forth by the way you live and what you do, that gives witness to a person’s holiness. Becoming a servant, a child, a humble person, are ways of revealing true Godliness, true holiness. Jesus, of course, is the true opposite of the Pharisees. He is no pretender, but rather Jesus is the real deal. He lives what He preaches and invites His followers – He invites each one of us – to let go of any pretending in our lives and to follow Him in what we say and in what we do.

So for each of us here today, the question is not “do I wear a cross,” but rather “do I bear the cross?” It is not only a matter of going to Mass every Sunday, but of going forth from Mass every Sunday to live what we have received. Too often, we hide the identity that God has placed within us; we hold back the holiness that God wants us to share with the world. We pretend to be someone we really are not.

The day after Halloween is All Saints Day. It is the day we celebrate all those who put aside their natural pretenses and witness to Christ living within them. Costumes are for fun; but being uncovered from the pretenses we wear in our daily lives is a true, Godly joy. In the ritual for the Ordination of a Deacon, the Bishop hands the Deacon a Book of the Gospels and says to him, “Receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach.” This is also the call of all of us today. You can enjoy an evening of pretending on Monday, but after that and always, cast off all pretenses, throw aside whatever false image of yourself that stops you from being a herald of the Gospel.

Let us all take up the charge to be true heralds of Jesus Christ in every aspect, every moment of our lives. Let us believe what we read, teach what we believe and practice what we teach.

May the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Please won't you be my neighbor?

A few years ago there was a billboard advertising campaign that received some notice. You might have seen some of them. They were billboards offering messages from God. They said things like: "Don’t make me come down there again.” - God or, “We need to talk.” – God or “Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour even longer.” – God or “You think it’s hot here?” – God or “Have you read my #1 best seller? There will be a test.” – God or finally on that would fit today’s Gospel, “That `Love Thy Neighbor‘ thing? I meant it.” – God.

Let me give you an image that many of you will be familiar with. A plain sweater, white canvass sneakers, a warm smile and a simple song that welcomed us every day. Sing it with me: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine?” Every day Fred Rogers welcomed us to his neighborhood. As a child I watched Mr. Rogers and still have such fond memories. Over the years not much changed with the show; it was the same house, the same trolley to take you to the world of make believe, and the same puppets like King Friday. In every episode Mr. Rogers always asked the same question: “Would you like to be my neighbor?”

Today’s Gospel follows after last week’s passage in which we had the Sadducees trying to trap Jesus with their question about paying taxes to Ceasar. This week, the Pharisees take a stab at trying it testing him again with a question about the greatest commandment. The textbook answer, of course is love of God. But, again like last week, Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to give a more practical answer, one that challenges His listeners. Just like last week, Jesus gives the other side of the coin, which, in this case is love of neighbor.

Jesus makes the point that anyone who truly loves God must necessarily also love their neighbor; and that these are virtually one in the same thing. You cannot truly love your God unless that loves shows forth in love of neighbor. As Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Or as we hear in the First Letter of John, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.”

Jesus is reacting against the Pharisees one-dimensional understanding of love. For Jesus, true love must express itself in three dimensions: the love of God; the love of neighbor; and the love of oneself. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself presumes that you first love yourself as a beautiful person created in the image and likeness of your God. That you see your dignity and beauty as a unique part of what God has created – as unique and beautiful as the oceans, the stars and the sky, the mountains or any other part of the created universe.

Last week, Jesus wasn’t so concerned with what was due to Ceasar, instead He was more concerned with what was due to God, something the people were forgetting. In the same way, the emphasis on today’s question about the greatest commandment is not on the obvious love of God but on the love of neighbor, which, again, was being ignored.

Just look at the treatment that Jesus received. He and His followers were persecuted by well-meaning religious people motivated by what they believed to be zeal and love for God. The same people asking about the most important commandment are the ones trying to trap and eventually kill Jesus. They are so conscious about love of God. Why then are they so insensitive when it comes to love of neighbor?

This is, of course, a concern that reaches our ears and our world today. The error of the Pharisees is still with us. We don’t have to look further than the ever growing divide between rich and poor, the continuing problem of homelessness, the ongoing scourge of prejudice, violence, war, death and destruction that are so much a part of our world to wonder where is our love of neighbor?

There are many Christians who try to separate the love of fellow human beings from their love of God. Their commitment to faith does not include commitment to issues of human rights; to economic and legal justice; to the call for peace; to equality and the ending of prejudice and persecution. We do well to heed Jesus in today's gospel: true love of God and true love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin. Any attempt to separate them is a falsification of the message of Christ.

Again, we hear in the First Letter of John, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Or the reflection on faith and works from the Letter of James, “What good is it…if someone says he has faith but does not have works? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? Indeed someone might say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works…For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

Let us pray today that God will shake loose from us any indifference we may feel towards our brothers and sisters in need. We ask God to give us the same loving and compassionate relationship towards our neighbors that Jesus had. We pray, not only for the knowledge of how to love, but the wisdom to want to love in all circumstances.

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Won't you be my neighbor?

May the Lord give you peace.

Revive our evangelical Franciscan spirit!

What a wonderful way to begin your visitation today by coming together to celebrate this Holy Mass today. And, how perfect God’s timing always is for us. Today, we celebrate the Memorial of Blessed Pope John Paul II or John Paul the Great. This is the very first time that we, as Church, get to celebrate this memorial since his beatification this past Spring. So, this is a wonderful day and our beloved former Pope has so many words that can inspire us today.

In preparing for Mass this morning, I also took a moment to look at the SFO Constitutions to see what they had to say about a fraternal visitation. This is what I read, “The purpose of both the pastoral and fraternal visits is to revive the evangelical Franciscan spirit, to assure fidelity to the charism and to the Rule, to offer help to fraternity life, to reinforce the bond of the unity of the Order, and to promote its most effective insertion into the Franciscan family and the Church.”

What a lofty and wonderful goal for us today. A day in which we can “revive our Evangelical spirit.” And we need that from time to time. I am just returning from two weeks of different meetings – a week with the General Minister and all of the Franciscan Provincials of the English Speaking Conference, and then more recently a week with all of the brothers of my Province as we gathered for an All Province Assembly this past week – meetings that have left me today in exactly that space – revived in my evangelical Franciscan spirit; and so I want to share a few thoughts on that in the hopes of setting your day off in the right direction.

First, a word of revival from our Scriptures today – again, so well planned by our Lord! Just look at what we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death.” Isn’t this the heart of the Gospel that our Holy Father Francis so dearly clung to and encourages us to do? You know the Rule of the First Order begins with this sentence: Francis wrote, “This is the rule and life of the Minor Brothers, namely, to observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, in poverty, and in chastity.” That is the Rule of 1223. There’s often a question about that Rule; what took so long? Francis received his approval for our way of life in 1209 and we don’t have an approved written rule until some 14 years later. Why? My belief has always been that Francis would have simply said, “We have a Rule and it was written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” And, so when Francis writes that first sentence, I like to think that it was a bit tongue-in-cheek or perhaps another way of thinking about it is that it was written as commentary. “The rule and life of the Minor Brothers is to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Period! End of sentence. I think if he could have, he would have ended there.

This is the heart of the statement in Romans, “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death.” This is what we celebrate as baptized members of the faith. This is what we celebrate as members of this Franciscan way of life. Freedom. We celebrate freedom. We live in this incredible freedom to be children of God. We live in this incredibly freedom – enshrined in our life as we pursue poverty, chastity and obedience in ways that are appropriate to our different states of life married, single, religious, lay – we live in a freedom that allows us to not follow the way of the world and instead follow the way of the Gospel. This is evangelical! This is liberation!

As I met two weeks ago with the Provincials and our General Minister José Rodríguez Carballo, Br. José spoke to us about vocations. One of the things he said was, “We do have the strength to call young men to join us. The worst thing we can do is to think that we have reached a time when we cannot have vocations. Put all your strength into this. First of all, we must believe in our life and have the courage to propose our life to young people. If we don’t propose the Gospel life, many others will propose other values.”

While he was naturally speaking about the First Order, I think we can take his words and make them words for our Secular family as well and ask a few critical questions – do we live with the sense that we can still call other to join us in this way of life? Do we live with the courage that proposes as an option the Gospel life to others. We know there are many competing values in our world today; there are many options out there that are all asking people young and old to follow – the path to fame, the path to riches, the path to power; not to mention the many voices that clamor for violence and war and the subjugation of people (especially the poor, the marginalized, the immigrant, the sick); there are no shortage of voices out there. How loud is ours? How loud is our call to the Gospel – not by mere proclamation, but by example. We all know the quote, often attributed to Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words.” Is your Franciscan life evident simply by the way you live? Do other see your love and advocacy of the poor, your love and call for peace, your love and protection of nature, your love and respect for all life from natural birth to natural death and every moment in between? Are these Franciscan values visible? I would echo the General Minister’s words and say, Yes! We do have the strength to call others to this Gospel way of life!

The best way to do this is to be united as a fraternity; to “reinforce the bond of unity” that the Secular constitutions call for. I mentioned my second meeting was an All Province Assembly this past week. It was held at our retreat house in Wappinger Falls, NY. As you can imagine, we had wonderful moments of prayer, we had profound moments of sharing and of course, we had way too much food! It was a spirit accentuated by the famous words from Psalm 133: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum. "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity." During our week, we laughed, we fought, we cried, we discussed important things about our life and about our future. But we all left with the giddiness that comes from brothers being together in united. Let today be like that for you. Let this visitation strengthen the bonds of your fraternity in the same way.

And finally, a word from our beloved Blessed John Paul. There is so much that can be shared from his decades as the Chief Shepherd of our Flock. But, I’ll just share one of my favorite quotes. He said in 1993, “Jesus wants to enter into a dialogue with us and, through His body which is the Church, to propose the possibility of a choice which will require a commitment of our lives. As Jesus with the disciples of Emmaus, so the Church must become our travelling companion today.”

As with St. Francis, remain close to one another, close to your sisters and brothers in fraternity. As with St. Francis, remain close to the Church, in particular close to the Eucharist where “the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation.”

Let us preach with our lives, call forth with our example, dialogue with Christ and be renewed and revived in our commitment today.

May the Lord give you peace.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Give to God what is God's

A Faith Formation teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her five and six year olds. After explaining the commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother," she asked, "Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?" Without missing a beat one little boy answered, "Thou shall not kill."

Today’s Gospel speaks to us about relationships and how we are to understand them. “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” What do you think that Jesus means when he utters this phrase in our Gospel passage today? Is this a tract on proper church-state relations? Does Jesus mean that there is only so much out there for Ceasar and so much for God? That it should be divided as a child divides candy – one for you and one for me; one for Ceasar and one for God? He can hardly mean that there are some things that belong to Ceasar and other things that belong to God because that would suggest that reality is divisible into the secular and the sacred, as if the things we do for the State have nothing to do with God. And that is surely not right. Life is unified, not divided. In the deepest sense, everything belongs to God. So what does Jesus mean?

First, we have to recognize that the question from the Pharisees is a trap: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus responds “yes” then He is allying himself with the Roman occupation and domination of Israel and that would put Him in trouble with His fellow Jewish patriots. If He says “no” then He is in trouble with the Roman authorities and is liable to be arrested as encouraging rebellion and revolution. Does Jesus fall into the trap? No, instead He asks them for a denarius – the Roman coin used to pay the tax in question. Once they produce the coin, He is saying in effect to them, “I don’t have one – you do.” You have Ceasar’s coin. By using his coinage, his currency, you are the ones allying yourself to his system, accepting his rule, recognizing his empire, his authority. So, if you have taken his money, give him back his money. “Repay to Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar.” Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer because it is not a straight question posed to Him. It is a trap which He avoids.

But, as always Jesus surprises the crowd with the challenge He adds, “Repay to God what belongs to God.” Jesus is saying that the obligation to Ceasar stands under and is judged by an immeasurably higher obligation – to recognize the sovereignty of the Supreme Sovereign, to give what is due to the greatest emperor of all; that if you think you feel an obligation to the state, it can’t compare to the obligation you should feel to the Almighty God. Jesus uses this unexpected opportunity to remind the people of the first and greatest commandment, “You must do homage to the Lord, your God, Him alone must you serve.” Forget about smart questions intended to trap Jesus, instead, worship your God – not with mere externals as the Pharisees do, but from deep, deep within your soul.

Jesus uses this chance to remind them of the importance of worshipping the one, true God. And, so, He reminds us today as well, that the Church we all belong to is above everything else a worshipping family. The Church reaches her full stature only when she falls on her knees in prayer. She stands straight and walks tall only when she bows her head in adoration. The care of the sick, the struggle for justice, the needs of the poor, the education of the young – all of these are essential to the mission of the Church, but they are meaningless unless they are connected to the highest function of the Church, which is the worship of the Almighty God. The Church is most supremely herself when she gathers in a building like this one to celebrate the most Holy Eucharist. The Mass is the very summit of her activity, the apex, the Everest of her life. The spirit of the Church certainly finds noble expression in the many works of service that we engage in, but it is to the Church building and the worship of God that takes place there that we must look to if we wish to discover her soul.

So, if we are a believing people, we must be a worshipping people as well. We cannot ignore the worship of God as a community. We have to look deep in our hearts and ask if we are all deeply and personally committed to that worship as individual members of this Church community. We see as the numbers of practicing Catholics drop, that worship is becoming less important in our lives. Many people rarely or never attend Mass, even more attend irregularly. Fewer and fewer are the number of people who understand their obligation to repay to God what is God’s and attend Mass every Sunday.

But, Jesus, the Son of God, came to remind us that we owe a special reverence and adoration to God, and always will. We owe Him that, as the one who brought us into being, who sustains us through every second of life, who is Lord of a universe of which we are only a tiny part and who loves us with such an overwhelming love that He sent His Son to save us. Jesus reminded us of that when he quoted Deuteronomy, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” It is that same Son, who taught us that even when calling God “Our Father” praise should be uppermost on our minds as we acknowledge that “hallowed by Thy Name.” And no one took to these lessons to heart better than His mother Mary. She left us an ideal formula for adoring God and humbling ourselves when she said in her Magnificat, “For the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is His Name.” We cannot give in to the tragedy of our times that sees God as ordinary. There can be no other gods in our lives other than the One, True and Almighty God. He that is mighty has done great things for us too. Let us never lose sight of that. Let us never stop saying it. Let us never stop living it. Let us never stop praying it. Let us be, as a Christian community, a worshipping people – a people reaching up to God and reaching out to one another.

Let us “repay to God what is God’s.”

May God give you peace.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Have no anxiety at all"

Two young boys were staying overnight at their grandmother’s house and every night before they went to sleep they said their prayers. The older boy went first praying about the day he had, about everything he had done and for all his loved ones. Then it was the younger boy’s turn. He prayed much louder than his brother and he prayed for bikes and toys and candy. When he finished the older brother asked him “Why are you praying for bikes, toys and candy so loud? You know, God is not deaf." To which the younger boy responded, “I know, but Grandma is.”

We heard in our second reading, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” There is an interesting story about one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Generals, Massena, who, with his army of 18,000 soldiers besieged an Austrian town that was completely defenseless. Knowing they had no chance, the town leaders met to discuss how best to surrender. As they discussed giving up, a wise old man in the town stood up and reminded everyone that it was Easter Sunday. He suggested that they hold their usual Easter services and put the problem in God's hands. Everyone agreed and went to the church where they rang the bells to assemble the towns for worship. When Massena’s soldiers heard the joyful ringing of the bells they concluded that Austrian reinforcements had arrived to rescue the town. Immediately, they broke camp and ran off in retreat, and the town was saved.

I think this little story sheds some light on what St. Paul is saying in today's second reading from the Letter to the Philippians. Faith in Christ affects how we face the problems of life. Where people who have no faith typically respond to life's problems with worry, people of faith respond to life's problems with prayer. We all know that from time-to-time, worry gets the better of most of us. We worry about our jobs and the bills and our children and our world and our safety and so many other things – some big, some small. Worry and anxiety can take up a lot of space in our lives and sometimes even dominate our lives. But as we hear in our story of the Austrian town, worry only encourages surrender to the challenges facing us. In prayer, on the other hand, we raise our hands to our all-loving Father, who can draw us out of despair and into a new world of possibilities with Him. Have you ever noticed how similar the gesture of surrender is to that of prayer? In prayer, we are also surrendering, not to man and his ways, but to God and His ways. And that makes all the difference.

St. Paul encourages us, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” St. Paul is giving us today the antidote to the worry that can rule our lives. First, he reminds us that prayer is not simply reading a shopping list of our needs before God. It also includes thanking God for the blessing of life and faith that we enjoy already and lifting up before God through petition all other people and their needs. Sometimes our prayer can become too self-centered when all the while it is meant to be God-centered, just as Jesus taught us to pray in the “Our Father”.

From that prayer we learn four components that should be part of our prayer. Let me offer you an acronym that can help us remember how to pray. Our prayer is meant to be made up of A-C-T-S or ACTS. "A" is for Adoration, in which we praise God for His goodness in who He is. "C" is for Contrition, in which we ask forgiveness for our failures. "T" is for Thanksgiving, in which we thank God for the blessings we have received. And "S" is for Supplication, in which we ask God through petition to hear our needs and the needs of all of people – especially those most marginalized in our world. St. Paul tells us that when we pray in this way, “then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” This is what happens when we learn to take all our problems to the Lord in prayer. We trade our stress and worry for peace of mind. George Mueller famously said, “The beginning of anxiety is the end of faith, and the beginning of true faith is the end of anxiety.”

But, St. Paul also wants to remind us that prayer is more than just the praying; it is also found in doing. Prayer is not just what we do on our knees or at church or with beads and novenas. It also includes what we think about all day long; and even in what we do. He writes, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” A person of prayer is always thinking about what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Kierkegaard said, “Prayer does not change God. It changes to one who prays.” When we “think about these things,” we allow God through that prayer to change us to reflect Him more perfectly.

Finally, prayer involves action. Again, from St. Paul, “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” A person of prayer should be a person of action, one who “keeps on doing”. St. Augustine said, “Pray as if everything depends on God, but work as if everything depends on you.”

The key to finding peace in a world of stress and anxiety is not worry but to pray. And not to pray only sometimes, but to pray always in how we think, in what we say and in how we act in the world around us. We start each and every week right here in church with the most profound prayer of the Holy Mass. And it must continue when we leave church being that prayerful influence among our families, friends, co-workers, strangers. And letting it lead us to action; to do the right thing. That way, the peace of God will be with us all.

Let us be people of prayer, people of ACTS and God will give us His 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...