Saturday, September 15, 2018

Who do you say that I am?


One day the famous Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were on a camping trip. As they lay sleeping one night, Holmes woke Watson and said, “Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see.” Watson said, “I see millions of stars.” Holmes asked, “And what does that tell you?” Watson replied, “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Theologically, it tells me that God is great and that we are small in comparison. Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. And what does it tell you Holmes?” To which Holmes answered, “It tells me that someone stole our tent.”

A simple question can elicit very different answers. In our Gospel today, Jesus asks a simple question, “Who do you say that I am?” Up to this point in Mark’s Gospel there have been many answers to that question. They have said, “Who is this that even wind and sea obey him?” They said, “He is possessed.” They said, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” They said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead,” or “He is Elijah.” They have had many answers.

Up until now, they haven’t quite gotten a handle on just who Jesus really is. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and all of heaven is silent, listening intently to how they will answer. And when Peter answers, “You are the Christ,” the angels are dancing and the heavenly choir is resounding, the saints in glory are cheering and the confetti is flying. They get it! They see Jesus as He is. “You are the Christ.”

And this question of who Jesus is reflects right back to us today. Understanding who Jesus is, tells us who we are. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” because what He really wants to get at is – once you know who I am, who are you? What are you about? His words are not academic or theological, they are relational and loving. And, today they are meant for us to think about who Jesus is and in turn, who are we and what are we about as people who follow Him?

The point is that recognizing who Jesus is – “You are the Christ” – must have consequences to who we are and how we live and how we view the rest of the world. Everything in our lives flows from that recognition of who Jesus is for us. It calls us to spread our faith; to live a life of love and joy, compassion and caring – to a degree that the world has never seen before; to not do just “enough” but to do the extraordinary – in and with and through Christ! The answer to that simple question will make all the difference in our lives and in the life of the world.

Mark told us today that Jesus asked His question in Ceasarea Philippi; a city marked by devotion to false gods. It is there that Jesus asks His most important question. He didn’t ask in the Temple; or after a reading from Isaiah pointing to the Messiah. He asks, who do you say that I am, in the midst of a place that worships everything except the One True God. It is there, that He says essentially, now is the time to make a choice. In the midst of all of these competing things; these competing gods; these competing idols that surround you – who will you say – here – that I am? And who will you choose to be because of Me?

This question of our identity as followers of Jesus, and as His church, could not be more important than it is right now. After all, scandal arises when who we say we are and what we do are at odds with each other. We find ourselves in this challenging moment precisely because people who said they follow Jesus acted in ways that couldn’t be further from Him. And in the midst of this moment surrounded by false Christians because of scandal, Jesus asks the question again – who do you say that I am?

There are many people, maybe some of us, who ask in the light of scandal what does it mean to be a Catholic? What is my identity as a member of this church? Pope Francis speaking in Sicily today said, “Life speaks louder than words. The person who witnesses to hope does not indicate what hope is, but who hope is. Christ is our hope.”

My friends, as we seek to call the church once again to holiness, let us remember that Jesus is asking us today the same old question: who do you say that I am? I pray that our response will be generous and courageous, that it will be compassionate and prophetic. Generous in showing love to everyone. Courageous in standing up for justice everywhere – especially for those who are victims. That it will be compassionate in the way we deal with those who have been wounded by our world, even wounded by members of the church. That we will be prophetic in our proclamation of the Gospel so that the world will once again know clearly who we are as followers of Jesus, and what we stand for. That this scandal does not make our faith, or our church, irrelevant – in fact, it makes it needed more than ever.

I pray that when tempted to walk away, we instead roll up our sleeves and fight for what we believe in, fight for who we are because of our faith in Jesus, fight for the church – from the Pope to us in the pews – to be true to who we say we are by what we say and do.

Lord Jesus, you are the Christ, the One who has come to save the world. In Your love, You have called us and saved us. Let us be true to Your word, true to Your Gospel, so that all who see us will see You. Renew us today in Your love. Renew us today in Your mission. Renew us today, Lord, in Your word, so that what we say and what we do reflect only You and Your love for the world. May we stand for holiness, goodness, truth, and justice, and may Jesus strengthen us so that our lives will speak louder than our words.

Who do you say that I am? You are the Christ.

May the Lord give you peace.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Be opened! Be healed!


We hear today one of the most truly amazing healing stories in all the Gospels. “People brought to [Jesus] a deaf man. He took him off by himself, put his finger into the man’s ears and said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ -  that is, ‘Be opened!’ - And immediately the man’s ears were opened.” Whenever I hear this miracle story, I can’t help but think about an incredible miraculous moment in my own life.

From about the age of 10, I had a problem of recurrent fluid build up in my inner ear that left me nearly 100% deaf in my left ear. I had surgery to remove the fluid a few times, but it would always inevitably return. It was one of those things that over time you just learn to live with and so I spent a lot of time making sure people were on my right side – my good ear – and would say, “Could you repeat that?” an awful lot! Basically, I never thought that the situation would change, and I had simply grown comfortable with my lack of hearing.

But, then, a little more than 10 years ago, I was stationed in a parish in Connecticut, and we got word that a woman by the name of Vicka would be in the area, and wanted to come visit our Franciscan parish. Vicka is one of the visionaries who believe that the Blessed Mother appeared to them beginning in the 1980s in a place called Medjugorje in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. Now, please know that the Church has not yet ruled on the validity of these apparitions and I’m not claiming to do so today, but this is a place that I have visited a few times, and a place where I find the presence of God and His Blessed Mother to be very powerful.

So, Vicka, in addition to receiving these apparitions is also known to have a gift of healing. Since she was in the area of our parish visiting friends, she offered to come to our parish and pray over anyone who was sick. We assembled different people that we knew could use prayer – a young person who was very ill, the wife of our deacon who was suffering from cancer, and others, for example. When Vicka came, we thought that she would pray only over the sick, but we were all gathered in a circle and she just moved person to person, praying over everyone. As she approached me, she simply placed her hand on my head and prayed silently. She didn’t say a word, but just prayed for a bit in her simple, humble, and quiet way.

Now, I had never even thought about praying for my hearing, and so instead I prayed silently that God would heal anything that needed healing in my life. I prayed that He would strengthen me in my priestly vocation. And, I prayed, as I always did, that my Dad would one day desire to be baptized. As she prayed over me, her hand gripped my head tightly, and I felt a pop in my ear, much like the pop you feel when coming down from a high altitude, but I didn’t think much of it. I was simply caught up in what was a beautiful, prayerful evening, and before you knew it, everyone went home, and I went off to bed.

But, the next morning I nearly jumped out of my bed when my alarm went off. And it wasn’t because I was running late. You see, I was laying on my good ear, which meant I normally would only hear the alarm as from a distance, but instead it was as though the volume was on 11! Shaken, I got up and took my shower, and I’ll never forget the sensation of hearing the water as it fell from my head over my “bad” ear. It was suddenly dawning on me that something was different. I kept covering my good ear to test and could not really believe that I could hear. Once I was dressed, I ran to the kitchen where Fr. Mike was, covered my good ear, and said, “Talk.” Of course, I could hear every word he said clearly. It had been healed, and it was among the most joyful moments I can recall in my life.

“[Jesus] said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ – that is, ‘Be opened!’ – and immediately the man’s ears were opened.” I imagine that the deaf man in our Gospel experienced something similar to my experience that morning 10 years ago. Like me, maybe he thought that this was something he just had to live with. Like me, science or medicine didn’t give him his hearing. And, for me, it wasn’t even Vicka that gave me back my hearing as she would be the first to tell you that it isn’t her power that does these things. For both of us, in fact for anyone who experiences healing, it is Jesus who does the work. It is an encounter with the living God that brings miracles into our midst. Because Jesus touched the deaf man, shared his humanity with him, the man’s ears were opened. We heard in Isaiah today, “Be strong! Fear not! Here is your God. He comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared.”

Here is your God. Here is our salvation, told in the story of two deaf men – one in our Gospel and one standing before you. The Gospel story was so amazing that the people who witnessed it couldn’t keep to themselves. That deaf man’s name has been lost to history – even though countless people know his story. But whether we realize it or not, his story is our story; my story is our story.

To all of us who feel isolated, cut off, or living in silence – Christ reaches out. To all of us who feel lonely or different, damaged or confused, to all of us who struggle to understand – Christ bends down and touches us. To all of us who have closed ourselves off from love, from change, from the possibility of miracles – Christ calls out: Ephphatha! Be opened. Even to those of us who feel angry with the church and wounded by her sins – Christ wants to touch us with His healing power so that we can be healed and renew our witness to the Gospel for the world.

This miracle teaches us that an encounter with Jesus brings something we all need, something that I discovered a new on that morning after Vicka’s visit – clarity. It brings understanding. What was muffled becomes clear. Things come into focus make sense. And after letting Christ into our lives, we are finally able to express something that could never quite put into words – that we are made new.

On that morning for me Christ answered two prayers – one I didn’t know I needed like the healing of my deafness; and one that I prayed for – my father did become a Catholic just a few years after that. So, with miracles on our minds, in our hearts, let us again invite Jesus to heal any deafness that hangs over us – anything physical or spiritual that keeps us from hearing His word in our hearts, and speaking His word to our world. The world needs the clarity that comes from living and knowing and proclaiming the Gospel. Even in the midst of scandal, the world needs to hear the loving, compassionate, and healing words of Jesus that only we can proclaim. Sometimes we learn to live with deafness and don’t even seek out its healing because change is hard. But Christ renews His call to each of us today, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” And let Jesus come in. Be opened to God’s presence deep in your hearts. Be opened to what God wants to do in and through and for you. Because if we do – when we do – the result will be nothing short of miracle.

May the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Practice what you preach


Practice what you preach. Actions speak louder than words. You have to walk the walk. Practice what you preach. Actions speak louder than words. You have to walk the walk. These are all common phrases that we know. There are many more like them, but they all have the same point – words are not enough. For our words to be true and be believed, they must be followed with action. In our second reading today from St. James, he says essentially the same thing, but he says it this way, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Or more simply, practice what you preach.

One of the greatest dangers in the life of faith, I think, is to be enamored of Scripture, to love the teachings of the Church, to hold precious the words of Jesus – but, to act no differently than the rest of the world when we’re outside of a church building. This is also what Jesus is tackling in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees and Scribes are obsessed with the external observance of the Law, but their actions say something different. They were obsessed with rituals, but neglected the change of heart and life that those rituals hope to bring about in people – their actions are completely devoid of the love, compassion, and mercy that are the hallmarks of someone who truly knows and loves the Lord.

In today’s passage, the Pharisees allow the failure to ritually wash their hands keep them from sharing God’s Good News with the people who need to hear it. Jesus points out that it is not the purification of hands that will save them, but the purification of their souls.

Now, Jesus isn’t condemning ritual or doctrine, but asking if those practices in their lives are having an effect. It begs the same question in our lives: are our external practices the goal of our faith? Is our faith nothing more than attending Mass or praying rosaries? Or do these practices – and more – help us become the people God wants us to be, as James says, those who “care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep [themselves] unstained by the world.” Have we become “Doers of the Word and not hearers only?”

If you are like me, you can’t help but hear these words today outside of the context of the scandal that we’re living through in the church today. After all, in so many ways, this scandal can be reduced to an example of failing to practice what we preach. For abusing clergy, there is certainly a disconnect between the life of holiness their vocation called them to and the horrific acts they committed. So too for those in leadership who failed address these situations with justice and with the care of the most vulnerable. Clergy abuse is so scandalous first because of the harm it has caused to victims; but secondly because these actions are the definition of failing to practice what we preach. We hold our clergy to high standard – as we should. Those who are ordained have pledged to live public lives in witness of the Gospel. These men who have failed, harm not only their victims, but they harm the church itself – they harm you and me by violating their promise to be images of Christ in our world. They create an image that is counter to what we profess as followers of Jesus. And the only way we will get through this current moment of crisis is by becoming more and more true to the call of Christ in our lives. To be doers of the word and not mere hearers. To practice what we preach in every aspect of our lives. And to call out those who fail to do so. When we practice what we preach, the innocent are protected, the guilty are prosecuted, and no one seeks to protect an abuser.

The church needs our faithful witness today more than ever. Our lives lived in harmony between what we say and what we do are the proclamation that calls the whole church to holiness. Our Scripture reminds us today that our faith should be obvious through the way we act in our world. That when people see the way we act, they will know immediately that we are follows of Christ; that our faith in Jesus has changed our lives.

St. James tells us, “Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you. Act on it. Because if all you do is listen, you are deceiving yourselves.” In His Word and in His Holy Sacraments, Jesus gives us the strength to do what He asks. He gives us the strength to be a different kind of presence in the world – one that loves, one that shows compassion, one that reaches out, one that seeks justice – especially for those in most need. So, let us hear God’s Word again today and let that seed be planted in our hearts. Let us be strengthened again today by His Body and Blood so we can truly leave this place as “Doers of the Word of God….for that will save our souls.”

Or as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It will not only change us and make us more like Christ; it will change the church; it will change the world.

May the Lord give you peace.

Changing the impossible

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